Chinese history is an awe-inspiring tall tale jam-packed with high drama: warring dynasties, palace intrigue and a never-ending struggle, in the context of the grand philosophical/spiritual/religious movements that have taken root in China (Buddhism, Confucianism Taoism…Maoism..?), to enlighten the human soul. The first Chinese dynasty took root more than three thousand years ago. Since then China has experienced long eras of political unity and eras just as long of devastating unrest. The ethnic Han Chinese have dominated most often, and while other Asian peoples have also ruled, most of them in turn assimilated into mainstream Chinese society. China’s continuing strength relies on
this practice of enveloping cultures and philosophies into what we consider “Chinese,” whether it’s the assimilation of the Tuoba Xianbei people into Han Chinese culture by the end of the 5th century, or the much more recent fusion of Western Capitalism (though not yet Western-style multi-party democracy) into Chinese One-Party Communism.
To tell the story of China in any satisfying way one must at least try to start at the beginning. With three thousand years of history there are many Chines dynasties, yet we have so little time. Here’s a quick glance at some highlights:
— The Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 B.C.):
China’s ancient and imperial periods stretch waaaaaaay back to the Zhou Dynasty, during which the origins of Chinese culture, literature and philosophy start to develop. Taoism (meaning, essentially, “the path” or “the way” and referring to a philosophy/religion based upon “Three Jewels”–compassion, moderation, and humility, enabling one to achieve Harmony with the Universe) and Confucianism (a bit more about that below) developed in this period.
— The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)
The Qin Dynasty marked the beginning of what historians refer to as “Imperial China.” The Qin Emperor united an empire using the utilitarian philosophy of “Legalism,” which asserted that a ruler should use three tools to govern his subjects:
xx “Fa”: the principle that all people beneath the ruler are equal before the law
xx “Shu”: the ruler must employ special “secret” tactics to keep control of the state, and
xx “Shi”: it’s the leadership position, not the ruler’s individual personality, that is the center of power.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang asserted Legalism harshly by forcing subjects to obey the law and defer to imperial power, leading to an event known as “the burning of books and burying of scholars“ in which he attempted to “unify” all philosophical thought to match his. Those who did not burn banned books were taken into custody and forced to build the Great Wall, which was initiated in this period.
— Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.):
The Han Dynasty, the first to open westward trade routes along ‘the Silk Road,” was also the first Chinese dynasty to embrace the religion/philosophy of Confucianism. K’ung Fu Tzu (“Confucius”), who lived from 551-478 B.C., proposed that human beings have the potential to develop virtue and become morally perfect. The basic tenets of Confucianism are:
xx Li: includes ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc.
xx Hsiao: love within the family: love of parents for their children and of children for their parents
xx Yi: righteousness
xx Xin: honesty and trustworthiness
xx Jen: benevolence, humaneness towards others; the highest Confucian virtue
xx Chung: loyalty, trying conscientiously to do one’s duty
— Tang Dynasty (618-907):
Under the reign of Tang Dynasty Emperor Gaozu, Buddhism became the empire’s predominant religion. The Tang introduced the “equal-field system” which gave families imperial land grants based not on their wealth but their needs.
— Ming Dynasty (1368-1644):
During the Ming Dynasty cities such as Nanjing and Beijing grew in power, industrializing to produce paper, silk and porcelain. Trade increased with outside powers, especially the Japanese.
— The Qing Dynasty (1644â€“1911):
The “Manchus,” from northeastern China, founded this dynasty, forcing Han Chinese to adopt Manchu hairstyles and clothing. The dynasty faced local rebellions, giving power to local warlords as a way to retain power. There was much corruption and imperial family in-fighting which lead to the weakening of the rulers. At the start of the 20th century “the Boxer Rebellion” threatened China when “the Boxers,” an animist, anti-authoritarian religious society otherwise known as “The Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” rose against the Emperor. An “eight nation alliance” consisting of forces from Britain, Japan, Russia, Italy, Germany France, Austria and The United States contributed to the force that put down the rebellion.
— The end of the Empire & the Chinese Civil War:
The age of Imperial China came to a close in the 1920s when revolutionary general Sun Yat-sen and his allies in the Communist Party of China (CPC) set out to unify the fragmented empire into a republic. When Sun died in 1925 Chaing Kai-shek took control of the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang/KMT) and embarked on a military campaign to bring most of south and central China under republican control. Chaing then turned on the Communist Party of China and drove them from their bases. The CPC reorganized under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) and fought the KMT throughout a 14 year long Japanese occupation (1931-1945). Eventually the CPC and the KMT united to fight the Japanese, but after Japanese surrendered in World War II the Chinese Civil War continued. Despite a massive Red Army retreat known as “the Long March,” by 1949 Mao’s Communist troops had defeated Chaing Kai-shek’s Republicans, who only retained control of Taiwan. Chaing and his forces relocated there and vowed to continue the fight. (More about Taiwain in next week’s featured-country e-mail.)
— A Bit About Mao and Maoism:
Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), son of an initially poor but eventually prosperous farmer from China’s Hunan Province rose through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party to lead it to victory in the Chinese Civil War and eventually become the Party’s most powerful force. Like Marx, Mao believed in revolution against feudalists and capitalists, but China, Mao asserted, was so far from being industrial nation that waiting for industrial workers to rise up against their bosses would never work. Mao believe “peasants” would have to be at the core of China’s Communist Revolution. Throughout his thirty year reign China certainly industrialized and urbanized; however, “Chairman Mao’s” detractors blame him and his
policies for a staggering 100 million deaths.
— The People’s Republic of China
On October 1, 1949, Mao declared victory in the Civil War and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao set out immediately to equalize the classes in China, ostensibly aiming to raise the people’s level of education and healthcare through collective industrialization. In practice this meant relentlessly consolidating the Chinese economy into a centrally planned, Soviet-style system, overhauling China’s land ownership system, redistributing land to landless peasants, persecuting landlords and merchants and destroying historical and cultural artifacts and buildings, condemning them as remnants of feudalism.
— “The Great Leap Forward” and “The Cultural Revolution”
Starting in 1958 Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” collectivized industry in rural areas; whether or not as a direct effect, China’s agricultural system crumbled. Facing famines that resulted in tens of millions of deaths, Mao consolidated his power through purges and forced “re-education.” Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” began in 1966, forcing strict loyalty to the Communist Party, forbidding free expression so completely that educational life almost came to a complete halt. The Cultural Revolution continued until Mao’s death in 1976.
Those who look harshly on Mao’s reign declare the Great Leap Forward an utter failure resulting in unprecedented loss of life and decry the Cultural Revolution as a despotic period of mind-control. Others who consider Mao note that under his rule educational and health care standards did increase, and the nation took a collective leap forward toward modernization. The Chinese Communist Party leader who followed Mao, Deng Xiaoping, described Mao’s legacy as “7 parts good, 3 parts bad.” Not everyone’s Mao-good-to-Mao-bad ratio would be quite as generous.
— Deng Xioping and China’s “Economic Reforms and
By 1980 Deng had consolidated power as head of the Communist Party of China and led China through a period of de-collectiviztion of agriculture and industry. During this period Chinese were able to speak more freely than had been allowed during the Cultural Revolution, and to engage in more public discourse about society…though Chinese independent thought had its limits.
— Tiananmen Square:
In April of 1989 Hu Yaobang, a popular reformer who had been forced out of the Chinese Communist leadership, passed away. Tens of thousands of Chinese, predominantly students, flooded Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in anticipation of his funeral. This public outpouring of support for Hu continued past his funeral and escalated into full scale protests that lasted for weeks. Tension increased daily as people around the world watched via live video feed on newly minted 24 hour news networks like CNN. International observers openly speculated that the protests may mark the beginning of the end of one-party rule in China. On June 4th Chinese Premier Li Peng’s People’s Liberation Army squelched this notion by advancing on the protesters, clearing the square with live rounds that killed hundreds, if not thousands. Protest leaders who escaped faced imprisonment and other forms of persecution. The Chinese Community Party was not ready to give up power just yet.
After Tiananmen, Deng retired and passed on leadership to Jiang Zemin, who escalated the pace of economic (though not political) transformation within the context of Deng’s vision: “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Jiang’s reforms resulted in an economic boom, raising millions of increasingly-urban Chinese out of poverty. However, free market reforms also led to unprecedented wealth inequality, skyrocketing unemployment due to the shutting of state owned industry and environmental degradation as a result of rapid industrialization.
Today, under President Hu Jintao, China’s economy continues to grow at an extraordinary clip, though political and human rights reforms haven’t quite kept pace. Urban Chinese are undeniably more wealthy than they’ve every been, and are more free than ever to use their wealth as they see fit.
Wikipedia on China | That huge terracotta army of 7,000 life-sized warrior-statues dates way back to the Qin Dynasty | “Mandarin” not only refers to the Mandarin language, but can also mean a high-ranking Chinese bureaucrat | What’s so great about the Great Wall of China? (sorry, you really can’t see it from space) | The Cultural Revolution = “10 Years of Catastrophe” | MorningSun.org: a “panoptic” perspective on the Cultural Revolution | Cultural Revolution-era propaganda aplenty | Marxists.org’s take on the Cultural Revolution: “The Cultural Revolution was aimed at smashing the Chinese Communist Party, and re-building an administration owing allegiance to Mao alone.” | Nixon “opens” China/China “opens” Nixon | China’s “One Child Policy”: still just for Han Chinese in urban areas, but of course still controversial | What does Hong Kong’s return to China have to do with opium? (more about Hong Kong in next week’s featured country e-mail) | Did you know the fortune cookie is an American invention?