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History of China - Pre-1911

Origins and Early History of China

About 20,000 years ago, after the last glacial period, modern humans appeared in the Ordos desert region.

The subsequent culture shows marked similarity to that of the higher civilizations of Mesopotamia, and some scholars argue a Western origin for Chinese civilization.

However, since the 2nd millennium B.C. a unique and fairly uniform culture has spread over almost all of China. The substantial linguistic and ethnological diversity of the south and the far west result from their having been infrequently under the control of central government.

China's history is traditionally viewed as a continuous development with certain repetitive tendencies, as described in the following general pattern:


Dynasties of China

Although traditionally supposed to have been preceded by the semi-legendary Xia dynasty, the Shang dynasty (c.1523–1027 B.C.) is the first in documented Chinese history (see Chinese Dynasties).

During the succeeding, often turbulent, Zhou dynasty (c.1027–256 B.C.), Confucius, Lao Zi, and Mencius lived, and the literature that until recently formed the basis of Chinese education was written. The use of iron was the main material advance.

The semi-barbarous Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) first established the centralized imperial system that was to govern China during stable periods. The Great Wall was begun in this period.

The native Han dynasty period (202 B.C.–A.D. 220), traditionally deemed China's imperial age, is notable for long peaceable rule, expansionist policies, and great artistic achievement.

The Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220–65) opened four centuries of warfare among petty states and of invasions of the north by the barbarian Hsiung-nu (Huns). In this inauspicious time China experienced rapid cultural development. Buddhism, which had earlier entered from India, and Daoism, a native cult, grew and seriously endangered Confucianism. Indian advances in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and architecture were adopted. Art, particularly figure painting and decoration of Buddhist grottoes, flourished.

Feudalism partly revived under the Tsin dynasty (265–420) with the decay of central authority.

Under the Sui (581–618) and the Tang (618–907) a vast domain, much of which had first been assimilated to Chinese culture in the preceding period, was unified. The civil service examination system based on the Chinese classics and a renaissance of Confucianism were important developments of this brilliant era. Its fresh and vigorous poetry is especially noted. The end of the Tang was marked by a withdrawal from conquered border regions to the center of Chinese culture.

The period of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms (907–60), which was a time of chaotic social change, was followed by the Song dynasty (960–1279), a time of scholarly studies and artistic progress, marked by authentication of the Confucian literary canon and the improvement of printing techniques through the invention of movable type. The poetry of the Song period was derivative, but a new popular literary form, the novel, appeared at that time. Neo-Confucianism developed systematically. Gunpowder was first used for military purposes in this period.

While the Song ruled central China, barbarians — the Khitai, the Jurchen, and the Tangut — created northern empires that were swept away by the Mongols under Jenghiz Khan. His grandson Kublai Khan, founder of the Mongolian Yüan dynasty (1271–1368), retained Chinese institutions. The great realm of Kublai was described in all its richness by one of the most celebrated of all travelers, Marco Polo. Improved roads and canals were the dynasty's main contributions to China.

The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) set out to restore Chinese culture by a study of Song life. Its initial territorial expansion was largely lost by the early 15th century. European trade and European contact began with Portuguese settlement of Macao in 1557 but immediately ran into official Chinese anti-foreign policy.

Meanwhile the Manchu advanced steadily south from Manchuria in the 16th and the 17th centuries and ended with complete invasion and conquest of China by 1644 and with establishment of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644–1911). Under emperors K'angxi (reigned 1662–1722) and Qianlong (reigned 1735–96), China was perhaps at its greatest territorial extent.

Foreigners in China

The Qing opposition to foreign trade, at first even more severe than that of the Ming, relaxed ultimately, and in 1834, Canton, or Guangzhou, was opened to limited overseas trade. Great Britain, dissatisfied with trade arrangements, obtained commercial concessions, and established extraterritoriality following the 1839–42 conflict. Soon France, Germany, and Russia successfully put forward similar demands. The Qing regime, already weakened by internal problems, was further enfeebled by the devastating Taiping Rebellion of 1848–65, and Japan's military success in 1894–95.

Chinese resentment of foreigners grew, and Empress Ci Xi encouraged the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1900 where the killing of Western missionaries and consular staff and the siege of the consular compounds led to a Western-Power intervention in Beijing.

Dynasties Die

Belated domestic reforms failed to stem a revolution long-plotted, chiefly by Sun Yat-sen, and set off in 1911 after the explosion of a bomb at Wuchang. With relatively few casualties, the Qing dynasty was overthrown and a republic was established. Sun, the first president, resigned early in 1912 in favor of Yüan Shikai, who commanded the military power.


Chinese Dynasties

Xia c.1994–c.1523 B.C.
Legendary Emperor Yu built irrigation channels, reclaimed land. Bronze weapons, chariots, domestic animals used. Wheat, millet cultivated. First use of written symbols.

Shang or Yin c.1523–c.1027 B.C.
First historic dynasty. Complex agricultural society with a bureaucracy and defined social classes. Well-developed writing, first Chinese calendar. Great age of bronze casting.

Zhou c.1027–256 B.C.
Classical age (Confucius, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Mencius) despite political disorder. Written laws, money economy. Iron implements and ox-drawn plow in use.

Followed by Warring States period, 403–221 B.C.

Qin 221–206 B.C.
Unification of China under harsh rule of Shi Huang Di. Feudalism replaced by pyramidal bureaucratic government. Written language standardized. Roads, canals, much of the Great Wall built.

Han 202 B.C.–A.D. 220
Unification furthered, but harshness lessened and Confucianism made basis for bureaucratic state. Buddhism introduced. Encyclopedic history, dictionary compiled; porcelain produced.

Three Kingdoms A.D. 220–265
Division into three states: Wei, Shu, Wu. Wei gradually dominant. Confucianism eclipsed; increased importance of Daoism and Buddhism. Many scientific advances adopted from India.

Tsin or Chin 265–420
Founded by a Wei general; gradual expansion to the southeast. Series of barbarian dynasties ruled North China. Continued growth of Buddhism.

Sui 581–618
Reunification; centralized government reestablished. Buddhism, Daoism favored. Great Wall refortified; canal system established.

Tang 618–907
Territorial expansion. Buddhism temporarily suppressed. Civil service examinations based on Confucianism. Age of great achievements in poetry (Li Bo, Po Chü-i, Du Fu), sculpture, painting.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 907–960
Period of warfare, official corruption, general hardship. Widespread development of printing; paper money first printed.

Sung 960–1279
Period of great social and intellectual change. Neo-Confucianism attains supremacy over Taoism and Buddhism; central bureaucracy re-established. Widespread cultivation of tea and cotton; gunpowder first used militarily.

Mongol dynasty founded by Kublai Khan. Growing contact with West. Confucian ideals discouraged. Great age of Chinese playwriting. Revolts in Mongolia and South China end dynasty.

Ming 1368–1644
Mongols expelled. Confucianism, civil service examinations, reinstated. Contact with European traders, missionaries. Porcelain, architecture, the novel and drama flourish.

Qing or Manchu 1644–1912
Established by the Manchus. Territorial expansion but gradual weakening of Qing power; decline of central authority. Increasing European trade; foreign powers divide China into spheres of influence. Sino-British War; Hong Kong ceded; Boxer Uprising.