China History Essays Free

This article is about the People's Republic of China. For the Republic of China, see Taiwan. For other uses, see China (disambiguation).

"PRC" redirects here. For other uses, see PRC (disambiguation).

People's Republic of China
  • 中华人民共和国
  • Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó

Area controlled by the People's Republic of China shown in dark green; claimed but uncontrolled regions shown in light green.

39°55′N116°23′E / 39.917°N 116.383°E / 39.917; 116.383
Largest cityShanghai[1]
Official languagesStandard Chinese[2][b]
Official scriptSimplified Chinese[c]
Recognised regional
Ethnic groups
ReligionSee Religion in China
GovernmentUnitaryde factoone-partysocialistrepublic[5]

• General Secretary
and President

Xi Jinping[e]

• Premier

Li Keqiang

• Congress Chairman

Zhang Dejiang

• Conference Chairman

Yu Zhengsheng

• First Secretary of the Party Secretariat

Wang Huning

• Secretary of the Discipline Inspection Commission

Zhao Leji

• First Vice Premier

Zhang Gaoli
LegislatureNational People's Congress

• First pre-imperial dynasty

c. 2070 BCE

• First imperial unification

221 BCE

• Republic established

1 January 1912

• People's Republic declared

21 September 1949[7][8][9]

• Proclamation of the People's Republic

1 October 1949

• Admitted to the United Nations

25 October 1971

• Current constitution

4 December 1982

• Last polityadmitted

20 December 1999

• Total

9,596,961 km2 (3,705,407 sq mi)[f] (3rd)

• Water (%)


• 2016 estimate

1,403,500,365 [13] (1st)

• 2010 census

1,339,724,852[14] (1st)

• Density

145[15]/km2 (375.5/sq mi) (83rd)
GDP (PPP)2017 estimate

• Total

$23.122 trillion[16] (1st)

• Per capita

$16,624[16] (77th)
GDP (nominal)2017 estimate

• Total

$11.938 trillion[16] (2nd)

• Per capita

$8,583[16] (74th)
Gini (2015)46.2[17]
HDI (2016) 0.738[18]
high · 90th
CurrencyRenminbi (yuan; ¥)[h] (CNY)
Time zoneChina Standard Time(UTC+8)
Date format
Drives on theright[i]
Calling code+86
ISO 3166 codeCN
Internet TLD

China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a unitarysovereign state in East Asia and the world's most populous country, with a population of around 1.404 billion.[13] Covering approximately 9,600,000 square kilometers (3,700,000 sq mi), it is the third- or fourth-largest country by total area,[j][19] depending on the source consulted. China also has the most neighbor countries in the world. Governed by the Communist Party of China, it exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing), and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

China emerged as one of the world's earliest civilizations, in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. For millennia, China's political system was based on hereditary monarchies, or dynasties, beginning with the semi-legendary Xia dynasty in 21st century BCE.[20] Since then, China has expanded, fractured, and re-unified numerous times. In the 3rd century BCE, the Qin unified core China and established the first Chinese dynasty. The succeeding Han dynasty saw some of the most advanced technology at that time, including papermaking and the compass,[21] along with agricultural and medical improvements. The invention of gunpowder and printing in the Tang dynasty completed the Four Great Inventions. Tang culture spread widely in Asia, as the new maritime Silk Route brought traders to as far as Mesopotamia and Somalia. Dynastic rule ended in 1912 with the Xinhai Revolution, as a republic replaced the Qing dynasty. The Chinese Civil War led to the break up of the country in 1949, with the victorious Communist Party of China founding the People’s Republic of China on the mainland while the losing Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, a dispute which is still unresolved.

Since the introduction of economic reforms in 1978, China's economy has been one of the world's fastest-growing. As of 2016[update], it is the world's second-largest economy by nominal GDP and largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). China is also the world's largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods.[23] China is a recognized nuclear weapons state and has the world's largest standing army and second-largest defense budget.[24][25][26] The PRC is a member of the United Nations, as it replaced the ROC as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in 1971. China is also a member of numerous formal and informal multilateral organizations, including the WTO, APEC, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the BCIM and the G20. China is a great power and a major regional power within Asia, and has been characterized as a potential superpower.[27][28]


Main article: Names of China

The English word "China" is first attested in Richard Eden's 1555 translation[k] of the 1516 journal of the PortugueseexplorerDuarte Barbosa.[l][35] The demonym, that is, the name for the people, and adjectival form "Chinese" developed later on the model of Portuguese chinês and French chinois.[36][m] Portuguese China is thought to derive from PersianChīn (چین), and perhaps ultimately from SanskritCīna (चीन).[38]Cīna was first used in early Hindu scripture, including the Mahābhārata (5th century BCE) and the Laws of Manu (2nd century BCE).[39] In 1655, Martino Martini suggested that the word China is derived from the name of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC),[40] a proposal supported by many later scholars,[41][42][43] although there are also a number of alternative suggestions.[39][44]

The official name of the modern state is the "People's Republic of China" (Chinese: 中华人民共和国; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó). The shorter form is "China" Zhōngguó(中国), from zhōng ("central") and guó ("state"),[30][n] a term which developed under the Western Zhou dynasty in reference to its royal demesne.[o] It was then applied to the area around Luoyi (present-day Luoyang) during the Eastern Zhou and then to China's Central Plain before being used as an occasional synonym for the state under the Qing.[46] It was often used as a cultural concept to distinguish the Huaxia people from perceived "barbarians"[46] and was the source of the English name "Middle Kingdom".[48][49] A more literary or inclusive name, alluding to the "land of Chinese civilization", is Zhōnghuá(中华).[50] It developed during the Wei and Jin dynasties as a contraction of "the central state of the Huaxia".[46] Before the PRC's establishment, the proposed name of the country was the People's Democratic Republic of China (simplified Chinese: 中华人民民主共和国; traditional Chinese: 中華人民民主共和國; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Mínzhǔ Gònghéguó) during the first CPPCC held on 15 June 1949.[51][52] During the 1950s and 1960s, after the defeat of the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War, it was also referred to as "Communist China" or "Red China", to be differentiated from "Nationalist China" or "Free China".[53]


Main articles: History of China and Timeline of Chinese history


Main article: Chinese prehistory

Archaeological evidence suggests that early hominids inhabited China between 2.24 million and 250,000 years ago.[54] The hominid fossils of Peking Man, a Homo erectus who used fire,[55] were discovered in a cave at Zhoukoudian near Beijing; they have been dated to between 680,000 and 780,000 years ago.[56] The fossilized teeth of Homo sapiens (dated to 125,000–80,000 years ago) have been discovered in Fuyan Cave in Dao County, Hunan.[57] Chinese proto-writing existed in Jiahu around 7000 BCE,[58]Damaidi around 6000 BCE,[59]Dadiwan from 5800–5400 BCE, and Banpo dating from the 5th millennium BCE. Some scholars have suggested that the Jiahu symbols (7th millennium BCE) constituted the earliest Chinese writing system.[58]

Early dynastic rule

Further information: Dynasties in Chinese history

According to Chinese tradition, the first dynasty was the Xia, which emerged around 2100 BCE.[60] The dynasty was considered mythical by historians until scientific excavations found early Bronze Age sites at Erlitou, Henan in 1959.[61] It remains unclear whether these sites are the remains of the Xia dynasty or of another culture from the same period.[62] The succeeding Shang dynasty is the earliest to be confirmed by contemporary records.[63] The Shang ruled the plain of the Yellow River in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century BCE.[64] Their oracle bone script (from c. 1500 BCE)[65][66] represents the oldest form of Chinese writing yet found,[67] and is a direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters.[68]

The Shang were conquered by the Zhou, who ruled between the 11th and 5th centuries BCE, though centralized authority was slowly eroded by feudal warlords. Many independent states eventually emerged from the weakened Zhou state and continually waged war with each other in the 300-year Spring and Autumn period, only occasionally deferring to the Zhou king. By the time of the Warring States period of the 5th–3rd centuries BCE, there were seven powerful sovereign states in what is now China, each with its own king, ministry and army.

Imperial China

The Warring States period ended in 221 BCE after the state of Qin conquered the other six kingdoms and established the first unified Chinese state. King Zheng of Qin proclaimed himself the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty. He enacted Qin's legalist reforms throughout China, notably the forced standardization of Chinese characters, measurements, road widths (i.e., cart axles' length), and currency. His dynasty also conquered the Yue tribes in Guangxi, Guangdong, and Vietnam.[69] The Qin dynasty lasted only fifteen years, falling soon after the First Emperor's death, as his harsh authoritarian policies led to widespread rebellion.[70][71]

Following a widespread civil war during which the imperial library at Xianyangwas burned,[p] the Han dynasty emerged to rule China between 206 BCE and CE 220, creating a cultural identity among its populace still remembered in the ethnonym of the Han Chinese.[70][71]

2 September 2004

This Chinese propaganda poster – carrying one of the messages from the Cultural Revolution – reads: ‘Shun the worlds of literature and art and become familiar with the lives of workers, peasants and soldiers.' It was designed by the 65 Rebel Group at Jiangxi Province Art School.

200 BC The legacy of Confucius From 200 BC to the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese statecraft was based on the ideas of Confucius, a political thinker who had lived in the 5th century BC. Confucian thinking stressed ethics. It regarded order and stability as essential to enable people to behave in a moral way. Despising violence and force, it also looked down upon profit and commerce. China did not develop an idea of rights that were inherent and natural to the individual as had arisen in Western Europe. However, the ideally organized Confucian society was supposed to provide social welfare and just treatment. People were expected to know their place – kings ruled over subjects, fathers over children, husbands over wives. The powerful were expected to behave with benevolence and failure to do so could result in forfeiture of power. Of course, the reality was often different. Nevertheless, for much of the first two millennia AD, this system allowed a civilization to flourish and a variety of thinkers of many persuasions to debate ideas.

Chris Richards

1842 Imperialism and new thinking China’s relations with the outside world changed profoundly in the 19th century as European empires expanded. Britain and China clashed in the Opium War, culminating in the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 – a humiliating agreement forcing China to open up territory and trading rights to the West. These ‘unequal treaties’ have not been forgotten even today, and shape debates about free trade and globalization. For most of the next century, portions of Chinese territory were under foreign control. It was often in the imperialist-controlled areas where China’s dissidents hid from their own governments and published their radical thoughts.

Imperialism had a profound effect on political thinkers in late 19th and early 20th century China as they encountered liberalism, social Darwinism and Christianity. Yan Fu drew on ideas of evolution to argue that China was a nation struggling against others for survival. Thinkers argued for a greater role for individual rights than in pre-modern China, but also valued collective action. The Qing (pronounced ‘ching’) dynasty – initially ambivalent about these reforms – swiftly changed tack after various military defeats between 1895 and 1900, and tried to carve out a new role for China as one sovereign state among many. Popular discontent was too great to save the dynasty, and it was swept away in the revolution of 1911. China was officially reconstituted as a modern republic at the start of 1912.

1919 The May Fourth Movement On 4 May 1919, 3,000 students demonstrated at the Tian’anmen, the gate at the front of the Forbidden City in Beijing (the palace complex of the Ming and Qing dynasties). Incensed at the news that the Treaty of Versailles was not going to hand back former German colonies on Chinese soil, but award them to Japan instead, they burnt down the house of a pro-Japanese government minister. This one demonstration, lasting only a few hours, remains legendary. Called the ‘May Fourth Movement’, it became shorthand for perhaps the most liberal and fruitful period in modern Chinese history.

Between 1915 and the early 1930s reform-minded Chinese looked in every possible direction for solutions to the twin problems of militarism and imperialism that they felt needed to be overcome to ‘save the nation’. The most radical – including members of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – argued that Confucianism was at the root of China’s problems and must be utterly rejected. Overall, the era was shaped by a shared agenda among reformers for ‘science and democracy’. But the promise of the May Fourth era was dealt a crushing blow by the horrifying Japanese war against China (1937-45), which killed more than 20 million Chinese and hardened political attitudes against pluralism.

1949 Mao Zedong and ‘democratic dictatorship’ Mao Zedong – who would rule all of China for more than a quarter-century – left his southern rural home as a young man and became involved in the May Fourth Movement while working in the Beijing University library. He was a founding member of the CCP in 1921 and followed it through its persecution by the Nationalist Government (founded by Chiang Kaishek in 1927), the Long March northwards (1934-35), the war with Japan (1937-45), and then the civil war with the Nationalists (1946-49).

The CCP’s adoption of the Bolshevik ideas of ‘democratic dictatorship’ meant that open dialogue within the Party became restricted. After the CCP’s victory in 1949, the tentative moves toward freedom of speech – already restricted by the war with Japan – were mostly cut off. There were short windows of opportunity, such as the Hundred Flowers Movement in May 1957, when the public were encouraged by Mao to speak out about problems. But when the criticisms turned out to be more savage than expected, the Movement was ended and millions of critics were sent into internal exile. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) sought to encourage the young and re-energize Mao’s revolutionary vision. In the process it fuelled a near-theological cult of Mao’s personality and created an atmosphere of paranoia that led to denunciations, murders and suicides across China. Schools and universities were shut down, thereby robbing a generation of its chance of education.

1976 Deng Xiaoping: China opens for business The death of Mao in 1976 was followed swiftly by the arrest of the ‘Gang of Four’, the ultra-radical supporters of Cultural Revolution policies. People who had been persecuted were rehabilitated, and a genre of writing known as ‘scar’ literature allowed people to express their sufferings. Deng Xiaoping – one of the longest survivors in the CCP – eased himself into paramount power by 1978, and until the early 1990s was the prime force behind China’s economic reforms.

Deng believed that the nation’s progress was dependent on a well-educated population. As part of the reform process, official sanction was given to more open debate and discussion. Throughout the 1980s, students demonstrated publicly, newspapers and radio shows began to discuss social problems openly, and it became possible once again to travel and study abroad. The daring documentary ‘River Elegy’ (Heshang) was broadcast on national Chinese television in 1988, arguing that China had been led astray by Mao, the false ‘peasant emperor’, and that the country needed to return to the message of the May Fourth Movement – ‘science and democracy’.

1989 Tian’anmen Square By 1989, Deng’s economic reforms had contributed to massive growth, but had also led to spiralling inflation and discontent. Demonstrations of workers and students demanding more democracy appeared in many cities in the spring of 1989. While most were dispelled peacefully, Tian’anmen Square in Beijing proved the exception. With up to a million protesters at its height, this demonstration was co-ordinated to start on the 70th anniversary of the original May Fourth demonstration to point out that the CCP’s founders (some of whose contemporaries were now China’s leaders) had once been angry radicals standing in the same spot seven decades before. Despite attempts to negotiate, the demonstrations were ended with bloodshed when tanks rolled into the Square on the night of 4 June.

Tian’anmen Square now shapes popular understanding of the Chinese Government in the West. However, it was not the end of openness in China (although the period from 1989-92 was highly repressive). China is slowly opening up a space for discussion in a way that was difficult to imagine in 1989 (see ([keynote] and ([Let a hundred flowers bloom!]). Yet this expansion is very clearly within limits.

Rana Mitterteaches Chinese history and politics at Oxford University. He is the author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2004), copies of which are available to NI readers for the discount price of £15.00 plus post and packaging (UK – £3; Europe – £6; rest of world – £9). Contact Oxford University Press on Tel: +44 1536 741727 quoting code 10PHMIT04.

This article is from the September 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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