Chinese History

Chinese History

The Chinese invented many things, including gunpowder, printing, silk and the compass. They may also have invented the civil service. Civil services help governments to rule effectively. One way they do this is by gathering information and keeping records. Chinese civil servants have been gathering information and keeping records for more than 2,000 years.

In 1975, archaeologists found the coffin of a civil servant who had been buried around 217 bc. He had more than a thousand strips of bamboo with him. On these strips, the civil servant had made notes about government affairs. These notes, and others like them, helped archaeologists to learn about how the Chinese lived, what crops they grew, and how they saw themselves, from ancient times up to recent history.

Zhang Ziyi
Zhang Ziyi


Historians divide Chinese history (up until 1911, when China became a republic) into a series of dynasties. A dynasty was a line of rulers from a single family who ruled until they were overthrown or died out. The first recorded dynasty was the Shang dynasty, which ruled what is now north and central China between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago. We know about life in Shang dynasty China from the number of bronze items found, including weapons and drinking vessels that were used for offering food and drink to the gods. Chinese people began to use iron at about the same time as another dynasty, called the Zhou dynasty, took over from the Shang. Using iron tools in farming helped the Chinese to produce more crops, and the population began to grow.


As Zhou China expanded it became harder for the emperors to control all of their territories. They began to lose their authority and a series of wars broke out. In 770 bc the Emperor was forced to abandon his capital near the modern city of Xi’an. This violent and unsettled time had some important consequences for Chinese history. The different states that were at war with which each other had to use all their resources to save themselves from being overrun by their rivals. Civil services were created to gather information and to make sure that orders from the centre were being obeyed throughout the state. Also, philosophers thought about how peace could be restored. The most famous of these philosophers was called Confucius, who probably lived between the years 551 and 479 bc.


In the year 221 bc a new ruler emerged from a dark time in Chinese history, called the Period of the Warring States. He was the Emperor Shi Huangdi, who had been the ruler of the western state of Qin. Shi Huangdi was a cruel and ambitious ruler. He succeeded in unifying China and began the construction of a huge wall to keep attackers out. Much of this wall, the Great Wall of China, survives to this day. When Shi Huangdi’s tomb was explored by archaeologists in 1974 they discovered a vast model army of 6,000 life-size soldiers and horses, made to defend the dead emperor in the afterlife. Strong as Shi Huangdi was, his dynasty did not long outlive him. Later dynasties imitated many of his policies and were influenced by his idea that China should be firmly controlled from the centre. For example, the Han emperors who followed the Qin dynasty introduced exams across China for people entering the civil service to make sure that they all had a similar attitude to their work.


In ad 617 another dynasty began—the Tang. Some historians believe that this was the greatest period in China’s history. Korea and Vietnam came under Chinese influence. Chinese ships opened up trading routes in the Indian Ocean, as far as the Persian Gulf. Ideas from India and even Europe reached China along the Silk Route—a trade route that took its name from the silk that merchants carried from China to sell in Europe.

China became a centre of Buddhist culture. Chinese missionaries took Buddhism further east, to Japan. Some of China’s greatest poets, such as Du Fu and Li Bai, were at work during the Tang dynasty. The glories of Tang China were lost when quarrels at the imperial court turned into the war. The civil service, which was influenced by the ideas of Confucius, turned against Buddhism. Over 4,600 Buddhist monasteries were destroyed. China once again broke up into squabbling states.


Under the Song dynasty, the Chinese developed printing and weapons with gunpowder. However, they could not hold off the furious might of the Mongols, who swept into China from the northwest. They founded a new dynasty in China, called the Yuan. In 1272 a Mongol ruler called Kublai Khan established his capital at Beijing, in north-eastern China. His court became famous for its magnificence, attracting merchants from as far away as Italy. Among his visitors was a merchant from Venice called Marco Polo. However, many Chinese were unhappy about being ruled by a foreign power. A former Buddhist monk called Zhu Yuanzhang led a revolt against the Yuan dynasty, and in 1368 he founded a new dynasty, called the Ming.


The Ming and the Qing dynasties were the final two dynasties to rule China. They ruled according to traditions that could be traced back to the time of Confucius. This meant that they were not well prepared to deal with the new threat presented by the European traders who arrived in the 17th century. China also had a persistent problem with its growing population. Population increased at such a rate that it was difficult to feed all the people, causing great suffering for the peasants.

During the 19th century, the British were eager to open China for trade, though this was resisted by China’s rulers. British drugs runners imported opium (a drug similar to heroin), even though this was banned by the Chinese government. When the Chinese took action against British opium dealers the British government seized the chance to force their way into China. China’s military was left defeated and humiliated, and important trading centres such as Hong Kong and Shanghai came under foreign control.


In 1895, China suffered another military defeat, this time against Japan. China was forced to give up the island of Taiwan and lost its control over Korea. Like China, Japan had been a traditional society suddenly challenged by the military and technological superiority of the West. Unlike China, Japan had successfully borrowed ideas from Europe and the United States to modernize itself. Many Chinese people who recognized this decided that urgent change was needed. They joined a revolutionary movement led by a former doctor called Sun Yat-sen. In 1911 an army mutiny flared into revolution and the royal family was forced to give up its power. China’s last dynasty had crumbled.


The revolution did not solve China’s problems. The country was left without a stable government. Two rival groups emerged—the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists. While the Nationalists and Communists fought a civil war, Japan forced its way further and further into China. After Japan launched its full invasion in 1937, Communists and Nationalists united in the defence of China. But after the final defeat of Japan in 1945, the civil war was resumed. The Communists drew support from China’s vast peasant population and promised a new kind of society. By 1949 the Nationalists had retreated to their final stronghold—the island of Taiwan. Mao Zedong, the Communist leader, proclaimed that “the Chinese people… have now stood up”.


China has been ruled by the Communist Party since 1949. Its leaders have encouraged industry, and China’s cities have grown rapidly. Shanghai has become one of the world’s largest cities, with a population of 13,680,800. Massive engineering projects have been undertaken to develop China’s economy. The most famous of these projects is the Three Gorges Dam, which was started in 1993. It will be the largest dam in the world.

The Communist Party still controls political life in China, and the people cannot freely choose their leaders. In 1989, hundreds of demonstrators who were calling for democracy were killed by the army. Some people believe that China will soon become a world superpower, with its huge population and growing economy.