A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

-Lao Zi

Given the huge timeline, semi-mythical beginnings, complicated dynastic power struggles, complex modern era, and the sheer size of the country, it isn't surprising that Chinese history can initially seem baffling. Entire volumes have been written about Chinese history and still not covered all of the periods or regions. In this humble book, we've tried to keep it as simple as possible while covering all of the major periods and people, focusing on modern history, and what you're actually likely to see as a visitor.


Legend has it that China was founded by the creator Panku, and humans were born of the parasites that infested him. This is certainly a lovely story, but science tells us that the 1926 discovery of skull remains (dubbed Peking Man) illustrated that Homo erectus in China knew how to use fire and basic stone tools 600,000 years ago. Homo sapiens evolved between 500,000 and 200,000 B.C., but it wasn't until 5000 B.C. that the first Chinese society, Yangshao Culture, developed. Centered on the Yellow River provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu, Yangshao Culture comprised settled farming communities capable of crafting ceramic and jade wares. Banpo Neolithic village and burial ground near Xi'an is the best preserved example of Yangshao Culture and is believed to have been inhabited between 4500 and 3750 B.C.

The Dynastic Age

Aside from the modern period, the bulk of knowledge about Chinese history relates to the dynastic age, and once you have a hold on how this works, the rest begins to fall into place. Essentially dynasties followed bloodlines, and tended to start strong and finish weak, to the point that another dynasty succeeded. The concept of Divine Mandate was fundamental to this succession and effectively meant that the emperor was the Son of Heaven and had the right to do pretty much anything he pleased. However, if his actions displeased the gods, a catastrophic event such as a failed harvest, lightning bolt, or invading army would signify that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and it was time for a new emperor, or dynasty. This system resulted in an alternating pattern of stable periods of prosperity, development, and expansion, invariably followed by tumultuous times of conflict and uncertainty, and then the cycle would repeat.

Foundation of the Nation: The Qin & the Han -- Ruthless and driven, Qin Shi Huang, "China's first emperor," is one of the most significant players in the whole of Chinese history. After the fractious Warring States Period, Qin Shi Huang emerged victorious and established the brief but brutal Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Traditionally seen as a megalomaniac tyrant whose oppressive rule and rebuttal of Confucian ideals far outweighed all of his achievements, there is now a move afoot, at least among Chinese historians, to rescind this view in light of his contribution to the formation of a unified Middle Kingdom. His achievements are unparalleled and include the first version of the Great Wall, the Terra-Cotta Warriors, and standardized weights and measures.

The enduring Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), which still lends its name to China's dominant ethnic group, was a time of consolidation and expansion. The civil service was formalized and exams (based on Confucian texts) were introduced as a means of assessing candidates. There were also great advances in agriculture, textiles, papermaking, and weaponry; the crossbow developed during this time was more accurate and had a longer range than any to date, and this military superiority facilitated the Chinese army's progress as far south as Vietnam. To the west, the Silk Road developed as a trade artery that enabled passage from the capital at Xianyang (near Xi'an) all the way to Europe. China's most celebrated historian, Sima Qian, lived during the Han dynasty, and his work has enabled future generations to better understand both the Han and those who came before them. However, this knowledge couldn't help the dynasty from repeating the errors of the past, and when the Han dynasty finally came to a close, China was vast, but the imperial coffers were empty. A fractious 4-century period, known as the Three Kingdoms (220-581), followed and it wasn't until the Sui dynasty (581-618) that China was reunited as a country. The Sui may have been short lived, but this didn't stop them from building one of the world's greatest waterways, the Grand Canal (which can still be seen in Suzhou and Hangzhou).

The Age of Art: The Tang & the Song -- The glorious Tang dynasty (618-907) is fondly remembered as China's greatest dynasty, and with good reason. The reconsolidation under the Sui dynasty was definitely progress, but it by no means ensured the reunification of north and south. After 300 years of conflict and uncertainty, the importance of peace, and just getting on with business, is signified by the choice of Chang'an (meaning Eternal Peace) as the name for the Tang capital (present day Xi'an). Indeed, the Tang cemented the concept of a united China and the resultant stability brought prosperity, while increased trade and an open-door approach to the outside world ushered in a time of innovation, artistic creativity, and religious tolerance. All of a sudden there was time and money for painting, poetry, and pottery, and when combined with outside influences, this provided the perfect platform for the reinvention of time-honored crafts. But it wasn't all arts and crafts: Territorial expansion was fundamental to the Tang's success and at its peak, Chinese influence was felt from Korea to the Middle East. Equally, trade along the Silk Road and via the southern ports exposed China to outside ideas and religions, and Islam, Nestorianism, and most significantly Buddhism soon found a foothold. Popularity and imperial patronage allowed for the development of some of China's most incredible treasures, including the Buddhist grottoes at Dazu, Dunhuang, and Luoyang. But, glorious as it may have been, a catastrophic loss to the Arabs in the 8th century and a string of weak leaders led to a quiet abdication and the end of the Tang dynasty in 907.

Following the Tang, the Five Dynasties (907-960) was yet another dark period that preceded the Song dynasty (960-1279), but the first Song emperor, Taizu, quickly consolidated from the new capital in Kaifeng and before long the country was back on track. Once again the arts flourished and the Song dynasty is remembered for landscape painting, poetry, and pottery. It was also a time of great innovation, but in spite of the invention of both the magnetic compass and gunpowder, the Song failed to exert the military dominance of the Tang, which ultimately led to their downfall.

Northern Invaders: The Jurchen Jin & the Yuan -- In 1126 the Song court was ousted from Kaifeng by the Manchurian Jurchen tribe, who founded their own dynasty, the Jin (1115-1234). The Song relocated to Hangzhou and though the arts continued to develop, the Southern Song, as it became known, was hampered and humiliated by hefty payments to the Jin until its demise. Genghis Khan had been busy carving out a huge chunk of Central Asia and his descendants followed suit, making incursions farther and farther into China. In 1279 Genghis's grandson, Kublai Khan, founded the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and established a new capital in Beijing. It wasn't too long before the nomadic Mongols adopted the imperial lifestyle and quickly lost the military might that had driven their success. Losses in both Japan and South East Asia contributed to their demise, but ultimately it was trouble on the home front that sealed the fate of the Yuan dynasty. By segregating the Chinese into different social classes, and giving Muslims and Tibetans favored treatment, the Yuan dynasty emperors alienated a huge portion of the populace and a number of secret societies formed with the aim of ousting the outsiders. After a series of foiled plots, eventually a full-blown revolt headed by the rebel leader, Zhu Yuanzhang, instilled the Ming dynasty in 1368.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) -- The Ming dynasty is most famous today for the distinctive pottery produced at the imperial kilns at Jingde Zhen; however, their achievements were far more wide ranging. The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, established a new capital in Nanjing (you can still see the Ming city wall there to this day) and reestablished centralized rule. His successor, Yongle, moved the imperial seat back to Beijing and began construction of the Forbidden City. Yongle also sent huge Chinese fleets to explore the world under Admiral Zheng He. In seven epic voyages, the Muslim eunuch admiral took the Chinese navy as far as West Africa, and trading routes were established to Malacca (Malaysia) and India's Malabar Coast. Records of the journeys were destroyed following an inauspicious lightning strike on the Forbidden City, and the Ming dynasty suddenly focused inward. Protection against the increasingly powerful northern tribes became a priority and significant improvements were made to the Great Wall under the Ming; most of the brick sections you'll see today (as at Badaling, Mutianyu, and Simatai) date from this period. The latter years of the dynasty saw a string of weak leaders who neglected both the country's defenses and its people. The dynasty ended in a revolt and the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, fled the Forbidden City and hung himself in Jingshan Park.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) -- The chaos at the end of the Ming dynasty presented the opportunity the increasingly powerful Manchurians had been waiting for. They were quick to capitalize, seized Beijing, and established the Qing dynasty. The early years of the new dynasty are celebrated as a golden age in Chinese history, heralded by the leadership of Kangxi (1661-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35), and Qianlong (1736-95). Kangxi crushed rebellions and expanded the empire to include Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, and parts of Central Asia, doubling its former size. Closer links with the Tibetan world also led to the construction of the Lama Temple in Beijing, while the Manchurians' yearning for the simpler outdoors life of their homeland resulted in the building of the Mountain Retreat in Chengde. The Qing dynasty was China's last age as a great imperial empire and the unified country was one of the world's wealthiest nations.

Foreign interest in the wealthy but militarily backward Middle Kingdom grew and a trickle of traders made their way to China looking for a slice of the action. In 1793 Lord Macartney, envoy to the British king, George III, and representative of the British East India Company, sought a trading agreement with the Manchurians. His refusal to bow to the Qianlong emperor when they met at Chengde was not a good start. The Qianlong emperor could see no use for foreign goods and refused the British request for an envoy in Beijing, but the East India Company wasn't about to give up and began importing Indian opium into China rather than silver. Before long a significant percentage of the Chinese population was hooked on the drug, demand rose, and the British had the trading leverage to get as much silk and tea as they wanted. This did not sit well with the Qing rulers, and they tried to ban the opium trade, but to little avail. When Lin Zexu, a southern commander, destroyed 20,000 chests of opium in south China, he was seen as a hero, but the British were incensed, and the First Opium War (1840-42) ensued. After 2 years of bombardment by the British navy, the Chinese were defeated. The humiliating Treaty of Nanjing forced indemnity payments to the British; gave them trading rights in Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai; and ceded to them the small island of Hong Kong. The Chinese hadn't given up, though, and in 1856 they made another stand, which ended with further humiliation 4 years later. This time they had to cede land to the British, French, Germans, Russians, Japanese, and Americans.

Anti-Manchu sentiment, always there, but hidden below the surface, began to reemerge. Of the spate of rebellions against the Qing, the most effective was the million-strong quasi-Christian Taiping Uprising (1850-64), which managed to capture large parts of the Chinese heartland. Thirty years later dissatisfaction with foreign influence once again boiled over, and the Boxer Rebellion (1899) began. Initially aimed at overthrowing the Qing, once the rebellion had been quashed (ironically with foreign help), the Boxers were then set loose on the streets to rid China once and for all of foreign control, and the German and Japanese ministers were both killed. The cruel, conniving, but politically inept Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) and the puppet emperor fled to Xi'an leaving imperial ministers to negotiate yet another peace settlement. Although Cixi held on to the throne until her death in 1908, the dynastic age had been proven time and again to be unable to deal with incursions by modern Western powers, and plans were afoot for a new China, without emperors. A foreign-owned railway line provoked the final rebellion against dynastic China and the last emperor, Puyi, was powerless to stop it. In 1911 the provisional Republic of China was founded in Nanjing under Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925).

Modern China

Revolution & the Battle of Ideologies -- Relief that the dynastic era had come to a close was tempered by continued foreign influence, and the direction and future of the newly formed republic was far from certain. Sun Yat-sen was the right man for the job, but, when challenged by the warlord Yuan Shikai, he stepped down rather than invite civil war. When Yuan died a few years later, Sun returned as head of the Kuomintang (KMT, National People's Party). In 1923 he nominated Chiang Kai-shek (1888-1975) as his successor, and in 1925, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the "father of modern China," died. His grand memorial stands in Nanjing, and Sun is still fondly remembered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Under Chiang the military dictatorship of the KMT allowed the privileged to prosper but ignored the needs of the masses, and little was done to rid the country of foreign interference.

Nationalism wasn't the only ideology to emerge after the collapse of dynastic China, and communism, guided by its success in the Russian Revolution, also found a foothold in the new republic. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai in 1921 and counted Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong among its numbers. Following Russian advice, the CCP and the KMT united in 1923 with the aim of defeating northern warlords who still threatened the stability of the nation. They succeeded, but the alliance did not, and in 1927 Chiang ordered the execution of many of the CCP leaders. Those who survived, including Mao, fled to the mountains of Jiangxi. KMT troops encircled their base in 1934 and it seemed as if the communists were finished. But Mao had other ideas and led 100,000 troops on a 9,656km (6,000-mile) rally, which became known as the Long March. Only 10,000 made it all the way to Yan'an in Shaanxi, but the march demonstrated Mao's determination and cemented his position as the leader of the CCP.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had granted the Japanese trading rights in China, and they had been eyeing the rest of the country ever since. With the communists and nationalists preoccupied, the Japanese seized the moment, capturing Manchuria in 1931, renaming it Manchukuo and inaugurating the last Qing emperor, Puyi, as its puppet ruler. But Manchuria was just a staging post on the way to full-scale invasion, and in 1937 the Japanese swept into northern China. In spite of another short-lived CCP-KMT alliance, by 1939 the Japanese had captured much of the east coast and the Chinese government was forced to relocate to central Chongqing. By the following year the Japanese controlled Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Guangzhou, and the CCP-KMT alliance crumbled. As many as 20 million Chinese lost their lives during the Japanese invasion and horrific atrocities were committed during the December 1937 Rape of Nanjing. The period of Japanese rule was brought to an abrupt halt by the Allied victory in World War II and control of the nation was once again up for grabs. Though the KMT enjoyed U.S. support and control of the cities, it was the communists who had captured the hearts and minds of the rural masses, which catapulted them to victory. Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of the KMT fled to Taiwan, along with much of the imperial treasure from the Forbidden City. In Taiwan Chiang founded the Republic of China (ROC), from where he planned to eventually retake the mainland.

The People's Republic of China -- On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People's Republic of China, the world's most populous communist state. The nation was in tatters, but there was hope, and the new government set about instituting land redistribution and nationalization. The Korean War (1950-53) occupied precious time and funds, but victory bolstered belief in the fledgling government. From the beginning, the party gave the impression of wanting to involve the people in the rule of the country, and Mao's 1957 slogan, "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend," was meant to encourage healthy intellectual criticism of the bureaucracy, but resulted in a torrent of direct attacks on the communist system itself. Mao responded with an anti-rightist campaign that branded intellectuals as enemies of socialism and saw half a million people persecuted, sent off to labor camps, and worse. Whether the campaign was a genuine move for freer governance or intended as a trap is still contested. Mao's next grand plan, the 1958 Great Leap Forward, aimed to increase both agricultural and industrial productivity with a goal of matching British steel output within 15 years. But the crass plan was flawed from the beginning; the peasantry had only just been granted land, and they were far from happy about collectivizing, and even when they agreed, the panic caused by over-ambitious quotas led to overplanting. The real focus was on industry, though, and farms were neglected. Crops failed 2 years running and the resulting food shortages left millions dead. At the same time, following Khrushchev's historic summit with U.S. President Eisenhower, Sino-Soviet relations faltered and the resulting withdrawal of Russian aid left the economy in ruins. Deng Xiaoping helped get the country back on track, but held fundamentally different views about the direction the country's economic development should take. Deng sought to open up the economy and encourage private enterprise. Mao's reaction was the 1966 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was designed to purge the country of "the four olds" -- old culture, customs, habits, and ideas. In Beijing Mao rallied students to form a radical militia, the Red Guards, armed them with his Little Red Book of thoughts, and set them loose on the country with instructions to destroy all evidence of the four olds. Books, buildings, and businesses were burnt and many of China's greatest treasures were lost forever; only those that were too remote, hidden, or protected under the order of Zhou Enlai survived. Over 15 million people died during the Cultural Revolution and millions more were traumatized. Families and whole communities were torn apart as quotas were established for the reporting and "reeducation" of dissidents. In spite of this, the fact that Mao had managed to instigate these measures only added to his unassailable cult status. However, the dichotomy between people's feelings about Mao and the policies he enacted left a generation who were unable to deal with the reality of what had happened.

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution Mao was little seen, and his third wife, Jiang Qing, often appeared in his place supported by her radical entourage who became known as the Gang of Four. Following the mysterious death of his closest ally, Lin Biao, Mao sought new allies and, while Hua Guofeng was groomed as his successor, the exiled Deng Xiaoping returned to office. There were also some improvements on the international front and Zhou Enlai, who had been limiting the worst excesses of Mao's policies since the beginning, helped China gain a U.N. seat in 1971, and establish trade links with the U.S. after Nixon's 1972 visit. Zhou Enlai died in 1976, and when radicals took away commemorative wreaths placed on the Heroes Monument in Beijing, this sparked a riot. The Tian'an Men Incident, as it became known, was blamed on Deng Xiaoping and once again he was deposed from office. With the sudden demise of the moderates, the radicals gained ground, but this was to be short lived. Two months after the Tangshan earthquake hit Hebei, Chairman Mao died, and the Gang of Four had lost their leader. Shortly after Mao's death the Gang of Four were arrested, but it wasn't until 1981 that they were tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison apiece. Jiang Qing killed herself and the others died in jail. The Gang of Four was ostensibly blamed for the worst extremes of the Cultural Revolution, a factor that helped to keep the Mao cult alive long after his death. Ultimately, the legacy of Mao the myth triumphed over Mao the man, and even today his image can be found adorning many a rural living room and city square.

The Reform Era -- Following Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping finally ascended and his Four Transformations (agriculture, industry, defense, and science) presented the platform for China's economic modernization. Deng's policies were based on economic liberalization in order to encourage foreign investment and internal entrepreneurship. Agricultural collectives were disbanded and farmers were free to sell any surplus on the open market. Focus shifted away from traditional heavy industry and many state-owned businesses were privatized. Special Economic Zones, such as Shenzhen, were established and quickly attracted overseas investment. These measures, combined with China's huge population and low wages, provided the springboard for China's launch onto the world trade scene and it quickly became, quite literally, the factory of the world.

Tian'an Men Square Protest (1989) -- Economic reform and social reform did not go hand in hand, though. While the 1980s outwardly presented a more liberal face as shown by the appointment of moderate Hu Yaobang as General Secretary and then Party Chairman, his forced resignation and the party's response to the 1989 Tian'an Men Square protests answered any question there may have been about how much freedom of speech the government would tolerate.

Following Hu Yaobang's death in April 1989, protests erupted in Tian'an Men Square, and in spite of the imposition of Martial Law in May, by June 1989 over a million people had gathered. The crowd was predominantly comprised of students protesting for social reform, but there were also urban workers, angry at the all-pervasive corruption and privatization that had seen many of them lose their jobs. When their demands went unanswered, a thousand plus students went on hunger strike. Fifty thousand PLA (People's Liberation Army) soldiers were sent to Beijing and on June 3rd tanks rumbled into Tian'an Men Square. On June 4th troops fired into the unarmed crowd and hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed, although it seems unlikely any reliable statistics will ever emerge. Foreign journalists who had been covering Mikhail Gorbachev's Beijing visit were witness to much of the violence and although satellite links were closed, the world was given a shocking glimpse into modern China. International condemnation and arms embargoes followed, along with protests around the globe; a candlelit vigil is still held in remembrance every June 4th in Hong Kong's Victoria Park. The protests had also highlighted a gaping divide between the moderates who sympathized with the protesters and the staunch party hardliners in favor of using force to remove them. Even now the June 4th Movement (as it is described in party jargon) is rarely talked about in China, and you should be sensitive about who you discuss it with and where.

The New Guard: Third & Fourth Generation Chinese Communism -- Jiang Zemin, the former Mayor of Shanghai, and who was in no way associated with the response to the Tian'an Men protests, moved up the party ranks to become General Secretary of the CCP. Three years later he was appointed president and he fully took the reins of power when Deng died in 1997. Jiang oversaw the 1997 British return of Hong Kong and the 1999 Portuguese return of Macau. He continued the economic liberalization started by Deng, and under Jiang the benefits of 20 years of economic reform began to be seen. While internationally everyone wanted a piece of the Chinese economic pie, relations with Western powers, particularly the U.S., were tested by continued arms embargoes and allegations of nuclear espionage. In 2001 a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and crash landed on Hainan Island, China's most southerly province. Although none of the U.S. crew was seriously injured, the Chinese pilot died. The incident came at a crucial time when the Bush administration was deciding whether or not to supply Taiwan with arms, a sensitive enough subject in itself. Tensions were further heightened following the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo Crisis. Thankfully, in the end economics prevailed and in 2002, China was eventually admitted to the World Trade Organization. Following the party conference later that year Hu Jintao, the Vice President, was appointed as President with Wen Jiabao as his prime minister, and the fourth generation of communist leadership began.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.