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[ Introduction | The Origins of Chinese Civilization | The Early Empire | The Second Empire
The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]

Qing (Manchu) (1644 - 1911)

In 1644, the Manchus took over China and founded the Qing dynasty. The Qing weren't the worst rulers; under them the arts flowered (China's greatest novel, a work known variously as The Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, and The Story of the Stone, was written during the Qing) and culture bloomed. Moreover, they attempted to copy Chinese institutions and philosophy to a much greater extent than then the Mongols of the Yuan. However, in their attempt to to emulate the Chinese, they were even more conservative and inflexible than the Ming. Their approach to foreign policy, which was to make everyone treat the Emperor like the Son of Heaven and not acknowledge other countries as being equal to China, didn't rub the West the right way, even when the Chinese were in the moral right (as in the Opium Wars, which netted Britain Hong Kong and Kowloon).

To live during the Qing Dynasty was to live in interesting times. Most importantly, the Western world attempted to make contact on a government-to-government basis, and, at least initially, failed. The Chinese (more specifically, the ultra-conservative Manchus) had no room in their world-view for the idea of independent, equal nations (this viewpoint, to a certain degree, still persists today). There was the rest of the world, and then there was China. It wasn't that they rejected the idea of a community of nations; it's that they couldn't conceive of it. It would be like trying to teach a Buddhist monk about the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. This viewpoint was so pervasive that Chinese reformers who advocated more flexibility in China's dealings with the West were often accused of being Westerners with Chinese faces.

Other problems that plagued the late (1840 onwards) Qing included rampant corruption, a steady decentralization of power, and the unfortunate fact that they were losing control on too many fronts at the same time. Rebellions sprouted like mushrooms after a rain; apocalyptic cults undermined what little official authority remained. Several of the rebellions, such as the Taiping Rebellion, very nearly succeeded. Compounding the problems was squabbling between various reformers who disagreed on how to best combat the chaos and the West (not necessarily in that order); in hindsight, it is clear that the entire system was slowly collapsing. An excellent account of this period is Frederic Wakeman Jr.'s The Fall of Imperial China.

The attitude of the Western powers towards China (England, Russia, Germany, France, and the United States, were, more or less, the primary players) was strangely ambivalent. On the one hand, they did their best to undermine what they considered to be restrictive trading and governmental regulations; the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) example of that was the British smuggling of opium into Southern China. Other examples included the 'right' for foreign navies to sail up Chinese rivers and waterways, and extra-territoriality, which meant that if a British citizen committed a crime in Qing China, he would be tried in a British council under British law. Most of these 'rights' came into being under a series of treaties that came to be known, and rightly so, as the Unequal Treaties.

On the other hand, they did do their best to prop up the ailing Qing, the most notable example being the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 by foreign troops (primarily U.S. Marines). What the Western powers were interested in was the carving up of China for their own purposes, and that, paradoxically, required keeping China together.

But two things happened to prevent that. First, in 1911, the Qing dynasty collapsed and China plunged headlong into chaos. Second, in 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand told his driver to go down a street in Sarajevo he shouldn't have, and Europe plunged headlong into chaos.

Republican China (1911-1949)

During World War I, the Chinese Government, such as it was, sided with the Allies. In return, they were promised that the German concessions in Shangdong province would be handed back over to the Chinese Government at the end of the war. They weren't, and to add insult to injury, the Treaty of Versailles handed them over to Japan. On May 4, 1919, about 3,000 students from various Beijing universities got together in Tiananmen Square and held a mass protest. The movement that was born at that rally (called, not unsurprisingly, the May Fourth Movement) was the first true nationalist movement in China and has consequently served as an inspiration for Chinese patriots of all shades, stripes, and ideologies since. The students of the "Beijing Spring" of 1989 intentionally drew parallels with the May Fourth Movement; it is all the more ironic and tragic that June Fourth will now live on in infamy as the day that the tanks rolled in Tiananmen Square.

In the early 1920s, Dr. Sun Yatsen, as the leader of the (up-to-then unsuccessful) Nationalist Party (KMT), accepted Soviet aid. With the Communist help, Sun Yatsen was able to forge a alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and started the task of re-unifying a China beset with warlords.

Unfortunately, Sun died of cancer in 1925. The leadership of the KMT was then taken over by Chiang Kaishek.

After Chiang took over the KMT, he launched his famous "Northern Expedition" -- all the way from Guangzhou to Shanghai. This unified Southern China and, more importantly, let the Nationalists control the Lower Yangzi. Once they got to Shanghai, Chiang, who had never liked the Communists anyway, launched a massacre of CCP members. Among those who managed to escape the carnage was a young communist named Mao Zedong.

The Communists were forced to abandon their urban bases and fled to the countryside. There, the Nationalist forces (aided and abetted by German 'advisors') tried to hunt them down, and in the words (more or less) of Chiang, "eliminate the cancer of Communism." In 1934, the Nationalists were closing in on the Communist positions, when, under the cover of night, the Communists broke out and started running. They didn't stop for a year.

This was the Long March. When the Communists started, they had 100,000 people. A year later, when they finally stopped, they had traveled 6,000 miles, and were down to between four to eight thousand people.

Part of the problem is that they didn't know where they were going. They started in Jiangxi Province, about 400 km northeast of Guangzhou. Then they headed west, past Guilin, and into Yunnan province, in southwest China. They would have stopped there, but the local warlords weren't really happy about having them. At Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, they turned north, past Chengdu in Sichuan province, and eventually ended up in Shaanxi, near Yan'an. From then on, being a Long Marcher was the mark of aristocracy in the CCP. Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader of China, was a Long Marcher. With Deng's passing, there are few, if any Long Marchers left in the Party elite.

While in Yan'an, on the periphery of Nationalist power, Mao consolidated his position (gained during the Long March) as the sole leader of the Revolution. The classic book on this period is Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China, which includes some texts by Mao himself.

While all this was going on, the Japanese were busy occupying Manchuria. This proved helpful for the Communists -- the troops sent by Jiang to the North to contain and eventually eliminate the CCP much preferred to spend their time fighting the Japanese. In late 1936, Jiang's own generals kidnapped him and held him captive until he agreed to fight the Japanese before fighting the Communists.

In 1937, the Japanese invaded China proper from their bases in Manchuria, using the notorious "Marco Polo" incident as an excuse. Once whole-scale war had been launched, it didn't take the Japanese long to occupy the major coastal cities and commit atrocities. By the time that the war had ended in 1945, 20 million Chinese had died at the hands of the Japanese. The Nationalist Government fled up the Yangzi to Chongqing from Nanjing.

In 1939, World War II started. This initally had little effect on the situation in China, as the Japanese were not involved with war in Europe. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the main thrust of the Japanese war effort turned away from fighting the Chinese and towards fighting the Americans.

After the Americans entered the war, the Communists started to consolidate their control over North China in preperation for the resumption of the civil war that would occur after the Japanese had been defeated.

The Nationalists, in contrast to the Communists, were disorganized and corrupt, problems that would only intensify after the war. Moreover, their attempts to fight the Japanese were ineffective at best. The general in charge of US efforts inside China, General Stillwell, lobbied Washington (ineffectively) to channel some aid to the Communists; this was not because Stillwell was sympathetic to their cause but because the CCP, employing guerrilla tactics they had independently developed during the civil war, was simply doing a better job fighting the Japanese than the Nationalists.

At the end of World War II, the war between the Nationalists and the Communists started up again. The Communists were hampered by the fact that the Japanese were under orders to surrender only to the Nationalists, not the Communists. This, however, did not end up making much of a difference. By early 1949, the Nationalists were hamstrung by intractable corruption and huge debts; they paid off their debts by printing more money, which only lead to hyperinflation.

By that October, the Nationalists had fled to Taiwan and Mao Zedong had proclaimed the creation of the People's Republic of China. Curiously, while the Red Army was busy re-unifying the south, they didn't bother re-unifying either Macau or Hong Kong, even though it would have been extremely easy, and neither Britain or Portugal would have been in much of a position to protest.

The People's Republic of China (1949- )

In 1950, China intervened in the Korean War to save the North Koreans from being wiped off the map, and by 1953, the Korean War was over (actually, South Korea and North Korea are still technically at war with each other, even though the fighting stopped in 1953).

In 1958, Mao, who was growing increasingly distant from Moscow, launched the Great Leap Forward. The idea was to mobilize the peasant masses to increase crop production by collectivizing the farms and use the excess labor to produce steel. What ended up happening was the greatest man-made famine in human history. From 1958 to 1960, poor planning and bad management managed to starve 30 million people to death. Officially, the government blamed it on "bad weather."

By 1962, the break with the Soviets was complete, and China started to position itself as the 'other' superpower while it recovered from the Great Leap Forward. Unfortunately...

... in 1966, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The origins of the Cultural Revolution are vague, but probably stem, in part, from a growing separation between Mao's clique and the rest of the CCP. Mao called upon students to rebel against authority, and they did, forming units of Red Guards. China promptly collapsed into anarchy. Schools shut down, offices closed, transportation was disrupted -- it was so bad that even today, the full history is still far from known. In terms of the chaos, blood, and destruction, it was comparable to the French Revolution, though it lacked the same political impact. At one point, Red Guards were fighting pitched battles with Government troops outside of the Foreign Ministry building. Later on in the Cultural Revolution, Red Guard units ended up fighting each other for supremacy. In the summer of 1967, there were massive riots in both Hong Kong and Macau.

One of the reasons why Mao was able to pull off something like the Cultural Revolution was because he was taking on the trappings of an emperor -- indeed, Mao himself often compared himself to the First Emperor of China. Another reason was the political support of the People's Liberation Army, spearheaded by a general named Lin Biao. During the glory years of the Cultural Revolution, Lin became very close to Mao, and was appointed his heir-apparent. Lin was also in charge of developing the 'cult of personality' around Mao. But after 1969, Lin's position began to deteriorate, and he vanished in 1971. Lin apparently died in an airplane crash in Mongolia; the official story is that he was fleeing to Russia. Many people believe that Mao had him murdered. It is doubtful that the whole story will ever be told, particularly as the principles involved (Mao and Lin) have taken their secrets to the grave.

While the Cultural Revolution 'officially' ended in 1969, and the worst abuses stopped then, the politically charged atmosphere was maintained until Mao's death in 1976. Deng Xiaoping, who was purged twice during the Cultural Revolution (once at the beginning; once again right before Mao died); eventually emerged as the paramount leader in 1978, and promptly launched his economic reform program.

Deng's actions, initially limited to agricultural reforms, gradually started to spread to the rest of the country. One of his favorite sayings is "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white; what matters is how well it catches mice." This is in direct contrast to the ideology of the Maoist years, where a favored slogan was "Better Red than Expert," which meant, in practice, that totally unqualified ideologues were put in charge of projects that really needed technical expertise.

In 1982 Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of Britain, went to Beijing to meet with Deng Xiaopeng. Most of the talks concerned the issue of Hong Kong. By the time she had left, the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China had signed an agreement in principle to hand Hong Kong from the UK over to China. In 1984, the agreement was formalized in a document known as the Joint Declaration. The people of Hong Kong were never consulted about their future.

Hong Kong is a place of many ironies, and the handing over of the territory to China is replete with them. Many of the people who made Hong Kong what it is today were only in the territory because they were fleeing the Communists and are now faced with the prospect of returning to Communist rule. The Hong Kong Chinese residents lucky enough to have British citizenship are not actually allowed to live in Britain; and those who hold the British National (Overseas) [BN(O)] passport will find themselves PRC nationals after 1997, whether they like it or not. Finally, there is perversely poetic justice in the fact that Hong Kong, which was made by unequal treaties, will be unmade by an unequal treaty.

As the economic reforms on the mainland spread, the question of political reform started to come to the surface, propelled by events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This came to a head in Tiananmen Square in May, 1989. The leaders of the Communist Party saw this as an attack on their power, and proceeded to destroy it. Officially, 200 unarmed demonstrators died. The actual figure is far higher, and it is doubtful that there will ever be an accurate roll call of those who died on June 4.

After June 4, progress and reform in China stopped for three years. But in 1993, Deng Xiaoping, in one of his last major public appearances, toured the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and emphatically voiced his approval. After that, the Chinese economy exploded, and it has only been recently that the economy has cooled off to more reasonable levels.

One of the most significant developments in recent history was the death of Deng, on February 19, 1997. While he has not been active in politics for some time and has not appeared in public for more than three years, the deaths of senior leaders has always had an unsettling impact on Chinese politics. Given Deng's former position as the paramount leader of the country, the political shockwaves will not only be substantial, but unpredictable.

On the other hand, given that Deng had apparently handed over power to Jiang Zemin several years ago and 'retired,' we may be witnessing a new epoch in Chinese politics, one where the death of a senior leader does not automatically result in a scramble for power. It will be several years before we are able to look back and accurately assess the events of this period; after all, Mao died in 1976 but it was not until two years later that Deng was able to fully consolidate his grip on power.

Either way, the next few years will be interesting times.

Longer term, it is impossible to predict what will happen. China will probably become a leading industrial power sometime in the next century, and it will probably become more closely economically tied to its East Asian neighbors. However, predictions that China will become the world's largest economy by the year 2020 are based on unsustainable growth projections. And if the last 150 years of Chinese history tells us anything, it is that the only predictable thing is unpredictability.

[ Introduction | The Origins of Chinese Civilization | The Early Empire | The Second Empire
The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]

These pages were written and are maintained by Paul Frankenstein
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