A Brief History of China

By Tim Lambert

Ancient China

The Beginning

After 10,000 BC people in China lived by hunting and gathering plants. Then, at about 5,000 BC, the Chinese began farming. From about 5,000 BC rice was cultivated in southern China and millet was grown in the north. By 5,000 BC dogs and pigs were domesticated. By 3,000 BC sheep and (in the south) cattle were domesticated. Finally, horses were introduced into China between 3,000 and 2,300 BC.

Meanwhile, by 5,000 BC Chinese farmers had learned to make pottery. They also made lacquer (a kind of varnish made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree). The early Chinese farmers also made baskets and woven cloth (before sheep were domesticated hemp was woven). The Chinese also made ritual objects from jade such as knives, axes, and rings. The wheel was invented in China in about 2,500 BC.

A More Advanced Society in China

By 2,000 BC the Chinese had learned to make bronze. They probably started by making copper in pottery kilns and then experimented by adding tin, to create bronze. At first, bronze was only used for weapons. (It was probably too expensive for other things).

Warfare was becoming more common in China. Walls of earth, which was rammed until it was hard, surrounded some settlements. Warfare probably became more common because these early societies were becoming richer. As wealth grew so did the temptation to attack your neighbors and steal their goods. By 2000 BC there was also a growing gulf between the classes. People were buried with their goods and some people were buried with far more than others.

By 2000 BC human sacrifice was practiced in China. The bodies of the victims were buried under the foundations of buildings. By 2,000 BC fortune-telling was carried out by heating bones till they cracked and then interpreting the cracks. Meanwhile, between about 2,000 and 1,750 BC, the semi-legendary Xia ruled parts of China.


The Shang were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The most important god was called Di. Furthermore, during the Shang dynasty in China, the practice of ancestor worship began. Ancestor worship is the belief that the dead can intervene in the affairs of the living. Offerings were made to them to keep them happy. Ancestor worship became part of Chinese culture for thousands of years.

Silk was probably first made in China during the Shang era. It was made by 1300 BC. During the Shang era, bronze was more widely used. Previously it was only used to make weapons. After 1700 BC bronze vessels were made. However, tools such as sickles, plows, and spades were usually made of wood and stone.

The Shang built the first real cities in China. The first capital in Zhengzhou had walls more than 6 kilometers long. (Later the capital was moved to Anyang). The Shang also built palaces and temples.

During the Shang era, slavery was common in China. Prisoners of war were made into slaves. Human sacrifice was still practiced When a Shang emperor died his servants and slaves either committed suicide or were killed to accompany him into the afterlife. Because of the need to capture slaves, warfare was common in China. After 1200 BC chariots pulled by 2 or 4 horses were used in Chinese warfare.

However, the Shang were overthrown by their neighbors the Zhou about 1022 BC. So began the Zhou dynasty.


Zhou Society

The dynasty ruled China from about C. 1022 BC to 221 BC. The first part of the Zhou era from C. 1022 BC to 771 BC is called the Western Zhou (because the rulers had their capital in the west of China). The second part of the era, from 770 to 476 BC is called the Spring and Autumn period. The last part of the era from 476 to 221 BC is called the Warring States period.

In Ancient China because transport and communications were very slow it was difficult for a ruler to control a wide area. The Zhounkings solved this problem by creating a feudal state. They gave their followers land. In return, the followers provided chariots and soldiers in times of war.

Soon the follower’s positions became hereditary. Below them were officials who worked as generals and administrators. At the bottom of society were the peasants who provided the food supply.

The peasants had to spend some of their time working on the lord’s land. Usually, the land was divided into 9 sections. Individual families worked in eight sections. Everybody had to work on the ninth section but the crops from it went to the lord. After 600 BC coins were used in China and some peasants paid their lord taxes rather than work on his land. Under the Shang, there were many slaves in China but under the Zhou, there were few of them.

There were some important technological changes during the Zhou period. The most important was the invention of iron. It was used for weapons as early as 650 BC. By about 500 BC iron was used for all kinds of tools. By about 400 BC Chinese farmers used iron plows drawn by oxen.

About 300 BC the Chinese invented the horse collar. Previously horses were attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse could not pull a heavy load because the strap would tighten around its neck! The horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads.

During the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese invented kites. Tea was first mentioned in China during the Zhou dynasty (although it may have been drunk much earlier). The umbrella was invented in China in the 4th century AD. Covered in an oiled paper it sheltered the user from both sun and rain.

Warfare also changed in China. Previously war was dominated by chariots. However, after 600 BC cavalry began to replace chariots. Furthermore, rulers began to raise large armies of infantry. Peasants were conscripted to provide them. About 500 BC a general called Sunzi wrote a book called The Art of War, which was the world’s first military manual. About 400 BC the crossbow was invented in China.

Although warfare was frequent during the Zhou era trade and commerce flourished and Chinese cities grew larger. Furthermore, agriculture was greatly improved by iron tools and by irrigation, which became more common. As a result of more efficient agriculture, the population of China grew rapidly in the Zhou period.

During the Zhou era, part of the Great Wall of China was built. There was not a single wall, at first, but different states built their walls to keep out barbarians. Later they were joined together.

In 486 BC work began on digging the Grand Canal. At first, only one section was built but the canal was extended by later dynasties.

Zhou Philosophy

Human sacrifice ended during the Zhou era but divination continued. At that time the Chinese concept of Heaven emerged

Heaven was a kind of universal force. Heaven chose the emperor to rule but it was a moral force. If the king or emperor were evil Heaven would send natural disasters as a warning. If the emperor failed to heed the warnings heaven would withdraw its mandate. Social and political order would break down and there would be a revolution. Heaven would choose somebody else to rule.


During the Zhou period in China, there was a class of officials who advised kings and rulers on the right way to behave and also how to carry out rituals. The most important of these was Kong-Fuzi (known in the West as Confucius). During his lifetime the old feudal social and political order was breaking down. Appalled by this state of affairs Kong-Fuzi tried to restore ancient principles.

Kong-Fuzi taught that everybody should accept their role in life and their duties toward others. Rulers had a duty to be benevolent while subjects should be respectful and obedient. Children should honor their parents and everybody should honor their ancestors. Kong-Fuzi also believed that rulers should set a good example for their people.

Most of all Kong-Fuzi taught consideration for others. At the heart of his teaching was ‘ren’ which is usually translated as goodness or benevolence. Kong-Fuzi said ‘Do not do to others what you do not want to be done to yourself’. Kong-Fuzi also taught the importance of courtesy and moderation in all things. Kong-Fuzi also taught that women should submit to their fathers when young, to their husbands when married, and to their sons if widowed. Women in China were taught values such as humility, submissiveness, and industry.

Kong-Fuzi never wrote any books but after his death, his followers collected his sayings and wrote them all down. In the centuries after his death, his philosophy became dominant in China and profoundly influenced its culture for more than 2,000 years.

One disciple of Kong-Fuzi was Mengzi (372-289 BC), known in the West as Mencius. He stressed the goodness of human nature. He also emphasized the ruler’s duty to look after the well-being of his subjects. Mengzi was opposed by Xuni (298-238 BC). He believed human nature tended to be evil and must be restrained.


Not everyone agreed with Kong-Fuzi that rulers should rule by example. Legalists believed that rulers should be strict The ruler’s word should be law. Legalists believed that rulers should be fair but firm and unwavering. One of the Chinese states, Qin, followed legalist teaching. The Qin rulers at first shared power with hereditary nobles but they changed the system so that the parts of their realm were governed by officials appointed by the ruler.

They also organized families into groups of 5 or 10 people. The members of each group were made responsible for each other’s behavior. Legalists believed that since people are naturally evil punishments should be severe. The people must be made afraid of breaking the law. They also distrusted merchants and believed that only people who owned or worked on the land were trustworthy.


Taoism began in China during the Zhou era. Taoists believe in the Tao, which means the way. The Tao is an indescribable force behind nature and all living things. Taoists believe in Wuwei or non-action, which means going with the natural flow or way of things like a stick being carried along on a stream. Taoism also teaches humility and compassion. Taoists worship many different gods.

Ancient Chinese Beliefs

The Zhou period is sometimes called China’s formative period because so much of Chinese philosophy developed at that time

The Chinese form of divination called I Ching was probably developed during the early part of the Zhou era. The idea of Yin and Yang also appeared during the Zhou dynasty. The ancient Chinese believed that all matter is made of 2 opposite and complementary principles. Yin is feminine, soft, gentle, dark, receptive, yielding, and wet. Yang is masculine, bright, hard, hot, active, dry, and aggressive. Everything is a mixture of these 2 opposites. The ancient Chinese also believed there were 5 elements, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. During the Zhou period, the Chinese art of acupuncture was invented.

The End of the Zhou Dynasty

In 771 a people from the west, the Rong invaded and the Zhou moved their capital to Luoyang. Afterward, the power of the Zhou kings declined. The Zhou state broke up into separate states (although it was still nominally a single state with a Zhou king at its head). The nobles under the Zhou king effectively became independent rulers. The different states went to war and the stronger ones conquered the weaker till there were only a few left. Finally, one state, the Qin, conquered its rivals and its ruler became emperor of China. So began the Qin dynasty.


The first Qin emperor was determined to unite China. He called himself Qin Shi Huangdi and insisted on being called the emperor of China. He introduced standard weights and measures and even insisted that axles should be a standard width! There were, at that time, some local variations in Chinese writing. The emperor insisted that all educated people must use one standard version. Some Chinese scholars opposed the emperor and quoted from old books to do so. Qin Shi Huangdi burned many of the books in China to stop them. He ordered that all books except those on useful subjects such as divination, medicine, and agriculture should be burned. Any scholars who opposed him were branded and sent to work as laborers on the Great Wall.

However, the emperor also had 460 scholars buried alive. (Being sent to work on the Great Wall was often a death sentence anyway as many men died of exhaustion and exposure).

The Qin emperors also continued their legalist policies. They banned private ownership of weapons and ordered many aristocratic families to move to the capital, Xianyang (where they could be easily controlled). China was divided into 34 areas called commanderies. A civilian governor ruled each but each also had a general in charge of the soldiers in the region. (The Qin emperors were keen to keep civil and military power in separate hands!). All officials were appointed by the emperor and were answerable to him.

The Qin emperors also built roads and irrigation canals. Parts of the Great Wall of China already existed but the first Qin emperor had them joined together. The ordinary people were forced to work on his projects. Qin rule was harsh and cruel punishments were common. When Qin Shi Huangdi died he was buried in a tomb with over 7,000 terracotta warriors. This ’army’ was discovered in 1974.

Not surprisingly the cruel punishments introduced by the Qin emperors together with the heavy taxes and forced labor caused much resentment. In northern China, a rebellion broke out led by 2 peasants, ChennSheng and Wu Yang. Later a second rebellion began further south led by XiangnYu. The northern rebellion was defeated but the southern one succeeded. The last Qin emperor was executed. However, Xiang Yu quarreled with his lieutenant Liu Bang. A civil war began which ended when Xiang Yu was killed and Liu Bang became the first Han emperor.


The Zhou dynasty was China’s formative period when its philosophies emerged. During the Han dynasty, Chinese civilization crystallized. During this era, China was a brilliant civilization. Han inventions include the watermill and the chain pump (this pump was worked by feet and helped to irrigate the rice fields).

The first Han emperor was called Gaozi. He was more humane than the Qin emperors and he abolished many of their savage punishments. He kept some of the legalist policies of his predecessors but he also adopted some Confucian policies. His successors came to favor Confucianism more and more. In 165 BC the emperor decreed that anyone wishing to become an official must sit an exam, which would test his knowledge of Confucian teaching.

In 124 BC another emperor founded an imperial academy where candidates studied Confucian classics (The Book of Changes, The Book of Rites, The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, and the Spring and Autumn Annals). If they passed their exams they were given posts as officials. China came to be governed by a civil service trained in Confucian thought.

Like the Qin, the Han emperors distrusted merchants and taxed them heavily. In 119 BC the emperor made the manufacture of salt, iron, and alcohol state monopolies (previously they were the most profitable industries).

Under the Han, agriculture continued to improve partly due to an increasing number of irrigation schemes, partly due to the increasing use of buffaloes to pull plows, and partly due to crop rotation which was introduced into China about 100 BC.

The population of China continued to grow and a census in 2 AD showed it was 57 million. During the Han era, large amounts of silk were exported to the West. It passed through many hands to the Roman Empire. In return, merchants brought gems, glass, and vines to China. The ship’s rudder was invented in China in the first century AD.

About 100 AD a man named Cai Lun invented paper(previously people had written on silk or bamboo). Meanwhile, Buddhism first reached China in the 1st century AD but it took a long time to be accepted. During the Han era, Feng Shui was developed. Elements of the craft existed before then but it was during this period that Feng Shui became a coherent philosophy.

The Fall of the Han Dynasty

After 168 AD the Han dynasty declined. Internal fighting weakened it. (When an emperor died there was usually a struggle to see who would replace him). The dynasty was also undermined by natural disasters and popular discontent. Two rebellions began in 84 AD, the Yellow Turbans Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Grain Rebellion. Both of these were crushed but the generals sent to defeat them began to act independently of the emperor. They started to fight each other. In 189 AD one general captured the capital, Luoyang, and killed 2,000 eunuchs. After that, the emperor became a puppet ruler. Generals had real power.

However, the last Han emperor was removed in 220 AD. Afterward, China split into 3 parts each ruled by a general.


After the fall of the Han dynasty, China split into 3 kingdoms. The Wei Kingdom in the north, the Shu Kingdom in the west, and the Wu Kingdom in the south. In 263 AD the Wei kingdom conquered the Shu kingdom. In 280 the Wu kingdom was also conquered and China was briefly reunited. However, peace was short-lived.

In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, a people called the Xiongnu raided northern China. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Chinese emperors allowed them to settle inside China’s borders, hoping they could be assimilated. The emperors employed the Xiongnu as soldiers. However, in 304, the Xiongnu turned on their masters. They took the city of Luoyang in 311 and then took Changan in 316. Eventually, they overran northern China. The north of the country then split into rival kingdoms, all with non-Chinese rulers. This period is called the 16 kingdoms.

Many Chinese fled from the north to the south of the country. However Chinese civilization did not disappear from the north. The Xiongnu was only a small minority of the population. Most of the people were Chinese and they carried on as they had for centuries. In the south Chinese emperors continued to rule but they were unable to capture the north.

Then in the late 4th century the Torba, a Turkish people from central Asia, started taking over northern China. By 386 they had conquered it all. The Torba then adopted the Chinese way of life. They adopted Chinese costumes and Chinese writing and many of them married Chinese people. Their rulers learned to speak Chinese. Slowly the people were assimilated.

However, a civil war began in northern China in 524. After a decade of fighting the North split into 2 parts, east, and west. They were reunited in 577. In that year the Chinese invented matches. Then in 581, a general seized the throne and quickly conquered the South.

In 589, he began the short-lived Sui dynasty. There were only 2 Sui emperors, Wendi and Yang. The 2 Sui emperors attempted to invade Korea 4 times. Each time they failed. They also undertook expensive public works such as rebuilding cities and extending China’s Great Canal. The Great Canal was extended in 605-609 using forced labor so that it connected the north and south of China. After Yang’s death, China split into warring states again.

Changes in Society in China

The disorder in China and the weakness of emperors meant the aristocracy gained more wealth and power. At the same time, many of the peasants were reduced to serfdom. (Serfs were halfway between slaves and free men). Often they were forced to turn to the lords for protection and the price was serfdom.

During the Era of Division, Buddhism grew in China and many temples and monasteries were built. The Chinese upper class became more sympathetic to Buddhism and the rulers of the north of China made it their official religion. Taoism also developed during this period. Many Taoist scriptures were written at that time. In 618 after several years of war, the different parts of China were reunited by the Tang dynasty.


The Tang dynasty which lasted from 618 to 907 was one of China’s greatest eras. During this period China was probably the most advanced civilization in the world. Under the Tang emperors, the arts flourished. Chinese poetry and lacquer-making blossomed. Perhaps the greatest poet was Li-Bo (701-762).

The Tang emperors extended their rule over central Asia and foreign influences seeped into China. As well as Buddhists there were Muslims in the capital Chang’an. There were also Christians. Trade and commerce also flourished under the Tang.

Gunpowder was probably invented in China around the year 900 AD. At first, it was used for rockets, grenades, and bombs that were placed against the wooden gates of enemy cities. Printing with wooden blocks was also invented in China during the Tangnera. The earliest printed book is the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868 AD.

Although the first Tang emperor, Gaozu (618-626) was enthroned in 618 it took him another 6 years of fighting before he brought all of China under his control. When he did China entered a period of peace and stability.

One of the most remarkable Tang emperors was Empress Wu, the only woman ever to rule China. She was a concubine of Emperor Gaozongn (643-683). (In those days the emperor had one wife, the empress, but he had many concubines. One emperor had 6,000 of them!). Wu is said to have murdered her baby daughter and then accused the reigning empress of being the murderer. Wu then replaced her as an empress. In 660 the emperor suffered a stroke. After that Wu effectively ruled China.

When Gaozong died in 683 his son Zhongzong succeeded him, but not for long. Wu forced Zhongzong to abdicate in favor of another son, who was effectively her puppet. In 690 Wu did away with puppet rulers and took the throne herself. She ruled China until 705. Then, when she was very old, she was forced to abdicate. Wu was a very powerful woman and she was utterly ruthless.

However, from the middle of the 8th century, the Tang dynasty declined. In 751 the Chinese were defeated by the Arabs at the Battle of Talas River. Afterward, China lost control of Central Asia. Then in 755, a general named An Lushan led a rebellion. It was the beginning of a civil war, which lasted for 8 years. The civil war only ended with help from the Uighurs, a Turkish people. The fighting caused a great deal of destruction in China. The Tang dynasty never really recovered.

By the 9th century, Buddhism had grown very influential in China. However, monks were exempt from paying taxes and the emperor Wuzong (840-846) resented this. There was also a shortage of copper in China to make coins. The Buddhist monks were blamed because they used so much copper to make bronze statues, bells, and chimes. In 845 Wuzong ordered that monasteries should hand over their land and property like iron and bronze tools. All monks under the age of 40 were ordered to return to civilian life. Many temples were destroyed. The order was rescinded in 846 but it was a severe blow to Buddhism in China.

Then in 874, another rebellion began. The rebels captured Guangzhou (Canton) and massacred foreigners. They captured the capital Chandan in 880. However, the emperor was not entirely defeated. He asked Turkish people for help. The emperor recaptured the capital in 884. However, the power of the Tang emperors was failing. The last Tang emperor was removed in 907. The Tang was replaced by the Song dynasty.


After 907 China split into separate states once again. The north of China was ruled by 5 short-lived dynasties. The northeast was an independent kingdom ruled by the Qidan Liao dynasty. The South split into 10 kingdoms. In 960 Taizu became emperor of the North. He managed to persuade all but 2 of the southern states to submit to him. His son Taizong captured the remaining 2 and by 979 China was once again reunited (except for the northeast which remained independent).

During the Song era, China’s economy boomed. A new form of early ripening rice from Vietnam improved agriculture. Irrigation was also extended. The result was a population boom. Meanwhile, trade and commerce prospered and towns and cities grew much larger. Industries like iron, ceramics, silk, lacquer, and papermaking flourished. China was probably the richest country in the world. Overseas trade also grew. The compass had been used for divination for centuries but by the 12th century, it was being used to navigate ships.

However, Song China was surrounded by powerful enemies. The result was suspicion and dislike of anything foreign. Buddhism declined in popularity because it was a foreign religion. Under the Song, Confucianism underwent a revival. Educated people saw it as a way of strengthening Chinese culture. Scholars wrote commentaries on Confucian classics and a new philosophy called Neo-Confucianism was worked out which dominated China for centuries.

The Song emperors created a powerful bureaucracy to rule China. The civil service was greatly expanded. There were state schools in China where men could study to sit exams for the civil service. Under the Song, the number of schools was greatly increased. China came to be ruled by an elite of scholar-officials.

North-east China was still independent. It was ruled by the Qidan Liao dynasty. They also ruled over a people called the Jurchen. However, in 1114, the Jurchen turned on their masters, and by 1125 they had captured the entire northeast. They attacked the rest of China. In 1127 they captured the capital, Kaifeng. The Jurchen overran all of northern China but they were unable to capture the south.

In 1141 the Chinese emperor made a treaty with them by which they kept the north and he kept the south. For this reason, the Song dynasty is divided into 2 periods, the Northern Song period before China was split in two and the Southern Song period afterward.

However, the Chinese soon absorbed the Jurchen. They kept the civil service entrance exams and appointed Chinese men as officials. The Jurchen also began to wear Chinese costumes and speak the Chinese language. After 1191 the Jurchen were allowed to marry the Chinese and many of them did so. In 1206 the southern Chinese invaded the north. However, the native Chinese in the north had grown used to Jurchen rule and they did not rise in rebellion. The invasion was defeated.


However, in the early 13th century, there was a new threat – the Mongols. Under their leader Genghis Khan, they raided northern China in 1213-14. In 1215 they sacked and burned Beijing. Then they turned their attention west. After the death of Genghis Khan in 1226 the Mongols invaded northern China and by 1234 they had conquered it all. However, in the south, the emperors managed to hold the Mongols at bay for some decades.

In 1264 Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis made Beijing his winter capital (the summer capital was in Mongolia). In 1272 he began calling himself Yuan or great founder. So began the Yuan dynasty. Kublaininvaded southern China in 1268 and conquered it in a campaign lasting 9 years

In 1275 the Mongols captured the strategically vital city of Xian Yang. That proved to be the turning point. The old Song dynasty finally came to an end in 1279 when the Mongols won a naval battle.

However, Kublai realized it would be more profitable to rule China and tax it rather than plunder it. He also realized that to rule he would need to win over the Chinese. (According to legend an adviser told him that you can conquer China on horseback but you cannot rule it on horseback). Kublai enlisted Chinese officials to help him rule (although the most senior officials were all Mongols).

Nevertheless, the Mongols were never absorbed by the Chinese, unlike previous invaders. They did not accept Chinese customs. The Chinese remained second-class citizens. Society was divided into 4 classes. The Mongols were at the top, and then below them were other non-Chinese people. Below them were the northern Chinese (who were more accustomed to foreign rule) and then the southern Chinese at the bottom. The Mongols also extended the Great Canal to their winter capital Beijing.

The period of the Mongol or Yuan rulers was not a happy one for China. The population of China fell significantly and the country became less prosperous. In the 1350s rebellions broke out in China and Yuan’s rule began to break down. In 1368 the last Yuan emperor fled to Mongolia and the Yuan dynasty was replaced by the Ming dynasty.


The first Ming emperor Hongwu captured Beijing in 1368 but he moved the capital to Nanjing. It was some time before he ruled all of China. Not till 1387 did he rule all the country. A later emperor, Yang Lo, decided to move the capital back to Beijing. Between 1406 and 1421 he built the great palace called the Forbidden City. Outside it was the Imperial City that was built for officials. Outside was the outer city for ordinary people.

Under the Ming emperors, China once again became prosperous and powerful. (Despite the inevitable famines, which occurred from time to time). In the 16th century, new crops were introduced from the Americas, sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts. These new foods were very useful because they would grow where other crops would not. The Ming also rebuilt the Great Wall.

During their reign industry and trade flourished in China. Vast quantities of cotton were spun and a huge amount of porcelain was made. In the early 15th century the emperor sent ships on 6 expeditions. They sailed to India, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa. One of them brought back the first giraffe ever seen in China.

However, the Ming emperors became increasingly inward-looking and tried to isolate China from the outside world. (Perhaps the period of Mongol rule increased their distrust of foreigners and their dislike of foreign influences). The Portuguese reached China by sea in 1513. In 1557 they were allowed to settle in Macao. However, the emperors were determined to limit contact with Europeans.

The period of prosperity in China ended in the nearly 17th century. In the 1630s Ming rule began to break down. China was struck by famine and epidemics. Rebellions broke out and the government was unable to suppress them. The rebels took city after city. Finally, in 1644, the last Ming emperor committed suicide. However, there were 2 rebel factions and the leaders of both claimed to be emperors. Neither could restore order.

Meanwhile Northeast of China lived a people called the Manchu (they gave their name to Manchuria). In 1618 they began to conquer the Chinese who lived north of the Great Wall. From 1636 their leader claimed to be the true emperor of China and took the name Qing. In 1644 a Chinese general believed the Manchu or Qing were more likely to restore order in China than the rebel leaders so he let them through the wall. They quickly defeated the rebels, in the north, and their leader installed himself as emperor. So began the Qing dynasty.


The Qing or Manchus easily took control of northern China but it took much longer for them to conquer the south. They did not control all of China until 1660. A rebellion occurred in 1673 but it was eventually crushed. In 1683 the Qing captured Taiwan (the last stronghold of people loyal to the Ming dynasty). The Qing commanded all men to shave the front of their heads and tie the hair at the back into a queue.

At first, the Qing confiscated much land from the native Chinese, and the two races were segregated. However, the Qing gradually adopted Chinese ways and the Chinese eventually accepted them (to a certain extent) as a legitimate dynasty.

The Qing created a strong and prosperous state. By 1697 they had conquered Mongolia and in 1720 Tibet was made a protectorate. The population of China grew rapidly in the 18th century. This was partly due to new crops introduced from the Americas. It was partly due to new forms of rice which made it possible to grow 3 crops a year in some parts of China.

In the 18th century, trade and industry boomed in China. The iron industry prospered and vast quantities of cotton were made. China also made huge amounts of porcelain. Much of this was exported to Europe. An increasing amount of tea was exported to Britain. The Chinese imported some iron goods and wool from Britain but the British had to pay for most of their tea with silver. After 1750 they were confined to Guangzhou and were not allowed to trade in any other port. In 1793 they sent Lord Macartney to try and negotiate a trade treaty with the Chinese emperor.

However, the emperor made it clear he was not interested in manufactured goods from Europe and he refused to change the terms of trade. However, although China was once a very advanced civilization it was now falling behind Europe in technology. Soon she would be weaker than the European powers.

Worse the British found it increasingly hard to pay for tea and other goods with silver. So they exported large amounts of opium to China. Imports of opium were banned in 1800 and in 1813 smoking opium was made illegal. However the British soon joined forces with Chinese smugglers. The British ships anchored off the coast and Chinese boats took tea out to them. They brought British goods back to the shore. Increasingly the British resorted to exchanging opium for tea. Soon there were many opium addicts in China.

The Opium Wars

The Opium Wars were a shameful episode in British history. The Chinese government took action to combat this menace. In 1839 an official called Lin Zexu was sent to Guangzhou to stop the opium smuggling. He commanded the British to hand over their stores of opium. Reluctantly they obeyed. However, the British government sent a fleet to blockade Guangzhou and the ports of Ningbo and Tianjin. In 1841 a Chinese official negotiated a treaty. He agreed to give Britain Hong Kong and pay what it cost the British to send a fleet to China. However, neither side was satisfied with this treaty and the war resumed.

The British sent a second fleet and occupied several ports. This time the Chinese were forced to pay a much larger amount of money. They were also forced to open 5 ports to British merchants (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai). British citizens were to answer only to the British authorities if they committed any crime while they were in China. Chinese tariffs on British goods were to be only 5%. Soon afterward the Chinese were forced to sign similar treaties with other European countries. Unfortunately, the Chinese had fallen behind in military technology and they were no match for the European forces.

The first Opium War of 1840-42 was followed by a second conflict. Neither side was satisfied with the treaty of 1842. The Chinese naturally resented the treaty. The British accused Chinese officials of ’dragging their feet’ and obstructing trade. The conflict came to a head in 1856 when the Chinese boarded a ship called The Arrow. In 1858 the British sent another fleet to China and the Chinese were forced to sign another treaty. Ten more ports were opened to trade and foreigners were to be allowed to travel around China.

In 1859 British officials returned to ratify the treaty but they were prevented from entering China. However, in 1860, the British sent another expedition. This time the British burned the emperor’s summer palace. China was forced to open ports in the north to trade and to pay a large sum of money to Britain.

The Decline of the Qing Dynasty

By the late 18th century the Qing dynasty was in decline. This was partly due to a rise in the population. The population of China began to outstrip its resources and the peasants grew poorer. As a result, rebellions broke out. In the years 1796-1804 the White Lotus sect led a rebellion. Although that rebellion was eventually crushed it was followed by another rebellion in 1813 led by the Eight Trigrams Sect. This rebellion cost 70,000 lives before it was defeated.

However, by far the most serious rebellion was the Taiping rebellion of 1850-1864, which is estimated to have cost 20 million lives. It was led by Hong Xichuan who believed he was the Son of God and the younger brother of Jesus. He preached a mixture of some Christian beliefs and some Communism. His followers sold their property and put the money in a common fund. The land was distributed among his followers

He also banned foot binding, smoking opium, and wearing the queue. His followers also destroyed Buddhist and Taoist temples. He took Nanjing in 1853 and led a long rebellion. It took the Qing more than a decade to crush it. Furthermore, other rebellions broke out in China. It took another 4 years to put down bandits in the north called the Nanin. There were also rebellions by Muslims in outlying areas. These were not defeated until 1873.

In the late 19th century the Chinese government made some attempts to introduce European technology. None of them were very successful. In partnership with Chinese merchants, the government opened coal mines, started a steam shipping company, and opened ironworks and cotton mills. They also built a telegraph network and a small network of railways.

However, all these efforts at reform were met with resistance from traditional Confucian scholars. Worse in 1893 the Empress Cixintook some money intended for the navy and used it to build a marble ship in the shape of a paddle steamer. China remained fundamentally unchanged in the late 19th century, unlike Japan, which changed rapidly.

In 1894 came a war with Japan. A rebellion broke out in Korea in 1894 and Chinese troops were sent there. However, the Japanese navy sank a Chinese troop carrier, provoking war. The Japanese army and navy quickly won stunning victories and the Chinese were forced to sign a humiliating treaty. They were forced to cede Taiwan to Japan and allow the Japanese to build factories in China. China was also forced to pay a large sum of money. Afterward, European powers took advantage of China’s weakness by forcing her to cede more territory to them.

After the shock of the Sino-Japanese war, many Chinese realized that China must modernize otherwise she would be carved up between the foreign powers. In 1898 some officials persuaded the emperor to decree a series of reforms. However, Empress Dowager (a retired empress) Cixi put a stop to it. She arrested most of the reformers and executed them on the trumped-up charge that they were plotting to overthrow the government.

The Boxer Rebellion

In 1900 Chinese resentment of foreign interference boiled over into the Boxer rebellion. It began with a secret society called the Harmonious Fists. They hated Christian missionaries and foreign influence. The society grew rapidly after 1898 and friction between them and the missionaries grew. Afraid, the British sent 2,000 men to protect their nationals in Beijing.

However, the Boxers cut the railway to Tianjin, and the British were forced to withdraw their soldiers. Cixi decided to join the Boxers and she declared war. The foreigners in Beijing shut themselves in their buildings and the Chinese lay siege. However, a force of 20,000 European soldiers marched into Beijing and sacked it. Afterward, the Chinese were forced to pay a large sum of money to the Europeans as compensation.

The Fall of the Qing Dynasty

In 1901 Empress Dowager, Cixi changed her mind and decided some reform was needed after all. Primary and secondary education was changed to include Western subjects.

Then in 1905 the civil service entry exams, which had been used for 2,000 years, were abolished. Some attempt was made to reform the army and navy. In 1908 she agreed to make the Chinese monarchy a constitutional one. In 1909 provincial assemblies were elected. However, only a limited number of men were allowed to vote and the assemblies had little power. After 1910 there was a national assembly but it too had very limited power. The limited reforms of the Qing satisfied nobody and in 1911 they were swept away by a revolution. China became a republic.


The Revolution

In the early 20th century many people decided the only thing to do was to sweep away the old order. Leading the revolutionaries was Sun-Yat-Sen (1866-1925). He put forward 3 principles, nationalism, democracy, and socialism. In 1905 he formed the Revolutionary Alliance of Tongmen Hui. Some soldiers in Wuchang with revolutionary ideas formed an organization called the Literary Society. In 1911 they were planning a revolution. However, they accidentally set off a bomb. Realizing the government would now be alerted they decided to start the revolution immediately.

The revolution soon gathered pace and spread across southern China. Province after province seceded from the Qing Empire. However, the Qing turned to a man named General Yuan Shikai. This man had been a regional governor but the Qing dismissed him, as they feared he was growing too powerful. Now they recalled him and gave him wide powers to crush the revolution.

However, when his forces were repulsed at Nanjing the general decided to change sides. He made a deal with the revolutionaries. He would make China a republic if he could be president. Sun Yat-Sen and the other revolutionaries feared that divided China would be easy prey for the foreign powers so they agreed to his terms. The Qing was persuaded to abdicate in February 1912. Yuan Shikai became president of China. A parliament was elected in February. The largest party was the nationalists of Kuomintang with Sun Yat-Sen at their head.

However, the general had no intention of sharing power with parliament and soon made himself dictator. The Kuomintang was banned at the end of 1913 and parliament was closed in January 1914.

The Warlord Years

When General Yuan died in 1916 China descended into semi-anarchy. The central government had little power and warlords controlled the provinces. In 1916 the Japanese took over the German ‘sphere of influence’ in Shandong.

After the war, in 1919, it became clear that the victorious powers intended to let Japan keep it. This news provoked 3,000 students to demonstrate in Beijing on 4 May 1919. They burned the Minister of Communication’s house. Although the police moved to suppress the demonstration in Beijing similar protests took place elsewhere in China. The protest gave rise to a movement called the Fourth of May movement which rejected Confucian values and sought to modernize China. Although the Kuomintang were banned in 1913 they simply moved their base to Guangzhou and continued to operate.

In 1921 the Chinese Communist Party or CCP was founded. One of the founders of the Communist Party was Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976). By 1935 he became head of the new party. At first, the Communists decided to cooperate with the Kuomintang. For a time the two joined forces.

Meanwhile, China was changing in the early 20th century. Chinese Industry was expanding rapidly (although the country remained overwhelmingly agricultural) and China saw a wave of strikes and labor unrest in the 1920s.

Then in 1926, the Kuomintang decided to unite China. From their base in the south, they sent an army of 150,000 men into the north. The warlords in some of the northern provinces were defeated and by the end of 1926 large parts of northern China were brought under Kuomintang control. In 1928 the Northern Expedition was renewed and in April Kuomintang forces entered Beijing. China was reunited.

Meanwhile, the Kuomintang and the Communists argued. In the autumn of 1927, MaonTse Tung led a peasant rebellion called the Autumn Harvest Uprising. However, it was crushed. In December 1927 there was an uprising in Guangzhou and a Communist government was very briefly established in the city but government forces soon crushed the movement.

In 1930 the Kuomintang said that China was not ready for democracy. Instead, China became a military dictatorship led by Chiang KainShek. In 1930 Li Lisan led another Communist rebellion but it was easily crushed.

However, in the countryside, Mao Tse Tung adopted a much more successful policy. From his base in a mountain range, he carried out guerrilla warfare. He created a well-disciplined force that conducted ‘hit and run’ raids and hid whenever the enemy advanced, avoiding pitched battles. His men were able to wear down and demoralize them. Guerrilla warfare proved to be extremely successful in the 20th century.

In 1934 the Kuomintang attempted to encircle the Communists. Mao decided to break out. About 90,000 soldiers escaped the trap and embarked on a long march to the north of China. This Long March became legendary although less than 20,000 of those who took part survived the march

Then in 1937 Communists and Kuomintang agreed to a temporary truce to fight the Japanese.

In 1931 the Japanese occupied Manchuria. In 1932 they created a separate state with a puppet government called Manchukuo. In 1937 the Japanese invaded the rest of China. The invasion began with the ‘rape of Nanjing’ when tens of thousands of people in that city were murdered. Women were raped and buildings were burned. However, the Japanese were unable to conquer all of China due to its sheer size.

In the 1930s some modernization occurred in the coastal cities of China. Many new railways were built and many more roads were metaled

The amount of electricity generated increased 7 times over. Industrial output was small but it was growing. Coal mining boomed. Cotton spinning also grew. However, the interior of China remained overwhelmingly agricultural.

When the Japanese invaded in 1937 Chiang Kai Shek attempted to evacuate many people, especially skilled workers to the unoccupied areas of China. Industrial machinery was also evacuated west. However, to finance the fighting the Kuomintang was forced to print money. The result was rampant inflation which undermined their support.

The Revolution in China

In August 1945 Russia declared war on Japan. As a result, Russian troops occupied Manchuria after the Japanese surrender. When they withdrew the Communists were left in control of Manchuria. In 1946 the civil war resumed between Communists and Kuomintang. At first, the Kuomintang were successful and they recaptured southern Manchuria and other parts of northern China. However, the Communists turned to guerrilla warfare and successfully harassed the Kuomintang and their lines of communication.

From the middle of 1947, the Communists were winning the war. Then in November 1948-January 1949, the Communists won a victory at Huai-Hai. They encircled an army of 300,000 Kuomintang and eventually forced them to surrender. After that, the Kuomintang position swiftly collapsed. The Communists took Beijing in January 1949. In April they took Nanjing and in May Shanghai. The remaining Kuomintang then fled to Taiwan and in October Mao Tse Tung declared the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.

Modern China

The Early Years of the People’s Republic

Under the Communists, industry was nationalized. The peasants were encouraged to pool their resources and form their small farms into co-operatives. Any opposition to the Communist regime was ruthlessly suppressed.

In 1958 Mao launched an attempt to greatly increase the output of farming and industry. It was called The Great Leap Forward. Agricultural cooperatives were joined together to form larger units called communes. Creches and nurseries were set up so women could work. Communes were encouraged to make steel in their own makeshift furnaces. Many peasants were forced to work in water conservation works.

However, the Great Leap Forward proved to be a disaster. Most of the steel was of very poor quality and could not be used. Worse farm output greatly declined and there was a terrible famine in China from 1959 to 1962. Far too much labor was diverted to making steel or building projects leaving not enough for the harvests which in some areas were left to rot. Worse, crops fell prey to locusts.

In 1958 Mao launched a campaign to kill sparrows (because they ate grain seeds). However, sparrows also ate locusts and other insects. Huge numbers of sparrows were killed and without natural predators the number of locusts greatly increased, making the famine worse.

Yet even though there was a famine and people were starving China continued to export grain. An estimated 36 million people in China died in the famine. Not all died of starvation. Starving people were executed for stealing food. It was the worst man-made famine in history. However, Mao was unmoved by the famine. He said ‘To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward. It is better to let half the people die so that the other half can eat their fill’. Nevertheless, The Great Leap Forward was a failure and it had to be abandoned. Afterward, Mao lost some of his authority.

The Cultural Revolution in China

In 1966 to reassert his authority Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Students began to call themselves the Red Guard and they held rallies in Beijing. Soon a movement began to root out old habits, beliefs, and attitudes and cause a cultural revolution. The Red Guard began to attack intellectuals and also officials. In 1967 they forced the mayor and other officials in Shanghai to resign. The same thing happened in other cities as well. Many party officials were purged and removed from power.

During the Cultural Revolution religion was persecuted in China. Many places of worship were destroyed. (Mao like all Marxists was an atheist and he detested religion).

However, in 1968 Mao realized that things were going too far. The Red Guard was disrupting industry and agriculture. Mao ordered them to disband. Mao himself died in September 1976.

In 1989 a mass demonstration was held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing demanding democratic reforms. It was crushed by the Chinese army.

China’s Economic Miracle

In the late 20th century China introduced a market economy. As a result, China became an amazing success story. The economy grew very rapidly in the last years of the 20th century and by the mid-1990s China had become an affluent society. Consumer goods like TVs and fridges became common.

In the last years of the 20th century, the government switched to a market economy. Peasants in communes were given contracts. They were given a certain amount of land and agreed to grow a certain amount of crops. If they grew any excess they could sell it. In industry, factories were given more autonomy. They were allowed to make their own agreements with their suppliers and their customers. If they made large profits they could pay their workers bonuses. The new slogan was ‘To be rich is glorious!’. Four special economic zones were formed in the east of China. The result was a huge increase in Chinese industrial output and a great improvement in Chinese standards of living.

In 2005 there was a significant sign of China’s growing economic power when Shanghai overtook Rotterdam as the largest port in the world. China is predicted to become the world’s largest economy by 2040. Another sign of development came in 2019 when China landed a spacecraft called chang’e 4 on the dark side of the Moon. In 2024 the population of China was 1.4 billion.

Shanghai at Night

Last revised 2024