China: From ancient dynasties to modern republic

I’ve always been fascinated by China, its rich history and multifaceted culture. Despite history class in school, reading Chinese literature, and seeing movies from the ‘Last Emperor’ to ‘Jackie Chan’, I was never quite able to stitch together a completely coherent picture of the various dynasties and political influences over the years. After having spent three weeks in this fascinating country, we learned a ton about the history. So much so that we wanted to give it a separate blog post. Here is what we’ve learned.


China’s Dynasties: Rivaling kingdoms, unification and foreign rule (6000 BC – 1911)
  • China is one of the longest lasting civilizations on earth, its roots reaching back to 6000 BC. The Song Dynasty (1766 BC) is considered to be the first “dynasty” even though it only controlled a very small part of the country. There was a lot of fighting going on during this period between neighboring kingdoms. Despite this turmoil, the land was intellectually fertile and Confucianism was able to take hold around 500 BC spreading thoughts on ethical behavior and hierarchical structures – a system that underpins China’s culture to this date.
  • The Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) was the first to unite the broader country. They unified measurements, the currency and the written language, thereby laying the ground work for a cohesive state. The first emperor Qin Shin Huang was the one who ordered the construction of a mausoleum in which he wished to be buried one day together with his “army”, the Terracotta Warriors. The Qin were also the ones that established the Great Wall from the various sections that had been built by separate independent states before.
  • Next up was the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). This dynasty was so important that the name “Han” still refers to ethnic Chinese today. During this period China was also a major trading partner on the Silk Road, showcasing its importance as an Eurasian power. Eventually economic struggles and social unrest led to the downfall of the Han, followed by centuries of rivaling kingdoms.
  • The Sui Dynasty (581-618) reunited the rivaling country and built the “Grand Canal” which up until the 19th century remained one of the most important communication routes between North and South China. The Sui lost power due to disastrous military setbacks it incurred trying to invade Korea.
  • The following Tang Dynasty (618-906) is seen as the cultural zenith of China due to its openness to ‘Western’ influence (e.g., intermarriages with Central Asia, fashion from India). Chinatowns around the world are still called Tangrenjie (Tang People Streets) to this day. Another noteworthy fact is that China’s only female emperor was part of the Tang lineage. Increasing provincial power eventually brought the dynasty to a downfall.
  • The disunity lasted until the Song Dynasty took over (960 – 1126). The economy flourished through increased scientific and intellectual advances across many disciplines and the emergence of a truly China-wide market.
  • External threats were growing, however, and Genghis Khan expanded his Mongol empire eventually taking over all of China and establishing the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Mongols eventually proved less able at governance than warfare and had to hand over the reign.
  • The following Ming dynasty (1368-1644), despite trying to impose strict traditional social norms on the population, saw commercial growth and social change continue. The construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing as well as the reconstruction of the Great Wall happened during this time. Traders from Europe started to arrive, bringing with them new crops and increased commercial activity. They were quickly followed by missionaries trying to spread Christian beliefs. Internal power struggles, however, eventually gave the opportunity for another foreign power to take over: the Manchu.
  • The Manchu, a nomadic war-like people from the North, ruled China as the Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1911, creating much of the map of China as we know it today. During the 19th century several factors contributed to their downfall: the opium wars in the 1840s (resulting in British rule over Hong Kong and the opening of ports to foreign trade), the anti-Qing Taiping rebellion (1850-64) driven by a pro-Christian movement, broader foreign imperialist incursions nibbling away on China’s coastline (e.g., Macau) and the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). The Chinese people called for reform and were in favor of a republic.

The first Republic (1912-1949)

  • The first republic lasted less than 40 years. Some describe this time as China’s darkest period, marked by external imperialist pressures and domestic political tensions. Sun Yatsen, the leader of the counter-dynasty movement, served as the first president but was soon overthrown by a military leader, followed by years of provincial in-fighting.
  • At the end of WWI, a time of intellectual turmoil and discontent with politics, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was founded. Among the founding group was Mao Zedong, a library assistant from Peking university. Sun Yatsen (back from exile) formed the ‘bourgeois’ Kuomintang party. The following years were marked by an alliance of the parties together with the newly formed Soviet Union. The goal was to reunite China. Much of China was “reunited” through military pressure over the following years, the alliance however came to an end when the Kuomintang themselves seized power in 1928 under Chiang Kaishek (a military leader who had taken over after Sun Yatsen’s death). What followed was a war waged against the CCP. The ‘Long March’ forced CCP members to flee 6400km across the country. Only a fraction survived.
  • The approach of WWII saved the CCP. Both the Kuomintang and the CCP played an important role in defending the country against Japan over the next seven years. The CCP emerged as the ultimate ‘winner’ after a 3-year civil war with the Kuomintang, having increased its troops size and party membership across the country thanks to its guerrilla role during WWII. As the head of the CCP, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Mao’s China (1949-1976)

  • Mao’s ideology was based on finding a role for every citizen in the new politics and society. The break-up of traditional structures (e.g., landlord and tenants) was liberating for many but a time of terror for others. The CCP focused on socialist economics to boost production. One of the most ambitious plans, the ‘Great Leap Forward’, promising to increase productivity across industry sectors turned out to be a disaster. The agricultural output from collectivization drastically fell short of expectations, causing famines responsible for more than 20 million deaths (some say the losses were even higher). The hardships continued despite a return to a somewhat more market-driven economy.
  • Concerned that China was growing too satisfied with the rising standard of living, Mao launched a massive campaign of ideological renewal, the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Self-promotion and propaganda helped Mao achieve cult status. His followers became known as the Red Guards. Critics of his direction (including CCP party members) disappeared. It was an era of violence that brought creative thinking and academic research to a standstill. Eventually, the police forced the Red Guards off the streets. In the early 1970s, China threatened by the now-hostile USSR started to engage in diplomatic talks with the US and the Cultural Revolution slowly died down. Many people responsible for crimes during the cultural revolution got away without any charges. Still today, the CCP discourages the open debate of this period.
Reform Era and China Today (1976-2014)
  • With Mao’s death in 1976, the CCP (mainly under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping) set out to modernize the economy. This included breaking down the collective farms, encouraging small enterprise, and establishing four Special Economic Zones (SEZ) to promote entrepreneurship and encourage foreign investment. Politics was kept on a much shorter reign.
  • The urban middle class, however, had appetite for more freedoms. This sentiment culminated in the 1989 demonstrations on Tiannamen Square. At their peak in June 1989, the internationally embarrassed CCP imposed Martial law, violently removing people from the square. The death rate is estimated to be in the hundreds.
  • After three years of a political freeze, the CCP engaged in further economic development, trying to address the growing regional inequality and rural poverty. Over the years, the question of political reform found itself shelved, partly because the economic growth was bringing prosperity to many (albeit in unequal fashion). In 2011, China became the 2nd largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan. Today, China’s economy, despite its high growth rates, remains imbalanced and is mainly skewed to the export industry and high-investment projects.

2 thoughts on “China: From ancient dynasties to modern republic

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