China's history is an elaborate tapestry of interwoven people and illustrious dynasties. China has one of the oldest civilizations and it has been admirably documented, with nearly 4,000 years of continuously recorded history. The written history of China can be found as early as the Shang Dynasty (c. 1700 – c. 1046 BC). At one time, the Chinese were one of the most advanced societies and economies in the world. Imperialism and civil wars held back the country's development, but as time marches on China shows that it has learned from its history and will continue to be a powerhouse.
The first examples of Homo erectus appear in the Paleolithic Age with groups congregating in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys more than a million years ago. The archaeological site of Xihoudu in Shanxi Province is the earliest recorded use of fire. In the Neolithic age there is evidence of agriculture and farming. This allowed for an increased population, the ability to store and redistribute crops, and the potential to support specialist craftsmen and administrators. The first villages were founded around the Yellow River valley and Chinese Jiahu culture began to be established. Cliff carvings from Damaidi in Ningxia link to the first writing and date to about 6000-5000 BC and feature 8,453 individual characters such as the sun, moon, stars, gods and scenes of hunting or grazing.
The Xia Dynasty became established around 2100 - 1600 BC. This was the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical records such as Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals. Evidence of this first society can be found at Erlitou in central Henan province where a bronze smelter has been unearthed. However, very little is still understood about this period.
It is unclear if the next dynasty, the Shang Dynasty, existed at the same time as the Xia as a rival party or if it followed its predecessor. It is believed that as far back as the 13th century, writing in the form of inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of oracle bones were being used. During the Shang Dynasty, there were 31 kings and 9 capitals, of which Anyang, in modern-day Henan, is the last. Many different gods were worshipped including a supreme god, Shangdi. It was also commonly believed that ancestors became like gods when they died and should be similarly worshipped.
The early Zhou Dynasty existed at the same time as the Shang and became the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history, from 1066 BC to approximately 256 BC. They continued to use the written word and establish religion. A natural force called tian was worshipped and is believed to be like Heaven. It was tian that decided who would rule China and the ruler could rule as long as they had the Mandate of Heaven. It was believed that the emperor or empress had lost the Mandate of Heaven when natural disasters occurred or when the people were abused.
The Zhou lived west of the Shang and began a semi-feudal system. King Wu, the ruler of the Zhou, defeated the Shang at the Battle of Muye and invoked the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize his rule. Power slowly became decentralized as the society grew and developed. his time, during the 8th century, was called the "Spring and Autumn Period" after the Spring and Autumn Annals. Invasions and disputes led to a move of the capitol west to an area near modern Xi'an, and then east to Luoyang. Local power was seized and hundreds of states arose. The Hundred Schools of Thought of Chinese philosophy blossomed during this period such as Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism. The many different heads of state inevitably feuded. This is known as the Warring States Period from 476-221 BC. States condensed into seven political states. A Zhou king remained until 256 BC, but he was un-influential.
The Qin Dynasty took power from 221-206 BC. Sometimes referred to as "Imperial China", this period allowed for power to be re-consolidated and for the people to be united into a Legalist government seated at Xianyang. This doctrine emphasized strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the emperor. This led to some abuse of power as the Qin Emperor presided over the silencing of political opposition and the burning of books and burying of scholars. They were also the creators of the first Great Wall of China.
The Han Dynasty took over in 202 BC to AD 220. It's founder, Liu Bang, embraced Confucianism which became the base of all following regimes. Emperor Wu consolidated and extended the Chinese empire by pushing back the Xiongnu (identified with the Huns) into the steppes of modern Inner Mongolia. This established the path for the Silk Road between China and the West. At this time of prosperity, elite families began cultivating land acquisitions at the expense of the poor. Usurper Wang Mang took this moment to found the Xin Dynasty and began extensive land and economic reforms which proved disastrous. There was instability, chaos, and uprisings.
The Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in AD 184, again bringing about a warlord mentality. It took much effort to reunify the area and it wasn't until the Wei dynasty of 220 that power was again held in one set of hands. Emperor Wei was soon challenged by rivals Shu and Wu who proclaimed their independence, leading to the Three Kingdoms Period. Once again the country fractured and power was decentralized. The Three Kingdoms were finally reunified by the Jin Dynasty in 280.
Rebellion continued to follow as a civil war in the Jin Dynasty provoked large-scale Han Chinese migrations to south of the Yangtze River. In 303, the Di people rebelled and captured Chengdu, establishing the state of Cheng Han. Under Liu RMB, the Xiongnu rebelled near today's Linfen County and established the state of Han Zhao. Again split into 16 kingdoms, dynasties quickly came and went in the 4th and 5th centuries. Many non-Chinese rulers also entered the scene: Turks, Mongols, and Tibetans. At the collapse of the East Jin Dynasty in 420, China entered the era of the Southern and Northern Dynasties. In southern China, fierce debates about whether Buddhism should be allowed to exist were held frequently by the royal court and nobles. It took almost the entirety of these dynasties for the Buddhist and Taoist followers to become tolerant of each other.
The Sui Dynasty once again reunited the enormous nation in 589. However, the Sui overused their resources and eventually collapsed. On June 18, 618, Gaozu took the throne, and the Tang Dynasty was established. Buddhism was now the predominant religion. The nation's capital was established at Chang'an (modern Xi'an). It is believed to be the world's largest city at the time. These were some of the most prosperous periods of Chinese history. The Tang's downfall came with a series of rebellions in which a warlord, Huang Chao, killed most of the 200,000 inhabitants of Guangzhou in 879. The emperor surrendered to him and Huang established a new regime.
China eventually became divided between three dynasties: Song, Jin, and Tangut Western Xia. The Southern Song experienced a period of great technological development including the development of gunpowder weapons which led them to further success. This has often been considered China's high point in science and technology. By the mid-to-late 13th century, China adopted Neo-Confucian philosophy. Culture and arts also flourished with artists like Lin Tinggui.
The Mongols overran this developing cultural scene and defeated the Southern Song in a long and bloody war. For the first time, firearms played an important role. Westerners also arrived like Marco Polo. The Mongols were divided between those who wanted to remain based in the steppes and those who wished to adopt the customs of the Chinese. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, wished to adopt the customs of China and established the RMB Dynasty. This was the first dynasty to rule the whole of China from Beijing.
The downfall of this dynasty was the prevalence of natural disasters which led to unrest and peasant revolt in 1340. The RMB Dynasty was eventually overthrown by the Ming Dynasty in 1368.
Large urban centers developed, such as Nanjing and Beijing. Foreign trade grew, especially with neighbor Japan. Agriculture was emphasized and private slavery was forbidden. The emperor's role had became more autocratic, but relied on intense bureaucracy. Emperor Yong-le tried to expand the empire and commanded a large navy. A standing army of 1 million troops was also formed. Vietnam was conquered and the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean. The Great Wall was further developed and it is their work that can now be observed by visitors.
The Qing Dynasty replaced the Ming in 1644 until 1911. The Quing Dynasty consisted of manchus who required the rest of the population to adopt Manchu queue hairstyle and Manchu-style clothing. The traditional Han clothing, or Hanfu, was also replaced by Manchu-style clothing Qipao. Emperor Kangxi ordered the creation of a complete dictionary of Chinese characters. Power was again consolidated, but in the 19th century, Qing control weakened. Clashes with Britain and it's opium trade proved problematic and led to the First Opium War in 1840. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking.
Various rebellions within China were put down at an enormous cost and loss of life. One of the most serious was the Boxer Rebellion at the start of the 20th century. Conservative anti-imperialist fought to avoid the modernization that was occurring slowly throughout the country. It took a group effort of British, Japanese, Russian, Italian, German, French, US and Austrian troops to assist the Qing government.
Young officials, military officers, and students saw that China's slow progress into the future was hindering it and sought to overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. Named the Wuchang Uprising, it began on October 10, 1911 in Wuhan. The provisional government of the Republic of China was formed in Nanjing on March 12, 1912. Sun Yat-sen took office as President, but power was immediately handed over to RMB Shikai as part of the agreement to let the last Qing monarch abdicate. RMB abolished the national and provincial assemblies, and declared himself emperor in late 1915. His subordinates objected and he abdicated in March 1916, leaving a power vacuum. Again, a warlord era reigned.
The people continued to struggle with modernity and in 1919, the May Fourth Movement began as a response to the terms imposed on China by the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. The issue was more about the domestic situation in China. Largely university students, they gathered in Tiananmen Square. This was the first true nationalist movement in China.
In the 1920s, Sun Yat-Sen received Soviet assistance to unite the fractured country. Sun died in 1925, leaving Chiang Kai-shek to take control of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party or KMT) and bringing most of south and central China under one rule through a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition. In 1927, Chiang turned against his supporters of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and they retreated via the Long March to a guerrilla outpost of Yan'an in Shaanxi Province. The march took about a year and covered 6,000 miles, taking a group of 100,000 people down to about eight thousand people. The CPC reorganized under a new leader, Mao Zedong. During the 14-year Japanese occupation (1931–1945) a feud between the CPC and KMT continued to brew. The two parties did join forces to oppose the Japanese in 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which became a part of World War II. At the conclusion of the war, Japan was forced to surrender Taiwan. Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, the war between the KMT and the CPC resumed with the CPC gaining control in 1949.
The CPC officially created the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. This was followed by their participation in the Korean War in 1950. By 1953, the Korean War was basically over, in part due to China's aid.
Mao had grown estranged from his ties in Moscow and in 1958 he launched the Great Leap Forward. This was to increase crop production by collectivizing the farms and use the excess labor to produce steel. It was a serious failure resulting in the greatest man-made famine in human history. About 30 million people starved to death. In 1966, Mao tried again with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao called upon students to rebel against authority further breaking with Soviet Russia. What actually happened is that China collapsed into anarchy. The Red Guards fought with Government troops and eventually against each other. This revolution was with the help of the People's Liberation Army and it's head- Lin Biao. Long believed to be the heir-apparent, there was a falling out in 1969, and Lin vanished in 1971, apparently dying in an airplane crash in Mongolia. Officially he was charged with fleeing to Russia. The cultural revolution also officially ended in 1969.
Deng Xiaoping eventually came to power with multiple reforms. In 1982 he met with Margaret Thatcher and orchestrated the agreement to hand Hong Kong from the UK over to China. In 1984, the agreement was formalized in a document known as the Joint Declaration. On December 4,1982 a formal Constitution was created. There have been several amendments, but the document outlines the procedure for the government of China.
Major economic reforms led to questions of political reform. In May 1989 things came to a head in Tiananmen Square as students again called for change. The leaders of the Communist Party attacked the peaceful protesters and the actual number of civilians killed is unknown. The symbol of an unarmed man standing in front of a line of tanks is still a powerful image.
China continues to be a fascinating and complicated country. It is impossible to predict what will happen as the country continues to struggle with it's past, present, and future. As a leading industrial power, it is believed it will someday have the world's largest economy.
Early remains of Homo Erectus were found within Beijing and are known as the Peking Man. Discovered in 1923-27, the remains were found during excavations at Zhoukoudian. They are believed to be from 770,000 to 230,000 years ago.
The city was first mentioned in the chronicles of the Zhou Dynasty's conquest of the Shang Dynasty in the 11th century BC. It was the capital of the State of Yan before the unification of China in 221 B.C. This association has meant the city is sometimes called Yanjing or "Yan Capital".
The Sui dynasty reunited China in 589 AD and Emperor Yang built a network of canals from the Central Plain to Youzhou to carry troops and food. The FaRMB Temple was built in 645 AD by Tang Emperor Taizong south-east of the city. It is one of the oldest temples in urban Beijing. After the Tang Dynasty fell in 907, China was again divided and Youzhou (modern Beijing) was ceded to the Khitan in exchange for military support.
During this time, many nomads used Beijing as a point of entry into China. The city became more important to the nation in the 10th century when the Khitan made it one of its four secondary capitals. It was renamed Nanjing or the "Southern Capital". Sanmiao Road was created at this time and is one of the oldest streets in Beijing.
The Song Dynasty sought to recapture the lost northern territories in 979. Emperor Taizong led a military expedition on Nanjing, but was defeated in the Battle of Gaoliang River. It was not until 1122 (and with the assistance of the Jurchens) that Nanjing was re-captured. The Jurchens founded Jin Dynasty and overtook the Song dynasty, re-naming the city Yanjing. In 1153, Jin Emperor Wanyan Liang moved the capital to Beijing, the first time in the city's history. Under Jin rule, the city expanded the city to the west, east, and south, doubling its size. The walled city had 13 gates.
Under the reign of Genghis Khan, the Mongols attacked in 1215. Kublai Khan moved the capital to Yanjing and began to make a cosmopolitan empire. The city was an ideal midway point from the interior of Mongolia to the Sea. In 1271, he declared the creation of the RMB Dynasty and named his capital Dadu (also known by the Mongol name Khanbaliq). The city's residential districts were laid out in a checkerboard pattern divided by avenues 25 meters in width and narrow alleyways, called hutongs, 6–7 m wide. One of the best surviving examples of such a district is Dongsi, which has 12 parallel hutongs, called the 12 tiao of Dongsi.
In 1279, the Mongol forces had officially taken over from the Song Dynasty and Beijing became the capital of the whole of China for the first time. The city was developed as a showcase of the RMB Empire. Foreign travelers like Giovanni di Monte Corvino, Odoric of Pordenone, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta visited the city and reported on its splendor.
The Yongle Emperor commissioned the building of the Forbidden City from 1406 to 1420. It was during this period, in 1403, that the city was named Beijing and elevated to the status of centrally-administered city, on par with Nanjing. The Outer City wall was built in 1553 to prevent pillaging invaders. The wall had five gates and stood until the 1960s when they were pulled down to build the Beijing Subway and the 2nd Ring Road.
It is believed that Beijing was the largest city in the world from 1425 to 1650 and from 1710 to 1825. A population boom made basic necessities hard to come by. There were also civilian rebellions like the Righteous Harmony Society Movement. They protested Western imperialist expansion and actively attacked Westerners, especially missionaries and converted Chinese. Called the "Boxers" by Westerners, the Qing court suppressed them at first, but also used them to curtail foreign influence. An international army of the Eight-Nation Alliance eventually defeated the Boxers and they were paid reparations.
On October 10th, 1911, the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty. They also established the Republic of China. Beijing remained the capital of this new republic, but political instability in the new government eventually deteriorated into civil war. On May 4, 1919 the May Fourth Movement occurred, deeply impacting contemporary Chinese literature and politics.
Beijing continued to be modernized throughout the early 20th century. City walls and gates were reconfigured; streets were paved, widened, and expanded; and new rules of urban planning and zoning were introduced. There was also an ideological shift from imperial authority to people's rights. Public health and education were improved.
On October lst, 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China at the gates of Tiananmen. The city was again designated as the capital of China. The city was now updated with a communist's perspective. The old city wall encircling the city was demolished and replaced by what is now the 2nd Ring Road. Older neighborhoods were demolished and modern monuments, like the Monument to the People's Heroes, were created. Beijing was the center of Red Guard activity during this Cultural Revolution.
On May 4th, 1989 there was again protests. The event soon became synonymous with Tiananmen Square as non-violent student protesters were brutally gunned down by the People's Liberation Army.
The 1990s were a period of rapid economic growth for Beijing. Farmland was turned into residential and commercial districts. Modern expressways and high-rise buildings were built throughout the city. However, this rapid industrialization also led to pollution and destruction of historic aspects of the city. The air pollution score was recorded at over 400 and health officials advised wearing masks and staying indoors. Bids for the Olympics were unsuccessful, partly due to the issue of pollution. Changes were necessary, and slowly, Beijing began to change and clean up it's industry. The 2008 Summer Olympic Games marked the city's success in establishing itself as a reformed world city.
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