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China is only about 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers) larger than the United States, a difference smaller than the area of San Bernardino County in southern California. It is enough of a difference, however, to make China the world’s third-largest nation, in terms of area, surpassed only by Russia and Canada. China and eastern Russia make up the majority of Asia, the world’s largest continent. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the two nations shared a long border, but now they adjoin primarily in the Far East, where northern China meets Siberia. To the northeast is the Korean peninsula, the Sea of Japan, and Japan itself. Farther down the coast lies the island of Taiwan, an independent Chinese state; farther still lies Hong Kong, which became part of China in 1997. South of China is a string of nations, from Vietnam in the southeast to India in the southwest. To the west lie a number of Central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan. China’s broad expanse encompasses a variety of climatic zones, from the cold north and vast tracts of desert in the west; to plains and mountain areas in the central, western, and northern regions; to lush river basins and tropical lowlands in the east and south. A number of rivers cut across China from east to west, most notably the Yangtze, the Huang He (or Yellow River), and the Xi Jiang.

As with India, China’s population alone would make it worthy of study. It is the most populous nation on earth, with more than a billion people; in fact, two out of every five people on earth live either in China or on the Indian subcontinent. As with India, the reasons to study its ancient history go far beyond the size of its present-day population. China gave the world two of its greatest philosophers, Confucius and Laotzu, whose followers developed religions on the basis of their teachings. The numbers of Confucianists and Taoists, however, are dwarfed by the adherents of Chinese folk religions. These religions, which originated in ancient times, are not viewed as a single faith, but if they were, they would have more believers than all faiths except Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

Ancient China also gave the world one of its most splendid civilizations, a center of art and learning seldom surpassed by the empires of the West. Its gifts include paper, silk, and a particularly delightful treat: ice cream. The ancient Chinese discovered such advanced notions as crop rotation in agriculture and the octave in music. They also left behind the most impressive physical structure ever created by human beings: the Great Wall of China. Even the pyramids of Egypt look insignificant beside this vast creation, the only manmade object visible from the Moon.

Prehistoric China

History of China EssayPeople lived in the area of China as far back as half a million years ago. It appears that a Stone Age culture developed in parts of northeastern China, as well as in the southeast of China, in about 7000 B.C. The first culture known to archaeologists was the Yang-shao, which flourished in the western part of the country between about c. 3950 and about c. 1700 B.C. Though they were a Stone Age people, the Yang-shao grew wheat and other grains; made relatively advanced tools out of polished stone, as well as glazed pottery; and even domesticated animals such as pigs, cattle, and dogs.

To the north was the Lung-shan culture, which developed between 2000 and 1850 B.C. The Lungshan appear to have been related to the Yang-shao; but in the northwest part of China, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of an entirely different group. Bodies discovered in the deserts there, where the hot, dry climate preserved them, suggest an invasion by peoples from as far away as the Ukraine. It is not known who these people were, or whether they were related to the Indo-Europeans who invaded Europe, Iran, and India.

Aside from the knowledge gained by archaeologists, there are legends concerning China’s origins. These legends recount that Pangu, creator of the universe, originated Chinese civilization in the region of the Huang He or Yellow River in the plains of northern China. There followed the first of many dynasties who gave their names to phases of Chinese history: the Hsia or Xia.

The Hsia Dynasty, which supposedly began about 2200 B.C., is so shrouded in myth and mystery that scholars tend to treat it more as a part of legend than of history—much like the Israelites’ account of their origins in the Book of Genesis. According to Chinese legends, the Hsia ruled for nearly 450 years, until the rise of a cruel leader named Chieh, who oppressed his people so badly that they revolted against him. This ushered in the era of the Shang, China’s first historic dynasty.

The Shang Dynasty

The Shang Dynasty ruled a large area in northern China, about 500 miles square, that included the region of the modern Chinese capital, Beijing, at its northern edge. The Shang capital was at Anyang, situated on a plain in the Yellow River Valley, where archaeologists uncovered a vast series of graves that provided a treasure trove of information about Shang society.

Much earlier, in A.D. 281, robbers at another tomb accidentally discovered a series of records that also provided considerable details about the Shang. The king buried in the tomb had died in the 200s B.C., but his grave contained records of the much earlier Shang Dynasty written on strips of bamboo. Tied together with ribbons of silk, these strips formed long scrolls on which scribes had written detailed records. To historians, they were more precious than gold; but to the grave robbers, who set fire to a number of the strips, they were a source of light in the dark tomb. Fortunately, they did not burn them all. What remained came to be known as “the Bamboo Annals.”

Other important historical texts that provide information about the Shang include the Book of Documents, composed during the later Chou Dynasty, and the even later Han Dynasty’s Records of the Historian. From such annals have emerged a picture of a highly organized society with a complex religion. The Shang were masters of warfare, but they also excelled in their creation of jewelry using jade, a greenish gemstone that acquires a high shine when polished. They also developed the first known system of writing in China.

The Chou Dynasty

According to legend, the last king of the Shang was a wicked ruler who by his cruelty lost the Mandate of Heaven; therefore, as some philosophers came to believe, the people were justified in rebelling against him. The rebellion came in 1027 B.C., led by a prince named Wu Wang. Wu belonged to a group of people from the western part of China called the Chou or Zhou. The Chou gave their name to the next phase of Chinese history.

The Chou Dynasty would last for a little more than 800 years, making it the longest-lasting dynasty in all of Chinese history. In fact, it would maintain power longer than any system in the history of the world, even longer than the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Plenty of nations have existed for as long, of course, but not under the same system of rule. Compared with the Chou Dynasty, the history of the American political system, which began with the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, has been a short one.

The eight centuries of Chou rule were not a time of peace and stability, however; far from it. In fact, the extremely lengthy Chou period was broken into three segments of about 250 years, each marked by upheaval. Initially the Chou ruled from the capital city of Hao along the River Wei, which feeds into the Yellow River in western China. Thus the period from 1027 to 771 B.C. would be known to historians as the Western Chou phase. In 771 B.C., however, an invasion by nomads from the north forced them to move hundreds of miles eastward to the city of Loyang. As for the nomads, they would continue to pose a threat to China for centuries.

Although the entire period from 771 to the end of Chou rule in 246 B.C. is referred to as the Eastern Chou phase, most of this time fell into two parts, the second of which extended past the end of the Chou Dynasty: the Spring and Autumn Period (722–481 B.C.) and the Warring States Period (453–221 B.C.) The title “Spring and Autumn Period” sounds pleasant, but it was not. In fact the name comes from a set of annals describing the history of the era, which was a time of near-constant warfare. The name of the Warring States Period leaves no doubt as to the constant upheaval that characterized this phase in Chinese history.

The Ch’in Dynasty

During the Warring States Period, a particularly strong kingdom under the leadership of the Ch’in, or Qin arose in the west, in what is now Szechuan Province. The Ch’in were hard, rugged monarchs, and they treated their people mercilessly. Under their leadership, a huge army of slave laborers dug a canal that joined the Ching and Lo rivers in 246 B.C., thus making possible extensive irrigation. As a result, the area became so lush that its farms outproduced all others.

The Ch’in rulers were not merely harsh leaders. There was a system to their iron rule, making their state in some ways a forerunner of modern totalitarianism. A quartercentury after the end of the Chou Dynasty, the Ch’in had built up such great power that in 221 B.C., their Prince Cheng declared himself emperor over China. Thus was born the Ch’in Dynasty, which lasted only fourteen years, but which had proportionately the greatest influence on Chinese history of any period before or since. The very name China, as a matter of fact, is a variation on “Ch’in.”

Prince Cheng took the name Ch’in Shih-huang-ti and ruled as such from 221 to 210 B.C. In contrast to the weak rule of the later Chou kings, the Ch’in government was rigidly organized in a hierarchy that began with the emperor and went all the way down to the village level. The term “emperor,” in fact, had never been used for a Chinese ruler to this time, but it would remain in use for more than 2,100 years, until A.D. 1912.

The empire of the Ch’in was far more unified than the empires of the Persians or Alexander. The emperor destroyed the power of the nobility, uniting the nation under his supreme power. He strengthened the military greatly. He ordered the building of a vast nationwide system of roads and canals to keep his armies supplied. He standardized weights and measures; the currency, or money; the written language; and even the size of vehicle axles. But most of all, he put his people to work in slave-labor gangs.

Unlike the Egyptians who built the Great Pyramids, the Chinese who built the Great Wall of China did not do so willingly. The Wall was intended to keep out the nomads to the north, the Hsiung Nu, relatives of the Huns who would later threaten the Roman Empire. Its location in the cold mountains and deserts of northern China was an inhospitable one. Some 300,000 people worked on the Great Wall, and thousands of them—the exact death toll will probably never be known—died building it.

For all their labors, the Great Wall, built for the purpose of keeping out the “barbarians” from the north, failed to do so; the invaders simply kept coming around it. On the other hand, many of these nomadic tribes—most notably the Huns—kept moving westward, where they would influence the histories of Persia and India as well as Europe. In this way, the building of the Great Wall had an enormous impact not only on Chinese history, but on world history.

Ch’in Shih-huang-ti died in 210 B.C. and was buried in a style as lavish as that of any Egyptian pharaoh. His tomb contained some 6,000 life-size soldiers made of terra-cotta, a type of clay. It was as though the soldiers, many of which sat on terra-cotta horses, were ready to go into battle. A vast array of other treasures have been discovered in the tomb, including chariots, weapons, and even items of linen and silk. Discovered in 1974, the tomb is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world.

During his lifetime, the people had been unhappy with the iron rule of Ch’in Shih-huang-ti, but because of his enormous power, no one had dared to revolt. After his death, however, a power struggle ensued. Finally in 202 B.C., a new leader named Liu Pang emerged to establish the Han Dynasty.

The Han and Hsin Dynasties

The Han would rule China for more than 400 years, with an interruption of fourteen years. The first phase of Han rule, known to historians as the “Former Han,” lasted from 207 B.C. to A.D. 9. In the latter year, a usurper named Wang Mang took the throne and established the shortlived Hsin Dynasty. Fourteen years later, in A.D. 23, the Han regained control, ushering in the period known as the Later Han, which lasted until A.D. 220.

Beginning with the Han, the Chinese adopted a custom of naming their emperors posthumously (that is, after their death.) Thus during his lifetime, Liu Pang never used the name by which he would become known to Chinese historians: Kao-tzu. Kao-tzu (r. 207–195 B.C.) came from a background of extreme poverty and rose to his position through a combination of cleverness and strong will. Probably illiterate, he had little use for scholars. For this reason the followers of Confucius initially played little role in the Han government. He was a popular ruler nonetheless, a breath of fresh air after Ch’in oppression.

Kao-tzu and the emperors who followed him had to negotiate a difficult situation with the noblemen, eager to regain the power taken from them under Ch’in rule. Later, the emperor Wu-ti (r. 141–87 B.C.) managed to replace the authority of the noblemen with that of officials. The rise of these officials led to the triumph of Confucian scholars, who— because of their education, not to mention their philosophy, with its emphasis on order in the empire—were ideally suited to positions in the Han state. In 130 B.C., Wu-ti established a set of examination questions for civil servants. These would form the basis for a system of civil service exams, formally established in A.D. 600, that would continue to be used for more than a thousand years.

Though Han rule was more gentle than that of the Ch’in Dynasty, Han Wu-ti nonetheless reinforced the idea of government control over the economy. When people began to privately mint (produce) copper coins, this created a situation of inflation or rising prices. The Han treasury issued notes to buy back these coins and end the inflation. Usually the term “note,” when used in an economic sense, refers to paper money, but the Han notes were animal skins; in any case, like paper money today, they were a symbol of the government’s economic power, which gave them their value. Han Wu-ti also sought control over industry (production and sale of goods) establishing a government monopoly (exclusive control), for instance, over the production of salt and iron.

In foreign affairs, Wu-ti was occupied, as were most ancient Chinese emperors, with the problem of the “barbarians,” a situation that would lead to additions to the Great Wall. In the 130s B.C., he sent a representative named Chang Chi’en to the west to try to play the Hsiung Nu off against one another. Along the way, the official came in contact with the Yueh Chih, a nomadic people who had absorbed aspects of Greek civilization from the Greco-Bactrians they had conquered. This was the first Chinese contact with another civilization; formerly, they had believed that there were no civilized peoples beyond their borders.

A Period of Crisis

The years from A.D. 221 to 265 were known as the time of the Three Kingdoms. To the north, in what had been the power center of the Han, was the kingdom of Wei (WAY), ruled by the son of Ts’ao Ts’ao. South of the Yangtze was the Sun Dynasty’s kingdom of Wu; and westward, in Szechuan, was a third kingdom, Shu. This period might be likened to the Civil War in America (1861–1865): both events were very painful times in China’s history that would be remembered with a great deal of emotion on both sides. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a novel written more than a thousand years later, provides a fictionalized account that depicts this as a period of romantic heroism.

In A.D. 265, the state of Wei came under the control of the Western Chin Dynasty, which would rule until 316. Within 15 years, the Western Chin had conquered Wu and Shu, bringing all of China back together again. But in 316, the “barbarians”—both the Hsiung Nu and the Hsien Pei from Central Asia—invaded the north. This time, the invaders held on to what they had captured, and it would be a long time until China was whole again.

Going back to the time of the Later Han, the weakened emperors of that dynasty had depended on the help of various nomadic tribes in fighting other, less friendly, groups of “barbarians.” Often these helpful foreigners, after aiding the Han in battle, would settle in Chinese territory. This of course was not something the Chinese rulers wanted, but they were hardly in a position to refuse. Worse, the “barbarians” who settled in China began to adopt the more civilized ways of the Chinese, which might seem like a good thing, but a more educated enemy—and the nomads were still enemies of the Chinese, whether they helped them or not—is a more dangerous enemy.

In Rome a few years later, the “barbarians” began to adopt civilized Roman ways. The Romans, like the Chinese of the Later Han and the eras that followed, increasingly relied on the warlike tribesmen to help them fight their wars. But whereas the Huns and others would bring down the Roman Empire forever, the invaders did not destroy imperial China for good.

Like the Chou Dynasty long before, the Chin Dynasty had its “Western” phase and its “Eastern” phase. Again like the Chou, the Eastern phase represented a much-weakened empire. The Eastern Chin Dynasty (A.D. 317–420) claimed much of what had formerly been the Wu state of the Sun Dynasty in the south and east. The nomads from the north might have conquered the south as well, had a vastly outnumbered Eastern Chin army not held off some 270,000 horsemen in a battle at Fei Shui in A.D. 383. In 386, the Toba, who like the Hsien Pei were Tartars from Central Asia, invaded the north and established their own dynasty, the Toba Wei (A.D. 386–554). Rather than remaining nomads, they settled down and adopted Chinese ways.

In the late A.D. 300s, things began to stabilize somewhat, with the Toba Wei in control of the north and the Eastern Chin holding the south. It was during this time that Buddhism entered China, assuming quite a different form than it had in India. The Chinese adopted what was called Mahayana Buddhism (“Great Vehicle”), which held that others could become buddhas by following the teachings of the Buddha. In 399, a Chinese Buddhist named Fa-hsien traveled south to study the religion firsthand in India. The teachings he brought back quickly spread throughout China.

China to the Modern Times

The country reunified under the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581–618), which further built up the Great Wall. Confucianism and the arts flourished under the T’ang Dynasty (618–907), but after the T’ang came another of the periods of upheaval that dotted China’s long history. Later, after three centuries of rule by the Sung Dynasty (960–1279), the thing happened that the ancient Chinese had always feared: nomads from the north known as Mongols conquered all of China.

Instead of destroying the country, however, the Mongols established a Chinese-style dynasty, the Yuan (1271–1368). It was during this period that the famed Italian traveler Marco Polo (1254–1324) visited the country. As it turned out, the Mongols did not absorb China; rather, China, with its vastly greater numbers and its highly developed civilization, absorbed the Mongols.

Marco Polo, though he came in peace and greatly admired the achievements of the Chinese, served as an indicator of a force that would prove much more dangerous to China than the Mongols: Europe. Reawakening from the long period of darkness and superstition that had enveloped most of their continent during the Middle Ages, Europe was flowering, with advancements in the arts, sciences, and exploration. Europeans made increasing contact with China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). They found there a quaint, exotic culture that still held on to traditions nearly 2,000 years old. While Europe was experiencing rapid change, Ming China held on to Confucian principles that, while they might have been an advancement at the time Confucius formulated them, now represented a throwback to the distant past.

In 1644, a group of northern Chinese called the Manchus established what would be the last Chinese dynasty. The Manchu, or Ch’ing Dynasty, lasted until 1912 and saw a period of increasing European involvement in China. But the people of the West were no longer content just to visit: they demanded that the Ch’ing leaders open the country up to foreign trade. While contact with the outside certainly had its positive aspects, events such as the Opium War (1839–1842) served only to reinforce the desires of the Chinese to remain closed off to the outside world.

The war resulted from British attempts to sell opium, a powerful drug similar to heroin, in China; understandably, the Ch’ing rulers did not want them to. Britain easily defeated the Chinese, who went into battle like people out of another time (which they were). Whereas the British had the most powerful army in the world, with state-of-the art military technology, the Chinese sailed out to meet them in creaky old warships. On board one Chinese ship was a poet, commissioned by the emperor to write an ode celebrating what would certainly be a Chinese victory.

The Opium War ended with the British gaining control of Hong Kong, an island off the southern coast of China. Though the war was no doubt the most disgraceful act by any foreign power against China, it was far from the only one. Soon France, Germany, and Russia all had forced China into unequal treaties that allowed those countries to trade extensively in the country without having to be subject to its laws.

As though the attacks by enemies from outside were not enough, China was fraught with internal troubles as well. The Tai-ping Rebellion (1850–1864) was one of the bloodiest civil wars of all time, making its name—which means “heavenly peace”—particularly ironic. Nor were Europeans the only foreigners eager to gain control of China. In 1894, the Chinese fought the first of two wars with a new rising power in the East, Japan.

No wonder then that in 1898, the Chinese made one last attempt to throw out the foreigners. The Boxer Rebellion (1898–1900), while it claimed fewer lives than the Tai-ping Rebellion, had even more far-reaching consequences. It brought yet another outside force to bear in Chinese affairs. The United States sent in its Marines to help the other nations put down the uprising and spelled the end of China as an independent force.

China in the 20th Century

A revolution in 1911 overthrew the last emperor of China. In 1912 Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) established a republic that lasted for just four years. Then China once again dissolved into confusion in an era that recalled the Warring States Period. Beginning in 1916, various warlords ruled the land, but in 1927, a combined force defeated them.

This combined force consisted of two opposing groups. On the one side were the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), a follower of Sun Yatsen who favored alliances with the West. On the other side were the Communists, led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), who allied themselves with Soviet Russia. Their period of uneasy cooperation ended in 1934, when Chiang turned against Mao, forcing the Communists on the “Long March,” a 6,000-mile retreat deep into the countryside.

Meanwhile, Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931. Though World War II began in Europe in 1939, for the Chinese it started in 1937, when the Japanese launched a full-scale attack on them. The defeat of the Japanese in 1945 did not bring peace, however. There followed a four-year civil war between the Nationalists, who had heavy American backing, and the Communists. The latter emerged triumphant in 1949.

Mao soon involved his country in the Korean War (1950–1953), which pitted the Chinese and North Koreans against South Korea, the United States, and other nations. The war ended in a stalemate, leaving Korea divided. China, too, was divided, the Nationalists having fled to the island of Taiwan, where they established an independent state. Meanwhile, Hong Kong remained in British hands. Over the next decades, it would grow to become an economic powerhouse.

Recognizing that his own nation’s economy lagged far behind much of the world, Mao tried to spur it into rapid industrialization through a program he called the “Great Leap Forward” (1958–1960). In his eagerness to transform the Chinese economy overnight, Mao practically wrecked it, bringing about a famine that claimed more than twenty million lives.

Although it called itself the “People’s Republic of China,” China under the Communists was a totalitarian system that allowed little room for viewpoints that differed from Mao’s. In 1957, using words that harkened back to the “Hundred Schools” period, he invited Chinese intellectuals—that is, thinkers and writers—to make their ideas known. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he announced. “Let a hundred schools contend.” Many of these intellectuals took him at his word and began to criticize the government. There followed a series of arrests, imprisonments, and executions.

During the 1960s, China broke away from the Soviet Union because Mao felt that its leaders were compromising the rigid principles of the Communist party. From then on, the Chinese Communists charted their own course. Mao’s version of Communism was distinctly Chinese, identifying the Communist system with China and Mao with the ancient emperors. In 1966, he launched the Cultural Revolution, an attempt to root out anything that could be defined as anti-Communist or anti-China. A group of armed youths known as the “Red Guards” stormed into cities and towns, slaughtering millions of people and herding millions more into “reeducation camps,” where many died from starvation or overwork. Though the worst days of the Cultural Revolution were over in 1969, and it officially came to an end with Mao’s death in 1976, few Chinese families were not affected in some way by this great disaster.

As was typical with ancient monarchs, the death of Mao brought about a power struggle. In 1977, an enemy of Mao named Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) emerged as leader. Deng too sought to make his country’s economy competitive with those of other nations, but he did so more carefully. He encouraged trade with the West, a process already begun by Mao. After a long period of hostility toward the United States, in 1972 Mao invited U.S. President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) for a visit, and relations between the two countries improved in the years following.

China increasingly came to compete with the United States and Soviet Union as a superpower. It tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964, and in 1970 China launched its first satellite. With the end of Mao’s rule and the improvements that Deng brought to the economy, it became apparent that by the twenty-first century, China would emerge as an economic superpower as well. Its government began to encourage free economic activity, particularly in cities along the southern coast. In the 1990s, China experienced a new and unaccustomed form of upheaval. Everywhere throughout the country, there were new buildings going up, factories and businesses opening, and Western companies investing.

But there was a dark side to the new China as well. In June 1989, a group of students in the capital, Beijing, led protests calling for democratic reforms. The students were brutally suppressed by the military, who killed hundreds and jailed hundreds more. In the United States during the 1990s, evidence began to surface regarding Chinese attempts to buy U.S. nuclear secrets and bribe top officials in the federal government. Many Americans criticized their country’s increasingly friendly relations with the government of China, which remained Communist while claiming to have adopted a more free economic system.

When a ninety-nine-year treaty with Britain came to an end in 1997, thus returning Hong Kong to Chinese control, the world held its breath; but it soon appeared that China was willing to allow a relatively free political system in Hong Kong. How long it would allow such freedom, and whether the government of China itself would become more harsh or more open, remained unsettled questions. The country’s long, long history offered plenty of answers—and no answers at all. At times China could be as stiffly ordered as any nation that ever existed; at other times it could dissolve into the kind of turmoil that few countries have ever survived. Perhaps, many people hoped, in the twenty-first century the “Middle Kingdom” could steer a middle course between the yin and the yang.


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  10. Shuter, Jane. The Ancient Chinese. Des Plaines, IL: Heinemann Interactive Library, 1998.
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  12. Williams, Suzanne. Made in China: Ideas and Inventions from Ancient China. Illustrations by Andrea Fong. Berkeley, CA: Pacific View Press, 1996.

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