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short jog through 5,000 years)


Study the past, if you would divine the future.” – Confucius

Most Chinese histories are mind-numbingly boring giving way too much detail for the average Zhou. This is not one of them (I hope). Instead, I want to give you The Big Picturehitting the high points and connecting the dots (admittedly, the early history is a bit dry but moves quickly).

The Chinese like to brag that they have the longest, continuous civilization in the world—some 5,000 years worth. But to put things in perspective, it’s not the oldest. Compared to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, China was relatively primitive. For instance, metallurgy began in China no earlier than 2500 BC…at least 1,000 years after those ancient civilizations.

But still, China’s development has been impressive. Three thousand years ago, the Chinese were casting bronze and other alloys, growing wheat, millet and rice, weaving silk, and recording events in a written language of thousands of characters.

Chinese technologytransmitted to Europe in waveshas had a big impact on the world development. For instance, many associate the crossbow with Europe during the Middle Ages; it was invented fifteen centuries earlier in China. And a thousand years before the Industrial Revolution in England, the Chinese were using advanced coke ovens and steel blast furnaces.

China’s history is a fascinating cycle of rise and fall–alternating between periods of war and peace. Foreigners played a big part too. Long before the Western “barbarians” came into the picture, China was ruled by invaders from the north—the Mongols in the late 13th century and the Manchus in the mid-16th.

Yet the idea of ruling from the center had been implanted by China’s First Emperor over twenty-two centuries ago. Throughout Chinese history, this “Mandate from Heaven” contained the idea — however imperfectly implemented that rulers had a duty to care for the people.

THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION [ Pre-history -771 BC ]


THE QIN DYNASTY [ 221-206 BC ]




THE SONG DYNASTY [ 960-1279 ]

THE YUAN DYNASTY [1279-1368 ]

THE MING DYNASTY [1368-1644 ]

THE QING DYNASTY [1644-1912 ]:

Part I: The Rise of the West (and Decline of Empire) Part II: The Opium War & Taiping Rebellion Part III: Japan Rising & the Boxer Rebellion


THE MAO YEARS [ 1949-1976 ]



THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION [ Pre-history - 771 BC ]


circa 500,000 BC: In 1918, Swedish paleontologist J.G. Anderson discovers a group of fossils near Beijing (known collectively as Peking Man). Though not a direct ancestor of the Chinese, skulls indicate a brain about two-thirds of modern man. Evidence that Homo eretus could make fire and used primitive stone tools.

circa 60,000 BC: Homo sapiens arrive on the scene.

circa 30,000 BC:


Homo sapiens are the last humanoid species left on the planet (in your face

circa 8000-2000 BC : Rise of settlements based on agricultural economy emerged in eastern coastal regions and along rich river deltas of the Yellow River and Yangzi River. These early civilizations relied mostly on hunting, fishing, and gathering.

Cultures later started cultivating of millet and rice, as well as domesticating pigs, water buffalos, and dogs. Remarkably elaborate pottery and jade artifacts dates back to this period, notably from the cultures of the Yangshao (5000-3000BC) and Longshan (3000-2000BC).

circa 2700 BC: First evidence of use of tea and the silkworm to make fabrics.


China starts to see the beginning of a distinctive culture with the three earliest states: The XIA, SHANG, and ZHOU dynasties. These early “dynasties” weren’t truly unified states, but were instead more of a decentralized, loose alliance of smaller powers.

THE XIA DYNASTY [ c. 2100-1600 BC ]

Believed to be a small nation made up of a league of tribes, this semi-mythical “first” dynasty of China existed just before written language was developed. What little is known about the Xia came from unearthed artifacts and fragments of written records during the next dynasty.

THE SHANG DYNASTY [ c. 1600 1050 BC ]

Widely considered China’s first dynasty. Experts debated whether the Shang were real or mythical…until the early 1900’s, when about 20,000 pieces of Oracle Bones (inscriptions on bones and turtle shells) were found in the fields of Henan province. Before they were recognized for what they were, locals thought they were dragon bones and were grinding them up as medicine to cure malaria.

The Shang lived in large complex societies ruled by kings who were considered intermediaries between the living and dead. They were buried in imposing subterranean tombs (near Anyang and Zhengzhou in modern-day Henan province). Hundreds (possibly slaves) were killed or committed suicide and buried to accompany their king in the afterlife.

Written Chinese: About 4,000 characters were inscribed on Oracle Bones.

First Chinese calendar: An astronomical-based system with a 60-day cycle.

Use of compressed earth for buildings and defensive walls: The city walls around their capital of Zhengzhou enclosed an area of three square kilometers.

Sophisticated bronze-making: Mass-produced cast bronze using sophisticated clay-molds (not hammer and anvil) to make tools and weapons, as well as pottery and ritual vessels.

THE ZHOU DYNASTY [ 1066-771 BC ]

The Shang is overthrown by rival Zhou, who establish their capital at modern day Xi’an.

They adopt many Shang traditions but with improvements. The practice of “consulting the bones” is replaced by a more sophisticated system of divination: the I Ching (the “Book of Changes”), which is still used today.

The Chinese sense of unique identity and cultural superiority grows. For the first time, China becomes known as Zhong Guo (中国 , meaning “Middle Kingdom”), the same name used by the Chinese today. Outsiders are considered uncivilized “barbarians.”

Rice alcohol is first distilled in China (unfortunately the karaoke machine would not be invented until many years later).


A vital concept is born: the idea of the “Mandate of Heaven”— in which Heaven gives wise rulers a mandate to rule….and takes it away from evil and corrupt ones. The emperor becomes known as the “Son of Heaven.” Heavily influencing Chinese history well into the 1900’s, the mandate was used throughout Chinese history to legitimize ruling dynasties, as well as to question government in times of confusion.


Divided into the Spring and Autumn Period (771-475BC) & Warring States Period (475- 221BC)

After the Zhou collapses, China sees its first great disruption in historya long period of turmoil which lasted over 500 years. For half a millennium, rival states ferociously fought one another.

a millennium, rival states ferociously fought one another. During the Warring States Period, weaker states are

During the Warring States Period, weaker states are swallowed up, until only seven large states are left standing.


One benefit of all this turbulence: Chinese civilization kicks into high gear. Money (bronze coins) is widely circulated.

Iron tools revolutionize agriculture as well as warfareincluding developments such as the crossbow, riding on horseback, and cavalry warfare.

Chinese calligraphy becomes more fluid and expressive with the introduction of brush writing.

The first canals are built along with long defensive walls separating rival states (some of which would later become the Great Wall).


But the most significant development was a flourishing in social philosophy and political theory known as The Hundred Schools of Thought. During this turbulent period, rulers wanted to know the best way to conquer and govern. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War came from this period (His key message to “Attack your enemy’s strategy first, his troops second” would not be lost on Mao Zedong 24 centuries later).

Most significantly, Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism) were born. But they were too ahead of their time (When Confucius died in 479BC, he was only mourned by a small group of his disciples).

Instead Legalism was best suited for the times. The ultra-totalitarian Legalists had

a dimmer view of manbelieving that order needed to be imposed with an iron fist (Mao Zedong would later become a big admirer).

“In a well-ordered nation,” the Legalist evil genius Shang Yang wrote, “punishment

is endemic, reward scare.”

The state of QIN—adopting the Legalists’ harsh system—would eventually conquer all other rivals to become the last guy standing.

THE QIN DYNASTY [ 221-206 BC ]


THE QIN DYNASTY [ 221-206 BC ] CHINA’S FIRST UNIFIED EMPIRE Historians point out that it’s

Historians point out that it’s curious that climactic events around the world were unfolding around this same period…even though far apart and totally unconnected.

When the Qin dynasty started, civilizations of Egypt and Greece were in deep decline while the emergent state of Rome barely controlled the Italian peninsula. In Africa, Hannibal’s power—like that of the Qinwas gaining strength. But only 15 years later, Hannibal’s dreams of a European kingdom lay in ruins….coincidentally, almost the same time the Qin dynasty was unraveling.

The Qin (pronounced “Chin”) was China’s first unified empire and directly controlled huge geographical areas. Although one of shortest-lived dynasties, the Qin left an indelible mark on Chinese history. For 21 centuries, China lived under the template set by the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang (“First Sovereign Qin Emperor”). His basic model of central government persists to this day.

From the capital of Xianyang (near modern day Xi’an), he wielded more power than any other man since Alexander the Great. Though his ambitions were legendary and contributions great, he was a ruthless tyrant who didn’t know how to back off. Ruling with an iron fist, he dragooned hundreds of thousands into a series of massive projectsultimately leading to the fall of the Qin.


Eliminating regional differences, his central government standardized everything from money to weights & measures. For instance, he mandated that all cart axles all have the same length. This might seem control-freakish, but it actually made sense:

the dirt roads developed deep grooves that sped up trade.

One huge contribution: He started a standardized system of written Chinese.


Government bureaucracy in China is born. His well-ordered state was organized into 36 administrative divisions and further subdivisionsall accountable to strong central government (basic system survives today). Ranks in society were also clearly defined. All household occupants are registered (surviving today in China and other Asian countries as the “hukou” household registration system).


Under the First Emperor, the Qin built a network of roadsthousands of milesjoining their capital to distant outposts of empire. Waterways and sophisticated irrigation systems were also constructed. Significantly, the Qin also connected existing northern walls to protect against the growing threat of nomads. These became the first version of the Great Wall of China.

He was also responsible for China’s other top tourist attraction: the Terracotta Army, which he believed would protect him in the afterlife from his numerous enemies.

And during his harsh rule, he did gain a lot of enemies. He became more paranoid and ruthless after he survived several assassination attempts (including one by a blind musician wielding a lead harp).

An example of his harsh methods was his zero-tolerance policy for tardinesseven his own generals were executed. In fact, it was this policy that sparked the beginning of a revolt (by peasants who were delayed by heavy rains).

210 BC: Qin dies at age of 50. Rebellion spreads fast and furiously. The Qin disintegrates and is eventually replaced by the HAN Dynasty….


Divided into Western Han (206 BC- 25 AD) and Eastern Han (25-220 AD)

The Han Dynasty was one of China’s Golden Ages, when developments in commerce, natural sciences, and the arts reached new heights.

natural sciences, and the arts reached new heights. Militarily strong, the Han Empire expanded to Central

Militarily strong, the Han Empire expanded to Central Asiareaching as far as modern day Vietnam and Korea.

To increase their influence and ensure peace in the region, the Han introduced a tributary system,” by which neighbors could remain autonomous states by recognizing China’s authority and giving gifts (ties strengthened through inter- marriage). For instance, the Huns to the north gave Han emperors an annual tribute of horses, which were highly valued by the Chinese for combat.

This dynasty gave the Chinese people their name: Today, 90% of population is listed as “Han Chinese” ethnicity in official statistics.


The Han built on Qin’s strengths but softened things up. The famous historian Sima Qian wrote of the first Han emperor’s rule: “It removed the harsh corners of the Qin

code and retreated to an easy roundness, whittled away the embellishments and achieved simplicity.”


Laozi: "Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished."

This dynasty had more staying power lasting some 400 years. This was largely due to the order and stability created by an effective administration based on a meritocracy (enabling them to centrally manage their large territory). Formal civil service examinations are introduced, based on Confucian classics.

Daoism also makes a comeback, developing into something of a nationwide religion in later Han (it slowly mutates away from Laozi’s early philosophy into deity worship and other superstitions and rituals, like burning joss, seen in modern Asia).

The Silk Road develops, linking the capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) with Central and Western Asia. For more than 1000 years, merchants from different cultures often in caravans of several hundred camelstravel as far as Rome and Persia.

several hundred camels — travel as far as Rome and Persia. Via the Silk Road, the

Via the Silk Road, the West is introduced to silk. After Caesar wore a silk cloak at a theater, he started a fashion craze among Rome’s nobility. At one point in Rome, one pound of silk sold for 600 grams of gold. The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was also a great collector of silk. China’s two other big exports were tea and porcelain china (which was invented in China during the Han). Popular imports included animals (especially camels, horses and birds) and food & spices (such as pomegranate, garlic, walnuts, and pepper).

Buddhism –which emerged in India around the Confucius’ time during the Warring States periodmakes its debut in China via the Silk Road. From China, it would later spread to Southeast Asia, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.

Paper is invented (circa 105). Made of hemp, linen and tree bark, this early “proto- paper” replaces silk as a writing medium for official documentation. The first Chinese dictionary makes its debut. Paper wouldn’t be widely used until the 3rd century (reaching Japan and Korea in the 7th century and Europe in the 12th).


The Han dynasty finally ends with a reoccurring problem: Succession of a minor to the throne. This structural flaw in the ruling system would end many future dynasties, as power was often passed from a good ruler to a bad son (often too young, incompetent, or drunk on power). Also, unlike European kingdoms, the throne wasn’t automatically passed to the oldest son (complicated by the fact that emperors had many concubines and sons). During the resulting power struggle, rebel leaders, rival states, or powerful generals often seized power.

CHINA’S “MIDDLE AGES” [ 220-589 ]


This period in Chinese history has been compared to Europe’s Middle Ages. After the Han collapsed, civil war broke out and for the next 350 years, China saw almost constant warfare. Never again would the country go through such a long period of disunity and confusion.

This chaotic period inspired a Chinese literary masterpiece, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (written in the 14th century and one of the “Four Great Classical Novels” of China). The novel is still popular today in China—featured in TV & film as well as comic books and video games.

The key theme of the “dynastic cycle” was summarized in the opening statement:

The empire, long and divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” The idea was

that Power Corrupts…and that the Old should periodically make way for the New (natural disasters and eclipses were often taken as omens).


Northern and Central Asia becomes increasingly volatile. Large nomadic tribes from the north start consolidating power and mounted successful invasions.

As foreign invaders take control of north, the Han Chinese retreat to the south to establish a new capital at Jiankang (today’s Nanjing). The south slowly becomes the economic and cultural center as the Chinese population migrates towards the hugely fertile Yangzi River Delta.

This unrelenting hostility of their neighbors leads to an increasingly xenophobic, even supremacist, Chinese mindset (and will later solidify China’s penchant for authoritarian rule).


One upside: At least the new foreign rulers are receptive to unfamiliar religions. Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist thought starts to merge (then, as well as today, most Chinese don’t see any contradiction in following the different paths simultaneously).

Buddhism in particular starts to spread roots far and wide. During this period, China’s most impressive Buddhist cave complexes are created—first at the Yungang Grottoes and then later at the Longmen Grottoes.


Finally, after three and a half centuries of great turmoil, the empire finally reconvenesfirst during the short-lived SUI dynasty, then the more famous and enduring TANG dynasty.

THE SUI DYNASTY [ 581-618 ]

The Sui dynasty is often compared to the Qin, since they were both short-lived with iron-fisted rulers who forced huge chunks of the population into massive projects.

The Sui dynasty sets up their capital at Chang’an (Xi’an), which has been preferred capital for last 16 centuries by almost a dozen dynasties up to this point.

One persistent problem with Chang’an: it’s poorly located, requiring food and supplies to be transported far from the south. The solution?


An ambitious project rivaling the Great Wall in magnitude, the Grand Canal provided an unbroken inland transport between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. At its peak, it was over 2,000km longlinking five river systemsand extended from Beijing and Hangzhou (over 1000km/640miles away). Many parts are still in use today.

river systems — and extended from Beijing and Hangzhou (over 1000km/640miles away). Many parts are still

Although the canal network would increase trade, wealth, and integration, it sowed the seeds of the Sui’s downfall. Apparently they didn’t learn from the Qin. Some 5.5 million were conscripted to work on it. Another million or so were sent to restore the Great Wall. Not surprisingly, the people were NOT happy.


The megalomaniacal Emperor Yangconsidered one of worst rulers in Chinese historywas a classic example of two-generation Good first ruler, Bad last ruler dilemma.

Following a period floods and famine, the people decide that enough is enough. Rebellion engulfs the country. Yang is assassinated in Chengdustrangled by the son of a previously disgraced minister (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You

disgraced my father. Prepare to die.”).

A popular Sui general, Li Yuan, steps up to the plate and declares the start of a new dynasty: the TANG (no relation to the Wu Tang Clan).

THE TANG DYNASTY [ 618-907 ]

plate and declares the start of a new dynasty: the TANG (no relation to the Wu

The Tang is widely regarded as the height of imperial China. Economically,

territorially, and socially, the Tang was firing on all cylinders.

largest size up to this point in historyreaching Korea, Vietnam and much of Central

Asia. Trade flourished by land and sea. Some of China’s finest arts and literature also came out of the Tang.

China reached its

The Tang also holds the unique distinction of having China’s only female to hold the title of emperor (actually, Empress, Wu), who historians regard as brilliant but ruthless.


The Tang was open to foreign cultures and religions, including Christianity. They established frequent cultural exchanges with many neighboring countries. For example, Japan and Korea sent “emissaries to the Tang” to Chang’an to study Chinese culture. These exchanges would heavily influence the development of their political, economic and social systems.

Chang’an became one of the richest, largest, and most cosmopolitan in the world—

Indian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern traders mingled on its streets.

it had an estimated million inhabitants, including about 20,000-50,000 foreigners.

At its peak,

652: The Great Wild Goose Pagoda is constructed (still stands today in Xi’an). It was built specifically to store a large number of Buddhist texts that were brought from India by the famous monk Xuan Zhang, who traveled there for 17 years. His adventures were the subject of the Journey to the West (another of the “Four Great Classical Novels”) and the source of many Chinese operas.

Fabric weaving and paper-making technologies spread via the Arabs to Western Asia and Europe.

Woodblock printing is invented during the 7 th century, hastening the spread of Buddhism.

The earliest known printed book (868AD)

The Tang dynasty ended with a climatic episode, known as the An Lushan Rebellion.


After fall of Tang, China lapsed into a brief period of tangled warfare. The north was again ruled by the semi-nomadic people from the steppe region (who would later have a greater impact on Chinese history). And the south was ruled by rival Han Chinese states, which existed in relative peace before being reunited by the SONG.

THE SONG DYNASTY [ 960-1279 ]

Song Dynasty Bianjing city gate (re-constructed)

Divided into the Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279).

During the Song dynasty, China became the most advanced country in the world attaining a level of development that Europeans found hard to believe at the time (as described by Marco Polo who only saw late remnant of the Song glory).


The 11th century was especially prosperous. China underwent an industrial revolutionmass-producing quantities of raw materials like salt and iron on a scale that wouldn’t be seen in Europe until the 18th century.

During the Song, China’s “four great inventions” were widely used: The compass, gunpowder, paper-making, and printing.

Science, technology and engineering reached new heights (such as ship and bridge building, hydraulic engineering, and architecture). Learning from Arab seafarers, the Chinese were the first to build multi-masted ships and use the magnetic compass as a navigational aid on sea.

But two Song developments had an even bigger impact on the world: gunpowder and printing.

GUNPOWDER was accidentally discovered earlier in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists looking for the elixir of life. But during the 10th century, it was first used for military purposes (by 1040, the recipe was printed and standard issue for Chinese artillerymen). Before long, they were using primitive bombs/grenades, exploding arrows, rockets and mines, and later, early cannons and mortars. Its introduction to Europe around 1300 would have an enormous effect (the first recorded use was by English against the French in 1346).

PRINTING, however, would be China’s single greatest contribution to world civilization. Up until this point, printing developed rather gradually. Facing a shortage of copper for coins in 1007, merchants in Chengdu issue the world’s first paper money. In 1024, the government takes over the printing of paper money in Chengdu (which soon spreads throughout China).

Another breakthrough was in 1041 when movable clay type printing was invented.

The arts flourished too. If the Tang was the golden age of Chinese poetry, Song was

China’s golden age of painting. Song landscape and scroll paintingsfavoring wild mountains and deep gorges that dwarf humans—are considered China’s finest.

1100: China’s population grows to about 100 million.


Starting in this period, non-Chinese states from the north would deeply impact Chinese history.

Around 1200, China saw the ferocity of new breed of steppe warriorsthe Mongols. Like most northern groups, the Mongols were exceptional horsemen who trained for lives in the saddle (able to cover what seemed to European and Chinese to be incredible distances and impossible to chase). They lived on plunder and were masters of psychological warfare (their Kaiser Söze-like stories of terror quickly spread).

For the Mongols (about a million strong), conquering China was one thing. But ruling a large land mass populated with around 100 million Chinese subjects was another thing. For the next 10 centuries, history would see a staccato pattern: northern groups conquering China…but then failing to hold it (if there were any ancient management consultants, they’d say that conquering and managing are two different core competencies).

Their leader, Temujin, would later be known by his Persian name, Genghis Khan (“Universal ruler”). His ambition was to rule the worldsummed up in his slogan

One sole sun in the sky, one sole sovereign on earth”. He would eventually control

much of Europe and Asiaoutstripping the exploits of even Alexander the Great.

He was said to have declared: “Man’s greatest joy is in victory—in conquering one’s enemies, pursing them, depriving them of their possessions, making their loved ones weep, riding on their horses, and embracing their wives and daughters.” (The Conan

the Barbarian film used an abbreviated form).

1227: Genghis Khan dies and his territory divided amongst his four sons. But the Mongol campaign of pillage and conquest continues for decades. Impressively, the Song are able to keep them at bay.

1260: Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, becomes the Great Khan. Separately, Venetian merchants Niccolo and Marco Polo set out of the first of two journeys to China.

1279: After learning the secrets of Chinese warfare (specifically, naval warfare and gunpowder), the Mongolian Empire finally overrun the Song and takes over all of China. Kublai Khan proclaims himself the emperor of a new dynasty, the YUAN (“origin” or “beginning”).

THE YUAN DYNASTY [1279-1368 ]

Kublai Khan, the first Mongol ruler of a unified China, moves his capital to Dadu (today’s Beijing).

Not satisfied with China, he continues aggressive fighting overseasruling as far as India and Korea (but wasn’t able to take Japan). Under the Yuan, China controlled the largest territory in their history. Ironically, modern day China’s claim over Tibet dates back to this period, when China itself was ruled by non-Chinese foreigners (some say it’s not a true “dynasty” but instead a foreign “occupation”).

The Mongol conquest was a turning point in Chinese civilization. Up to this point, it had more or less been a continuous developmentpeaking under the Song. Although Yuan was (relatively) shortlasting less than a centuryit left a deep impression on Chinese psyche. Chinese culture lost its vitality and became more introverted. And it would start of a long tradition of being suspicious of foreigners.

After taking China, some of Kublai Khan’s advisers counsel him that the Han Chinese were of no use and should all be killed. But he realizes that he can tax them. And so for the next century, they are mercilessly squeezed out of every ounce of silver, silk and grain possible.

The Mongols also eliminate imperial exams and revive the Silk Road, once again connecting China to the Middle East and Europe. The Grand Canal is extended, in addition to an impressive network of highways.


Marco Polo (1254-1324) claimed to have worked under the service of Kublai Khan for some 17 years. However, historians today debate whether he even set foot in China or just cobbled together tales from other travelers during his voyages. It was supposedly Beijing under Mongol rule when observed strange long noodles, black rocks used as fuel, and money made of paper, as well as massive cities that dwarfed any in Europe. But in addition to some historical inconsistencies, he failed to mention some obvious Chinese phenomenon like the Great Wall, foot-binding, or tea.

1337: Start of Great Bubonic Plague, which devastates Eurasia and enters China from the northern steppes.

1340-60s: The Mongol Empire is in decline, after losing touch with their warrior roots and split by internal fighting (once again, from a lack of clear succession). Ever unpopular among the Chinese, discontent brews stronger. After the Yellow River burstsand Yuan court takes no action, leaving millions diemany are committed to rebellion.

Peasant uprisingsinspired by successes of the White Lotus secret society and the Red Turban Rebellionspread across China. They eventually defeat the Mongols in 1368, led by a commoner named Zhu Yuanzhang. The rebel leader declares himself the emperor of a new dynasty, the MING (“luminous” or “bright”)— becoming the first commoner in 1500 years to ascend to the imperial throne. He gives himself the title of Emperor Hongwu (“Vastly Martial”).

THE MING DYNASTY [1368-1644 ]


THE MING DYNASTY [1368-1644 ] THE CHINESE BACK IN CHARGE The Ming dynasty was one of

The Ming dynasty was one of the longest and most stable periods in Chinese history. Despite early naval explorations, the Ming dynasty was mostly inward-looking and insularpreferring to buffer China from the outside world.

The best symbol of this was the Great Wall of China, which was extensively rebuilt and expanded during the Ming (the “modern” walls that we know today are all Ming- era). Another symbol of this detachment was The Forbidden City, where emperors shut themselves in and closed their eyes to new realities.

It was during this time in history that Europeans began colonizing the Americas. They would inevitably be drawn to China’s shores and make their mark on Chinese history. But they weren’t the only foreigners to hit the scene: Japanese pirates made their debut during this period, when they grew increasingly powerful and bold.


During the rule of Zhu Di (the Yongle emperor, 1403-24), China became the world’s most advanced sailors— with ships dwarfing those of contemporary Europe.

He sponsored the oceanic voyages of Zheng He, who commanded seven diplomatic voyages. Sailing with up to 300 ships and 20,000+ people (sailors, doctors, soldiers, translators), they embarked on legendary voyages to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, among other previously uncharted areas.

Zheng He stunned the court when he returned to the Forbidden City with a giraffe.

1406: Yongle starts construction of The Forbidden City in Beijing.

1420: Construction of the Temple of Heaven starts in Beijing.

1421: Yongle moves the Ming capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where it has remained until today.

1450’s: Facing renewed aggression from northern neighbors, the Ming starts a 100+ year effort to connect and rebuild the Great Wall.


Starting in the 16th century, European power in Asia grewalong with trade and their attempts to win Christian converts. The Catholic supremacist mindset of the early Portuguese adventurers regarded the “heathen” as inferior and expendable. Like their Dutch and English counterparts, many of these early sailors thought nothing of murdering their way to riches.

Not surprisingly, the Ming governmentwho were used to the gentler behavior of Arab and Indian merchants—tried to exclude or at least contain these “red haired” barbarians.

1514: Portuguese traders first land in China. They soon bought tea, which started catching on as a fashionable drink in European society. By 1550, Macau had effectively become their colony.

Trade developed gradually 16th and early 17th. Most problems were not with China, but instead resulted from rivalry between European powers.

1522: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is published (I’m hoping for a spoof

movie with Paul Rudd: “The Bromance of the Three Kingdoms“)

1540-60s: Raids by Japanese pirates intensify. In 1555, they venture as far up the Yangzi River as Nanjing, where the pillage at will for 10 weeks. In 1560, several thousand Japanese pirates land in Fujian province and loot for several months.

1600: China’s population exceeds 150 million.

1642: In Tibet, the 5th Dalai Lamanominally under Ming protectionasserts his temporal power and orders the construction of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Corruption, greed, and abuse progressively weaken the Ming (another familiar pattern). Peasant uprisings sprout up. Meanwhile, in the north, the (non-Chinese) Manchu become a serious threat.

1644: Rebels overtake Beijing whereupon the last Ming emperor hangs himself. Meanwhile, the Manchu armies of the north march towards the Great Wall, at Shanhaiguan (the First Pass Under Heaven). They encounter a Ming general who ultimately allies with the Manchusallowing them to march through the gates towards Beijing. The Manchu take control and the Ming dynasty comes to an end.

THE QING DYNASTY [1644-1912 ]: Part I

The Manchus contend that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and declare a new dynasty, the QING (“pure” or “clear”). China is again ruled by non-Chinese foreigners, this time the northern Manchurians, who would stay in power for another two and a half centuries. For first 150 yearsunchecked by foreign aggressionthe Qing enjoyed a long period of peace and stability.

— the Qing enjoyed a long period of peace and stability. MAINTAINING A SEPARATE MANCHU IDENTITY


The Manchus set up dual-track official system with important posts reserved only for ethnic Manchus. They also established special troops called “Banner Forces” composed of only Manchu soldiers.

They set themselves apart culturally from Chinese in many waysfor example, their women didn’t practice foot-binding (which started in the 10th century). Also, Manchu language study was mandatory (as Mandarin is in modern day China) and restrictions were established on intermarriage with the Chinese.

Most famously, they forced Chinese men to wear queues (head shaven with a long braid). They enforced this with the death penalty (which has a long, rich tradition in

China). A popular saying of the time: “Keep your hair and lose your head. Or lose your hair and keep your head.”

By the end of the 1700s, Manchu power weakened considerablyfrom problems ranging from corruption to military inefficiency to population growth. At the same time, anti-Manchu sentiment continues to heat up.


1800: The population swells to around 300 million.

The 19th century was one of China’s most turbulent periods—rocked by internal uprisings, natural disasters, and the relentless encroachment of the west. But unlike the meltdown of previous dynasties, something more fundamental was happeningthe meltdown of the imperial system itself.

At the end of the 18th century, rebellions started breaking outmost notably the White Lotus Rebellion, which took the weakened Qing nine years to suppress. Starting from the 1790’s, the wheels started coming off—the Qing fell into a slow death spiral from which they’d never recover.


Slowly but surely, the balance of power started shifting away from Chinaincreasingly weakened by internal dissentand towards the West.

Walled off from the rest of the world, China was insulated from pivotal developments in Europenamely, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions (18th and 19th centuries). Europe’s superior sea power and military technology slowly tipped the balance in their favor during the 1800s. Ironically, European powers would use some of China’s own inventions to dominate China (such as the magnetic compass as well as gunpowder and cannons).

But the Qing didn’t see it coming. They would have to learn the hard way.

China’s process of adaptation to a modern world dominated by Western ideas continues to this day.


In the early 1800s, China had limited contact and trade with Westerners. The Qing were arrogant towards the West. They believed that China was a self-sufficient empire and that the West had nothing of great value to offer. And it was mostly true: During the early part of the century, the trade balance was very much in China’s favor (Lots of silver coming in. Lots of tea, silk, porcelain going out).


Before long, the British were addicted to tea. In 1700, Europe imported a tiny amount. By 1800, it became a national habit in England, which was importing 23 million pounds a year. During that time, the import duty of Chinese tea provided the British government with one-tenth of its total revenue.


Europe wanted increased access to the Chinese market but the Manchu court continued to limit foreign traders in the port of Canton (today’s Guangzhou near Hong Kong), under the Canton System (partly because they were worried that they would join forces with the Chinese).

Frustration built until the British sent Lord Macartney to establish diplomatic relations with the Qing rulers in 1792. By this time, Britain was a great power with a massive navy. However, this was news to the Qing, who still regarded all Western barbarians as lesser powerscertainly not equals.

Lord Macartney famously refused to kowtow (kneeling and touching forehead to ground) to the Qing emperor and he was refused a meeting. It was not a good start. Fifty years later it would be war.

THE QING DYNASTY [1644-1912 ]: Part II


In the second half of 19th century, China was called “the sick man of Asia”. Karl Marx said that China was bound to disintegrate when it met the glare of outside

light, like “any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin.”

But once again, history’s turbulence contained the seed of regeneration. China was pulledkicking and screaminginto the modern world. New ideas and technology were slowly absorbed. By the end of the 19th century, railways, steamboats, and telegraph wire were familiar sights to many Chinese.


Starting in the 1840′s — with the introduction of steamboats hundreds of thousands of Chinese left China in search for a better life. For instance, the California gold rush (1848-49) drew many to the west coast of America. By 1880, there were 100,000 Chinese spread out in US (but in 1882, anti-Chinese laws passed and abruptly shut off immigration).


Meanwhile, the problem remained for the British: How to pay for all of this tea? Britain soon found the solution in India, where it was firmly established by 1800. It was there that they developed a rival export commodity with even greater “therapeutic” properties: the OPIUM poppy.

Describing opium’s destructive addictive properties, a popular saying of the time

was: “The hole of an opium pipe is as small as a needle, but you can put a water buffalo in it and you can also smoke hundreds of mu of land through it.”

1820-30’s: The opium trade snowballs. Silver starts to pour out of China. By 1825, opium imports push China’s trade balance into the red.

The Qing government declare opium illegal and try unsuccessfully to stamp it out for decades. But without an effective navy, they couldn’t stop British traders. The law was ignored by the Chinese too—which wasn’t helped by the fact that an estimated 20% of officials were also smoking it (reminds me of the No Smoking signs ignored by Chinese men today!).


In 1839, the Qing got tough on opiumdumping 3 million pounds of opium into the sea. Britain responded by blockading the port of Guangzhou and sinking several Chinese war junks. The (first) Opium War started.

Britain’s superior weaponry took the Qing by complete surprise. British cannons were able to fire with impunity, from far away at sea. It was over quicklya complete, one-sided ass-whooping by the British navy, and a humiliating defeat for the Qing. Not since the Mongols had China been so thoroughly driven into submission.

The war was over with the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 (the first of several “unequal treaties”). The Qing was forced to pay the British 21 million silver dollars and open five cities as “treaty ports” (Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo and Shanghai). The treaty also ceded Hong Kong to the British. Significantly, foreigners were also given “extra-territorial rights,” which prevented Chinese government from prosecuting any foreigners who committed crimes (instead would be tried by foreign courts in China).


Curiously, the treaty didn’t make any mention of opium. But the Opium War wasn’t really about opium anyway. It was a watershed event that signaled a new eraone of humiliation and painful adaption in a world in which China could no longer see itself as the center of the world.

Despite more than 300 years of direct contact with the West, China failed to learn almost anything about them. The Manchu court was appallingly ignorant, holding on

to ludicrous beliefs (for example, that the accuracy of British warship cannons was due to sorcery).

Economically, politically, and psychologically, the war had a devastating effect. It undermined the longstanding notion that China was the most advanced and powerful country in the world. Doubts came up about whether the Qing had lost the Mandate of Heaven…


The Taiping Rebellion was an odd affairone that would send a severe shock to the Manchus and altered the balance of power between the Chinese and Manchu rulers.

Fueled by growing Anti-Manchu feelings, a peasant rebellionfollowing a long tradition of secret societiesbroke out in southern China. They had early successes (taking Nanjing in 1853) but then lost momentum under the poor (and arguably mentally-ill) leadership of Hong Xiuquan.

The rebellion might have had a chance to defeat the weakened Qing, but Western powers didn’t join forces since they lacked confidence in Hong (who preached the Ten Commandments and claimed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ). Their religious fanaticism was curious and off-putting to the Chinese as well (they preached abstention even though Hong had a personal harem of 88 concubines).

1856-1860: THE SECOND OPIUM WAR (the “Arrow War”)

Following escalating demands from foreign interests, another flare up breaks out. The Qing are humbled again, but not before British and French forces loot and burn the Summer Palace in Beijing. New peace treaties forced upon Qing court: Kowloon is ceded to the British in addition to indemnities. European powers divide parts of China into their “spheres of influence”.


After Western nations swing their support to the Qing, the rebellion ends with the Qing recapturing Nanjing, whereby Hong kills himself. It was a bloody affairbefore the rebellion was over, an estimated 20-40 million people died, a death toll far exceeding that of the nearly contemporaneous American Civil War.


By now Qing rulers are (mostly) out of denial and start to get with the times. With the help of Western powerswho are surprisingly generous in sharing many technological secretsChina starts modernizing. For instance, shipbuilding and

machine factories are constructed and Chinese students are sent abroad to study Western languages and science.

THE QING DYNASTY [1644-1912 ]: Part III


1870s:A newly modernized Japanwhich has been quicker in adapting to the Weststarts flexing its new muscles in Taiwan and Korea, which had long been one of China’s tributary states.


Another humiliating rout for the Chinese. The superior Japanese military kicks Chinese ass on land and seathe war is over in a matter of months. The loss has strong repercussionsarousing heated nationalistic feelings within China.

It was one thing to lose to outside Western powers. But another thing to lose to a former tributary stateone that has long been looked down on by the Chinese (who had long referred to the Japanese as “dwarf pirates”). The defeat sparks deep questions about very basis of China’s traditional ideology.

The war ends with the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which, ceded Taiwan to Japan as well as gave Korea its independence.


As the Qing falls into deeper decline, European powers take advantage by wringing further concessions. In 1897, after two German catholic missionaries are killed in western Shandong, Germany seizes Qingdao (in Shandong province) and forces China to grant them a lease for 99 years.

Other countries pile in and declare greater “spheres of influence”— including the Russians, the French (99 year lease on Guangzhou Bay), the British (99 lease on New Territories next to Hong Kong), and even the Italians. Only the Americans stayed out of scramble. If not for the tensions and rivalry between European powers, China would likely have been completely carved up.

1898: The loss to Japan showed that China’s self-strengthening still had a way to go. The Hundred Days’ Reform speeds up modernizationwhich includes an overhaul of the education system, as well as a westernized military.


Around this same time, the Boxer Rebellion breaks out a powerful grass-roots to “expel the barbarians”. The uprising was a defining moment that would climatically be the dynasty’s last major event—combining the dominant 19th century themes of internal rebellion and foreign influence.

The movement started out as an effort to rid China of Christian missionaries, who were annoyingly aggressive in winning converts (often disparaging ancient worship practices). Rumors of foreign witchcraft didn’t help reputation of the foreign devils whose tall churches “block the sky.” Floods and droughts became attributed to their meddling. Later, the movement grew to become more generally anti-Western.

During the last decades of the late Qing, the Dowager Empress Cixi was the real (but un-official) power who ruled from “behind the curtain”. Powerful but clueless, she is blamed for a number of bad moves. Her most famous blundersymbolizing the stupidity and corruption of powerwas her command to divert funds earmarked for modernizing China’s navy on the lavish renovation of Beijing’s Summer Palace and the Marble Boat.

The Empresswho was impressed with Boxer claims that their supernatural practices made them invulnerable to foreign weaponssupports their rebellion and declares war on all eight Western powers.

In 1900, rebels attack railway and telegraph lines and hold foreign legations in Beijing under siege. The gamble fails miserably. Led by British troops, the eight- nation army crushes the movement. The empress’ court flees to Xi’an disguised as peasants.

The Qing is forced to sign the Boxer Protocol and pay huge indemnities (US$333 million), tying up revenue for decades. A year later, Cixi returns to Beijing, where she remained until her death in 1908. She was succeeded by her two-year old grandnephew, Puyi (inspiring the 1987 movie The Last Emperor).

1902: China’s first automobiles are shipped to Shanghai.

1905: RussoJapanese WarJapan stuns the world by defeating the Russians in Manchuria.

Led by Sun Yat-sen (a Western-trained medical doctor), the Republican movement realized that if China was going to turn things around in the new world order,

political reform was necessary. He organizes his government in Nanjing, with favorable support from Britain and France.

Taking advantage of confusion after 1911, Tibet and Outer Mongolia declare their independence.

1912: The Qing dynasty finally ends with a series of loosely connected uprisings and mutiny by imperial troops. The boy-emperor Puyi abdicates. China’s imperial system is over and the Republic of China is born.


If the second half of the 19th century was bad, the first half of 20th would be worse. Millions more would die after an unrelenting succession of wars, floods, drought and famine.

After the fall of empire, China’s political landscape changed dramatically and would soon be dominated by the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).


Emboldened by successful wars against China and Russia, Japanese aggression continues to build. At the same time, Europe’s aggressive empire-building starts to fade, as they become increasingly preoccupied by bigger problems back home.

1914: World War I breaks out. Japan aligns with Britain and France and seizes German’s Qingdao areas.

1919: After WWI ends, the Paris Peace Conference meets to set the peace terms for Germany and other defeated nations. The Chinese who reluctantly joined the Alliesassumed that they would regain Qingdao. But instead, the Allies gives Qingdao to Japan.


The Chineseled by angry studentsdemand the return of Qingdao. Starting in what would later be Tiananmen Square, student riots flare up in Beijing and quickly spreads to Shanghai and other cities. This May Fourth Movement becomes a catalyst for changesignaling the start of great nationalist movement in China.


Shanghai got a big boost by the Taiping Rebellion. After rebels seized Nanjing,

Western powers were forced to find an alternative port.

was the 5th largest city in worlda cosmopolitan soup of foreigners, vice, and counterculture.

By the 1920s, Shanghai

It was there in 1921 that Mao Zedonginspired by calls for change and influenced by Communist writingsestablishes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), under the slogan, “Destroy the Old China.” Soon, his People Power message catches on— peasants and workers start to drink the Kool Aid.

1925: Sun Yat-Sen dies from cancer. One of his lieutenants, Chiang Kai-shek takes over a fragile central government and soon starts to butt heads with the CCP.

1927: Chiang Kai-shek orders “White terror” purges of CCP members in Shanghai and other cities. Tens of thousands are killed. He names Nanjing as the real capital of the Republic. The CCP leave the cities and take control of the countryside.

1928: Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT forces take Beijing.

1931: Taking advantage of the infighting, Japan seizes Manchuria.

1933: Japanese seize the area around Chengde and attack passes on the Great Wall north of Beijing (you can see thousands of bullet holes near the Wall’s First Pass Under Heaven, aka: Shanhaiguan). The League of Nations condemns Japanese aggression. They walk out of the League in March.

THE LONG MARCH (or “These boots are made for walking”)

Meanwhile, KMT forces are close to completely defeating the Communists. In 1934, they’re close to surrounding them, but the remnants of the Mao’s Red Army somehow escapesstarting The Long March to their northern base of Yan’an in Shaanxi provincea 8,000 mile trek crossing 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers.

They started out with about 100,000 soldiers. A year later, only 7,000 made it to their destination. They regain strength as Mao develops his guerrilla warfare strategy.


The 1936 Xian Incident was a turning point for Mao’s Communists. Despite problems with the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek wants to focus on eliminating the Commies. As he put it, the Japanese were only a “disease of the skin” while the Communists were a “disease of the heart” (a graver threat to China’s survival).

But most of the KMT troops are less eager to fight their own countrymen, and more eager to defeat the Japanese. When he goes to their base in Xi’an to rally troops to fight Mao’s army, he’s faced with a mutiny. His own top officers place him under house arrest until he agrees to form a United Front with Mao against the Japanese.

1937: All out war begins with Japanese after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Beijing.


China is no match for Japan’s disciplined and modern war machine. They take Beijing, Shanghai, and soon most of China’s major coastal cities.

China is further hampered by lack of coordination and trust between the KMT and Communists. To this day, each side still blames the other for lack of resolve in fighting Japan.


1937-8: Nanjing (Nanking) falls to the Japanese, starting the infamous reign of terror called the Nanking Massacre (sometimes called the “Chinese holocaust”). Of the estimated 200,000-300,000 Chinese killed, the majority were civilians. Tens of thousandsold and youngare brutally raped by Japanese soldiers (the subject of the 1997 book The Rape of Nanking and the 2009 movie, Nanking).

The incident continues to bedevil Sino-Japanese relations to this day (usually when Japanese leaders pay their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, the burial place of many officers considered to be war criminals by the Chinese).


Summer 1941: US support for China growsvolunteer airmen from the US fly to China to form the famous “Flying Tigers’ air force in Kunming.

to form the famous “Flying Tigers’ air force in Kunming. December 1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.

December 1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. Eight hours later, they attack Hong Kong. The British surrender after 17 days of fierce fighting, marking the first time in history that a British Crown Colony surrendered to an invading force.

Allied forces and the Chinese hope to wear down Japan in China with a war of attrition. The Chinese campaign was able to divert more than half-million Japanese

troops during Asian conflict (an estimated 70% of Japanese WWII casualties were in China).

1945: Japan surrenders.


Bitterness between the two sides boils over soon after the Japanese surrender. Once again, the Nationalists reoccupied the cities while the CCP controlled the countryside. For the next four years, civil war engulfed China again.

On paper, the KMT Nationalists had the advantagebetter resources and strong anti-Commie support from the US. But they had grown increasingly corrupt, ineffective, and unpopular during the war against Japan. One big problem was inflation, which kept rising as morale kept dropping.

Meanwhile, Mao Zedong is able to articulate a clearer and more inspiring vision. The CCP gains a reputation among workers and farmers as an organization of the common man. Chiang Kai-shek responds with increased repression (public executions on street corners were common).


The tide turns towards the Communist armynow called the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). Mao’s Red Army starts defeating KMT forces. The Commies take Beijing in January 1949. Nanjing and Shanghai would soon follow.

By the end of the year, remaining KMT forces flee to Taiwan (a former Japanese colony since 1895. They surrendered it after losing WWII…though to no country in particular). Chiang Kai-shek sets up a government in exile therethe Republic of China.

The KMT also escapes with many of China’s best treasures. Today, The National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan is by far the best place to see China’s ancient art and artifacts (almost 700,000 pieces, which are continuously rotated).

October 1, 1949: At a huge rally on Tiananmen Square, Mao claims the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

THE MAO YEARS [ 1949-1976 ]


The first years of the China under Mao rule was greeted with relief and joy after decades of conflict. With moral confidence, the CCP got off on a good startridding the streets of prostitutes, gangs and opium dens. Women were given a better deal toogranted equal status and the right to divorce (pre-arranged marriages also banned).

During the first decade, China received support from Sovietsmodeling their industrial, banking and commercial nationalizations on their system (the two countries would later break relations after a series of bitter ideological and territorial conflicts).


Soon the Revolution starts to sour after Mao launches a series of purges and mass- campaigns that went savagely awry (culminating with the horrors of the Cultural Revolution). Large numbers were displaced, imprisoned or executed. Between 1949 and Mao’s death in 1976, somewhere between 40-70 million Chinese died prematurely under his rule (largely through famine).

Turning inward, China would remain isolationist until about 1972.

1950: The PLA reasserts Chinese control over Tibet. The teenaged 14th Dalai Lama (the current one) becomes a Chinese figurehead ruler.

1952: Mao begins Rural Collectivization. Based on a Soviet-style 5 year plan for economic growth, individual land-ownership is abolished and replaced with co- operatives (of about 200-300 families).


Under the slogan “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and a Hundred Schools of Thought

Contend,” Mao actively encourages the opinions and criticisms from all walks of society, including intellectuals (the name is a reference to the Hundred Schools of Thought period of the Warring States Period).

But soon, things get out of hand as the opinions grow more critical. More and more flowers denounce his regime’s “malevolent tyranny” and call for strikes.

Mao’s response is draconian (some say it was a deliberate trap). He launches a brutal “Anti-Rightist Campaign.” A half-million dissidents are sent to country for “reform through labor” (many stay there for 20 years and some die). Most victims are intellectuals, who he has disliked since his youth when he worked in Beijing

University’s library (I suspect he would be an enthusiastic Sarah Palin supporter today).


Frustrated by the slow rate of change, Mao wants to take things up a notch. His Great Leap Forward was supposed to propel China on the fast track to modernization. Massive communes replace the family. Personal plots and livestock are banned. Meals taken communally. Even sleep is rationed at six hours every two days (Are you kiddin’ me?!).

Each commune is ordered to set up “backyard” blast furnaces to bolster steel productionall manner of metal, including “luxury items” like pots, pans, and eating utensils are melted down.

The results are disastrous. With labor diverted from fields, grain yields plummet. Coupled with some ill-timed natural disasters, the agriculture failure result in severe shortages and famine.

Unrealistic productivity targets and the falsification of statistics blind Mao to fact that he created world’s greatest man-made famine: An estimated 20-30 million starve to death. The worst was around 1960, when even rats were dying of starvation and cannibalism was widely reported.

1959: The Tibet Uprising for independence is ruthlessly suppressed. The Dalai Lama escapes to India and sets up a governmentinexile. Tibet from this point on is subjected to close Chinese rule and its considerable mineral resources are tapped.

1961: Starvation easesgrain is imported from Canada and Australia.

THERE’S A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN (and his name is not Reggie Hammond)

After Mao’s disastrous experiment, Liu Shaoqimore practical and less dogmatic than Maobecomes the new CCP leader (with support from Party general-secretary Deng Xiaoping). A deflated Mao goes to Hangzhou to sulk and regroup.

The new leaders work to revitalize China’s economy by relaxing state control in key industries. Things slowly but surely start to turn around for the better. But Maowho views them as leading China down the evil capitalist roadgrows increasingly angry (you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry).

1963: Mao reemerges and starts his vendetta against the “Liu Shaoqi clique”.

The brilliant propaganda piece, “The Little Red Book: Quotations from Mao

Zedong,” is published and widely distributed. Mao’s Cult of Personality grows (as witnessed by Mao pins, lighters, etc).

Mao regroups his power base and launches the Socialist Education Movement— to “cleanse” China’s economy, politics, organization, and ideology (the four cleanups). The educated class (city slickers) are sent to the countryside to learn good ole Socialist values first-hand by toiling the fields and taking orders from peasants. This paves the way for….


The Cultural Revolution was largely a power play by Mao to regain power. Launching an all out attack on his opponents, he has Liu and Deng arrested and placed under house arrest (in poor health and denied medical attention, Liu dies in 1968).

Presiding over massive rallies by militant youths, Mao fires them upcalling for them to remove old power and “Bombard the Headquarters. He calls for an end to old, traditional feudal ways to make way for a new, modern China. Soon, Mao’s Red Guards are formed to carry out Mao’s revolutionary line across China (the army is ordered not to interfere).

Their power grows unchecked and soon things get out of out control. Teachers and officials are attacked—often either killed or driven to suicide. Many of China’s ancient monuments and temples are destroyed by overzealous, brainwashed teenagers. In Tibet, thousands of monasteries are destroyed or turned into factories and pigsties.

Soon, China turned into an ultra-violent McCarthy witch-hunt. Any whiff of “bourgeois” connection could label you as a rightist “enemy of the state.” People were dragged from homes, paraded through streets in dunce caps, and denounced in violentoften fatal — “struggle sessions.” Friends betrayed friends. Children turned on their parents. Before things eventually calmed down, even different Red Guard factions fought each other on the street.

Eventually the army is sent in to calm things down. By 1970, the worst of the Cultural Revolution dissipates….but not before it destroyed millions of lives are destroyed. In the 2006 book, Mao’s Last Revolution, the authors estimate that in rural China alone, some 36 million people were persecuted, and between 750,000 and 1.5 million were killed.

Today, Chinese reluctantly talk about the “lost decade” and “ten wasted years” of 1966-76 a chaotic time of uncertainty when education abruptly shut down and family and local ties were severed.


1971: Ping Pong diplomacy. China takes its first baby steps out of isolationism. The US ping pong team, who were playing in a tournament in Japan, are invited to Beijing and lavishly received by Mao (events snowballed in Japan after a US player approached a Chinese counterpart by saying in Chinese: “Hi, Chinese, long time no see.”).

Months later, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger holds secret meetings in Beijing to establish groundwork for further talks. In October, Taiwan loses its seat on the UN and is replaced by China.

1972: US President Nixon’s historic visit to China was a watershed in geopolitical relations and a key milestone for a China seeking a broader role in the world. Nixon meets with Mao and Premier Zhou Enlairesulting in the Shanghai Communique, which becomes the foundation for the US and China relations. The Taiwan issue was (and still is) a major stumbling block, however, Kissinger’s artful use of “constructive ambiguity” enabled agreement—leaving the question of China- Taiwan relations open-ended.


June 26, 1976: Mao has a heart attack.

July 28, 1976: A massive earthquake kills 700,000 in northern China (an omen?).

September 9, 1976: Mao dies in Beijing at the age of 82.

Oct 1976: The Gang of Fourthe strongest proponents of the Cultural Revolution—is arrested. Mao’s wife refuses to admit her crimes and receives the harshest sentence. Her death sentence is later commuted to life imprisonment. In 1991, she hangs herself while suffering from terminal cancer.


After Mao dies, Deng reemerges from exile and becomes China’s new (informal) leader after a tough power struggle. The country is ready to move on. The new post-Mao government uses the face-saving formula that Mao had been “70% right, 30% wrong” (exceedingly generous if you ask me).


Much more of a pragmatist than the ideological Mao, Deng was China’s father of economic reform. Recognizing that poverty and lack of incentive for self- improvement were fatal constraints, he impressively transformed China’s economy through innovative combinations of communism and capitalism.

Among his most famous quotes: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice,” and “It is glorious to grow rich”.

Over the last three decades, the speed and scale of modernization of his socialist market economy have been overwhelming. Yet, as the Tiananmen Square uprising showed in 1989, there were limits to the Deng Reformsdemocratization, in the western sense anyway, wasn’t in the cards (indeed, never had been).

anyway, wasn’t in the cards (indeed, never had been). 1978: Start of Deng’s Four Modernizations program

1978: Start of Deng’s Four Modernizations program (agriculture, industry, defense and science). Coca-Cola is admitted into the Chinese market.

1979: Touting China’s new “Open Door” policy, Deng tours the US. Deng is named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” (winning the honor again in 1985).

1980: The One Child Policy is rolled out nationwide as the population reaches 900 million.

1980: Shenzhennext to Hong Kong—becomes the first of China’s “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ) to attract foreign investment. Hong Kong companies are the first to set up factories. In a matter of years, the small rice village is transformedreplaced with skyscrapers and new railway and airport to link it with rest of China. (2010 population: 9 million).

Shenzhen’s success catalyzes the rest of China. In the mid- to late-1980s, China opens more than two-dozen additional coastal cities as SEZs, where Korean, Japanese and Western companies build and manage factories.

1983: China’s new openness and liberalization leads to the rise of organized crime— gangs return to cities. As part of the campaign against “spiritual pollution,” thousands are arrested and executed during an anti-crime drive.

1984: China launches its first communications satellite into space.

1987: Western-style fast food hits China– KFC opens its first stores. McDonald’s will follow in 1991 (I know, it sounds lame….until you go there and find yourself eating it daily).

1989: China’s first stock markets open in Shenzhen and Shanghai.

1989: The Dalai Lama is awarded The Nobel Peace Prize, evoking international sympathy (similar persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang continues to receive less publicity).

But despite overall economic progress, many are unhappy with the speed and direction of change. As China grows more open and liberal, people become less shy about making their voices heard (for political reform, against corruption & wealth disparities, etc). As early as 1978, Deng was quoted as saying, “The masses should

be allowed to vent their grievances.”

In 1989, reformer Bao Tong asks: “How is it that the workers and peasants who are named in the Constitution as ‘the basis of the country’ have nothing left to depend on turned into a voiceless group of colonized weaklings, who are routinely bullied and humiliated by those with power and money?


A memorial Service for Hu Yaobang a liberal CCP general-secretary who was popular among students grows into mass demonstrations at Tiananmen Square.

Although the western media mostly portrayed the incident as clamors for democracy (which was partially true), it mainly started out as students angry over poor job opportunities.

Deng’s reforms had largely disadvantaged the educated class. One popular slogan

during the mid-1980s was that, “Those who hold scalpels earn less than those who

hold eel knives.” Other gripes were part of the mix—ranging from mandatory calisthenics to crappy cafeteria food to wanting campus leaders chosen by open elections.

Soon, crowds of non-student Beijingers (angry at corruption, rich getting richer, etc) enthusiastically join in. The crowd swells, spilling over nearby streets. After seven weeks of government inaction, the crowd has mushroomed to an estimated 2-3 million.

June 4, 1989: The sh*t hits the fan. PLA tanks and soldiers empty the streets and fire on demonstrators (almost all those killed were not actually in Tiananmen Square but on the nearby streets). The death toll estimates vary widely, however most killed were non-student civilians, somewhere in the range of several hundred to a few thousand.

The incident is today referred to by Chinese as “six-four” (for June 4).


1990: China’s biggest SEZ launches in the suburbs of Shanghai at Pudong, designated to be China’s new financial and commercial hub (2010 population: 1.7 million).

1993: Former Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin becomes the President of the PRC. During the 1990s, he accelerates economic reform and growth by privatizing state enterprises.

1994: Construction begins on the Three Gorges Dam.

1995-6: Taiwan Strait Crisis. In the run-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election, China launches a series of live-ammunition “missile tests” off the coast of Taiwan. The elections are Taiwan’s first-ever free elections after decades of one- party KMT rule. US President Clinton cools things down by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area.

February 19, 1997: Deng Xiaoping dies at the age of 92.


At start of 21st century, China has become major global forceconfident and booming economically (as if you didn’t already know). The country’s transformation has been blinding and unprecedented—with worldwide impact since it’s taken place in context of globalization.

Buoyed by cheap labor and capital, China has become the world’s fastest-growing major economy, with an average annual growth rate around 10% over the last three decades.

annual growth rate around 10% over the last three decades. Since launch of economic reform in

Since launch of economic reform in 1978, more people have been materially better off in a shorter span of time than ever before in human history.

Between 2002- 2006, China’s GDP doubles to 21 trillion yuan ($2.8 trillion). With a quarter

Between 2002-2006, China’s GDP doubles to 21 trillion yuan ($2.8 trillion). With a quarter of global workforce, China has titled international economics in the space of a decade.

In addition to becoming the biggest produced of steel and aluminum, among many other things, the PRC has launched a number of huge infrastructure projectstopped by $25 billion Three Gorges Dam (a project originally dreamed of since imperial days).

But China still remains deeply conservative politicallyit remains the only one of the ten major global economies not to be a multi-party democracy.

Under Mao, China sought to export revolution. Today it looks to deploy its massive cash reserves, spreading “soft power” around the globe. Throughout, the PRC insists that it’s pursuing a “peaceful rise” in search of a “harmonious world”.

1997: Hong Kong is anti-climatically returned to China.

1997: US President Bill Clinton hosts a state dinner for Jiang Zemin, marking the first visit to the US by a Chinese head of state in twelve years.

1999: Macau reverts to Chinese rule after 450 years under Portuguese rule. In 2006, Macauwith about US$7 billion in annual gambling revenuesurpasses Las Vegas in the world’s top gambling market (you know Asians love to gamble!).

1999: The Falun Gong movement stages a huge rally in Tiananmen Squaresome 10,000 members sit-in and demand an end to official criticism of the group. Founded in 1992, the FGwith central tenets of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearanceis an apolitical, spiritual group that performs meditative qigong breathing exercises. The movement is energetically suppressed after being classified as a xiejiao (“evil cult”) and made illegal. Several thousand are reportedly detained in prison camps. (The crackdown is perhaps less surprising given China’s long history of secret societies, particularly a movement that had a committed, widespread, and multi-class membership in the millions).

2001: After the 9/11 attacks, a rare state accord is reached by the US, China and Russiaeach with a vested interest in combating the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Central Asia.

2001: China is admitted into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

2003: SARS outbreak in Hong Kong and Guangdong province.

2003: Hu Jintao succeeds Jiang Zemin as the President of the PRC.

2004: China signs a landmark trade agreement with 10 Southeast Asian countries, which could eventually unite 25% of the world’s population in a free-trade zone.

2005: Sparked by a Japanese textbook which China says glosses over Japan’s World War II record, Sino-Japanese relations sour amid sometimes-violent anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities.

2005: China and Russia hold their first-ever joint military exercises.

2007: China flexes it muscles in space with an exercise in which it shot down one of its own old weather satellites. The move is seen by the Pentagon as a potential threat to America’s communication systems and military (In recent years, the PRC started a program to build aircraft carriers and modernize its fleet).

2007: China offers resource-rich Africa triple the aid that the continent got from Western nations. That year’s summit of the African Development Bank was held in the most un-African location: Shanghai.

2007: China passes the US as biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (though still far behind in terms of per capita emissions).

2007: New labor laws are introduced after hundreds of men and boys were discovered working as slaves in brick factories.

2007: Food and drug scandals spark international fears about the safety of Chinese exports. China’s food and drug agency chief is executed for taking bribes.

2008: New Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou (KMT, which has evolved to be the pro- China party) warms relations with China. Direct flights are established, Taiwan is opened to Chinese tourists, and restrictions are eased on Taiwan investment in China. Many pro-independence Taiwanese (DPP party) are angered by the moves.

2008: The Tibet unrest (known in China as the “three-fourteen riots”) is suppressed by Chinese riot police. Death toll estimates vary widely (several dozen likely killed, including Chinese civilians, Tibetans and police).

2008: Sichuan province earthquake (death toll around 70,000)

2008: China hosts the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Meanwhile, a 2008 Gallup poll revealed that 40% of Americans considered China to be the world’s leading economic power (with only 33% choosing their own country).

2008: Over 50,000 Chinese children get sick after drinking tainted milk, leading Premier Wen Jiabao to apologize for the scandal.

2009: Scores of people are killed and hundreds injured in the worst ethnic violence in decades as a protest in the restive Xinjiang region turns violent.

2009: China executes British citizen Akmal Shaikh for drug smuggling, despite pleas for clemency from the British government.

2009: China becomes the world’s largest automobile market

2009 : China becomes the world’s largest automobile market 2010: China overtakes Japan to become the

2010: China overtakes Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.

2010: In response to alleged cyber-attacks on e-mail accounts of human rights activists, Google ends its compliance with Chinese internet censorship and starts re- directing web searches to Google Hong Kong.

2010: The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009. Three weeks later, China announces it’s own peace prize, the “Confucius Peace Prize” (awarded to Lien Chan, Taiwan’s former vice president of the KMT).

Jan 2011: US President Obama hosts Hu Jintao–the first full “state dinner” for a Chinese head of state since 1997.

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