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The Dynasties

Xia (Hsia)2205-1557 B.C.
Shang1557-1122 B.C.
Zhou (Chou)1122-770B.C.
Spring and Autumn Period771-481 B.C.
Warring States481-246 B.C.
Qin (Ch’in)246-206 B.C.
Han206 B.C.-A.D. 221
Three KingdomsA.D.221-265
Jin (Tsin)265-420
Southern and Northern Dynasties420-589
Northern Wei386-534
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms907-960
Jin (Chin)1122-1234
Song (Sung)960-1279
Yuan (Mongol)1271-1367

China is the longest-running act on earth, the only one of the ancient civilisations not submerged by another, upstart culture. The recorded history of the Chinese nation begins some 3000 years ago, although the first recognisably Chinese societies started to emerge much earlier. Inscriptions have been found on tortoise shells which tell of events during the Shang dynasty, which had its capital near the city of Anyang in the valley of the Yellow River (regarded as the ‘cradle’ of Chinese civilisation), and ended sometime around 1122 B.C. The Shang was succeeded by the Zhou dynasty, and in the centuries that followed, the Chinese world, much smaller than that of today, was often divided into a number of independent states, all with a similar culture. They built long walls to protect themselves from each other and from the ‘barbarian’ tribes to the north. During the Warring States period (481-246 B.C.), these states fought among each other interminably, but eventually the kingdom of Qin, led by the man known to history as Qin Shi Huang (the ‘First August Emperor’ of the Qin dynasty), conquered the rest of the states in the Chinese world and created the first Chinese empire in 246 B.C. at about the time of the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage.

Qin Shi Huang is remembered for three things: he unified the country , joined together the various walls to make the first ‘Great Wall’ of China to keep the barbarians out, and burned all the books he could get his hands on except for technical manuals. He ruled the new Chinese empire for 35 years, but only four years after his death, his Qin (Ch’in) dynasty (probably the origin of the word ‘China’) fell, to be replaced by the Han.

The Han dynasty , which lasted over 400 years and roughly coincided with the Roman Empire, saw the first real flowering of Chinese culture. Buddhism was introduced from India, the borders were pushed back north and west into central Asia, and south towards present-day south China, and the ideas of Confucius, China’s greatest philosopher, became finnly established as the ideological basis for Chinese society .The imperial civil service which ruled China for more than 2000 years was established and the Chinese writing system was formalised and has remained basically the same ever since.

When the Han dynasty collapsed in the year A.D. 221, China was plummeted into one of its periodic states of chaos. As before, the country was finally re-unified by a short-lived dynasty which gave way to a powerful, long-lived one – the Tang dynasty (618-907), considered to be classical China’s ‘Golden Age’ .Tang-dynasty China was the most powerful state in the world at a time when western Europe was going through the darkest stretches of the Middle Ages. Its capital at Changan (today’s Xi’ an) was a cosmopolitan city of over a million people, and the starting point of the famous Silk Route across central Asia to Europe. The greatest of Chinese classical poetry and many of the greatest works of Chinese art were produced during this era.

At the beginning of the tenth century , the Tang dynasty fell, and China entered another period of partition. It was unified once more, by the Song (Sung) dynasty in 960, and enjoyed a renaissance of art, literature and science. Gunpowder, the compass and movable type were all invented, putting China well ahead of Europe in science and technology .In 1122, north China was seized by a barbarian tribe from Manchuria, and the Song dynasty retreated to the south of the country.

In the thirteenth century , the Mongols under the command of Genghis Khan invaded and conquered most of Asia and a large slice of Europe. China, too, became a subject, and Genghis Khan’s grand- son, Kublai Khan, founded the Yuan dynasty in 1271. The Mongols employed foreigners from different parts of their far-flung dominions as officials, and it was in that capacity that the well-travelled Venetian merchant Marco Polo lived in China for many years.

The Mongols were hated by the Chinese, and the incompetent rulers who succeeded the Great Khan slowly lost their grip on China. Finally, in 1367, a peasant revolt overthrew the Mongol dynasty and the last Yuan emperor fled back to Mongolia. The peasant leader, Zhu Yuanzhang, established the Ming dynasty (1367-1644), and China underwent another period of expansion. Armadas set out under the eunuch Admiral Zheng He to explore the south seas and to empha – sise China’s power to vassal states on its southern periphery. They went as far as the Persian Gulf and the coast of East Africa almost a century before Vasco da Gama made his way round the Cape of Good Hope. Unfortunately, these voyages were just part of a brief interlude, and China overall became increasingly isolationist.

Nevertheless, Europe began to impinge itself upon the Chinese consciousness. The Portuguese arrived in 1520 and set up the fIrst foreign settlement on China’s coastline at Macao in 1557. Next came the Dutch, who captured the island of Taiwan and made it a colony. Jesuit priests made their way to Peking in the hope of converting the emperor and his empire to Christianity.

In 1644, the Ming dynasty was overthrown by another peasant rebellion, which itself was crushed almost immediately by the armies of the Manchus, a powerful kingdom to the northeast of Peking. Sporadic Chinese resistance to this ‘barbarian’ regime continued, but as the Manchu forces moved in, the remaining Chinese forces fled to Taiwan, capturing the island from the Dutch. In their turn, the Manchus took the island a few decades later . The Manchus formed their own dynasty, the Qing (Ching). Under the first few Manchu emperors-Strong, capadle men-me empIre and classical Chinese culture briefly prospered again before sinking under the pressure of a new age. The court tried to control the foreigners by confining them and their trading activities to Canton, but by the early nineteenth century , the traders were getting restless. The British discovered that opium was a good selling item, and started to ship in tons of the drug from plantations in India. The Chinese tried to halt the imports, thereby sparking the first Opium War in 1839, which the British won easily. Under the Treaty of Nanking of 1842, China was forced to open up five ports to foreign trade and to cede Hong Kong island to Britain. Foreign influences were also largely responsible for the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), led bya man who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The Taiping rebels captured much of south China and almost took. Peking, but were finally beaten when Britain and the other Western nations intervened on the side of the corrupt and malleable Manchu court.

The foreign powers, including Russia to the north and Japan to the east, continued to take advantage of China’s helplessness, and forced the imperial government to agree to new leases and the creation of ‘spheres of influence’. Popular anti-foreign feeling culminated in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in which the Legation Quarter in Peking, besieged by crowds supported by the imperial government, was only relieved when a foreign force marched on Peking. The strongest personality in China during the last decades of the empire was the Empress Dowager Ci Xi, who had first entered the Imperial Palace as a concubine and rose to power after she gave birth to a son for the emperor. She used any unscrupulous means necessary to keep her control, and almost certainly had the Emperor Guangxu killed the day before her own death in 1908. With the demise of Ci Xi, the empire could not last long. After several abortive rebellions, an uprising in Wuhan in 1911 sparked the revolution, and the empire finally gave way to the Republic of China. Sun Yatsen was the leader of the republican movement, but when an old, powerful Manchu general named Yuan Shikai threatened trouble, Sun stepped aside and allowed Yuan to become the first president. Yuan decided to make himself emperor, but he died in 1916 before ascending the Dragon Throne.

The early republican governments were weak, and most of China was under the control of local warlords. The Chinese Communist Party was formed at a secret meeting in Shanghai in 1922, and began collaborating with the larger, stronger Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen. In 1925, Sun died, and his successor, Chiang Kaishek, mounted the Northern Expedition from Canton, re-uniting the country and establishing the capital of the Republic at Nanking. He also turned on his supposed allies, the Communists, and tried to exterminate them with successive military campaigns. The 1934 campaign almost suc- ceeded, but the Communist guerrillas in southwest China escaped from the encirclement and set out on the famous Long March, which ended two years later in Yan’an in northwest China. Yan ‘ an became the base from which the Communist leaders, Mao Tse-tung, Chou Enlai and the rest, directed their gradual rise to complete power over the Chinese people.

Expansionist Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, and invaded the rest of China in 1937. The Nationalist forces under Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek led the fight against the Japanese but they often seemed more interested in fighting the Communists than the invaders. The war went badly despite massive aid from the United States and the other allies, and when the Japanese surrender was an- nounced in August 1945, the Japanese forces in China were still advancing. With Japan finally beaten, the Nationalists and Communists could now devote themselves wholeheartedly to their own feud. Civil war broke out and, despite an overwhelming superiority in armaments, numbers of soldiers and supplies, the Nationalists lost, both because of their corruption and their inability to institute meaningful land reforms. In 1949, the remnants of the Nationalist army fled to Taiwan, where they remain today.

On 1 October 1949, Mao Tse-tung declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The Communists began their rule on a sour note, killing large numbers of potential and actual opponents: in one unpublished speech, Mao estimated that 800 000 people had been executed in the first five years of the People’s Republic. In spite of this harshness, much was achieved. The staggering inflation of the late 194oS was controlled; industrial production was slowly raised to pre-war levels; and, most importantly, the land was confiscated from landlords and handed over to peasants. In 1953, the socialization of the economy began. Having just gained control of their land, the peasants were told that it was to be ‘collectivized’ .Meanwhile, all major factories, banks and other enterprises were nationalised. The foreign diplomats and businessmen who had humiliated and used China for so long were expelled, and so were the rest of the foreigners, friends or not.

The 195oS are now viewed by the Communist Party as a ‘Golden Age’ , and there certainly was an atmosphere of selflessness and idealism which has now largely dissipated; people worked hard to build the ‘New China’ .During its first decade, Communist China was also very closely allied to the Soviet Union, often officially referred to in those days as ‘Big Brother’ , which gave them much valuable assistance in rebuilding China’s industrial base, shattered after so many years of war .

In 1958, Mao launched the ‘Great Leap Forward’ , his first serious mistake, and Chinese politics became polarised between the radical Maoists and the pragmatists, a division which has persisted until today. The Great Leap was a good example of Mao’s overwhelming idealism in the face of all the evidence. He conceived it as a massive combined effort by China’s people to transform the country at one stroke into a developed nation. It was, of course, an economic disaster of the first order, but Mao was just getting into his stride and brushed aside criticisms. He announced the establishment of the rural com- munes, in spite of protests from many in the Communist leadership that the move was too premature and would meet resistance among the conservative peasants. The dissenters were right: many peasants saw the communes as being new landlords, and huge tracts of land were left fallow that year. Just at that point, with industry and agriculture in chaos, nature stepped in to deepen the crisis. The harvests failed in 1959, 1960 and 1961- now referred to as the ‘Three Terrible Years’ -and several million people died of starvation (the exact number has never been revealed).

The early 1960s were years of recovery .The pragmatists were in the ascendant, and Mao himself was pushed into the background. In 1966, he made his comeback by by-passing the Communist Party organisation, controlled by his opponents, and appealing directly to the masses. He called this new upheaval the Cultural Revolution, although it was very anti-culture. In fact, it is best viewed as a minor civil war .It is estimated that about one million people died violently during the ten years in which Maoist radicalism held sway in China, and tens of millions more suffered from persecution.

It was a crazy, frightening period. People disappeared into labour camps, or were declared to be counter-revolutionaries and deprived of their livelihoods. Mao was venerated as almost a god, and his followers claimed to be able to do almost anything, including heal sickness and reap bumper harvests, using nothing but ‘Invincible Mao Tse-tung Thought’ as their guide. During the late 1960s when the Cultural Revolution was at its height, countless books, paintings and ancient treasures were destroyed by Mao’s storm-troopers, the Red Guards, whom he ordered to ‘destroy the Four Olds’. Politics was placed ‘in command’ .Schools and colleges were shut, and most did not re-open for several years. China has still not recovered from this convulsion. One of the most amazing things about the Cultural Revolution is that so many people outside China were hoodwinked by it for so long, with Maoist groups springing up all over the world. (Some still exist, to the intense embarrassment of the present Chinese government.) Many people in the West really believed that Mao had created the perfect society .

But it was much more sordid than that. In 1971, the Defence Minister Lin Piao, Mao’s official successor, was killed. The official version is that he attempted to assassinate Mao, and when the plot failed, fled towards the Soviet Union in a plane which crashed in Mongolia, killing all those on board. This seems highly unlikely, but there is no way of ascertaining the truth. In the early 197os, Mao was at the height of his power, but his health was rapidly failing. His radical colleagues (including his wife) , who had risen to power during the late 1960s, were unpopular with the ordinary people, and needed his support to survive. They attempted to have their prime opponents, Premier Chou Enlai and Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping, purged, but in the end, they were not strong enough to win the game.

Chou Enlai died in January 1976, and the radicals had Deng Xiaoping purged in the wake of anti-radical riots in April of that year . But in September, Mao also died, and less than a month later, the leading radicals, immortalised as ‘The Gang of Four’ , had been seized by the more moderate elements in the leadership, led at that time by Hua Guofeng. Hua had become Premier in April 1976, a surprise compromise after the pragmatists and the radicals both vetoed their respective candidates. After Mao’s death, Hua was also made Communist Party chairman, an unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of one man. He even fashioned for himself a personality cult along the lines of Mao’s, but despite some reforms, he was still too leftist for the real moderates.

Deng Xiaoping was finally allowed to return to active politics in 1977 , and at a crucial Party meeting in November 1978, he supplanted Hua as the real leader of the Chinese people. He has been fighting the remnants of ‘leftism’ ever since, and has been making steady progress. After a long, closely fought battle, Hua was finally toppled from power in 1981, and Deng consolidated his own hand-picked leadership with proteges Hu Yaobang as Party chief and Zhao Ziyang as Premier.

Chinatoday China today is a poor, backward country of over 1000 million people with one of the most closely controlled societies in the world. In some areas, there is great poverty , but the poverty is nowhere near as widespread, and rarely as serious, as in, say, India. The Communist Party which rules China has made many disastrous mistakes since it came to power in 1949, and there is much about the present system which is unacceptable to bourgeois Western liberals (such as this writer) but, to be fair, there is no guarantee that any other government or system could have done a better job.

Thanks primarily to the efforts of Deng Xiaoping, China’s present leader, the country is slowly emerging from the madness of the Maoist era. During the Cultural Revolution and after, the people of China had more than their fill of politics, political slogans and ‘class struggle’, and Deng has gone a long way towards depoliticising them. In other ways, things have not changed so much, especially for people living in the cities. Living conditions are still very cramped, and many basic foodstuffs and consumer products are still rationed. In the countryside, however, where 80 per cent of China’s population live, there has been a real improvement due to the decision to dismantle the communes and divide the land up among the peasant households for them to farm on a contract basis. Farm output and household incomes have risen considerably.

Politically, China is more stable now than it has been for decades. Deng Xiaoping, aged 78 in 1983 and one of the greatest politicians of our age, has set himself the task of reshaping China: luckily for China and the rest of the world, his vision is far more rational and acceptable than that of his predecessor, Mao. Deng has been called a pragmatist, and he has done much to pull China out of the mire by adopting ‘pragmatic’ policies which have, in effect, desocialised a large part of the country’s economy. Apart from the agricultural reforms, a small but significant private enterprise sector has been allowed to take root again, with shopkeepers, tailors and street hawkers working for themselves and keeping the profits. Meanwhile, industry is slowly pulling itself out of its traditional sluggish and wasteful inefficiency with the decision to place less stress on politics and more on management, technology , productivity and market forces.

Deng and his men may be economic pragmatists, but they are not liberals. They will not tolerate any challenge to the power and authority of the Communist Party , and have ruthlessly stamped on anyone involved in unauthorised political acts outside the official framework. A measure of Deng’s genius is the forthright manner in which he has addressed the basic problem facing any undemocratic system such as China’s -that of political succession. He has made great progress in ending the ‘gerontocracy’ which has ruled China for so long, and has begun to institute reforms which will make retirement for Communist Party officials mandatory at a certain age. He has also tried to use his personal power to construct a system of collective leadership aimed at ending the debilitating power struggles which have cursed China during the decades of Communist rule. The longer Deng stays alive, the longer this system is likely to survive. However, my own guess is that in the long term, China is doomed to revert to some form of the ’emperor’ system -rule by one man -and to see further power struggles. The traditions and instincts of 2000 years cannot be wiped out in a few years.

The most basic problem facing China, apart from the possibility of renewed political instability , is population growth. The country’s grain output has increased sharply in the past few decades, but the population has grown faster, and per capita grain output is now slightly lower than it was in the pre-war years. The man responsible for this situation was Chairman Mao who rejected the policy of birth control in the 1950s, saying there was strength in numbers. The policy was changed in the late 1970s, and now the authorities are insisting that there should be no more than one child per couple. In the cities, the ‘one child only’ policy has proved relatively easy to implement, but in the countryside, there is widespread opposition. The peasants want sons, and lots of them, to help in the fields and to look after them in old age.

Controlling a country of 1000 million people is, of course, a daunting task for any government, but the extent to which the Chinese authorities interfere in the lives of ordinary people is staggering. You cannot move from your place of birth without permission; your profession is decided by a faceless bureaucrat with little or no regard for what you would like to do; the authorities tell you how many children you can have, what music you can listen to, what books you can read. To buy a bicycle or a television set or to travel from one city to another, you need the approval of your work ‘unit’ which also arranges weekly compulsory political study sessions. The Party activists in your work unit, your class or your neigh bourhood are forever on the watch for unhealthy, unsocialist tendencies. And if you even so much as express an opinion opposing the Communist Party and the ‘Socialist Road’ , you can, by law, be charged and convicted of being a ‘counter-revolutionary’ . 
But you won’t starve.

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