History of China

Dimitris Stamatios | February 21, 2023


The history of China is unique in the history of the world in that this civilisation has survived for thousands of years on the same continent-sized territory, has always had the largest known population of any ethnic group in the world, and has always managed to renew its development despite occasional serious setbacks, thus remaining the world”s leading power for centuries and becoming so again and again after periods of turmoil.

Prehistory covers the early, prehistoric (prehistoric) period of Chinese history. It includes prehistory and the first phase of European antiquity (mid-4th millennium BC – 18th century BC).

Contrary to the earlier view that a kind of core culture first developed in China around the Yellow River (Yangshao (Yangshao) and then Lungsan (Longshan) cultures) and gradually spread throughout the area known today as China, current archaeological excavations make it clear that China was from the beginning a region with many cultural centres. After the Neolithic Revolution in the 8th millennium BC, signs of individuality began to emerge more and more clearly in some areas. In most areas, a degree of local continuity can be discerned, although archaeologists often give different names to the successive cultures in a given area (Macsiapang (Takshi (Daxi) – Chuchialing (Qujialing) – Shichiaho (Shijiahe)).

Prehistoric and cavemen in China (prehistoric)

The earliest fossil human skull dates back to 600 000 BC and was found in 1963 in Shanxi province in Shanxi. The remains of the Peking prehistoric (pinjin: Bĕijīng yuánrén), named after Davidson Black, predate by about 400 000 years and were found in 1923 by Swedish scientist Johan Gunnar Andersson in the cave system of the village of Chuukoutien (Zhoukoudian) (周口店, Zhōukǒudiàn) near Beijing. The Beijing prehistoric resembled the Javanese prehistoric (Homo erectus erectus).

Late Stone Age (50 000 – 35 000 BC) artefacts corresponding to European Cro-Magnon man have been found in the upper caves of Zhoukoudian. This early Homo sapiens made tools from bone and stone, made clothes from animal skins and could light fires. Scientists who support the general African origin hypothesis often ignore the remains from the Far East.

Neolithic Age (New Stone Age)

In the 8th millennium BC, agricultural activity began in both the north and south of present-day China, marking the beginning of China”s Neolithic Revolution. Many artefacts from this early period have been found. In the Pejlikang (Peiligang) (裴李崗, Péilǐgǎng) and Cesan (Cishan) (磁山, Císhān) cultures, tools for processing several millet species (Setaria italica, Panicum miliaceum) have been found. It is not inconceivable that millet was first cultivated in the Yellow River valley. At the earliest site of the Pejlikang (Peiligang) culture, in the village of Nancsuangtou (Nanzhuangtou) in the southern part of Hopej (Hebei) province, there is evidence that dogs and pigs were domesticated. Simple, poorly decorated clay pots were also found in the cemetery of the Pejlikang (Peiligang) culture village. In the south, remains of rice (Oryza sativa) dating back to the 5th millennium BC were discovered. In Pengtousan (Pengtoushan) and Cengpijan (Zengpiyan) in the south, researchers have found remains of earlier rice cultivation dating from the 8th millennium BC. In addition to the development of agriculture (crop production, animal husbandry), the Neolithic reforms also include the more advanced production of ceramics and textiles.

Until a few decades ago, two major Neolithic cultures were thought to have existed in China: the Yangsao (4th millennium BC – mid-3rd millennium BC) culture in the provinces of Kansau (Gansu), Shaanxi (Shaanxi), Honan (Henan) and Hubei (Hubei), and the Lungsan (Longshan) culture in the present-day provinces of Shandong (Shandong) and Jiangsu (Jiangsu). This dual-culture theory, which linked the Ji (yi) tribes of the east with the Xia (xia) tribes of the west with the Yangshao-Lungsan (Yangshao-Longshan) dichotomy, was the dominant view of the 1930s-1950s. Today, the situation is seen as much more complex, partly due to the finds at Miaotikou (Miaodigou), excavated in 1959, where remains of the Yangshao culture were found in the lowest layer, the early Longshan culture above it, and the Eastern Zhou dynasty of the historical period. From this, it appeared to many researchers that the Lungsan (Longshan) and Yangshao (Yangshao) cultures had not developed side by side but from each other in one place, giving rise to the ”central core area” theory (K. C. Chang), which was the main theoretical basis of the 1960s and 1970s.

Since the 1980s, this has been replaced by the theory of “regional systems and cultural types” (multicentralism), first formulated by Su Bingqi in 1981, which focuses on the importance of individual cultures. This theory denies the primary and exclusive role of the Yellow River and instead hypothesises a multi-source, essentially self-developing but interconnected set of cultures.

It draws attention to six key areas:

Within each of these regional systems there were also cultural types. The novelty of the theory, therefore, is that rather than the earlier idea that Chinese culture radiated out from the Yellow River valley as a centre to peripheral, barbarian areas, it is that multiple origins, pluralism, diversity and interaction are the key words.

In China in the 8th millennium BC, the introduction of agriculture and ceramics occurred at roughly the same time. The various variations of the latter are the best way to describe the cultures that were already prominent by the 5th millennium BC. The six major cultural groups are as follows:

The northeastern cultural area includes the Xinglungva (6th millennium BC) – Xinlö (5th-3rd millennium BC) cultures.

The Xinglongwa (Xinglungva) culture excavated in Inner Mongolia consisted of only 170 houses and 30 tombs. The Japanese excavations of the Hungsan (Hongshan) culture in 1938 focused on two sites believed to be ceremonial centres (Niuholiang (Niuheliang) and Tungsancuj (Dongshanzui), Liaoning Province).

In the Liao River valley in the northeast of present-day China, the dominant industries were stone cultivation and cattle and sheep breeding. Jade objects, dragon motifs and red-striped vessels have been found. The strange statues and clay female figures found may have religious significance, which some researchers have interpreted as indicating the presence of a matriarchy, others as indicating the local role of fertility cults. The Hungsan (Hongshan) community may have attached particular importance to jade (birds, turtles, clouds, beetles and other natural or geometric shapes) in their rituals. The villages, sometimes surrounded by ditches, consisted of around 60 to 100 densely packed dwellings arranged in rows. Painted ceramics usually appear in a religious context. Apart from a single silver earring, all ornaments are made of jade. There was a long tradition of jade working in the area, with jade tools dating as far back as the 10th millennium BC. Earrings made of jade have also been found from the earlier Xinglongwa and Chahai cultures. The circular and square structures and objects found in ritual centres suggest the idea of later heaven-earth dichotomies.

The Yangshao (Yangshao) culture of central China is the first discovered and best known Chinese Neolithic culture. The culture takes its name from the village of Yangshao in the Mianchi County of Honan (Henan) Province, where Johan Gunnar Andersson excavated in 1921. More than a thousand archaeological sites in the Yellow River Valley are associated with the Yangshao culture. The Jangsao (Yangshao) ceramics can be divided into several periods and styles, but they are all similar in that the reddish ground is decorated with black or dark brown motifs.

In 1953, while laying the foundations of a factory, the remains of a complete Neolithic village of the Yangshao culture, dating to the 5th millennium BC, were discovered on the outskirts of Xian (Bànpō), in the suburb of Xian. The doors and gates generally faced south. Most tools (spades, axes, files, pots, needles, hooks) were made of stone and the technique of weaving was known. Separate from the settlement was a pottery quarter and, north of the settlement, a cemetery of 250 graves for adults, the latter in which men and women were buried separately. The adult graves contained personal and practical objects, on average more in the women”s than in the men”s. Children were buried in urns and within the village. The inhabitants made their living from fishing, stone farming, dog and pig farming. The pottery found in Banpo was painted, which is why the culture here is also known as painted pottery culture. The shapes of the vessels are not very varied (kuan (guan), pen (ben), ping shapes). The reddish ground is painted with black figures (fish, frogs, deer, birds, masks, geometric figures). Banpo, which is said to be based on a matriarchy, is one of the most complete Neolithic farming communities in the world. In 1958, a museum was set up in Panpo (Banpo) to exhibit the site.

CsiangcsajCsiangcsaj (Jiangzhai)]] településen egy másik jól elrendezett falvat találtak. A falu közepén egy szabad tér volt, körülötte helyezkedtek el a házak öt csoportban. Minden csoport közepén egy magasabb ház állt, körülötte 10–12 kisebbel. A falvat 2 méter széles és 2 méter mély vizesárok vette körbe, melyen túl három temetőt is találtak, 170 felnőtt maradványaival. A gyerekek urnáit itt is a lakóhelyhez közel helyezték el.

In Xushuipo, near the town of Puyang (Puyang), the earliest known dragon effigy was discovered in a tomb belonging to the Yangshao (Yangshao) culture, made from a shell.

It is usually divided into the Jangsao (Miàodǐgōu) phase. The East China Tavenkou (Dawenkou) and Lungsan (Longshan) cultures are closely related to the Miaotikou (Miaodigou) phase in many respects, and are therefore often included in the East China cultural circuit.

The Yangshao (Yangshao) culture is shared with the Yangshao culture of northwest China (Kansau (Gansu) and Qinghai (4th-3rd millennium BC), followed by the Pansan (Banshan) (mid-3rd millennium BC) and Machang (late 3rd millennium BC) cultures. The human figure (often in a gender-invariable form) plays an important role on the vessels found here, either as a prominent relief on vessels or as a skeletal form inside the vessels. Other popular motifs are frogs or turtles, spirals and duckbills. Because of their close links to the Yangshao culture, the Northwestern cultures are collectively referred to as the Yangshao Kansai Qinghai culture, or are often considered to be phases of the Yangshao culture rather than separate cultures. The northwestern Chinese Qijia culture, which followed the Machang culture, was the first Chinese Bronze Age culture at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, marking the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of Chinese antiquity.

The tombs of the Neolithic cultures of eastern China contain a wealth of artefacts. In the Tavenkou (5-3 BC). millennium, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces), researchers have uncovered grey and red clay vessels decorated with geometric and rarely floral motifs (including cooking and storage vessels), stone and ivory hooks, hairpins and combs, jade ornaments (necklace, ring, earrings, bracelet) and jade tools. From the animal remains (crocodile, deer, elephant), the researchers conclude that the climate of the area was much warmer than today.

The Tavenkou (mid-3rd millennium BC – 18th century BC). The Lungsan (Longshan) culture, first discovered in 1931-32 in the Chengziya suburb of Zhangqiu (Chengziya), Santung (Shandong), saw the development of agricultural activity and the growth of settlement during the Lungsan period. Thin, polished black vessels made for ritual purposes, lacquered wooden objects, and pig and deer shoulder bones used for divination were found in the graves. Silk weaving was common at this time, kilns were used to burn bricks for building, and engineering-based works were used to protect against floods.

The pottery (ting (ding), jen (yan), veng (weng), chia (jia), kuan (guan), pej (bei), tou (dou), ho (he)) and the vessels, which are otherwise extremely varied and show a great deal of professional skill, were not painted but had certain patterns stamped into them. One of the most common features of the vessels is their tripod shape. Animal bones and teeth, especially from the lower jaw of a dog, were often placed in the tombs, probably to protect them.

In the cemeteries of the Lungsan (Longshan) culture, the tombs already show considerable social stratification. The difference in the value of the buried objects can be clearly observed, for example, in the burial site of Taosze (Taosi), where there were 6 large, 8 medium and about 600 small graves.

The Southeastern cultural circle includes the Macsiapang (5th-4th millennium BC) and the Sungcö (4th-3rd millennium BC) cultures.

The early rice-growing cultures discovered in the Yangtze River Delta, in what are now Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, were the first evidence that China”s civilisation was not limited to the Yellow River Valley. The predominantly brown Macsiapang (majiabang) and black Homutu (hemudu) vessels often contain ritual designs. The Macsiapang (Majiabang) culture south of Lake Taihu (Taihu) has a more complex rice cultivation, woodworking and jewellery (earrings, pendants, beads and bracelets) than the Homutu (Hemudu) sites. The Songze culture is a continuation of the Majiabang culture, with more complex motifs and several types of vessels.

The Homutu (Hemudu) culture (Qīnglián”gǎng), discovered in 1973-78, was based on tree-building, agriculture, rice cultivation and intensive livestock farming (water buffalo, pigs). In textiles, agriculture and architecture, the early coastal cultures of the southeast were more advanced than those of the more northerly coastal cultures of eastern China.

The Liangchu (Liangzhu) culture, which is predominantly found in southern Jiangsu (Jiangsu) and northern Zhejiang (around Lake Taihu), was previously thought to belong to the Lungsan (Longshan) culture group. Nowadays, researchers believe that the Liangchu (Liangzhu) culture, represented by approximately 300 sites, pre-dates the Lungsan (Longshan) culture in time and is independent of it. In some respects, the Liangchu (Liangzhu) culture was a successor to the Macsiapang (Majiabang) culture and a direct predecessor of the historical Sang (Shang) period.

The Liangchu (Liangzhu) communities were skilled in rice cultivation, silk weaving and pottery. Among the Liangchu (Liangzhu) artefacts, the vessels found are generally undecorated, some with geometric or bird motifs. The earliest finds of silk processing were found in Qianshanyang (Qianshanjang) and Caoxieshan (Caoxieshan) of the Liangchu (Liangzhu) culture.

In the non-residential cemeteries (as well as in the settlements of the Lungsan (Longshan) culture), social stratification is already clearly evident. In the smaller graves we find little, while in the larger ones we find ceramic vessels, wood, stone and jade objects, and in the largest graves complete ritual pottery, wooden, copper and crocodile skin instruments and painted wall paintings. For example, in tomb 20 excavated at Fanshan, a single person buried 547 different objects. Human sacrifice was common in the Liangchu (Liangzhu) culture. The coffins were made of wood and were also coated with lacquer. In some areas, double coffins have been found, which played an important role in later traditions.

The richer tombs always contain two typical jade objects, the cung (cóng), a square-shaped jade object with a hole in the middle and carvings similar to an arch in the corners, and the pi (bì), a jade disc with a hole in the middle, also known in the Northeast, Mid-Northwest and East China cultures. Later texts claim that cung (cong) represents the Earth and pi (bi) the Sky. The jade objects (especially the cung (cong)), which played such an important role in Liangchu (Liangzhu) culture, already bear some of the taotie motifs so common in the Sang (Shang) period.

Some researchers (Zhang Xiqiu, K.C. Chang), among others, based on the remains of the Liangchu (Liangzhu) culture, believe that a glacial period should be inserted between the Neolithic and Bronze Age in China.

In the middle and upper Yangtze valley, the Takhsi (first half of the 3rd millennium BC) and Sichiaho (second half of the 3rd millennium BC) cultures succeeded each other. Dragon motifs are very common in these cultures. Hand-made red or grey pottery is dominant. A typical Tahsi (Daxi) artefact is the cylindrical glass. At one of the Sicsiaho (Shijiahe) sites (Dengjiawan), 5000 complete animal sculptures (birds, dogs, elephants) have been found.

The Tapenkeng (5th-3rd millennium BC) was discovered in 1964 near Taipei (Taiwan) and was present along the entire southern China coast. It was characterised by agriculture, hunting, fishing and a wide variety of crop use.


According to Chinese legends, the first Chinese was called Panku (Pangu), appearing millions of years ago after the separation of heaven and earth. Subsequently, the thirteen emperors of heaven ruled for 234 000 years, followed by the nine emperors of man for 45 000 years. The emperors of the sky had the body of a serpent, and the emperors of men had the face of a maiden, the horse”s head, the body of a serpent. In the early days, the Chinese huddled in caves or in trees, rode on winged deer or dragons. They were unhappy, but their rulers were rich. Thirteen more dynasties followed, the last one founded five thousand years ago by Fuxi. Writing, marriage, sacrifice, music and law are said to have been associated with his name. The Shennong that followed him, the first war, the market, agriculture, medicine.

Bronze Age

In the Yellow River region, several Bronze Age cultures developed side by side, but they did not form a single empire.

The first proven dynasty to exist was the Sang (Shang) dynasty (also known as the Qin (Jin) dynasty), which came to power in the 18th-17th centuries BC by overthrowing the last Xia (Xia) dynasty ruler, Jie (Jie), who was known for his cruelty and debauchery. The influence of the Sang (Shang) kings extended over the middle and lower Yellow River valley and its tributaries, so that much of what is now northern China was under their rule, or at least their influence. The empire of the Shang (Shang), although very little is known about it, was certainly not a unitary state, but an alliance of tribes living in the Yellow River basin who recognised the religious and political supremacy of the Sang (Shang) ruler, paid tribute to him and participated in his campaigns.

The state – or states – was then based on the peasant village community, which paid taxes to the aristocratic ruling class, probably sharply differentiated from it. The period saw the emergence and spread of bronze – Shang-era bronzes with fantastic decorations are now treasured treasures in museums – and the birth of Chinese writing.

Bronze is an “aristocratic” metal: it was very expensive to produce at the time, so it was mainly used to make sacrificial vessels and weapons, many of which still have unknown functions and indecipherable decoration. This helped to divide society, separating the common people, who were mainly engaged in farming (and, in addition, in silkworm breeding and silk weaving), from the aristocracy, who were the managers of the land, who fought for their taxes, who instead had contact with the gods and who spent their leisure time mainly hunting. Chinese society remained rigidly aristocratic until the time of Confucius and other early philosophers (6th-5th centuries BC).

The other Sang (Shang) achievement, writing, had perhaps a greater influence on later Chinese development than bronze. The first written records date from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC; unlike many other ancient cultures, they are not economic records but inscribed objects of a ritual nature, so-called oracle bones. Most of them were made in the Sang (Shang) royal court. The royal oracle would inscribe a question about the future (for example, the success of the next day”s hunt) on a flat piece of bone, and then heat the bone with a glowing piece of metal. When the bone cracked, the oracle read the answer from the cracks, which he often engraved on the bone. The bone fragment was then placed in the royal ”archives”, leaving us with tens of thousands of inscribed divination bones in one place, near Anjang (Anyang), one of the capitals of the Shang (shang) nation.

The writing on the oracle bones, although some of it has not yet been deciphered, is undoubtedly the direct ancestor of modern Chinese writing. It is not known whether they were written on material other than bone. However, since a relatively advanced writing system is already present on the oracle bones, it is possible that Chinese writing predates the spread of oracle bones, but we know nothing about this development, which may have taken place on a perishable material such as canvas, woodblocks, bamboo etc.

The fact that Chinese writing was based on the complex system of thousands of characters created in the Sang (Shang) period had a major impact on later cultural development. Because it took a lot of time to learn to write, as opposed to productive work, literacy became even more of a privilege for the elite than in cultures with a simpler writing system. This complexity may also explain the enormous respect that has surrounded literacy and the written word in China for thousands of years. The difficulty of reading and writing is also important for the development of law; since the later written laws could only be read by a select few, we can assume that the written laws were written for the literate officials who applied them rather than for the common people. This may have played a part in the fact that, as far as we know, there was no popular movement in China to write down the laws.

In addition to the oracle bones, bronzes with inscriptions were also produced in the Sang (Shang) period, usually commemorating some ritual act or donation of property, as were the later bronzes of the Zhou (Chou) period. Written sources, by their very nature, reveal very little about Shang society, and even less about the law and rules of the period. We can assume that there were no written laws and that life was governed by unwritten customary law.

It should be noted that the Sang (Shang) civilisation was river valley in character. The river valleys were the centres of civilisation, and the mountains separating them were inhabited by uncivilised, barbarian tribes that constantly threatened the settled, agricultural population. In later times, too, the Han settled mainly in the river valleys, and only very slowly, over thousands of years, did they succeed in displacing or absorbing the ”barbarian” tribes from the mountain valleys.

The last king of the Sang (Shang) dynasty, the debauched and cruel Chou (Zhou) of the Xia (Xia) dynasty, like the Chie (Jie) of the Xia (Xia) dynasty, was overthrown by the rulers of the Chou (Zhou) tribe, Chou Ven-vang (Zhou Wenwang) (King Ven (Wen)) and his son Chou Vu-vang (Zhou Wuwang) (King Vu (Wu)) sometime in the 11th century BC. Thus began the Chou (Zhou) era, which lasted until the 3rd century BC, when the Chinese Empire was founded. This period played an extremely important role in Chinese history: it was the time when the ideas, traditions, models of thought and society, institutions and ideologies that shaped all subsequent Chinese history were formed. It was the period when the great Chinese philosophical schools were founded, when the works that have served as models and references until modern times were written, and when the written classical language was developed and became the main means of communication in the empire, almost unchanged until the language revival movement of the 1910s and 1920s. It was during the Zhou period that a distinct Chinese culture took shape.

During the first half of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty, known as the Early Zhou (Early Zhou) or Western Zhou (Western Zhou) period, the ruling house extended its power over much of northern China. Its capital was located in the Wei River valley, near present-day Xian (Xi”an) – close to where the huge capital of Qin State, Xianyang, was later built. The Chou (Zhou) were probably originally a tribe of a lower cultural level than the Sang (Shang) but with greater military power, as indicated by the fact that archaeological remains from the period after the conquest of the Shang do not indicate a sharp cultural break. The conquerors thus adopted the culture of the conquered.

The empire of the House of Zhou cannot be considered a unitary state either. Although King Vu (Wu) conquered the territories under the influence of the Shang (shang), he could not have governed the vast empire on his own – it would have taken another eight hundred years to create a unified Chinese state. The first Chou (Zhou) kings gave the conquered territories as endowments to their relatives, loyal followers or subdued territorial leaders. These local leaders recognised the political and sacerdotal power of the Zhou kings, but ruled more or less independently in their own territories.

The sacral supremacy of the Zhou rulers has long been maintained. In addition to the title of vang (wang) (king), they also bore the dignity of Tience (Tianzi), (son of Heaven), indicating that their origin was divine and that they served as intermediaries between Heaven and the human world. It is characteristic that when the Tianti and the Tianti were born in 4 BC, they were called “the gods”. In the 4th century BC, when Sang Yang (Shang Yang) succeeded in his reforms in Qin (Qin) and the king of Zhou (Zhou) presented sacrificial meat to the prince of Qin (Qin) as a token of his appreciation, the chronicler of Qin (Qin), who may have been the source of the Se-ma Qsien (Shima Qian) who conveyed the events to us, thought it worth recording the event, even though Zhou (Zhou) did not have real power at that time.

The reigns of kings Ven (Wen) and Vu (Wu) were regarded in later Confucian tradition as a golden age, and their names were associated with many stories and legends. In reality, however, there is very little authentic data on Chinese history until the 8th-7th centuries BC. Most of the institutions, actions and speeches attributed to the Ven (Wen), Vu (Wu) and other early Chou (Zhou) kings are probably later, idealising fakes.

It is certain that local princes lost more and more of their personal attachment to the House of Zhou over time. While a local chief who had received his power from the Zhou king was likely to remain loyal to the Zhou house for the rest of his life, his son, grandson or even later descendant, who had come to the throne by inheritance rather than by donation, would not feel obliged to obey the distant Zhou ruler in all things.

In any case, the early Zhou period was still characterised by relative stability, the recognition of the rule of the Zhou house, and the stability of an aristocratic society. We have an increasing number of inscribed bronzes from this period, sometimes containing complete ”treaties”, and perhaps the earliest Chinese books, the Ji Qing (Yi Jing) (Book of Changes), the Su Qing (Shu Jing) (Book of Writings) and the Si Qing (Shi Jing) (Book of Songs), date from this period.

According to tradition, agriculture was based on the so-called “well soil system”. The idea was that a square plot of land was divided into nine equal pieces by two or three parallel lines; eight of these were cultivated by a single farming family, while the ninth, on which the tax grain was grown, was worked by all eight families. It is possible that the well-field system never existed in reality, but in any case it became a symbol of an ideal peasant society based on equality in later millennia. According to tradition, the well land system was abolished by Qin (Shang Yang) when he abolished the north-south and east-west boundaries separating the land.

The power of the House of Zhou gradually weakened in the few centuries after the dynastic foundation, so much so that when a barbarian tribe attacked the capital in 771 BC, the princes did not come to the aid of the stranded king and the city fell. The House of Zhou then moved its seat to the safer eastern territories around present-day Luoyang. The late Chou (Zhou) period, from 770 BC to 256 BC, is therefore also known as the Eastern Chou (Zhou) period.

The Eastern Zhou period was characterised by the rapid decline of the royal house and the strengthening of local princes. After the relocation of the capital, the “Son of Heaven” had in fact only sacral power. The Zhou rulers could retain their royal titles – for centuries no prince dared to take the title of vang, no matter how powerful he was – but they were the only ones who could perform certain ceremonies and had to give their consent to certain diplomatic acts. But the territory they actually ruled gradually shrank to a town or two.

Iron basket

From 770 BC to 221 BC, China was in practice completely politically fragmented. This period is usually divided into two periods: the Spring and Autumn (Changchuo) periods.

In the Spring and Autumn period, more than a hundred smaller and larger, more or less independent states, created from the estates of the Zhou kings, coexisted in China. These small countries fought wars, made alliances, traded and competed with each other. What bound them together, besides their similar cultures, was that the sacral supremacy of the Zhou kings was generally recognised – but they were not allowed to have any meaningful say in their affairs.

Some stability, some restraint in warfare, was provided by the system of the so-called “hegemons” (pa). This meant that certain prominent princes of the period, who had significantly strengthened their own country, were recognised by others as ”hegemons”, who could take certain measures on behalf of the Zhou kings in the affairs of other countries. This system, however, only worked from the 8th century BC to the 6th century BC, and even then with limited success.

The Spring and Autumn period was a time of constant warfare, but also of increasing contact between different states, and of enormous economic and cultural development. The old social system and institutions of the early Zhou period began to break down and transform. Talented but less distinguished people from less privileged backgrounds were coming to power, and the descendants of old aristocratic families were becoming impoverished and falling out of favour. At the same time, economic development has led to population growth, the borders of the Chinese world have expanded, and relations between previously relatively isolated states have become closer.

It was in the spring and autumn period that the laws were first written down. As society became more turbulent and the previous norms were shaken, it seemed necessary to lay down rules and preserve relations. Moreover, in states of increasing size and population density, it became inevitable that the previous system of norms based on personal relationships should be replaced by an impersonal and impartial system of laws. This process and the sources that deal with it are discussed in the next chapter. In the new context, the search for a new way forward began, and the first ”philosophical” schools appeared, which sought answers primarily to mundane, political questions. The main question was: how to bring order to a world that was obviously upside down, how to ensure peace and thus prosperity for the common people and the ruling classes. The most important of these schools were Confucianism, Motism, Taoism and Legism.

In the spring and autumn, five principalities stood out from the rest. One of these, the centrally located Qin (Jin), was split into three in 453 BC, each of which had its own ruling house formed by a head of the dynasty that had previously ruled in Qin (Jin). This brought the number of major principalities to seven. In 403 BC, the split was recognised by King Zhou, who by then had no real power, and the new era of the Warring Princedoms is usually reckoned to have begun.

In this era, after the complete dismantling of the House of Zhou became apparent, the struggle between states became even more acute and took on new dimensions. The princedoms no longer fought only to expand their borders and gain more influence, but also openly embraced the new goal of destroying other states and unifying the Chinese world. One by one, the princes took up the title of vang (wang), hitherto used only by the house of Zhou, thus signalling that they now claimed the whole empire.

The spread of iron, the “democratic” metal, helped to make fighting more common. China entered the Iron Age during the Zhou period in the East. Iron was used to make agricultural tools, as opposed to the more expensive bronze, which helped to increase the efficiency of production. The new metal”s importance in warfare was even greater: it allowed the earlier aristocratic warfare based on expensive chariots to be replaced by mass armies armed with cheap iron weapons.

In the course of centuries of fighting, by the 3rd century BC, three states had finally emerged: the southern Chu (Jìn). The final battle was finally fought between these three principalities, and as is known, ended in the victory of Jin (Jin).

The struggle for hegemony was fought on two tracks. In the field of foreign policy, diplomacy was invigorated, alliances were made and broken, war followed war. There were two ideas for creating the most successful alliance system possible and thus unifying the empire. One, the principle of a ”horizontal alliance”, was the one that Qin (Jin) tried to adopt: based on this, he tried to create an axis in the east, relying on the state of Qi (Qi) against the state of Chu (Chu). The other, the “vertical alliance” plan, was conceived in the state of Chu (Chu): this would have created a strong group of states around Chi (Qi) and Chu (Chu), with the participation of smaller principalities, to the exclusion of Jin (Jin). This shows that there were in fact two countries in opposition to each other, Jin and Chu, and both were trying to win Chi (Qi) for their plans.

The other major area where the struggle for unification took place was the internal and economic policy of each state. The war was not only fought on the battlefield. In order to field the strongest possible army, the principalities tried to subordinate everything to the development and supply of the military. This meant finding the most efficient ways of governing and concentrating resources. Each state introduced a series of reforms, and as history has shown, the state that implemented the most successful internal measures was the one that finally prevailed in the bloody struggle that lasted for centuries. Reforms required new ideas and skilled government professionals – provided by the various schools of philosophy, notably Legism, which emerged in the 4th century BC. As a consequence, a characteristic change of the period was the emergence of professional officials in government and the increased importance of cities as administrative centres were established, as well as the emergence of the bourgeoisie.

Early imperial age

The state of Qin was established in the 10th-9th centuries BC in the Wei River valley, in what is now the provinces of Kansau (Gansu) and Shaanxi (Shaanxi), and for centuries remained an insignificant, semi-barbarian region on the periphery of the Chinese world. For a long time, the centrally located principalities did not recognise themselves as a ”Chinese” state of equal status, and their ruler was not invited to the meeting of princes, even in 361 BC.

The fact that Qin was located on the periphery of the Chinese territories contributed greatly to its success in the long run. For one thing, it was not bound by the traditions that had often become a barrier to development in the central areas. The ”Confucian” virtues, the shackles of ”duty” (lǐ), the system of hereditary privileges, which were in fact known long before Confucius, were not entirely unknown in Qin, but they did not become dominant. Thus, because the hereditary aristocracy based on these virtues was weak, there was more room for the centralisation that was essential for the effective functioning of the state. As the ji (yi), li and other traditional ”virtues” did not permeate society, it became possible to replace these systems of norms, which were customary, with uniform written laws covering all aspects of life. This, of course, provoked the disapproval of the scribes of the central, ”civilised” principalities, but it contributed greatly to the strengthening of Qin.

The country”s geographical location was very advantageous from a military point of view. Qin was surrounded on all sides by mountains and rivers, and when he succeeded in capturing the mountain passes (guan, kuan), he was almost invulnerable: he could attack the lowlands at the foot of the passes at any time, and in defensive battles he could easily protect his territory from destruction by blocking the passes.

The peripheral situation was also a consequence of the attacks of Jin (rong)). While the hill tribes in the central areas had by this time largely assimilated into the Han, in and around the mountainous valley of Qin (Qin) there were still numerous savage tribes that constantly threatened the settled farming population. Xiang of Qin (Qin) had already waged a campaign against the Rong (Zhung) in 771-770 BC when they attacked the Zhou (Zhou) king, who then recognised Qin (Qin) as a vassal territory, and from this time dates the official history of the state of Qin (Qin). In 623 BC, one of the greatest Qin (Qin) princes, Mu (reigned 659-621 BC), won a great victory over the Rong (Zhung). The country”s most significant anti-Rong (Jung) success came in 327 BC, when it captured twenty-five walled cities from the ”barbarians”, who seem to have settled in the meantime. Soon afterwards, under King Chao Xiang (Zhaoxiang) (306-251 BC), Qin (Qin) built a long wall against the barbarians called hu – perhaps the first step towards the later Great Wall.

The apparent disadvantage of barbarian attacks worked to Qin”s advantage: centuries of fighting had made the Qin (Qin) people accustomed to constant warfare, and they became the most experienced, toughest – and most ruthless – soldiers in the Chinese world. In the life-and-death wars against nomads, the norms of martial law between Chinese states could not be applied; the aim was not to acquire new taxpayers but to destroy the enemy. Qin thus became a true military state, in which the main purpose of the bureaucracy and the state as a whole was to supply, equip and supply the army. As a result, there was little cultural value in Qin, but the army was able to defeat all the other Chinese states on its own over time. The proximity of the barbarians also led to an innovation in military technology, the use of mobile cavalry, which, equipped with iron weapons, was far more effective than the heavier chariots.

In addition to the great princes, the final victory of Qin (Qin) was also helped by an exceptional individual such as Sang Yang (Shang Yang), the lawgiver who prepared Qin (Qin) for the final confrontation with his reforms.

In 326 BC, for the first time in its history, Qin (Qin) performed the traditional sacrifice of la, signalling that it considered itself part of the Chinese world. In 318 BC, it won a great victory over Han, Chao (Zhao), Wei (Wei), Jen (Yan) and Qi (Qi), reportedly slaughtering 82,000 enemy soldiers. In 312, he defeated the armies of Chu (Chu), with the number of Chu (Chu) casualties put at 80,000 by sources from the victor. In 293 BC he defeated Han and Vej (Wei), inflicting 240,000 casualties, and in 274 BC he triumphed over Vej (Wei), killing 150,000 enemy soldiers. In 260 BC, 400,000 of Chao”s (Zhao) soldiers who surrendered were massacred by the Qin armies, breaking their promise. After that, the fact that in 256 BC, Qin wiped out the rest of the Zhou dynasty, which had long since lost its power, and thus put a nominal end to the Zhou dynasty”s eight hundred years of rule, was not a major event.

The task of unifying the empire was finally accomplished by Jing Qing (Qín Shǐ Huángdì), who ascended to the throne in 246 BC. Ying Cheng (Ying Cheng), one of the greatest figures in Chinese history, became King of Qin (Qin) at the age of thirteen, after an adventurous journey. He came of age in 238 BC, when he took the reins of government into his own hands. The first thing he did was to fight off rival individuals in his court – thus came to a sad end in 235 BC the reign of Lü Pu-vei (Lǚ Bùwéi), the merchant-turned-royal chieftain whom later, highly biased Confucian tradition regarded as the natural father of Jing Cheng (Ying Cheng). No better fate awaited the greatest of the legist philosophers, Han Fei, who visited Qin in 233 BC. He was executed shortly after being received by the king himself, perhaps as a result of the machinations of his former student Li Se.

After consolidating his power, Jing Cheng (Ying Cheng) turned outwards. In 230 BC, his talented generals overran Han and then the other principalities in turn. In 221 BC the last opponent surrendered. China was thus united under one ruler for the first time in its history, and from then on it could be called the Qin (Qin) Empire.

Immediately after the unification of the principalities, Ying Cheng (Ying Cheng) set about creating a unified, centralised empire from the previously fragmented territories. Although he created few new institutions during his short reign, and in practice extended the system that had been in place in Qin for decades or centuries to the whole empire, he brought revolutionary changes to the Chinese world the likes of which had not been seen before the 20th century.

Ying Cheng (Ying Cheng), who ruled over the entire civilised world as he knew it, considered the traditional title of “king” (vang (wang)) of the Zhou (Zhou) rulers to be insufficient, so he created a new dignity: he called himself Huang-ti, or “sovereign ruler”, which is usually translated as “emperor”. He prefixed the title with si (shǐ), “first”, and so his full name became Qin Si Huang-ti (Qin Shi Huangdi), or “First Emperor of Qin (Qin)” (Qin Si Huang (Qin Shi Huang) for short).

Learning from the fate of Zhou (Zhou), Li Se (Li Se) proposed not to divide the conquered territories among his generals, relatives and ministers, but to extend the administrative system already in place in Qin (Qin) to thirty-six provinces, and to appoint jùnshǒu (jùnwei) and junwei (junwei), the civil and military commanders, to manage civil and military affairs. The governors and commanders were appointed by and responsible to the central government, and could be replaced at any time. The provinces were made up of several districts, called hsien (xiàn), administered by district chiefs – who held the title ling (zhāng) for districts larger than ten thousand portions. Later, the number of provinces increased to 48.

In order to keep an eye on the old aristocracy and to deprive it of its material and social base, he relocated the nobility of the defeated principalities to his capital, Xianyang. He melted down the weapons of the conquered states and cast them into huge statues.

The walls that separated the principalities were demolished by Qin Shi Huangdi (Qin Shi Huangdi), who connected the sections of wall built to protect the northern border of the empire from barbarians: this was the predecessor of the Great Wall of China, which can still be seen today.

According to tradition, the First Emperor standardised money, units of measurement, carriage wheels and writing. The standardisation of the chariot axles was intended to ensure that the wagons travelling on the roads could transport news, troops and tribute without hindrance. Chin (Xiaochuan) was made the official script of the empire. It should be noted, however, that because of its complexity, it was probably only used for official inscriptions and more solemn documents, while less important documents were written in a simpler, ”chancellor” script (lisu).

Qin Shi Huang-ti (Qin Shi Huangdi) sought to completely disrupt and transform the social order, abolishing the hereditary aristocracy and the rule of local petty kings. In order to crush resistance, he ordered all books to be burned except for certain books of practical use, such as those on divination, medicine or agriculture, and those in the imperial library. Confucian scribes considered dangerous were buried alive.

It has also embarked on major construction projects. In addition to the great wall mentioned above, he had a huge imperial palace built and a tomb the size of a mountain erected. The most famous surviving relic is the clay army found not far from the tomb: nothing better than thousands of clay soldiers, uniformly armoured and armed, marching in regular ranks, could illustrate the military order that once prevailed in Qin.

The First Emperor was legendarily superstitious. He believed deeply in the existence of the herb of eternal life, so he sent out sea expeditions to find the Isle of the Immortals to obtain the miracle herb. He also became increasingly paranoid, perhaps as a result of the failed assassination attempts on him in the past. Confined to his palace, he had only contact with his confidants, slept in a different room every day, and only those closest to him knew where he was. It is said that he had an underground city built in his tomb, in which the lakes and rivers were filled with mercury instead of water.

Qin (Qin) was a well-organised military state, and Qin Shi Huang-ti (Qin Shi Huangdi) extended the local system to the conquered territories. However, what worked in Qin (Qin) met with stiff resistance in the other former principalities, partly because of different traditions and partly because of the cruel means used by Qin (Qin). The First Emperor violated the interests of practically all social classes: the peasantry was confronted with heavy taxes, public works and conscription, the aristocracy with measures to curtail its power, and the scholars with regulations that punished them.

In 210 BC, Qin Shi Huang-ti (Qin Shi Huangdi) fell unexpectedly ill and died on a cruise. A succession struggle immediately broke out, and thanks to the machinations of Li Shie (Li Se), among others, it was not the heir apparent who took power, but another son, even more cruel and arrogant than his father. The empire was on the verge of collapse. A peasant uprising in 209 BC was put down by the Qin armies, but in the following years the whole empire was in flames. In 206 BC, a rebel group invaded the capital and wiped out an imperial family already decimated by fratricide. In the ensuing years, the rebel leader Liu Pang (Liu Bang) emerged victorious. In 202 BC, he established the Han dynasty, which lasted for over 400 years and ushered in one of the golden ages of Chinese history.

The Qin dynasty did not disappear without a trace, of course. Although in the early years the Han dynasty was forced to revert to a partial land grant policy, these territories were later reclaimed, so that the whole of imperial China was governed within a Qin provincial framework. As mentioned above, the same can be said of the legal system. The first Han ruler, who was of low birth, lacked experience, bureaucracy and theoretical background, and so by necessity relied on Qin institutions, officials, laws and state organisation – while naturally denying in his propaganda anything to do with his predecessor.

The Han dynasty (206 BC

The short-lived reign of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) was swept away by a series of uprisings. From the turmoil that followed the fall of the dynasty emerged two rebel leaders, Xiang Yu (Xiang Yu) and Liu Pang (Liu Bang), the latter of whom prevailed in 202 BC, founding the Han dynasty. Liu Pang (Liu Bang) was forced to reward his supporters and relatives with large donations of landed property, and, learning from the fall of the Qin dynasty, he sought to pursue a policy of compromise in all respects. It was not until the reign of Liu Pang (Liu Bang)”s great-grandson, Emperor Han Vu-ti (Han Wudi) (d. 141 BC), that the central power was strengthened and the empire prospered.

Towards the end of the reign of Han Vu-ti (Han Wudi), and especially under his successors, the burden on the peasants increased, and land concentration increased, leading to the weakening of the ruling house. From the hands of powerless emperors, real power slipped into the hands of the imperial families. In 9 AD, Vang Mang (Wang Mang), the nephew of one of the empresses, staged a palace revolution and founded his own dynasty under the new name of Xin (Xin). To ease tensions, he restored the well-land system, declared all land the property of the ruler, banned the sale of slaves, and made salt distilling, iron foundrying and distilling a state monopoly. However, he was unable to implement the reforms consistently, and the constant insecurity and natural disasters led to massive uprisings (Chimei in 18). The rule of Wang Mang was overthrown by rebels, and a member of the Han dynasty, Liu Xiu, was enthroned (25 AD), restoring the Han dynasty to power.

From then on, the 206 BC

In the 2nd century, however, land concentration resumed, the peasants became impoverished, while helpless puppet emperors succeeded each other on the throne. In 184, a rebellion by a religious Taoist sect led by the Yellow Turbanists broke out and, although it was defeated, the dynasty”s rule was finally weakened and power was transferred to local commanders. One of these officially ended the Han dynasty in 220 AD. This marked the beginning of centuries of fragmentation in China. The Han period was immediately followed by the Three Kingdoms period (220-280).

The Han period was one of the brightest periods in China”s history: the idea of a unified, bureaucratically governed China was consolidated, Chinese arts flourished, Confucianism became the official state religion, and the system of civil service examinations was established. To this day, the Chinese call themselves “Han” and their language “the language of the Han” (Hànyǔ).

The Chinese Middle Ages cover the period of Chinese history between 220 and 1368, which is not the same as the Middle Ages from a European perspective, but is close to it. The Chinese Middle Ages precede the Chinese Antiquity and are followed by the Ming period (1368-1644).

After an initial transitional period of fragmentation, the Chinese Middle Ages comprise the classical Chinese imperial period, which lasted for some 700 years, followed by a shorter period of disruptive Mongol rule.

The age of the three kingdoms

After the fall of the last Han emperor, China was divided into three kingdoms: the northern Vei (Wu) and the present-day Sichuan (Shǔ). The three kingdoms fought a bloody war with each other for decades (the subject of the famous Ming-era novel The Fictional History of the Three Kingdoms), until finally Vei (Wei) defeated Su (Shu) in 263 and Vu (Wu) in 280. In 265, in the state of Vej (Wei), a warlord overthrew the ruler and founded a new dynasty, so the reunification of the country is no longer Vej (Jìn – not the same as Jin (Qin), who first united the country).

Meanwhile, in the forests and steppes of the north and north-west, the various nomadic horse-riding tribes that had already caused the Chinese so much trouble were gaining strength. Manchuria, Central Asia, the mountains and plateaus of the north-west have historically been a tireless source of various nomadic tribes whose conquest was their watchword. The Chinese army, composed mainly of infantrymen, was often powerless against their mounted warfare, especially in periods when the central power was weakened and could not field an effective army against the nomadic hordes attacking from the north. During the first millennium AD in particular, many nomadic warrior groups emerged and coalesced into powerful tribes or tribal alliances in Asia. These then attacked the weakened Roman Empire in Europe (see Attila”s Huns) and the weakened Chinese Empire in Asia almost simultaneously.

Western and Eastern Qin (Jin)

The Qin (Jin) empire, established in 280 AD, could not make its power last. After the death of the first Qin (Jin) emperor in 289, a struggle broke out, with some participants calling on the troops of nomadic peoples from the north, including the Xiongnu (xiongnu) of what is now Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Hopej (Hebei) Province. However, the nomads who were called in wreaked enormous havoc in northern China. In 304, the Xiongnu prince Liu Yuan (Liu Yuan) took control of almost all of what was then northern China (present-day Shanxi and Henan) and proclaimed himself emperor of China (Han Zhao (Han Zhao) state, 304-329). In 316, he conquered the Qin (Jin) capital Chang”an (now Xian (Xi”an), Shaanxi) and made it his seat. The Qin (now Nanjing) proclaimed itself emperor, thus creating the Eastern Qin (Jin). (The former Qin (Jin) is now known as the Western Qin (Jin).) The country was thus divided into two parts: the north, ruled by nomads, and the south, ruled by Chinese rulers.

The age of the northern and southern dynasties

In the south, the Eastern Qin (Jin) ruled from 317 to 420, after which four other short-lived dynasties succeeded each other on the throne until the country”s reunification in 589. The capital of all five southern dynasties was Jiankang, now Nanjing. As the southern dynasties were all Chinese, it was here that Chinese traditions were most alive, and these dynasties are later regarded by historians as the legitimate heirs of the Han. Hence, from 222 onwards, the Three Kingdoms are known as the Southern Vu (Liù cháo) period. Within this period, the period from 420 to 589 is referred to as the Age of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (Nán Běi cháo), referring to the division.

In the north, meanwhile, the various barbarian tribes (Huns, Xianbei, Tuoba, etc.) formed a total of sixteen smaller or larger states. The majority of their population was, of course, Chinese – who always outnumbered any invaders on Chinese territory – and only the leading stratum consisted of ”barbarian” conquerors. In order to rule the conquered, the foreign tribes quickly adapted to the Chinese, assimilated into the Chinese aristocracy, adopted the Chinese institutional system and many of them became completely integrated into the Han.

This is one explanation for the differences between northern and southern Chinese people: the shorter, round-faced southern Han are only mixed with similar southern groups; the northerners are taller and more angular because they have often mixed with the more powerfully built northern nomads over the last two millennia.

The most important of the northern states was the Northern Wei (Wei), founded by the Tupa (Tuoba) (also known as Tabgacs) tribe, which ruled almost all of northern China from 439 to 534. Here, the nomadic rulers themselves advocated Chineseisation, forcing their people to wear Chinese-style clothes, take Chinese names, etc. This was the country”s downfall: the Tuoba leaders, who opposed Chineseisation, rebelled against their own ruler, leading to the fall of the Northern Wei.

Throughout history, the issue of indigenisation has remained a major problem for foreign conquerors and has caused much infighting within their circles. Whenever China was conquered, the conquerors were faced with the dilemma of either preserving their own culture, language and methods of government – but being unable to maintain their rule over China – or adopting Chinese customs, language and methods of government, giving up their own culture and remaining masters of China. The victorious nomads usually chose the latter – the last Manchu emperor, for example, knew only one word of Manchu – but there was always internal opposition to their Chineseisation. The Mongols, for example, fought bloody internal wars over this issue.

In 534, the state of Northern Wei split into Eastern Wei and Western Wei, and rebellions and palace revolts broke out in these areas as well. Soon afterwards, the western half of North China – roughly the empire that had been unified eight hundred years earlier – was transformed by Qin (Běi Zhōu), who launched campaigns against the other states. In 577, Northern Zhou (Zhou) conquered all of northern China. In 581, a half-Chinese, half-Xianbei general named Yang Jian overthrew the topa (tuoba) ruler of Northern Zhou (Zhou) in a coup and seated himself on the throne. He made Chang”an (Sui) his capital, and ruled as Sui Wendi (Sui Wendi). After years of preparation, in 589 Sui (Chen), China”s unity was restored after centuries of fragmentation.

Buddhism (fójiào) originated in north-west India and began to spread outside India around the beginning of the Common Era. In Southeast Asia, the so-called hinaja, or small chariot branch of Buddhism, became popular (it retained the original ascetic character of the religion, which prescribes strict rules of conduct for those seeking to escape suffering). In contrast, in Inner Asia and later in China, the Mahayana, the big chariot branch (i.e. one that can hold many, i.e. one that can save many) spread and became the religion of the masses – with its large-scale rituals, ornate temples and a certain simplification. In addition, Mahayana Buddhism has adapted itself to the existing traditions and religions prevailing in each area. This gave rise to the specific Chinese Buddhism (greatly influenced by Taoism), which spread to Korea and Japan, where it was further modified according to the needs and traditions of the host peoples. In Tibet, Buddhism merged with the local ancestral religion, the so-called Bon religion, to create a special branch of Buddhism, Lamaism, which became popular not only among Tibetans but also among Mongols.

In China, the political and ideological unity of the Han dynasty prevented the spread of the new foreign religion. However, with the fall of the Han and the collapse of the empire, people became disillusioned with the old values and receptive to new ideas. It was at this time that Taoism was organised into a religion and Buddhism, initially thought to be just a branch of Taoism, emerged. In the 3rd to 5th centuries, many Buddhist sutras were translated into Chinese, and the differences between Buddhism and Taoism became clearer. Buddhism, which offered salvation for all, began to spread at lightning speed. At the end of the 3rd century, there were only 180 Buddhist monasteries in China with 3,700 monks (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis), at the end of the 6th century there were 40,000 monasteries in northern China with 4 million monks, and 2,000 monasteries in southern China with 40,000 monks. In the north, foreign dynasties of foreign origin welcomed the foreign religion, making it virtually a state religion in Northern Wei. In the south, Buddhism was less widespread because of the more vigorous Confucian tradition, but it became a strong religion here too.

The Buddhist religion had no “church”. The numerous monasteries were scattered independently throughout the empire. In the more important monasteries, where more authoritative masters taught, different schools of Buddhism were established, often with differing views. The most famous of these Chinese schools is the Chan (”contemplation”), better known in Europe by its Japanese name, Zen Buddhism.

The spread of Buddhism was frowned upon by both Taoists and Confucian scribes. The Taoists were jealous of Buddhism, which also catered to the religious needs of the masses, while the Confucians saw it as a threat to the patriarchal Chinese model of the state, since Buddhism, for example, considered the family, which the Confucians believed was the basis of everything, to be irrelevant. During these centuries, there were lively debates between the three ”religions”, and which one prevailed in a particular state was most often determined by the personal sympathies of the ruler. In any case, despite all opposition, by the end of the 6th century Buddhism had gained enormous influence.

Buddhism continued to lead for two to three centuries after the reunification of China in 589. Then, in the mid-9th century, an emperor – influenced by Taoist priests – took harsh measures to suppress Buddhism, destroying most of the monasteries and forcing monks and nuns back into secular life. There were also economic reasons for the persecution of Buddhism in 841-46: the monasteries had large land holdings – tax-free – so the spread of Buddhism caused a large loss of revenue for the imperial treasury. After a few years of persecution, Buddhism never fully recovered. Many monasteries were reopened, but the influence of the religion declined considerably, and in the second millennium BC Buddhism became one of the components of the Chinese syncretic religion.

Sui Dynasty (581-618)

The history of the Sui (Sui) dynasty was much like that of the Qin (Qin) dynasty, which first unified the country: in both cases, a short-lived dynasty unified the empire after long centuries of fragmentation, only to have the next dynasty reap the rewards of its actions and rule China for many centuries.

Emperor Sui Wendi (581-604), who unified China in 589, carried out an egalitarian land distribution and eased the tax burden, as dynastic founders usually did. Thanks to his measures, the country”s economy boomed and unity was consolidated. However, Ven-tti was succeeded on the throne by his extremely cruel and ambitious son, Sui Yang-ti (Sui Yangdi) (604-618), who had his father and brother killed, and who used the fruits of his father”s labour to implement his own grandiose plans.

It was the construction of Suj Yang-ti (Ta Jünho). The canal was much needed, and the idea of building it was mooted as early as 5 BC. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties, China”s economic centre was located south of the Yellow River valley in the Yangtze Valley, where most of the country”s grain was produced. However, the political centre remained in the north, and major wars were fought in the north, so the transport of tax money and military supplies to the north had to be managed. The country”s waterways were generally west-east and were therefore not fit for purpose; land routes were unsuitable for transporting such vast quantities of grain; and shipping by sea was not yet safe enough. So Sui Yangdi (Sui Yang-ti) decided to dig a huge navigable canal, almost 2,000 kilometres long, to link the grain-producing regions of the south with his northern capital. The great work was completed in 610, the sixth year of his reign. The Grand Canal had a major impact on the development of the Chinese economy and trade. Until the late 19th century, when railway construction began, it was one of the most important trade routes, but its southern section is still in use today. The construction of the canal, however, was extremely costly, with one third of the adult male population being conscripted to work on it. The economy could not cope with the strain, and the forced pace of work led to famines.

After the construction of the Grand Canal, the situation was further worsened by the emperor”s conquests; between 612 and 614 he attacked Korea three times with an army of millions, and was severely defeated on each occasion. Peasant revolts then broke out in succession, until finally, in 618, Sui Yangdi (Sui Yangdi) was strangled by imperial bodyguards. The Sui dynasty fell after 38 years of rule, but its actions paved the way for three centuries of rule by the Tang dynasty.

Tang dynasty (618-907)

In addition to the peasants, some officials and landlords also rebelled against the Sui dynasty. The strongest of these was an official named Li Yuan (Li Yuan), who, upon learning of the death of Sui Yangdi (Sui Yangdi), became Chiang (Tang) in 618. He then destroyed the rival rebel forces one by one and unified the country in 624. Sui Yangdi”s (Sui Yangdi) construction and wars, as well as the rebellions, depopulated large areas, allowing Li Yuan (Li Yuan) to carry out a large-scale land redistribution in 624. This laid the foundations for the dynasty”s rule.

Li Yuan (Li Yuan) was forced to hand over power in 626 by his own son, Li Si-min (Li Shimin), who had been leading Li Yuan”s (Li Yuan) armies (Li Si-min (Li Shimin) also had his brothers slaughtered. ) Li Si-min (Li Shimin) ruled as Tang Taj-cung (Tang Taizong) (626-649), and the Chinese consider him one of the wisest and most talented emperors in their history. He pursued a pro-peasant policy, reinstated the civil service examinations introduced by the Han dynasty, and during his reign the great Tang Code was written. Its capital, Chang”an (now Xian (Xi”an)), was the largest city in the world with one million inhabitants. After the country”s boom, it began to expand, conquering or vassalising the countries of Central Asia in long campaigns.

The successors of Tang Taizong (Tang Taizong) continued the expansionist policy, and in 668, with Silla”s help, destroyed the northern states of the Korean peninsula (Koguryo and Pechche), after which Korea was ruled by the Silla state, an ally of the Tang Empire and the third of the three kingdoms of Korea. In the late 7th century, they conquered the northern part of what is now Vietnam. With all these conquests, Tang-era China dominated more territory than ever before, but not for long: the Korean territories soon became independent, and after about a century of expansion, China lost control of Central Asia after its defeat by the Arabs on the Talas River in 751, reducing its size considerably. It is worth noting that the Chinese rulers never managed to conquer the territories outside Inner China on a lasting basis until the 17th and 18th centuries.

Tang Taj-cung (Tang Taizong) was succeeded by his son, but from the late 650s his wife, Vu Cö-tien (Wu Zetian), ruled the empire. After her husband”s death, Vu Cö-tien (Wu Zetian) first made her sons emperor, then proclaimed herself empress in 690, and officially ruled until her abdication in 705. It was the only time in the two thousand year history of the Chinese Empire that a woman sat on the imperial throne. Vu Cho-tien (Wu Zetian) effectively ruled China for almost half a century, during which time the economic development and expansion begun under Tang Taizong continued.

The heyday of the Tang empire was the first half of the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (712-756). At this time, China was the most advanced and powerful country in the world. Its economy, domestic and foreign trade and culture flourished. In the early years of his reign, the emperor managed the affairs of state himself, and sought to gather the most talented men of the empire to his court.

However, in the second half of the reign of Emperor Tang Xuanzong, the empire began a rapid decline. One of the main reasons for this, at least according to popular tradition, was the imperial concubine Yang Kuy-head (Yáng Guìfēi), with whom the emperor became infatuated and neglected state affairs. Control of the country fell into the hands of the concubine”s money-hungry relatives, who soon dismantled the previously excellent government. The empire was further weakened by the heavy defeat of the Tang armies at the Battle of Talas in 751, which resulted in the loss of the Inner Asian territories. At the same time, the Chinese garrison commanders in the border areas became stronger and, seeing the central power”s inertia, first became independent and then turned against it. In 755, the Central Asian-born garrison commander An Lu-san (Ān Lùshān) rebelled against the Tang dynasty and even attacked the capital. While the court was fleeing, the soldiers accompanying the emperor forced Xuanzong to strangle his beloved Yang Guifei. The emperor abdicated his throne shortly afterwards in favour of his son, and devoted the rest of his life to the occult to summon the dead concubine. In 757, An Lu-san (An Lushan) was killed by his own son, and forces loyal to the dynasty defeated the remaining rebel troops, restoring order to the country.

The first half of the Tang period, from the early 7th to the mid-8th century, was the golden age of medieval China. China was clearly the centre of East Asia and, unlike many other periods in its history, it was far from closed. Traders from Central Asia, Persia and Arabia came to China in large numbers, and there was a lively trade between Asian countries, centred on Chang”an, the capital of the Tang. Some of the merchants settled in Chang”an, where they established their own customs and religions for a longer or shorter period of time, introducing the Chinese to Islam, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Israelite religion, etc. Sino-Japanese and Sino-Korean relations were revived, and the Japanese adopted much of Chinese culture at this time. Buddhism, which was still flourishing at the time, also brought the Chinese into direct contact with India. The most famous manifestation of Sino-Indian contact was the westward journey of the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Xuanzang): Xuanzang, the “Tang monk”, spent fifteen years in India and returned with six hundred sacred writings. [His journey is the subject of the Ming-era “fantastic” novel Journey to the West (Xīyóu Jì), a favourite reading among the Chinese.]

Although the An Lu-san (An Lushan) uprising of 755 was defeated, the dynasty was unable to restore its former glory and slowly declined. The central government was unable to prevent the concentration of land, and wealth disparities began to widen again, while the treasury”s income was significantly reduced, as taxes could only be collected from peasants who cultivated their own land, which was becoming less and less. The treasury increased the burden on the remaining ”free” peasantry, taxed merchants and confiscated the lands of Buddhist monasteries between 841 and 846, but this did not help, and discontent grew throughout the empire. In 874, one of the largest peasant uprisings in China”s history broke out, led by a former salt merchant named Huang Chao (Huang Chao). Huang even conquered Chang”an in 881, but was later forced to flee from the Tang court”s army, which had won the support of nomadic troops, and committed suicide in 884. The court returned to Chang”an in 885, but its power was now only nominal, the country being effectively ruled by various military commanders. In 907, one of these commanders finally exterminated the entire Tang house, and after three hundred years, the Tang era officially ended.

The age of the five dynasties (907-960)

For half a century after the fall of the Tang dynasty, the country was divided into small, squabbling states, most of which were ruled by former military commanders of the Tang dynasty. In southern China, ten states were created, while in the north, which remained largely intact, five short-lived dynasties succeeded each other – hence the period from 907 to 960 is known as the ”age of the five dynasties” or ”the age of the five dynasties and the ten kingdoms”.

It was at the beginning of this period that the Kitay tribe, speaking a language related to the Mongols, appeared in the northeast of Manchuria, in the Liao River valley (also the origin of one of China”s old western names, Cathay). In exchange for some military assistance, they received from a northern Chinese ruler a territory of sixteen districts around present-day Beijing, where they founded a Chinese-style but Kitay-ruled state in 916. This state took the name Liao in 937 and soon began to expand.

Song dynasty (960-1279)

The last of the five dynasties, the Late Zhou Dynasty, was taken over in 960 by the general Chao Kuang-jin (Zhao Kuangyin), who named his country after Song (960-976) with the capital Kāifēng (Kāifēng). After consolidating their rule, the Song emperors began systematic conquests. With the exception of the growing and expanding Kitaai Liao state in the north and the former Tang-dominated Central Asia, the Song ruled over all the territories of China, ensuring relative peace for the next century and a half.

By the beginning of the Song era, huge changes had taken place in the Chinese economy. Irrigated rice cultivation, which had hitherto only been practised in the Yangtze Delta, spread throughout southern China; crop breeding began, and the cereals best suited to the local soil and climate were cultivated everywhere; many technical innovations in irrigation (such as the use of self-operated immersion wheels) were introduced, etc. In addition, mining developed by leaps and bounds, with an order of magnitude more copper and iron ore being mined in the Song than in the Tang, and the widespread use of coal.

The economic revolution created a new social class of industrialists and merchants, a larger than ever bureaucracy, and a massive urbanisation across China. In the Song era, it was estimated that 6-7.5% of the population lived in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants – a uniquely high proportion in the world at the time. The economic boom saw the population of China as a whole skyrocket, and many believe that the Sung (Song) era economic revolution laid the foundations for the huge population numbers that followed. China”s population was around 65 million at its Han and Tang-era peak, rising to 140 million by the 11th century.

The most significant change was the sharp increase in trade. Whereas previously the peasantry, who made up the vast majority of the population, had lived in closed, self-sufficient village communities that did not engage in trade, from the Song era onwards China became a huge, bustling marketplace where everyone sought to sell their surplus and buy goods produced in other regions. Each region specialised in production, some producing only tea, some only rice, some only fruit. This kind of specialisation of the countryside has persisted to the present day.

The growth of trade meant that more and more money was needed to circulate, and although the Sung (Song) Dynasty”s copper coinage in its heyday was twenty times that of the Tang, it proved insufficient: this led to the first appearance of bills of exchange and then, in 1024, the world”s first real paper money.

Meanwhile, in addition to agricultural innovations, numerous technical discoveries and inventions helped the economy to develop: coal was used to make iron; gunpowder, which had previously been used only to make fireworks, was also used to make firearms (increasingly sophisticated spinning machines were used to process silk and hemp fabric); and the dissemination of knowledge was facilitated by woodblock printing, which was introduced in the 9th century. Buddhist monks invented the fadeboard in the 9th century to spread their teachings and began to use it widely in the 10th and 11th centuries, some half a millennium before Gutenberg.

Despite the rapid economic development, the Song government remained relatively weak compared to the previous great dynasties. From the 11th century onwards, the Liao state and the Tanguts in China”s north-western neighbourhood regularly invaded the empire, and constant military defence was a major problem. The burden on the peasants led to large peasant uprisings in many areas. To deal with the situation, the chief minister Vang An-si (Wáng Ānshí) introduced major reforms in the country from 1069. Vang (Wang) provided low-interest loans to poor peasants, reorganised the tax system, divided the population into groups of ten families, who were required to provide a certain number of soldiers if necessary, converted compulsory public works into a cash tax, ordered water control works and taxed officials and landowners. However, in 1086, after the death of the emperor who supported Vang (Wang), the measures were withdrawn, leading to further peasant uprisings.

The emperor Song Huizong (Sòng Huīzōng), who was more interested in painting than in government, sat on the imperial throne from 1101 to 1126, and did little to save the Song Empire (although Chinese painting did develop enormously during his reign). In the 11th century, another powerful group of people appeared north of China, the Jurchans, who conquered northern China in 1127 and established the Qin (Jin, meaning ”gold”) dynasty. The imperial court fled to southern China and settled in the city of Hangzhou. It was anchored on the line of the Jurchi Qin (Huai he), the border between North and South China. From then on, the dynasty that ruled almost all of China from 960 to 1125, with its capital at Kaifeng, was known as the Northern Song, while its successor, the dynasty that ruled only southern China from 1127 to 1279, was known as the Southern Song. During the century and a half of the Southern Song dynasty, economic development continued in southern China, and large-scale migration from the north to the south brought the economic and population centre of the Chinese world south for many centuries. The Jin dynasty of northern China, ruled by the Jurchis, who coexisted with the Southern Song, but gradually became more Chinese, lasted from 1115 to 1234.

The Chinese empire was based on Confucianism from the early Han period, from the 2nd century BC. However, as the world changed, unlike the Confucian holy books, Confucian ideas had to be constantly reinterpreted and new commentaries added. The most important such reinterpretation took place in the Song period, in the 11th-12th centuries, by the so-called neo-Confucian philosophers. The most important of these was Zhū Xī (Zhū Xī, 1130-1200). The Neo-Confucianists sought to make Confucian ideas applicable to the modern world and to combine Confucianism, which had hitherto been almost entirely secular, with certain metaphysical, supernatural elements, thus satisfying people”s need for transcendence, as did rival Taoism and Buddhism. It was in the spirit of this new expectation that Zhu Xi reinterpreted the Confucian classics, thereby summarising and recording the neo-Confucian teachings. The real significance of Neo-Confucianism was that from the second half of the Southern Song until the early 20th century it was the only official and permissible interpretation of Confucianism and, as such, the exclusive material for the official examinations. For this reason, it played an important role in stiffening the minds of the Chinese intellectual elite and reducing its adaptability.

As mentioned above, the examination system for the selection of officials was introduced by Emperor Han Vu-ti (Han Wudi) in the 2nd century BC. However, from the Han period until the beginning of the Song period, this was not the only way of selecting officials: most posts were filled by recommendation, and many offices could be inherited or bought. From the beginning of the Song, in order to break the power of wealthy families with a long history, the rulers increased the number of posts that could be obtained only by passing an examination, until finally, from the Song onwards, apart from two lowly posts that could be bought, the only way into the state bureaucracy, the ruling class, was to pass the civil service examinations. The only way to rise was therefore to study. At the same time, from 1313 onwards, the exclusive material for the examinations was the interpretation of the Confucian classics of the type of Chu Xi (Zhu Xi). As a result, during the centuries after the Southern Song, aspiring and talented Chinese spent much of their lives studying a particular interpretation of a particular school of philosophy (to pass the examination, one had to take repeated examinations at set intervals throughout one”s life, otherwise one lost the privileges of passing). This had a detrimental effect on China”s further development: it confined Chinese thinking to narrow schemas, it killed off the creative, inventive spirit of the Chinese elite, and it made the Chinese ruling class unable to adapt to new circumstances – and it did so in the very centuries when European thinking was breaking out of the medieval framework and laying the intellectual foundations for great discoveries, colonialism and the industrial revolution.

The age of Mongol rule

Genghis Khan (originally known as Temujin) united the Mongol tribes in 1206 and in the following years built a vast empire, with his cavalry troops reaching as far as the southern Russian plains. In 1211, he attacked the Jurchen state of Jin (Jin), which ruled northern China, but retreated in exchange for a war surrender. While part of his army was also fighting in the far west, he destroyed the Tangut Western Xia (Xia) dynasty established in the northwestern corner of China in 1227. Genghis died in the same year and was succeeded by Ogodey.

The Mongol conquerors are well described by Genghis Khan”s statement, “A man”s greatest joy is victory: to pursue the enemy, to conquer his country, to deprive him of everything, to make his loved ones weep, to dishonour his wife and daughters.”

The Chinese made the same mistake as when they allied themselves with the Jurchiks against the Kitaai Liao; this time they allied themselves with the Mongols against the Jurchik Jin (Jin), who defeated the Jurchiks in 1234, but then immediately turned against the Southern Song (Song). The Sung (Song) armies initially defended themselves effectively against renewed Mongol attacks, because the main Mongol forces were fighting in the far west (see the Tartar invasion of Hungary in 1241-42). Möngke was killed in 1259 in the war against the Southern Song, but Kubilai Khan (1215-1294), who succeeded him, continued the attacks. By this time, the Mongol Empire had been torn apart, with only Mongolia and northern China, the former Qin (Dàdū; ”Great Capital”), under Kubilai”s rule. In 1271, he proclaimed himself emperor and gave his dynasty the name Jüan (“Beginning”). Meanwhile, from 1268 onwards, he waged a continuous war against the Southern Sung (Song), which he finally destroyed in 1279 after a long and bitter struggle. China was thus united under the Mongols.

The Mongols tried to organise the country according to the Chinese system, but they could never effectively govern an agrarian China. The population was divided into four classes: at the top were the Mongols, below them the Inner Asians, followed by the North Chinese (many of whom were of foreign origin), and at the bottom were the South Chinese. This system, of course, deeply offended Chinese national feelings. During the reigns of Kublai Khan and his grandson Temur (1271-1294 and 1294-1307 respectively), the Mongols still achieved some successes, such as the extension of the Grand Canal to Beijing (previously it had only reached the capitals further south), they built a paved road along the canal between Hangzhou and Beijing, and with the help of Chinese ”collaborators” established a state organisation roughly similar to that of the Tang and Song periods. However, the examination system did not function until 1315, and many offices were filled by foreigners – Tatars, Saracens, etc. – instead of Chinese. After Temur”s death in 1307, internal strife caused a rapid decline in Mongol rule, with seven successive emperors taking the throne over the next 26 years. Meanwhile, dams and irrigation works were neglected, and the unrestrained issuance of paper money caused massive inflation. The economy, still prosperous in the Song and early Yuan periods, fell into crisis, and after 1333 famines broke out all over the country, and in the second half of the Mongol rule, uprisings followed one after the other.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Yuan Dynasty was that, with much of the land between West Asia and China ruled by Mongol khans, making travel easier than before, China”s gates were opened to foreigners. In 1275, at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty, Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who spent 17 years in the empire of Kublai, even attaining high official rank, arrived in China. In his memoirs, he painted a fascinating – and, for his contemporaries, incredible – picture of a rich and developed Chinese world, whose prosperity at the end of the Song period had not yet been destroyed by Mongol rule. It should be noted that Polo was only one of many Europeans visiting China at the time. It was also in the Yuan that the Pope”s envoy, John of Montecorvino, who became Archbishop of Beijing in 1307, and the Franciscan friar George Friar (the first Hungarian known to have visited China) arrived in China. The Mongol rulers, who did not have an easy relationship with the Chinese they ruled, were keen to employ officials of foreign origin, open China to foreign traders and allow, and often encourage, a wide variety of foreign religions to settle in their empire. The Yuan period was the last period of the Chinese Empire when the Chinese were not characterised by inward-looking.

The most notable of the Yuan (Yuan-era) uprisings was the movement organised by the Buddhist White Lotus sect, known as the “Red Turban” (Hunchback) uprising because of the headgear worn by its participants. The rebellion, which broke out in the north from 1351 to 1363, was eventually put down by the Mongols, but their rule was permanently weakened.

Strangely, one of the consequences of Mongol rule was the flourishing of certain branches of Chinese culture. This was caused by the fact that many Chinese literati were denied tenure during the foreign dynasty”s rule, leaving them with no other source of livelihood than to write sellable literary works. The most popular art form in China – but one that had hitherto been deeply despised by the official class – was drama, and it was during the Yuan that many literati began to write plays. As a result, many excellent plays were written during this period. It was also in the Yuan that the many-part, serialised stories of fairground storytellers began to be woven into novels, thus laying the foundations for the great Ming-era novel literature.

Ming period (1368-1644)

The Ming dynasty (pinjin: Ming chao) was the last national, or Chinese ethnic dynasty in China.

The Dynasty Foundation

At the same time as the redcoats were rising up, the peasants in the south were also rebelling. In 1355, Zhū Yuánzhāng (Zhū Yüan-tsang) was put at the head of the rebel army here. Zhu (Zhu) came from a peasant family, lived for a time by begging and never learned to read and write properly. However, he managed the peasant troops skilfully, and in 1356 he took the city of Nanjing, and soon the whole Yangtze Valley was under his rule. In 1367, he sent an army to conquer northern China. In 1368, his troops captured Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty, and the remnants of the Mongol forces fled, leaving much of China under the rule of the Chu (Zhu). In the same year, Chu (Zhu) proclaimed himself emperor and founded the Ming Dynasty (“Great Warrior Virtue”) with Nanjing as its capital.

The third Ming emperor, Jung Lö (“Eternal Bliss”, 1403-1424), renamed it the Jüan (Běijīng), “Northern Capital”, from Nanking (Nanjing) in 1421. Nanking (Nánjīng), the “Southern Capital”, then functioned only as a supplementary, ritual capital.

The Imperial Palace, still visible today, was built in Beijing at this time, and Beijing took its present form. In recent decades, the Ming-era city walls have been demolished, but some of the city gates have been retained and the boulevards follow the lines of the former city walls. Thirteen tombs of Ming emperors can still be seen near Beijing.

The consolidation

During the three-decade reign of Emperor Hung-vu (Hong Wu), the country grew politically and economically stronger. During the Mongol rule and the inland wars, northern China was almost depopulated (only about 10% of the population of Inner China lived here), so farmers were resettled from the south and, as with all dynastic foundations, land was divided up on a large scale. In the border regions of the empire, the Ming government established paramilitary settlements, whose inhabitants both protected the borders and cultivated the land, making the army largely self-sufficient and thus reducing the burden on the population. The Great Wall was restored (the sections still visible today were built), and the Ming made Korea and parts of Indochina their taxpayers. The dams, which had been neglected by the Mongols, were reinforced, and the tax and drudgery burdens of peasants and artisans were clearly fixed.

The examination system, which had been partially abolished during the Yuan Dynasty, was restored, in the form and with the syllabus developed during the Song: the examinations were based on the interpretation of a sentence from the Four Books or the Five Classics in the spirit of the neo-Confucian Zhu Xi, in a specific form (the so-called “Zhu Xi”). “This soon provided the Ming government with a large, educated literate class, who, although lacking in practical knowledge, were able to govern the empire successfully for two and a half centuries. Thanks to the efforts of Hung-vu (Hong Wu), the economy, which had been destroyed by the Mongols, was quickly restored and China entered a long period of unity, peace and prosperity.

The Ming government

In the Ming era, the central government was stronger than ever before, and the role of the emperor increased. This was mainly due to the dynasty-founding Emperor Hung-vu (Hong Wu), who was a great commander and organiser, but whose paranoid nature led him to seek to take all power into his own hands. In 1380, after suppressing a coup attempt allegedly organised by the chief minister, Hung-vu (Hong Wu) abolished the Imperial Secretariat, the body that had controlled the central administration under previous dynasties. Thereafter, the emperor personally and directly administered the empire, and also established a substantial network of informers.

“For thirty-one years I have worked to carry out the will of Heaven, without a day”s rest, without worry or fear,” Hung-vu (Hong Wu) wrote in his will, referring to his method of governance.

The direct exercise of power increased the importance of the emperor”s personality. If an untalented, strong-handed ruler was then enthroned, the whole government, and indeed the whole country, could easily be brought to disaster. Another consequence of Hung-vu”s (Hong Wu) reforms was the increased influence of the court eunuchs. The eunuchs, who, having no family, could only be loyal to the emperor and dependent only on the emperor, became the chief confidants of many later emperors.

The country was administered by three separate organisations: the civil bureaucracy, which was subordinate to six ministries; the centralised military organisation; and the independent office of the censors. The censors, who were directly linked to the centre, were responsible for making inspection tours of the empire to check that local officials were doing their jobs properly.

The “tribute system”

China has always been the largest, most advanced, most civilised country in the world as we know it. The Chinese world view was shaped accordingly: they considered China to be the centre of the world (“Middle Country”), and the other countries to be peripheral, uncivilised, barbaric and inferior. The conquests of the Khitai, the Jurchans and the Mongols did not change this belief, because these nomadic peoples were only militarily stronger than China, and only temporarily.

As a consequence of the China-centric worldview, the Chinese government expected the neighbouring countries to see China not simply as a great power, but as their superior and the source of their civilisation. China therefore did not know international relations on an equal footing, and could only think in terms of China – subjugated country relations. In the Ming era, with a national dynasty once again on the throne, this ”tribal system” was revived and an institutional framework was established, which remained unchanged until the 19th century. Under this system, countries wishing to have relations with China had to accept the supremacy of the Chinese emperor, occasionally send envoys to Beijing to pay homage and pay a ”tribute” to China. The Chinese emperor would therefore usually confer some official rank and seal on the ruler of the ”conquered” country, sometimes granting him protection and allowing his merchants to trade with China. The actual content of the relationship varied depending on the time and country: sometimes the conquered country was effectively under Chinese control, but in most cases the subordination was only nominal and the ”tribute” paid to China was a token gift. Neighbouring countries generally surrendered out of necessity, while those further afield did so more simply to trade with China.

The recovery and decline of external trade

At the beginning of the Ming era, foreign trade briefly revived and China once again became the economic and political centre of East Asia. Trade was particularly active in the southeastern coastal areas, where foreigners established small colonies. At this time, the Chinese were building the world”s best ships, reaching Southeast Asia, India and even Africa.

The most famous Chinese navigator was a court chief eunuch, Zheng Ho (Zheng He) (郑和, Zhèng He), who led seven naval expeditions westwards on behalf of the government between 1405 and 1433, including to the east coast of Africa. These expeditions bore little resemblance to the daring European voyages of discovery that were to follow a few decades later, for Admiral Zheng sailed with a fleet of more than 60 ships, a crew of 27,000 to 28,000, and usually along the coast. During his voyages, he reached more than 30 countries, which he is said to have ”conquered” (in fact, he may have exchanged gifts with the ruler of the country – an African king, for example, sent a giraffe to the Chinese emperor). Today, the Chinese claim the islands of the South China Sea partly in reference to the voyages of the Song of the Sho.

After a brief boom, trade quickly went into decline, with serious consequences for China. The causes of the decline were primarily political: the highly centralised Ming government did not take kindly to the independence of a wealthy, increasingly difficult-to-control coastline and soon even banned Chinese coastal shipping; official expeditions were discontinued because of their high cost and low profit; paper money, which was inconvertible into metal and proved useless in foreign trade, was introduced; Japanese pirates (most of whom were probably of Chinese origin) appeared off the Chinese coast, and defending against them also necessitated restricting sea trade; and in the north the Mongols were again gaining strength, so the empire had to concentrate all its efforts on defending its land borders. In 1436, the foreign envoys were sent home from China, and the Ming Empire essentially closed down – just as Europeans were beginning to explore and colonise the world. The decline in foreign trade was accompanied by a slowdown in domestic economic development. This was partly due to the fact that the southern territories, which had been the centres of development, were overcrowded and the forces that had fuelled this development were no longer there as untapped land and unexplored resources were exhausted. On the other hand, the Ming government, in order to make up for the loss of revenue caused by the concentration of land, ”encroached” on trade and crafts more than any other power, and, with its state monopolies, taxes, levies and detailed regulation, paralysed the development of these two areas of the economy, which had previously been the fastest growing, thus preventing capitalism from emerging in China, despite its promising beginnings. Thirdly, two factors, already mentioned, may have contributed to the stagnation: the shackling of the thinking of the Chinese intellectual elite by the fixing of the material for the civil service examinations, and the habit of merchants to invest the accumulated commercial capital not in production but in the purchase of land and the education of their children. All this led directly to a situation in which the hitherto much less developed West soon overtook China, leaving the Middle Empire in the 19th century vulnerable to better weapons and more viable economic systems.

Relations with the West

The first European (Portuguese) ship arrived in China in 1516. In 1517, a request was made to the central government to establish a Portuguese trading post on Chinese soil, but the Chinese refused the request. After that, a number of European ships arrived on Chinese shores, their crews completely impressed by the vast, well-organised, prosperous empire. The seafarers” reports sparked European interest in China. In 1557, the Portuguese finally gained a foothold in southern China”s Macao, which they ruled until 1999, when it was returned to the People”s Republic of China. Despite this, Chinese isolationism prevented any major trade between China and the West.

In addition to traders, Christian missionaries also arrived in China. The most notable of these was Matteo Ricci (Li Ma-tou), an Italian Jesuit who arrived in Canton in 1581. These early missionaries first sought to gain access to the court of high officials and the ruler, in order to win them to their cause and facilitate the spread of the faith throughout the empire. Although missionaries played an important role in the court, they did not achieve much success in converting the Chinese because of the firm tradition of thousands of years. The Chinese were not very interested in the new faith, but they were more interested in European science: the missionaries introduced them first to European calendaring, astronomy, cartography, etc., and only secondly to Christianity.

The decline of the Ming dynasty

The Ming dynasty provided prosperity and peace for the population for a long time, especially in the first half of its reign. The Ming regime was so solid that the Qing dynasty that followed made virtually no changes to the state organisation, methods of governance or civil service examinations, simply building on the existing and well-functioning institutional system. It can be said that from the reign of Emperor Hung-vu (Hong Wu), i.e. from the last third of the 14th century until the early 20th century, the Chinese state structure remained essentially unchanged.

From the middle of the 15th century, problems began to mount in the Ming court, mainly caused by the enthronement of incompetent emperors who were immersed in worldly pleasures and who ceded the rule of the empire to their eunuchs. Factional warfare was rife at court, with cliques of mandarins, eunuchs and princes vying for the greatest possible influence. Initially, this did not disturb the peace of the population, factional fighting was confined to the court, and the imperial administration functioned smoothly.

From the middle of the 16th century, the economic problems began to become serious: land concentration began, and the revenues of the treasury could no longer cover the costs of maintaining the huge bureaucratic apparatus and the army. The problems were exacerbated by the renewed Mongol reinforcements on the northern frontiers of the empire, who, under the leadership of Khan Altan, even stormed the capital Beijing in 1550, after crossing the Great Wall. In 1573, the Emperor Van Li (萬曆, Wanli 1573-1620) came to the throne and in the first decade of his reign he introduced some reforms, temporarily alleviating the problems of land concentration. However, after the death in 1582 of the talented chief minister who had implemented the reforms, Van Li spent the remaining 38 years of his reign completely neglecting state affairs and allowing the court to be dominated by various factions.

The famous “Tung-lin Party” (Donglin-dang) was formed at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, uniting the disgraced Mandarins. They wanted to reform the whole empire, strengthen central (imperial) power, give officials more freedom of expression and reduce the tax burden. But their reforms were hampered by the eunuchs who took power during Van Li”s reign. In 1620, a new, somewhat feeble-minded emperor came to the throne with no interest in anything other than carpentry. The members of the Tung-lin Academy gained great influence in the court between 1620 and 1623, but in 1624 the friend of the emperor”s nurse, the hated eunuch Vej Zhong-hsien (Wèi Zhōngxián), gained virtual absolute power and had the Tung-lin”s followers imprisoned and massacred. In 1627, after the death of Wei (Vej), the reformers prevailed again for a short time, but soon afterwards the eunuch era returned. This, of course, paralysed the whole government.

The concentration of land reached its peak in the first half of the 17th century, but the troubled imperial court did nothing to ease the social strife. To make matters worse, a new nomadic people, the Manchus, had gained strength to the north-east of China and were invading Chinese territory with enormous devastation. The Ming government responded by increasing the war tax, which led to enormous discontent. From 1628 onwards, a series of peasant uprisings broke out.

In 1639, one of the peasant movements was led by a former postal worker, Li Ce-cheng (Li Zicheng) (李自成, Lĭ Zìchéng), who lost his job in 1628 due to famine. With his well-organised army, he conquered cities one after another, capturing Xian (Xi”an) (the capital of the Western Han and Tang dynasties) in 1643 and proclaiming himself emperor. He then marched on Beijing in 1644. The defenders of the capital surrendered, and the unprotected emperor hanged himself on Beijing”s Coal Hill, ending the reign of the Ming dynasty. Meanwhile, another rebel, Chiang Hsien-chung (張獻忠, Zhāng Xiànzhōng), proclaimed himself emperor in Sichuan province. In 1644, China was thus completely divided, with some places controlled by various rebels and others controlled by the Ming armies, which remained intact but without central leadership. This was an ideal situation for an external conqueror.

Qing (1644-1911)

The Qing (Mongolian: Manj Chin Uls) was the last imperial dynasty in China.

The Manchus were a nomadic people related to the Jurchiks who once ruled northern China for a century. In 1616, their leader Nurhachi united the Manchu tribes and established a well-organised state in Manchuria, in what is now northeast China, on the Chinese model. In 1636, the dynasty founded by Nurhachi took the name Qing (Pure) and soon launched attacks against the Ming China, which was in its last days. In 1644, when the peasant armies of Li Tse-cheng (Li Zicheng) overthrew the Ming dynasty but had not yet established a firm state, the Manchu armies launched a major campaign to conquer China. Commanding the imperial armies defending the eastern section of the Great Wall of China, General Vu San-kui (Wu Sangui) (吳三桂, Wu Sānguì) had the choice of either surrendering to Li Zicheng (Li Zicheng) and fighting the Manchus together, or siding with the Manchus. He chose the latter – along with Qin Hui, who had since become the other embodiment of treason in the eyes of the Chinese, Wu Sangui, who let the Manchus in and joined them against the peasant rebels and the former Ming troops scattered throughout the empire. The following decades were war-torn: the Manchus, attacking from the north, and the Chinese armies that had defected, pushed further south, destroying or subduing the scattered peasant troops and forces loyal to the fallen Ming. It should be noted that the Manchu force of some 290,000 was opposed by two million Chinese fighters, so the resistance would not have been hopeless if the Chinese unit commanders had been able to unite and not defect en masse to the conquerors. However, there was a huge disunity among the Chinese, with Li Zicheng assassinated by a Chinese squad of landlords in 1645 and the remaining Ming forces preoccupied mainly with fighting each other. Thus, by 1683, the Manchus managed to unify the whole country and crush all resistance. In the meantime, they made Beijing their capital and restored the Ming state structure in the conquered territories.

They were Li Ce-cheng (Shǐ Kěfǎ), the defender of the city of Yangzhou, and Cheng Cheng-kung (Zheng Chenggong), a pirate leader loyal to the Ming dynasty. The latter defended the southeast coast from 1646 to 1658, and in 1661 sailed with some 900 ships to the island of Taiwan (Portuguese: Formosa, ”Beautiful”), which was not part of the Chinese empire and was inhabited mainly by Malay tribes, to drive out the Dutch traders and defend the island against the Manchus. After his death in 1662, his son remained in Taiwan until 1683. Cheng Chengg-kung (Zheng Chenggong), known as Koxinga in Dutch, is still a national hero in Taiwan.

Following the conquest, the new monarchy quickly consolidated its power. Knowing that it was possible to take a country by force of arms but impossible to govern it for long, a tacit reconciliation was soon reached between the Chinese elite and the Manchu conquerors. Although the Manchus made some symbolic provisions to remind the population of the conquest – for example, the Chinese were required to adopt the Manchu hairstyle of shaved sides and braided in the middle as a symbol of their submission – they left the original social order essentially intact, imposed themselves on the existing institutions and involved the Chinese bureaucratic intelligentsia in governance. The Chinese elite and population, in turn, accepted the rule of a foreign dynasty that brought them peace and wealth. Meanwhile, the conquerors themselves began to become more Chineseised: they abandoned their old nomadic ways, learned to speak Chinese and even became generous supporters of Chinese culture.

With the consolidation of order, a permissive policy and the spread of crops from the Americas to China via the Philippines, the economy boomed and the population quadrupled between 1700 and 1840 (from 100 million to 414 million). Consolidation was also helped by the fact that the first Qing emperors were highly talented, skilful and educated, and two of them ruled for extremely long periods. The reigns of Emperors Kang-xi (1723-1736) and Qiang-lung (1736-1795, 乾隆, Qiánlōng) lasted for almost a century and a half, and, apart from the first decade or two under Kang-xi, were a period of peace and prosperity for most Chinese.

As has always been the case in Chinese history, the country”s economic consolidation was followed by territorial conquests. After consolidating their rule over Inner China, the Manchus set about expanding the borders of their empire. The present borders of the People”s Republic of China were essentially formed by the conquests of the great Qing emperors of the 17th and 18th centuries. They first conquered East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, 新疆 Xīnjiāng) and most of Outer Mongolia (modern Mongolia) in the northwest in 1696, and then gradually made Tibet a Chinese protectorate between 1720 and 1750. The conquests were completed in the 1750s, when the rest of East Turkestan and Jungaria (the Jungar Khanate) were conquered (the Mongol jungars living in the area were partly exterminated and partly victims of smallpox). With these victories, the empire”s territory doubled. It was also under Manchu rule that Manchuria became an integral part of China. In the 18th century, the peoples of Korea, Vietnam and Nepal also became ”taxpayers” of the Qing Empire. Among the territories occupied by the Qing were many that had been part of China earlier in history, but which had now been permanently annexed to China. (By comparison, China”s territory has now been somewhat reduced: Outer Mongolia became independent in 1912, and Russia has also acquired small areas.)

By the end of the 18th century, the Chinese economy had reached what is known as the “high equilibrium trap”. In essence, this means that the economy had reached a level from which it was impossible to develop further within the given framework: there was no more uncultivated land left to break up in agriculture, and productivity in cultivated areas had reached a ceiling that was impossible to surpass with conventional technology. (It should be noted that China had the highest average yields per unit area in the world at that time.) Without modernisation, without a scientific basis for production, agricultural production could not be increased further. As a result, the market for industrial goods stopped growing and demand for non-agricultural products stopped rising, leading to stagnation in industrial enterprises. However, the technical (or industrial) revolution that would have enabled further development failed to materialise, for reasons that are still not fully understood. This was probably due in large part to the closed-door policy of the Manchu imperial court, the state bureaucracy that kept industry and commerce under tight control, the lack of schools that taught practical skills, the crippling effect of the civil service examinations on the Chinese intelligentsia, and the fact that China had not encountered any foreign power of comparable power or development, which led to complacency. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, China had thus reached a high level of development, but it was a dead-end, a closed empire unable to develop further along traditional paths.

At the same time, Western Europe was undergoing the civil and then the industrial revolutions, which made the West technologically, economically and militarily stronger than any other civilisation, and far outstripped China, which had been more advanced than it.

Britain set up a trading post in Canton in southern China in 1699, and for more than a century it became the centre of Sino-Western trade. In the 18th century, trade remained limited, with the British East India Company on the English side and the Kohong (v. Kunghang) Company, under close state control on the Chinese side, gaining a monopoly on a trade largely consisting of English tea and silk imports. The government in Beijing, although making substantial profits from customs duties on goods passing through Canton, sought to limit and control foreign trade.

By the end of the 18th century, trade in Canton was becoming tight, so in 1793 the British, led by Lord Macartney, sent an envoy to the Chinese emperor, asking him to open a permanent British mission in Peking, open some northern ports to English merchants, fix tariffs and give England one or two islands to store her goods and repair her ships. The English delegation was accorded the reception due to an envoy of the conquering barbarian monarch, the gifts they carried were declared a ”tribute of homage”, but English demands were refused.

“Thou, O monarch, dwellest far away, beyond many seas, and yet, guided by a humble desire to share in the good of our civilization, thou hast sent an embassy which has obediently delivered thy message to us,” wrote Emperor Xian-lung III in his letter of refusal. “The earnest expressions of which the message is composed prove a respectful humility on your part, which is highly commendable. As to your request to send a subject to my heavenly court to inspect your country”s trade with China, this request is contrary to all the customs of my dynasty, and cannot be accepted in any way (…) Tremble, obey, and do no disrespect.”

As England was temporarily occupied by the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, no attempt was made to open up China by force.

The British had another problem with China, apart from state restrictions on trade. There was a huge flow of European silver into China, because while Western countries imported many goods from China, China bought virtually nothing from them, so they had to pay for Chinese shipments of tea, silk and porcelain with silver. By the 1820s, however, the flow of silver to China had stopped: by then, opium consumption in China had increased so much – and with it opium imports – that the British had managed to replace the silver they had been paying for Chinese goods with opium shipped from India to China.

There are several explanations for the increase in opium consumption. According to some historians, the British East India Company”s people were conducting regular market research among the Chinese to find out what could be shipped to China instead of silver. When they found that opium would do the trick, they used the methods of modern drug dealers to ”inject” the drug into masses of Chinese. According to another view, opium consumption began to grow ”spontaneously” when, in the 17th and 18th centuries – by which time smoking was commonplace – the Chinese realised that opium, which had been used for thousands of years as a painkiller, could be mixed with tobacco to produce a pleasant effect. This view is that the English were just taking advantage of the fashion for opium smoking by importing good quality opium from India. The former view is generally held by Chinese historians, the latter by Anglo-Saxons. What is certain is that from the late 18th century onwards, opium consumption in China rose sharply and English traders made huge profits.

As the number of opium addicts increased, the silver that had been flowing to China began to flow back to Europe through British opium traders. It should be noted that opium was not only a good business for Western traders: huge trading networks were set up to sell it within China, which in one way or another, usually through bribery, also attracted many government officials. Opium had been banned in China since the early 1700s, but the ban remained on paper, as it was the officials charged with eradicating the opium trade who were the main beneficiaries of the business.

By the 1820-30s, the Qing dynasty was in deep economic crisis. The main causes of the crisis were: the resumption of land concentration; a government measure that led to a deterioration in the exchange ratio between copper and silver coins, i.e. the value of silver rose relative to copper coins; and a shortage of silver due to large-scale imports of opium, which undermined the tax system based on silver. A significant proportion of the chief officials blamed opium imports for the financial crisis. In the 1830s, the opium issue was the subject of a heated debate at court, with some suggesting that the opium trade should be legalised, others that it should be banned altogether. The emperor finally listened to the latter, and in 1839 sent one of the main spokesmen for the anti-opium faction, Lin Chou-xu (Lin Zexu), to Canton, the centre of the opium trade, to take action. Lin set about the task with great zeal, blockading a colony of some 350 foreigners living in Canton, confiscating and setting fire to their opium stocks.

The British have had two main demands on China: first, they wanted to trade freely with and in China (and second, they wanted the Chinese government to finally treat them as equals, not as subjugated barbarians. The action of Lin Zexu was an excellent excuse for the British to enforce their demands by force of arms, and they sent their fleet to the coast of China in 1839. The British had only a few dozen warships and a few thousand men, but with the most advanced military technology in the world at the time, the Manchu Chinese troops, armed with cannons, muskets (which also had a short range) and fibre-arms, were powerless against them. The way the war was fought was that the British ships would appear in front of a coastal town, fire their guns at it, and if the town surrendered, the British soldiers would retreat, often looting and killing, and if it fought back, they would keep firing until the Chinese surrendered. No British ships were hit by the Chinese batteries. There were no large-scale land operations, but there was no need for them, as the Chinese were sufficiently threatened by the fact that the British could do practically anything they wanted along their coast and inland waterways. The coup de grace came when the British captured the city of Yangtze (Zhènjiāng), paralysing the traffic on China”s two main waterways. The government eventually sent plenipotentiaries to Nanjing to negotiate with the British commander, General Henry Pottinger. On 29 August 1842, the two sides agreed to the so-called Nanking (Nanjing tiaoyue), beginning what the Chinese call the era of unequal treaties, or semi-colonial subjugation.

The main points of the Nanjing contract were:

In a so-called capitulation amendment of 1843, the British were also granted the right of “territorial sovereignty”, which meant that no British citizen could be tried by Chinese authorities, only by the British consul (this last clause was hardly objectionable, as Chinese law often involved torture and mutilating, degrading punishment, which was unacceptable to civilized Europeans.) Opium was not mentioned in the treaties, but the opium trade continued to flourish. In the years that followed, the privileges granted to the British were extended to the other Western powers, and the cities that were opened up soon became vast international districts and concession areas.

From 1857 to 1860, there were further clashes between the Western powers and China, which led to further concessions by the Chinese government in new “unequal treaties”: It allowed free movement of foreigners inside China, legalised the opium trade with a fixed tariff, opened up Tianjin (Tiānjīn) near Beijing to foreigners and, most importantly, agreed to allow the Western powers to station permanent envoys in Beijing – marking the end of the old ”tribute system”. The operations of 1857-58 and 1860 are commonly known as the Second and Third Opium Wars respectively.

The most famous monument of the Third Opium War is the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan (Yuánmíng Yuán) ruin garden in Beijing. Also known as the ”Old Summer Palace”, the complex was built in the 1740s to the designs of Jesuit missionaries in the style of the palaces of Versailles. The buildings were razed to the ground by the Anglo-French armies in 1860. The ruins can still be seen today, as the Chinese left them in their original state as an illustration of the imperialists” destruction. It is not mentioned in Chinese-edition books, but the story goes that the European armies destroyed the imperial buildings in revenge for the emperor”s men capturing the leader of the British peace mission and executing 20 of his men.

The opium wars are seen by the Chinese as the beginning of their long humiliation, exploitation and destitution by foreigners, and from this time comes the dual feeling towards Westerners that still exists in most Chinese: on the one hand, they admire their advanced technology, civilisational achievements and wealth, but on the other hand, they feel resentment and sometimes hostility towards the colonising white man. What is certain is that the forced opening of China”s gates was done in a vile and cruel manner. It is also certain, however – although this does not excuse the colonial armies who sometimes staged bloody massacres – that the closed, backward Chinese Empire was unviable in a rapidly industrialising world elsewhere, and that the opening was inevitable. And by opening up ”concessionary” ports, China learned the latest Western techniques and ideas, built up its own industry and entered world trade. Typically, in 1952, shortly after the Communist takeover, industrial output per capita in the concession port cities was almost thirty times that of the interior, which had been left untouched by foreigners, and much of the advanced industry is still concentrated in the coastal regions, once under foreign influence.

Around the same time as the Opium Wars, uprisings broke out across China against the Qing dynasty. The major uprisings took place in the interior, independently of the expansion of Western powers, due to land concentration, overpopulation, neglect of water control systems (and the resulting disasters) and pervasive corruption.

The most important such movement was led by a failed official named Taiping (1814-1864). As a youth, Hung (Hong) was introduced to Christian teachings through a Protestant tractate, and combined them with elements of traditional Chinese religion to found a distinctive new religion, led by himself – the brother of Jesus Christ, the new Messiah. The religion proclaimed equality before God, respect for Confucian virtues and the need to overthrow Manchu rule. If Hung (Hong) won, he wanted to create a society in which everyone would be equal, everything would be taken into public ownership, and people would be supplied with food and clothing from common storehouses. This was to be the Celestial Empire of Great Equality, for which the rebels took their name. Having recruited enough supporters, he launched an uprising in Hung (Guǎngxī) province, joined en masse by impoverished peasants, armed men who had hitherto lived by robbery and unemployed Cantonese transport workers. The Taiping initially achieved great military success, capturing several small towns, and in March 1853 the Taiping army, by then numbering over a million, captured the city of Nanjing, which then became the Taiping capital. The rebels also launched a campaign against Beijing, but it ended unsuccessfully. In 1853-54, the Taiping ruled the entire lower Yangtze River valley, but lacked organisational experience and were unable to establish a lasting administrative system. In addition, in the late 1950s, the Taiping leaders turned against each other and bloody infighting broke out between them, weakening them greatly. In the meantime, Chinese generals commissioned by the Manchu imperial court organised strong armies of landlord forces from the Taiping threatened areas and, with some Western help, launched fierce counterattacks against Hung (Hong) armies. Finally, after a long and extremely bloody struggle – with an estimated 20-30 million casualties – the Taiping were defeated in 1864, after 14 years of fighting.

Meanwhile, rebellions broke out in other areas of the empire, independent of the Taiping (Taiping) government. Along the Grand Canal, in the 1950s, rebels organised by secret societies created their own small state (Yúnnan), in the province of Muslim rebels ruled large areas for decades and established their own sultanate (Guìzhōu), in the province of Miao people rebelled against Chinese rule, and in East Turkestan, the Uyghurs (1862-1873). In the 1850s, the power of the Qing dynasty was shaken to its foundations, threatened from without by the great powers and from within by various rebellions.

In the early 1860s, the Manchus managed to consolidate some of their power over the country. This was partly due to appeasement with the Western powers, who, having achieved what they wanted – free trade with China, territorial sovereignty, diplomatic recognition, etc. – now had an interest in maintaining the dynasty”s rule – since there was more to be gained from a manageable relationship with a strong government than with a fractured China torn by internal wars. In addition, the armies of the central power had access to the best Western military technology through the concession ports, so that they could turn the modern firearms that had defeated them only a few years earlier against the peasant rebels and the nationalities fighting for their independence. On the other hand, there was a new ”reconciliation” between the Manchu dynasty and the Chinese elite: from the 1960s onwards, the Chinese took a greater share of power than ever before and were even given the command of armies – something the cautious Manchus had never done before. Thus, in the 1960s and 1970s, the uprisings were suppressed and the fall of the empire postponed.

The Opium War came as a huge shock to the Chinese, who for the first time in their millennia of history had to face a power far more advanced than themselves, militarily, economically and technologically, and had to adjust their ancient China-centric worldview somewhat. The Manchu-Chinese elite, however, did not understand that the medieval-style Chinese Empire had reached a dead end, but only recognised that Western weapons were superior to Chinese ones. As a result, no large-scale socio-political modernisation took place, and China sought to recover from the crisis by setting up Western-style arms and shipyards throughout the country. The 1860s, 70s and 80s are usually referred to as the era of ”self-strengthening”: at that time, China was still rejecting Western ideas and institutions, and was only willing to adopt technology.

The first sign of the failure of self-reinforcement was the Sino-French War of 1884-85, when the French conquered Vietnam from China.

But the real blow for the Chinese came in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 (Japanese: 日清戦争, Romani: Nisshin Sensō; Nissin Sensō). The struggle began over control of the Korean peninsula. In 1893, the Donghak Rebellion (Hanja: 東學農民運動) broke out in Korea, which had been China”s sphere of interest until then, and provided a good excuse for both China and Japan to send troops to the peninsula to ”help” the Korean king. In the summer of 1894, Japanese troops drove the Chinese out of Korea and, instead of stopping at the Sino-Korean border, occupied the Liaotung (Liaodong) peninsula (辽东半岛, Liáodōng) in northeast China. Meanwhile, modern Japanese warships completely annihilated the decades-old Chinese fleet in one or two battles, while Japanese forces to the south also captured most of Taiwan Island. The Chinese laid down their arms in February 1895, and in April, China renounced its rights to Korea, Taiwan and the Liaotung (Liaodong) peninsula in the Simonseki Peace Treaty, which ended the war, and paid Japan huge compensation.

The heavy defeat at the hands of Japan was particularly humiliating for the Chinese because it was not a Western superpower that defeated China, but a neighbouring – “barbarian” – country that had copied Chinese achievements and followed Chinese patterns throughout its history. After this humiliation, it became clear to many that the policy of copying weapons could not be continued: corrupt officials, arbitrarily appointed by the imperial court and educated in two and a half thousand years of philosophical treatises, were incapable of leading the Chinese army successfully and administering the country effectively in modern circumstances.

After the defeat at the hands of the Japanese, reform movements were launched among Chinese literati across the country, following the example of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 in Japan, which called for sweeping social, political and economic changes, essentially the creation of a constitutional monarchy.

This was made particularly urgent by the fact that the great powers were beginning to divide China among themselves. In the end, none of the powers could actually make the Middle Empire its colony – the main obstacle being the jealousy of the other powers – but by the last decades of the century the country had been divided into spheres of interest and all the major cities on the coast and Yangtze had been opened up to foreigners. In the cities that were opened up, the powers that be were given so-called ”concession areas” where foreigners could live in European-style buildings under their own jurisdiction and according to their own laws. (It should be noted that Tianjin also had an Austro-Hungarian quarter, the buildings of which still stand today.)

The existence of concession areas was deeply offensive to the Chinese, since such areas were “a state within a state”, and the Chinese authorities had no say in their affairs. The rude, arrogant behaviour of many foreigners also left deep scars on the local population. A sign on the gate of a Shanghai park – “Dogs and Chinese not allowed!” – still comes up often in discussions about the history of Sino-Western relations.

The renewal was made more difficult by the fact that the country”s leadership had fallen into the hands of the Empress Dowager Empress Tse Hsi and her clique in the early 1860s. Tse-hsi remained in power until his death in 1908; although they were the country”s nominal emperors for half a century, they had no real power. Although the hated Tse-hsi and his ultra-conservative supporters allowed ”self-reinforcement”, they refused to make any changes to the country”s governance.

The reform movement was spearheaded by a scribe named Kang Ju-wei (Kāng Yǒuwéi), who wrote a memorandum in 1898 to the young Emperor Kuang-hsü (1875-1908) on his ideas. Inspired by Kang”s words, the emperor himself took the lead in reform, appointing the main leaders of the movement to important posts and issuing edicts aimed at radically overhauling the administration, establishing modern schools, modernising the civil service examinations, reorganising the army and, in the long term, transforming China into a constitutional monarchy. In the meantime, the emperor commissioned Yuan Shìkǎi (Yuán Shìkǎi) to abolish the conservative faction of the Mother Empress that had ruled the country until then. However, Yuan (Yuan) betrayed the emperor and told the supporters of Tse-hsi about the plot against them. Tse-hsi and his men then arrested the emperor and the leaders of the reform movement, annulled most of the measures and took power back into his own hands. The emperor spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Since the reform decrees were in force for about 100 days, the 1898 attempt at modernisation is known as the ”100-day reform”. The empire was thus unable to renew itself.

After the first Sino-Japanese war and the failed “hundred-day reform”, there was growing discontent in the country with both the foreigners who exploited and humiliated China and the Manchu – also foreign – dynasty who served foreign interests. There were also economic reasons for the riots that first erupted in northern China: at the end of the 19th century, the great railway construction projects promoted by foreigners caused the loss of jobs and livelihoods of the carriers, boatmen and dockers of the Grand Canal. It was mainly these destitute elements who were organised by a secret society called the ”Fist of Justice and Peace” – hence the name ”bokser” – which held the foreigners responsible for all the troubles, although it supported the Manchu dynasty.

In 1900, xenophobic, fanatical boxers took up arms and, with the tacit consent of the court, marched into Beijing, where they burned European shops, massacred Christian Chinese and laid siege to the embassy quarter. In response, troops from the Great Powers* landed off Tianjin on 17 June 1900 and marched to Beijing to fight the Boxers. Mother Empress Tianjin then decided to side with the rebels and declared war on the foreign powers. The Boxers – who believed they would not be caught by knives and bullets – and the imperial troops stood little chance against the well-equipped Western army, which by mid-August had taken Beijing and organised bloody punitive actions against the remaining rebels. The imperial court fled the capital in time, and when the foreigners” victory became apparent, they sent a peace envoy. Hung (Hong) and the imperial family had only one goal: to stay in power. So, in exchange for the foreigners keeping the Manchus on their thrones, the court envoys said yes to all demands. In September 1901, the parties agreed to a ”boxing charter” in which China was obliged to pay a huge sum in reparations.

In the 1890s, alongside the moderate constitutional monarchists and the various fanatical mass organisations that played a role in the ”hundred-day reform”, a third force emerged to save the country: the radical revolutionaries. These revolutionary groups, composed mainly of educated intellectuals, military officers and students who had studied abroad, were led by Sun Yat-sen, who has been hailed ever since as the ”father of the Chinese revolution”. Sun Yat-sen, an educated Western-trained doctor, acted as the ”intellectual author” of the revolutionary movement: he organised, raised money among Chinese abroad, edited a newspaper and developed the basic ideology of the Chinese revolution. The various organisations he founded – the Society for the Rebirth of China and the Allied League – launched ten urban uprisings against Manchu rule between 1895 and April 1911, but all were crushed in blood by pro-government forces.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the long-scarred Qing dynasty embarked on a series of constitutional reforms.In 1906, it was announced that China would gradually be transformed into a constitutional monarchy. After the death of Tse-hsi in 1908, this process accelerated, and in 1909, provincial councils were elected, which would later form the basis of a parliament that would work alongside the emperor. In October 1910, the National Consultative Council, which was to serve as a parliament until the democratic transformation was complete, met in Beijing. However, at the end of 1910, the regent who ruled in place of the infant emperor Pu Yi (Pu Yi) opposed the democratisation process and sought to prevent the reforms from continuing. In doing so, the Manchu court lost the support of the broad sections of the population that had hitherto backed it in the hope of a peaceful transition. In April 1911, a tenth uprising of Sun Yat-sen forces broke out in Canton, but was crushed by the local military. In May 1911, following a government measure that caused masses of people to lose their assets invested in railway shares, a so-called ”railway protection movement” was launched in Sichuan, which was suppressed with great difficulty. Manchu hatred was at its height everywhere in China.

It was under these circumstances that the Wuchang (Wǔchāng qǐyì) broke out on 10 October 1911, which eventually led to the Chinese Revolution of 1911 and the eventual end of the Chinese Empire. In the Yangtze-coastal city of Vucsang (Wuchang) (one of the three cities that make up present-day Vuhan (Wuhan) (武汉, Wǔhàn)), local revolutionary groups with loose ties to Sun Yat-sen”s movement planned the uprising for 11 October, but as word of the plan got out, the leaders brought the action forward by a day and stormed the city on the evening of 10 October. By 11 October 1911, the city and its surroundings had fallen to the rebels. The Wuchang uprising would have been insignificant in itself, but it gave the final push to the masses across the country who wanted the fall of the Qing dynasty. In the weeks that followed, provinces declared independence one by one, and by December only three of the 18 provinces remained loyal to the dynasty. The country was gripped by an anti-Manchu euphoria that briefly – but only briefly – united the most disparate sections of the empire and allowed China to get rid not only of the almost 300-year-old Qing dynasty but also of an empire that had lasted for more than 2,000 years.

The dynasty made the mistake of appointing its old general, Yuan Shikai (Yuan Si-kaj), to lead the counter-insurgency troops. Yuan did fight the rebels, but he indicated to them that he was willing to come to an agreement with them. In December 1911, Sun Yat-sen, who had been in the USA and had learned about the Wuchang uprising from newspapers, returned home (thus the belief that he had organised the Wuchang uprising is unfounded). On 1 January 1912, the Republic of China was proclaimed in Nanjing, in the south of China, independent of the ruling house, which still had considerable power in the north, and the highly respected Sun Yat-sen was elected president. Instead of attacking the Republican forces, Yuan Shikai, the leader of the imperial armies, decided to make a deal with them: he would abdicate the Manchu dynasty in exchange for the presidency of the Republic. The deal was struck: under pressure from Yuan (Yuan), to whom the Manchus had entrusted their armies, the Qing dynasty abdicated power on 12 February 1912, and on 15 February Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yat-sen) was elected President of the Republic in place of Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shikai). The history of the Chinese Empire thus came to an end, to usher in the era of the Republic, in which China presented an even more turbulent picture than the end of the imperial era.

After its victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese Communist Party proclaimed the establishment of the People”s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. Within a few years, the economic damage caused by years of civil war was eliminated. The internal political situation was stabilised with a heavy hand, sometimes using brutal military, political and economic means. By the mid-1950s, Chinese urban and rural life had been revived. Even in the light of later developments, the first half of the 1950s was a period of relative calm, the golden years. The Communist leadership managed to stabilise the money supply, famine was ended, railways were restored, industrial development began, coal and steel production soared, and electricity generation soared.

In spite of the damage caused by the civil war, China was also able to show significant military strength in the Korean War. The country”s international prestige grew rapidly and its relations with neighbouring Asian countries developed well. In its foreign policy, it has focused on the fight against colonialism and imperialism, and on this basis has built good relations with so-called non-aligned countries outside the military bloc, such as India, Ceylon, Indonesia, Burma and others. The prime minister Zhou Enlai, who together with Indian Prime Minister Javaharlal Nehru developed the five principles of democratic international politics and peaceful coexistence, known in Hindi as pancha sila (wd), in 1954. These ideas, which revitalised foreign policy thinking as a whole, resonated in both the East and the West, but their impact was particularly strong in the former colonial countries.

In September 1956, the forthcoming CCP VIII Congress attracted considerable international attention, as the question was whether the anti-Stalinist and relatively democratising line initiated by the XXth Congress of the USSR in the spring of that year would be continued. The omens were good: the new intellectual policy, proclaimed under the slogan ”A hundred flowers to bloom, a hundred schools to compete”, was to democratise social relations and confront the mistakes and sins of the past. The preparations for the congress focused on abandoning uncritical attitudes towards the Soviets and developing relations with Yugoslavia.


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  2. History of China
  3. Északi Wei-dinasztia (Terebess Ázsia Lexikon). terebess.hu. (Hozzáférés: 2018. július 6.)
  4. Kiljunen, Kimmo: MMM Valtiot ja liput, s. 392–396. Helsinki: Otava, 2002. ISBN 951-1-18177-7.
  5. a b Huotari 2005, s. 35–36
  6. a b Paltemaa, s. 9–15
  7. a b c Matkaopas historiaan – Kiina, s. 45–46
  8. Goldin 2020 ↓, s. 2.
  9. Goldin 2020 ↓, s. 15, 18.
  10. Goldin 2020 ↓, s. 18 – 21.
  11. Goldin 2020 ↓, s. 22.
  12. William G. Boltz, Early Chinese Writing, World Archaeology, Vol. 17, No. 3, Early Writing Systems. (Feb., 1986), pp. 420–436 (436).
  13. David N. Keightley, “Art, Ancestors, and the Origins of Writing in China”, Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition. (Autumn, 1996), pp.68–95 (68).
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