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For millennia China has influenced (and been influenced by) the rest of world. Advances in science and technology put China ahead of the West for a few centuries after 1000 CE, but China’s dynastic governance (and occasional warlordism) temporarily set the country back. But in the twenty-first century China has undergone a series of remarkable transitions; its government has successfully reasserted unity and expanded its global influence beyond earlier limits.

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China’s prominent role in world history corresponds to its size and its age. In the twenty-first century China is second only to Russia and Canada in territorial extent; some 1.33 billion people living within China’s borders make the country by far the most populous land on Earth. Homo erectus populations existed in China about 900,000 years ago, and modern Homo sapiens arrived about 40,000 years ago. Agriculture dates back more than 10,000 years; state-building and civilization arose, initially in the Huang (Yellow) River valley, beginning about 4,300 years ago, and attained lasting and distinctive forms by the time of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE).

Chinese civilization first influenced neighboring peoples in eastern Asia—Koreans and Japanese farther east, steppe nomads to the north and west, and tropical gardeners to the south. China has always retained primacy in that part of the world thanks to the skills, the numbers, and the economic and political prowess of its population. As transport and communication improved over time, China’s influence reached ever more widely across Asia, and the Chinese continually enriched themselves by importing new skills, new knowledge, and new things from afar. Beginning about 100 BCE, with the opening of organized caravan trade along the so-called Silk Roads, this process of interaction began to affect western Asia and even distant Europe, creating an Old World web that eventually expanded around the globe after 1500, creating the tumultuous world we know today.

Early China to 221 BCE

Chinese texts preserve a uniquely comprehensive political narrative. It begins with mythical divine rulers and continues with accounts of a merely human dynasty, the Xia (2100?–1766? BCE). Scholars hotly debate whether archaeological evidence unambiguously proves the existence of the Xia dynasty. But in the 1920s, excavation at Anyang, seat of the last rulers of the Shang dynasty, uncovered thousands of “oracle bones” inscribed in a script close enough to modern Chinese writing to be interpreted by experts. These and other remains show that basic elements of subsequent Chinese civilization had already taken shape by 1300 BCE.

Anyang is situated where the Huang River of northern China traverses a region of soft, windblown loess soils. That was where early farmers had begun to raise millet, later supplemented by wheat and barley, come from Mesopotamia. The Shang armies also used horses, chariots, and compound bows, introduced from the western steppe.

Far-reaching changes came under the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). First of all, rain-watered agriculture that had been basic for the Shang was supplemented and soon overshadowed by extending cultivation to the fertile soils of the river flood plain. This required massive building of dikes and canals to control and direct the flow of water. When successful, this water engineering assured ample moisture for the harvest and diminished north China’s dependence on uncertain summer rains. It also vastly expanded the area of cultivation generations of conscripts labored to extend dikes and canals up and down the river valleys and across the coastal plain of north China.

Drainage canals permitted early Chinese cultivators to irrigate their new fields and made it possible for them to raise rice. Rice grew naturally in shallow water along the lakeshores and river banks of southeastern Asia, where local gardeners began to harvest it as early as 8000 BCE. But artificial dikes and canals, like those constructed in the Huang Valley, artificially extended the area of suitably shallow water enormously. Millet and other older crops persisted, but by about 200 BCE rice had become an important staple for China’s rapidly growing population, as it remains to this day.

When river flood plains began to fill up with cultivated fields, the Chinese took on a far more strenuous task of leveling slopes, building dikes around small artificially leveled fields, called paddies, and channeling even very small streams to bring water to them. This allowed hillsides in what eventually became central and southern China to produce rice almost as abundantly as the naturally flat river flood plains did.

As this enormous engineering effort gradually expanded across the landscape—a process that took millennia, and may not have reached its final limits in the Himalayan foothills even today—China’s population began to assume the close-packed density and imposing numbers that still characterize the country. Human muscles, assisted by shovels and wheelbarrows (a Chinese invention), did almost all the work. It remains the most extensive, drastic, and successful remodeling of a natural landscape ever undertaken by humankind.

Impact of Rice Cultivation

Similar rice paddies eventually appeared in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Java, and Sumatra, in all the great the river valleys in Southeast Asia, and as far away as the Ganges in India. Wherever wet rice cultivation spread, dense rural populations arose and supported royal or imperial governments. Something like half of humankind came to depend on this sort of agriculture and still does. But because China’s two great rivers, the Yangzi (Chang) and the Huang, drained such extensive watersheds, the country remained by far the largest and most populous among all the rice-growing lands.

Rice, like other grains, must be harvested and stored when ripe to feed everyone throughout the year and provide seed for next year’s crop. Governments and a sizable class of landowners arose when it became feasible for them to collect stores of grain from the harvest in payment for taxes and rents; once-independent cultivators were thus turned into rent-and tax-paying peasants. Rice-growing peasants had more to spare than other grain growers since a single rice seed ordinarily produced several stalks carrying more than a hundred seeds in all, compared with a seed-to-harvest ratio of only about 6 to 1 for wheat in medieval Europe. That did not mean that Chinese peasants were rich. Instead, taxes and rents rose high enough to allow the transfer of extra food to city folk—rulers, landlords, artisans, and casual laborers. So from the time rice became basic for China, cities grew to be larger than was possible in rain-watered lands elsewhere.

Despite its unrivalled productivity, irrigated rice cultivation had serious costs. Standing water in paddy fields made malaria and a debilitating parasitic disease called schistosomiasis very common; for a long time the Yangzi Valley—today the most fertile and populous region of China—remained notoriously unhealthy and was less densely populated than the north.

In the north, man-made dikes confined the Huang, and the river’s channel clogged with silt picked up as it flowed through soft loess soils. Like the Mississippi today, that silt soon raised the lower course of the river above the level of the land outside the dikes. Efforts to forestall floods by building higher dikes could stave off disaster for a while, but sooner or later the river broke through and resulting floods became far greater and more damaging than before. The Huang thus earned the nickname “China’s sorrow.” No other river carries so much silt, and the Huang is correspondingly unstable. In historic times unusually high floods on several occasions have shifted its lower channel by several hundreds of miles.

Increasing Rule of Landowners

Enterprising local landowners initiated (and conscripted field workers to build) the large-scale water-engineering works that reshaped China. As newly irrigated fields came into existence, the income and authority of landowners grew; as local rulers they soon were strong enough to pay little or no attention to the distant emperors. From the start they quarreled among themselves. Centuries of upheaval ensued while agricultural production increased, as did the ills created by intensifying warfare among local rulers.

Confucian and other schools of thought competed in words as vigorously as rival armies did, defining much of what became classical rules of behavior for later generations. But ideas in and of themselves had little to do with the ultimate restoration of public order. Rather, when the Zhou dynasty died out in 256 BCE, the pretense of imperial unity was abandoned, and the contemporaneous Warring States period came to a climax in 221 BCE when a single warlord from the state of Qin on the northwest borderland subdued all rivals. His dynasty did not long survive. Instead, after another bout of warfare, China attained a more lasting imperial and cultural unity under the Han dynasty (202 BCE–221 CE).

Imperial China (202 BCE to 1911/12)

The Han dynasty became a model for other dynasties in later Chinese history. The advantages of imperial government uniting the fertile river valleys of north and south China with shifting control over borderlands was so great, that whenever a dynasty collapsed, a new emperor and dynasty soon emerged after relatively brief civil wars. As the central government expanded over the centuries—and China’s borders stretched to absorb territory occupied by diverse populations speaking different languages—officials recognized the need to create a system that facilitated communication.

Written symbols, however, can be used to record and communicate languages as different from Chinese as Japanese and Korean, just as the numerals 1, 2, and 3, pronounced differently when spoken in English, French, and German, are mutually understandable as visual representations. Eventually the characters of classical Chinese literature, as edited, elaborated and preserved by Confucian scholars— and then propagated by formal education among untold millions of Chinese across two thousands years—provided a set of ideas and precepts that both restrained and guided rulers and also taught obedience to the emperor and his officials just as long as divine favor—the Mandate of Heaven—kept him on the throne. The Han dynasty was the first to patronize Confucian scholars, and the emperors spent much time performing ancestral rituals designed to maintain good relations with heaven and lesser spirits, as Confucius (551–479 BCE) had prescribed. Even when Buddhism won a large following at court and in the country at large, subsequent dynasties continued these rituals to be safe from supernatural harm.

The Confucian style of commitment to imperial unity was in turn sustained by the way bulky goods, which were paid as taxes in kind, could arrive at the imperial capital after traveling in barges along canals initially constructed for drainage and irrigation. At first the Yangzi Valley remained isolated from the Huang River network of canals, so resources from the south could not easily reach the imperial court in the north. But in 611 CE the Grand Canal opened, connecting these two principal river systems. Nothing close to such a capacious, cheap, and safe transport system existed elsewhere. The Chinese government and people prospered as a result, spreading rice paddies and building cities throughout the hills and valleys of the Yangzi watershed, more than doubling China’s size and resources by the time the lengthy pioneering effort neared completion.

Massive expansion southward in turn allowed the government to cope, not quite so successfully, with the problem of safeguarding itself and its subjects. Enlarged tax income made it easy to elaborate rituals for propitiating heaven and other powerful spirits. Keeping steppe nomads at a distance and preventing their destructive raids was more difficult. Horses thrived on the grassy steppes; and nomad tribesman spent much of their lives in the saddle, guarding their herds against outsiders and, when opportunity offered, stealing horses from one another, or invading Chinese borderlands to seize grain or anything else they found useful.

The Great Wall and Its Impact

Men mounted on horses moved far faster than infantry could ever hope to do. But horsemen could not easily overcome the obstacle of fortified city walls; thus the famous Great Wall of China was constructed across centuries in the hope of stopping steppe raiders. Infantry equipped with crossbows (a Chinese invention) could indeed repel steppe attacks from on top of the Wall as long as enough bowmen were already in place to meet them. But hundreds of miles of Wall and open country between its gaps needed more men on guard than even the Chinese Empire and its canal transport system could support day after day year round.

Two alternatives existed: hiring some nomads to stop their fellows from attacking by paying them with what they might otherwise have seized; or training and supplying enough Chinese cavalrymen to meet and defeat steppe raiders. Both methods were tried over and over, without solving the problem lastingly. Hired nomads could change sides at any moment; but keeping horses in China was horribly expensive. In the absence of a supply of natural grass, a horse ate many times as much grain as a man needed, so matching steppe horsemen with enough Chinese cavalrymen was very costly. More nearly successful was to establish peaceful relations with nomad chieftains, by giving them goods they desired as gifts in return for ritual recognition of obedience to the Chinese emperor. But such treaties, too, often broke down and raids began anew.

Nonetheless, over centuries the effect of raiding and gifting between China and the peoples of the steppe was to familiarize nomads with more and more aspects of Chinese civilization, eventually spreading key Chinese inventions far and wide throughout Eurasia. Chinese armies and armed expeditions also extended Chinese influence westward from time to time, beginning in 101 bce, when the Han emperor Wudi sent an expedition to the Ferghana Valley, in modern Uzbekistan, to bring back a breed of “blood-sweating” horses capable of carrying heavily armored men on their backs. For centuries thereafter caravans connected China with western Asia along what Westerners called the Silk Roads. As a result, communication within the Eurasian web attained a new velocity and regularity that increased little by little and reached a climax under Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (1126–1227) and his successors.

To begin with, China had much to learn from Indians and other peoples of western Asia. Buddhist holy men began to filter into China even before the Han dynasty collapsed; and during the years of civil strife and divided sovereignties that ensued, the new religion won many adherents, including Shi Huangdi, the emperor who founded the Sui dynasty and reunited China in 589. Buddhists retained imperial favor until 843 when Confucians succeeded in disbanding their monasteries and prohibiting their religion. But the Confucians had to borrow much from the Buddhists in order to refute them; so restored Confucianism came to resemble the other high religions of Eurasia more closely than before. Buddhist sects continued to exist in secret, especially among the poor and the oppressed, and often sparked rebellions when a dynasty began to weaken.

Buddhist art also affected older Chinese styles profoundly. The landscapes and portraiture of classical Chinese painting owed much to their Buddhist predecessors. More important for Chinese society as a whole was the fact that Buddhist monasteries introduced many Chinese to the advantages of buying and selling goods of daily consumption. In ancient China money played only a limited role for rural populations. Taxes, rents, and services were usually paid in kind, and peasants lived on what goods remained. Buddhist monks however, coming from India along the Silk Roads, were accustomed to selling the produce of landed estates pious believers deeded to them and then used the proceeds to buy whatever the monastery needed. Before their dissolution in 843, each monastery in China therefore became the center of a local market; Chinese townsmen and peasants far and wide soon expanded the use of money by buying from and selling to one another as Buddhist monks had done.

Cash and Carry

Use of money eventually became widespread enough that under the Song dynasty (960–1279) the imperial government found it convenient to collect taxes in money rather than in kind. Before a century had passed more than half the government’s income took the form of (first) metal and then paper currency. Consequently, millions of ordinary peasants started to sell part of their harvest to pay taxes. Some even specialized, for example, by raising silkworms, and started to buy their food just like townspeople. Thereupon, goods of common consumption—rice, salt, iron, silk, and innumerable others—began to circulate along the waterways of China. Even a small difference of price made it worthwhile for merchants to carry goods to distant markets along the rivers and canals; and all the advantages of specialized production, which the eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith later analyzed so convincingly, came into operation among something like 100 million Chinese. China began to grow in population, wealth, and skill more rapidly than ever before, while the government fanned the whole process by spending its cash income on whatever it needed.

Simultaneously, agriculture intensified when a new species of early-ripening rice reached China from the south after 1000. Wherever water was available all summer long, this meant that Chinese farmers could raise two crops a year, thereby doubling production per acre. Needless to say, the effect was enormous. Work intensified, population increased and became denser than ever, since throughout the well-watered plains families could survive on half as much land as before. The social discipline of unending work to keep fields, dikes, and canals in order made the Chinese work force far more diligent and productive than most others.

This superiority began to show under the Song, when important new industries appeared, not least the manufacture of guns and gunpowder. Newly perfected porcelain began to rival silk among China’s exports; and when the discovery of how to make coke out of coal solved a long-standing fuel shortage in northern China, large-scale iron works multiplied. Fragmentary tax records show that iron production almost quadrupled from 32,500 tons a year in 998 to 125,000 tons in 1078, but that pace was not long sustained, and by 1260 production had dropped to a mere 8,000 tons per year.

Guns and Gunpowder

Chinese officials shaped by the Confucian tradition distrusted captains of industry almost as much as they distrusted soldiers. Officials feared that such persons, left to themselves, might become rich and powerful enough to threaten public authority. So the fact that officials closely supervised weapons manufacture from the start, and then monopolized the sale of iron agricultural implements in 1083, may have changed prices and made iron production unprofitable. What happened is uncertain, but we do know that most imperial tax income went to supporting armies along the steppe frontier, and as their steppe neighbors became more formidable, the Song government began systematically to reward the inventors of new and more efficient weapons. Gunpowder weapons accordingly came quickly to the fore.

The government needed all the help it could get, for in 1127 the Song were driven from northern China by a new tribal steppe confederation. Nonetheless, strenuous investment in naval vessels, defended by new technologies in guns and catapults, as well as by crossbows, allowed the dynasty to survive as the Southern Song (1127–1279), ruling from Hangzhou, a new capital to the south of the Yangzi River. Then another steppe confederacy under Chinggis Khan conquered north China in 1227; his grandson Khubilai (Kublai) Khan commissioned Chinese artisans to build a navy of his own and would later use it to overrun south China, thus founding the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).

Mongol Empire

The massive commercialization of Song-dynasty China and accompanying improvements in weaponry soon spread far and wide within Eurasia. Steppe peoples were the first to feel the impact, as the rapid development of their military formidability demonstrated. Indeed, the Mongol Empire at its height extended across all of Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean and northward into Russia. No land empire since has equaled its extent. For two or three generations after the 1240s, thousands of soldiers, merchants, captives, and caravan attendants moved continually back and forth across the steppe.

The mingling of peoples provoked by the Mongol conquests was extraordinary. We know that when a papal emissary, William of Rubruck, reached the Mongol capital at Karakorum in 1253 he met the wife of a goldsmith who had been born in Flanders a few miles from his own birthplace; and the Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta tells how he met a merchant from his native Morocco in south China about a century later. A Venetian gem merchant, Marco Polo (1254–1324), spent seventeen years in China. His memoirs, which were dictated while he was a prisoner of war in Genoa at the end of his life, became a sensation in Europe. Innumerable such encounters spread detailed knowledge far and wide about superior Chinese skills. It is striking to realize that the three inventions the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) later declared to have made Europe modern—the compass, gunpowder, and printing (together with its essential partner, paper making)—all reached Europe from China by word of mouth, and without leaving any written record. Motifs of Chinese painting also traveled throughout the Muslim world, eventually so misunderstood that stylized drawings of the massive Yangzi gorges became perches for peacocks.

Borrowing from afar always involves transformation and adjustment to a new environment. That had been true of Chinese borrowing from India and western Asia in earlier times as they developed their own Buddhist sects and forms of mounted warfare. European, Indian, and western Asian responses to gunpowder, printing, and the compass were just as varied, but the new Chinese techniques affected warfare, shipping, and communication everywhere, even though Muslims at first rejected printing.

Han Chinese were never fully reconciled to Mongol rule under the Yuan dynasty, and when the Huang River broke through its dikes and devastated much of northern China before finding a new path to the sea, they knew that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn from their foreign rulers. Plague also ravaged China in the 1330s, and the government mismanaged the paper currency by indulging in reckless inflation. Not surprisingly, public order broke down until, after years of fighting, a new (and non-foreign) dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644), united the country once more. As Mongol power collapsed, caravan linkages across Asia diminished without breaking off entirely.

The Chinese began to explore alternative sea routes as soon as defenses along the northwest frontier seemed sufficiently secure, allowing the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di (known as the Yongle emperor, reigned 1402–1424), to embark on an ambitious program of overseas exploration and expansion into the Indian Ocean. Altogether, six armadas, dispatched between 1405 and 1433, carried hundreds of ships and thousands of men to the shores of the Indian Ocean, touching on the coast of east Africa and even penetrating the Red Sea. Wherever the ships appeared the Chinese admiral, Zheng He, collected rarities as gifts and demanded that local rulers recognize the sovereignty of the Chinese emperor. The scale of these expeditions dwarfed the four ships with which Vasco da Gama started his voyage to India in 1497, but unlike the Portuguese discovery of the sea route to India, Zheng He’s voyages had no enduring effect. Although his naval expeditions won friends for the Ming, they did not bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Recognizing that the voyages were unsustainable, the Confucian bureaucracy banned all maritime travel. The imperial navy was allowed to rot away, and the Ming focused on defending their land borders.

Overseas Trade Declines

Private overseas trade from Chinese ports dwindled as long as sailing remained illegal, but a Chinese diaspora had already begun to develop throughout Southeast Asia and continued to thrive until very recent times. So the Chinese never withdrew entirely from the seas. What might have been if they had anticipated Europeans by crossing the Earth’s oceans and discovered both America and Europe sometime before 1450, as they were certainly capable of doing, beggars the imagination. This is perhaps the most dramatic turning point in world history—an abdication whose long-term consequences still reverberate.

Nevertheless, from their own point of view, China’s rulers were wise in concentrating public effort on safeguarding their landward frontier while closely regulating trade with European and other foreign merchants who began to visit their ports after 1520, when the first Portuguese ship showed up. For little by little the Chinese began to prevail against the steppe horsemen.

Three circumstances go far to explain this seismic shift in China’s relation with the steppe peoples. First, beginning in the time of the Mongol Empire, bubonic plague spread across Eurasia killing up to a third of the population on its initial onslaught. Probably the plague bacillus had emerged from one of its long standing homes in the Himalayan foothills when Mongol horsemen raided northern Burma (now Myanmar) in 1252–1253, and then carried it back to their homeland, where a new array of burrowing rodents— the normal carriers of the infection—offered the bacillus a new set of hosts.

Within a few decades the disease became endemic across the entire Eurasian steppe, infecting burrowing rodents of several different species; and after the initial catastrophic attacks on human populations in China, western Asia, and Europe between the 1330s and 1349, lesser outbreaks of plague recurred from time to time in all the agricultural lands of Eurasia. We have no written record of what happened among steppe dwellers, but it seems certain that their exposure was greater than among farmers since, wherever they pitched their tents, the reservoir of infection among burrowing rodents of the grasslands lay immediately beneath their feet. Nomad populations shrank substantially as a result and nomad strength in war diminished accordingly.

Second, with the development of more-efficient handguns after about 1550, and with better supply systems, Chinese (and Russian) armies further weakened the nomads. The Ming dynasty began to expand its power into the steppe, organizing mobile armies of foot soldiers, equipped more often with crossbows than with handguns, and supplied by wagons trained to form defensive circles in the face of nomad attack. These tactics proved very effective and soon allowed Chinese settlers to begin to move into the grasslands wherever moisture was sufficient to sustain crops.

Nonetheless, between 1644 and 1683 China suffered a second conquest from the steppes when Manchu cavalrymen, taking advantage of quarrels among rival Chinese generals, seized Beijing and proclaimed a new dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911/12). The Manchus were already familiar with Chinese ways and were correspondingly more acceptable to their Chinese subjects than the Mongols had been. Their cavalry, supplemented by Chinese infantry, made a formidable force and allowed the Chinese to expand their power westward until they encountered the equally expansive Russian Empire. Thereupon, two treaties—signed in 1689 and in 1727—defined boundaries between them. The last steppe confederacy to resist the Chinese met defeat in 1755; and Tibet was subdued between 1755 and 1779, bringing China’s imperial boundaries to limits that still prevail.

East/West Exchange

This expansion westward was also sustained by a massive growth in China’s population. Here it was crops introduced from the Americas—potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts—that made the most difference. Sweet potatoes, in particular, tolerated poor soils and could grow on higher slopes and other marginal locations where rice did not thrive. They therefore became very significant in south China, while ordinary potatoes played the same role on a somewhat smaller scale in the north.

Communication with Europe expanded and became far more precise after 1601 when a Jesuit mission was admitted to the Ming court. Surprisingly, the Chinese made the Jesuits responsible for correcting their calendar to fit the seasons properly. The emperor and his ministers believed that rituals assuring the harvest could only work when offered at the right time of year; and nothing mattered more than that. Later they also asked the Jesuits to cast cannon for their armies and to supervise a ground survey and then make a map of the entire empire.

Jesuit missionaries continued active at the Chinese court until 1706, and year after year reported everything they did to Rome. They made only a handful of converts, but nevertheless found much to admire in Chinese society, and European readers of their detailed reports often did so, too. In particular, the long-standing Chinese practice of recruiting government officials by written and oral examinations seemed very rational to learned Europeans, and several German states imitated the Chinese example early in the eighteenth century. A little later, Chinese decorative art, as transmitted by porcelain and embroideries, became suddenly fashionable as well. And radical eighteenth-century French writers, like Voltaire, thought the Chinese example of a country without priests or revealed religion was far superior to European superstition. In short, the two civilizations were exchanging ideas among experts as never before and on a scale that began to affect them both in far-reaching ways.

Overall, therefore, the Chinese government and economy prospered at home and abroad until the closing decades of the eighteenth century, when population pressure on the land began to provoke rebellions, and when frictions over foreign trade intensified. The British were unhappy that China restricted their trade to the port of Guangzhou (Canton) and only allowed them access to selected merchants who demanded silver currency for Chinese goods like tea, silk, and porcelain. The Chinese rebuffed a British effort to negotiate a trade treaty in 1793 when Lord Macartney, whose primary mission had been to establish European-style diplomatic relations with China, refused to prostrate himself before the emperor as court ritual required. In the early 1820s, despite official efforts to prohibit it, trade in opium imported by the English East India Company created addicts in Guangzhou and adjacent regions. When the East India Company monopoly on English–China trade was abolished in the 1830s, tensions over opium continued to mount, leading to the First Opium War (1839–1842). The war intensified when the British navy showed up on the Chinese coast in 1841–1842, proceeded to bombard coastal ports into submission, and even interrupted traffic on the Grand Canal. A series of “unequal” treaties ending this Opium War (and one that followed in 1856–1860) transferred Hong Kong to British control, opened Chinese ports to European traders, established a uniform 5 percent tariff, and gave Europeans the protection of consular and mixed courts for settling disputes among themselves and with the Chinese.

Such humiliation was impossible for the Chinese people to accept, while European admiration for things Chinese turned into something like disdain for their helplessness. At the bottom of Chinese society, desperate but ill-considered efforts to adopt European secrets of power began to spread among angry young men, as the Taiping Rebellion (1850– 1864) showed. It was instigated, and for a while led, by a man who, after repeatedly failing the imperial examinations, met an American Baptist missionary from Tennessee and subsequently claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, sent by God to bring heaven to Earth and rid China of its corrupt Manchu rulers.

For a few years the Taipings met with widespread success, overthrowing the imperial administration in south China and almost capturing Beijing. But Britain and France sent armed forces to safeguard their treaty rights, and after occupying Beijing and sacking the emperor’s summer palace in 1860, they joined forces with the local Chinese militias that defeated the Taiping rebels by 1864. By then, between 20 and 30 million Chinese had died, and much of the country had been laid waste. The dynasty barely survived, harassed by increasing diplomatic and military pressure not just from Britain and France but also from Russia, a newly-united Germany, and most acutely from neighboring Japan. In 1900, the so-called Boxer Rebellion, provoked this time by an underground Buddhist sect, tried to drive the foreigners away, only to meet defeat. Desperate efforts at self-strengthening ensued, but starting to build a European-style army merely created a disloyal officer corps that joined rebellious students to overthrow the dynasty in December 1911; the Qing emperor agreed to abdicate in February 1912.

Post-Imperial China

Three figures dominated the tumultuous political scene in China after the fall of the Qing: Sun Yatsen (1866–1925); Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975); and Mao Zedong (1893–1976). Sun Yat-sen was trained abroad as a medical doctor, but turned into a revolutionary conspirator before becoming the first president of the Republic of China (1912–1949). As head of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) he aimed to reshape Chinese society, but local warlords operating in many different provinces resisted his leadership; by the end of his life the Guomindang found itself sharing power with a rival Communist party, modeled in part on the Russian example.

Chiang Kai-shek, trained as a soldier in Japan and Russia, became head of a new military academy organized by the Guomindang before succeeding Sun Yat-sen. He quarreled with the Communists in 1927 and compelled them to withdraw from the area around Guangzhou in southeastern China; Mao Zedong had already begun to recruit an army of guerrillas among impoverished peasants in neighboring Jiangxi province. After their fabled retreat from Jiangxi in 1934–1935 (called the Long March), the Communists found refuge in the northwest at Yan’an; with Mao firmly in control, they launched plans for a rural revolution.

Chiang then set out to defeat competing warlords and was able to occupy Beijing before the Japanese army invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937. Chiang’s armies eventually had to retreat up the Yangzi all the way to Chongqing, while Japan set up a puppet Manchu emperor over the rest of China. Nonetheless the United States and Britain recognized Chiang’s government throughout World War II and made Chiang’s China (Republic of China) a founding member of the United Nations Security Council.

But Japan’s defeat in 1945 reopened the struggle between Chinese Communists and the Guomindang. Despite American efforts to support Chiang, Mao’s forces prevailed, setting up a new People’s Republic of China in October 1949. Chiang and a remnant of his army withdrew to the island of Taiwan where their successors still remain in power.

The rebellions, wars, and general disorder before and after the end of the Qing dynasty closely resembled previous dynastic transitions. Many historians believe Mao’s government behaved very like a new dynasty, even though succession depended upon a small circle at the top of the Chinese Communist Party rather than upon a small circle of Confucian officials serving a new emperor.

Internationally, Mao’s victory at first seemed to strengthen the Communist cause enormously, and for a while U.S. politicians were much agitated by the “loss of China.” Yet in fact Russian and Chinese Communists were rivals as much as allies from the start, and 1968–1969 border disputes even led to brief armed collision between the two governments. President Nixon took advantage of this rift in 1972 to travel to China in the hope of reestablishing diplomatic relations, thus recognizing its growing economic and political power. Liaison offices opened in Beijing and Washington D.C. in 1973, and formal diplomatic relations were inaugurated on 1 January 1979.

Since then China has gone from strength to strength. Mao’s successors, notably Deng Xiaoping, relaxed efforts to collectivize China’s farmland in 1981, allowing peasants to produce what they chose and to sell their surpluses at will. Parallel private competition with state-run factories soon provoked urban and industrial expansion on a quite extraordinary scale—as much as 12 percent annual growth in gross national product. Chinese-manufactured goods soon became cheaper and often better than anything available elsewhere. Exports swelled accordingly and other countries, with the United States in the lead, went deeply in debt by importing all sorts of consumer goods from China. In 2008 China played host to the Olympic Games, a crowning glory for a government that has never ceased to face foreign criticism for its suppression of human rights in Tibet and elsewhere.

Yet all is not well in the new China. Ecological pollution is widespread and acute. Population presses heavily on resources, and official efforts to diminish the birthrate by prohibiting couples from having more than one child strains traditional family life, despite the relaxation of the one-child policy in 2009. The vast Three Gorges Dam on the Yangzi may disrupt age-old methods of irrigation. Still other disasters may suddenly loom. Political discontent simmers in Tibet and perhaps elsewhere; but so far, at least, the Communist government has been successful in reasserting political unity, increasing wealth for many, and expanding China’s worldwide influence beyond all earlier limits.


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