China - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about China: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



China, officially the People’s Republic of China (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo), country in East Asia, the world’s largest country by population and one of the largest by area, measuring about the same size as the United States. The Chinese call their country Zhongguo, which means “Central Country” or “Middle Kingdom.” The name China was given to it by foreigners and is probably based on a corruption of Qin (pronounced “chin”), a Chinese dynasty that ruled during the 3rd century BC.

China proper centers on the agricultural regions drained by three major rivers—the Huang He (Yellow River) in the north, the Yangtze (Chang Jiang) in central China, and the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) in the south. The country’s varied terrain includes vast deserts, towering mountains, high plateaus, and broad plains. Beijing, located in the north, is China’s capital and its cultural, economic, and communications center. Shanghai, located near the Yangtze, is the most populous urban center, the largest industrial and commercial city, and mainland China’s leading port.

One-fifth of the world’s population—1.3 billion people—live in China. More than 90 percent of these are ethnic Han Chinese, but China also recognizes 55 national minorities, including Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Zhuang, Miao, Yi, and many smaller groups. Even among the ethnic Han, there are regional linguistic differences. Although a common language called Putonghua is taught in schools and used by the mass media, local spoken languages are often mutually incomprehensible. However, the logographic writing system, which uses characters that represent syllables or words rather than pronunciation, makes it possible for all Chinese dialects to be written in the same way; this greatly aids communication across China.

In ancient times, China was East Asia’s dominant civilization. Other societies—notably the Japanese, Koreans, Tibetans, and Vietnamese—were strongly influenced by China, adopting features of Chinese art, food, material culture, philosophy (see Chinese Philosophy), government, technology, and written language (see Chinese Language). For many centuries, especially from the 7th through the 14th century AD, China had the world’s most advanced civilization. Inventions such as paper, printing, gunpowder, porcelain, silk, and the compass originated in China and then spread to other parts of the world.

China’s political strength became threatened when European empires expanded into East Asia. Macao, a small territory on China’s southeastern coast, came under Portuguese control in the mid-16th century, and Hong Kong, nearby, became a British dependency in the 1840s. In the 19th century, internal revolts and foreign encroachment weakened China’s last dynasty, the Qing, which was finally overthrown by Chinese Nationalists in 1911. Over the course of several decades, the country was torn apart by warlords, Japanese invasion, and a civil war between the Communists and the Nationalist regime of the Kuomintang, which established the Republic of China in 1928.

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. The Kuomintang fled to the island province of Taiwan, where it reestablished the Nationalist government. The Nationalist government controlled only Taiwan and a few outlying islands but initially retained wide international recognition as the rightful government of all of China. Today, most countries recognize the PRC on the mainland as the official government of China. However, Taiwan and mainland China remain separated by different administrations and economies. Therefore, Taiwan is treated separately in Encarta Encyclopedia. In general, statistics in this article apply only to the area under the control of the PRC.

After coming to power in 1949, the Communist government began placing agriculture and industry under state control. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the government implemented economic reforms that reversed some of the earlier policies and encouraged foreign investment. As a result of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese economy grew almost 10 percent a year from 1980 to 2005, making it one of the largest economies in the world in the early 21st century.

In 1997 Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China under an agreement that gave the region considerable autonomy. Portugal recognized Macao as Chinese territory in the late 1970s and negotiated the transfer of Macao’s administration from Portugal to China in 1999. Macao, too, was guaranteed a special degree of autonomy.


The total area of China is 9,571,300 sq km (3,695,500 sq mi) including inland waters. The country stretches across East Asia in a broad arc that has a maximum east-west extent of about 5,000 km (about 3,000 mi). From the country’s northernmost point to the southern tip of Hainan Island, the north-south extent is about 4,000 km (about 2,500 mi). China borders the East China Sea and North Korea on the east; Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan on the north; Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on the west; and India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Vietnam, and the South China Sea on the south.

China’s vast territory encompasses a great diversity of landscapes. Generally speaking, the land forms three giant steps that descend from high mountains, plateaus, and great basins in the west to a central band of lower mountains, hills, and plateaus, then to lowlands, plains, and foothills near the eastern coast. Deserts and steppes lie across the northwest and north central parts of China.

Natural Regions in China

According to a Chinese geographic classification scheme, the country may be divided into seven large natural regions: Northeast China, North China, Subtropical East Central China, Tropical South China, Inner Mongolian Grassland, Northwest China, and the Tibetan Plateau (Qing Zang Gaoyuan).

Northeast China

Forested mountains surrounding a broad fertile plain characterize Northeast China. This region encompasses Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces at the far northeastern tip of the country. On the west is the Da Hinggan Ling (Greater Khingan Range), mountains about 1,000 m (about 3,000 ft) in elevation, with peaks rising to 1,400 m (4,500 ft). The range slopes gradually to the west, but its eastern flank slopes steeply to the broad Dongbei Pingyuan (Northeast China Plain). The low mountains and hills of the Xiao Hinggan Ling (Lesser Khingan Range) rise from the plain’s northern edge and extend southeast toward the mountains of the Changbai Shan, which enclose the plain on the east.

Northeast China’s forested mountains and hills provide significant timber resources. The black soils that cover much of the central plain create some of China’s most fertile agricultural land. Mineral resources are also significant, with notable petroleum, coal, and iron reserves. The Liaodong Peninsula, extending to the south, is noteworthy for its good natural harbors. At the tip of the peninsula is Dalian, Northeast China’s principal seaport.

North China

North China lies between the Mongolian Steppe on the north and the Yangtze River Basin on the south. It stretches west from the Bo Hai gulf and the Yellow Sea to the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Administratively, North China includes Beijing and Tianjin municipalities; Shandong and Shanxi provinces; most of Hebei, Henan, and Shaanxi provinces; and portions of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and of Jiangsu, Anhui, and Gansu provinces.

Humans have lived in the agriculturally rich region of North China for thousands of years and have greatly impacted the landscape, which has been extensively terraced and cultivated. Both human impact and erosion can be seen on the Huangtu Gaoyuan (Loess Plateau) in the northwest. Formed by the accumulation of fine windblown silt known as loess, this once level plateau has become cut by vertical-walled valleys, numerous gullies, and sunken roads. East of the Huangtu Gaoyuan are northeast-trending mountain ranges with elevations of about 1,000 m (about 3,000 ft). The Great Wall lies on the northern ridges of these mountains and marks the region’s traditional northern border. South and east of the mountains lies the Huabei Pingyuan (North China Plain), the largest flat lowland area in China. To the east is the Shandong Plateau on the Shandong Peninsula, consisting of two distinct areas of mountains flanked by rolling hills. The rocky coast of the peninsula provides some good natural harbors.

Fertile soils derived from loess cover the Huabei Pingyuan, which contains almost no native vegetation, having been cleared for cultivation centuries ago. Level basins between the mountains have also been converted for agricultural purposes. However, where humans have not cleared the land for agriculture or development, forests of mostly deciduous trees can be found. Coniferous forests thrive at higher elevations, and mountaintops have shrubby alpine meadows. North China contains the country’s main coal reserves, and important petroleum deposits lie offshore in the Bo Hai gulf.

Subtropical East Central China

Subtropical East Central China is the country’s largest and most populous natural region. It encompasses about a quarter of China’s area and includes three traditional divisions: Central China, South China, and Southwest China. Subtropical China embraces the economically rich Yangtze Valley and stretches west from the Yellow Sea to the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The Qin Ling mountains mark the region’s northern border. Administratively, the region includes Shanghai and Chongqing municipalities; Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces; Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; the majority of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; the southern parts of Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan provinces; and the northern sections of Fujian, Guangdong, and Yunnan provinces.

The Yangtze Valley consists of a series of basins with fertile alluvial soils. These lowlands are crisscrossed with natural and artificial waterways, and dotted with lakes. To the west is the Sichuan Basin, a relatively isolated area of hilly terrain enclosed by several mountain ranges. The Sichuan Basin is noteworthy for its intensive terraced farming. Further west is the deeply eroded Yunnan Plateau, which is bordered by a series of mountain ranges separated by deep, steep-walled gorges. One of the world’s most scenic landscapes is found in Guizhou and Guangxi Zhuang, where the surface limestone rock has weathered into towering domes, pillar-like peaks, and other unusual shapes. To the east are the largely deforested and severely eroded Nan Ling hills. Along China’s southeastern coast are rugged highlands, where bays with numerous offshore islands provide good natural harbors. Lying south of the Nan Ling hills is the Xi Jiang Basin, a predominantly hilly area with infertile soils. However, fertile, flat-floored alluvial valleys border the numerous rivers of this region. One of the most important is the broad delta plain of the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River), which is sometimes called the Canton Delta.

Tropical South China

China’s smallest natural region is Tropical South China. It consists of a thin stretch of land southwest of the Zhu Jiang delta that extends west along the South China Sea and continues along China’s border with Southeast Asia. Tropical South China also includes Hainan Island and other nearby islands. Administratively, the region includes Hainan Province and the far southern portions of Guangdong Province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and Yunnan Province. The distinguishing features of this region are its luxuriant tropical vegetation and warm, humid climate. Mountains and hills characterize the entire region, although they are lower in the east.

Inner Mongolian Grassland

The Inner Mongolian Grassland runs along the Sino-Mongolian border, stretching east from the Helan Shan mountains of Northwest China to the Da Hinggan Ling of Northeast China. The region’s traditional southern boundary is marked by the Great Wall. Administratively, the region includes Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the majority of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and the far northern portion of Hebei Province. The Inner Mongolian Grassland includes China’s portion of the Mongolian Steppe, a grassy plain that extends from northern China well into Mongolia. Much of the region consists of desert terrain, where the land is covered with rock and sand and supports almost no vegetation. The Chinese describe this landscape as a gobi, or stony desert. The region is notable for its large coal reserves.

Northwest China

Northwest China is geographically and historically closely related to Central Asia. It features tall mountains, glaciers, deserts, broad basins, and streams with no outlet to the sea. From east to west, Northwest China extends from the Inner Mongolian Grasslands to the country’s northwestern border. The region’s southern boundary is the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Administratively, the region includes the vast majority of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and small portions of Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Northwest China includes the lofty Tian Shan mountains and three basins—the Junggar Pendi in the north, the Tarim Pendi in the south, and the smaller Turpan Pendi near the southeastern edge of the Tian Shan. Although the Junggar Pendi contains areas of sandy and stony desert, it is primarily a region of fertile steppe soils and supports irrigated agriculture. The Tarim Pendi contains the vast, sandy Takla Makan, the driest desert in Asia. Dune ridges in its interior rise to elevations of about 100 m (about 330 ft). The Turpan Pendi, the largest area in China with elevations below sea level, commands the southern entrance of a major pass through the Tian Shan.

The Tibetan Plateau

Occupying the remote southwestern portion of China is the high, mountain-rimmed Tibetan Plateau (Qing Zang Gaoyuan). Administratively, this region includes all of Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province and parts of Sichuan Province, Yunnan Province, Gansu Province, and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s highest plateau region, with an average elevation of about 4,500 m (about 14,800 ft). Bordering mountain systems include the Himalayas on the south, the Pamirs and Karakoram Range on the west, and the Qilian Shan and Kunlun Mountains on the north. On China’s border with Nepal is Mount Everest (Chomolungma), the highest peak in the world at 8,850 m (29,035 ft). The surface of the Tibetan Plateau is dotted with salt lakes and marshes. Crossed by several mountain ranges, it contains the headwaters of many major southern and eastern Asian rivers, including those of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze (Chang Jiang), and Huang He (Yellow River). The landscape is bleak, barren, and rock strewn. Along the northern margins of the Tibetan Plateau where it merges into the northwestern steppe and desert is the Qaidam Pendi, a large depression that extends from east to west. The Qaidam Pendi consists of mountains, hills, stony and sandy deserts, playas (desert basins that periodically fill with water), and salt marshes.

Rivers and Lakes in China

All the major river systems of China, including the three longest—the Yangtze, Huang He, and Xi Jiang—flow generally west to east and drain into the Pacific Ocean. In all, about 50 percent of the total land area drains to the Pacific. About 10 percent of the country’s area drains to the Indian Ocean and Arctic Ocean. The remaining 40 percent has no outlet to the sea. Instead, these areas drain to the arid basins of the west and north, where the streams evaporate or percolate to form deep underground water reserves. Principal among these rivers is the Tarim.

China’s northernmost major stream is the Amur River (Heilong Jiang), which forms most of the northeastern boundary with Russia. The Songhua (Sungari) and Liao rivers and their tributaries drain most of the Dongbei Pingyuan (Northeast China Plain) and its surrounding highlands.

The major river of North China is the Huang He (Yellow River). It rises in the marginal highlands of the Tibetan Plateau and follows a circuitous course to the Bo Hai gulf, draining an area more than twice the size of France. The Huang He is sometimes referred to as “China’s Sorrow” because throughout history it has periodically devastated large areas by flooding. The river is diked in its lower course, and silt accumulation has elevated its bed above the surrounding plain. To help control the periodic flooding, China constructed the Xiaolongdi Dam near the city of Luoyang, Henan Province.

The Yangtze River of Central China is one of the world’s greatest rivers. The longest river in Asia, it has a vast drainage basin of more than 1.8 million sq km (700,000 sq mi), about 20 percent of China’s total area. The Yangtze rises near the source of the Huang He and enters the sea at Shanghai. It is a major transportation artery. The river’s Three Gorges Dam, under construction in Hubei Province, will be the world’s largest dam when completed. As planned, this controversial project will create a reservoir approximately 650 km (approximately 400 mi) long, submerging numerous towns and archaeological sites and requiring the relocation of more than 1 million people. Proponents of the dam claim that the hydroelectric station will reduce China’s reliance on coal burning, a more polluting source of energy. Serving the major port of Guangzhou (Canton) are the estuarine lower reaches of the Xi Jiang, the most important river system of South China.

Most of China’s important lakes (hu) lie along the middle and lower Yangtze Valley. The two largest in the middle portion are Dongting Hu and Poyang Hu. In summer, when melted snow is carried downstream from the mountains, these lakes increase significantly in area and serve as natural reservoirs for excess water. Tai Hu is the largest of several lakes in the Yangtze delta, and Hongze Hu and Gaoyou Hu lie just to the north of the delta. Many saline lakes, some of considerable size, dot the Tibetan Plateau. The largest is the marshy Qinghai Hu in the less elevated northeast, but the high plateau contains several others nearly as large. In the arid northwest and in the Mongolian Steppe are a number of large lakes, most of which are also saline; principal among these are Lop Nur and Bosten Hu, east of the Tarim Pendi. Ulansuhai Nur, which is fed by the Huang He, is in Inner Mongolia; Hulun Nur lies west of the Da Hinggan Ling in Northeast China. In addition to numerous natural lakes, China has more than 2,000 reservoirs that have been constructed primarily for irrigation and flood control.

Coastline of China

China’s coastline covers approximately 14,500 km (approximately 9,010 mi) from the Bo Hai gulf on the north to the Gulf of Tonkin on the south. Most of the northern half is low lying, although some of the mountains and hills of Northeast China and the Shandong Peninsula extend to the coast. The southern half is more irregular. In Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, for example, much of the coast is rocky and steep. South of this area the coast becomes less rugged: Low mountains and hills extend more gradually to the coast, and small river deltas are common.

Plant Life in China

As a result of the wide range of climates and topography, China is rich in plant species. However, much of the original vegetation in densely populated eastern China has been removed during centuries of settlement and intensive cultivation. Natural forests are generally preserved only in the more remote mountainous areas.

Tropical South China’s dense rain forests contain broadleaf evergreens, some more than 50 m (160 ft) tall, intermixed with palms. Subtropical East Central China is especially rich in plant species: Oak, ginkgo, bamboo, pine, azalea, camellia, laurel, and magnolia all grow here. Forests often have dense undergrowth of smaller shrubs and bamboo thickets. Conifers and mountain grasses dominate at higher elevations.

The area north of the subtropical Yangtze Valley was once an extensive broadleaf deciduous forest, similar to that of the eastern United States. The principal species remaining are varieties of oak, ash, elm, and maple. China’s most important timber reserves are in the mountains of Northeast China, where there are extensive tracts of coniferous forest dominated by larch. The Dongbei Pingyuan, now under cultivation, was once covered by forest steppe vegetation—grasses interspersed with trees.

In the eastern portion of the Mongolian Steppe, drought-resistant grasses grow, although overgrazing and soil erosion have depleted much of the region’s vegetation. Arid Northwest China is characterized by clumps of herbaceous plants and grasses separated by extensive barren areas; salt-tolerant species dominate here. The Tibetan Plateau, especially at lower elevations with greater humidity, contains tundra vegetation, consisting of grasses and flowers. In more-favored locations throughout the arid regions, larger shrubs and even trees may grow, and many mountain areas contain spruce and fir forests.

Animal Life in China

The diverse habitats in China support a wide range of fauna, from arctic species in Northeast China and Tibet to many tropical species in southern China. Some species that have become extinct elsewhere still survive in China. Among these are great paddlefishes of the Yangtze River, species of alligator and salamander, giant pandas (found only in southwestern China), and Chinese water deer (found only in China and Korea).

Tropical South China has large populations of several types of primates, including gibbons and macaques. Antelope, chamois, wild horses, deer, and other hoofed animals inhabit the uplands and basins of the west and northwest.

Small carnivores are numerous throughout the country. These include foxes, wolves, raccoon dogs, and civets. China also has several species of large carnivores, including bears, tigers, and leopards, but they are few in numbers and confined to remote areas. Leopard species are distributed at the peripheries of the heavily populated areas: Leopards are found in Northeast China, snow leopards in Tibet, and clouded leopards in the extreme south. The many species of birds include pheasants, peacocks, parrots, herons, and cranes. Many wild species are under increasing threat due to the growing human population and the loss of native habitat.

Over the centuries humans have domesticated several types of beasts of burden that are adapted to the varied conditions. Water buffalo are important draft animals in the tropical and subtropical south; camels are used in the arid north and west; horses are important on the Mongolian Steppe; and mules are common in North China. On the frigid Tibetan Plateau, domesticated yaks are important as draft animals and for their milk, fur, and meat.

Marine life is abundant, especially along the southeastern coast, and includes flounder, cod, tuna, cuttlefish, sea crabs, prawns, and dolphins. The rivers of China contain carp, salmon, trout, sturgeon, catfish, and the Chinese river dolphin.

Natural Resources of China

China has a great variety of mineral resources, some deposits of considerable size. Along with substantial land and water assets, these deposits give the country a generous natural resource base for industrialization and economic development. As China’s population and economy grow, and as industrialization and modernization proceed rapidly, demand for natural resources will increase. Per capita consumption of minerals, energy, food, and fiber is rising at a faster rate than overall economic growth. This pressure on available resources will likely accelerate the push to discover new resources and improve the efficiency of use of existing supplies.

Mineral Resources in China

Mineral deposits are distributed widely throughout the country. The principal mining regions are in Northeast China, especially on the Liaodong Peninsula and in the uplands of South China.

Among metallic mineral ores, iron-ore reserves are estimated to be more than 40 billion metric tons. The largest deposits—mainly in Northeast China, northern Hebei Province, and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region—are mostly of low quality. Some high-grade deposits of hematite (an important iron ore) occur in Liaoning and Hubei provinces. Extensive deposits have also been discovered on Hainan Island. Large reserves of aluminum ores occur mainly in Liaoning and Shandong provinces. Tin reserves are found primarily in Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; China produces a significant portion of the world’s output of refined tin. China holds the world’s largest reserves of antimony, magnesite, and tungsten. Antimony is found mainly in Hunan Province, magnesite in the Liaodong Peninsula, and tungsten in the highlands north of the Xi Jiang (West River).

China holds abundant reserves of molybdenum, mercury, and manganese. There are also substantial reserves of lead, zinc, and copper. Uranium has been discovered in several areas, principally in Northeast and Northwest China. Other resources occurring in considerable quantities are fluorite, mica, phosphate rock, quartz, salt, silica, and talc.

China is well endowed with energy resources. Its estimated coal reserves rank among the world’s largest. Most coal is in Northeast China and adjacent areas of North China. Major oil deposits are located in Northeast China; in Hebei, Shandong, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces; and in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Oil-shale deposits are located primarily in Liaoning and Guangdong provinces. China also has substantial proven reserves of natural gas, often found in association with oil.

Land and Water Resources in China

Compared to most countries, China has extensive land and water resources because it covers such a vast area. However, much of the country is unproductive. According to government statistics, only 15 percent of the country’s total area is arable, or suitable for cultivation, although unofficial estimates suggest that this percentage is too low. Slope land and other farmland may escape official counting because local farmers may underreport the size of their leased land. Farmers must meet government quotas for food grain based on the size of their leased land, so those who underreport their land size would deliver a smaller percentage of their harvest to the government. Such activity is illegal, however, and the extent to which it is practiced is unknown.

Over centuries China’s large population has placed tremendous pressure on forest resources. The Huabei Pingyuan (North China Plain), for example, once contained large deciduous forests, but most of the plain was cleared for agriculture long ago. Local forests have long served as a source for firewood in rural areas and for lumber and other wood products used in construction and furniture making. More recently, an increased demand for paper has also pressured forestland. The limited amount of forestland in China has serious consequences. Without sufficient forest coverage, soil is more easily saturated by precipitation and runoff from melting snow. The saturation causes accelerated soil erosion and flooding, which in turn increases the amount of sediment that accumulates in deltas and reservoirs. However, China has an aggressive tree planting program, and in recent years the amount of forestland has actually increased.

China’s water resources are enormous, especially in central, southern, and southeastern China, but the pressure on these resources is also great. Crop irrigation and the demand for water in urban areas reduce the supply. The tapping of groundwater has lowered water tables and led to an invasion of salt in groundwater near coastal areas. In recent years, so much water has been taken from the Huang He (Yellow River) for irrigation that at times the river runs dry near its mouth. Some major dam projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam, may have unforeseen environmental consequences and are controversial within the country.

Climate in China

China is similar to the United States in terms of the range of weather conditions. China’s climates, however, tend to be more extreme, and regional contrasts are generally greater. In addition, southeastern coastal China and the island of Hainan extend into the tropics and have considerable precipitation associated with the summer monsoon (prevailing winds).

The Asian monsoon exerts the primary control on China’s climate. In winter, cold, dry winds blow clockwise east and south from the high-pressure system of central Siberia, bringing cold, dry conditions to much of North and Central China north of the Yangtze River. In summer, warm, moist air blows inland from the Pacific Ocean. Typhoons are common between July and November, bringing high winds and heavy rains to the coastal areas. Amounts of precipitation decline rapidly with distance from the sea and on leeward sides of mountains. The remote basins of Northwest China receive little precipitation.

A subtropical climate prevails in most of Central, South, and Southwest China. Summer temperatures in this region average 26°C (79°F); the average winter temperature is 4°C (39°F). The extreme south and southwest have tropical climates, with average July temperatures of 28°C (82°F) and average January temperatures of 17°C (63°F). The mountainous plateaus and basins in the southwest also have subtropical climates, with considerable local variation. The higher elevations cause the summers to be cooler, and winters are mild because the mountains protect the plateaus and basins from northerly winds. The Sichuan Basin, which has an 11-month growing season, is noted for high humidity and cloudiness. Rainfall, especially abundant in summer, exceeds 990 mm (39 in) annually in nearly all parts of southern China.

North China experiences a cold, dry winter and a warm, rainy summer. At Beijing, the average January temperature is -5°C (23°F) and the average July temperature is 26°C (79°F). Annual precipitation totals are less than 760 mm (30 in) and decrease to the northwest, which has a drier climate. Year-to-year variability of precipitation in these areas is great; this factor, combined with occasional dust storms and hailstorms, can negatively impact agricultural yields.

The climate of Northeast China is similar to, but colder than, that of North China. January temperatures average -20°C (-4°F) at Harbin, while July temperatures average 23°C (73°F). Rainfall, concentrated in summer, averages between about 510 and 760 mm (about 20 and 30 in) in the east but declines to about 300 mm (about 12 in) west of the Da Hinggan Ling.

Desert and steppe climates prevail in the Mongolian Steppe and Northwest China. January temperatures average below -10°C (14°F) everywhere except in the Tarim Pendi. July temperatures generally exceed 20°C (68°F). Most of the area receives less than 100 mm (4 in) of precipitation.

The Tibetan Plateau has an arctic or near-arctic climate because of its high elevation: At Lhasa, July temperatures average 15°C (59°F), and January temperatures average -2°C (28°F). The air is clear and dry throughout the year, with annual precipitation totals of less than 100 mm (4 in) everywhere except in the extreme southeast.

Environmental Issues in China

Environmental degradation is a concern throughout China. Feeding and housing the country’s huge population, which grows by millions of people each year, strain already limited land and water resources. Economic growth also fuels increased demand for those resources.

Among the country’s most serious environmental challenges is the decline of arable farmland. As the population and economy have grown, the demand for new houses, commercial buildings, transportation arteries, factories, and other land uses associated with modernization has caused rapid urban growth. Typically, cities are located in the middle of the best farmland, which is being consumed by urban growth. Population and economic growth also have reduced the habitat for China’s wild animals and native flora. Even areas that were previously inaccessible and remote are now threatened.

Water quality, pollution, and access are also serious environmental issues. In the north and northwest most farmland is irrigated, and in the south, rice farming requires perennial irrigation. As streams become increasingly polluted with pesticides, herbicides, raw sewage, and industrial and urban effluent, the use of irrigation waters becomes ever more problematic. Urban water supplies can be treated to remove solid materials and to kill germs, but other toxic materials may become health threats.

Air pollution is also an increasingly serious problem. Coal supplies about three-quarters of China’s electricity, but the process of burning coal produces carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and other environmentally harmful emissions. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that collects in Earth’s atmosphere and traps heat. Sulfur dioxide mixes with moisture in the atmosphere and forms acid rain, which eventually falls to Earth, damaging crops, forests, and streams.

China is installing pollution control devices in some of the largest power and industrial plants. Investing in cleaning up energy supplies and production processes makes economic sense, because the improvements will permit China to consume energy much more efficiently. A decline in China’s huge population would also help reduce China’s pollution problems because there would be less demand for food, energy, and housing. Government policies, particularly those since the late 1970s, have promoted smaller families, and the population growth rate has declined, but the total population will continue to grow for at least the next generation.


About 20 percent of the world’s population lives in China. Of the country’s inhabitants, more than 90 percent are ethnic Han Chinese. The Han are descendants of people who settled the plains and plateaus of northern and central China more than 5,000 years ago, and of people in southern China who were absorbed by the northerners more than 2,000 years ago and gradually adopted a shared culture with them. The remainder of China’s population consists of minority nationalities, such as Tibetans and Mongols. Most of the minority nationalities are concentrated in the sparsely settled areas of western and southwestern China.

Population Characteristics of China

After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, the government took a census to assess the human resources available for the first five-year plan, the state’s comprehensive economic and social development plan. The census, compiled in 1953, counted a population of 582,600,000. A second census, taken in 1964, showed an increase to 694,580,000. The third census, in 1982, revealed a population of 1,008,180,000, making China the first nation with a population of more than 1 billion. By 2009 China’s estimated population was 1,338,613,000.

While China’s population continues to grow, the growth rate has slowed in step with declining fertility and birth rates. The fertility rate (the average number of children born to each woman during her lifetime) declined from 6.2 in the early 1950s to 1.8 in 2009. The birth rate declined from about 45 births per 1,000 people in 1953 to an estimated 14 in 2009, and the death rate dropped from 22 per 1,000 people to an estimated 7. As a result, the annual growth rate declined from about 2.25 percent in 1953 to 0.66 percent in 2009. Nevertheless, even at that rate China’s population still grows by millions of people each year. The most serious challenge created by such a large annual population increase is finding employment for the millions of young people who enter the workforce each year. Although China’s economy has grown rapidly, especially since the early 1990s, it has not been able to provide enough good opportunities for all new workers, many of whom have only minimal education and skills.

The One-Child Policy

The decrease in fertility rate recorded from the 1950s on resulted largely from government efforts. These efforts included promoting late marriages and, after 1979, inducing Chinese couples to have only one child. This one-child policy actually allows for two or more children under some circumstances. In addition to implementing the one-child policy, the state has expanded the number of public health facilities that provide birth-control information and contraceptive devices at little or no cost. Abortion is legal, and pregnant women who already have one or more children face social and administrative pressures to terminate their pregnancies. However, women who belong to one of China’s national minorities may not face the same level of pressure. In general, government policies allow non-Han peoples more cultural independence and permit them to have larger families. This is due to historical trends of high mortality among minorities, Marxist ideology, and the government’s political interest in appearing friendly and sensitive to the needs of China’s ethnic minority peoples.

A consequence of the one-child program has been a higher than normal ratio of males to females. Some families use new methods to identify the sex of unborn fetuses and abort female fetuses in order to ensure the birth of a male. In addition, reports of female infanticide in China have been numerous. The reasons for the preference for boys are complex but lie partly in established cultural traditions. Sons carry on the family name and are responsible for performing ritual obligations of ancestor worship. Perhaps more important, however, sons are expected to care for their parents in old age. Typically, daughters care for their husband’s parents rather than for their own. This care is of concern particularly in rural areas, where the majority of Chinese still live, because the state supplies few, if any, pension benefits in these areas. Consequently, parents who have only one child prefer to have a son to ensure a more comfortable retirement.

Population Density

There are extreme differences in population densities in different parts of China. The vast majority of people live in the country’s historic heartland—the plateaus, plains, and basins of eastern China. The region’s alluvial floodplains, which have fertile soils and extensive water resources, have always been the most productive food-producing areas. This productivity is reflected in high population densities. In urban areas of eastern China, population densities can exceed more than 2,200 persons per sq km (5,800 per sq mi). By contrast, western China has high mountains and harsh weather conditions. This region is sparsely settled, and large areas have a population density of less than 10 persons per sq km (26 per sq mi).


In the 1950s and 1960s China sought to alleviate the increasing population pressure in the east by encouraging Han people to migrate westward. The government also hoped the migration would help secure the sensitive frontier areas of the west and northwest. These areas lay far from the center of government, and the people who lived there had fewer cultural and historic ties to Beijing. However, Han migration to western China slowed by the end of the 20th century. Most of the population growth there has resulted from a comparatively higher birth rate and declining death rate among non-Han peoples.

The Chinese government has also sought to control rural-to-urban migration because of insufficient jobs in cities for additional workers. To control the movement of all Chinese citizens, the government instituted a household registration (hukou) system in the late 1950s. Similar to an internal passport system, it allowed no one to move without police permission. Such permission typically was granted only to individuals who had obtained a job in a state-supported enterprise. Most rural people were denied the right to move off their farm or out of their village, even to a neighboring town.

During the political upheavals of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the government sent urban youth to rural areas to live and work among the peasants. This program attempted to lessen the perceived differences in income and material well-being between city and countryside. The government was also motivated by its inability to provide sufficient food for the populations of China’s growing cities. Forced migration to the countryside decreased after the death of Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1976. Economic reforms adopted in 1978 virtually eliminated the practice. However, the government still controls migration from rural areas to urban areas through the household registration system.

Beginning in the late 1970s the government permitted limited and temporary migration to the cities. This move came about in part because a booming economy had created the need for unskilled workers in construction and low-level service jobs. As a result of this migration, China’s cities now have two classes of urban citizens. One class works in state-supported enterprises and receives housing, schooling for children, health care, and other subsidies. The other class consists of those who have migrated to cities as transients to work in construction, manufacturing, domestic service, or other low-wage positions. Many temporary migrants do not have proper housing, sanitary facilities, or access to medical care or educational opportunities for their children. Despite these deprivations and difficulties, peasants continue to migrate to cities because they perceive the opportunities for employment and the quality of life to be better. Even so, China’s population remained predominantly rural during the 2000s, when about three-fifths of the total population lived in the countryside.

Principal Cities of China

China’s cities have a long and important tradition as centers of ceremonial and administrative power. Over the centuries they have evolved into multifunctional commercial and trade centers, and more recently into industrial centers. China has more than 60 cities in which the population of the contiguous built-up urban area exceeds 1 million. (Administratively, many cities also include substantial agricultural land.) China’s major cities include Shanghai, the country’s largest urban area and a major port; Beijing, the capital and cultural center of China; Hong Kong, an island metropolis administered by Britain until 1997; Tianjin, a port city lying at the juncture of the Hai River and the Grand Canal; Shenyang, a center of heavy industry in northeastern China; Wuhan, a port city situated at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers; Guangzhou, a port city on the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River); and Chongqing, a major inland port on the Yangtze River. While all large Chinese cities have significant industrial bases, these cities especially have expanded their service and support economies in recent years.

Ethnic Groups in China

China’s population comprises many different ethnic groups and nationalities, although about 92 percent of the population are ethnic Han. The name Han derives from the citizens of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), a period of great unity in China. During the Han dynasty the people of the north, central, and southern plains and basins of eastern China came to see themselves as part of the same group. They shared a common written language, similar values derived from the ideas of Confucius and other classical writers, and a settled agricultural system based on growing grains, such as wheat, rice, and millet. The Han distinguished themselves from other peoples on the region’s periphery whom they considered barbarians, especially the nomads and herding peoples who inhabited the high, dry, colder regions to the north, west, and southwest. Among the most significant of these groups were the Mongols to the north and northwest, the Manchus to the northeast, various Muslim Turkic peoples in the far west, and the Tibetans to the west and southwest. Also in the southwest were large groups of people, such as the Zhuang, who were closely related to either the mountain or plains people of Southeast Asia.

Historically, the Chinese sought to expand their territory through the agricultural colonization of adjacent territory. This strategy involved sending military units and farming families to settle an area. Areas so occupied were eventually integrated into the Chinese state. Local non-Han peoples either adopted the culture and language of the Han, were pushed into marginal areas unsuited for sedentary farming, or were otherwise eliminated. This worked effectively for the Han in areas that were suitable for intensive farming, but it was less effective in the high, dry, cold interior. This interior region, comprising about 60 percent of China’s present land area, remained largely unsettled by the Han until the mid-20th century. Over the centuries some ethnic groups acculturated and integrated into Han society more easily than others. Some, such as the Vietnamese and the Koreans, resisted acculturation. These groups established and maintained their own separate national identities and territories, although they maintained close cultural and other links to the Han.

China’s Communist government has encouraged ethnic Han to settle in the minority-occupied frontier areas. In addition, Han administrators have been sent into all ethnic minority areas to provide leadership and to secure management of the nation’s territory. As part of this policy, the Chinese government has seized territory from the traditional homelands of minority groups and reassigned it administratively to a neighboring Chinese province. Ethnic Tibetans, for example, live mainly in the Tibet Autonomous Region but also in Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces. China’s policies have provided some benefits for the minority groups, including better medicine and nutrition and improved economic development.

Since 1949 China has identified 55 ethnic nationalities, which range in size from several thousand to several million members. Among the larger nationalities are the Zhuang, Hui, Uygur, Mongols, and Tibetans. Taken together, China’s minority peoples account for about 8 percent of the country’s total population. The minorities are growing more rapidly than the Han because they generally have higher birth rates. In addition, some peoples formerly counted among the Han have since been recognized as unique minority groups.

The identification of a minority nationality is based partly on the historical distinction between Han and non-Han. Factors considered include a group’s traditional location in the outlying territories, a different language, unique religious practices, or a distinctive way of life, such as being herders rather than sedentary farmers. Some groups’ physical appearance is very similar to or even indistinguishable from the Han, but they have other special distinctions. For example, Hui people are essentially Han Chinese in all aspects except that they practice Islam.

The Han Chinese have long had familiar but sometimes troubled relations with neighboring ethnic peoples, especially with those under Han administrative and territorial control. Most foreign governments and international organizations understand the security concerns in China’s sensitive frontier regions, where many of these peoples are found. However, China often is condemned for its heavy-handed and sometimes brutal treatment of minority nationalities. Perhaps the best-known occurrence of China’s controversial approach to dealing with minority nationalities is the Chinese military occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. This occupation was followed by an uprising of Tibetans, which the military suppressed. The events in Tibet forced the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee China in 1959, and he has remained in exile ever since. As a result of the widely published events in Tibet, and particularly the Dalai Lama’s plight, China faced wide international condemnation. The 20th century also saw sporadic outbursts of violence and uprisings among the Uygur peoples of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, many of whom have strongly resented the control imposed on them by Han military and civil officials. Many Uygurs practice traditional oasis agriculture in the Tarim Basin and have not benefited from the industrialization and rapid economic growth that has come with Han settlement of Xinjiang. As China’s economy continues to grow and the country continues to emerge as a global power, it may come under greater pressure to provide fair and equitable treatment to minority nationalities and to allow them a larger measure of autonomy and cultural protection.

Languages spoken in China

More than 90 percent of China’s inhabitants speak Chinese, the language of the Han people, as their native language. Spoken Chinese consists of many regional variants, often called dialects. The Chinese dialects are tonal in nature, meaning that words are assigned a distinctive relative pitch—high or low—or a distinctive pitch contour—level, rising, or falling. Because the regional dialects have different tones and syntax, they are generally mutually unintelligible.

Most Chinese speak one of the Mandarin dialects. Putonghua (“standard speech”), the standard form of Mandarin spoken in Beijing, is China’s official spoken language. Putonghua, spoken mainly in northern and central China, is sometimes known to Westerners as Mandarin. In addition to the Mandarin dialects, there are six other Chinese dialect groups, spoken mainly in southern and southeastern China. They include the Wu dialects, spoken in the Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang area; the Yue dialects (also known as Cantonese), spoken in Hong Kong and Guangzhou; and the Kejia (Hakka) dialects, spoken in southern Fujian and also in Taiwan and by many people of Chinese descent around the world. This linguistic fragmentation, particularly in southeastern China, has provided the basis for strong regional identity and some ethnic variation within the larger Han community.

Although the Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible in their spoken forms, they share a common written form. The Chinese written language has existed for more than 3,000 years and has been standardized for more than 2,000 years. It has served as an important social cement, tying together the peoples of northern, central, and southern China. It also has provided an essential element of culture shared by the Han people.

One of the most ambitious efforts of the Chinese Communist government since 1949 has been the modification of the Chinese language. As a means of standardizing the language used by the Han, in 1956 the government declared the dialect of Putonghua the country’s common spoken language. The government also has made efforts to modify the written language. The use of simplified characters—traditional characters written with fewer strokes, or in a type of shorthand—has increased steadily. This simplification is designed to facilitate the government’s goal of increasing literacy. In 1977 the Chinese made a formal request to the United Nations (UN) to have the pinyin (phonetic spelling) method of romanization used to transliterate Chinese place names. The pinyin method was created by the Chinese in the late 1950s and has been steadily modified.

China’s minority people have their own spoken languages, which include Mongolian, Tibetan, Miao (Hmong), Yi, Uygur, and Kazakh. Formerly, many of the minority languages did not have a written form. However, the government has encouraged the development of written scripts for these languages, using pinyin. China’s minority groups are encouraged to maintain traditions that promote knowledge of their ethnolinguistic heritage. Although Putonghua is taught in schools throughout China, it is sometimes taught as a second language. See also Chinese Language.

Religion in China

The traditional religions of China were Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. People often practiced and adhered to traditions of all three religions as well as incorporating a variety of local beliefs into their religious practice. Islam and Christianity were among the more formal and organized religions practiced in China, but these faiths had fewer followers.

After gaining control in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party officially eliminated organized religion. The CCP’s move received little resistance because Confucianism is largely secular and because most Chinese adhered to aspects of all three major faiths; thus they lacked strong allegiance to any single religion. Most temples, churches, and schools of Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity were converted to secular purposes. Only with the constitution of 1978 was official support again given for the promulgation of formal religion in China. The constitution also stated that the Chinese people had the right to hold no religious beliefs and “to propagate atheism.” The constitution of 1982, the most recent constitution, allows citizens freedom of religious belief and protects legitimate religious activities as defined by the state.

Since 1982 many temples, churches, and mosques in China have reopened. Also, officially sanctioned Christian groups in the cities and Buddhist sects in the cities and the countryside have become more active. An underground Christian movement has also emerged. However, as these Christian groups lie outside the official sanction of legitimate religious activities, they are seen as illegal and thus have been prosecuted by the government. Practicing Christians in China include Roman Catholics and members of various Protestant groups.

Even before the constitutional changes, ethnic Chinese Muslims, or Hui, as well as other Muslim minority peoples such as the Uygur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz, continued their faith in Islam. Although Muslims now may practice their religion more openly, the government is suspicious of their religious activities because Islam is associated with ethnic minorities who have resisted Han control, such as the Uygurs of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In Tibet, the Chinese government has restricted the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, for instance by limiting the number of clergy and religious buildings in the region.

In the early 1990s a man named Hongzhi Li organized a quasi-religious movement called Falun Gong. Falun Gong is based on concepts from traditional Chinese breathing and exercise therapy combined with ideas from Daoism and Buddhism. The movement, which has been remarkably popular in China, disclaims any political goals. It sees itself as simply a loosely organized group of individuals interested in promoting good health and individual powers through exercise and exemplary personal habits. In April 1999 more than 10,000 of Falun Gong’s members gathered in Beijing. The gathering so alarmed China’s Communist Party leadership that the movement was outlawed. Since then, members of Falun Gong have been arrested and prosecuted.

Education in China

Education has played a major role in China’s long and rich cultural tradition. Throughout much of the imperial period (221 BC-AD 1911), only educated people held positions of social and political leadership. In 124 BC the first state academy was established for training prospective bureaucrats in Confucian learning and the Chinese classics. Historically, however, relatively few Chinese have been able to take the time to learn the complex Chinese writing system and its associated literature. It is estimated that as late as 1949 only 20 percent of China’s population was literate. To the Chinese Communists, this widespread illiteracy was a stumbling block in the promotion of their political programs. Therefore, the Communists combined political propaganda with educational development. By 2007 China’s literacy rate had reached 93 percent, although literacy levels between the sexes were different. The literacy rate for males was 96 percent, whereas the rate among females was only 90 percent. Literacy in China is defined as the ability to read without difficulty.

One ambitious CCP program has been the establishment of universal public education for such a large population. From 1949 to 1951, more than 60 million peasants enrolled in winter schools, or sessions, which were established to take advantage of the slack season for agricultural workers. Communist leader Mao Zedong declared that a primary goal of Chinese education was to reduce the sense of class distinction among the population. This was to be accomplished by reducing the social gaps between the manual and mental laborer; between the city and countryside resident; and between the worker in the factory and the peasant on the land.

The most radical developments in Chinese education, however, took place from 1966 to 1978, during the Cultural Revolution and the years that followed. From 1966 to 1969 the government closed virtually all schools and universities in China. Many of the 131 million youths who had been enrolled in primary and secondary school became involved in Mao’s chaotic efforts to shake up China’s new elite. These efforts involved using students as youthful critics to attack governmental programs and policies. Primary and secondary schools began to reopen in 1968 and 1969, but institutions of higher education did not reopen until the period from 1970 to 1972.

During the Cultural Revolution, government policies toward education changed dramatically. The traditional 13 years of primary and secondary schooling, spanning from kindergarten to 12th grade, were reduced to 9 or 10 years. Colleges that had traditionally had a 4- or 5-year curriculum adopted a 3-year program. Part of these 3 years had to be spent in productive labor in support of the school or the course of study being pursued. A 2-year period of manual labor also became mandatory for most secondary-school graduates who wished to attend college.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the government began a major review of these policies. As a result, and because of an increased interest in the development of science in Chinese education, curricula came to resemble those of the pre-Cultural Revolution years. Programs for primary and secondary education were gradually readjusted to encompass 12 years of study (although only 9 years were made compulsory). High school graduates were no longer required to go to the countryside for 2 years of labor before competing for college positions. The Cultural Revolution thus resulted in a decade of disruption in China’s educational programs. During this period nearly an entire generation of students simply was not educated or received only a marginal education heavily flavored with the radical politics of the Maoist era.

Since the late 1970s the educational system has changed significantly with the reinstitution of standardized college-entrance examinations. These exams were a regular part of the mechanism for upward mobility in China before the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, radical leaders eliminated the entrance exams by arguing that they favored an elite who had an intellectual tradition in their families. When colleges reopened between 1970 and 1972, many candidates were granted admission because of their political leanings, party activities, and peer-group support. This method of selection ceased in 1977 as the Chinese launched a new campaign for the so-called Four Modernizations. The stated goals for this campaign, which sought to rapidly modernize agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology, required high levels of training. Such educational programs by necessity had to be based more on theoretical and formal skills than on political attitudes and the spirit of revolution. However, after students agitated for greater democracy in the 1970s and 1980s, which culminated in the government’s violent crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, university students were again required to complete one year of political education before entering college (see Tiananmen Square Protest).

Chinese higher education is now characterized by the key-point system. Under this system, the most promising students are placed in selected key-point schools, which specialize in training an academic elite. Students finishing secondary school may also attend junior colleges and a variety of technical and vocational schools. Among the most prominent comprehensive universities in China are Peking University (founded in 1898) and Tsinghua University (1911), in Beijing; Fudan University (1905), in Shanghai; Nanjing University (1902); Nankai University (1919), in Tianjin; Wuhan University (1893); Northwest University (1912), in Xi’an; and Sun Yat-Sen University (1924), in Guangzhou. Prestigious science and technical universities include the Beijing Institute of Technology (1940), Tongji University (1907) in Shanghai, and the University of Science and Technology of China (1958) in Hefei.

In the past, students received free university education but upon graduation were required to accept jobs in state-owned industries. The government instituted a pilot program in 1994 whereby the state allowed university students the option of paying their own tuition in exchange for the freedom to find their own jobs after graduation. This enabled graduates who paid their way to choose better paying jobs with foreign companies in China, or to demand better pay from state-owned enterprises. By the late 1990s, all incoming university students were required to pay their own tuition, although government loans were available.

Certain fields of study have grown in popularity in Chinese higher education. While engineering and science remain very popular, other fields, including medicine, economics, literature, and law, have grown considerably in recent years. Another trend has been the rapid increase in the number of advanced students who study abroad, mainly in North America, Europe, and Japan.

Social Structure of China

China’s traditional class and social structure traces back more than 3,000 years to the Shang (1570?-1045? BC) and Zhou (1045?-256 BC) dynasties. During this period a ruling class emerged from a combination of priests, military leaders, and administrators. By the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, the legitimacy of the ruling elite was embedded in the writings of Confucius and other scholars.

Confucian doctrine sought to develop a framework for a stable and harmonious society. In this framework, mutual responsibilities and obligations were defined between ruler and subjects, husband and wife, parents and children, father and eldest son, and eldest son and other siblings. If the roles were carried out properly, society would function in a well-ordered manner. China was defined as a male-centered society in which the family name passed down through the male line. The eldest son was charged with performing important annual rituals that involved reverence for deceased ancestors and parents. Veneration for ancestors was an important part of Chinese family life, and every Chinese home had, and typically still has, a small shrine for ancestors.

Beyond family life, Chinese social order traditionally was defined in terms of a few main social groupings. The emperor and his attendants were at the top of the social order. Below him was the imperial bureaucracy, staffed at all levels—court, province, prefecture, and county—with elite scholar officials. Through these officials, backed by the army and other imperial policing authorities, the imperial government administered the state and imposed its authority and control when challenged. Farmers, soldiers, merchants, and artisans were below the bureaucrats. This general social order persisted until the imperial system was overthrown in 1911, although over time the position of merchants had improved. By the 20th century, a number of families with commercial and industrial interests had amassed great fortunes. Their wealth permitted them the luxury of educating their children, and through this means, their families’ status advanced in the traditional hierarchy.

When the Chinese Communists gained power in 1949, the social hierarchy changed dramatically. Poor peasant farmers and people who had joined the Communist army during the revolution were held in esteem within the party, which exercised great influence over society. Landlords and educated elites often were punished, and many lost their land and other properties. In rural areas there were many executions and other punishments for landlord families.

A peasant background continues to be important for advancement within the party hierarchy. However, the value of education as a means of developing skills and strong qualifications has emerged once again as the best path to social advancement. Since the 1970s individuals from elite backgrounds have been allowed to compete for educational advancement as China has sought to use more fully its human resources. In some cases, former factory owners have been allowed to reestablish their businesses, and in this manner China has allowed a small measure of rehabilitation of its elite governing classes from the past. But China remains a Communist state and political system, and as long as it continues as such, elites are likely to be viewed with suspicion by other members of society.

Way of Life in China

Communism has brought about far-reaching changes in China, as the way of life of China’s people has incorporated and adjusted to shifting ideological currents. Traditionally, the average Chinese citizen, especially the more than 90 percent of the population who resided in rural areas, had little or nothing to do with the central or local government. Most people’s lives were centered on their home village or town, and the family was the main unit of social activity and economic production. The Communist revolution injected the Communist Party into every level of urban and rural life and every institution of society. Thus for the average Chinese citizen, whether urban or rural dweller, Communism has brought a far more intrusive role of government in daily life and in the operation of all significant facets of the economy and society.

However, in the years following the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, China’s leaders gradually modified the strict policies of socialist guidance of the economy, and the role of the party in everyday life began to diminish. This shift reflected an increasing understanding among party leaders that the socialist approach was not succeeding. They recognized that it had not provided a better life for the Chinese people and was stifling economic growth. The shift has been particularly evident in the countryside. Reforms in the rural economy have led to a virtual privatization of rural land, with peasants acquiring long-term leases that amount virtually to private ownership. Many peasants are now responsible for earning their own livelihoods and supporting their families. The state’s role in their daily lives has clearly diminished, although it has not disappeared.

Despite the far-reaching changes in rural areas, country life remains attuned to the seasons and focused on nearby towns and cities for commerce and entertainment. In the rural areas surrounding large urban areas, the pace of life has intensified as farmers have geared their agricultural production to the growing demands of urban consumers. Moreover, much of China’s urban industrial development has flowed to the adjacent rural areas. In these areas land is readily available at lower prices, and the rules concerning release of noxious fumes, liquids, and solids are looser and often not enforced. The inhabitants of these rural areas peripheral to cities have greater opportunities for employment off the farms, often in industrial or service jobs that are not even related to the farm economy. Residents of these areas have been increasingly drawn into a quasi-urban lifestyle, with all of its attendant pleasures and challenges.

Traditional rural family life has been changed by the dynamism of the nearby cities and their evolving economies. New employment opportunities often attract the male head of household, who may later be followed by other members of the farm family. Such employment offers new opportunities but also new challenges. Uncertainty about the long-term prospects for employment off the farm often makes farmers reluctant to let go of their land and farms. When peasants leave the farm under such circumstances, they often leave the farming to those at home who have little interest and enthusiasm for the work, which may be viewed as difficult and tiresome. Under these conditions, the quality of the farm may decline, and the productivity of both land and people may begin to diminish. Nevertheless, the off-farm jobs enhance prospects for social as well as economic change. The new jobs bring rural Chinese into contact with urban dwellers who have different values and different ways of doing things.

Farther from the cities, in the more remote areas of the interior, the traditional rural way of life is generally more prominent. In these areas, opportunities for new off-farm jobs are limited. Yet even in these locations, many peasants have grown dissatisfied with local conditions. They have migrated to other provinces and distant cities in search of more profitable employment and relief from poverty and the routines of village life. Such migrations are not easy, however. The peasants are allowed to leave their villages only as temporary migrants to provide needed labor services in those urban jobs that are the most undesirable, difficult, and dirty. These include jobs in construction, transportation, and domestic service. Migrants must provide for their own lodging, food, and other needs. They are not entitled to the many privileges and subsidies afforded urban citizens employed in the state-supported sector of the economy—such as health care and good schooling for their children. Yet these transients continue to leave rural areas for the cities with dreams of either becoming permanent city dwellers or earning their fortunes and returning to their native villages with new wealth and power. Some have indeed done well. However, the reality for most of these transients is a difficult life of hard work and a second-class status, in cities far from their native villages.

In the cities, the power of the CCP and its governing apparatuses of state power are more obvious and controlling. Most people in cities are employed in state-operated commercial and industrial enterprises. Workers in these enterprises must adhere to state-mandated social rules, as well as employment rules, as the state controls virtually all aspects of life. Access to housing, health care, and education depend on following state-mandated guidelines of proper social conduct, such as the one-child per family policy. In the 1990s the state initiated an effort to privatize urban housing. By the close of the 20th century, many state-supported employees were able to purchase apartments through various state-supported credit arrangements.

At the same time, city life offers many opportunities that are not available in the countryside. City dwellers enjoy the benefits associated with higher incomes and enhanced cultural, commercial, and educational opportunities. China’s large cities in the eastern coastal provinces offer many of the amenities and opportunities associated with cities in the West. Among these are department stores containing the latest fashions, and lodging and restaurant facilities in hotels of world-class standards. In addition to outstanding local and non-local Chinese cuisine, European, Japanese, Indian, and American fare is available. American fast food, such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, is widely available.

In and around China’s great cities are found the evolving lifestyles of the newly rich, those with strong connections in government and commerce who can accumulate substantial wealth. Members of this class are often eager to flaunt their new wealth. They buy fine clothing and accessories and fancy automobiles, and even purchase large, single-family dwellings near new private schools. Fancy restaurants, discos, and nightclubs are trendy venues for the newly rich to show off their wealth and status and enjoy a sophisticated lifestyle. The children of these urbanites are the ones most likely to go abroad for foreign study and learn foreign languages. Such education will permit them rapid entry into the business and professional circles of China’s increasingly globalized economy and society. While this newly wealthy population is comparatively small, it signifies the rapidly growing disparity in income levels between rich and poor in China’s cities.

Social Issues in China

The increasing disparity in income levels resulting from the growth in China’s economy has become a significant social problem. Such disparities in income and wealth are found in both cities and rural areas. But the largest disparities, and the most significant friction between rich and poor, are seen in cities. The differences between those who have good housing provided by the state and those who live in makeshift dwellings or otherwise substandard housing are becoming increasingly visible. Many temporary workers do not have proper access to health care. Furthermore, they often have no access to schools, and if they bring their families to the cities, their children sometimes turn to petty crime. This activity causes friction with permanent local residents, who often complain that the temporary migrants cause all of the city’s problems. In each of China’s largest cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, the number of transient workers may exceed 1 million. This issue is becoming increasingly awkward for China, whose Communist government purports to be committed to socialist ideals of equality and sees itself as a model of modern socialist development.

A related and serious problem is the large extent of government corruption in China, which aggravates the disparities in income. Government approvals are required for everything from changes in residence to permits for building factories to exporting commodities. Therefore, government officials responsible for granting those approvals wield a great deal of power. Many bureaucrats abuse their power and expect money in return for routine approval of permits. Sometimes, payments to corrupt officials can involve very large sums of money. Government efforts to curb these practices have been generally ineffective.

Social Services in China

The Chinese government seeks to provide for the physical well being of its citizens. Major public welfare programs have included subsidized housing, vocational opportunities, health care, retirement benefits, and the assurance of a paid funeral. Yet services and benefits provided in cities have always been sharply different from those available in the countryside. City dwellers who work for the state have received housing, medical care, and good schooling for their children. The government has also provided benefits for disability, maternity, injury, and old age. Such benefits are part of why many state enterprises are in troubled financial condition and unable to show a profit. In contrast, rural dwellers have been largely on their own for social services. Their well-being has depended on the productivity and wealth of the area in which they live. Since the reforms began in 1978, the level of medical assistance and other social services in rural areas has even been reduced. At the same time, however, rural incomes have risen dramatically, thus better enabling peasants to take care of their own social needs. Farmers do not receive any pension benefits. Under Chinese custom, sons are expected to look after their parents in their declining years.

Health care in China has improved dramatically since the economic reforms began. In 1949 the average life expectancy in China was 45 years. By 2009 the average had risen to 74 years (72 years for men and 76 years for women). During the same period the number of medical doctors increased greatly. Despite an overall rapid population increase, in 2005 China had 1 physician for every 662 inhabitants, as opposed to 1 for every 27,000 in 1949. Clinics typically are found at the village and district levels, and hospitals, in most cases, at the city and county levels.

In the period from 1949 to 1974, a paramedical corps of so-called barefoot doctors played an important role in bringing health services to rural people. These personnel were trained in hygiene, preventive medicine, and routine treatment of common diseases. They serviced rural areas where both Chinese and Western-style doctors were scarce. For millions of peasants, barefoot doctors were their first encounter with anyone trained in health services. In recent years, rural incomes have increased and the rural economy has been virtually privatized. These developments have enabled peasants to use local clinics for less serious illnesses and to use hospitals in neighboring towns and cities for more serious illnesses. Typically, a fee is involved, although the costs for such medical assistance is modest compared to such costs in the United States. Another development in health services has been the renewed interest in traditional Chinese medicine, such as local herbal medication, folk medicine, and acupuncture. In rural areas, herbal medications may represent as much as four-fifths of the medication used.

China has launched mass campaigns in the health-care field. Efforts to promote child immunization, eradicate schistosomiasis, and diminish sexually transmitted infections have received widespread governmental promotion. Highly successful campaigns have been waged against infectious and parasite-borne diseases that were formerly widespread, such as tuberculosis, malaria, and filariasis (diseases caused by the filaria parasite). By the start of the 21st century, however, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) had become an increasing concern in China. In 2007 an estimated 690,000 Chinese people were infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS.


China’s artistic and cultural achievements over the past 3,000 years are a source of great pride for the Chinese people. Central to the country’s cultural identity is its written language, which has been the vehicle for many of those achievements. The earliest known printed text is a Buddhist religious book, the Jingangjing (Diamond Sutra), which dates from AD 868. The spread of printing had a great effect on the development of Chinese culture, as it enabled the distribution of new ideas. It also enabled government control of ideas, and beginning during the Song dynasty (960-1279) imperial governments took close interest in approving and printing books. The rulers of China’s dynasties emphasized their role as protectors of the country’s cultural tradition, supporting visual artists and writers and creating elaborate palace and temple complexes to demonstrate their fitness to rule. China’s heritage was also available to those residents who were not literate in the Chinese language, often through the medium of drama, which brought stories from Chinese history and literature into even remote towns and villages.

In the 20th century China underwent a number of revolutionary political changes that led many Chinese to challenge the value of their country’s cultural heritage. Communist leader Mao Zedong, who was a principal founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, laid down for all the arts the duty of subordinating self-expression to the needs of class struggle and the building of socialism. This reached an extreme in the political campaign known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Since the mid-1970s and the introduction into China of a market economy, the arts have operated in a context of much greater freedom, which has benefited some forms of art more than others. China’s distinctive cultural heritage is now threatened as much by forces of global competition as it is by government interference.

Literature in China

China is the home of the world’s longest continuous tradition of writing, dating from the first use of Chinese characters for purposes of ritual divination during the Shang dynasty (1570?-1045? BC). The earliest Chinese literary works date from the Western Zhou dynasty (1045?-771 BC). These include the anonymous Shu jing (Book of History or Book of Documents), a collection of ancient state documents, and the Shi jing (Book of Poetry or Book of Songs), an anthology of 305 poems that, according to legend, was compiled and edited by Chinese philosopher Confucius. These books are part of the group of texts known collectively as the Five Classics, or Confucian Classics, which have been revered as guides to moral action and the correct ordering of human society.

From very early times the ability to write poetry was seen as one of the marks of an educated man. Chinese poetry, often personal and lyrical in tone, reached a high point during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Major poets of the period include Wang Wei, Li Bo (Li Po), and Du Fu (Tu Fu). The typical poem of the Tang period was written in the shi form, characterized by five- or seven-word lines, with the rhyme usually falling on the even lines. New forms of verse based on the structures of well-known songs were popular during the Song dynasty.

Drama first flourished during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), when plays were often enjoyed as written literature as well as performed on the stage. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the short story and the novel developed. Major works from this period include Sanguozhi yanyi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), a historical novel about wars and warriors; Shui hu zhuan (All Men Are Brothers, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh or Water Margin), a novel of the adventures of bandit-heroes; Xiyouji (The Journey to the West), a Buddhist fable; and Jin ping mei (The Golden Lotus or The Plum In the Golden Vase), a work dealing with daily life in a rich family. The playwright Tang Xianzu and others wrote lengthy dramas, often with romantic themes. Also during the Ming period, and for the first time in Chinese history, a great deal of poetry was written by women. Many novels continued to be written during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the most famous being Hong lou meng (1792; Dream of the Red Chamber, 1929) by Cao Zhan (also known as Cao Xueqin).

In the 20th century, dissatisfaction with the literature of the past was expressed in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when writers explored new literary forms that reflected more closely the spoken forms of the Chinese language. Short-story writer and essayist Lu Xun was a leading figure of this movement. After the founding of the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government ordered that all literature serve the needs of the socialist state. Only after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 were Chinese writers allowed more freedom to address topics of personal interest to them and their readers. See also Chinese Literature.

Art and Architecture of China

Artistic production in China goes back to about 6000 BC. The Chinese consider their unbroken tradition of art one of the central achievements of Chinese culture, and art of various kinds has always been held in high regard. In earliest times, the most important art forms were jade carving and the casting of bronze vessels, often made for burial in royal tombs. For the last 2,000 years, the art form that has enjoyed the greatest prestige has been calligraphy, in which the characters of the Chinese language are written with a brush on silk or paper. The calligrapher Wang Xizhi, who lived during the 4th century, is remembered as one of the greatest early practitioners of this art, although virtually no traces of his work survive.

The second most important art form in China after calligraphy is painting. Most of the earliest surviving Chinese paintings date from the Song dynasty, which is seen as one of the golden eras of the tradition. A number of famous artists and art theorists, such as Su Dongpo (pseudonym of Su Shi), lived during this period, and the important art form of landscape painting developed. Many famous painters are recorded in the extensive literature about art from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. One distinctive feature of this literature is the emphasis it places on amateur artists. Their work often was seen as more valuable than that produced by professionals, who were viewed by the educated elite as artisans with a lower social status. Today the tradition of watercolor painting on silk or paper is practiced widely throughout China.

Sculpture was an important art form in China, especially after the introduction of Buddhism from India in the 1st century. However, most sculpture was produced for religious purposes by anonymous craftsmen, and thus the educated elite did not regard it as highly as they did calligraphy and painting. Chinese artisans have also made major achievements in forms such as jade carving, lacquerwork, textiles, and ceramics. Many art forms, such as silk weaving and porcelain work, were invented in China and only later spread to other parts of the world. China’s villages developed important folk art traditions, which were often very different from the art produced for the wealthy in the cities.

Although many splendid palaces, temples, and other buildings have been created in China over the centuries, architecture traditionally was not seen as an art form, and it was given little attention by the elite.

China’s imperial rulers were major patrons of the arts. Religious organizations and individual wealthy patrons also employed artists. After 1949, many artists became employees of the state, paid to produce work glorifying the People’s Republic and the Chinese Communist Party. Since 1976 artists have gained greater artistic freedom, but there has been a reduction in government financial support, and the art market has assumed greater importance. See also Chinese Art and Architecture.

Music and Dance in China

The philosopher Confucius saw music and dance as enormously important to keeping society in good order, and both have always had an important role in Confucian practices. The earliest surviving Chinese musical instruments include bronze bells dating from the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties. Complete sets of these bells, as well as some stringed instruments, survive from the Eastern Zhou dynasty, which followed the Western Zhou. In imperial China, the ability to play and appreciate music was a central aspect of high social status. Educated gentlemen were expected to be particularly familiar with the musical repertoire for the qin (ch’in), a long zither plucked with the fingers.

Alongside the music of the educated elite, a rich tradition of folk music developed in China’s towns and villages. This tradition continues to thrive today. Most of this music is instrumental and employs a wide variety of stringed and blown instruments, as well as complex percussion sections of gongs, drums, and cymbals. Chinese folk music varies considerably from region to region. Many urban centers now have both Chinese and Western style musical groups, including symphony orchestras and rock bands. See also Chinese Music.

Until the end of the Tang dynasty, dance was an important form of entertainment for the elite, especially at the imperial court. Men performed vigorous dances with swords, and it was fashionable to watch dances performed by professional dancers imported from other parts of Asia. In the Song period the practice of mutilating women’s feet (known as foot binding) gradually became widespread, and this reduced the role of dance among the upper classes.

Forms of folk dance continued to be practiced in China’s countryside, and in the 20th century China’s Communist government promoted them as part of a new emphasis on popular art forms. Also during the 20th century, originally Western forms of dance, such as ballroom dance and ballet, were introduced to China. Ballroom dance was banned for much of the period after 1949, while ballet was used in the 1960s to create “model” revolutionary ballets, such as The White-Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women. Since 1976 forms of social dance, such as ballroom and disco, have become popular pastimes at all levels of Chinese society.

Theater and Film in China

Chinese theater varies significantly in different regions of the country, with more than 300 types known. All of these involve a combination of music, singing, speech, and dramatic action. Drama traditionally was performed in urban theaters and teahouses by professional actors for paying customers. However, it was also performed to entertain the gods as part of religious rituals, and in this way it was brought to wide audiences in the countryside. These types of rituals have revived in recent years with the relaxation of prohibitions against them by the Chinese government.

Although there have been forms of dramatic entertainment in China since very early times, Chinese theater reached its first height during the Yuan dynasty, when the form of literary drama known as Yuan zaju (Yuan drama) came to the fore. Zaju plays consisted of four acts and a self-contained scene that usually appeared between acts. Men and women both depicted characters of either sex, and only the lead character sang. Dramas such as The West Chamber, a romantic love story by Wang Shifu, were created during this period and have remained part of the repertoire of the Chinese theater ever since.

The late 18th century brought the rise of jingxi, or “drama of the capital city,” under the patronage of the imperial court. This is the form of theater that is widely known in the West as Peking Opera. It combines various theatrical forms—including speech, music, acrobatics, dance, mime, and martial arts—to tell stories from Chinese history and folklore. Until the mid-20th century, men performed all roles in Peking Opera, using elaborate and stylized costumes and makeup to show the type of character being portrayed. The most famous Peking Opera actor of the 20th century, Mei Lanfang, was particularly successful at playing female roles.

In the 20th century Chinese writers adopted originally Western forms of theater to create the form known as huaju (spoken drama). This form remained restricted to major cities and urban audiences. After 1949 the traditional repertoire of historical and romantic dramas was gradually abandoned in favor of revolutionary operas. Since 1976 government controls have been relaxed and the traditional repertoire reinstated, although it has been losing popularity among younger audiences. See also Asian Theater.

The cinema, imported from the West, has been very successful in China. A vigorous film industry developed in Shanghai in the early 20th century, and after the People’s Republic came to power, film was used as a major form of government propaganda. In recent decades Chinese films have found success with international audiences. Popular works include those by director Zhang Yimou, such as Hong gaoliang (1987, also released as Red Sorghum), Ju Dou (1989), Dahong denglong gaogao gua (1991, also released as Raise the Red Lantern), and Ying xiong (2002, also released as Hero).

Cultural Institutions in China

China’s major cultural institutions are in its largest cities. Every provincial capital has a museum and a library, as well as sites of historical or cultural importance.

Beijing is home to China’s largest museum, the Palace Museum. Housed in the Forbidden City, the former residence of the imperial family and court, the museum contains part of the vast imperial collection of artworks. It also mounts exhibitions of important archaeological discoveries from elsewhere in China. Also in Beijing are the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, the Museum of Chinese History, the China Art Gallery, and the Beijing Museum of Natural History. Beijing’s Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution contains collections relating to modern Chinese history, and the Capital Museum houses historical relics including stoneware, bronzes, and calligraphy.

Shanghai also plays a leading cultural role in China. The city is home to the Shanghai Museum, which contains one of China’s most important historic art collections; the Museum of Natural Sciences; and the museum of the Tomb of Lu Xun (Lu Xun was a 20th-century writer). Numerous buildings in Shanghai are preserved as historic sites. Among them is the site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

China’s many provincial museums contain important archaeological materials discovered since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The Nanjing Museum in Jiangsu Province and the Shaanxi Provincial Museum in Xi’an are particularly renowned for their collections of archaeological treasures. Most major archaeological sites have museums attached to them. One of the most important sites is the tomb of Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi, located just outside Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Excavations of the tomb have yielded a terra-cotta army of more than 6,000 life-size figures, buried with the emperor upon his death in 210 BC.

Archaeological sites and important historic buildings are protected by government regulations, although illegal excavation of China’s cultural heritage has remained a problem. China’s museums and other cultural institutions are very important to the country’s developing tourism industry. Economic reforms in China since the 1970s have made it more necessary for these institutions to raise funds to support their own activities. Many have done so by organizing exhibitions of their treasures outside of China; these exhibitions have brought China’s artistic and cultural heritage to an international audience.

Important libraries in China include the National Library of China, in Beijing, containing China’s largest collection of ancient and modern books; and the Shanghai Library. The First Historical Archives of China, in Beijing, houses historical records from China’s imperial dynasties.


In the 1950s China’s Communist government began bringing a majority of economic activity under state control and determining production, pricing, and distribution of goods and services. This system is known as a planned economy, also called a command economy (see Communism: Centrally Planned Economy). In 1979 China began implementing economic reforms to expand and modernize its economy. The reforms have gradually lessened the government’s control of the economy, allowing some aspects of a market economy and encouraging foreign investment; however, the state-owned sector remains the backbone of China’s economy. China refers to this new system as a socialist market economy. As a result of the reforms, China’s economy grew at an average annual rate of about 10 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, one of the highest growth rates in the world. However, the reforms also caused problems for China’s economic planners. Income gaps widened, unemployment increased, and inflation resulted from the extremely rapid and unbalanced development.

The size of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) makes China a significant economic power; despite this, it remains a low-income, developing country because it must support a huge population of more than 1.3 billion. In 2007 China’s per capita GDP was just $2,431.50. Industrial activity (manufacturing, mining, and construction) contributed the largest percentage of the country’s GDP, amounting to 49 percent in 2007. Transportation, commerce, and services together accounted for 40 percent. And agriculture, together with forestry and fishing, contributed 11 percent.

History of China’s Economy

China developed an agricultural economy more than 2,000 years ago. During the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) the Chinese developed several tools and practices that farmers in Europe and the Middle East adopted only centuries, or even a millennium, later. The cast-iron moldboard plow, for example, made it easier to cultivate hard or stony land. Although heavier than wooden plows, these plows created much less friction and could be pulled by a single animal, even in the waterlogged clay soils of southern China.

After the Han period, however, China’s agriculture and economy advanced more slowly. For centuries, China’s economy was based on farming that used ancient methods, and much of the agricultural activity was performed at a subsistence level. By the 19th century China had an underdeveloped agricultural economy that was backward compared to the developing industrial economies of Europe and North America.

In the mid-19th century Britain defeated China in the Opium Wars and forced China to create coastal treaty ports, in which foreign residents could live and trade. A period of Western penetration followed, during which railroads and highways were constructed, some industrial development was begun, and new energy sources, such as kerosene and electricity, were introduced. However, such activity had little impact on China’s economy overall. In 1911 Chinese revolutionaries overthrew China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and the new Chinese republican government attempted to modernize the economy. But in the decades that followed, civil wars and a war against Japanese occupation stifled economic growth and development.

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the first few years of its existence, the PRC focused on rebuilding from the ravages of war and redistributing land to 300 million poor peasants. Then, in 1953, China implemented a planned economy, and the government took over all means of production. The state outlined how the economy was to be developed in a series of five-year plans, which detailed how investment funding, production materials, and other resources were to be allocated. Success was measured by the fulfillment, or over-fulfillment, of the production targets and timetables established in the five-year plans. As a result, quality and innovation became less important than they had been in the past. The government assigned people to jobs and there was little possibility of job transfer. The state also controlled wages and prices and owned all transportation and housing. Household and personal consumption was controlled by the government through a system that rationed food, cotton cloth, and other daily necessities. Consequently, enterprises, families, and individuals had very limited choice in their economic behavior.

Five-Year Plans

The first five-year plan, implemented from 1953 to 1958, outlined changes for all economic sectors but particularly emphasized expansion of heavy industry. The government created hundreds of large, state-owned, industrial enterprises, and by 1958 China had a solid industrial base. In the agricultural sector, meanwhile, the state organized workers into large, cooperative farms. Agricultural output increased, but not nearly at the same rate as industry.

Initially, the authors of the second five-year plan modeled it on the first. By the beginning of 1958, however, they had revised the plan to address the concern of Chinese leader Mao Zedong that agriculture was not growing as fast as industry. The revised plan was to be accomplished through an economic and social campaign intended to radically increase China’s agricultural production while maintaining high industrial growth. The campaign became known as the Great Leap Forward.

At this time, China was becoming increasingly isolationist in its foreign policy, and one goal of the Great Leap Forward was to make the country self-sufficient. A key component of the program was the establishment of small furnaces for making steel from low-grade ore, scrap metal, and even household implements. Millions of peasants and city workers were ordered to abandon their fields and factories in order to run primitive backyard furnaces. Although the program pushed China’s total iron and steel production past Britain’s in just a few years, the result over time was massive economic dislocation as well as wasted resources, including widespread deforestation for the sake of obtaining fuel to fire furnaces.

In agriculture, the government established huge rural people’s communes, which brought all rural land and major farm equipment under collective ownership. Although China sowed a huge grain crop in 1958, much of it went to waste because of inadequate transportation and storage facilities. Worse, a policy of deep plowing and the practice of planting grain even in conditions unsuited to its cultivation did a great deal of ecological damage. Silting and runoff from ill-considered and poorly executed irrigation projects, and the destruction of trees, grasses, and ponds, contributed to catastrophic floods in 1959 and 1960. The misguided industrial and agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward, compounded by these environmental calamities, resulted in three years of famine in which more than 20 million people died.

As a result of the famine and the economic failures of the Great Leap Forward, China launched a period of economic readjustment. By 1965 production in many fields again approached the level of the late 1950s. The third and fourth five-year plans were begun in 1966 and 1971. However, both agricultural and industrial production were severely curtailed by the effects of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a political campaign that was intended to revolutionize Chinese society but that ultimately caused social chaos and near economic collapse.

In the fifth five-year plan, begun in 1976, China’s leaders decided to move at a faster pace on all economic fronts to make up for the losses suffered in the preceding ten years. However, the biggest economic changes occurred after the CCP, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, adopted the national objective of modernizing agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology in 1978. Subsequent five-year plans focused on achieving this objective.

Reform and Opening

The first reforms toward achieving the new national objective began in poor rural areas in 1979, when the government replaced communal farming and distribution with the household contracting and responsibility system. Under this system, individual farm households worked separate plots of land owned by an economic collective. The households could sell produce at farmers’ markets for whatever price buyers were willing to pay in return for selling a certain amount of produce to the collective at a predetermined price. The contract and responsibility system was successful because it gave farmers an incentive to reduce production costs and increase productivity.

In 1984 the government shifted the emphasis of the economic reforms to urban areas. It extended greater decision-making power to managers of state-owned enterprises, and replaced the system of collecting all profits with one of collecting taxes on profits and then allowing enterprises to make their own reinvestment choices. Furthermore, while still insisting on public (state) ownership of enterprises as the predominant form, the government also encouraged other forms of ownership, such as collective and private ownership.

Meanwhile, China also opened its market to the outside world. To help quicken the pace of modernization, the state encouraged foreign investment and the import of advanced technology. In 1980 China began establishing special zones for foreign investment. The original four were called Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and consisted of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shandou, and Xiamen, all in southeastern China. By the late 1990s a variety of similar types of zones had been added, including a fifth SEZ, Hainan Island. Most zones are located in urban economic centers, particularly coastal cities, cities along the Yangtze River, provincial capitals, and cities and towns along China’s borders.

In 1992 the government announced the goal of establishing a socialist market economy, meaning a market economy led by the CCP. To accommodate this change and other economic reforms, the government has shifted its role in the economy. Under the planned economic system, the state determined production and pricing. In a market economy, however, consumer demand for goods and services determines production and pricing. The Chinese government’s new role involves creating a stable and competitive economic environment through the application of laws and regulations. In 2001 China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). In joining the WTO, China agreed to further reduce government control over the economy, including reducing state subsidies and dropping many restrictions on foreign investment.

Labor in China

With more than 750 million workers during the 2000s, China had the largest labor force in the world.

Although the official figure for unemployment in China was 4.2 percent during the first decade of the 21st century, actual unemployment and underemployment (employment that is less than regular, full-time employment) constituted a much more serious problem. Many state-owned enterprises have more workers than are needed. To increase production efficiency, these enterprises have laid off many people. Furthermore, eliminating inefficient communal farming methods created a huge pool of unemployed and underemployed people in the countryside. Each winter since China’s reforms began, millions of peasants have traveled to cities in search of seasonal work. This has caused havoc in railroad transport and social problems in urban areas that have neither enough jobs nor housing to absorb these workers.

China’s economic reforms have brought major changes to the work place. Previously the state assigned people to jobs. Although workers had little choice in their assignments, they generally could count on life-long employment. Furthermore, state enterprises provided retirement, social security, medical care, and in many cases subsidized housing to their employees. However, these costly benefits contributed to the losses that plagued many state-owned enterprises. Under the reforms, enterprise managers have received greater freedom to hire and fire workers. Job mobility has increased, but so has job insecurity. The central government has transferred many responsibilities for retirement and social security systems to provincial governments.

Trade unions are organized in all of China’s industrial sectors, and more than 100 million Chinese workers belong to trade unions. Some of the unions were founded as early as the 1920s. Many more were founded after the establishment of the PRC in 1949. All trade unions are under the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, an umbrella organization of the CCP. The unions work for the interests of union members in matters such as labor protection, workers’ welfare, and the settlement of labor disputes. The unions are also an instrument for bringing workers and the CCP together.

Agriculture of China

China has 10 percent of the world’s arable land with which to support 20 percent of the world’s population. Over the centuries, the Chinese have built irrigation projects to the extent that almost half of cultivated land is now irrigated. China long had a food deficit, but as a result of new irrigation projects, improved farming techniques since 1949, and agricultural reforms since the late 1970s, China now produces enough grain to provide a basic diet for its large population. In lean years, however, the country occasionally must import grains. China’s agriculture is also a major source of raw materials for the country’s industries. Chinese cotton, for example, is a key material supplied to the garment industry. In the early 21st century China was the world’s top producer of a number of crops, including rice, cotton, tobacco, peanuts, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and vegetables and melons.

Organization of Agricultural Activity

In the 1950s the Communist government organized 800 million rural people into about 52,000 people’s communes. The communes received production targets from the state and ensured that these targets were met. Each commune was divided into about 16 production brigades, which were further divided into about 7 production teams usually consisting of 100 to 250 people. Each level above the individual could hold land, tools, and other production materials under communal ownership, and each carried out a range of production activities.

Under the commune system, it was possible to conduct large-scale experimentation with scientific farming, to plant crops in areas with the most favorable soil and other natural conditions, and to develop irrigation and drainage on an efficient scale. Although land was collectively owned, each rural household usually had access to a small private plot, which it was free to use as it pleased. Both production teams and individual households were also given autonomy to market products after official targets were met.

In the early 1980s, in an effort to increase agricultural production, the government restructured the agricultural sector. The system of communes and production brigades was largely dismantled, and the household became the principal unit of agricultural production. Under the so-called household contracting and responsibility system, each household, after contracting with local authorities to produce its quota of specified crops, was free to sell any additional output on the free market. A major limitation of this system is its difficulty in achieving economies of scale. This refers to the economic principle that an individual household produces a smaller amount than a larger farm, but has some of the same basic expenses (for plows, for example) and therefore has a higher relative production cost. On a voluntary basis, some households have organized themselves into groups for product processing, marketing, and regional cooperation.

Agricultural Planning and Improvement

Given the very limited quantity of agricultural land in China relative to the country’s large population, rational planning of land use is of prime importance. An overemphasis on grain growing during the 1960s and 1970s led to the elimination of some low-yield but otherwise very valuable crops, orchards, and trees; it also led to the neglect of animal husbandry, and to environmental damage. The government has since promoted a mixed-farming economy that is in accordance with local environmental conditions and that also provides cash income.

The Chinese government has actively pursued and promoted agricultural mechanization; however, it is considered impractical in many places because of the relatively small size of cultivated areas. The state has undertaken significant flood control and irrigation projects from the 1950s on, including the construction of dams, canals, and reservoirs. Increased use of irrigation, mechanization, and fertilizer permits the growth of two crops per year in areas of the Huabei Pingyuan (North China Plain). In some parts of southern and southeastern China, farmers are able to produce three crops per year.

To supplement agricultural production, the various levels of government operate hundreds of state farms. These are large-scale units run for the purpose of agricultural experimentation and for commercial production of certain crops and foodstuffs for urban markets or for export. State farms are usually located in newly reclaimed areas where the rural population density is not great and modern machinery can be used effectively.

Food and Oilseed Crops

About three-quarters of China’s cultivated area is devoted to food crops. China is the world’s largest rice producer, and rice is the country’s most important crop, raised on about one-quarter of the cultivated land. Most rice is grown south of the Huai River, notably in the middle and lower Yangtze Valley, in the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) delta, and also in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces.

Much of the rest of China’s cultivated land is devoted to other grain crops. Wheat is grown in most parts of the country, but the largest growing areas are on the Huabei Pingyuan, in the valleys of the Wei and Fen rivers on the Huangtu Gaoyuan (Loess Plateau), and in Jiangsu, Hubei, and Sichuan provinces. Corn (maize) is grown in northern, northeastern, and southwestern China. It is increasingly used as animal feed and less is taken for direct human consumption. Kaoliang (a sorghum) and millet are important food crops in North and Northeast China. Kaoliang is also used as an animal feed and converted into alcohol for beverages; the stalks are used to make paper and as a roofing material. Oats are important chiefly in Inner Mongolia and in the west, notably in Tibet.

Other food crops include sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and various other fruits and vegetables. Sweet potatoes predominate in the south and white potatoes in the north. Fruit includes tropical varieties such as pineapples and bananas, grown on Hainan Island; apples and pears, grown in the northern provinces of Liaoning and Shandong; and citrus fruits, particularly oranges and tangerines, which are major products of South China.

Oil seeds play a major role in Chinese agriculture, supplying edible and industrial oils as well as other food products, and constituting an important share of exports. The most important oil seed is the soybean, which is grown mainly in North and Northeast China. Chinese soybeans are particularly good for making tofu (bean curd), and the oil made from soybeans is used in cooking. China is one of the world’s leading soybean producers and is also a leading producer of peanuts, which are grown in Shandong and Hebei provinces. Other important oilseed crops are sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and rapeseed. The seeds from the fruit of the tung tree also provide a valuable oil, which is used as an additive in paints and varnishes. More than half the tung oil produced in China originates in Sichuan.

Tea is a traditional export crop of China, and the country produces more than 20 percent of the world supply. Green and jasmine teas are very popular among the Chinese population, whereas black tea is mostly for export. The principal tea plantations are on the hillsides of the middle Yangtze Valley and in the southeastern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang.

China obtains sugar both from sugarcane and sugar beets. Sugarcane is grown mainly in the provinces of Guangdong and Sichuan. Sugar beets, a relatively new crop for the country, are raised in Heilongjiang Province and on irrigated land in Inner Mongolia.

Fiber Crops

Since 1949 the Communist government has given increasing attention to the expansion of crops for the textile industry. The most important of these crops is cotton, of which China is the world’s leading producer. Although cotton can be grown in almost all parts of China, the principal cotton-growing areas are the Huabei Pingyuan, the Huangtu Gaoyuan, the Yangtze River delta, the middle Yangtze Valley, and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in Northwest China.

Other important fibers grown in China include ramie and flax, which are used for linen and other fine cloths, and jute and hemp, which are made into sacks and rope. Ramie, a native Chinese plant similar to hemp, is grown chiefly in the Yangtze Valley; flax is a northern crop. The main jute-growing areas are in Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces. Another traditional Chinese product is raw silk. Sericulture, the raising of silkworms, is practiced in central and southern China, notably in the Yangtze delta and some parts of Sichuan.


China maintains a large livestock population, and livestock and animal products are important for domestic uses and for export. Hogs and fowl are the most commonly raised livestock. The country is the leading exporter of hog bristles, which are used in making brushes. In many rural areas of western China, nomadic herding of sheep, goats, and camels is the principal occupation. In the mountains of Tibet and on the Tibetan Plateau, yaks are a source of food and fuel (the dung is burned), and their hair and skin provide materials for shelter and clothing. Other livestock raised in China include cattle, water buffalo, horses, mules, and donkeys.

Forestry and Fishing in China

China’s forest resources are limited due to centuries of cutting for fuel and building materials. Programs to convert open land into forests have increased the extent of forestland from about 8 percent of the total area in 1949 to 20.6 percent in 2005. Tree-planting campaigns throughout the country have been organized both at the state and local levels; rural villages have been responsible for planting a large portion of the total reforested area. Trees have been planted around settlements, along roads, on the edge of bodies of water, and by the sides of peasant homes.

The distribution of forests in China is very uneven. The northeast and southwest have half of the country’s forest area and three-quarters of the forest resources. Principal species cut include various pines, spruce, larch, oak, and, in the extreme south, teak and mahogany. Other commercial species include the tung tree, lacquer tree, camphor, and bamboo. Major forestry products include timber, plywood, fiberboard, pine resin, tannin extract, and paper pulp.

Aquaculture, the breeding of fish in ponds and lakes, accounts for more than half of China’s total fish catch. Aquaculture was an important part of traditional Chinese food production. The government’s initial five-year plans deemphasized aquaculture, but since 1984 reform policies have restored and modernized this activity. Carp ponds, a Chinese food source for thousands of years, yield a significant share of the total aquaculture catch. Prawns, crabs, oysters, and scallops are also raised in ponds. The principal aquaculture producing regions are those close to urban markets in the middle and lower Yangtze Valley and the Zhu Jiang delta. In addition to fish, China also harvests aquatic plants.

Industry in China

Manufacturing, mining, and construction constitute China’s industrial sector. China’s manufactures are diverse and include such complex products as airplanes, ships, automobiles, satellites, electronics, and modern industrial equipment. However, many heavy industry production facilities are outmoded and inefficient, and many state-owned enterprises operate at a loss. High-technology industries have grown in importance since the mid-1990s.

Industrial Planning

In the late 1970s the Chinese government reassessed its industrial goals in an attempt to remedy a number of problems caused by poor planning. In many places, self-sufficiency had been allowed to grow at the expense of specialization, and thus enterprises often duplicated functions performed by other enterprises. The rapid growth of heavy industry had damaged some urban environments and drawn away funds that could have been more usefully devoted to agriculture, light industry, and improvement of urban facilities. Meanwhile, technology stagnated.

In the first wave of reforms that began in 1979, the government sought to slow the growth of heavy industry. Light industries, which generally return investments in a shorter time period, received priority for industrial development funds, and this facilitated their rapid expansion. Funds were also directed into the construction industry to improve the living conditions of urban residents and to create job opportunities for the urban unemployed and rural underemployed.

Since the 1980s enterprise managers have received increasing decision-making powers. The government has introduced new forms of management, such as leasing, shareholding, and contracting out of state-owned enterprises. It has allowed private ownership to coexist with state and collective ownership, and for many state-owned enterprises to be leased, contracted out, merged, or sold. In an effort to modernize industry, China has sent large numbers of scholars, factory managers, and technicians abroad to acquire advanced management and technical expertise. Following the economic reforms of the early 1990s, foreign investment in Chinese industry grew rapidly. Foreign technology has also been imported in the form of entire factories.

Manufacturing in China

The Chinese government traditionally regarded the iron and steel industry as the foundation for further industrial development, and the government has assigned it priority in China since 1949. The country manufactures a great variety of steel products, including tungsten steels, stainless steels, heavy steel plates, and seamless pipes. Northeast China, North China, and the Yangtze Valley are the main producing areas.

In addition to iron and steel, China’s heavy industries include shipbuilding and the manufacture of locomotives, tractors, mining machinery, power-generating equipment, petroleum drilling and refining machinery, and petrochemicals. Petrochemical plants are found in most provinces and autonomous regions, and products include synthetic fibers, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. A unique feature of the Chinese petrochemical industry is the widespread presence of small nitrogenous fertilizer factories that use a production technique developed in China.

High-technology industries—such as software, computer, and other electronics production—grew to rival traditional heavy industries in economic importance in the early 21st century. The expanding high-tech sector received much of the foreign capital invested in Chinese industry. Chinese automobile production also grew in importance in the same period.

The Chinese textile industry is the largest in the world. It includes the weaving of cotton, wool, linen, silk, and chemical fibers; cloth printing and dyeing; and knitting and clothing manufacture. Since the beginning of the reforms, cotton production has increased dramatically to supply the growing industry. New cotton-textile mills have been constructed in the cotton-growing areas of Hubei, Hunan, Hebei, and Shaanxi provinces. Other important manufactures produced in China include cement, paper and paperboard, bicycles, sewing machines, washing machines, and refrigerators.

Mining in China

China has many mineral resources, including large deposits of some industrially important minerals. China produces more coal than any other country in the world. Coal is China’s leading fuel for industrial and home use, so most of the coal produced is for the domestic market. There are many small coal mines throughout the country, but the major centers are located north of the Yangtze River, especially in Shanxi Province.

Rapid development of the petroleum industry since the 1950s has made China one of the world’s major oil producers. China became self-sufficient in gasoline products in 1963, although the per capita consumption level was very low; by 1973 the country was able to export both crude oil and refined petroleum products. Major oil fields include Daqing in Heilongjiang, Shengli in Shandong, and Liaohe in Liaoning. The nation’s largest petroleum reserves are found in the Tarim Pendi, an arid basin in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Although China produces large quantities of iron ore, it must import additional iron ore to supply its steel industry. China is a leading producer of natural graphite. Other minerals produced in significant quantities include tin, antimony, nickel, tungsten, vanadium, molybdenum, bauxite, and salt.

Services in China

China’s service sector includes commerce, food and beverage catering, retail trade, banking and financial services, insurance, real estate, security, cultural and health services, and legal services.

Before economic reform, China’s service sector was largely underdeveloped, and some services were even nonexistent. However, economic and social development in the 1980s and 1990s created a huge demand for services. Retail trade used to be conducted only in state-owned shops, but today privately owned shops and vendors’ stalls line streets in cities and towns. Big cities have huge department stores and shopping centers. Foreign investors also have entered China’s retail trade, and Western fast-food companies such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have opened many restaurants in China.

The demand for banking, insurance, legal, notary, and accounting services has grown with the success of the economic reforms. The government used to assume full responsibility for paying pensions after employees’ retirement. Now financial institutions and insurance companies are stepping in to provide financial management.

Tourism of China

China was closed to almost all foreign visitors from 1949 to the mid-1970s. Since economic reforms were implemented in 1979, the government has promoted tourism as a means of earning foreign currency. China’s tourism sector has developed very rapidly. The government has constructed major hotels, increased air travel to China and within the country, and opened historic sites to tourists. Millions of visitors travel to China for its beautiful landscapes, interesting and diverse culture, and important historical attractions. Popular sites include the Great Wall in northern China, the Forbidden City (now operated as the Palace Museum) in Beijing, the terra-cotta warriors of Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb near Xi’an, the bustling streets and markets of Shanghai, the scenic topography near Guilin, and the ancient Buddhist frescoes in caves near Dunhuang.

In the mid-2000s about 50 million tourists visited China each year. Large numbers of tourists came from Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States, the Philippines, Malaysia, Mongolia, and Singapore. The improvement in economic circumstances and an increase in leisure time have made it possible for increasing numbers of Chinese people to travel within the country. The 2008 Summer Olympics, held in Beijing and broadcast around the world, also stimulated tourism to China.

Energy in China

China is one of the world’s leading producers of electricity. However, the demand for electricity is greater than the domestic supply, especially in cities.

In the mid-2000s about four-fifths of China’s annual electrical output was generated in thermal installations, most burning coal. Hydropower and nuclear power supplied the remainder.

China’s waterpower resources are more plentiful than those of any other country. A notable feature of China’s hydroelectric power industry has been the construction of small, local power-generating plants. Local governments and rural communes have harnessed hydroelectric potential as an integral part of their water conservation programs, especially in the south, where precipitation is great and rivers are swift and often have steep gradients. In 1992 the government began constructing the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam, on the Yangtze River near Chongqing. Although the project was intended to control devastating floods and generate an enormous amount of electricity, critics charged that it would be an environmental and social disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people were dislocated by the dam, and its effects on the environment could be severe. Scientists theorized that the weight of the water held by the dam may have triggered the earthquake that devastated Sichuan province in 2008.

Transportation in China

The railroad is the most important mode of transportation in China. Since 1949 the total length of the country’s railroads has more than doubled. The two major north-south routes (Guangzhou-Beijing and Shanghai-Beijing) connect with lines that extend into the northeast and southeast of China and into Mongolia and Russia. In 1995 a new Beijing-Kowloon railroad was completed, linking Beijing and Hong Kong. The major east-west line, from Lianyungang to Lanzhou, connects with a rail line to Ürümqi in far northwestern China and to Kazakhstan in Central Asia. The new rail lines have provided a dense network in the heavily populated and economically important regions of northeastern, central, and southwestern China.

Road transport has become increasingly important in China. Before 1949, paved roads and highways only provided connections between the old coastal treaty ports (cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin that contained sections controlled by foreigners) and the surrounding countryside, but the road system now stretches well into the country’s interior. Roads connect Beijing to the capitals of all provinces and autonomous regions, as well as to major ports and railroad centers. The network also extends into rural areas, making most localities accessible by road. Motorized public transportation is well-developed in urban centers. Bicycles are popular for traveling short distances.

Inland navigation on China’s many rivers and canals accounts for a large proportion of the goods shipped within the country, and its potential for increased development is great. The largest inland waterway is the Yangtze River, which has major ports at Chongqing, Yichang, and Wuhan. Some 18,000 km (11,000 mi) of the Yangtze and its tributaries can be traveled by steamboats. China’s busiest inland waterway system, however, is the Grand Canal, which extends from Beijing to Hangzhou, near Shanghai. The southern portion of the canal is actually a network of many local canals and lakes. Such cities as Suzhou, Wuxi, and Changzhou are important inland ports in this region. In parts of rural China, peasants use irrigation and drainage canals as inland waterways.

China’s long coastline and the proximity to the coast of some of the country’s most important industrial cities have long made coastal shipping an important mode of transportation. To accommodate and encourage the expansion of international trade, the government has invested in improving existing port facilities and constructing new ports. There are a number of major ports along China’s coastline, including those at Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao, Qinhuangdao, Guangzhou, Dalian, Ningbo, and Tianjin.

China’s largest international airports are at Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Provincial capitals and a number of other major cities have airports that handle domestic flights. China’s national airline is Air China. A number of regional airlines have been established, and some of them also operate on international routes.

Communications in China

Communications has a centuries-old tradition in China. Nearly 3,000 years ago, Chinese built towers of fire to warn of approaching enemies. Centuries later, posters written in Chinese characters were put up by the government at city gates and other busy places to warn of the presence of dangerous animals or to make known wanted criminals. The tradition of using posters for delivering information was continued into the 20th century. In many Chinese cities, newspapers are put on walls for public reading. Posters were widely used in the mid-1950s during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, when the government encouraged people to provide constructive criticism of the policies of the CCP. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), students hung millions of posters with revolutionary messages on walls throughout China. However, the use of posters for expressing individual opinions was outlawed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protest, in which pro-democracy demonstrators were violently suppressed by the military.

While the traditional means of communication are waning, modern communication facilities are developing rapidly. By the beginning of the 21st century more than 2,000 newspapers were being published in China. Magazines that cover social, cultural, and economic topics are also popular. The Chinese government pressures those who work in the media to avoid politically sensitive subjects. Consequently, the media practices a high degree of self-censorship.

The largest radio broadcaster is the government-run China National Radio in Beijing. There are also government-run radio stations at the provincial and local levels. China’s first television station was established in Beijing in 1958. It developed into the state-run China Central Television (CCTV). Many of the CCTV channels were developed in the 1990s to serve the country’s rapidly growing cable television market. In addition to the national broadcasts of CCTV, many provinces and cities have local stations, and their broadcasts are commonly available to a larger audience via satellite services.

China’s newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations receive their news from the official Xinhua News Agency, and supplement Xinhua news with their own reports. Xinhua has its head office in Beijing, with branches in provincial capitals throughout the country and more than 100 offices overseas. It publishes news in Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Arabic. The other news agency in China is Zhongguo Xinwen She (China News Agency), also a state agency, which provides news to Chinese-language newspapers around the world.

Computers are very popular in Chinese universities and offices, and primary and secondary schools have increasingly obtained them. More and more families have their own computers. Internet access and mobile phone use both skyrocketed in the 2000s.

Commerce in China

Before economic reforms began in the late 1970s, state-owned enterprises generally did not purchase their raw materials and equipment as commodities, but rather received them directly from the government. The enterprises then submitted their finished products to the government for distribution. The Supply and Marketing Cooperative, a state-run operation, distributed consumer goods to the rural population. Such essential items as grains, oil, meat, sugar, and cotton fabric were rationed because they were relatively scarce and because low fixed prices had to be ensured for everyone.

With the success of the economic reforms, the government abandoned the rationing of food and cotton fabric in the early and mid-1990s. Market forces now largely determine the circulation of commodities in China. State-owned enterprises are free to obtain some of their supplies and to sell a portion of their product on the market. Nongovernmental enterprises now account for at least half the volume of retail sales. In urban centers, there has been a rapid growth of collectively and individually owned businesses such as restaurants, teahouses, inns, hair salons, photography studios, tailor shops, and businesses providing all types of repair and maintenance services. Rural markets, where individual farm households sell their surplus product or purchase supplies, are also growing.

Foreign Trade in China

China’s foreign trade is controlled mainly by state-owned trading corporations at the national and local levels, although local corporations gained increasing autonomy in their foreign trade decisions after 1979. The state relaxed some trade restrictions, which attracted foreign investment and increased trade activity. Chinese companies that partner with foreign companies can import equipment and raw materials for their own use and can export their products.

In the 2000s China’s chief exports included computers and electronic goods; machinery; clothing, accessories, and footwear; textiles; and petroleum products. Among the major imports were machinery, oil, chemicals, and precision equipment (such as optical and medical equipment and measuring devices). China’s principal trading partners are the United States, Hong Kong (which is part of China but has a separate economy), Japan, South Korea, and Germany.

China’s trade relations with the United States were periodically strained in the 1990s as a result of American criticism of China’s human rights practices. Several times the United States threatened to suspend normal trading status, formerly called most-favored-nation trading status, for China. With normal trading status, American tariffs on imported Chinese goods are similar to the tariffs the United States imposes on goods from most other countries. Without normal trading status, the tariffs would be much higher, and the price of Chinese goods would be higher for American consumers, which would likely cause a decrease in the volume of trade between the two countries. However, after China agreed to reforms designed to open a wide range of industries to international competition and investment—such as reducing tariffs and other barriers on imports of many U.S. industrial and agricultural products—the U.S. Congress in 2000 passed legislation giving China permanent normal trading status. Many experts believed that normalizing trade with China would foster cooperation instead of confrontation, and would therefore help strengthen support for new environmental, labor, and human rights reforms within China. China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. In joining the WTO, China agreed to reduce import tariffs, drop many restrictions on foreign investment, and abide by WTO standards for protection of patents, copyrights, and intellectual property.

Currency and Banking of China

China’s basic unit of currency is the renminbi, commonly called the yuan. The country’s banking system is under government control. The People’s Bank of China is the central financial institution, and it issues all Chinese currency. However, China’s international accounts and foreign currency arrangements are primarily the concern of the Bank of China, which has more than 500 foreign branches. In addition, China has four other major banks: the Agricultural Bank of China, which is responsible for making loans to the rural sector; the Bank of Communications of China, a commercial bank; the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which handles industrial and commercial credits and international business; and the People’s Construction Bank of China, which deals with funds for basic construction. The China International Trust and Investment Corporation raises funds for investment in China and helps arrange joint ventures inside the country and overseas. There are stock exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Post-1979 reforms to the banking sector include strengthening the role of the People’s Bank of China and the establishment of new commercial banks. Many major foreign banks and insurance companies now have offices in China, and foreign participation in China’s banking, insurance, and financial services is expected to continue to rise.


The structure of China’s government follows a Leninist model of one-party rule (see Communism) established by revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in 1949. Under the Leninist system, the mandate to govern originates not in elections but in the ruling party’s armed seizure of power. The claim to legitimacy rests on the ruling party’s assertion that it serves the interests of the people. Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin first established this system in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and it was later adopted by or imposed on many other socialist states. In China, the ruling party is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which came to power in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China.

The CCP dominates policy making and policy execution through its members in the government. Within the state (governmental) structure, the highest organ in theory is the legislature, called the National People’s Congress (NPC). In practice, however, the most powerful state organ is the cabinet, called the State Council, which is headed by the premier.

China launched a period of economic reform in 1978. In the shift from a government-controlled planned economy to a so-called socialist market economy, specialized government agencies have been strengthened or newly established and have been given more operational independence. The National People’s Congress has adopted hundreds of laws aimed at providing a more predictable environment for economic activity, and in the course of this work it has expanded its professional staff and its own authority. State-owned enterprises have gained considerable autonomy and some have been privatized, while a new sector of private and collective enterprises has developed largely independent of direct state control. Local governments have gained greater authority to adapt national policy to local circumstances. They also have increased their shares of tax revenues at the expense of taxes remitted to the central government. In the midst of these changes, the CCP largely has withdrawn from managing the day-to-day details of government affairs, but it has continued to set major policy. Furthermore, through its members in the government, the CCP has restricted political activities that promote views contrary to the party’s objectives, in effect allowing no significant opposition to emerge.

Constitution of China

The first constitution of the People’s Republic of China went into effect in 1954. It established the government structure and contained a long chapter on citizens’ rights and duties. The government adopted new constitutions in 1975 and 1978, and adopted the present constitution in 1982. Each constitution reflected the ideological concerns and policy priorities of the time, although none fundamentally altered the government structure. The present constitution echoes the formality and detail of the first, reflecting an ideological return to the concept of rule of law. All of the constitutions nominally centralized power in the National People’s Congress, giving it the power to appoint and supervise the top officials of both the executive and the judicial branches. The 1982 constitution was amended in 1993 to confirm the practice of a “socialist market economy”; in 1999 to legitimize the economic role of private firms; and in 2004 to provide legal protection of private property.

Members of people’s congresses at the two lowest levels of government—the township and county levels—are directly elected in tightly controlled elections with limited competition. Citizens who are at least 18 years of age may vote. Members of the people’s congresses at the provincial and national levels are indirectly elected by the congresses at the lower levels. Administrative leaders at all levels—for example, county heads, provincial governors, and the premier—are elected by the people’s congress at their level, although the person chosen is usually the one recommended by the CCP.

Executive of China

The head of state in China is the president, who is elected to a five-year term by the National People’s Congress. The presidency is largely a ceremonial office. Executive powers rest with the State Council, which is headed by the premier. The premier is nominated by the president and elected by the NPC to a five-year term. The State Council includes about 40 heads of ministries and national-level commissions who are nominated by the premier and elected by the NPC to five-year terms. In general, however, the NPC elects candidates based on the wishes of the CCP.

Because the CCP wields so much control, the person with the greatest real power over China’s government is the party’s general secretary. The second most powerful person is the premier. The level of authority that an office commands relates very much to the personality of the individual holding the office. Often, although not necessarily, the CCP general secretary is also the state president, combining in one person the ceremonial prestige of the head of state and the policy-making powers of the head of the ruling party.

Legislature of China

Members of the National People’s Congress are chosen for five-year terms in indirect elections by the provincial congresses. Typically, the provincial congresses select those delegates recommended by the CCP. The size of the NPC is determined by law and has ranged from about 3,000 to about 3,500 members. Its size is too large—and its once-a-year sessions too short (typically less than a month)—for the NPC to conduct much debate over the legislation that it passes, the government reports it approves, or the official appointments and removals it makes.

When the NPC is not in session, a Standing Committee of about 150 members elected from the NPC membership acts in its place. The Standing Committee represents the congress in a variety of functions, including passing laws, interpreting and supervising implementation of the constitution, and ratifying or nullifying treaties with foreign governments.

Judiciary in China

China traditionally lacked Western-style ideas of judicial independence and due process of law. The development of a modern legal system was first attempted in the early 20th century but revolution and civil war ended these efforts. When the Communist government took power in 1949, it initially made little effort to create an adequate legal code that clearly detailed illegal activity or a uniform process for dealing with the accused. Since reforms in 1978, however, China has constructed the beginnings of a modern legal and judicial system. The government has enacted hundreds of laws. Many deal with economic subjects, but others govern the administration of prisons and the activities of lawyers and judges.

The Chinese legal system has four components: a court system; a public security administration, or police component; an office of the procurator, or public prosecutor; and a system of prisons and labor camps. The highest court is the Supreme People’s Court, which supervises the administration of justice by the various lower levels of people’s courts. The Supreme People’s Court does not have the power of constitutional supervision. That power is vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Lower courts, public prosecutors, and public security offices exist at the provincial, county, and municipal levels. In addition, public security offices function at the neighborhood level. China also has begun to cultivate a cadre of public and private lawyers, who numbered only about 5,000 in 1980 but have since increased to more than 100,000.

In theory, judges are appointed by and are accountable to their corresponding level of people’s congress. In actuality, however, judges are chosen by CCP personnel departments and are supervised by the party and the Ministry of Justice.

The procurators and courts function in close coordination with the police and other administrative agencies. Nonetheless, they are supposed to perform their functions independently, and citizens are bringing economic and other disputes to court more frequently. The CCP often acts as an informal mediator between aggrieved parties. This type of paralegal mediation has influenced resolutions of neighborhood disputes, divorces, family arguments, and minor thefts. The criminal procedure code guarantees the right to a defense, but the defense is often just a formality or an argument by the defense counsel for a lighter sentence. Under a system of reeducation through labor, Chinese law permits the police and other administrative authorities to impose up to three years of detention without trial.

Some political trials are highly publicized; among the most prominent of these was the trial of the Gang of Four (1980-1981), who were convicted of crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution. Political trials of dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng, who was tried in both 1979 and 1994 for pro-democracy activities, are closed to all but selected viewers.

Local Government of China

Local government in China is organized into three major administrative tiers below the central government. At the level directly below the center are 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 autonomous municipalities, and 2 Special Autonomous Regions (SARs). The 22 provinces are Anhui, Fujian, Gansu, Guangdong, Guizhou, Hainan, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Jilin, Liaoning, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Zhejiang. China counts Taiwan as its 23rd province, although since 1949 Taiwan has been controlled by a separate government that fled to the island when it lost the civil war on mainland China. The five autonomous regions are Guangxi Zhuang, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia Hui, Tibet, and Xinjiang Uygur. Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, and Tianjin are the four autonomous municipalities. Hong Kong and Macao are the two SARs.

At the second of the three administrative levels are prefectures, counties, and municipalities. The lowest level is formed by municipal subdivisions, administrative towns, and rural townships. Each level has special autonomous entities inhabited primarily by minorities, such as Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Villages in rural areas and residents’ committees in cities are below the formal government structure, but these grassroots organs have governmental purposes, such as collecting taxes, resolving disputes, and supervising population planning.

Political Parties of China

According to the country’s 1982 constitution, China is a socialist dictatorship of the proletariat (working class) led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a united front with other parties. In practice, the CCP fully orchestrates national political activity because party members hold the most powerful government offices. Under the united front policy, the CCP permits several minor political parties to operate in China. These parties draw their members mainly from cultural, educational, and scientific circles. No truly independent political parties exist. The CCP supervises organizations serving the constituencies of youth, women, and labor. The most important association is the Communist Youth League. This organization plays a major role in recruiting young people who wish to prepare for CCP membership, which may begin at age 18. Since the reforms of the late 1970s, the party has permitted the formation of hundreds of new associations, but all are sponsored officially or unofficially by a government or party organ.

The organization and functions of the CCP are set forth in the party constitution. The National Party Congress is the highest organ of the CCP, but in general, it convenes only once every few years. When the party congress is not in session, the Central Committee, a smaller organ that is elected by the full congress, serves as the party’s highest body. The Central Committee in turn elects two even smaller working groups: the Politburo and the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the latter containing the most influential party members. The Central Committee also elects the party general secretary. The outcomes of these elections are predetermined by negotiations among party leaders.

When the CCP held its first National Party Congress in 1921, it had only 57 members. By 1956 membership had grown to 10 million, and by the early 21st century there were about 60 million members, making the CCP the world’s largest Communist party. Party members are found in all walks of life, but most hold positions of influence in the government, in government-run educational and cultural institutions, or in the economy. Since reforms began in 1978, the CCP has tried to recruit members who are younger, more educated, and more technically skilled than in the past.

Important CCP slogans include “building socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “holding high the banner of Deng Xiaoping theory,” referring to the economic principles of China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping. The CCP is concerned with maintaining political stability through a combination of patriotic indoctrination and police control. The party’s economic priorities include increasing China’s economic strength through a market economy that is closely guided by the government, and reforming inefficient state-run enterprises by giving them managerial autonomy and allowing many to become privately owned.

Defense of China

China has the world’s largest military force. The 1982 Chinese constitution vests supreme command of the armed forces in the Central Military Commission, a CCP organ independent of civilian control. The country’s military force is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes the national army, navy, and air force. The PLA is a volunteer force devoted chiefly to internal security. It lacks the capability to project naval or air power beyond the country’s coastal airspace and waters. However, China does have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, as well as conventional warheads, and the capability to deliver these weapons by medium- and long-range missiles.

The PLA has played a significant role in economic production; in major construction efforts such as dams, irrigation projects, and land reclamation schemes; and in disaster relief. In the 1960s, during the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, the PLA virtually ran the nation. In 1989 it suppressed the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (see Tiananmen Square Protests).

Foreign Policy in China

When the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war in 1949, the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government that had ruled China fled to the island of Taiwan. For two decades the government on Taiwan received backing from the United States and retained the China seat in the United Nations (UN), which gave it international recognition as the rightful government of all China. Meanwhile, in 1950 the People’s Republic of China, the Communist government on the mainland, signed a treaty of friendship and alliance with the USSR, reflecting Mao’s policy to “lean to one side” by aligning with the socialist camp. Relations between China and the USSR deteriorated, however, due in part to ideological differences, disagreements over strategy toward the West, and border disputes, and by 1960 the split between China and the USSR was evident. The two countries fought border battles in 1969 and 1970. During the 1960s, therefore, China was on bad terms with both the USSR and the United States, and was isolated from world affairs.

Relations with the United States began to improve when President Richard Nixon visited China in February 1972. By 1979 China and the United States had normalized diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, the government on Taiwan saw its international standing fall as the United States and other foreign governments shifted their formal diplomatic relations to the Communist government in Beijing. In the late 1980s, just before the collapse of the USSR, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union also warmed, although the border dispute was not formally settled until China and Russia signed a treaty in 2008.

China currently pursues an independent diplomacy in which it seeks good relations with all powers but opposes dominance by any country, including the United States. Its resources are its large size and population, strategic location in the center of Asia, growing economic influence, permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, and status as a nuclear power. The country’s chief problems are its relative military and economic weaknesses compared to the United States and nearby Japan. China seeks to promote relations with all of the many countries on its periphery, while taking an uncompromising stance in its territorial disputes with such neighbors as India, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. It insists on its sovereignty over Taiwan and rebukes any country that accepts diplomatic dealings with the government on that island.

As China has become a major export power, economic diplomacy has become an important part of its foreign policy. In the 1980s China began to seek membership in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization, or WTO) in order to maintain favorable tariff treatment by other markets, including the United States, its chief export market. As part of the application process, China was required to negotiate bilateral agreements on opening its markets with members of the trade group. After 15 years of negotiations, China formally became a member of the WTO in December 2001. In joining the WTO, China agreed to reduce import tariffs, eliminate state subsidies for farmers and state-owned firms, drop many restrictions on foreign investment, and abide by WTO standards for protection of patents, copyrights, and intellectual property. After China’s entry in the WTO, the United States permanently normalized trade relations with China, in accordance with legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000. Normal trade relations, formerly known as most-favored-nation status, is the favorable tariff treatment the United States extends to all but a small group of countries.

International Organizations in China

In 1971 the People’s Republic of China obtained the China seat in the UN, while the government on Taiwan, which had formerly occupied the seat, was expelled from the organization. China has a permanent seat, which includes veto power, on the UN Security Council, and the country participates in the full range of UN agencies, including the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). China is also a member of most intergovernmental organizations in specialized fields, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). China does not belong to any military alliance or regional security organization, although it participates in the informal Asian Regional Forum (ARF), a security dialogue.


China traces it origins as a discrete political and cultural unit to ancient times. From the 2nd millennium BC to the early 20th century, a succession of dynasties ruled progressively larger parts of what is now China. A notable feature of the later dynasties was the dominance of the scholar-official class, made up of educated men who were recruited to serve as government officials based on their skills rather than their family background. When European expansion began in Asia in the 16th century, the global context of Chinese history changed, and by the 19th century China had to confront militarily stronger European powers. By the early 20th century China’s defeat at the hands of the imperialist powers had become the catalyst for a revolution against the dynastic regime. Chinese revolutionaries overthrew the last dynasty in 1911, and for several decades the country was torn apart by warlords, civil war, and Japanese invasion.

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war and established China’s current government. The Communists initiated many social and political changes. The most significant campaigns were the transition to a planned economy in the 1950s (see Communism: Centrally Planned Economy); the Cultural Revolution, in which students loyal to Communist leader Mao Zedong attacked intellectuals and party leaders, in the late 1960s; and the economic reform movement, begun in the late 1970s, that reintroduced aspects of a free-market economy and encouraged foreign investment.


During the long Paleolithic period, bands of predatory hunter-gatherers lived in what is now China. Homo erectus, an extinct species closely related to modern humans, or Homo sapiens, appeared in China more than one million years ago. Anthropologists disagree about whether Homo erectus is the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens or merely related through a mutual ancestor. In either case, modern humans may have first appeared in China as far back as 200,000 years ago.

Beginning in about 10,000 BC, humans in China began developing agriculture, possibly influenced by developments in Southeast Asia. By 5000 BC there were Neolithic village settlements in several regions of China. On the fine, wind-blown loess soils of the north and northwest, the primary crop was millet, while villages along the lower Yangtze River in Central China were centered on rice production in paddy fields, supplemented by fish and aquatic plants. Humans in both regions had domesticated pigs, dogs, and cattle, and by 3000 BC sheep had become important in the north and water buffalo in the south.

Over the course of the 5th to 3rd millennia BC, many distinct, regional Neolithic cultures emerged. In the northwest, for instance, people made red pottery vessels decorated in black pigment with designs such as spirals, sawtooth lines, and zoomorphic (animal-like) stick figures. During the same period, Neolithic cultures in the east produced pottery that was rarely painted but had distinctive shapes, such as three-legged, deep-bodied tripods. Archaeologists have uncovered numerous jade ornaments, blades, and ritual objects in several eastern sites, but jade is rare in western ones.

In many areas, stamped-earth fortified walls came to be built around settlements, suggesting not only increased contact between settlements but also increased conflict. Later Chinese civilization probably evolved from the interaction of many distinct Neolithic cultures, which over time came to share more in the way of material culture and social and cultural practices. For example, many burial practices, including the use of coffins and ramped chambers, spread way beyond their place of origin.

Ancient Bronze Age China

Ancient Chinese historians knew nothing of their Neolithic forebears, whose existence was discovered by 20th-century archaeologists. Traditionally, the Chinese traced their history through many dynasties to a series of legendary rulers, like the Yellow Lord (Huang Di), who invented the key features of civilization—agriculture, the family, silk, boats, carts, bows and arrows, and the calendar. The last of these kings was Yu, and when he died the people chose his son to lead them, thus establishing the principle of hereditary, dynastic rule. Yu’s descendants created the Xia dynasty (2205?-1570? BC), which was said to have lasted for 14 generations before declining and being superseded by the Shang dynasty.

The Xia dynasty may correspond to the first phases of the transition to the Bronze Age. Between 2000 and 1600 BC a more complex Bronze Age civilization emerged out of the diverse Neolithic cultures in northern China. This civilization was marked by writing, metalwork, domestication of horses, a class system, and a stable political and religious hierarchy. Although Bronze Age civilizations developed earlier in Southwest Asia, China seems to have developed both its writing system and its bronze technology with relatively little stimulus from outside. However, other elements of early Chinese civilization, such as the spoke-wheeled horse chariot, apparently reached China indirectly from places to the west.

No written documents survive to link the earliest Bronze Age sites unambiguously to Xia. With the Shang dynasty, however, the historical and archaeological records begin to coincide. Chinese accounts of the Shang rulers match inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells found in the 20th century at the city of Anyang in the valley of the Huang He (Yellow River).

The Shang Dynasty (1570?-1045? BC)

Archaeological remains provide many details about Shang civilization. A king was the religious and political head of the society. He ruled through dynastic alliances; divination (his subjects believed that he alone could predict the future by interpreting cracks in animal bones); and royal journeys, hunts, and military campaigns that took him to outlying areas. The Shang were often at war with neighboring peoples and moved their capital several times. Shang kings could mobilize large armies for warfare and huge numbers of workers to construct defensive walls and elaborate tombs.

The Shang directly controlled only the central part of China proper, extending over much of modern Henan, Hubei, Shandong, Anhui, Shanxi, and Hebei provinces. However, Shang influence extended beyond the state’s borders, and Shang art motifs are often found in artifacts from more-distant regions.

The Shang king’s rule was based equally on religious and military power. He played a priestly role in the worship of his ancestors and the high god Di. The king made animal sacrifices and communicated with his ancestors by interpreting the cracks on heated cattle bones or tortoise shells that had been prepared by professional diviners. Royal ancestors were viewed as able to intervene with Di, send curses, produce dreams, and assist the king in battle. Kings were buried with ritual vessels, weapons, jades, and numerous servants and sacrificial victims, suggesting that the Shang believed in some form of afterlife.

The Shang used bronze more for purposes of ritual than war. Although some weapons were made of bronze, the great bulk of the surviving Shang bronze objects are cups, goblets, steamers, and cauldrons, presumably made for use in sacrificial rituals. They were beautifully formed in a great variety of shapes and sizes and decorated with images of wild animals. As many as 200 of these bronze vessels might be buried in a single royal grave. The bronze industry required centralized coordination of a large labor force to mine, refine, and transport copper, tin, and lead ores, as well as to produce and transport charcoal. It also required technically skilled artisans to make clay models, construct ceramic molds, and assemble and finish vessels, the largest which weighed as much as 800 kg (1,800 lb).

The writing system used by the Shang is the direct ancestor of the modern Chinese writing system, with symbols or characters for each word. This writing system would evolve over time, but it never became a purely phonetic system like the Roman alphabet, which uses symbols (letters) to represent specific sounds. Thus mastering the written language required learning to recognize and write several thousand characters, making literacy a highly specialized skill requiring many years to master fully.

The Zhou Dynasty (1045?-256 BC)

In the 11th century BC a frontier state called Zhou rose against and defeated the Shang dynasty. The Zhou dynasty is traditionally divided into two periods: the Western Zhou (1045?-771 BC), when the capital was near modern Xi’an in the west, and the Eastern Zhou (770-256 BC), when the capital was moved further east to modern Luoyang.

Like the Shang kings, the Zhou kings sacrificed to their ancestors, but they also sacrificed to Heaven (Tian). The Shu jing (Book of History), one of the earliest transmitted texts, describes the Zhou’s version of their history. It assumes a close relationship between Heaven and the king, called the Son of Heaven, explaining that Heaven gives the king a mandate to rule only as long as he does so in the interest of the people. Because the last Shang king had been decadent and cruel, Heaven withdrew the Mandate of Heaven (Tian Ming) from him and entrusted it to the virtuous Zhou kings. The Shu jing praises the first three Zhou rulers: King Wen (the Cultured King) expanded the Zhou domain; his son, King Wu (the Martial King), conquered the Shang; and King Wu’s brother, Zhou Gong (often referred to as Duke of Zhou), consolidated the conquest and served as loyal regent for Wu’s heir.

The Shi jing (Book of Poetry) offers another glimpse of life in early Zhou China. Its 305 poems include odes celebrating the exploits of the early Zhou rulers, hymns for sacrificial ceremonies, and folk songs. The folk songs are about ordinary people in everyday situations, such as working in fields, spinning and weaving, marching on campaigns, and longing for lovers.

In these books, which became classics of the Confucian tradition, the Western Zhou dynasty is described as an age when people honored family relationships and stressed social status distinctions (see Confucianism). The early Zhou rulers did not attempt to exercise direct control over the entire region they conquered. Instead, they secured their position by selecting loyal supporters and relatives to rule walled towns and the surrounding territories. Each of these local rulers, or vassals, was generally able to pass his position on to a son, so that in time the domain became a hereditary vassal state. Within each state, there were noble houses holding hereditary titles. The rulers of the states and the members of the nobility were linked both to one another and to their ancestors by bonds of obligation based on kinship. Below the nobility were the officers (shi) and the peasants, both of which were also hereditary statuses. The relationship between each level and its superiors was conceived as a moral one. Peasants served their superiors, and their superiors looked after the peasants’ welfare. Social interaction at the upper levels was governed by li, a set of complex rules of social etiquette and personal conduct. Those who practiced li were considered civilized; those who did not, such as those outside the Zhou realm, were considered barbarians.

The Zhou kings maintained control over their vassals for more than two centuries, but as the generations passed, the ties of kinship and vassalage weakened. In 770 BC several of the states rebelled and joined with non-Chinese forces to drive the Zhou from their capital. The Zhou established a new capital to the east at Chengzhou (near present-day Luoyang), where they were safer from barbarian attack, but the Eastern Zhou kings no longer exercised much political or military authority over the vassal states. In the Eastern Zhou period, real power lay with the larger states, although the Zhou kings continued as nominal overlords, partly because they were recognized as custodians of the Mandate of Heaven, but also because no single feudal state was strong enough to dominate the others.

The Eastern Zhou period witnessed various social and economic advances. The use of iron-tipped, ox-drawn plows and improved irrigation techniques produced higher agricultural yields. This in turn supported a steady population increase. Other economic advances included the circulation of coins for money, the beginning of private ownership of land, and the growth of cities. Military technology also advanced. The Zhou developed the crossbow and methods of siege warfare, and adopted cavalry warfare from nomads (wandering pastoral people) to the north. Social changes were just as important, particularly the breakdown of old class barriers and the development of conscripted infantry armies.

As the king’s political authority declined, the states on the periphery of the old heartland gained the most power because they had room to expand their territory. During the 7th and 6th centuries BC, brief periods of stability were achieved through alliances among states, under the domination of the strongest member. By the late 5th century BC, however, the system of alliances had proved untenable. The years from 403 to 221 BC became known as the Warring States Period because the conflicts were particularly frequent and deadly.

In addition to warring with and sometimes absorbing other Zhou states, the peripheral states of Chao, Yen, Qin, and Chu expanded outward, extending Chinese culture into a larger area. The southern state of Chu, for example, expanded rapidly in the Yangtze Valley. Chu also defeated and absorbed at least 50 small states as it extended its reach north to the heartland of the Zhou territory and east to absorb the old states of Wu and Yue. By the 3rd century BC, Chu was on the forefront of cultural innovation. It produced the greatest literary masterpieces of the late Zhou period, which were later collected in the Chu ci (Songs of the South). The Chu ci is an anthology of fantastical poems full of images of elusive deities and shamans who can fly through the spirit world.

The Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy

The late Zhou was a turbulent period. To maintain and increase power, state rulers sought the advice of teachers and strategists. This fueled intellectual activity and debate, and intense reappraisal of traditions. Thus the period became known as the time when the “hundred schools of thought contended.” There were thinkers fascinated by logical puzzles; utopians and hermits who argued for withdrawal from public life; agriculturists who argued that no one should eat who does not plough; military theorists who analyzed ways to deceive the enemy; and cosmologists who developed theories of the forces of nature, including the opposite and complementary forces of yin and yang. The three most influential schools of thought that evolved during this period were Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism.

Kongfuzi, or Confucius as he is known in the West, was a teacher from the state of Lu (in present-day Shandong Province) who lived in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Confucius revered tradition and encouraged his disciples to master historical records, music, poetry, and ritual. He tried in vain to gain high office, traveling from state to state with his disciples in search of a ruler who would employ him. Confucius talked repeatedly of his vision of a more perfect society in which rulers and subjects, nobles and commoners, parents and children, and men and women would wholeheartedly accept the parts assigned to them, devoting themselves to their responsibilities to others.

Confucius exalted virtues such as filial piety (reverent respect and obedience toward parents and grandparents), humanity (an unselfish concern for the welfare of others), integrity, and a sense of duty. He redefined the term junzi (gentleman) to mean a man of moral cultivation rather than a man of noble birth. He repeatedly urged his students to aspire to be gentlemen who pursue integrity and duty, rather than petty men who pursue personal gain. Confucius’s teachings are known through the Lunyu (Analects), a collection of his conversations compiled by his followers after his death. The eventual success of Confucian ideas owes much to Confucius’s followers in the two centuries after his death, particularly to Mencius (371?-289? BC) and Xunzi (300?-235? BC).

Mencius, like Confucius, traveled to various states, offering advice to their rulers. He repeatedly tried to convince them that the ruler who governed benevolently would earn the respect of the people and would unify the realm. Mencius proposed concrete political and financial measures for easing tax burdens and otherwise improving the people’s lot. With his disciples and fellow philosophers, he discussed other issues in moral philosophy, arguing strongly, for instance, that human nature was fundamentally good as everyone is born with the capacity to recognize what is right and act upon it.

Xunzi took the opposite view of human nature, arguing that people are born selfish and that it is only through education and ritual that they learn to put moral principle above their own interests. Xunzi stressed the importance of ritual to social and political life, but took a secular view of it. For instance, Xunzi argued that the ruler should pray for rain during a drought because to do so is the traditional ritual, not because it moves Heaven to send rain.

The doctrines of Daoism, the second great school of philosophy that emerged during the Warring States Period, are set forth in the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Its Power), which is attributed traditionally to Laozi (570?-490? BC), and in the compiled writings of Zhuangzi (369?-286? BC). Both works share a disapproval of the unnatural and artificial. Whereas plants and animals act spontaneously in the ways appropriate to them, humans have separated themselves from the Way (Dao) by plotting and planning, analyzing and organizing. Both texts reject social conventions and call for an ecstatic surrender to the spontaneity of cosmic processes. At the political level, Daoism advocated a return to primitive agricultural communities, in which life could follow the most natural course. Government policy should be one of extreme noninterference, permitting the people to respond to nature spontaneously. The Zhuangzi is much longer than the Daodejing. A literary masterpiece, it is full of tall tales, parables, and fictional encounters between historical figures. Zhuangzi poked fun at people mired in everyday affairs and urged people to see death as part of the natural cosmic processes.

Legalism differed from both Confucianism and Daoism in its narrow focus on statecraft. Thinkers like Han Fei (280?-233? BC) reasoned that the extreme disorders of their day called for new and drastic measures. They rejected the Confucian theory that strong government depended on the moral quality of the ruler and his officials and their success in winning over the people. Rather, they argued, it depended on effective systems of rewards and punishments. To ensure his power, the ruler had to keep his officials in line with strict rules and regulations and his people obedient with predictably enforced laws.

Imperial China

Despite the reality of interstate strife throughout the Eastern Zhou period, people retained the idea that “all under Heaven” should be ruled by the Son of Heaven. Unification was achieved through force of arms in the 3rd century BC, and from then until modern times, the norm for China was a unified, centralized government ruled by a monarch. No dynasty lasted for more than a few centuries, and disorder and disunity marked the decades or centuries between dynasties; each time, however, military strongmen eventually regained control and imposed centralized rule.

The Qin Unification (221-206 BC)

During the 4th century BC, the state of Qin, the westernmost of the Zhou states, embarked on a program of Legalist administrative, economic, and military reforms. The Qin abolished the aristocracy, granting power instead to appointed military heroes. The king had absolute power, and he ruled by means of strict laws and harsh punishments.

During the 3rd century BC the states destroyed each other to the point where only seven states were still in contention for control of China. Then from 230 to 221 BC, Qin conquered the remaining states. In 221 BC the king of Qin decided that his title, wang (king), was inadequate. He invented the title huangdi (emperor) and called himself Qin Shihuangdi (First Emperor).

Chinese historians later severely criticized Qin Shihuangdi, calling him a cruel and suspicious megalomaniac. With the assistance of the shrewd Legalist minister Li Si, Qin Shihuangdi welded the formerly independent states into an administratively centralized and culturally unified empire. He abolished the aristocracies and divided the empire into provinces. He appointed officials to administer the provinces and controlled the new administrators through a mass of regulations, reporting requirements, and penalties for inadequate performance. To guard against local rebellions, Qin Shihuangdi outlawed private possession of arms and ordered hundreds of thousands of prominent or wealthy families from the conquered states to move to the Qin capital, Xianyang (near modern Xi’an). To administer all regions uniformly, the Qin adopted a standardized set of written characters, as well as standardized weights and measures, and coinage. When Li Si complained that scholars were using records of the past to criticize the emperor’s policies and undermine popular support, Qin Shihuangdi ordered the burning of all writings that were not on useful topics like agriculture, medicine, and divination.

Even after conquering all the Zhou states, Qin Shihuangdi took aggressive measures to secure and expand the size of his territories. He made several tours to inspect his new realm and awe his subjects.

Qin Shihuangdi assumed that his dynasty would last for thousands of generations, but the stability of the Qin government depended on the strength and character of the emperor. After Qin Shihuangdi died in 210 BC, the Qin imperial structure collapsed. Qin Shihuangdi’s heir was murdered by his younger brother, and uprisings soon followed. In 209 BC a group of conscripted peasants, delayed by rain, decided to become outlaws rather than face death for arriving late for their frontier service. To their surprise, they soon found thousands of malcontents eager to join them. Soon Qin generals were defecting, and former nobles of the old states were taking up arms.

The Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220)

In 206 BC Liu Bang, a minor Qin official who had mobilized forces against the government, proclaimed himself king of Han, one of the states within the Qin empire. Four years later, after he had defeated his chief rivals, he took the title emperor. The Han dynasty that he founded is normally divided into two periods: the Western Han dynasty and the Eastern Han dynasty. The Western Han (also called the Former Han) is so named because the capital was to the west at Chang’an (modern Xi’an). During the Eastern Han (also called the Later Han), the capital was to the east at Luoyang. The Western Han lasted from 206 BC to AD 9, and the Eastern Han from AD 25 to 220 (a brief interregnum occurred between the two periods).

Liu Bang, better known in history as Emperor Gaozu (Kao-tsu), did not disband the centralized government created by Qin, but rather concentrated on making it less burdensome. The Han rescinded harsh laws, sharply reduced taxes, and allowed merchants to operate without government interference in an effort to promote economic recovery. Gaozu experimented with granting large and nearly autonomous vassal states to his relatives, but he came to see dispersed power as a threat to his rule, and by the middle of the 2nd century BC most of these states had been eliminated. Under the Qin, one of the aims of Legalism had been direct rule by the emperor of all subjects of the empire. The Han government retained this policy in its tax and labor service obligations, which were imposed directly on each subject according to age, sex, and rank, instead of on families or communities.

The most significant difference between the Han government and the previous Qin administration was in the choice of men to staff government offices. Around the 1st century BC, Wudi, the most activist of the Han emperors, decreed that officials should be selected on the basis of Confucian virtues, which gave Confucian scholars a privileged position in society. Wudi established a national university to train officials in the Confucian classics. Wealthy and prominent men began to compete for recognition of their Confucian learning and character so that they could gain access to office.

Credit for the political success of Confucianism belongs in large part to thinkers like Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC), who developed Confucianism in ways that legitimized the new imperial state and elevated the role of the emperor. Dong joined Confucian ideas of human virtue and social order to notions of the workings of the cosmos in terms of yin and yang and the five agents (wood, metal, fire, water, and earth). He argued that the ruler occupies a unique position because he can link the realms of Heaven, earth, and human beings through his actions.

Another important intellectual accomplishment of the Han dynasty was the development of historical writing. Sima Qian (l45?-90? BC) wrote a comprehensive history of China from the time of the Yellow Lord to his own day, dividing his account into chronological chapters that included discussions of political events, biographies of key individuals, and treatises on such subjects as geography, taxation, and court rituals. During the Eastern Han dynasty, the historian Ban Gu followed a similar model in his account of the Western Han dynasty. From then on, new dynasties regularly had the histories of the preceding dynasty compiled, following the standards established by these two pioneers.

At the same time that the Qin and then Han governments were consolidating their power, the nomadic Xiongnu tribes in the arid steppe region north of China was growing stronger and posing a threat. Defending against the raids of non-Chinese tribes had been a problem since Shang times, but with the rise of nomadism, the problem became much more severe. These nomads were skilled horsemen and hunters, and their ability to shoot arrows while riding horseback made them a potent striking force. When the Xiongnu formed a huge confederation in the late 3rd century BC, northern China needed a strong government to oppose them. The Xiongnu were capable of sending tens of thousands of horsemen into northern China to raid towns and then withdrawing before Chinese armies could be organized to oppose them.

The early Han rulers tried conciliatory policies, but after Wudi came to power he took the offensive, sending several expeditions of 100,000 to 300,000 troops into Xiongnu territory. These campaigns were enormously expensive, requiring long supply lines, and rarely led to direct engagement with the Xiongnu, who were able to evade the Han troops easily. Nevertheless, the Han gained territory in the northwest, and more than a million people were sent to colonize the region. To search for allies, Wudi sent the explorer-diplomat Zhang Qian far into Central Asia, where he learned of the countries of central and western Asia, including the Roman Empire. He also discovered that these regions were already importing Chinese products, particularly silk, from merchants who traded along overland routes across Asia. A single item might change hands many times before arriving at its final destination in western Asia or southern Europe. Eventually, the overland trade route between the capitals of Rome and Chang’an became known as the Silk Road.

To generate revenue to pay for his military campaigns, Wudi manipulated coinage, confiscated the lands of nobles, sold offices and titles, and increased taxes. He established government monopolies in the production of iron, salt, and liquor—enterprises that previously had been sources of great profit for private entrepreneurs. The government also took over large-scale grain dealing. Confucian scholars questioned the morality of these economic policies. They thought that farming was an essential activity, while trade and crafts produced little of real value and should be discouraged. The government, they argued, was teaching people mercantile “tricks” by setting itself up in commerce. Despite their complaints, the Chinese economy seems to have grown rapidly in Han times. By AD 2, the population had reached 58 million. Trade and industry flourished, cities grew, and Chang’an and Luoyang became important cultural centers attracting the best writers and scholars from all over China.

During the last decades of the Western Han, a series of child emperors occupied the throne. Regents, generally from the families of the emperors’ mothers, ruled in their place. One of these regents, Wang Mang, deposed an infant emperor in AD 9 and declared himself emperor of the Xin dynasty. Although condemned as a usurper, Wang Mang was a learned Confucian scholar who wished to implement policies described in the Confucian classics. He renamed offices, asserted state ownership of forests and swamps, built ritual halls, revived public granaries, outlawed slavery, limited land holdings, and reduced court expenses. Some of his policies, such as issuing new coins and nationalizing gold, led to economic turmoil. Matters were made worse when the Huang He breached its dikes and shifted course from north to south, flooding huge regions and driving millions of peasants from their homes. Rebellion broke out, and when Wang Mang was killed by rebels in AD 23, a member of the Han imperial clan reestablished the Han dynasty.

In the 2nd century AD maternal relatives of the emperors again came to dominate the court. Emperors turned to palace eunuchs (castrated men who served as palace servants) for help in ousting the maternal relatives, only to find that the eunuchs were just as difficult to control. In 166 and 169, scholars who had denounced the eunuchs were arrested, killed, or banished from the capital and from official life. In 184 a Daoist sect rose in revolt. The imperial generals sent to suppress the rebels soon took to fighting amongst themselves. In 189, one general slaughtered 2,000 eunuchs in the palace and took the Han emperor captive. Fighting continued for two decades until a stalemate was reached between three warlords, each controlling a distinct territory—one in the north, one in the southeast, and one in the southwest.

Period of Disunion (220-589)

When the last Han emperor abdicated in 220, each of the warlords proclaimed himself ruler, beginning what is known as the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265). The northern state, Wei, was the strongest, but before it had succeeded in unifying the realm, Sima Yan, a Wei general, led a successful coup in 265 and founded the Jin dynasty. By 280 he had reunited the north and south, but unity was only temporary, as the Jin princes began fighting among themselves. The non-Chinese groups of the north seized the opportunity to attack, and by 317 the Jin had lost all control of North China. For the next 250 years, North China was fractured and ruled by numerous non-Chinese dynasties, while the south was ruled by a sequence of four short-lived Chinese dynasties, all centered at present-day Nanjing.

The southern rulers had to contend with a powerful, hereditary aristocracy that had become entrenched in government posts. The Wei had granted public offices based on the nine rank system, which was originally determined by assessments of character and talent. However, in the south the system had degenerated to the point where the standing of the candidate’s family determined his post. The aristocratic families judged themselves and others by the status of their ancestors, would marry only with families of equivalent pedigree, and compiled lists and genealogies of the most eminent families. By securing nearly automatic access to higher government posts through the nine rank system, the aristocrats were assured of government salaries and exemptions from taxes and labor service. These families saw themselves as maintaining the high culture of the Han, and many excelled in poetry writing and witty conversation. At the same time, many also were able to amass large estates, which were worked by poor refugees from the north. At court, the aristocrats often looked on the emperors of the successive dynasties as military men rather than men of culture.

Despite the political instability of the successive dynasties, the southern economy prospered. To pay for an army and support the imperial court and aristocracy in high style, the government had to expand the area of taxable agricultural land, which it accomplished by both settling migrants on the land and improving tax collection. The potential of the south for agriculture was greater than that of the north because of its temperate climate and ample water supply.

In the north, none of the states established by non-Chinese lasted very long until the Xianbei tribe founded the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). By 420 the Xianbei had secured control. During the second half of the 5th century, the Xianbei adopted a series of policies designed to strengthen the state. To promote agricultural production, they adopted a system to distribute land to peasants. The capital was moved from its site near the northern border to Luoyang, the old capital of the Eastern Han and Jin. The population within the Northern Wei realm contained considerably more Chinese than Xianbei. Recognizing this, the Xianbei rulers employed Chinese officials, adopted Chinese-style clothing and customs at court, and made Chinese the official language. Xianbei tribesmen, however, still formed the main military force. They resented the growth of Chinese influence and rebelled in 524, sparking a decade of constant warfare. For the next 50 years, North China was torn apart by struggles between different contenders for power.

The Spread of Buddhism

During this period of near-constant political and military strife, Buddhism found a receptive audience in China, while the influence of Confucianism waned. Buddhism had arrived in China in the 1st century AD as the religion of merchants from Central Asia. During the next three centuries, the Chinese encountered a great variety of ideas and practices identified as Buddhist. Buddhism differed markedly from earlier Chinese religions and philosophies. A universal religion, it embraced all people, regardless of their ethnicity or social status. It also had a founding figure, the Indian prince Siddhartha (Buddha), who lived during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. To many Chinese, Buddhism seemed at first a variant of Daoism, as Daoist terms were used to translate Buddhist concepts. A more accurate understanding of Buddhism became possible after Kumarajiva (343?-413?), a Buddhist monk from Central Asia, settled in Chang’an and directed several thousand Chinese monks in the translation of Buddhist texts.

The Buddhist monastic establishment grew rapidly in China. By 477 there were reportedly 6,478 Buddhist temples and 77,258 monks and nuns in the north. The south was said to have 2,846 temples and 82,700 clerics some decades later. Given the traditional importance of family lines in China, it was a major step for a man to become a monk. He had to give up his surname and take a vow of celibacy, breaking from the ancestral cult that connected the dead, the living, and the unborn. Buddhists who did not become monks or nuns often made generous contributions to the construction or beautification of temples. Among the most generous patrons were rulers, in both the north and south. Women turned to Buddhism as readily as men. Although being born a woman was considered inferior to being born a man, it was also considered temporary because in the next life a woman could be reborn as a man, and women were encouraged to pursue salvation on terms nearly equal to men.

China also had critics of Buddhism, who labeled it immoral, unsuited to China, or a threat to the state because monastery land was not taxed. By the end of the 6th century, critics had twice convinced the court to close monasteries and force monks and nuns to return to lay life. These suppressions did not last long, however, and no attempt was made to eliminate private Buddhist belief.

Reunification Under the Sui Dynasty (581-618)

The division of the north and south, although largely following natural geographic divisions, was never stable, and there were repeated efforts at reunification. In the 570s and 580s, the long period of division was brought to an end. The successors of the Xianbei Northern Wei (whose dynastic names changed from Western Wei, to Northern Zhou, to Sui because of palace coups) took the area around modern-day Sichuan in 553, the northeast in 577, and the south in 589.

The founder of the Sui dynasty was Yang Jian, also known as Wendi or Emperor Wen. He was ethnically Chinese but had married into a non-Chinese military family. In 581 Wendi deposed the child emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty and secured his position by killing 59 princes of the Zhou royal house. He then sought to legitimate his position by presenting himself as a Buddhist cakravartin king, a monarch who uses force to defend the Buddhist faith.

In 604 Wendi was succeeded by his son, Yang Guang. The new emperor, known as Yangdi or Emperor Yang, launched several ambitious projects, including construction of the section of the Grand Canal from the city of Yangzhou on the Yangtze River to Luoyang, near the Huang He. The canal made it much easier to transport the rich agricultural products of the Yangtze Valley to the north, and it also fostered increased north-south communication. The Sui strengthened the power of the central government by curtailing the power of local officials to appoint their own subordinates. Some civil service posts were filled through a new method called the Examination System, which was designed to be free of favoritism by allowing all men, regardless of status, to compete in tests on the Confucian classics.

Yangdi pursued an aggressive foreign policy. He reasserted imperial Chinese control over what is now northern Vietnam, which the Han dynasty had conquered in the 2nd century BC, and undertook campaigns against Central Asian tribes to the north and west. Yangdi also twice launched campaigns against the Korean state of Koguryŏ (Goguryeo), although both ended disastrously for his armies.

The Sui dynasty lasted only two reigns. Yangdi’s ambitious projects and military campaigns led to exhaustion and unrest, and in 617 a Sui general, Li Yuan, captured the capital. After the emperor’s death in 618, Li Yuan declared himself emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907)

The Tang dynasty was one of the high periods of traditional Chinese civilization. During the period of Tang rule, but especially during the dynasty’s first hundred years, China was the cultural center of East Asia. Merchants, pilgrims, missionaries, and students traveled to Chang’an, the Tang capital, in numbers never seen before or after in imperial China. Under the Tang, China enjoyed a more cosmopolitan culture than in any other period before the 20th century.

Tang Political History

The first two Tang monarchs—Li Yuan, who ruled as Emperor Gaozu, and his son Li Shimin, who ruled as Emperor Taizong—were able rulers who strengthened the state. The empire was divided into about 300 prefectures under direct central control, with none large enough to challenge Tang rule. Tax revenue was based on the so-called equal-field system of allotting equal amounts of land to all adult males, a system originally begun by the Northern Wei. Similarly, like the armies of the northern dynasties, the early Tang armies were composed of volunteer farmer-soldiers. In return for allotments of farmland, men served in rotation in armies at the capital or on the frontiers. Using this army, as well as auxiliary troops composed of Turks, Tanguts, Khitans, and other non-Chinese, and led by their own chiefs, the Tang rulers extended their control beyond China proper.

In 630 the Tang turned against their former allies the Turks, gained territory from them, and won for Tang emperor Taizong the additional title of Great Khan. Over the next several decades, the Tang continued their westward expansion. By allying with Central Asian city-states, the Tang gained dominance over the Tarim Pendi (Tarim Basin) and eventually made their influence felt as far west as present-day Afghanistan. The early Tang also succeeded in extending their influence to the northeast and allying with the Korean kingdom of Silla.

The third Tang ruler, Emperor Gaozong (646-683), was sickly and a weak monarch, and his consort Empress Wu soon dominated the court. She took full charge when Gaozong suffered a stroke in 660. Gaozong died in 683, but Empress Wu maintained power during the reigns of her two sons. Then, in 690, she proclaimed herself emperor of a new dynasty, the Zhou. To gain support, she circulated the Great Cloud Sutra, which predicted the imminent reincarnation of the Buddha Maitreya as a female monarch, under whom the entire world would be free of illness, worry, and disaster. Empress Wu is the only woman in Chinese history who took the title of monarch. Later historians judged her as an evil usurper, and she was without question a forceful ruler. She moved quickly to eliminate rivals and opponents, suppressed rebellions of Tang princes, and maintained an aggressive foreign policy. Her hold on the government was so strong that she was not deposed until 705, when she was more than 80 years old and ailing.

Empress Wu’s death was followed by a power struggle. In 712 her grandson Xuanzong became emperor. Xuanzong presided over a dazzling court and patronized some of the greatest poets and painters in Chinese history. In Chinese folklore, Xuanzong’s passions led to his downfall, for in his older years he became infatuated with his favorite concubine Yang Guifei and neglected his duties. Yang was allowed to place her friends and relatives in important positions in the government. One of her favorites was the able general An Lushan, who after getting into a quarrel with Yang’s brother over control of the government, rebelled in 755. Xuanzong had to flee the capital, and the troops who accompanied the emperor forced him to have Yang Guifei executed.

More lay behind this crisis than imperial foolishness. The Tang had outgrown the institutions of the northern dynasties. In many areas of the empire, men received only a fraction of the land they were promised because population growth had exceeded the supply of land. However, each allotment holder still had to pay the standard per capita tax, so many peasants fled their allotments, which reduced government income. Moreover, as problems of defending the empire grew, especially warfare with the Turks and Tibetans, the militia system proved inadequate. The government had to establish military-run provinces along the borders and entrust defense to professional armies and non-Chinese auxiliary troops. It was because An Lushan commanded one of these armies that he was able to launch an attack on the central government.

The rebellion of An Lushan was devastating to the Tang. Peace was restored only by calling on the Uygurs, a Turkic people allied with the Tang, who reclaimed the capital from the rebels but then looted it. After the rebellion was finally suppressed in 763, the central government never regained control of the military provinces on the frontiers. Abandoning the equal-field system and instituting taxes based on actual land holdings helped restore the government’s finances, but many military governors came to treat their provinces as hereditary kingdoms and withheld tax returns from the central government.

Tang Culture

The Tang created a vibrant, outward-looking culture. The main capital of Chang’an, and the secondary capital of Luoyang, became great metropolises. Chang’an and its suburbs grew to house more than 2 million inhabitants. Knowledge of the outside world was stimulated by the presence of envoys, merchants, and travelers who came from Central Asian tributary states and from China’s neighboring states such as Japan, Korea, and Tibet. Because of the presence of many foreign merchants, a number of religions were practiced in Tang China, including Nestorian Christianity (see Nestorian Church), Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam, although none spread among the Chinese population the way Buddhism had a few centuries earlier. Foreign fashions in hair and clothing were often copied, and foreign pastimes, such as the sport of polo, found followings among wealthy Tang subjects. Musical instruments and melodies from India, Iran, and Central Asia brought about a major transformation in Chinese music.

The Tang was the great age of Chinese poetry. Skill in composing poetry was tested in the civil service examinations, and educated men were expected to compose poems at social gatherings. Among the most famous of the great poets of this age were Wang Wei, Li Bo, Du Fu, and Bo Juyi. In the late Tang period, courtesans in the entertainment quarters helped popularize a new verse form called ci by singing lyrics written by famous poets and composing lyrics themselves.

In Tang times, Buddhism fully penetrated Chinese daily life. Buddhist monasteries ran schools for children. In remote areas, monasteries provided lodging for travelers, and in towns they offered places for educated people to gather for social occasions. Monasteries held huge tracts of land worked by serfs, which gave them the financial resources to establish enterprises like lumber mills and oil presses. Buddhist tales became widely known, and Buddhist festivals, like the summer festival for feeding hungry ghosts (known by its Sanskrit name, Ullambana), became among the most popular holidays. Another important feature of the period was the growth of Chinese schools of Buddhism. Adherents of Pure Land Buddhism, for example, honored the Buddha Amitabha in order to be reborn in his paradise, the Pure Land. Pure Land Buddhism became the dominant form of Buddhism in China. Among the educated elite, Chan (known in Japan as Zen) gained popularity. Chan teachings rejected the authority of the sutra writings as the words of the Buddha and claimed the superiority of mind-to-mind transmission of Buddhist truth. According to Chan Buddhism, enlightenment could be achieved suddenly through insight into one’s own true nature.

During the late Tang dynasty, when China’s international position weakened and the court faced financial difficulties, opposition to Buddhism as a foreign religion emerged among influential intellectuals. In 845 the Tang emperor began a full-scale persecution of the Buddhist establishment. More than 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 temples and shrines were destroyed, and more than 260,000 Buddhist monks and nuns were forced to return to secular life. Although the suppression was lifted a few years later, the monastic establishment never fully recovered.

In the mid-9th century the Tang government began losing control of the country. Like the Han before it, the Tang was finally destroyed by ambitious generals who suppressed peasant rebellions and then fought one another for control. A brief period of disunion known as the Five Dynasties period followed. From 907 to 959, five short-lived military regimes quickly succeeded one another in North China, and most of the rest of the former Tang domain was split into ten independent states.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279)

In 960 Zhao Kuangyin founded the Song dynasty. Zhao, who ruled as Emperor Taizu, established his capital in the north at Kaifeng, and thus the first period of the Song Dynasty is known as the Northern Song. The early Song emperors concentrated on strengthening the central government. To overcome the separatist threat posed by generals with their own armies, the Song severely limited the power of the military in the provinces and subordinated the entire military to the civil government. In time, civil bureaucrats came to dominate every aspect of Song government and society. The Song expanded the civil service examination system to provide a constant flow of talent into civil service positions.

Meanwhile, the Song economy benefited from a commercial revolution that had begun during the mid-Tang. Agricultural advances and technological improvements in industry created unprecedented growth. Increased rice cultivation in the Yangtze Valley fostered a population shift southward. As part of a general shift toward applying more time, labor, and fertilizer to smaller pieces of land, peasants adjusted their work patterns to grow two or three crops annually on the same field. Increased agricultural yield supported an ever-larger population, which grew to exceed 100 million during the Song period. In the major cities, a distinctly urban lifestyle evolved. Numerous amenities, including a great variety of food, entertainment, and luxury goods, were available to city residents. The division of labor reached a very high level, with many workers engaged in highly specialized enterprises.

Military weakness, however, proved to be a chronic problem, and the Song never regained all the territory held by the Tang. After repeated failure to defeat the Liao dynasty of the Khitans in the northeast, the Song signed a treaty with them in 1004, ceding permanently the area the Liao occupied along China’s northern border and agreeing to pay an annual subsidy. After a prolonged struggle with Xixia, a Tangut state to the northwest, in 1044 the Song again purchased peace by promising to make annual payments.

By the mid-11th century the Song government had serious financial problems, largely because military expenses consumed half of its revenues. In 1070 Emperor Shenzong appointed Wang Anshi as his chief counselor. Wang proposed a series of sweeping reforms designed to increase government income, reduce expenditure, and strengthen the military. Realizing that government income was ultimately linked to the prosperity of peasant taxpayers, Wang instituted measures such as low-cost loans to help the peasants.

In the early 12th century the Jurchens to the northeast rose against the Liao dynasty. The Song saw this as an opportunity to regain the territory held by the Liao and entered into an alliance with the Jurchens. After defeating the Liao, however, the Jurchens turned on the Song and marched into North China, taking Kaifeng and capturing the emperor in 1126. This marked the end of the Northern Song period. In 1127, however, a Song prince who had fled the invasion restored the Song dynasty in the south at Hangzhou. Despite the precarious military situation, the Southern Song period (1127-1279) was one of prosperity and creativity.

The Scholar-Officials and Neo-Confucianism

The Song period was in many ways the great age of the scholar-official. Printing had been invented in the late Tang, and by Song times books were more widely available and much less expensive. Increased access to education and the expanded civil service examination system brought more scholars into government service than ever before. As competition for civil service positions increased, the prestige of scholar-officials also grew, and by the end of the Song period, the scholar-official had achieved significant cultural, social, and political importance.

The Song period also saw a revival of Confucianism, known as Neo-Confucianism. The revival was accomplished by master teachers who gathered around them adult students. Particularly notable teachers include the brothers Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107), who developed theories about the workings of the cosmos in terms of li (immaterial universal principle) and qi (the substance of which all material things are made). Zhu Xi, an important 12th-century teacher, served several times in government posts; wrote, compiled, or edited nearly a hundred books; corresponded with dozens of other scholars; and still regularly taught groups of disciples. After his death, his commentaries on the classics became required reading for everyone studying to take the civil service examinations.

From the Song period to the early 20th century, men in China who aspired to hold office or be part of the educated elite pursued years of intensive Confucian study and formed close, often lifelong relationships with their teachers. Many scholars also pursued refined activities such as collecting antiques and cultivating the arts, especially poetry, calligraphy, and painting.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

The Mongols were the first non-Chinese people to conquer all of China. Through the 12th century, the Mongols were one of many nomadic tribes in the area of modern Mongolia. Their rise and rapid creation of a powerful empire began when Mongol ruler Genghis Khan was declared Great Khan in 1206. Genghis embarked on wars of conquest, and within 70 years the Mongols had conquered China and much of central and west Asia, establishing the largest empire the world had ever seen. In the process, the Mongols visited great destruction on settled populations but also created the conditions for unprecedented exchange of ideas and goods across Asia.

China fell to the Mongols in stages. Xixia, the Tangut state, submitted in 1211. The Jin state of the Jurchens fell bit by bit from 1215 to 1234. Song territory in Sichuan fell in 1252, but most of the south held out until the 1270s. By that point, Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis, had succeeded to Mongol leadership in China. Kublai moved the Mongol capital from Karakorum (in modern Mongolia) to a site close to Beijing. By then, Mongol lands stretched from Eastern Europe to the Korea Peninsula and from Siberia to the Indian subcontinent, but the empire was fractured into four separate khanates (states) that often were at war with each other.

The Mongol dynasty in China, called the Yuan, remained a fundamentally foreign dynasty. Non-Chinese, including Persians, Uygurs, and Russians, were assigned to governmental posts, and the Mongols themselves retained their identification as warriors. East-west communications vastly improved. The Mongols supported foreign trade and welcomed foreign religious teachers of many faiths. Missionaries and traders traveled back and forth between China and areas to the west, bringing to China new ideas, foods, and medicines. Best known of the foreigners believed to have reached China during this period was the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, whose account of his travels portrays the wealth and splendor of Chinese cities. Foreigners found new government opportunities in China, but educated Chinese often found political careers under the Yuan impossible or uninviting, and had to turn to other ways of supporting themselves. Some Chinese took to writing songs and librettos for the stage, and as a result, operatic drama experienced a considerable advance during the Yuan dynasty.

Most of the economic advances of the Song slowed or reversed under the Yuan. Chinese peasants had to cope with harsh taxation and confiscation of their land. The 1330s and 1340s were marked by crop failure and famine in North China and by severe flooding of the Huang He. Chinese uprisings occurred in almost every province, and by the 1350s several major rebel leaders had emerged. One of these leaders, Zhu Yuanzhang, was successful in extending his power throughout the Yangtze Valley in the 1360s. In 1368, while Mongol commanders were paralyzed by internal rivalries, Zhu marched north and seized the Yuan capital near Beijing. The Yuan dynasty in China ended, but the Mongols continued to make raids into China from their base in Mongolia.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

In 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed the Ming dynasty and established the capital at Nanjing on the Yangtze River. Zhu was the first commoner to become emperor in 1,500 years. Known as the Hongwu Emperor, he proved one of China’s most despotic rulers. At first a secretariat, headed by a chief counselor, dominated the administrative affairs of the central government. In 1380, however, Hongwu abolished all executive posts in the secretariat because he suspected treason on the part of the chief counselor. Hongwu became the sole coordinator of the central government. Throughout his 30-year reign, Hongwu humiliated, dismissed, and even cruelly executed officials he came to suspect.

After Hongwu’s death in 1398, a grandson succeeded him as emperor. However, in 1402, Zhu Di, Hongwu’s son and the new emperor’s uncle, usurped the throne. Known as the Yongle Emperor, he pursued aggressive and expansionist policies. He led five campaigns against the Mongols in the north and acquired territory from them. To oversee his new territory more closely, he moved the capital north from Nanjing to Beijing, where he built an elaborate palace compound known as the Forbidden City. He also reacted to turbulence in what is now Vietnam by sending an expeditionary force to the area. Yongle sent the admiral Zheng He on tribute-collecting voyages into the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. On one early voyage, Zheng He intervened in a civil war in Java and established a new king there; on another, he captured the hostile king of Sinhala (now Sri Lanka) and took him to China as a prisoner.

Most Ming emperors after Yongle, who died in 1424, were weak. In the 16th century China’s problems with foreign encroachment multiplied. Japanese pirates plundered the southeastern coast, while Mongols routinely raided the Ming’s northern frontier despite the presence of defensive walls, known collectively today as the Great Wall, that the Ming had constructed to keep the Mongols out of China.

Internally, the Ming bureaucracy became absorbed by partisan controversies. The harassed emperors abandoned more and more of their responsibilities to eunuchs. In 1592, when Japanese forces under Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea, the Ming sent its armies in support of Korea. The seven-year war left the Ming exhausted and the imperial treasuries depleted. Sporadic peasant uprisings began in 1628, and soon rebellions were occurring all over North China. The death toll mounted steadily, especially after a group of rebels cut the dikes of the Huang He in 1642 and several hundred thousand people died in the flood and subsequent famine. Beijing fell to the rebel Li Zicheng in 1644, the day after the last Ming emperor committed suicide.

The Tribute System and the Arrival of Europeans

The early Ming emperors worked hard to reestablish China’s preeminence in East Asia. Ever since the Han dynasty, Chinese had viewed their emperor as properly everyone’s overlord, and the rulers of non-Chinese tribes, regions, and states as properly his vassals. Foreign rulers were expected to honor and observe the Chinese ritual calendar, to accept nominal appointments as members of the Chinese nobility or military establishment, and to send periodic tribute missions to the Chinese capital. All foreign envoys received valuable gifts in acknowledgement of the tribute they presented to the emperor, and they were permitted to buy and sell goods at official markets. In this way, copper coins, silk, tea, and porcelain flowed out of China, and horses, spices, and other goods flowed in. On balance, the combined tribute and trade activities were highly advantageous to foreigners—so much so that China limited the size and cargoes of foreign missions and prescribed long intervals between missions.

To preserve the government’s monopoly on foreign contacts and keep the Chinese people from being contaminated by foreign customs that the Ming considered barbarian, the Ming rulers prohibited the Chinese from traveling abroad. They also prohibited unauthorized dealings between Chinese and foreigners. These prohibitions were unpopular and unenforceable, and from about the mid-15th century, the Chinese readily collaborated with foreign traders in widespread smuggling. By late Ming times, thousands of Chinese had relocated to various places in Southeast Asia and Japan to conduct trade.

Ming policies on foreign trade shaped the Chinese reception of Europeans, who first appeared in Ming China in 1514. The Portuguese had already established themselves in southern India and at the port city of Malacca (now Melaka) on the Malay Peninsula, where they learned of the huge profits that could be made in the trade between China and Southeast Asia. The Ming considered the Portuguese smugglers and pirates and did not welcome them in China. By 1557, however, the Portuguese had taken control of Macao, a small trading station on China’s coast. Soon, the Spanish also were trading illegally along the coast. Representatives of the Dutch East India Company, after unsuccessfully trying to capture Macao from the Portuguese, took control of coastal Taiwan in 1624 and began developing trade contacts on the mainland in nearby Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. In 1637 a squadron of five English ships shot its way into Guangzhou (Canton) and disposed of its cargoes there.

Christian missionaries followed the traders. Jesuits, members of a Roman Catholic religious order, showed respect for Chinese culture and overcame the foreigners’ reputation for lawlessness. The most eminent of the Jesuit missionaries was Matteo Ricci, who acquired a substantial knowledge of the Chinese language and of Confucian learning. During the latter part of the Ming dynasty, the Jesuits established communities in many cities of south and central China and built a church in Beijing under imperial patronage. Jesuits even served as astronomers in the Ming court. Some officials and members of the court became Jesuit converts or sympathizers, and European books on scientific subjects and Christian theology were published in Chinese.

Intellectual Trends

State power had a pervasive impact on Ming intellectual life. Through the civil service examination system, the government controlled the content of education, forcing aspiring candidates to study Zhu Xi’s interpretations of the Confucian classics, which had been declared orthodox. Nevertheless, in the second half of the Ming, independent thinkers took Chinese thought in many new directions. Particularly important was Wang Yangming, a scholar-official who rejected Zhu Xi’s emphasis on the study of external principles and advocated striving for wisdom through cultivation of one’s own innate knowledge.

The Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Although the Ming was overthrown by peasant rebellions, the next dynasty to rule China was founded not by a warlord or rebel leader but by the chieftains of the Manchus, a federation of Jurchen tribes. In late Ming times the Jurchens, formerly a nomadic people, had been building up the political and military institutions needed to govern sedentary farming populations. In the 1630s the Jurchen leader Abahai renamed his people the Manchus and proclaimed a new dynasty, the Qing. In 1644, when Chinese rebels reached Beijing, the best Ming troops were deployed elsewhere, at the Great Wall, guarding against invasion by the Manchus. The Ming commander accepted Manchu aid to drive the rebels from the capital. Once this was accomplished, the Manchus refused to leave Beijing, which they made the capital of the Qing dynasty, and soon set about conquering the rest of China.

Like the Mongols, the Manchus were foreign conquerors. However, the Qing dynasty did not represent nearly as fundamental a break with Chinese traditions as did the Yuan dynasty. The Manchus tried to maintain their own identity and traditions but largely left Chinese customs and institutions alone (with the important exception that they forced Chinese men to adopt the Manchu hairstyle, with its shaved front and braid down the back of the head). By the end of the 17th century, the Qing had eliminated all Ming opposition and had put down a rebellion led by Chinese generals in the south. Although Chinese intellectuals who had served the Ming often refused to serve the Manchus, the Qing worked hard to recruit well-respected scholars to the government. The Qing emperor Kangxi, who came to power in 1661, was intrigued by European science and technology, and initially kept on the Jesuits who had served as astronomers under the Ming. However, Kangxi turned against the Jesuits after the Catholic pope ruled that the Jesuits had been wrong to allow Chinese converts to continue to practice ancestral rites.

As rulers of China, the Manchus based their political organization on that of the Ming, although they tightened central control. A new central organ, the Grand Council, conducted the military and political affairs of the state under the direct supervision of the emperor. The chief bureaus in the capital had both a Chinese and a Manchu head. Manchu governor-generals generally supervised Chinese provincial governors.

Prosperity, Population Growth, and Territorial Expansion

In the mid-18th century, during the 60-year reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the Qing dynasty reached the height of its power. The Qing firmly established domestic order, which led to unprecedented peace and prosperity in China. Traditional scholarship and arts flourished, and even in rural areas schools were common and basic literacy relatively high.

Population grew rapidly under the Qing, and by the end of the 18th century, China had at least 300 million people. China’s borders also expanded. Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan were all brought securely under Qing control, making the Qing empire larger than either the Han or the Tang. For the first time in 2,000 years, the northern steppe was not a serious threat to China’s defenses. Tributary ties to neighboring countries were maintained and were especially strong with Burma (now Myanmar), the Ryukyu Islands (now part of Japan), Korea, and northern Vietnam.

In the 19th century the Qing government faced problems associated with population growth. By 1850 the population had surpassed 400 million, and all the land that could be profitably exploited using traditional farming methods was already under cultivation. More and more people lived in poverty, unable to cope when floods or droughts occurred. The Qing government was unprepared for the effects of population growth. The size of the government remained static throughout the Qing period, which meant that by the end of the dynasty, government services and control had to cover two or three times as large a population as at the beginning. At the local level, wealthy and educated people assumed more authority, especially men who had passed the lower-level civil service examinations.

External Threats

In the late 18th century the Manchus had grudgingly accepted commercial relations with Britain and other Western countries. Trade was confined to the port of Guangzhou, and foreign merchants were required to conduct trade through a limited number of Chinese merchants. Initially, the balance of trade was in China’s favor, as Britain and other countries paid for huge quantities of tea not with British goods but with money in the form of silver.

The British were intent on expanding trade beyond the restrictive limits imposed at Guangzhou. They also wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the Qing court similar to those that existed between sovereign states in the West. In the 1790s the British sent an ambassadorial mission to China headed by Sir George Macartney, who brought the emperor samples of British goods. The Qianlong Emperor was not impressed with the goods and made no major concessions. The British, for their part, saw that China’s soldiers still used traditional weaponry and thus gained a better sense of China’s military vulnerability.

In order to reverse the balance of trade, British merchants during the 1780s introduced Indian opium, an addictive narcotic drug, to China. Addiction spread, and by 1800 the opium market had mushroomed, shifting the balance of trade in favor of Britain. Trade in opium was illegal in China, but British and other merchants unloaded their cargo offshore, selling it to Chinese smugglers. By the 1830s the threat to China posed by opium had become acute. Opium addiction destroyed peoples’ lives, and the drain of silver was causing fiscal problems for the Qing. Furthermore, many Qing officials, tempted by the profits they could make in the opium trade, became corrupt.

The Qing appointed Lin Zexu in late 1838 and sent him to the city of Guangzhou the following year to put an end to the illegal trade. Lin dealt harshly with Chinese who purchased opium and applied severe pressure to the British trading community in Guangzhou, seizing opium stores and demanding assurances that the British would not bring opium into Chinese waters. In response the British sent an expeditionary force from India with 42 warships and shut down the ports of Ningbo and Tianjin (see Opium Wars). The Qing negotiated with Britain, but the first settlement reached was unsatisfactory to both sides, and the British sent a second, larger expeditionary force. The Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking), concluded at gunpoint in 1842, ceded the Chinese island of Hong Kong, near Guangzhou, to Britain and opened five ports—Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai—to foreign trade and residence. Known as treaty ports, these cities contained large areas called concessions that were leased in perpetuity to foreign powers. Through its clause on extraterritoriality, the treaty stipulated that British subjects in China were answerable only to British law, even in disputes with Chinese. The treaty also had a most-favored-nation clause, which meant that whenever a nation extracted a new privilege from China, that privilege was extended automatically to Britain.

China looked upon the Treaty of Nanjing as an unpleasant but necessary concession dictated by unruly barbarians. Eager to gain more trading privileges, Britain, aided by France, renewed hostilities against China, and during the Second Opium War (1856-1860) applied military pressure to the capital region in North China. In 1857 China was forced by Britain and France to sign the Treaty of Tianjin, which further expanded Western advantages in China. However, the Qing government declined to ratify the treaty, and hostilities resumed. A joint British-French expeditionary force penetrated Beijing, where they burned the Qing’s summer palace in retaliation for Chinese treatment of Western prisoners. With the capital occupied by foreigners, the Qing ratified the treaty in 1860.

Other countries, including Russia, Japan, and the United States, soon demanded similar treaties with China. Militarily weak, the Qing agreed to these treaties, which curtailed China’s sovereignty. In China, the treaties became known collectively as the unequal treaties. By the 1860s there were 14 treaty ports. Because the foreigners had demanded the right to impose their own laws instead of obeying Chinese laws, the concessions, especially those in Shanghai, came to resemble international cities. Foreigners in China sold imported manufactured goods that competed with Chinese products, but the treaties prohibited China from setting tariffs to protect its industries.

Beginning in 1875 the Western powers and Japan began to dismantle the Chinese system of tributary states. Japan brought the Ryukyu Islands under its control in the 1870s, and in the mid-1880s France completed its subjugation of Vietnam, and Britain annexed Burma. In 1860 Russia gained the maritime provinces of northern Manchuria and the areas north of the Amur River. Japanese efforts to remove Korea from Chinese dominance resulted in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and 1895. Japan’s victory was decisive, and China was forced to recognize the independence of Korea, pay an enormous war indemnity, and cede to Japan the island of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula in southern Manchuria.

Russia, France, and Germany reacted immediately to the cession of the Liaodong Peninsula, which they regarded as giving Japan a stranglehold on the most economically valuable area of China. They intervened, demanding that Japan return the Liaodong Peninsula in exchange for an increased indemnity from China. In return for their intervention, the Europeans demanded privileges themselves. Russia demanded and received the right to construct railroads across Manchuria, as well as additional exclusive economic rights throughout that region. The Qing granted other exclusive rights to railroad and mineral development to Germany in Shandong Province, France in the southern border provinces, Britain in the Yangtze River provinces, and Japan in the southeastern coastal provinces. Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905, and thereafter most of Russia’s rights in southern Manchuria transferred to Japan. The United States, attempting to preserve its trading rights in China without competing for territory, initiated the Open Door Policy in 1899 and 1900. That policy, to which the other foreign powers assented, guaranteed the equal position of the powers with regard to trade with China, as well as the preservation of Chinese territorial integrity.

Internal Threats

Meanwhile, in the 1850s and 1860s, the Qing faced even greater threats from internal rebellions, in particular the Taiping Rebellion begun by Hong Xiuquan. Hong was an ethnic Hakka from Guangdong province in southern China, the area that had suffered the most disruption from the Opium Wars and the opening of new ports. During an illness, Hong had visions of an old man and a middle-aged man who addressed him as “younger brother” and told him to annihilate devils. Later Hong read about Christianity and interpreted his visions to mean that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong gathered many Hakka and anti-Manchu followers in southern China and instructed them to give up opium and alcohol and adhere to a strict moral lifestyle. In 1851 Hong proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace), and by 1853 the Taipings had moved north and established their capital at Nanjing. By 1860 they were firmly entrenched in the Yangtze Valley and were threatening Shanghai. In 1864 the Qing finally suppressed the Taiping and recaptured Nanjing, but only after the rebellion had spread to 16 provinces and 20 million people had died in the fighting.

Many other rebellions occurred during or after the Taiping. By 1860 the Manchu rulers, ravaged by domestic rebellions and harassed by the Western military powers, knew they had to take drastic action if the empire was to survive. To suppress the rebellions, they turned to Chinese scholar-officials, who raised armies in the provinces. After the rebellions were suppressed, the Manchu rulers turned to the same men, especially Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang, and Zuo Zongtang, to lead the effort to revitalize the dynasty and modernize the military along Western lines. The Qing officials established arsenals, dockyards (to produce Western weapons and ships), and mines and factories to develop industries. In addition, Chinese envoys went abroad to learn Western diplomatic protocols. These measures drew resistance from conservatives who thought employing Western practices was compounding defeat. Moreover, the results were disappointing. In 1884 and 1885, when China was drawn into a conflict with France over Vietnam, it took only an hour for the French to destroy the warships built at the Fuzhou dockyard.

Fears about foreign intrusion in China provoked a variety of responses among the Chinese. Intellectual leaders and high officials became divided into opposing groups of reformers and conservatives; reformers thought adopting Western science and military technology would strengthen China, while conservatives resisted efforts to copy from the West. The gentry, convinced that the dynasty was on an inevitable downward slide, felt demoralized. Peasants and townspeople protested the foreign intrusions and the changes they caused. Small groups of revolutionaries blamed the Manchu leadership and agitated to have the Manchus overthrown.

By 1898 a group of young reformers, including Kang Yuwei and Liang Qichao, had gained access to the young and open-minded Guangxu Emperor. In the summer of that year, the emperor and Kang instituted a sweeping reform program designed to transform China into a constitutional monarchy and to modernize the economy and the educational system. The program threatened the entrenched power of Empress Dowager Cixi (Guangxu’s aunt and former regent) and the clique of conservative Manchu officials she had appointed. They seized the emperor, and with the aid of loyal military leaders, suppressed the reform movement.

The Chinese peoples’ frustration reached its peak at the turn of the 20th century with the nationalist revolt against foreigners known as the Boxer Uprising. The Yihetuan (Society of Righteousness and Harmony), known by Westerners as the Boxers, were xenophobic, blaming China’s ills on foreigners, especially the Christian missionaries who told the Chinese that their beliefs and practices were wrong and backward. In 1898 the Boxers emerged in impoverished Shandong province in the northwest. As they seized and destroyed the property of foreign missionaries and Chinese converts, the Boxers attracted more and more followers from the margins of society. Small groups of Boxers began to appear in Beijing and Tianjin in June 1900. Western powers protested and prepared for war. The empress dowager at first wavered but then decided to support the Boxers. When a small contingent of foreign troops attempted to secure their interests and citizens in Beijing, Cixi ordered an attack on the foreigners, and a general uprising ensued. After the Boxers laid siege to the foreign concessions in Beijing, a multinational force of 20,000 foreign troops entered China to lift the siege. In the negotiations that followed, China had to accept a staggering indemnity of 450 million ounces of silver, almost twice the government’s annual revenues, to be paid over forty years, with interest.

In 1902 the Manchu court finally adopted a reform program and made plans to establish a limited constitutional government. However, many Chinese thought the reforms were too little, too late. In 1894 anti-Manchu revolutionary Sun Yat-sen began organizing groups committed to the overthrow of the Manchus and the establishment of a republican government. Sun traveled abroad in search of support from overseas Chinese. In 1905 he joined forces with revolutionary Chinese students studying in Japan to form the T’ung-meng Hui (or Tongmeng Hui; Chinese for “Revolutionary Alliance”), which sponsored numerous attempts at uprisings in China.

In October 1911 one of the alliance’s plots finally triggered the collapse of China’s imperial system. A bomb accidentally exploded in the group’s headquarters in Wuchang, and Qing army officers mutinied, fearful that their connections to the revolutionaries would be exposed. Provincial military forces began declaring their independence from the Qing, and by the end of the year most of the provinces in South and Central China had joined the rebellion and sent representatives to the new government. In December the delegates chose Sun Yat-sen as provisional president of a republican government. The Manchus turned to their top general, Yuan Shikai, but Yuan applied only limited military pressure. Yuan ultimately negotiated with the rebel leadership for a position as president of a new republican government in exchange for getting the Qing emperor to abdicate. The revolutionaries consented because Yuan was widely viewed as the only figure powerful enough to ward off foreign aggression. In February 1912 a revolutionary assembly in Nanjing elected Yuan first president of the Republic of China, and China’s long history of monarchy came to an end (see Republican Revolution).

Modern China

The Republic of China

For much of the period from 1912 to 1949, China was a republic in name only. At first, although the government adopted a constitution, Yuan held most of the power. In 1913 the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party), a new political party that brought together the T’ung-meng Hui and other revolutionary groups, attempted to limit Yuan’s power by parliamentary tactics. Yuan dismissed the parliament, outlawed the KMT, and ruled through his personal connections with provincial military leaders. In 1915 Yuan announced plans to restore the monarchy and install himself as emperor, but he was forced by popular opposition to abandon his plans.

This period of political confusion was also one of intense intellectual excitement in China. Modern universities, started in the last years of the Qing, began to produce a new type of Chinese intellectual who was deeply concerned with China’s fate and attracted to Western ideas, ranging from science and democracy to communism and anarchism. Thousands of young people went abroad to study in Japan, Europe, and North America. The journal New Youth, begun in the mid-1910s, called on young people to take up the cause of national salvation. Writers imitated Western forms of poetry and fiction, and started writing in the vernacular rather than the classical language that had formerly marked the educated person. Widely circulated periodicals brought this new language and new ideas to educated people throughout the country. One of the issues most strongly promoted was women’s rights. Such traditional practices as arranged marriage, concubinage, and the binding of girls’ feet to prevent normal growth (tiny feet were considered to enhance women’s beauty) were ridiculed as backward, and young women were encouraged to enroll in China’s many new schools for women.

China enjoyed a respite from Western pressure from 1914 to 1918, when European powers were preoccupied by World War I. Chinese industries expanded, and a few cities, especially Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Hankou (now part of Wuhan), became industrial centers. However, European powers’ preoccupation with the war at home also gave Japan an opportunity to try and gain a position of supremacy in China. In 1915 Japan presented China with the Twenty-one Demands, the terms of which would have reduced China to a virtual Japanese protectorate. Yuan Shikai’s government yielded to a modified version of the demands, agreeing, among other concessions, to the transfer of the German holdings in Shandong to Japan.

After Yuan died in 1916, the central government in Beijing lost most of its power, and for the next decade power devolved to warlords and cliques of warlords. In 1917 China entered World War I on the side of the Allies (which included Britain, France, and the United States) in order to gain a seat at the peace table, hoping for a new chance to halt Japanese ambitions. China expected that the United States, with its Open Door Policy and commitment to the self-determination of all peoples, would offer its support. However, as part of the negotiation process at the peace conference in Versailles, France, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson withdrew U.S. support for China on the Shandong issue. The indignant Chinese delegation refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

Young people in China who looked to the West for political ideals were crushed by the decisions at Versailles. When news of the peace conference reached China on May 4, 1919, more than 3,000 students from Beijing universities assembled in the city to protest. The Beijing governor suppressed the demonstrators and arrested the student leaders, but these actions set off a wave of protests around the country in support of the Beijing students and their cause (see May Fourth Movement).

The Nationalist and Communist Revolutionary Movements

After Yuan outlawed the KMT parliamentary party in 1913, Sun Yat-sen worked to build the revolutionary movement, eventually establishing a KMT base in Guangzhou. Sun’s ideas became more anti-imperialist during this period. In speeches and writings he stressed that China could not be strong until it rid itself of imperialist intrusions and was reconstituted as the nation of the Chinese people. Other forms of revolution also attracted adherents. Marxism gained a following among urban intellectuals and factory workers in China, particularly after the success of the Communists in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1921 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was organized in Shanghai.

During the warlord period after the death of Yuan Shikai, most Western powers dealt with whichever warlord had control of Beijing and ignored the revolutionaries. By contrast, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union), through the Comintern (an international Communist organization), offered to help the Chinese revolutionaries. Believing that the KMT had the best chance of succeeding, the Comintern instructed CCP members to join Sun Yat-sen’s KMT. In 1923 Sun agreed to accept Soviet advice in reorganizing the crumbling KMT party and army and to admit Communists into the KMT as part of a united-front policy.

Despite Sun’s death in 1925, the rejuvenated KMT launched the Northern Expedition in 1926 from its base in Guangzhou. The expedition, an attempt to rid China of warlords and reunify the country under KMT rule, was led by the young general Chiang Kai-shek, who had been trained in Japan and Moscow and had been in charge of the KMT’s military academy. Communists aided the advance of Chiang Kai-shek’s army by organizing peasants and workers along the way. However, the alliance between the two groups was fragile because the KMT drew its strength from wealthy intellectuals and landowners, while the Communists advocated redistribution of wealth. In 1927, as the KMT army approached Shanghai, Chiang ordered members of the Green Gang, a Shanghai underworld gang, to kill labor union members and Communists, whom he feared were becoming too powerful. The alliance ended, and the KMT began a bloody purge of the Communists.

From 1927 to 1937 the KMT under Chiang ruled from Nanjing. Chiang’s foremost goal was to build a strong modern state and army. He employed many Western-educated officials in his government, and progress was achieved in modernizing the banking, currency, and taxation systems, as well as transportation and communication facilities. However, China remained fragmented. While a small, Westernized elite and an industrial force developed in the cities, the vast majority of people were poor peasants in the countryside. The rural economy suffered from continued population growth and from the collapse of some local industries, such as silk production and cotton weaving, due to foreign competition. Chiang’s highest priority was not improving the lives of peasants but gaining full military control of the country. Many regions remained under warlords, the Communists controlled some areas, and the Japanese were encroaching in North and Northeast China.

The Chinese Communists had gone underground after they were purged from the KMT in 1927 and had organized areas of Communist control. The most successful group settled in the countryside near the border between Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in an area they called the Jiangxi Soviet. From there, the group mobilized peasant support and formed a peasant army. One of the top leaders of the Jiangxi Soviet was Mao Zedong. Mao was from a peasant family in Hunan but was educated through the new school system. After graduating from a teacher’s college in Hunan, he went to Beijing, where he became involved with Marxist discussion groups. In the 1920s, when most of the early CCP members were organizing workers in the cities, Mao worked in the countryside, developing ways to mobilize peasants.

Chiang’s army attempted four extermination campaigns against the Jiangxi base, all of which failed against the Communists’ guerrilla tactics. In the fifth campaign in October 1934, the KMT encircled the base. Eighty thousand Communists broke out of the KMT encirclement and started what became known as the Long March. For a year, the Communists steadily retreated, fighting almost continuously against KMT forces and suffering enormous casualties. By the time the 8,000 survivors had found an area where they could establish a new base, they had marched almost 9,600 km (6,000 mi), crossing southern and southwestern China before turning north to reach Shaanxi province. This triumph of will in the face of incredible obstacles became a moral victory for the Communists. For the next decade the CCP made its base at Yan’an, a city in central Shaanxi.

Although the KMT had forced the Communists to flee, they still faced a major threat from Japan. In 1922 Japan had agreed to return the former German holdings in Shandong to China, but it continued to expand its dominance in Manchuria. In 1931 the Japanese retaliated for an alleged instance of Chinese sabotage by extending military control over all of Manchuria. Chiang Kai-shek knew his armies were no match for Japan’s and ordered the KMT to withdraw without fighting. In 1932 Japan established the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria and made Henry Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, its chief of state. Early in 1933 eastern Inner Mongolia was incorporated into Manchukuo.

As Japanese aggression intensified, popular pressure mounted within China to end internal fighting and unite against Japan. Chiang, however, resisted allying with the Communists until late 1936, when he was kidnapped by one of his own generals. During his captivity at Xi’an (Sian) in Shaanxi Province, Chiang was visited by Communist leaders, who urged the adoption of a united front against Japan. After his release, Chiang moderated his anti-Communist stance, and in 1937 the KMT and CCP formed a united front to oppose Japan.

Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II

In July 1937 the Japanese tried once again to extend their territory in China. Chiang resisted, and Japan launched a full-scale offensive (see Second Sino-Japanese War). Chiang’s forces had to abandon Beijing and Tianjin, but his troops held out for three months in Shanghai before retreating to Nanjing. When the Japanese captured Nanjing in December, they went on a rampage for seven weeks, massacring more than 100,000 civilians and fugitive soldiers, raping at least 20,000 women, and laying the city to waste.

By late 1938 Japan had seized control of most of northeast China, the Yangtze Valley as far inland as Hankou, and the area around Guangzhou on the southeastern coast. The KMT moved its capital and most of its military force inland to Chongqing in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Free China, as the KMT-ruled area was called, contained 60 percent of China’s population but only 5 percent of its industry, which hampered the war effort. In 1941 the United States entered World War II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Thereafter, American advisers and aid were flown to China from Burma, which enabled Chiang to establish a number of modern military divisions. However, the bulk of China’s 5 million military troops consisted of ill-trained, demoralized conscripts.

During the first few years after the Japanese invasion, some genuine cooperation took place between the CCP and the KMT. However, animosity between the groups remained, and the cooperation largely ended after the KMT attacked the CCP’s army in 1941. From then on, although both sides continued to resist Japan, they concentrated more on preparing for their eventual conflict with each other. The KMT imposed an economic blockade on the CCP base at Yan’an, making it impossible for the Communists to get weapons except by capturing them from the Japanese. Defeating Japan was left largely to the United States, which was fighting the war in the Pacific.

During the war period, the Communists made major gains in territory, military forces, and party membership. They infiltrated many of the rural areas behind Japanese lines, where they skillfully organized the peasantry and built up the ranks of the party and their army (known as the Red Army). The CCP grew from about 300,000 members in 1933 to 1.2 million members by 1945. While in Yan’an, Mao Zedong had time to read Marxist and Leninist works and began giving lectures at party schools in which he spelled out his versions of Chinese history and Marxist theory. Whereas neither Marx nor Lenin had seen significant revolutionary potential in peasants, Mao came to glorify peasants as the true masses. During these years, Mao also perfected methods of moral and intellectual instruction and party discipline, which involved close discussion of assigned texts, personal confessions, struggle sessions (meetings in which people were publicly criticized and punished for past offenses), and dramatic public humiliations.

The KMT emerged from the war in a weakened state. Severe inflation had begun in 1939, when the government, cut off from its main sources of income in Japanese-occupied eastern China, printed more currency to finance the mounting costs of wartime operations. Despite substantial U.S. economic aid, the inflationary trend worsened and official corruption increased. The financial problems also caused a loss of morale in the KMT armed forces and alienation of the civilian populace.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, bringing World War II to an end, both the CCP and the KMT were rearmed, the KMT by the United States and the Communists by the Soviet Union. The Soviets had accepted the surrender of Japanese troops in Manchuria and turned over large stockpiles of Japanese weapons and ammunition to the CCP.

Civil War

Shortly after Japan’s surrender, civil war broke out between CCP and KMT troops over the reoccupation of Manchuria. A temporary truce was reached in 1946 through the mediation of U.S. general George Catlett Marshall. Although fighting soon resumed, Marshall continued his efforts to bring the two sides together. In August 1946 the United States tried to strengthen Marshall’s hand as an impartial mediator by suspending its military aid to the KMT government. Nevertheless, hostilities continued, and in January 1947, convinced of the futility of further mediation, Marshall left China. The United States resumed aid to the KMT in May. In 1948 military advantage passed to the Communists, and in the summer of 1949 the KMT resistance collapsed.

The KMT government, with the forces it could salvage, sought refuge on the island of Taiwan. Until his death in 1975, Chiang Kai-shek continued to claim that his government in Taiwan was the legitimate government of all of China. Meanwhile, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, as chairman of the CCP, proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing.

The People’s Republic

The new Communist government, a one-party state under the rule of the CCP, brought an end to the long period of Western imperialist involvement in China. Regions within the country’s historic boundaries that had fallen away since the overthrow of the Manchus were reclaimed, including Tibet and Xinjiang in western China (see Tibet: Reincorporation into China; Xinjiang Uygur Automomous Region: History). China established alliances with the countries of the emerging Socialist bloc. In 1950 China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) signed a treaty of friendship and alliance, and in supplementary agreements the Soviets gave up their privileges in Northeast China. During the Korean War (1950-1953), Chinese troops aided the Communist regime of North Korea against South Korean and United Nations forces. China also aided the Communist insurgents fighting the French in Vietnam, and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai played an important role in negotiating the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the hostilities known as the First Indochina War.

Transformation of the Economy and Society

During the first few years of Communist leadership, the new government reorganized nearly all aspects of Chinese life. To revive the economy, which had been disrupted by decades of warfare, the CCP adopted measures to curb inflation, restore communications, and reestablish the domestic order necessary for economic development. The government also orchestrated campaigns and struggle sessions to mobilize mass revolutionary enthusiasm and remove from power those likely to obstruct the new government. In the 1951 campaign against individuals who had been affiliated with Kuomintang (KMT) organizations or had served in its army, tens of thousands were executed and many more sent to labor reform camps.

The CCP made fundamental changes to society. New marriage laws that prohibited men from taking more than one wife and interference with remarriage by widows assured women of a more equal position in society. Women also received equal rights with respect to divorce, employment, and ownership of property. The CCP made every effort to control the spread of ideas. Through the press and through schools, the government directed youth to look to the party and the state rather than to their families for leadership and security. The CCP assumed strict control over religion, forcing foreign missionaries to leave the country and installing Chinese clerics willing to cooperate with the Communists in positions of authority over Christian churches. Intellectuals were made to undergo specialized programs of thought reform directed toward eradicating anti-Communist ideas.

Government takeover of businesses undermined the power of the urban-based capitalists who had gained influence under the KMT. To make use of their expertise, however, the government often enlisted previous business owners to manage companies. The government’s first five-year plan, initiated in 1953 and carried out with Soviet assistance, emphasized the expansion of heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods.

Through the progressive socialization of Chinese agriculture (making ownership of land collective, not individual or family), the landowning elite was eliminated, the source of its income and influence abolished. As the CCP took control of new areas, it taught the peasants in those areas that social and economic inequalities were not natural but rather a perversion caused by the institution of private property. Wealthy landowners were not people of high moral standards but were exploiters.

To create a new communal order where all would work together unselfishly for common goals, the Communists first redistributed property. Their usual method was to send a small team of cadres (party administrators) and students to a village to cultivate relations with the poor, organize a peasant association, identify potential leaders, compile lists of grievances, and organize struggle sessions. Eventually the inhabitants would be classified into five categories: landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, poor peasants, and hired hands. The government then would confiscate the holdings of landowners, and sometimes land owned by rich and middle peasants, and redistribute it more evenly. The wealthy also endured struggle sessions, which sometimes led to executions of landlords. This stage of land reform resulted in the creation of a castelike system in the countryside. The lowest caste was composed of the descendants of those labeled landlords, while the descendants of former poor and lower-middle peasants became a new privileged class.

Agricultural collectivization followed land reform in several stages. First, farmers were encouraged to join mutual-aid teams of usually less than 10 families. Next, they were instructed to set up cooperatives, consisting of 40 or 50 families. From 1954 to 1956 the Communists created higher-level collectives (also called production teams) that united cooperatives. At this point, economic inequality within villages had been virtually eliminated. The state took over the grain market, and peasants were no longer allowed to market their crops.

The reorganization of the countryside created a new elite of rural party cadres. Illiterate peasants who kept the peace among villagers and exceeded state production targets had opportunities to rise in the party hierarchy. This created social mobility far beyond anything that had existed in imperial China, which had only provided advancement opportunities to educated peasants. Another byproduct of the reorganization of the countryside was the extension of social services, because collectives throughout the country coordinated basic health care and primary education for their members.

The Hundred Flowers and the Great Leap Forward

In 1956 Mao Zedong launched a campaign to expose the party to the criticism of Chinese intellectuals under the slogan “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom.” Mao was afraid that the revolutionary fervor of CCP members was waning, that they were losing touch with the people and becoming authoritarian bureaucrats. Although most intellectuals were cautious at first, Mao repeatedly urged people to speak up, and once the criticism had started, it became a torrent. In 1957 Mao and other party leaders abruptly changed course and launched the so-called Antirightist campaign on the critics for harboring rightist ideology. About half a million educated people lost their jobs and often their freedom, usually because something they had said during the Hundred Flowers period had been construed as anti-Communist.

Next Mao launched a radical development plan known as the Great Leap Forward. Mao announced the plan in November 1957 at a meeting of the leaders of the international Communist movement in Moscow, claiming that China would surpass Britain in industrial output within 15 years. Through the concerted hard work of hundreds of millions of people laboring together, he claimed, China would transform itself from a poor nation into a mighty one. In 1958, in a wave of utopian enthusiasm, the CCP combined agricultural collectives into gigantic communes, expecting huge increases in productivity. Throughout the country, communes, factories, and schools set up backyard furnaces in order to double steel production. As workers were mobilized to work long hours on these and other large-scale projects, they spent little time at home or in normal farm work.

Peng Dehuai, China’s minister of defense and a military hero, offered measured criticisms of the Great Leap policies at a 1959 party meeting. Mao was furious and forced the party to choose between Peng and himself. The CCP ultimately removed Peng from his positions of authority. Within a couple of years, the Great Leap had proved an economic disaster. Industrial production dropped by as much as 50 percent between 1959 and 1962. Grain was taken from the countryside on the basis of wildly exaggerated production reports, contributing, along with environmental calamities, to a massive famine from 1960 to 1962 in which more than 20 million people died.

Growing Isolation

The economic hardship created by the Great Leap was made worse in 1960 by the Soviets’ withdrawal of economic assistance and technical advice. As the USSR moved toward peaceful coexistence with the West, its alliance with China deteriorated. In 1962 China openly condemned the USSR for withdrawing its missiles from Communist Cuba under pressure from the United States. Consequently, the USSR reneged on its agreements to aid China’s economic development. The Chinese began to compete openly with the USSR for leadership of the Communist bloc and for influence among the members of the Nonaligned Movement, a loose association of countries not specifically allied with either of the power blocs led by either the United States or the USSR. In 1963 Zhou Enlai toured Asia and Africa to gain support for the Chinese model of socialism.

Meanwhile, other actions taken by China kept many nonaligned nations wary. In 1959 the United Nations condemned China’s actions in Tibet when China suppressed a rebellion there. The Dalai Lama (Tibet’s ruler at that time) and thousands of Tibetans fled south to Nepal and India. Also in 1959, Chinese troops penetrated and occupied 31,000 sq km (12,000 sq mi) of territory claimed by India. Negotiations between the two countries proved inconclusive, and fighting erupted again in 1962 when Chinese troops advanced across the claimed Indian borders. In Southeast Asia, China lent moral support and technical and material assistance to Communist-led insurgency movements in Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). In Indonesia, Chinese embassy officials aided Communist insurgents until the Chinese embassy was expelled in 1965.

The Cultural Revolution

In mid-1966 Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, known simply as the Cultural Revolution. The announced goals of the revolution were to eradicate the remains of so-called bourgeois ideas and customs and to recapture the revolutionary zeal of early Chinese Communism. Mao also wanted to increase his power over the government by discrediting or removing party leaders who had challenged his authority or disagreed with his policies. Earlier in the year, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and a few other Mao supporters had begun calling for attacks on cultural works that criticized Mao’s policies. Soon radical students at Beijing University, urged by Mao to denounce elitist elements of society, were agitating against university and government officials who they believed were not sufficiently revolutionary. Liu Shaoqi, a veteran revolutionary who had been designated as Mao’s successor, tried to control the students, but Mao intervened. He launched an intense public criticism of Liu and sanctioned the organization of Beijing students into militant groups known as Red Guards. Soon students all over China were responding to the call to make revolution, happy to help Mao, whom many worshiped as a godlike hero.

In June 1966 nearly all Chinese schools and universities were closed as students devoted themselves full-time to Red Guard activities. Joined by groups of workers, peasants, and demobilized soldiers, Red Guards took to the streets in pro-Maoist, sometimes violent, demonstrations. They made intellectuals, bureaucrats, party officials, and urban workers their chief targets. The central party structure was destroyed as many high officials, including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, were removed from their positions. During 1967 and 1968 bloody fighting among various Red Guard factions claimed thousands of lives. In some areas, rebellion deteriorated into a state of lawlessness. Finally, the army was called in to restore order, and in July 1968 the Red Guards were sent back to school or to work in the countryside. In many areas, the army quickly became the dominant force.

During the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his supporters continually promoted “class struggle” against so-called revisionists and counterrevolutionaries. To this end, educated people were singled out for persecution. College professors, middle-school teachers, newspaper journalists, musicians, party cadres, factory managers, and others who could be categorized as educated suffered a wide variety of brutal treatment. Men and women were tortured, imprisoned, starved, denied medical treatment, and forced to leave their children unsupervised when they were sent to labor camps in the countryside. Tens of thousands were killed or committed suicide.

CCP delegates to the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969 reelected Mao party chairman with a great deal of fanfare. They named Defense Minister Lin Biao, Mao’s personal choice, to be Mao’s eventual successor. For several years, Lin was regularly referred to as Mao’s closest comrade in arms and best student. Yet, according to the official CCP account, in 1971 Lin turned against Mao, plotted unsuccessfully to assassinate him, and then died in an airplane crash while attempting to flee to the USSR. Lin was officially condemned as a traitor.

Much of the political and social turmoil that characterized the first half of the Cultural Revolution subsided in the second half. In 1976 the government arrested a group of four revolutionaries, known as the Gang of Four, and charged them with the crimes of the Cultural Revolution. This event came to mark the official end of the campaign.

Shifting Foreign Relations

In the early years of the Cultural Revolution, China’s already strained foreign relations worsened. Propaganda and agitation in support of the Red Guards by overseas Chinese strained relations with many foreign governments. A successful Chinese hydrogen bomb test in 1967 did nothing to allay apprehension. Tension with the USSR worsened when China accused Soviet leaders of imperialism after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Clashes between Soviet and Chinese border guards along the Amur and Ussuri rivers in 1969 created a tense situation. China was largely isolated from the outside world, maintaining good relations only with Albania.

In the early 1970s, however, China’s foreign relations began to improve dramatically. In 1971 the People’s Republic of China was given the China seat in the United Nations, replacing the nationalist government on Taiwan, which had continued to hold the seat after losing the civil war with the Communists in 1945. In 1972 U.S. president Richard Nixon made an official visit to China during which he agreed to the need for Chinese-American contacts and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Taiwan. In the wake of these developments, many other nations transferred their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the mainland Communist government. In 1972 China restored diplomatic relations with Japan.

China After Mao

Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao both died in 1976, precipitating a struggle for power between moderate and radical leaders within the party. As a compromise, Hua Guofeng, an administrator without close ties to either faction, became premier. About the same time, he was named to succeed Mao as party chairman. Hua then concentrated on stabilizing politics, aiding recovery from massive earthquakes that had struck Tangshan, near Beijing, in July 1976, and fostering economic development.

Hua’s prominence was short-lived. In 1977 the party reinstated moderate reformer Deng Xiaoping to a leadership post, making him first deputy premier. (Deng had returned to public office as China’s vice premier in 1973 but then had been purged again by the Gang of Four in 1976.) By 1978 Deng was in firm control of the government.

Deng focused on the problem of relieving poverty through economic growth. As his guiding slogan, he promoted the “Four Modernizations” of agriculture, industry, technology, and defense. In agriculture, Deng sanctioned steps toward dismantling the commune system. He instituted a so-called responsibility system under which rural households were assigned land and other assets that they could treat as their own. Anything a household produced above what it owed the collective was its own to keep or sell. The state encouraged sideline enterprises, such as growing vegetables and setting up small businesses, and the income of farmers rapidly increased, especially in the coastal provinces, where commercial opportunities were greatest.

Deng imported foreign technology to help modernize industry. He also abandoned Mao’s insistence on Chinese self-sufficiency and began courting foreign investors. Guangdong Province, on the border with Hong Kong (which had become one of Asia’s leading financial centers) was especially well situated to benefit from foreign investment. Deng reinstated examinations as the means of selecting college students in 1977, and Chinese students began to be sent abroad for advanced technical and management training. In the late 1970s and early 1980s China revived and expanded the system of military academies, which had been obliterated during the Cultural Revolution. Deng’s policies set in motion an economic boom that led to a tripling of average incomes by the early 1990s.

With its population of more than 1 billion already pressing the limits of its resources, China began to confront the need to control population growth. The state set targets for the total numbers of births in each place and then assigned quotas to smaller units, down to individual factories and other workplaces. Young people had to get permission from their work units to get married and then to have a child. Women who became pregnant outside the system faced strong pressure from birth-control workers and local party officials to have an abortion. The government promoted one-child families through financial incentives and bureaucratic regulations. In the cities, one-child families became commonplace. In the countryside, families with two or even three children remained common, because families who first bore a girl were usually allowed to try again for a boy. Because of a preference for boys, families that could only have one or two children often would take extreme measures to get a boy, such as aborting female fetuses. This created an unbalanced sex ratio.

In the post-Mao period, China’s relationship with Western nations and Japan continued to improve, and full diplomatic relations were established with the United States in 1979. Friction with the USSR continued, however, and because Soviet influence was growing in Vietnam, relations with Vietnam deteriorated. In 1978 harassed ethnic Chinese from Vietnam streamed into southern China. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled that country’s Chinese-backed government in early 1979, China made a punitive strike into Vietnam, but soon withdrew.

Under Deng, the Chinese government somewhat relaxed its control of the expression of ideas and the arts. A so-called literature of the wounded appeared at the end of the 1970s, as those who had suffered during the Cultural Revolution found it possible to express their sense of betrayal without government repression. Greater tolerance on the part of the government soon resulted in much livelier press and media in China, with investigative reporters covering corruption; philosophers reexamining the premises of Marxism; and novelists, poets, and filmmakers experimenting with previously forbidden explorations of sexuality. In the 1980s, as television became commonplace, ordinary Chinese learned more about life in other countries and began to make new demands on the government for improvements in their standard of living and more choice in their daily lives. As many young people began adopting aspects of Western popular culture, especially its music, hairstyles, and emphasis on individualism, conservatives in the CCP responded with periodic campaigns against “bourgeois liberalism” and “spiritual pollution.”

Despite its relative openness in the cultural and economic spheres, the government kept a tight reign on political criticism. During the “Democracy Wall” movement in 1978 and 1979, hundreds of people posted so-called big-character posters on a wall in Beijing to protest against political corruption, injustice, and lack of political freedom. Although it initially encouraged criticism of previous government policies, the government closed the wall when posters critical of the existing Communist leadership and the Communist system began appearing and imprisoned the author of some of the most outspoken posters, Wei Jingshen.

Student protests occurred in several cities during the 1980s. The most massive one occurred in Beijing in 1989. In April of that year, students and others marched in the capital to support freedom of the press, educational reforms, and an end to political corruption. The protests swelled in May, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing to end the 30-year rift between the USSR and China. The protesters occupied Beijing’s Tiananmen Square until the morning of June 4, when armored troops stormed the city center, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Zhao Ziyang, the CCP general secretary (as the top party post had been called since 1982), had been sympathetic to the students and in the ensuing political crackdown he was dismissed from his party posts. Deng, still extremely influential despite declining health and lessening direct involvement in government affairs, designated Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin to replace Zhao as CCP general secretary. See Tiananmen Square Protest

China in the 1990s

With the fall of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the breakup of the USSR in 1991, China became the only remaining major world power with a Communist government. The Chinese government worked to ensure that its own system did not follow a similar demise as the USSR. The state continued to pursue economic policies that reduced poverty, such as allowing workers to move to search for jobs. Meanwhile, the government also maintained tight control over political expression and suppressed any sign of separatism by ethnic Tibetans in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Deng remained the dominant figure in China throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, retaining behind-the-scenes influence even as he steadily surrendered his public titles. With Deng’s help, Jiang gradually consolidated his power and influence within the party and government. In 1993 Jiang became president, while maintaining his role as party general secretary. Unlike the period following Mao’s death, China’s political climate remained calm after Deng died in February 1997, and Jiang continued the economic liberalization begun by Deng.

Deng and Jiang’s reforms in the 1990s were particularly successful at stimulating economic growth, but they also created problems for the Communist leadership. China’s foreign debt began to increase rapidly, and growing consumer demand led to rising inflation. Uncontrolled industrial and agricultural growth caused environmental degradation in much of China. Moreover, there was pervasive corruption among party and government officials who profited from their power to grant permits and licenses and from their control over basic supplies needed by private businesses. The government attempted to combat the corruption, imprisoning a number of prominent party officials convicted of using their positions for personal gain.

During the late 1990s China’s international standing improved. In 1997 Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese control, and Macao followed in 1999, reverting from Portugal to China. The Chinese economy fared relatively well in a currency crisis that swept the region. In 1998 U.S. president Bill Clinton visited China and debated political issues on live television. In November 1999 China and the United States reached a trade agreement in which China agreed to significantly reduce obstacles to imported goods and foreign investments in exchange for U.S. support of China’s application for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). China also secured similar bilateral agreements with other countries to gain support for its entry in the trade organization. China formally became a member of the WTO in December 2001.

China in the 21st Century

Jiang retired as general secretary of the CCP in November 2002, launching a generational shift in the leadership of China. All but one of the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the CCP’s inner policymaking circle, retired along with Jiang. The remaining incumbent member, Hu Jintao, was chosen to succeed Jiang as the party’s general secretary. Hu also succeeded Jiang as president of China in March 2003. However, Jiang retained his post as head of the Central Military Commission, which controls the military, and was expected to exert considerable behind-the-scenes influence in the governance of China.

The new leadership immediately faced a public health crisis, working to contain the spread of a pneumonia-like illness that had emerged in the southern province of Guangdong in late 2002. By February 2003 new cases of the illness were reported in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, and Canada, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a global alert. Scientists identified the illness as a new contagious disease of unknown cause, naming it severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). By the time WHO declared the SARS outbreak contained in July 2003, more than 8,000 cases had been reported in 32 countries, and the disease had caused 800 deaths. China’s initial failure to report the outbreak of a contagious disease attracted much international criticism, and even the Chinese news media exposed official efforts to conceal the outbreak.

Meanwhile, China pursued an ambitious space program, which had been the focus of accelerated development since late 2001. Signaling to the world its technological advancement, China launched a piloted spacecraft into Earth orbit in October 2003, becoming only the third nation to accomplish this feat. Astronaut Yang Liwei orbited the Earth 14 times over a 21-hour period in the spacecraft Shenzhou 5 (Divine Vessel 5) before returning to Earth on October 16. The successful launch and orbit demonstrated China’s commitment to its space program, which also included plans for other space missions. In 2007 China launched its first spaceflight to the Moon, sending an unpiloted lunar orbiter there on an exploratory mission.

In 2004 the legislature of China approved a constitutional amendment that provided the first legal protection of private property since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In 2005 the legislature passed a law authorizing the use of military force against Taiwan if its government moved toward a formal declaration of independence. The anti-secession law heightened cross-strait tensions. Tensions thawed somewhat when the leader of Taiwan’s KMT (or Nationalist Party), Lien Chan, met with CCP officials later in 2005. This meeting marked the first visit to the mainland by a KMT leader since the Nationalists withdrew to Taiwan at the end of China’s civil war in 1949.

In the early 2000s China’s economy ranked as the world’s fourth largest, after the United States, Japan, and Germany. China reported that its economy grew 9.9 percent in 2005, marking the third consecutive year of nearly 10 percent growth. In 2007 the country’s economy expanded by 11.4 percent, reaching its fastest growth rate in 13 years.

In March 2008 Buddhist monks in Lhasa, Tibet, led a series of protests against Chinese rule, marking the failed Tibetan uprising of 1959. The initially peaceful protests turned violent as protesters engaged in arson and attacks against ethnic Chinese. Protests also erupted in Tibetan-populated areas of neighboring provinces. The Chinese government responded to the unrest—the most widespread and prolonged in the region since the 1980s—with a police crackdown. Clashes between Chinese security forces and protesters resulted in an uncertain number of deaths. The crackdown brought international condemnation and, only months before the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing were to commence, raised questions of China’s human rights record. The passing of the Olympic torch in cities around the world became a magnet for protests against China’s policies.

In July 2009, one of the worst incidents of ethnic violence for nearly a decade broke out in the Xinjiang region. A march protesting the treatment of Uighurs in an eastern Chinese factory sparked a series of riots between Uighurs and ethnic Han in which nearly 200 people were killed and over 1,000 were wounded.

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