An Introduction to Chinese History


China is the most ethnically diverse country in the world: it has more ethnic minority people of more different types than any other country. Chinese history has witnessed the majority people – the Han Chinese – slowly establishing ascendancy over the other groups and extending their territory to include the homelands of the minority peoples. This process has taken thousands of years and been resisted for just as long by some peoples – successfully in the case of the Vietnamese, for example, less successfully by the many mostly forgotten states and kingdoms that have been absorbed.

The homeland of the Han peoples was around the central plains region, in the great river basins of the Huanghe (Yellow River) and Yangzi (Blue River), in which thousands of settlements have been found dating back to the neolithic Yangshao culture (c.4500-2500 BCE). Typical settlements of this period seem to have been circular villages surrounded by moats with people practising agriculture. The subsequent Majiayao period (c.3500-1500 BCE) has been termed ‘a golden age of painted pottery.’ Just like all other periods of Chinese history, the widespread finding of pots, together with other items, reveals the extensive trade networks which linked communities with their neighbours and in which it was possible for adaptation to take place. The first known dynasty is that of Fuxi (c.2852 BCE), although it is only when we get to the Xia (2205-1776 BCE), Shang (1766-1122 BCE) and Zhou (1122-256 BCE) dynasties that we can begin to be certain about dates. These early dynasties were concentrated on the central areas of China, with outlying areas being occupied by nomads and other peoples referred to by the Chinese as ‘barbarians.’

The Qin (221-207 BCE), Han (206-9 CE and 25-220 CE), Xin (9-23 CE) and Three Kingdoms (220-80 CE) dynasties are known for their relentless civil wars and the rise in the autocratic powers of emperors. These tendencies continued during the Sixteen Kingdoms (316-384 CE) and Northern Wei (386-534 CE) periods, which also witnessed the territorial expansion of the Han Chinese and the continued struggle to find appropriate ways to rule over foreigners.

Perhaps the greatest glories of Chinese history are found in the Sui (589-618 CE), Tang (618-907 CE) and Song dynasties (960-1279 CE). During these centuries, China boasted perhaps the most advanced economy in the world, with vast programs of canal building and cities bigger than to be found anywhere in Europe, as recorded for example by Marco Polo. China’s navies, with their huge junks that were like floating cities in their own right, ruled the waters and undertook great voyages of exploration. This period, coinciding with the Dark Ages in the west, saw China mostly united (apart from the Five Dynasties period of 907-960 CE and the division between the Northern and Southern Song dynasties) and mainly at war with the Turkish, Uighur and Tibetan horse-people beyond the borders. When these horse-people united under a great leader, Chinggiz Khan of the Mongols, no one could stand before them and all of China, together with most of the known world, was conquered. The Mongols instituted their own dynasty, the Yuan (1279-1368), during which time the rulers progressively adopted various aspects of Chinese culture. Yet they were still foreign rulers and ruled the country in that way. Hence, the rise of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) was celebrated as a victory of the Chinese people.

However, the inventiveness and diligence that had given China the pre-eminent place in the world economy was already slipping away, as the ruling class secluded themselves from the rest of society and the desire for improvement became complacence with what had already been achieved. This is symbolised by the voyages of the great admiral Zheng He, whose voyages extended to Africa and Arabia, but who was then ordered to desist in the early C15th as further attempts to communicate with the rest of the world were dramatically reduced.

By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE), China was quite unprepared for an industrial revolution. Instead, it fell further behind the European powers until, despite its huge size and population, it was unable to resist colonisation and humiliation as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Macao came under foreign control as the curse of widespread opium use was introduced by western traders. The failure of the Chinese state to respond effectively to these threats meant that revolutionary ideas spread more rapidly and deeply. Communism and capitalism warred briefly and both fought against the conquering Japanese invaders.

Ultimately, the nationalists under Chiang-Kai Shek fled to Taiwan, leaving the mainland for the Communists, who established the People’s Republic of China with the expulsion of the Japanese at the end of WWII. Communism under Chairman Mao failed to achieve the economic growth of the west and the miseries of the people under a repressive social system were not rewarded. The Communist party still rules and, while it has accepted the need to experiment with western methods of economic development, it is not yet prepared to permit political pluralism.