Introduction to China - History

In this brief sketch of the origins, growth, and spread of Chinese civilization, the expansions and contractions of Chinese political control over bordering states and regions, and the periodic conquests and rule by foreign dynasties, I wish to stress that the development of Chinese civilization was not a unilineal course of development carried forth by a single growing population. Over the centuries diverse linguistic and cultural populations merged into that larger whole that we identify as Han Chinese in later historical time. Unfortunately, many Chinese historical accounts, whether written by the Chinese themselves or by Western scholars, are Sino-centric, written as if the Han had always existed and all other peoples were marginal.

Chinese Neolithic cultures, which began to develop around 5000 B.C. , were in part indigenous and in part related to earlier developments in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Wheat, barley, sheep, and cattle appear to have entered the northern Neolithic cultures via contact with southwest Asia, whereas rice, pigs, water buffalo, and eventually yams and taro seem to have come to the southern Neolithic cultures from Vietnam and Thailand. The rice-growing village sites of southeastern China and the Yangzi Delta reflect linkages both north and south. In the later Neolithic, some elements from the southern complexes had spread up the coast to Shandong and Liaoning. It is now thought that the Shang state, the first true state formation in Chinese history, had its beginnings in the late Lungshan culture of that region.

The Shang dynasty (c. 1480-1050 B.C. ) controlled the North China Plain and parts of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Shandong through military force and dynastic alliances with protostates on its borders. At its core was a hereditary royal house—attended by ritual specialists, secular administrators, soldiers, craftsmen, and a variety of retainers—that ruled over a surrounding peasantry. It was finally displaced by the Western Zhou dynasty, led by a seminomadic group from the northwest edge of the empire. The Western Zhou established capitals near present-day Xian and Loyang and organized a feudal monarchy with its center on the North China Plain. In 771 B.C. they were in turn overthrown by the Eastern Zhou dynasty, which was an unstable confederation of contending feudal states with weak allegiance to the center. During the political confusion of this era, the forces struggling for power discussed and canonized what were to become the key political and social ideas of later Chinese civilization. It was the age of Confucius and Mencius, of the writing of historical annals in order to gain guidance from the past, of Daoist mysticism and Legalist practicality. As Zhou power waned, war broke out between the constituent feudatory domains in what came to be called the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C. ). Between 230 and 221 B.C. one of the contentious states succeeded in overrunning and annexing the other six, and its ruler renamed himself "Qin Shi Huangdi," or "the First Emperor of Qin." China's present name derives from this initially small western kingdom of Qin, which included part of present-day Sichuan. As the first unifying dynasty, it set the model for future imperial statecraft: centralized control through appointed bureaucrats who were subject to recall; creation of a free peasantry subject to the central state for taxation, labor service, and conscription; standardized weights and measures; reform of the writing system; a severe legal code; and control over the intelligentsia. The boundaries of this first imperial dynasty were ambitiously large, stretching from Sichuan to the coast and from the plains and loess lands to the lower Yangzi hinterland. Nevertheless, it was unsuccessful in its attempts to bring the south and southwest into the orbit of empire.

The Qin was short-lived, falling in 202 B.C. ; a combination of popular rebellions and civil wars brought it down. The threat of invasion by the northern nomads (the Xiongnu) was also a weakening factor, despite the construction of a unified Great Wall to mark and defend the northern boundary of empire. The Han dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220) succeeded the Qin. Although also threatened by the Xiongnu confederation to the north, it was able to extend its military lines to the west and establish trade and diplomatic relations with the nomadic and oasis peoples in what is now Xinjiang. It had increasing contacts with Korea and Vietnam. It sent diplomats, troops, and settlers southward, but it never gained effective control over the independent Min-Yue state (modern-day Fujian), the Dian Kingdom (Yunnan), or the Nan-Yue Empire, which controlled the southern coasts. Han China's effective rule and settlements stretched from the northern plain to Hunan, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang, assimilating some segments of the non-Chinese peoples in these regions; however, native peoples the Chinese referred to as "Man," meaning "barbarians," still held most of the area. Meanwhile, the northern and northwestern borders were still insecure, despite the forced settlement of hundreds of thousands of Chinese settlers, and closer to home a series of widespread rebellions racked the dynasty.

From the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 until the reestablishment of a unified dynastie rule under the Sui in 589, China continued to be plagued by civil disorder, attempts to restore earlier feudal systems, and rivalries between separatist states. The state of Wu in the central and lower Yangzi valley remained largely un-Sinicized, as did the southern Yue states. Shu, in Sichuan, seems also to have been ethnically heterogeneous, whereas the northwest was under strong pressure from the proto-Tibetan Qiang peoples. The Western Chin dynasty (AD. 265-316), which attempted to establish itself as the successor to the Han dynasty, was probably doomed from the start: it controlled only about one-third of the area that had been the Han Empire. On the northern borders the non-Han peoples rose in rebellion, in alliance with the Xiongnu. After 304, much of north China came under the rule of non-Chinese peoples, such as the Qiang, and branches of the Xianbei, such as Toba and Mujiang. Yet historical records indicate that the Toba rulers of inner China (Northern Wei dynasty, A.D. 387-534) became increasingly Sinicized, even outlawing Toba language and customs and adopting many of the reforms and ideas initiated during the Qin dynasty. Conversely, the ruling house of the short-lived Sui was closely intermarried with Turkic and Mongol elites.

The Tang dynasty that followed ( A.D. 618-907) was led, at least initially, by northwestern aristocratic families of mixed ethnic origins. Although it is generally written about as a Han Chinese dynasty, it was consciously cosmopolitan. Its armed forces included contingents of Turkic peoples, Khitan, Tangut, and other non-Chinese, and its cities opened to settlement by traders, doctors, and other specialists from Persia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Central Asian tastes influenced poetry, music, dance, dress, ceramics, painting, and even cuisine. In the eighth and ninth centuries, coastal trade cities like Guangzhou and Yangzhou had foreign populations of close to 100,000. The thrusts of imperial expansion went south, colonizing Hunan and then Jiangxi and Fujian. The people of Guangdong Province today refer to themselves as "people of Tang" rather than "people of Han," and until the tenth century the Chinese still viewed Guangdong and Guangxi as the wild frontier. Tang armies pressed deep into southern China and the Indochina Peninsula, battling in successive campaigns against Tai, Miao, and Yue (Viet) states or tribal confederations in the provinces of the southern tier and Annam. The Nanzhao Kingdom and its successor, the Dali Kingdom (claimed today by Dai, Bai, and Yi peoples), controlled Yunnan, much of Guizhou and Sichuan, as well as parts of what is now Vietnam and Myanmar. The Tang also pressed into Central Asia and established protectorates as far as present-day Afghanistan. At times, princes from the outlying tributary states were educated at the Tang court in hopes that they would bring Chinese culture home with them.

In the years of disorder that followed the fall of the Tang, non-Chinese contenders for control of the empire pressed their claims. The Tanguts (Tangxiang), a confederation of Tibetan tribes, founded the Xixia Empire, which controlled Ningxia and Gansu until defeat by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The Tangut rulers allied through marriage with the Khitans, who were Altaic-speaking proto-Mongolians from Inner Mongolia and western Manchuria. The Khitan northern empire (Liao dynasty, 907-1125) alternatively used tribal law or the Tang legal codes and system of government to rule over the nomads of their home areas and the Chinese of the northern plains. The Khitan developed their own writing system and encouraged an economy based on a mix of agriculture and pastoralism. Except for adherence to Buddhism, they resisted Sinicization. When their empire finally fell in 1125, some of the survivors fled to Central Asia and formed a new state in exile (Kara-Khitay), which perhaps is the origin of the term "Cathay."

The Chinese-led Song dynasty that eventually wrested control of north China from the Liao divides into two periods. The Northern Song (960 to 1126) ruled from Kaifeng but only briefly reunified inner China, which soon fell to the northern nomads. Ruzhen (Jin) and Mongols (Yuan) ruled the northern tier and North China Plain, whereas the Southern Song (1127-1179) reestablished a capital at Hangzhou and tried to consolidate rule of the south. By then, technological advances in agriculture, the growth of commerce, and the past sequence of military colonization had opened the south to Han settlement. By the Northern Song period, most of the rapidly growing Chinese population already lived south of the Huai River, having pushed out or absorbed the remaining indigenous peoples of the area. In addition to expansion of agricultural land, there was a rapid growth of towns and cities, some of them reaching one million, and many of them over 100,000 in population.

There was an uneasy peace. The Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty (1276-1368) soon controlled most of China. Indeed, the united tribes of the steppes and grasslands controlled most of the Eurasian landmass at that time, with their territories stretching across Central Asia into Russia and eastern Europe. They established firmer control over Tibet and defeated the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. Their armies went deep into south-central China, staking out the boundaries of new prefectures and counties to which future dynasties would lay claim. Mongols and their allies (Uigurs and other Turkic peoples) and a small number of ethnic Chinese filled government posts. Mongol rule followed the Chinese model of local government and the law code reflected the influence of earlier Chinese law codes, but it was clearly not a Chinese state. The rulers awarded some territory to Mongol princelings or military leaders as fiefs, and both law and administrative regulations distinguished Mongols (and their close allies) from "Han-ren" (north Chinese) and "Nan-ren" (southerners). Buddhist monastery land was exempt from taxation, and clergy everywhere were under the jurisdiction of a special central government bureau usually headed by a Tibetan lama. In this period, Lamaistic Buddhism became the state religion and the lamas had influence at court. Other developments during the Yuan were the flourishing of vernacular tales, novels, and dramas and a rapid growth in science and technology (astronomy, hydraulic engineering, medicine, cartography) sparked in part by contact with the world outside of China through caravan trade into Central Asia and sea routes to Southeast Asia and India.

Widespread popular uprisings and military expulsion of the Yuan from inner China led to the restoration of a Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644). Despite this victory, the struggles against the Mongols continued. The Ming reinforced the Great Wall and built garrison posts along it, and there were many conflicts as Chinese traders and farmers attempted to settle the bordering steppe area. At the same time, pacification and control of the southern frontiers continued through government support for establishment of Han Chinese military and civilian colonies ( tuntian ) . The indigenous peoples resisted this further colonization and were sometimes joined by descendants of earlier waves of settlers; the Ming histories record 218 "tribal" uprisings in Guangxi alone, 91 in Guizhou (which included portions of Yunnan), and 52 in Guangdong. The peoples of that area (ancestral to the present-day Yao, Miao, Zhuang, Gelao, and a number of smaller groups) were either assimilated, decimated, or forced to retreat to higher elevations or westward; some populations began the migration to present-day Vietnam and Thailand. The Han-settled areas were organized into the same administrative units as prevailed elsewhere in China, governed by appointed bureaucrats. The surviving non-Han peoples were uneasily brought into that structure or, in areas where they still outnumbered the Han, were controlled by indirect rule under hereditary landed officials ( tumu or tusi ) initially drawn from the indigenous elites. As long as the rulers of these quasi-fiefdoms kept the peace and paid taxes and tribute to the state, they had a free hand in administering local law and exacting rents and labor service for their own advancement.

In 1644, the Manchu descendants of the Ruzhen won control of the imperial throne and established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 ). Qing expanded central-government control to Taiwan relatively easily, but Guizhou, Yunnan, Tibet, and the northwest continued to be problematic. In the southwest, there were wide-scale "Miao Rebellions," a generic term for all indigenous uprisings in the area. There were major rebellions in the 1670s, the 1680s, and again in the late 1730s. Qing records list some 350 uprisings in Guizhou between 1796 and 1911, and this number may be an undercount. No sooner had the state established firmer control over the minority peoples of the southwest then they faced the armed uprisings of Muslim ethnic and religious movements in Shaanxi and Gansu (1862-1875), and the "Panthay" Muslim Rebellion in Yunnan (1856-1873), which had set up its capital in Dali. Even after the status of Xinjiang was changed from a military colony to a province in 1884, Muslim resistance continued until the end of the dynasty. In late Qing, the Han too were in rebellion: the Taiping Rebellion, which began among the Hakka in Guangxi and Guangdong, held most of southeast China during the 1850s and 1860s and extended its influence into Guizhou and Sichuan. The Nien Rebellion in the same period dominated in the area north of the Huai River.

What seems to have kept the Qing in power throughout was a firm alliance of interest with the Han literati—elites who filled the bureaucratic posts of empire. In time, the Qing emperors out-Confucianized the Chinese themselves, adopting and encouraging traditional Chinese political and social thought based on the Confucian canon and assimilating to Chinese cultural styles. One might even say that they identified with the Han in viewing all other ethnic groups as "barbarians."

The collapse of the Qing and the ascendancy of the Republic of China starting in 1911 initially led to disintegration and local breakaway governments. Local warlords seized political power in large areas of the country, a problem not resolved until 1927. The Japanese held control over Taiwan and Manchuria until the end of World War II. The Russian Revolution had led to the establishment of an independent Mongolia and validation of Soviet claims to contested territory in China's far north and northwest. Tibet rejected China's claims of sovereignty, and many areas in Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, and the northwest continued to hold large numbers of diverse peoples who did not follow the Guomindang's call to assimilate and be absorbed into the Chinese cultural and political world. Still, a new nationalism emerged and spread during this period in response to the late Qing and twentieth-century imperialist economic and political intrusions by the European powers (treaty ports, foreign concessions, unequal treaties, and extraterritorial privileges for foreigners). The new nationalism was intensified by the Japanese invasion of inner China in 1937 and the long years of war that followed. The government of the republic and its armies retreated to the southwest, while the Communist party and its armies built up a strong independent base in Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Gansu. Guerrilla forces organized resistance within occupied China. Within a short time following the end of World War II, China plunged into a civil war between the Communist and Republican forces, culminating in the victory of the Communists and the withdrawal of the defeated Guomindang government to Taiwan. During that civil war, both sides raised slogans appealing to national pride and calling for unity in the interests of China as a nation, as they had done during the war against Japan. Members of the minority nationalities also joined in the civil war, perhaps more strongly on the Communist side because of its promises of greater tolerance of cultural diversity and greater autonomy for the minority areas.


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