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  • Prehistoric China
  • Xia ca. 2100–1600 BCE
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World Events:

  • ca. 3000–1700 BCE: Indus Valley civilization
  • ca. 5000–300 BCE: Mesopotamian civilization
  • ca. 3000–30 BCE: Ancient Egyptian civilization
  • ca. 563–483 BCE: Buddha
  • ca. 500–300 BCE: Classical Greek Civilization
  • 27 BCE–475 CE: Roman Empire
  • 0–33: Jesus of Nazareth
  • ca 250–900: Classical Mayan civilization
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  • 570–632: Prophet Muhammad
  • ca. 630–1258: Arab Caliphate
  • ca. 800–1050: Viking Age
  • 1066: Norman Conquest of England
  • 1346–1353: Black Death
  • 1492: Columbus lands in the New World
  • 1517–1648: Reformation in Europe
  • 1620: Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock
  • 1757–1997: British Empire
  • 1775–1783: American War of Independence
  • 1789: French Revolution
  • 1861–1865: American Civil War
  • 1914–1918: World War I
  • 1939–1945: World War II
  • 1955–1975: Vietnam War
  • 1969: Apollo 11 lands first man on the Moon
  • 1990: World Wide Web invented
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Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion was an immense upheaval which affected a large area of China between 1850 and 1864, cost millions of lives, and had the potential to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

The rebellion was started by a failed civil service exam candidate called Hong Xiuquan, who had come into contact with Christian ideas in his home city of Guangzhou. Hong studied the Bible with Isaachar Roberts, an American missionary from Tennessee. Believing that he was the younger brother of Jesus, Hong developed his own version of Christianity. He set out to establish the 'Taiping Tianguo', the 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace', and destroy the Manchu Qing government. Hong walked to the rugged Thistle Mountain region some 250 miles inland. There he found willing converts among the poor, and he built up a disciplined army - including women's combat units which became famous for their ability and ferocity.

In 1851, Hong's Taiping army swept across China towards Nanjing, which fell in 1853 and became the Taiping capital. The Taipings called for a new type of society, with common property and equal status for men and women, and banned footbinding, prostitution and gambling, as well as opium, tobacco and alcohol. By the late 1850s, they controlled a large area of east China, although their radical policies alienated the educated gentry classes. The Qing government finally reconquered Nanjing in 1864, with the help of militia armies established by gentry officials. When the city finally fell, the slaughter was enormous. Many rebels burned themselves to death rather than submit. A senior official said in his report to the emperor: "From ancient times to the present, such a formidable band of rebels has rarely been known."

Self-Strengthening Movement

The Self-Strengthening Movement was a campaign to revitalise China in the late 1800s, through learning from the west.

China's weakness had been demonstrated by internal challenges such as the Taiping Rebellion, as well as by foreign aggression. In 1860, foreign troops had even entered Beijing during the Second Anglo-Chinese War, and ransacked the beautiful Summer Palace built by Emperor Qianlong

Desperate to save their country, a group of exceptional provincial officials - many of whom had been involved in suppressing the Taipings - set up factories and dockyards to modernise the economy and to manufacture western-style armaments. Understanding of the west was increased by the translation into Chinese of western books, and by visits abroad. Anson Burlingame, an American diplomat, accompanied senior representatives from China on a tour to the USA and Europe. A group of 120 Chinese boys were sent in the 1870s to be educated the USA. They lived with families in Connecticut, studied at high school, and even formed their own baseball club. The most prominent advocate of the 'self-strengthening' movement was Li Hongzhang, a general, official and diplomat, who developed railways, telegraph lines, mines, cotton mills and shipping companies, and built up China's northern navy.

But the self-strengthening movement faced many challenges. China could not protect its fledgling industries from overseas competition, because the unequal treaties fixed customs tariffs low. And resistance to change came from people at all social levels. Many people resented the extra taxes they were required to pay for new projects, which they felt would not benefit them. China's new Southern Fleet, based in Fuzhou, was destroyed within an hour in 1884, after China was drawn into a disastrous war with France over Vietnam.

Defeat by Japan and the 'Scramble for Concessions'

The First Sino-Japanese War was fought from 1894 to 1895 between China and Japan, and ended in a disastrous defeat for China.

From the 1850s on, Japan had modernized successfully, and began to expand its influence over areas long claimed by China as tributaries. When a rebellion broke out in Korea in 1894, both China and Japan sent in troops to protect the Korean royal family. After Japan sank a steamer carrying Chinese troops, war broke out. Japanese troops marched overland to take a heavily defended Chinese port from the land side, and took China's own guns and turned them on China's northern fleet lying in the harbour. This was a brilliant manoeuvre, that annihilated China's northern fleet. China sued for peace, and in 1895 signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

According to the treaty, China agreed to cede Taiwan to the Japanese, to open four more treaty ports, and to allow Japan to open factories in China, as well as to pay a huge indemnity. Imperialist Western powers saw how easily China had been defeated, and a 'scramble for concessions' ensued, far more destructive than anything before. Germany seized Qingdao; Russia seized the Liaodong peninsula; Britain took the port of Weihaiwei, and the New Territories next to Hong Kong; the French leased Guangzhou Bay near Hainan. Large regions of China were carved out by the foreign nations as their zones of economic influence.

The Hundred Days Reforms

The Hundred Days Reforms were an attempt to modernise China, led by the young Emperor Guangxu and his supporters in the aftermath of China's defeat by Japan.

Emperor Guangxu was 23 years old in 1898. He was interested in reforming China, and had learned English. Beginning in June 1898, Guangxu issued a stream of reform edicts, ordering sweeping changes to government, education, and the economy. The civil service exams would be reformed to include questions on current events and practical government. Central government would take charge of railroad and industrial projects, and local officials were to carry out reforms in trade, industry and agriculture, and increase exports of tea and silk. Footbinding was to be outlawed. There was to be an annual budget for China as a whole.

But in September, Empress Dowager Cixi, a powerful influence at court, suddenly returned from her retreat at the Summer Palace. She had the emperor put under effective house-arrest on an island in the Imperial Park, and his supporters executed. Cixi revoked almost all of the emperor's edicts. The Hundred Days - along with hope for reform from the top - were over.

Boxer Rebellion

The Boxer Rebellion was an anti-foreign peasant movement, which emerged in 1898 in north China.

The Boxers were members of a secret martial arts society called the 'Harmonious Fists'. They blamed China's problems on foreigners, and especially on Christian missionaries. The Boxer movement attracted people struggling to survive on the edge of society - poor peasant farmers, former soldiers, knife grinders, rickshaw men, canal boat haulers. Women formed Boxer groups such as the Red Lanterns, who were said to be able to throw knives through the air and chop off heads, and the Cooking-Pan Lanterns, who fed Boxer troops from pots that refilled by magic. The Boxer movement expanded rapidly, seizing foreign properties, ripping up railroad tracks, and attacking and sometimes killing foreigners as well as Chinese Christian converts. In June 1900, the Boxers besieged the foreign legation area in Beijing.

China's Dowager Empress Cixi a powerful influence at the Qing court, decided to support the Boxers, and declared war on all foreign powers. A combined force of troops from Britain, America, Japan, Russia and France marched on Beijing. They took the city with ease, and the Qing government was forced to sign a peace treaty known as the Boxer Protocol. The Protocol said that foreign powers could station troops permanently in China, and it imposed a gigantic indemnity on China, to be paid over a period of 40 years. As security for the debt, the entire Chinese imperial revenue structure except the land tax was placed under foreign control.

1911 Revolution and Sun Yat-sen

China's 1911 Revolution led to the abdication of the last Qing emperor, and the establishment of the Republic of China.

In the early 1900s, the Qing rulers of China realized that reform was essential. A plan to introduce constitutional government was announced. Provincial assemblies were established, and the old civil service exams were abolished, and new western-style schools set up. But opposition to the Qing rulers grew, and a wide range of reformers and revolutionaries emerged. These included women, of whom the most famous was Qiu Jin who was executed in 1907 for plotting to overthrow the Qing.

A political activist called Sun Yat-sen became head of a group called the Revolutionary Alliance. Between 1906 and 1908, the Alliance attempted at least seven uprisings, all of which failed. Then in October 1911, an explosion occurred by accident whilst revolutionaries in Wuhan were making bombs. Government investigators found a list of the group's members, which included the names of army soldiers. The soldiers realized they faced execution unless they launched an uprising immediately. They mutinied, and took control of the city. Within six weeks, 14 other provinces had declared for the revolution. The government's top general Yuan Shikai negotiated with the revolutionaries, and agreement was reached that the emperor would abdicate, and that a republic would be established.

Sun Yat-sen - who had been in Denver, Colorado on a fundraising mission - returned to China and became provisional president. But Sun lacked military power. He invited Yuan Shikai to take over the role, and in 1912 Yuan become president of the new Republic of China.

China & World War One

The First World War broke out in Europe in 1914, and distracted the European powers from pursuing further gains in China. But Japan, which was allied to Britain, declared war on Germany and seized the German territories in China, centred on the city of Qingdao. China decided also to join the war, to help the Allies against Germany. China sent around 140,000 men to serve as the Chinese Labor Corps in France, where they handled munitions and military stores at docks and railway yards, repaired vehicles, dug trenches, and constructed barracks and hospitals. Around 2000 Chinese died in service, and are buried in Europe. The diary of one Chinese laborer contains a letter to the German Kaiser, pleading for an end to the war. He said, 'A virtuous ruler would seize this opportunity to put righteousness before profit … why not halt your troops and … create a peace that will last ten thousand years?"

The Chinese Labor Corps's involvement in World War One was China's first experience of taking an active role far from home in global events.

May Fourth Movement

The May Fourth Movement was a period of radical intellectual ferment in China, following demonstrations in 1919 against the treatment of China at the Paris Peace Conference.

At the end of World War One, a Chinese delegation attended the Peace Conference in Versailles, France. After China's contribution to the Allied war effort the Chinese hoped that they would recover the former German territory in China, which Japan had seized. But according to the Treaty of Versailles, all of Germany's claims in China were transferred to Japan.

Chinese people were outraged. A student demonstration was held on 4th May 1919 in Beijing, followed by a wave of protests all over China. A period of vibrant political and intellectual debate ensued. Believing that China was on the verge of destruction, many people questioned the value of Chinese culture, and some attacked Confucianism. People looked into many alternative ideas, highlighting science and democracy, and exploring anarchism, liberalism and Marxist socialism. During the May Fourth period, writers began to write Chinese in the way people actually spoke, rather than using the difficult literary Chinese which had been used up till then. The most brilliant writer to use the new vernacular style was Lu Xun (1881-1936). He hoped that his writing would be widely read and spark activism and social change.

Chinese Communist Party founded

The Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai in 1921, by political activists involved in the May Fourth Movement.

Sections of Marx's 'Communist Manifesto' had been translated into Chinese in 1906, but in China there was initially little interest. Marxist theory seemed only very distantly relevant, because the Marxist model said that societies became capitalist before reaching socialism, and China had not yet developed into a capitalist society. But after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution succeeded in seizing power in Russia, interest in China increased. Intellectuals involved in China's May Fourth Movement set up Marxist study groups. The study groups attracted intellectuals, including the young Mao Zedong, a teacher and social activist from Hunan province. Agents from the Soviet Union helped the Chinese Marxist groups to organise, and in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was constituted. The CCP was a tiny organisation, with just 57 members, represented by thirteen delegates at that CCP's first meeting in Shanghai.

The CCP today has 88 million members, and is the ruling political party of the People's Republic of China.

Nationalists reunite China

In 1928, China's Nationalists reunited the country following a period of fragmentation, during which warlords had fought for power and imperial powers extended their influence.

China's Republic, established with so much optimism after the 1911 Revolution, quickly collapsed. From 1916 onwards, control of China was divided amongst regional warlords. Sun Yat-sen's Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party shared a desire to reunify China. From their base in Guangzhou in south China, they worked together to build up their forces, and in 1926 launched the Northern Expedition, a military campaign to defeat the warlords. In a series of brilliant successes, the Northern Expedition rapidly reached the Yangtze, and in 1928 took Shanghai. Sun Yat-sen had died of cancer in 1925, and Chiang Kai-shek, a military commander, was now the Nationalist leader.

Chiang was suspicious that the communists aimed to take power for themselves. He suddenly struck against them in Shanghai in 1927, and had thousands of communists rounded up and shot. The communist survivors retreated to the countryside, whilst Chiang consolidated his hold on the cities.

In 1928, Chiang's Nationalists at last united all of China, and established a their capital in Nanjing.

Japan establishes Manchukuo

Manchukuo was a puppet regime set up by the Japanese in 1932 in Northeast China.

Japan had defeated China in a war in 1895, taken Taiwan, and built up a position in Manchuria. In 1915, Japan had won the right to jointly run huge iron & coal works, and to station Japanese police and economic advisers in north China. Militarists and industrialists in Japan saw China as a source of raw materials for Japanese industry. In May 1928, Japanese officers assassinated the Chinese warlord in Manchuria, hoping to trigger a crisis that would allow Japan to mobilise its troops and expand its power base in China. The move backfired, and Chiang Kai-shek won over the successor Manchurian warlord, thereby in 1928 reunifying China.

But Japanese aggression continued, and by the end of 1931, Manchuria was under complete Japanese control. The following year, Japan declared that Manchuria was a new state, called 'Manchukuo' - which means 'Land of the Manchus'. The last Qing emperor agreed to be its nominal head of state based at the city of Changchun. With Japanese investment, the area developed a strong industrial base.

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was a communist revolutionary who became leader of the Chinese Communist Party and established the People's Republic of China.

Born into a farming family from Shaoshan village in Hunan province, Mao studied at the Hunan teacher training college, and then moved to Beijing, where he joined Marxist study groups. Mao was the Hunan delegate at the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

After Chiang Kai-shek's brutal purge of the communists in 1927, Mao led several thousand followers into the mountains at the Hunan-Jiangxi border, where they set up the Jiangxi Soviet, promoting land reform. Forced to flee Jiangxi, Mao and other communist leaders in 1934 set out on the Long March, eventually reaching Yan'an, in north China, where they established a new base. In Yan'an, Mao developed his vision of Marxist revolution led by China's peasants, and he eliminated rivals for power. In 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the new People's Republic. Favouring radical and violent solutions to China's problems, Mao instigated the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, both of which were disastrous for China's people. Mao was China's paramount political leader and chief theorist of Chinese communism until his death in 1976.

The Long March

The Long March was the epic 6000-mile trek of the Chinese Communists as they retreated from southeast China to Yan'an in the barren northwest.

After Chiang Kai-shek turned against the communists in 1927, Mao Zedong and other leaders had formed a stronghold in the countryside, known as the Jiangxi Soviet. However, Chiang Kai-shek's 'extermination campaigns' eventually forced the communists to abandon Jiangxi. Under cover of darkness in October 1934, around 80,000 Red Army soldiers and party cadres set off on what would become the historic Long March, in search of a new base area. Most of the women and children of the Jiangxi Soviet were left behind, but there were about 30 women on the Long March, including Mao's wife. The communists faced frequent attacks from Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, and had to deal with appallingly difficult terrain, bad weather, disease and starvation. They covered 6000 miles over 370 days. About 8,000 of the original group from Jiangxi made it to Yan'an, a city in Shaanxi province, where they made a new base. In 1935, Mao Zedong wrote that "the Long March, has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes". But Yan'an was in one of the poorest parts of north China, with no industrial base, and where homes were often built in caves in the dusty cliffs. It was not clear how the communists would even survive, never mind spread revolution across China.

Nanjing Massacre

The Nanjing Massacre was an episode of mass murder and mass rape carried out by Japanese soldiers in 1937, one of the worst atrocities in the history of modern warfare.

Japan built up a large presence in north China during the 1920s and 30s based on their puppet regime in Manchuria. In 1937, Chiang Kai-shek attacked the Japanese in north China. The Japanese responded by launching a full-scale invasion of China. They took Beijing and Tianjin, and then Shanghai. In December 1937 they conquered Nanjing, where they went on an appalling rampage, killing and raping tens of thousands of people. Many foreign observers witnessed the massacre, and were appalled at the cruelty of the Japanese troops. Japan then overran all of east China. Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the southwest, and set up a new base in the city of Chongqing.

The Second World War was disastrous for China. Over fourteen million Chinese people died, and China's railroad and industrial infrastructure were destroyed.

The founding of the People's Republic of China

The People's Republic of China was established in 1949, after the Chinese Communist Party defeated China's Nationalists.

At the end of the Long March, the Communists set up their headquarters in Yan'an. They carried out guerrilla campaigns against the Japanese, building a support base amongst the people, and increasing the size of their army to nearly a million troops. In 1945, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Japan's surrender, and Japanese troops left China. The USA tried to persuade China's Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to work together with the communists to establish a government for China, but the attempts failed, and full-scale civil war broke out between the Nationalists and the Communists. The Communists took control of Manchuria in the wake of the Japanese retreat, and built up their strength for a decisive assault on the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek initially had better armaments and a larger army, but his regime was unpopular because of inflation and corruption. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek's remaining forces disintegrated, and he fled to the island of Taiwan, where the Nationalists continued to call their regime the Republic of China, based in the city of Taipei. The communist Red Army marched triumphantly into Beijing, where in 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the formation of the People's Republic of China.

Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) was an attempt by Mao Zedong dramatically to increase productivity by remolding society and inspiring revolutionary fervour among China's people.

After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, China was united under a strong government for the first time for generations. Work began to end inflation and corruption, spread literacy and promote equality for women. A radical wave of land reform organized people into cooperatives, each with 200 to 300 families. Modern hospitals, schools and factories were built, and railroads and reservoirs constructed.

But Mao became disappointed that China did not experience the rapid economic growth that he had expected. In 1958, he launched the hugely ambitious Great Leap Forward, believing that China could be transformed through the sheer hard work of its people all working together. The cooperatives were merged into enormous communes. To release parents from domestic chores, community kindergartens were set up and communal dining halls opened, where free meals were supplied. Men worked on gigantic projects to build bridges, irrigation systems and power stations, whilst women took over farm work in the fields. To increase steel production, communes, factories and schools set up 'backyard furnaces', where even cooking pots were melted down in order to try and meet the steel production targets.

The Great Leap Forward was a catastrophic disaster. Grain harvests shrank, too much grain was shipped from the countryside to the cities, and rural communities were left without enough to survive. At least 20 million people died during the famine that ensued from 1959 to 1961.

Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution was a period of terror and disorder in China, which began as a struggle between Mao Zedong and other party leaders, and went on to affect the whole country with its call for 'continuous revolution' to build a socialist society.

After Mao's catastrophic Great Leap Forward, leaders with a more pragmatic approach within China's Communist Party set about reviving China's economy. Mao seems to have felt that he was being sidelined, and he thought China was going in the wrong direction. In 1966, he launched a movement called the Cultural Revolution, to restore his leading role, and because he thought China needed 'continuous revolution' in order to build a socialist society and stop people taking a 'capitalist road'. At huge rallies in Beijing, Red Guards - the young people who were the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution - waved the 'Quotations from Chairman Mao', their 'little red books'. Schools and universities were closed, and Red Guards roamed the streets. They destroyed temples, traditional buildings and works of art, and humiliated teachers and people in authority, in their attack on the 'Four Olds' - old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Workers and the army also became involved, and chaos spread across China. Eventually, to prevent civil war, in 1968 Mao disbanded the Red Guards, and gradually order was restored. After Mao died in 1976, his wife, who had been one of the main Cultural Revolution leaders, was arrested. She and her 'Gang of Four' supporters were convicted of the violent excesses of the Cultural Revolution at a show trial in 1980-1981.

Nixon visits China

US President Richard Nixon made an official visit to China in 1972, beginning China's reopening to the West.

China's foreign policy during the Cultural Revolution was shaped by the declaration that China and other poor countries would rise up against the world's capitalist nations, and 'strangle' them just as China's communists had surrounded and strangled opposition within China. But by the 1970s, more pragmatic men amongst China's leaders knew that China's isolation policy was not working. China's relationship with the Soviet Union - which had previously provided loans and technical assistance - had broken down. China was worried that the Soviet Union might invade, and wanted America's support as a counterbalance to the Soviet threat.

After behind-the-scenes discussions, in 1971 the US table-tennis team was suddenly invited to visit China on a goodwill mission. Senior Chinese representatives met privately with US President Richard Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Nixon flew to China in February 1972, and met China's leader Mao Zedong. China and the USA agreed that trade and cultural and sporting exchanges should be increased. The meeting was a major turning point in China's diplomatic history.

Deng Xiaoping and 'Reform & Opening Up'

Deng Xiaoping became paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party in 1978, and oversaw China's policy of 'Reform and Opening Up' to the world.

Deng Xiaoping was the son of a small-landlord family from western China. He participated in the Chinese communists' epic Long March and fought in the guerrilla war against Japan. But he disagreed with Mao Zedong over how to achieve economic growth, and during the Cultural Revolution, Deng was stripped of high office twice. In 1978, two years after Mao's death, Deng became China's paramount leader. He pursued policies to increase prosperity in China through 'Reform and Opening Up' and the 'Four Modernisations' of agriculture, industry, science & technology and defense. Collective farms were dismantled, and rural households were assigned land, and given incentives to increase production. Although most industry remained state-owned, people were allowed to open private businesses again. Deng in 1979 visited the USA in order to encourage greater commercial and cultural ties, and 'Special Economic Zones' were opened up in China, to attract foreign investment. By the late 1980s, foreign manufacturers were pouring in. Rapid economic growth lifted millions of people out of poverty. Although social inequality increased and environmental degradation became a serious issue, living standards improved, especially in China's cities.

Troops fire on demonstrators in Tian'anmen Square

In 1989, a large demonstration in Beijing's Tian'anmen Square was crushed, killing of hundreds of Chinese people.

China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978 encouraged people to voice their criticisms of China's policies and leaders. 'Democracy Walls' sprang up, where people wrote their ideas on posters, and pasted them up on walls. One young Beijing man pasted up a poster calling for a 'Fifth Modernisation' - true democracy - in addition to the 'Four Modernisations' of Deng's reform era. The young man was arrested. Protests in 1986 across 150 university campuses were also suppressed.

Then in 1989, demonstrators gathered in huge numbers at Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, calling for reforms and more democratic freedoms. Up to a million people filled the square, and several thousand students went on hunger strike. Demonstrations also occurred all across China - the official account says 84 cities were involved. Some leaders in the Chinese government tried to negotiate with the demonstrators in Beijing, but Deng Xiaoping feared anarchy and he authorized the army to clear Tian'anmen Square. On the night of 3rd-4th June, tanks and soldiers crushed the demonstrations in Beijing, and hundreds of people were killed.

Beijing Olympics

In summer 2008, the Olympics were held for the first time in Beijing, and China took the opportunity to show the best of modern China to the world.

After the protests at Tian'anmen Square in 1989, some Chinese leaders wanted to stick to a centrally planned economy, and slow down Deng's pro-market reforms. But in 1992, Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen and Zhuhai, two of China's 'Special Economic Zones', as well as Shanghai - in a dramatic 'Southern Tour' designed to give heart to the reformers. Shortly afterwards, China's leadership agreed to continue with Deng's pro-market agenda. The economy boomed, and throughout the 1990s China's GDP grew at around 12% per year. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organisation, and by 2008 had quadrupled its exports.

In 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics and the Paralympic Games. China built not only the sports venues - including the new National Stadium, the largest steel structure in the world - but also constructed a new terminal at Beijing airport, a new high-speed railway between Beijing & Tianjin, as well as seven new subway lines and eighty subway stations, which doubled the size of Beijing's underground rail system. To reduce air pollution in Beijing, factories were closed and traffic bans put in place. The Olympic torch relay was disrupted by human rights protesters outside China, and demonstrations in Tibet caused the route to be altered. But to many Chinese people, China's ability to host an impressive and successful global event was a source of enormous pride.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a merchant from Italy who travelled to China. The book which Marco Polo wrote about his experiences was the first detailed description of China available to Europeans. The book was widely read, and shaped Europeans' image of China for centuries.

Born into a merchant family in Venice, Marco Polo set off to China in 1271 when he was seventeen. With his father and uncle, he travelled overland along the Silk Road, visiting cities such as Kashgar along the way.

Marco Polo lived in China for twenty years, and probably became an accounting official in the Chinese government. China was at the time ruled by the Yuan dynasty established by Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan, and it was the most advanced society in the world. Marco Polo marvelled at China's wealth and the splendour of its cities. He was amazed at the courier stations with mounted couriers galloping the Khan's commands efficiently across the vast empire. He travelled on the Grand Canal, and went to Hangzhou, which he said was so grand and so beautiful, and so full of abundant delights, it "might lead an inhabitant to think himself in paradise."

Marco Polo returned to Europe in 1295, and wrote a book about his travels. The book became a best-seller, translated into many European languages. In his book, Marco Polo said, "I believe it was God's will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world".

Marco Polo's book inspired others - including Christopher Columbus - to seek new sea routes for trade with the wealthy and sophisticated peoples that Marco Polo had described.

Neolithic Cultures

Around 5000 BCE, in many of the river valleys of today's China, neolithic cultures emerged. People grew crops, made pottery and textiles, and lived in permanent settled villages. The pots and the textiles made life easier – pots meant people could carry and store food and water; and the clothes and other textiles kept people warm. In the south, the most important food staple that people ate was rice, while in the north, it was millet. Millet was ground into flour and made into flat breads like crackers, or eaten as a kind of porridge. The image is a pot from Banpo, a Neolithic settlement in north China. Another very well preserved Neolithic site was found at Hemudu, in the Shanghai delta.

China's First State

The late Neolithic period (3000-2000 BCE), was a time of increased contact between communities in China. Many walled sites were constructed and society was becoming more complex. Around 2000 BCE, at Erlitou, in the Yellow River Valley, a civilisation emerged whose people learned how to cast bronze, which they used to make vessels for ritual feasting and drinking. The bronzes found at Erlitou are the earliest in East Asia. Erlitou is often associated with China’s semi-mythical Xia dynasty, and Erlitou is considered the urban centre of China’s earliest state. The Erlitou bronzes are the first manifestation of what was to become the Shang, a civilisation which would eventually encompass the entire central plain of north China.

Shang China

The Shang state was a Bronze Age civilisation, which emerged around 1600 BCE in the central plain of north China, near the Yellow River. Shang cities had palaces and temples, housing areas for the upper classes and commoners, as well as craft workshops for metal workers, potters and stone carvers, and burial grounds. Several large settlements of the Shang period have been discovered, including Zhengzhou and Anyang. It is thought that the first Shang city was near the modern day city of Shangqiu.The people of Shang China engaged in large-scale production of bronze vessels and weapons. The Shang people were brilliant metal workers, and created extraordinarily fine bronze vessels using a piece-mold technique unknown anywhere else in the world. Most of the Shang bronzes that survive are cups, goblets, steamers and cauldrons, which were used to heat wine and food for rituals. The rituals played a central role in ancestral rites, and government. Bronzes came to be a symbol of power.

Bronzes were also made during Shang times at other places, such as Sanxingdui in south-west China, a magnificent site discovered in the 1980s.

Writing - Oracle Bones

Shang kings communicated with their ancestors through sacrificial rituals using bronzes and through divination. The most common technique of divination involved the diviner applying a heated rod to turtle shells or cattle bones. The shells and bones would crack, and the cracks were interpreted as the ancestors' answers to questions posed by the Shang kings. The shells and bones are known as 'oracle bones'. The diviners scratched the questions and answers onto the bones, in a script known as oracle bone script, which is closely related to modern Chinese writing. The oracle bones provide a great deal of information about Shang life – from military activities, harvest, crops, weather, to their families, illnesses, travels, and pastimes such as hunting. Most of the Shang oracle bones date from about 1200 to 1000 BCE.

Lady Hao

Lady Hao, or Fu Hao, who lived around 1200 BCE, was wife of Shang king Wu Ding. Very unusually, she was also a military leader. Most of the information we have about Fu Hao comes from oracle bone inscriptions. There are many inscriptions on the oracle bones showing the king's concern for her when she was ill or pregnant. They also show that Fu Hao was involved in ritual ceremonies and military activities. She led numerous military campaigns against the neighbouring tribes. One oracle bone, for example, asks whether Fu Hao should gather soldiers before an attack. Fu Hao's tomb at Anyang is the only Shang tomb that was not robbed before it was excavated.

Di Xin Last King of Shang

The last king of the Shang is supposed to have given himself over to wine, women and wild, cruel behaviour. He is said to have had a pool constructed in the palace, filled with wine, with a small island, where trees were planted with branches hung with meat on skewers. The king, whose name was Di Xin, and his friends and concubines would drift on canoes, reaching out to eat the roasted meat and fill their cups with wine from the pool. The people were said to have suffered from high taxes to pay for extravagances such as these.

Battle of Mu Ye

The Shang campaigned constantly against enemies at their frontiers. To their west were the warlike Qiang, tribespeople whose language may have been a form of Tibetan. Between the Qiang and Shang, along the Wei River in modern-day province of Shaanxi, lived a people called the Zhou.

Conflict between the Zhou people and the Shang increased, until King Wu of Zhou organized an alliance with a number of other states, and in 1046 BCE defeated the Shang at the Battle of Mu Ye. Mu Ye is in central Henan. The battle marked the end of the Shang dynasty and the beginning of the Zhou dynasty.

First Kings of Zhou

Zhou was a state based in the Wei River valley in Northwest China, near today's city of Xi'an. In early texts, three great Zhou rulers are said to have made the Zhou state strong. The first of the three was King Wen of Zhou, who formed alliances with neighbouring states and tribes. He was imprisoned by Shang King Di Xin, who feared Zhou's rising power. King Wen was released, but tension grew between Shang and Zhou. The second great ruler was King Wen's son, King Wu who led an army and crushed the Shang at the great battle of Mu Ye. King Wu died only six years later. The third great Zhou ruler was the king's brother the Duke of Zhou, who ruled as regent for his young nephew, and extended the new Zhou territories. He built a new city at modern Luoyang to rule the Zhou dynasty's new eastern lands.

The Zhou kings sent out their relatives and trusted subordinates to establish walled garrisons in their new territories, and by 800 BCE, there were around 200 vassal fiefdoms across the Zhou lands, run by regional lords, with ministers and officers to assist them. Chinese in later periods - including notably Confucius - looked back on the early Zhou as a golden age.

The Zhou is the first period of Chinese history from which texts have been transmitted. The Book of Documents contains speeches made by first Zhou kings. The Book of Changes (or I Ching) was the text of a new divination system that arose in the place of the old oracle bones. The Book of Songs contains odes that would have been sung at court, as well as poems that probably were originally folk songs. These books became part of the set of texts known as the Confucian Classics, and would later be memorized by hundreds of thousands of men studying for the Chinese civil service exams.

Spring & Autumn Period

After conquering the Shang, the early Zhou kings sent out their relatives and trusted subordinates to run vassal fiefdoms across the Zhou lands.

However as time went by, the regional lords became more powerful. In 771 BC, an alliance of regional lords and barbarian tribesmen killed the Zhou king. The Zhou court moved east to Luoyang, from where the Zhou kings continued to reign, as the 'Eastern Zhou'.

The first half of the Eastern Zhou is known as the Spring & Autumn period, after a chronicle of the times called 'The Spring and Autumn Annals'. The fiefdoms increasingly ignored the Zhou court and acted like independent states, struggling between each other for power. This was an era of instability, violence, and moral crisis. It was during this era that the intellectual foundations of Chinese civilisation were established, as people questioned the basic principles of how people should live. Confucius lived at this time, as well many other advisers, teachers and philosophers.

Laozi and Daoism

Laozi, or Lao Tzu, is a legendary figure, who is thought of as the founder of Daoism. Laozi is usually thought to have lived in the sixth century BCE, in the Spring & Autumn period. According to tradition, Laozi was a wise official at the Zhou court in Luoyang, who grew weary of the lack of morality he witnessed around him. He left for the west, riding a buffalo. When he reached the mountain pass at the edge of China, the guardian of the pass would not let him leave until he had written down his teachings. The text Laozi wrote was said to be the Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching), which became an important Daoist work. People who followed Daoist teachings affirmed the Way, or 'Dao', an indescribable force that is the source of all that exists. A major theme in the Daodejing is that yielding is better than being assertive. They thought that human actions upset the natural order. They felt that rulers should leave people alone, and allow the world to return to a natural state. Today, Daoism is one of the five religions officially recognized in China.


During the Spring & Autumn period of the Zhou dynasty, there were many states across China, which were often in conflict. Rulers of the states gathered officials and advisers at their courts. Confucius (traditional dates 551 - 479 BCE) was one of these men. He spent some time at the court of the state of Lu where he was born, in northeast China. He tried to persuade people to do good, and accept the traditional social roles that had existed in the the golden days of the early Zhou when it was thought people had lived in harmony. He encouraged people to learn from Zhou books such as the Book of Songs, and the Book of Documents. He said that if the ruler was virtuous, the people would also be good. Confucius travelled from Lu to other states, in search of a ruler who would listen to him. Confucius was disappointed that he did not succeed in influencing any rulers. But his disciples organized his teachings into the book known as the Analects, and his philosophy would became the most important school of thought in China.

Warring States

The Warring States period is the second half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty, from about 475 BCE on. By this time, the Zhou ruled only in name. Many smaller fiefdoms were conquered and amalgamated into bigger states, so that by 300 BCE, China was dominated by just seven strong powers, including Qin in the west, and Chu in the south.

Qin had been a poor state on the western frontiers, considered semi-barbarian by its neighbors to the east. But Qin introduced new 'Legalist' ways of ruling, to strengthen the state. Legalist advisers, such as Shang Yang (390-338 BCE) said that strong government depended not on Confucian virtue, but on effective institutions such as laws and tough discipline. Qin conquered Sichuan to the southwest, which gave it rich new farmland and iron ore mines. The Warring States ended when Qin conquered all the remaining states, and in 221 BCE, Qin Shihuangdi became first emperor of China.

First Emperor of China

One of the most remarkable figures in China's history, Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of Qin, had become king of the state of Qin in 246 BCE at the age of thirteen. He was a brilliant general, under whom Qin armies defeated all the other states. In 221 BCE, he united them in a realm that established China much as we know it today, and declared himself First Emperor. Across the new Chinese empire, the noble houses of the former states were abolished. The government sent its own officials to govern each area, using a great quantity of rules and regulations. Weights and measures were standardized, and even the width of axles was regulated, so that vehicles would run smoothly on the new roads that were built empire-wide. Criticism was not tolerated, and all books were destroyed except manuals on topics like agriculture and medicine. According to tradition, 460 scholars were buried alive as a warning against defiance. Hundreds of thousands of people were conscripted to build the Great Wall, as well as a huge palace at his capital Xianyang, and a gigantic tomb. The tomb was discovered by farmers in 1974, with its thousands of life-size terracotta figures lined up to protect the emperor. Ordinary people suffered from onerous labour service, and from harsh treatment under Qin laws.

Battle of Gaixia

When the First Emperor of Qin, Qin Shihuangdi died in 210 BCE, Qin institutions fell apart. Uprisings broke out. In the lands of the old state of Chu, a group of conscripts marching to do their frontier service were delayed by rain and floods. Rather than face death as punishment for arriving late, they decided to become outlaws. Their uprising was unsuccessful, but other revolts broke out. Qin generals defected, and the former nobles of the old states raised armies again. Out of the chaos, two major powers emerged, Western Chu and Han, and they fought for supremacy over China. After eight years of struggle, Chu was defeated at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE. Not long after, Han leader Liu Bang proclaimed himself first emperor of the Han dynasty.

Liu Bang, First Emperor of Han

Liu Bang was a man from an ordinary background who founded the Han dynasty. He had been in charge of a postal relay station during the Qin dynasty. After the Qin collapsed, Liu Bang took the title King of Han. In 202 BC he defeated his main rival and set up the Han Dynasty.

Han Confucian Rule

China's Han emperors needed to secure order in China, but avoid the harshness of the Qin regime that preceded it. They sent out local officials to govern the regions, as the Qin had done. But instead of the exhaustive and harsh rules that Qin had used to control people, Han rulers adopted Confucian ideas of moral rule. They believed the government should employ people who had learned Confucian ideas about loyalty and concern for others. The court searched out copies of the old books that Qin had attempted to destroy, and reconstructed the wisdom of the past. Under Emperor Han Wudi, an imperial academy was set up to train officials in the Confucian Classics . The prestige of government posts rose, and in order to become government officials men strove to display their learning and Confucian virtue. From these beginnings, China's imperial civil service developed, and the idea that government should be in the hands of educated men, steeped in Confucian learning and morality, would remain important right up until the twentieth century.

Zhang Qian and the Silk Road

Zhang Qian (200-114 BCE) was a Chinese official and diplomat.

In the third century BCE, a great confederation of nomadic tribes persistently raided China. Han Emperor Wudi sent troops to fight these tribes, who are known as the Xiongnu. He also sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, to Central Asia to find allies who might join with China against the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian and a band of 100 Chinese set off in 138 BCE. They were captured by the Xiongnu and held for twelve years. But they were treated well, and Zhang Qian married a Xiongnu wife. Finally they escaped, and continued their mission into Central Asia. There, Zhang Qian saw that people had a different culture. He heard that a conqueror - Alexander the Great - had come there from the west. He saw that the people used Greek coins and script. Zhang Qian's presence was the first recorded contact between the civilizations of China and the Mediterranean. Zhang Qian was surprised to find that people he met used bamboo and cloth products made in China. He was told that the products were brought by merchants from a land to the southeast, which was India. Thus India, as well as Greece, were now known to the Chinese. Zhang Qian travelled home with his wife. He astonished the Chinese at the Han court with his stories. His travels opened up to China many kingdoms then unknown to the Chinese, and are associated with the major route of transcontinental trade, which became known as the Silk Road.

Invention of Paper

Up until the Han period, documents were normally written on bone or bamboo strips, sewn and rolled together into scrolls. These were heavy, awkward, and hard to transport. People also wrote on silk, which was much lighter, but expensive. A Han court official called Cai Lun (around 50–121 CE) is regarded as the inventor of papermaking. He used rags, tree bark, old fishing nets and other plant fibres. Fragments of paper discovered in 2006 in northeast China suggest that paper was actually already in use more than 100 years earlier. Cai Lun's contribution was probably to improve this skill systematically and scientifically. Papermaking technology spread from China to the Arab world, and reached Europe in the eleventh century.

Buddhism Enters China

Towards the end of the Han dynasty around the year 200 CE, traders travelling from India to China along the Silk Road brought Buddhism with them. At first Buddhism was practised only by foreigners. To many Chinese, Buddhism initially seemed to be a variant of Daoism. But Chinese people began to be attracted to Buddhism. A Central Asian monk Kumarajiva (350-413 CE) settled in China and translated texts into Chinese, and some Chinese monks travelled to India to discover the religion for themselves, such as Faxian (337- around 442 CE) who went overland via Xinjiang.

China was at this time divided and in disarray, after the collapse of the Han dynasty. In the chaos of the times, Chinese people were attracted to Buddhism partly because it addressed questions of suffering and death in a way that China's own traditions did not. By the mid 500s, Buddhism had become very popular in China. The Chinese landscape was transformed by the building of Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Disunity and the Six Dynasties

The Han government fell into disarray during the second century. Government revenues shrank, so it could no longer pay its officials. There were plagues of locusts, and devastating floods. Rebellions broke out, and many people became refugees.

In the year 220, Han rule came to an end, and for the next 350 years, China was divided. At first, the famous 'Three Kingdoms' vied for power, (220-265). Then China was briefly reunified by the Western Jin, but Western Jin rule collapsed in 316. In the subsequent years, non-Chinese peoples took the upper hand in north China, including the nomadic Xiongnu people from the steppes, and the Xianbei people from Manchuria. North China became a battleground, and cities were sacked as leaders vied for power. Many who could do so fled south. In South China, refugee aristocrats from the north set up a government based in Nanjing. But none lasted long, and none could establish control over society in the way the Han had done. Without strong government, the wealthy built up huge landed estates and private armies. The number of serfs and slaves increased, sometimes tattooed on the face to make it harder to flee. The whole period of disunity is known as 'The Six Dynasties'. It produced some of China's most beautiful poetry, as men weary of the instability and violence of the age sought refuge in nature, good wine, and friendship.

Emperor Wendi and the Sui Dynasty

After the end of the Han dynasty in 220, China was fragmented. After three centuries of division and instability, in 581 a northern army general managed to reunite China and declared the founding of the Sui Dynasty. As Emperor Wendi, he had ambitious plans to rebuild the country. At first, the Sui empire was stable, and the economy prospered. Emperor Wendi issued a new law code, and introduced written civil service exams to select good officials. These policies had very long term impact - China's legal system in all succeeding dynasties would be based on the Sui code, and the civil service exams were an important aspect of society until the twentieth century. The Sui also constructed the amazing Grand Canal which linked north and south China. But the Sui emperors tried to do too much too soon, and less than forty years after the dynasty was founded, in 617 the Sui was overthrown by rebellion.

Emperor Tang Taizong

Emperor Tang Taizong (ruled 626-649) was one of the founders of the Tang dynasty.

After the Sui dynasty collapsed, many contenders for power emerged. An ambitious nobleman emerged as victor, and founded the Tang dynasty in 618. His second son staged a coup and took power as Emperor Taizong. Taizong along with his father are thought of as co-founders of the Tang. Taizong proved to be a wise and hard-working ruler, who selected good advisers and could listen to criticism. China entered a period of great prosperity. The Turks were a recurring threat along China's northwest borders. Taizong went on the attack, conquering Silk Road cities such as Turfan, and massively expanding the empire. He welcomed a Christian mission to his fabulous capital, Chang'an. He was fascinated by the news of foreign countries that the monk Xuanzang brought back to China after his travels. The Tang Dynasty had 20 emperors and lasted 290 years. It was the most open, cosmopolitan period in all of China's history.


During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism was a significant part of Chinese life. Buddhism had begun to spread to China from India in the Han dynasty, brought by travellers on the Silk Road. During the period of disunity after the fall of the Han, Buddhism continued to spread, and by the Tang, had become the most popular religion in China. Buddhist stories became woven into Chinese popular culture, Buddhist monasteries were important to Tang China's economy and society, and Buddhist art and architecture became part of China's landscape, creating monuments such as the Longmen Grottoes.

Monasteries owned large landed estates, ran schools, and invested in businesses such as mills.

Xuanzang was a Chinese monk who went to India to seek Buddhist scriptures. And at the request of Emperor Taizong, he also wrote an account of his travels. Xuanzang's book was the inspiration for a novel called Journey to the West, which written about 900 years later during the Ming dynasty, and was later translated into English with the title Monkey.

At the end of the Tang, however, as the confidence of the dynasty waned, opposition to Buddhism arose, and it was criticized as a foreign religion.


The Tang government was tolerant of foreign religions and cultures. A stone stele known as the Nestorian Stele, which was made in the late 700s, records how Christianity came to China. The inscription on the stele says that a Christian delegation arrived in China in 635: dressed in white, and carrying scriptures and icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the Christians were greeted by Emperor Taizong, who ordered the scriptures to be translated. The inscription records that Emperor Taizong declared the teachings to be lucid and clear, and ordered them spread through the land.

After the An Lushan Rebellion in the late 700s, Tang power weakened, and society became less open to foreign ideas. In 845 CE the Emperor issued a decree against Buddhism, which also said that 2000 Christian and Zoroastrian men had been ordered to stop 'polluting Chinese customs' and return to lay life. By the tenth century, Christian presence in China was wiped out.

The Nestorian stele is written in Chinese and Syriac.

Expansion West

During the 500s, a new power arose on China's frontiers, the Turks. The Tang rulers at first tried to control the Turks using marriage diplomacy and trade. Then in the mid 600s under Emperor Tang Taizong, China went on the offensive: Tang armies conquered oasis city states along the Silk Road, including cities such as Turfan across what is now Xinjiang province, and for a time extended their control deep into Central Asia. The Silk Road became a busy trade route, extending from the Tang capital, Chang'an to the Mediterranean. Merchants, most of whom were Persians, traded silk and many other products along the route. Technologies such as silk making spread from China to the west, whilst religions such as Zoroastrianism and Christianity spread to China, though none took hold as Buddhism had.

Trade Grows

China's economy grew rapidly during the Tang, stimulated by the Grand Canal, which linked the empire north to south, and by the expansion of international trade on the Silk Road and on sea routes into Southeast Asia. Coastal ports such as Guangzhou prospered as maritime trade expanded. Yangzhou became a great economic centre, where goods from China's interior and from overseas were trans-shipped and sent up the Grand Canal to the cities of the north.

Empress Wu

Empress Wu was the only woman in Chinese history who took the title emperor. The daughter of a former timber trader, she became a palace maid when she was fourteen, and then became a concubine of Emperor Gaozong. Politically capable and ruthless, she had herself installed as Gaozong's empress. After Gaozong became ill in 660, she took charge of the empire herself. After his death, she deposed her two sons and in 690 proclaimed herself emperor of a new dynasty. She improved the examination system, and promoted economic growth. She circulated texts that predicted the reincarnation of the Buddha Maitreya as a woman, under whom the world would be free of all troubles. She sponsored large-scale Buddhist projects, including temples, and an enormous statue at the Longmen Grottoes which is said to bear a likeness of her own face. She was finally deposed in 705, when she was over eighty, and buried at the Tang imperial tomb site at Qianling, near Xi'an.

The Sport of Polo

The Tang aristocracy had strong links to the peoples of the steppes to China's north and west, who had lived in north China during the period of disorder before the founding of the Tang. Influenced by steppe culture, Tang nobles enjoyed vigorous activities like horseback riding, hunting and polo. Polo players rode on horseback, with a long mallet to hit the ball. Women also played polo, and there were women's polo teams. The Tang court also enjoyed other leisure activities related to the Silk Road and its peoples, such as music from the Silk Road oases cities, and a form of energetic dancing that became hugely popular at court. One Tang prince even lived in a yurt tent, and would offer guests roast mutton that he carved off the bone with a dagger.


There were Muslims in China from the 600s, soon after the foundation of Islam. The Muslims in China were mostly traders who came from the Islamic world of West Asia to the ports of China's southern seaboard, such as Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Changzhou. The Tang dynasty's cosmopolitan culture helped the introduction of Islam. The Great Mosque in Xi'an, which was known as Chang'an, was founded in 742.

Battle of Talas

From the 630s onwards, Tang rulers expanded China's power westwards into Central Asia. In the early 700s, the Arabs were advancing into Central Asia. In 751, an Arab army met a Tang army at Talas, which is in today's Kyrgyzstan. The Tang were defeated, and the Battle of Talas marked the end of Tang China's westward expansion. Only four years later, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out in China, and all Chinese troops in Central Asia were ordered back to the interior to deal with the rebellion. The Battle of Talas was the first and the only time that Arab and Chinese armies met.

An Lushan Rebellion

The An Lushan Rebellion was a massive revolt that seriously weakened the Tang dynasty.

An Lushan was the son of a Persian father and Turkic mother. He was governor of Tang defence forces in the north east, responsible for controlling the nomadic tribes at China's borders. An Lushan was a court favourite, and received gifts and favours from Emperor Xuanzong and with his favourite consort Yang Guifei. In 755, An Lushan heard court enemies were plotting against him, and he rose in revolt. He marched south and the emperor fled. After eight years' struggle during which millions died or went missing, the Tang finally suppressed the rebellion. However, the Tang government never regained its authority. It pardoned rebel leaders and appointed them as military governors, who then acted like rulers of independent states.

The rebellion caused much disorder in north China. Many people fled south, and cities of the Lower Yangtze area such as Yangzhou, Suzhou and Hangzhou flourished as new people came in. Trade expanded, with markets opening in more and more towns, partly because the government gave up trying to restrict trade to government-supervised markets.

Du Fu and Tang Poetry

Du Fu (712-770) is one of China's most famous poets. Du Fu tried to become a government official, but his life was devastated by the An Lushan Rebellion, as were the lives of many others. Du Fu's early poems described the beauty of the natural world. Later, he wrote about the suffering caused by war, and described the hardships endured by his family during the rebellion. Du Fu was not well known during his own lifetime, but his works later became very influential and greatly loved.

The Tang is considered the golden age of Chinese poetry. Poems were an important part of social life. Men had to master poetry for the civil service exams, and poetry became a sort of national pursuit. Huge amounts of poetry were written - a massive compilation of all known Tang poems was printed under Emperor Kangxi in the eighteenth century. It contains nearly 50,000 poems.

Here is a reading of 'Spring Scene', one of Du Fu's poems, in English, and in Chinese.


Woodblock printing was one of the great inventions of ancient China. There is evidence of woodblock printing in China in the 700s. By the 800s, the technique had been perfected, and within a couple of centuries, the spread of printed books revolutionized the communication of ideas in China. Woodblock printing involves carving the characters onto a wooden board, then brushing ink onto the board, and pressing paper onto it, and smoothing it with a brush. At the same time as printing developed, China stopped using the scroll format for documents, and began to use flat books with folded pages. The oldest surviving printed book in the world is the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text in Chinese, which is dated 868 CE.

Suppression of Buddhism

Buddhism was an important aspect of Chinese life during the Tang dynasty. However, after the An Lushan Rebellion, the opposition to Buddhism as a foreign religion strengthened, and Buddhism was also criticised for economic reasons, because Buddhist monasteries owned a lot of land and could avoid paying tax. In 841, the government initiated a massive suppression of Buddhism, as well as other foreign religions. Nearly 5,000 monasteries were demolished or converted to other use, and 250,000 monks and nuns were returned to lay life.

Fall of the Tang

The Tang government never really recovered after the An Lushan Rebellion. Eunuchs took over court affairs. Regional commanders threatened central control. After 860, the government could no longer maintain order, and bandit armies ravaged the countryside and pillaged towns. For example, Guangzhou suffered pillaging and a massacre of foreign inhabitants. Eventually in 907, Tang rule was abandoned. A period began called the Five Dynasties, when China was again fragmented.

Zhao Kuangyin, Emperor Song Taizu

Zhao Kuangyin (reigned 960-976) was the founder of the Song dynasty.

After the Tang dynasty disintegrated, there was a series of five short-lived dynasties in north China. The great cities of Chang'an and Luoyang were ravaged, and the Beijing area was occupied by Khitans, a non-Chinese people. South China meanwhile broke up into many small states.

Zhao Kuangyin was a military commander, from an elite family in north China. He was famous for his horsemanship - it was said that he once hit his head on a city gate while riding an unbroken horse. He fell off, but picked himself up, chased the horse down, remounted, and continued his gallop unperturbed. He launched a coup in 960, and set up the Song dynasty. As Emperor Song Taizu, he subdued most of the warlords of the south, and reunited China after eighty years of fragmentation.

Emperor Taizu made the city of Kaifeng his capital. As Song capital, Kaifeng was a much more commercial city than Tang Chang'an had been. Kaifeng was dominated not by palaces, but by markets that were open all hours. Instead of the walled compounds of Tang Chang'an, Kaifeng had multi-story houses which opened onto the street.

Song China's Neighbors

The Song empire was smaller than the Tang empire had been. Song rulers had no hope of regaining the lands of Central Asia, and could not even dislodge alien regimes from large areas of north China. The area around Beijing, was ruled by the Khitan people who set up a state called Liao. Northwest China was ruled by the Tangut people who set up the Western Xia state, with its capital at Yinchuan. The Song tried to conquer Liao, but were badly beaten, and in 1004 they made a treaty with Liao, agreeing to make annual payments in exchange for agreement not to invade. Forty years later, the Song made a similar agreement with the Tanguts. But defence remained a constant concern, and the Song army increased to over a million men.

Education and the Civil Service

The Song government massively expanded China's civil service examination system. By the end of Song dynasty, up to 400,000 men would attempt the prefectural civil service exams each year. Boys and men would study for decades to prepare for the exams, which tested their literary skills and their understanding of the Confucian classics. Those who graduated successfully would then start their first civil service job, perhaps working in a county government office, before a transfer to a post in the capital, travelling widely across China as they moved from one assignment to the next as their careers progressed. The prestige of passing the exams was extremely high, and gave a graduate's family elite status. The exam system created a whole class of educated 'scholar officials' - men selected on merit, steeped in Confucian ideas of duty and public service. They formed an elite that was unlike that of any other major civilisation.

Increase in Use of Books

Woodblock printing had been developed in the 800s, just before the founding of the Song dynasty. Printing meant that books could be mass-produced, so they became cheaper and much more widely available. The Song government printed and circulated standard texts, including not only the Confucian classics, but also practical illustrated handbooks on topics such as mathematics, medicine, agriculture, warfare and architecture, to help spread knowledge of up-to-date techniques and tools. Private printing presses also flourished. Now, instead of relying on experts, ordinary people could use books to establish how to organise their own weddings and funerals, browse for recipes in cookery books, or read advice about how to look after elderly relatives.

In the eleventh century, a system of printing using moveable type was developed, but its use was limited by the nature of Chinese script, which required thousands of pieces of type. Woodblock printing continued to be widely used up until the end of the nineteenth century.

Economic and Industrial Development

The Song dynasty was a period of remarkable industrial development. Ceramics, silk and lacquer reached superb levels of technical perfection. Song potters created exquisite ceramics, and are famous for their technically perfect, sophisticated designs. Silk was produced by many small-scale family businesses, as well as by large government workshops. The city of Suzhou became famous for silk production and embroidery. Heavy industry such as iron production also grew massively in the Song, helped by the invention of hydraulic machinery to drive bellows, and the use of explosives in mining.

Commerce expanded enormously, as improved transport especially on canals and rivers helped circulate huge quantities of goods within China and overseas. Market towns grew, and new commercial networks connected villages to market towns and cities. Underpinning the Song commercial revolution was a transformation of agriculture. Farmers used new strains of seed, and new irrigation techniques, which massively increased rice crops.

Paper Money

The world's first paper money emerged in Song China. With trade increasing and the economy flourishing, the demand for money in Song China grew enormously. Coins had been used as the basic unit of trade for centuries. The number of coins minted rose from one billion per year at start of the Song dynasty, to six billion within a century. In Sichuan province particularly heavy iron coins had been used, and for convenience, merchants started to use paper notes from deposit shops where they had left coins or goods. The government took over the system in the 1020s, producing the world's first government-issued paper money. The paper notes were issued for three years, after which they would be exchanged, because the paper tended to have worn out. The use of paper money gradually became established across China.


The use of gunpowder in warfare began in China during the Song dynasty. Song China faced well-organized rival states to the north, and defence was a major preoccupation. The Song had an army of more than a million men, and sophisticated military technology. Gunpowder had been invented in the ninth century by Chinese alchemists. A Song dynasty handbook, Essentials of the Military Arts, records the first true gunpowder formula, and describes how to produce it on a large scale. Song soldiers used gunpowder weapons such as incendiary projectiles, smoke bombs, fire arrows, and grenades.

Wang Anshi's Reforms

Song China was under pressure from rival states, and had a huge defense budget. By the mid eleventh century, the government was running out of money. Officials were divided about how to respond to the difficulties. One camp, led by statesman Sima Guang, thought the government should focus on making sure the civil service was staffed by men of good character with a classical education. He thought that the state's economic activities should be minimal, and wanted government cost cuts and tax reductions.

The opposing group was led by a former regional official, Wang Anshi, who said the state needed men who were not only educated in the Confucian classics, but professionally trained to handle military matters, financial affairs, and practical administration. Wang argued that the government should intervene to create prosperity. With the support of the emperor, Wang introduced many reforms, adding new specialized degrees in law, science and medicine to the civil service exams. He launched a national loans system called the Green Shoots scheme, designed to help give farmers access to cheap credit. Wang Anshi's reform initiatives were a massive national program, and continued for over ten years, though they met with huge resistance.

Su Song and His Clock

Su Song(1020-1101) was a scholar official, who is famous for having built a mechanical clock.

Su Song was born near Quanzhou in south China. He passed the civil service exams and was also an expert on a wide range of technical subjects including pharmaceutical botany, zoology and minerals, as well as calendar science and astronomy. In 1077, he was sent as an ambassador to the Liao court to celebrate the winter solstice. But he arrived one day early, because the calendar being used in Song China was wrong. The Liao calendar, however, had been correct. Greatly concerned, the Song emperor ordered Su Song to build a new clock at the Song capital Kaifeng. The clock Su Song built involved a chain-drive mechanism added to a water-powered clock. It told the time of day, as well as the day of the month, and the phases of the moon. Rotating figures dressed in miniature Chinese clothes came out of doors with plaques to announce the time of day, and rang bells and gongs, and beat drums. At the top of the 36-foot tower was an armillary sphere that showed the changing location of the planets and stars.

Su Song was one of several Song dynasty polymaths of astonishingly broad ability and curiosity. The Song period is famous for impressive advances in science and technology.

Maritime Trade and the Compass

The Song government encouraged foreign trade, especially maritime trade. For the first time in history, Chinese foreign trade by sea exceeded trade by land. As overseas demand for China's fabulous porcelain and silk and other goods boomed, Song merchant ships sailed to Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and as far afield as the Arabian peninsula and the east coast of Africa. Wrecks of Song ships have been found with huge cargoes of tens of thousands of pieces of ceramic ware, as well as spices, medicines, copper coins, and bamboo products.

Chinese sailors were assisted by the invention of the mariner's compass. The compass freed sailors from the need to navigate by recognising landmarks along the coasts. Chinese people had long known that a magnetized needle would point north-south. In Song times, the compass was made usable at sea by reducing the size of the needle and attaching it to a stem. The first mention of the compass being used in this way was in a book written in 1119. The busiest Chinese port was Quanzhou, on the coast of Fujian.

Jin Conquest of Kaifeng

The Jin dynasty was set up in north China by the Jurchen people of Manchuria.

The Jurchens were originally horse breeders and hunters. They developed agriculture, craft industries and commerce, and became a strong power. In 1115, they declared themselves the Jin dynasty. They defeated the Liao and then attacked the Song. In 1127 they took the fabulous Song capital at Kaifeng, sacked and looted it, and forced the captured Song emperor to march into captivity in the Jin capital Shangjing, along with the imperial family and thousands of others. The Jin then ruled north China for nearly a century.

One of the Song emperor's sons meanwhile fled south, and set up a new Song capital in Hangzhou.

Hangzhou was meant to be a temporary base, but Song attempts to retake the north did not succeed, and Hangzhou remained the Song capital for over 150 years, until the end of the dynasty. The period during which the capital was in Hangzhou is known as the Southern Song. The loss of the north was a huge blow, but the Song Chinese were able to use the extensive waterways of the south, and enjoyed great prosperity as China's commercial revolution continued.

Li Qingzhao

Li Qingzhao (lived 1084 to around 1151) was a Chinese writer and poet. She is considered the greatest woman poet in Chinese history. Li Qingzhao was born into a literary family, and already as a teenager she wrote poetry that was highly regarded. She married a scholar official, and lived in Kaifeng. She and her husband fled their home to avoid the invading Jin armies and travelled south. Li Qingzhao's husband died of malaria during the journey. As a grieving widow, Li Qingzhao reached Hangzhou in 1132. Li Qingzhao's poems drew on her personal experiences, from her happy younger days in Kaifeng, to her sadness in later life. Li Qingzhao's poetry continues to be loved today.

Here is an extract of one of Li Qingzhao's poems.

Yue Fei

Yue Fei (1103-1142) was a Song general who tried to regain north China from the Jin. He is one of China's most famous heroes.

After the Song set up their southern capital in Hangzhou, fighting continued between Song China and the Jin. Yue Fei had been born into a poor family in north China. Yue Fei's mother is supposed to have had characters tattooed on his back saying, 'Serve the Country with Utmost Loyalty'. Yue Fei became an army commander, and led several campaigns into Jin territory. Yue Fei was about to attempt to retake Kaifeng itself when the emperor decided to sue for peace instead of continuing the war. Yue Fei was jailed for insubordination. When he was charged, the story goes that he ripped his clothes to reveal the tattoo on his back. He was killed in 1142, at the order of his enemies at court.

China signed a peace agreement with the Jin in the same year, giving up all the northern territory. Some people welcomed the peace with relief, but others thought that the Song should have continued to try to reconquer the north.

Yue Fei has come to represent the idea of noble loyalty, and many myths grew up around him. When Japan invaded China in the twentieth century, a poem that Yue Fei is said to have written was set to music and sung as an anthem to resistance against the invaders.


Song dynasty China was dominated by Confucianism, which formed the basis of education, public life and private family rituals. Song scholars introduced some Buddhist ideas into Confucianism, and the resulting philosophy is known as Neo-Confucianism. According to Neo-Confucianism, everything in the universe is a manifestation of one single 'principle'. If people understood that principle, they would understand the moral principles by which they should try and live, in order to achieve an ordered family, and peace in the world.

One of the leading Neo-Confucian thinkers was Zhu Xi (1130-1200). He stressed 'the investigation of things', to perceive the pattern or principle that underlay everything. He said that the goal of education was not just the pursuit of exam degrees, but moral self cultivation. He taught that people could put their learning into practice though being upstanding members of local society. If they did not get a civil service job, people could still do good works by focussing on their local communities, running their own family affairs properly, setting up charities and schools and looking after the poor. Through to the twentieth century, Chinese governments promoted Zhu Xi's 'School of Principle' as orthodox Confucianism.

Khubilai Khan

Khubilai Khan (lived 1215-1294) was the grandson of Genghis Khan. He conquered China and founded the China's Yuan Dynasty.

Genghis Khan had united the peoples of Mongolia in the 1200s, and begun one of the most amazing campaigns of conquest in world history. His troops sacked the Jin Jurchen capital in Beijing in 1215. His grandson Khubilai Khan conquered the rest of China, defeating the last Song loyalists in 1279 at the Battle of Yamen. For the first time in history, the whole of China had been conquered by a foreign people.

The Mongols ruled China for nearly a hundred years. They organized society into different categories, with the Mongols on the top, and the southern Chinese at the bottom. The Mongol capital was in Beijing.

Emperor Hongwu

Zhu Yuanzhang (reigned 1368-1398) was the founder of the Ming dynasty, one of only two commoners who became emperors of China.

Zhu Yuanzhang was born into a very poor family from the Huai River Plain, at a time when the Mongol Yuan dynasty was collapsing and there was increasing chaos across China. His parents having died in an epidemic, Zhu became a beggar monk, and then joined a local rebel army. A big man of striking appearance, with a huge jaw and a pockmarked face, he rose to be a commander. He defeated his rivals and in 1368, proclaimed a new dynasty, the Ming, and took the name Hongwu, which means 'vastly martial'.

Hongwu knew from his own experience how bad ordinary people's lives were if there was no strong government. He tried to keep government costs low and make taxes fair, and he issued a harsh law code to try and make society peaceful. He was obsessed with control, suspicious that people were plotting against him, and executed thousands in cruel purges. He abolished the role of prime minister, and concentrated power in his own hands. He wanted China to be the supreme power in East Asia again, as it had been in the Han and the Tang, when subordinate foreign states brought tribute to the court. He forbade private foreign trade, as he wanted all exchange to happen through the tribute system.

The Ming dynasty lasted 276 years.

Nanjing becomes Ming capital

Nanjing is a city on the south bank of the Yangtze River.

The Ming founder Emperor Hongwu took Nanjing and made it his base in the 1350s when he was fighting other warlords. When he became emperor, Hongwu made Nanjing the capital of Ming China. The city was located at the heart of the hugely wealthy Lower Yangtze area, and had a good defensive position. Nanjing had never before been capital of all of China. Hongwu built immense walls around the city to secure it from attack and to reinforce his authority. The Ming walls incorporated sections of earlier walls, and formed an irregular shape because of the hilly terrain. Around 22 miles long, the Ming walls were up to 65 feet high. Emperor Hongwu ordered communities in 188 counties to make bricks for the walls, organising the work through the 'hundreds and tithings' system he set up. Each brick was stamped with the name of the community that had made the brick. It took approximately 350 million bricks to build the walls, over a period of 20 years.

The Yongle emperor moved the capital to Beijing in 1421.

Nanjing city walls are amongst the longest city walls in the world, and still stand today.

Hundreds and Tithings

Emperor Hongwu wanted to keep government costs low and did not want tax collectors harassing his people, so he made local communities themselves responsible for tax and government service. Local communities were organized into groups of 110 households, out of which the largest ten households were responsible on behalf of the whole group to collect tax and organise labour for government initiatives - such as making bricks for the Nanjing city walls. The system was called the 'hundreds and tithings' system. To set it up, a census of every household in the empire was carried out, as well as a land survey to record who owned every piece of land. The census was called the Yellow Register, because of the covers of each record were yellow. The land register became known as the Fishscale Register because the maps of all the small plots of land looked like the scales of a fish.

Hongwu's tax system created difficulties for later Ming administrators. Families that were responsible for tax struggled with the burdens upon them. And because tax was so low, local officials ended up having to demand irregular extra payments, exactly what Hongwu had wanted to avoid.

Emperor Yongle

Emperor Yongle was Hongwu's fourth son. An excellent soldier, he was made Prince of Yan, with responsibility to defend against the Mongols. Yan was a fiefdom around modern-day Beijing.

When Hongwu died in 1398, his eldest son had already passed away, and Hongwu's grandson inherited the throne. The new young emperor was concerned about how harsh his grandfather's rule had been. He promoted more benevolent Confucian government, and also moved to reduce the power of his uncles, the imperial princes.

The Prince of Yan rose in revolt, and after a three-year civil war, in 1402 he took the throne for himself, as Emperor Yongle. He had thousands of people who had opposed him executed or imprisoned. One of the most famous was Fang Xiaoru, a senior official, who refused to draft the announcement of Yongle's succession to the throne.

Yongle moved the capital to Beijing, his own former fiefdom, and constructed the fabulous Forbidden City. Aware that people questioned his right to the throne, Yongle had a particularly strong desire to be known as a great ruler. He sponsored the massive treasure voyages led by Admiral Zheng He to expand the tribute system and display China's power and wealth to the world.

Zheng He

Zheng He (1371 to 1433) was the admiral of seven voyages from China to the Indian Ocean. Zheng He was born into a Muslim family in Yunnan, in southwest China. When he was ten, the Ming army conquered Yunnan, and Zheng He was sent to be a servant at the court of the Prince of Yan. Zheng He was bright and loyal, and gained the Prince's trust. In 1402, the Prince of Yan took the throne as Emperor Yongle. He decided to send out spectacular maritime expeditions to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and chose Zheng He to lead the voyages. The aim of the voyages was to display China's power and wealth, to extend the tributary system, and satisfy Yongle's desire for glory. The expeditions sailed as far as East Africa and brought back many gifts from other kingdoms, including exotic plants, spices and animals.

The final expedition sailed in 1431. After that the voyages were stopped. Some officials opposed the voyages because of their huge cost. Some felt China should focus resource instead on the northern frontier and the Mongols. In the later part of the Ming, China's naval capability and coastal defence declined, and China became isolated, just at the time European powers were entering the Indian Ocean.

The Tumu Crisis and the Great Wall

When the Ming dynasty took power in 1368, the Mongols, who had been ruling China, fled back to Mongolia. But the Mongols continued to be the foremost threat to Ming China. At first, the Ming emperors tried to control the Mongols using a combination of military attacks and tribute trade. But Mongol raids continued. In 1449, the Ming emperor decided personally to lead a campaign against the Mongols. The campaign was a disaster, and the emperor himself was captured at a courier station called Tumu about 80 miles from Beijing.

After the Tumu Crisis, the Ming rulers decided to strengthen the wall system along the northern borders, where the Chinese had built defenses from as early as the Zhou period. By the end of the Ming, the Great Wall was thousands of miles long with nearly 25,000 watchtowers.

Wealth, trade and luxury

Although the first Ming emperor's policies had held back the development of commerce, the government's grip loosened, and in the 1500s a new commercial revolution transformed China even more deeply than in the first commercial revolution in the Song. Many farm households now sold much of their produce, and shopped at markets for daily items. Long-distance trade now carried not only luxuries, but bulk products such as cotton, grain and vegetable oils. And despite the government's attempt to control international trade, massive amounts of silver entered China, first from Japan, and then from the New World.

The houses of Ming China's rich elites contained large gardens, and were filled with beautiful objects including blue & white porcelain from the famous kilns at Jingdezhen, silks, lacquer, jade, lattice work, ivory, cloisonné, and rosewood furniture. Chinese families joined together into 'lineage' organisations, based on descent from a shared ancestor, and built up shared property. They used income from the property to support lineage schools where boys trained for the civil service exams, the maintenance of ancestral halls, and charity to look after family members who had fallen on hard times.

Japanese Pirates

The first Ming emperor banned private foreign trade, because he wanted all foreign exchange to occur in the tribute system: foreign states were to bring gifts as tribute, the emperor would graciously give gifts in return, and trade would be conducted alongside. Foreign tribute embassies were allowed access only at specific ports and at specific intervals, with a limited quota of men and ships. To enroll more states into the tribute system, Emperor Yongle sent out emissaries in the 1400s, including Zheng He and the famous Ming treasure ships.

But despite the bans on private international trade, through the 1500s, commerce occurred anyway along the China coast. All the merchants doing business outside the official system - Chinese, Japanese and South East Asian traders, as well as Europeans who now appeared on the scene - were technically smugglers. Bands of traders built up large armed fleets, with strongholds such as at Moon Harbour in Fujian to store goods and buy and sell. Pirates were attracted to pillage boats laden with merchandise, and raided communities ashore. There was chaos up and down the coast, as government continued to try and enforce its ban through to the late 1500s.

Macao & the Europeans

In the early 1500s - the great age of European exploration - Portuguese adventurers sailed into the seas around China, and joined in the trading, smuggling and piracy up and down the China coast. The Portuguese wanted a land base to store goods, but all foreigners were kept out of China except the few required to keep the Ming tribute system functioning. In 1557, the Chinese permitted the Portuguese to live on the tiny rocky promontory of Macao, the only exception to the no-foreigners rule. The Portuguese were allowed to attend twice-yearly trade fairs in Canton.

Macao became an important location along the rapidly developing international trade routes. Catholic missionaries built schools, charities and churches in Macao, including St. Paul's Cathedral, built in 1602, and today a famous ruin. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci lived in Macao when he first came to China.

In 1999 sovereignty of Macao was returned to China.

Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was an Italian Jesuit missionary, who was instrumental in introducing Christianity and western scientific ideas to China.

Ricci was born in Italy, and studied in Rome, learning mathematics, cosmology and astronomy alongside his religious studies. He volunteered to travel to East Asia as a missionary. In 1582 he arrived in Macao which was the only place in China that foreigners could freely settle. Ricci learned Chinese and studied Chinese culture. He eventually got permission to enter China, and to travel to Beijing. Ricci lived in Beijing from 1601 for the rest of his life, teaching western scientific knowledge and preaching Christianity. He made a European-style map that showed China in relation to other countries of the world, bringing to China a new conception of the earth. Ricci also translated western scientific books into Chinese. Many elite scholar-gentry interacted with Ricci, and some converted to Christianity. Ricci felt that Europe should not be ignorant of China's heritage, and translated the Confucian 'Four Books' for a European audience.

Emperor Wanli

Emperor Wanli (reigned 1572-1620) was the thirteenth Ming emperor.

At the beginning of his reign, Wanli was guided by Zhang Juzheng, a visionary official who aimed to increase state revenue. He ordered a massive new land survey, and combined all the old taxes into one payment, in silver. He cut costs, cutting back things like the hostel service run by the government post system, and reducing the number of students on government grants. Through Zhang Juzheng's efforts, the systems set up by Ming founder worked at their best possible capacity, and government treasuries were full again.

But after Zhang died, central administration deteriorated, and government systems were overwhelmed by the changes that were occurring in society and in the economy. In the last twenty years of his reign, Wanli refused to attend to imperial duties. Frustrated by the difficulties of trying to make the government system work, he refused to read papers and stopped filling vacant jobs. Officials would assemble for daily palace audiences, but the throne was usually empty. By 1604, half of local magistrate jobs and central ministerial posts were vacant. The palace eunuchs - castrated men who supervised life in the palace - filled the gap, taking bribes to carry messages to the emperor, and even collecting taxes. Frustrated officials grouped together to try and influence government. The most famous group was the Donglin Society, which became a major force in politics, pushing for a return to proper Confucian rule.

Xu Xiake

Xu Xiake (1587-1641) was a Chinese travel writer and geographer.

Xu Xiake was admired by his friends for his freedom and detachment - 'Xiake' was a nickname given to him by a friend meaning 'one who is in the sunset clouds'. As a boy, he was interested in books on history and geography. He spent most of his adult years travelling through China, mainly on foot, keeping travel diaries as he walked. Xu's detailed observations meant he could correct errors in existing texts. He corrected a mistake in a book on geography supposed to have been compiled by Confucius by showing how the Jinsha River was actually the headwaters of the Yangtze River. Xu's diaries reveal his great love of landscape. He always wanted to climb as high as possible, not only for the best view and to obtain the most accurate scientific information, but also for a sublime spiritual experience.

Xu Xiake's writings were compiled after his death in The Travel Diaries of Xu Xiake.

Social Problems and Protest

As China became richer through the 1500s, people worried that prosperity was causing society to deteriorate. The well-off flaunted their wealth with fine clothes and elaborate lifestyles, and hostility increased between the rich and the poor. In the 1600s, there were social and economic protests in both town and countryside. Thousands of silk weavers in Suzhou went on strike in 1601, and in the same year, thousands of workers rioted in the porcelain manufacturing city of Jingdezhen, angry at low wages and increased production quotas. One potter threw himself into a hot kiln and died in protest. In the countryside, bonded labourers rose up against their masters, and tenants refused to pay what they considered unfair rents to their landlords.

Government Bankrupt

Despite the strong economy of the 1500s, by the early 1600s, the Ming state was running out of money. A war in Korea against the Japanese drained the treasury, as did the imperial family, which had tens of thousands of members. The government could not provide local services - flood defences fell into disrepair and relief supplies ran out. International trade patterns changed too. The Dutch joined in the trade in East Asia, and attacked the Spanish and the Portuguese, which resulted in a steep drop in the amount of silver flowing into China. This made the price of silver in China go up. People needed silver to pay their taxes. They now needed many more copper coins to buy silver than before, and the effect on many households was disastrous.

There was bad weather, famine, drought, floods and epidemics. Families were driven into poverty, further reducing the amount of productive land that could be taxed, and reducing government resources.

Li Zicheng's Rebellion

Li Zicheng (1605-45) was a rebel leader, whose revolt helped bring about the end of the Ming dynasty.

Li was born in 1606 in north Shaanxi, not far from the Great Wall. In the 1620s, there was famine in Shaanxi, and gangs roamed the countryside. Li was a poor man who had struggled to make a living, working as shepherd, as an ironworker's apprentice, and at a postal relay station. Laid off due to government shortages, he then joined the army. When promised supplies did not arrive at his unit, disappointed and desperate, Li and other soldiers mutinied. As disorder spread, Li became leader of a large rebel group, one of several that were in the 1630s rampaging across China. This became a terrible time of destruction. In the 1640s, rebels cut the dykes of the Yellow River, and hundreds of thousands of people died in the subsequent floods and famine. Epidemics broke out too, killing people on a massive scale. Li Zicheng announced a new dynasty, and in 1644 marched on Beijing. He took the city, and the last Ming emperor committed suicide.

But disorder continued across the country. Li Zicheng was eventually chased out of Beijing by invaders from beyond the Great Wall, the Manchus.

Manchu Invasion

The Manchus were tribes descended from the Jurchen Jin who had ruled north China during the Song period. Known as a tough, straightforward people, the Manchu men shaved the fronts of their heads, and plaited the rest of their hair into a long braid. They had been defeated by Genghis Khan's Mongols in the 1200s and had retreated to the north. But by the 1600s they were again challenging China's frontier.

They reorganized society into eight military units called 'banners', each with its own color flag, and set up Chinese-style government. They declared a new dynasty, the Qing, and they launched raids into China. At the time, the Ming dynasty was crumbling. A rebel leader Li Zicheng took Beijing in April 1644. The Manchus invaded China, defeated Li Zicheng, and in June 1644, proclaimed their boy emperor the new ruler of China.

Emperor Kangxi

Emperor Kangxi (reigned 1662-1722) of the Qing dynasty was one of the most admired rulers in Chinese history.

Kangxi became emperor when he was only seven. The government was at first in the hands of regents, but when he was sixteen, Kangxi boldly took power for himself. The Qing rulers had conquered China only 25 years previously. They were Manchus, northerners from beyond the Great Wall. Only four years after Kangxi took control, there was a massive rebellion which could have broken the dynasty, but under the young emperor's strong leadership, Qing armies crushed the rebels. Kangxi extended Qing control over Taiwan and Tibet, he agreed on borders and trade relations with Russia, and he personally led Qing armies against the Zunghar Mongols. Not only an effective military leader, Kangxi was also a highly cultured and sensitive man. He showed great respect for Chinese civilisation, sponsoring arts and cultural projects, and was open also to western learning, interested in math and science. He issued an edict in 1692 tolerating Christianity, although subsequent disagreements between Kangxi and the Pope about whether Chinese Christians could continue ancestor worship led to many missionaries being expelled.

Rebellion of the Three Feudatories

The Rebellion of the Three Feudatories was a massive uprising against Qing rule between 1673 and 1681.

The Manchu Qing rulers had initially appointed three Han Chinese generals to govern south China, because the Manchus did not have the resources to rule directly over the vast distances, diverse communities and difficult terrain involved. The three Han 'feudatories' were given almost complete control of their huge fiefdoms. But by 1672, Emperor Kangxi decided that the generals were a threat to Qing rule, and granted them permission to 'retire'. The generals however began a rebellion, to 'overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming'. The rebels cast cannons using bronze from temple bells, whilst Kangxi had his army's existing cannons refurbished, and 150 new ones cast under the guidance of Jesuit experts at court. At first, the uprising looked as if it might destroy the Qing. Kangxi was at least at risk of losing control of all China south of the Yangtze. But after eight years of fighting, the young emperor's Qing armies defeated the rebellion. Kangxi was ruthless to people in senior positions who had supported the rebels, but lenient to those who had simply been caught up in the war, including the women and children in the rebel camps.

Russia and the Treaty of Nerchinsk

The Treaty of Nerchinsk was a treaty signed in 1689 between China and Russia, setting the north-south border between the two countries.

During the late Ming, Russian hunters and settlers had begun to spread into the areas north of the Great Wall. This was a new challenge to the Chinese empire. Worried about the influence of the Russians on the loyalty of border tribes, Emperor Kangxi attacked Russian outposts at Albazin on the Amur River in 1685 and again in 1686, and the Russians sued for peace. Qing and Russian representatives met at Nerchinsk in 1689, and settled the border in largely the place it is today.

Qing Expansion West

The peoples of Mongolia had been a threat to China for thousands of years. The Manchus had taken control of Inner Mongolia in the 1630s, but the Zunghar Mongols remained a threat. They had built a strong state, expanding trade with Russia and Qing China. The Zunghars used cannon mounted on the backs of camels to create a force of desert tanks. Emperor Kangxi personally led the Qing armies over the desert to fight the Zunghar Mongols, cornering them far north of Beijing at the great battle of Jao Modo in 1696. But the Mongols rose again, and in 1717 marched into Tibet. The Qing responded by also sending troops to Tibet, which they made a protectorate, with a Manchu garrison. During Emperor Qianlong's reign in the 1700s, the Qing also acquired Xinjiang, an enormous area of western territory including Kashgar and other Silk Road cities, which China had last controlled a thousand years previously, during the Tang.

The Qing rulers largely staked out the territory that is China today.

Emperor Yongzheng

Emperor Yongzheng (reigned 1723-1735) was the fourth of Kangxi's sons. Already forty-five when he came to the throne, Yongzheng was pragmatic and effective. He focussed on putting state finances on a secure basis. Yongzheng had found massive shortfalls in government revenues, partly because his father had been more lenient and let some elite families evade tax. Yongzheng sent auditors to carry out on-the-spot assessments and collect arrears. His men were sometimes met with hostility, with roads blocked and bridges broken, and were sometimes even assaulted. But the reforms were successful, especially in north China. Yongzheng also set up the 'ever normal granary system' to control grain prices, and ordered orphanages, poorhouses and elementary schools to be set up in every county. He freed the remaining slaves in China, sending a decree forbidding any sort of servile status.

The suspicion that he was a usurper overshadowed Yongzheng's reign, because his father Kangxi had not named an heir when he died and because it was Yongzheng himself who had announced he was Kangxi's choice. To avoid similar problems affecting his own heir, Yongzheng wrote his successor's name on two scrolls, one locked in a casket the Forbidden City, and one kept on his person. Yongzheng died suddenly in 1735. A popular legend says that he was killed by a female assassin, but it is more likely that Yongzheng died from overdosing on medicine meant to prolong his life.

Emperor Qianlong

Emperor Qianlong ruled China from 1736 to 1799. During his very long reign, traditional China reached the highest level of splendor and prosperity.

Qianlong came to the throne peacefully - his name had been carefully written on a scroll placed in a casket in the palace by his father Yongzheng. Qianlong benefited from his father's economic policies too, and his government was regularly in financial surplus. Qianlong's most important achievement was the expansion of his empire to include the vast new territory of Xinjiang. Qianlong added greatly to the imperial collection of art, patronising not only Chinese painters but western artists too, such as Giuseppe Castiglione. Qianlong enjoyed having himself painted in different costumes, as a Buddhist saint for example, as well as on horseback European-style. He enjoyed 'southern tours' on which no expense was spared, whole areas of Yangzhou being rebuilt to please him.

As an old man, Qianlong's judgment began to fail, and he became taken by a handsome bodyguard called Heshen, who embezzled enormous amounts of wealth. Qianlong had also reversed some of his father's financial policies. Problems were emerging in China that would become more severe after Qianlong's death, and these later years of his reign are thought as the beginning of the decline of the dynasty.

Qianlong abdicated in 1795 - a filial act to show that he considered himself less worthy than his grandfather Kangxi - but the old man retained ultimate power until his death in 1799 at the age of 87, unofficially making him longest ruling emperor in Chinese history.

Culture and Conservatism

During the Qing dynasty, society became more conservative. The Qing rulers promoted a more disciplined social style and supported fundamentalist Confucian family values. Laws against anything considered deviant became more harsh. Novels and plays might be banned, and theatres closed if their productions were considered subversive or licentious. The government launched a program to honor 'chaste widows' - who did not remarry - and wealthy families built arches to celebrate these women's virtue. People turned away from the open society that had emerged in the later Ming. Many scholars rejected the free-thinking ways of the Ming scholar Wang Yangming. They claimed that the spontaneity and individual emotion Wang had advocated had weakened commitment to proper Confucian duty, and helped bring about the collapse of the Ming dynasty. The Qing rulers preferred Zhu Xi's school of Confucian teachings, which emphasized objective principles outside the individual and social conformity.

Trade with the West: the "Canton System"

Since the early 1500s, Europeans had been coming by sea to trade with China. In the early Qing, trade was limited to certain ports and certain intervals, but in the 1680s, Emperor Kangxi ended the restrictions, and trade grew, with Guangzhou (Canton) in south China quickly becoming the most active port for foreign commerce. As growing numbers of foreigners sailed in, the Qianlong emperor proclaimed in 1757 that Canton would be the only place at which Europeans were allowed to trade. Foreigners were only to reside there during the trading season, between October and March.

On both sides, trade was handled by government-recognized monopolies. On the China side was a group of around ten Guangzhou businesses - known as the 'Co-Hong' - who were permitted to trade with foreigners, and responsible for maintaining orderly business. On the western side were the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company and so on. Merchants from the United States from the 1780s on also began to participate directly in the China trade. Operating within this restrictive 'Canton System', the westerners bought silk, porcelain and other luxury goods, as well as tea, for which the British in particular, as well the Americans, developed a passion.

The Dream of the Red Chamber

The Dream of the Red Chamber, one of China's greatest novels, was written in the mid 1700s during the Qing dynasty.

The author of the novel, Cao Xueqin, was inspired by his own family's experiences. Cao Xueqin was from a Chinese family that had been rich and powerful, but lost favour and went bankrupt. The novel Cao Xueqin wrote whilst living in poverty is a rich portrayal of elite life in mid eighteenth century China. With a huge cast of characters from all walks of life, the book is a story about the search for understanding of human purpose on earth. It has a love story at its heart, and still today is one of China's most well loved novels.

Heshen: Decline and Corruption

Heshen (1750 - 1799) was an imperial bodyguard who became a powerful adviser to Emperor Qianlong, and who is notorious for his greed and corruption.

Originally a member of the palace guard, Heshen caught the attention of Emperor Qianlong, who became taken with the bright young man towards the end of his reign when his judgment was faltering. Heshen rose very quickly to the highest positions in government, until he enjoyed overwhelming power in Qianlong's court. Heshen enriched himself and his followers, allowing virtually no official job appointment to be made without a 'contribution' to one of his men.

After Emperor Qianlong died, the new emperor immediately prosecuted Heshen for corruption. The investigators confiscated extraordinary amounts of silver - more than half the total imperial revenues collected during his 20 year ascendency - and precious possessions including 24 solid-gold beds inlaid with gemstones, and 460 top quality European clocks. It became clear that the corruption he sponsored had affected almost the entire government bureaucracy.

Macartney Embassy

The Macartney Embassy, which took place in 1793, was the first British diplomatic mission to China.

The restrictions of the 'Canton system' of trading with China particularly irritated the British. They sent an embassy to China under Lord George Macartney to press for the opening of direct trade at other ports for international commerce, the use of a small island on the Chinese coast as depot for storing goods, and the right of diplomatic residence in Beijing. In 1793, Macartney met Emperor Qianlong at the Qing imperial mountain resort at Jehol north of Beijing. Although Macartney supposedly refused to prostrate himself or 'kowtow' in front of the emperor, the meeting seemingly went well - the emperor was delighted that the son of one of the British officials could speak some Chinese, and the British were given the most prestigious seats at that day's banquet.

However, Emperor Qianlong famously said that the British had nothing that China desired. Macartney returned home, his mission having failed.

Population Increases

During the Qing dynasty, the amount of farmland in China doubled, as new areas were opened up. New crops too - sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts from the New World - helped China's population increase, roughly tripling in size between 1700 and 1850. Whereas in Europe the population was growing most in the industrialising cities, in China population growth was concentrated in the countryside. The amount of land owned by the average family shrank. China became a land of small landholders engaged in highly labour-intensive agriculture.

Eventually, population growth outpaced the growth in resources. During the early 1800s, the economy contracted, and an increasing number of people sank into poverty. The difficulties and frustrations grew. There were not even enough civil service jobs for graduates, because the number of posts was fixed, so that by the 1800s there was just one job for every seventy degree holders.

First Opium War

The First Opium War (1839-1842) was fought between Britain and China, triggered by British outcry against China's confiscation of British opium.

Opium had long been used in China for medicinal purposes. In the 1600s, Chinese people began smoking small amounts of opium with tobacco, and then in the 1700s began to smoke pure opium for its narcotic effects - it relieved pain and made hard work seem less tough, but also made users confused and drowsy. And opium was addictive. Habitual smokers lost weight and strength, and suffered from constipation, impotence and memory loss.

Because the huge western demand for Chinese products had not been matched by Chinese demand for British products such as wool and cotton, British traders turned to opium. They scaled up opium production in India and sold the addictive drug to the Chinese. Imports into China rose from 200 chests in 1729 to 40,000 chests in 1838. China was aware not only of the damaging effects on its people, but also of the drain on its silver reserves, and tried to ban opium. But the highly profitable trade continued. In 1839, Chinese official Commissioner Lin Zexu demanded the foreigners hand over their opium stocks, and destroyed them. British commercial interests pushed for war with China, and the British sent in gunboats. In what became known as the First Opium War, the British easily defeated the Chinese, who were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842.

Treaty of Nanjing

The Treaty of Nanjing was signed in 1842 after the First Opium War, in which Britain had defeated China.

British and Qing Chinese representatives negotiated the terms on board the British HMS Cornwallis, anchored on the Yangtze River by the city of Nanjing. According to the terms, the old Canton System of foreign trade was abolished, and China opened up five ports to foreign trade, including Guangzhou and Shanghai. The Chinese had to agree to pay an indemnity, and to confirm British possession of Hong Kong in perpetuity.

The Treaty of Nanjing is considered the most important treaty in the history of modern China. It paved the way for other industrialized countries to covet the same opportunities, and China signed many more 'unequal treaties'. The United States sent Caleb Cushing, a congressman from Massachusetts, to negotiate with China. The resulting Treaty of Wanghia followed the same lines as the British Treaty of Nanjing. The treaty was signed in 1844 at Macao's Kun Iam Temple, which is still there today.