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Economics and Trade • Rise of China

China's recorded history began almost 4,000 years ago with the founding of the Shang Dynasty in 1766 BCE, although the nation's entire history is much older. The oldest human remains found in China date to 500,000 BCE and came to be known as "Peking man" (later Homo erectus). Many anthropologists believe that modern man, Homo sapiens, originated about 25,000 years ago in China's Ordos Desert. As the world's oldest civilization, China was also the most advanced for 3,000 years and conceived of such developments as irrigation, domestication of animals, grain cultivation, the printing press, gunpowder, bronze, iron, porcelain, and the standardization of written language. Until its level of technology was surpassed by the West in the 19th century, Chinese culture epitomized the apex of human achievement. During the Zhou Dynasty in the 11th century BCE, China's feudal society, which had kept the huge territory stable and controlled, began to break down. Despite the country's sophistication, unrest was rampant. The dynasty fell apart during the "Warring States" period from 403 to 221 BCE and the empire disintegrated into small kingdoms.

The Great Wall and Buddhism

The Ch'in Dynasty rose to prominence about 221 BCE, heralding a new period of order and lawfulness. This short-lived dynasty reined in the feudal lords and established a new form of government—bureaucracy. During the 15-year period that the Ch'in dynasty was in power, the nation's first real roads and canals were built and construction of the legendary Great Wall began to deter invaders from the north. The Han Dynasty furthered China's prosperity from 206 BCE to 220 CE, incorporating more territory, setting up a complex civil service, and starting the systematic recording of the nation's history. Meanwhile, Chinese art and literature burgeoned and people began to take up Buddhism, which had been introduced from India. The first census in 2 CE set the population at 57 million. For the next 300 years, China was divided into what have become known as the Three Kingdoms: the Wei, the Shu, and the Wu. However, by 581 CE the Sui Dynasty had succeeded in reunifying the country and reinstating a government.

The Tang period, from 618 to 907 CE, marked a renaissance both in terms of government—which became more centralized and developed—and culture, with painting, poetry, and sculpture making major strides. Buddhism became even more popular and the Tang leaders established lucrative trade relations with the Byzantine Empire and Islamic countries. At this point, China comprised most of Asia's southeastern and central regions. Then, the 10th century witnessed a dramatic decline in China's fortunes. Called the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, China suffered through war, economic hardship, and the loss of its northern, central, and Korean territories. Despite the upheaval, printing was invented, paper money was introduced, and Chinese porcelain became a much-sought-after commodity in Islamic lands.

Mongol Invasion and the Last Dynasty

The Song Dynasty, which dawned in 960 CE, brought a time of peace. Leaders reinstalled a central government and the invention of movable type put China at the forefront of world technology. However, the neglected northern and western edges of the enormous empire fell prey to invasions by the Mongol peoples. These small incursions led in the late 13th century to Mongol warriors taking control of the government in 1279, ending the Song period. The Mongol Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, made Beijing his capital when he took the throne in 1293. The founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Khan promoted economic prosperity by rebuilding the Grand Canal, lengthening highways, and repairing public grain silos.

By 1368, the Mongols had been driven out by a groundswell of nationalism. Native Chinese established the Ming Dynasty, which witnessed the arrival of the first European traders from Portugal and other countries. As a result, the famous Ming Dynasty porcelain entered European markets in 1580. The Manchu—non-Chinese nomads from Manchuria—took control of China in 1644 in what would become the nation's last dynasty. While at first the country's trade and culture thrived, the 19th century brought doubts that China would even remain intact. By then, European and U.S. traders held strict control of trade through exclusive treaty ports, and some believed that China would be split up among the United States and European countries. China's leadership desperately tried to regain control by staging a campaign to expel all Westerners in 1900, a campaign known as the Boxer Rebellion, but European and U.S. troops quickly squelched the movement.

Nationalists and Communists

With the abdication of the emperor and his government in 1912 in response to growing opposition to Manchu rule, China began a new political life as a republic. Sun Yat-sen was elected leader of the powerful Kuomintang, now Taiwan's Nationalist Party, and formed his own regime in the country's south to combat President Yuan Shi-kai's efforts to create a new dynasty. There followed a period of disorder and lawlessness that continued until 1926 as the new republic was divided by warlords and their claims. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921.

In 1926, the southern government, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, launched its Northern Expedition to try to reunite the divided country. Chiang and his Revolutionary Army succeeded in taking over the Kuomintang, and in 1927 executed many of the Kuomintang's communist leaders, who had joined the Kuomintang in 1924 when it became a coalition. These executions began the long civil war between the communists and the Nationalists. In 1928, Chiang captured Beijing, completing his dream of national reunification. He set up a one-party state and kept up his anticommunist drive.

While the Chinese were occupied with their internal conflicts, the Japanese set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932 under deposed former emperor Henry P'u-i, having occupied Manchuria the year before under similar circumstances. In 1934, Chiang's new Red Army rounded up thousands of communist "bandits" and forced them to walk hundreds of miles northwest to resettle in Shaanxi. This campaign became known as the Long March. In 1935, Mao Zedong was appointed head of the CCP. In 1937, the Sino-Japanese conflict escalated into full-scale war after the countries' troops clashed at Marco Polo Bridge on the border of Manchukuo State. Angered by the attack, Japanese leaders ordered incursions into the heart of China itself. Beijing fell to the aggressors, and the Kuomintang was forced to move the capital to Chungking. This triggered the Sino-Japanese War, which raged until Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, ending World War II.

The end of the war with Japan brought a renewal of civil war within China as enemy factions raced to fill the territory abandoned by the Japanese. In 1946, the Kuomintang and Mao's CCP erupted into open conflict, which continued despite U.S. attempts to mediate. Chiang was forced to resign the presidency in January 1949 and by September the CCP had taken Beijing. Chiang and the remnants of his supporters retreated to the nearby island of Formosa, today known as Taiwan.

The People's Republic of China

The departure of the Nationalists signaled the start of another era for China. Once the CCP had established its domination of the mainland, Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. The late 1950s brought the "Great Leap Forward"—Mao's program to industrialize the country. The Soviet Union's withdrawal of substantial aid to the program in 1960 limited progress in view of what Chinese leaders had envisioned. In mid-1966, with his reputation tarnished by the failure of the Great Leap plan, Mao sparked tremendous upheaval by launching the Cultural Revolution, the goal of which was to "purify" the nation's communist ethics and show that Mao's ideology was superior to economics. An estimated 500,000 members of the upper class, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and artists were killed, exiled, or otherwise purged in the name of the purification drive. CCP secretary general Deng Xiaoping was publicly disgraced during the program, although he was "rehabilitated" politically and emerged as first vice prime minister in 1975 after the arrest and prosecution of the "Gang of Four," the elite ultraleftist group that encouraged the cultural purges. In 1971, China replaced Taiwan as the official Chinese member of the United Nations.

Mao died in 1976, ending a reign that had completely changed China's character in the eyes of the international community. Not only had he and the CCP brought the massive nation under the umbrella of one ideology—communism—also, wild inflation had been subdued, agriculture had been collectivized, industry had been nationalized, and the infrastructure's modernization was under way. However, overambition, an emphasis on quantity over quality, failure to develop contingency plans, and neglect of foreign relations all took their toll on China's fortunes. In 1977, new leader Deng Xiaoping began to work toward two of the goals of his Four Modernizations plan: to strengthen and modernize the economy and to foster improved political and economic relations with the West (an effort that had begun with U.S. president Richard Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China in 1972). In 1979, Deng named four coastal cities as special economic zones in which market-style trade was permitted, and the same year he established relations with the United States—a major breakthrough in China's international relations. The following year, the government launched its one-child-per-family law to control its huge population, and the People's Republic took over Taiwan's place in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Straddling Communism and Capitalism

In 1989, the death of a popular reformist, Hu Yaobang, led to a prodemocracy movement that exploded into the army's bloody suppression of student protests at the Tiananmen Square massacre. In addition to killing protesters, the government arrested thousands of suspected dissidents and replaced moderate politicians with hard-liners. The Tiananmen Square massacre marked the beginning of a period of decline for China, as the international community imposed economic sanctions and Beijing became the target of criticism by human rights groups around the world. Although relations with most countries have been reestablished, China became more ideologically isolated and politically rigid through the end of the 20th century. In the early 21st century, the government still does not tolerate dissent—political or religious—as demonstrated by its persecution of the followers of the Falun Gong religious sect.

In July 1997, China resumed sovereignty of the British colony of Hong Kong, ending 156 years of colonial rule by the United Kingdom. In December 1999, China regained control of the Portuguese colony of Macau, ending 442 years of colonial rule there. In November 2002, China began to hand over governmental power to the so-called "fourth-generation" of leaders when Hu Jintao was appointed CCP chairperson. Hu became president of China on March 15, 2003—the same day that Wen Jiabao became the nation's new prime minister. With the announcement of Jiang Zemin's official retirement in September 2004, Hu also became the head of the country's military—as chairperson of the Central Military Commission. Thus, China completed the first peaceful transfer of military power since the 1949 communist takeover.

During his decade in office, Jintao continued to move the country toward a free-market economy, while coping with chronic unemployment, labor unrest, poverty, and pollution. Although China's economic policy was liberal during this time, the government continued to maintain tight control over the people. The change to the "fifth-generation" of leaders began in November 2012 and was complete by March 2013. Xi Jingping was made CCP chairperson, as well as that of the Central Military Commission, and president of China. Li Keqiang is prime minister. Today, China finds itself in a difficult position as it tries to straddle the worlds of communism and capitalism, seeking a modern, thriving economy while retaining tight control of its citizens on a borderless, Internet-connected planet. China's constantly expanding manufacturing base and efforts by Chinese companies to buy out U.S. corporations are examples of the tremendous strides made by China's economy in the 21st century.

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Further Reading

Dillon, Michael, ed. China: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1998; Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2005; Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2006; Twitchett, Denis, and John K. Fairbank, eds. The Cambridge History of China. 15 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978–2002.

MLA Citation

"China." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/317222. Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2171567

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