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a brief history of China

China took shape as a political entity in the first millennium BC, and until the 20th century largely remained a coherent empire governed by scholar-officials after the Confucian vision of a meritocratic, ordered society. Even foreign conquerors such as the Hsiung-nu, Khitai, Jurchen, Tangut, Mongols (1279) and Manchus (1644) did not change the essential character of Chinese society, and became partly Sinicised themselves. The attitude towards outsiders was primarily one of condescension.

Europeans began coming to China in the 16th century: first Jesuit priests, then enterprising traders and diplomats, who in time overpowered the conservative empire. Britain’s victory in two conflicts (1839–42 and 1856–60) forced China to accept open ports, foreign envoys, free movement for Christian missionaries and a British hold on Hong Kong. This foreign presence exposed China to Western ideas, and in 1912, the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, fell to the nationalists under the charismatic leadership of Sun Yat-sen.

Sun was ousted very shortly after 1912, and in the absence of a strong central government the country split into informal fiefdoms led by warlords. Chiang Kai-shek, one of Sun’s former lieutenants (and husband of one of Sun’s sisters-in-law), joined with the nascent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to defeat the warlords and re-unify the country. Chiang turned on the communists in 1927, but failed in his efforts to root them out. He was forced to ally with them again against the Japanese, with whom full-fledged war broke out in 1937. After the U.S.A. defeated Japan in WWII, Mao Zedong then turned on Chiang in 1946.

In 1949 the communists forced Chiang and his followers to flee to Taiwan, declared the People’s Republic, and spent the next year solidifying their hold on China. After several years of relatively consensual leadership, Mao grew as tyrannical as any emperor had been, and many of his grand policies backfired.

The Great Leap Forward’s experiment with industrial and agricultural collectives in 1958–60 led to mass famine.

The Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 attempted to re-ignite revolutionary fervour but drove the country into political and social chaos. By the time Mao died in 1976, the CCP was ready for new ideas.

Deng Xiaoping, his successor, dismantled collective farming and began gradually freeing China’s economy. But as the bloody suppression of student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 showed, the Party has embraced economic change more easily than political liberalisation.

See History of China for more.