China's first civilizations arose in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys at about the same time as Mesopotamia, Egypt and India developed their first civilizations.
For centuries China stood as a leading civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences. Paper, gunpowder, the compass and printing for example, are Chinese inventions. Chinese developments in astronomy and medicine were extensive. A Chinese tomb contains a heliocentric model of the solar system, about 1,700 years before Copernicus. In mathematics, the Pythagorean theorem and Pascal's triangle were known in China centuries before their Western discoverers lived. There were also grand feats of engineering not to be matched in Europe until centuries later, such as the Dujiangyan Irrigation System in Sichuan built during the Qin Dynasty, and the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou with its complex system of locks, built during the Sui Dynasty.
China was also the first civilization to implement a meritocracy. Official posts were not hereditary but had to be earned through examinations. Based on mastery of the Confucian Classics and the literary arts, a prototype of the exams was first conducted during the Han Dynasty. The system was further refined into the formal Imperial Examination System and opened to all regardless of family background during the Tang Dynasty. The Imperial Examination continued to be used until the beginning of the 20th century. To this day, Chinese parents take education very seriously.
Historically, East Asia existed in a China-centric order. Rather than sovereign states, the Emperor was sovereign over all "under heaven" and thus rulers seeking to be "civilized" would need to enter the tributary system. As the Middle Kingdom, China was surrounded by states which paid tribute to the Emperor. The Emperor did not receive ambassadors from these outlanders, only tribute bearers. Tributary missions from some countries continued right up until the empire fell in 1911. Of course, at times "tributary" states were more militarily powerful than the Chinese dynasty at the time. However, the idealized image of a harmonious order with China and the Emperor at the center endured for centuries.
Tributary relations were complemented by academic, religious, political and cultural exchanges. Tributary rulers received protection, trade benefits, and advisers. Chinese influence is quite apparent in the traditional culture of many of its neighbors, who adopted the Chinese writing system at some point, and was deeply influenced by Confucian philosophy and social theory.
China also explored widely and traded extensively with distant lands. By the 5th and 6th centuries CE, voyages to India and the Arab countries were routine. In the 7th century, Arab traders first introduced Islam into China. In the 15th century, the Ming Dynasty fleets under Admiral Zheng He reached as far as East Africa. These ships were technologically very advanced, much larger than European ships of the day, and equipped with a system of watertight compartments that Europe was not to match for several centuries. These voyages were not for settlement or conquest, but for trade and tribute.
Interaction with the West and Decline of the Imperial System
One of the first Westerners to visit China and write about it was Marco Polo in the late 13th century. He wrote of Hangzhou, "The city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world." and rated Quanzhou as one of the two busiest ports on earth. (The other was Alexandria.) Among the Chinese innovations that Europeans first heard of from Polo were paper money, window glass and coal.
When seaborne Western traders arrived in the 16th century, China was initially hostile to them. The first Western base was Portugal's colony of Macau, awarded by the Ming in the mid 16th century. The Emperor imposed various restrictions on trade, allowing Westerners to trade only at Guangzhou and only through a government-approved monopoly of traders. Teaching a Westerner to speak Chinese was a capital offense, even though widely used textbooks for learning Chinese existed. Export of items that would break Chinese monopolies, such as tea seeds or silk worms, was strictly forbidden. Traders eventually smuggled both out, creating two of India's greatest industries. Western traders resented these restrictions and struggled to interest the Chinese in Western goods.
By the end of the 19th century, the situation would be completely reversed. Assorted Western powers had taken various pieces of Chinese territory and relatively free trade was well established through an ever increasing number of treaty ports and spheres of influence. Throughout the century, the Sino-Western relationship was fraught with difficulties. Westerners tended to see China as corrupt and decadent; Chinese often viewed the West as greedy and contemptible.
There was also an enormous difference in world view. To the Chinese court, Western envoys were just a new group of outsiders who should show appropriate respect for the emperor like all other visitors. Some countries, like the Netherlands, were willing to participate. For others, most notably the United Kingdom, treating China's "decadent" regime with any respect at all was being generous. The envoy of King George or Queen Victoria might give some courtesies, even pretend the Emperor was the equal of their own ruler.
The greatest contention was opium. For the West, the profitable commodities were "pigs and poison," indentured laborers and opium. Britain's balance of trade — paying for tea and silk in silver and being quite unable to interest Chinese in most British products — would have been disastrous without opium. However, by growing opium in India and exporting vast amounts to China, the British were able to enjoy a healthy trade surplus — selling opium for silver and using the silver to buy tea, silk, and other trade goods. Millions of Chinese became addicted to opium; many merchants both foreign and Chinese made fortunes from the trade. But every Chinese government from the Qing to the present has been unalterably opposed to the opium trade and all other forms of drug trafficking.
The 19th century was a period of wars, rebellions, territorial cession, and turmoil:
Two Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, pitted China against Western powers, notably Britain and France. China lost both wars. After each defeat, the victors forced the Chinese government to make major concessions. After the first war, the treaty ceded Hong Kong island to Britain, and opened five "treaty ports" (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shanghai and Ningbo) to Western trade. After the second, Britain acquired Kowloon, and inland cities such as Nanjing and Wuhan were opened to trade.
The Taiping Rebellion, 1851-1864, was led by a charismatic figure claiming to be Christ's younger brother. It was largely a peasant revolt. The Qing government, with some Western help, eventually defeated the Taiping rebels, but not before they had ruled much of southern China for over ten years. This was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought; only World War II killed more people. Nanjing, which was their capital, has an interesting Taiping museum.
The Panthay Rebellion, 1856–1873, in Yunnan pitted the Hui ethnic group against central authority. Up to one million people died during the revolt.
In 1858 and 1860, the Qing signed the Treaty of Aigun and the Treaty of Peking which transferred sovereignty of Outer Manchuria (today's Primorsky Krai, Jewish Autonomous Oblast and parts of Amur Krai and Khabarovsk Krai) to Russia.
The Dungan Rebellion, 1862-1877, in central China and Xinjiang saw Hui and other Muslim ethnic groups fighting against local authorities. Suppression of the rebellion, which included genocidal purges, brought what is now Xinjiang firmly under imperial rule.
In 1879, Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom, then a Chinese tributary state, and incorporated it as Okinawa prefecture. Despite pleas from a Ryukyuan envoy, China was powerless to send an army. The Chinese sought help from the British, who instead awarded the islands to Japan.
In 1884-1885, China and France fought a war that resulted in the loss of China's modernized Fuzhou-based naval fleet and China's accepting French control over their former tributary states in what is now Vietnam.
In 1895, China lost the Sino-Japanese War and ceded Taiwan, the Penghu islands and the Liaodong peninsula to Japan. In addition, it had to relinquish control of all of Korea, which had long been a Chinese tributary state.
In 1898, Britain acquired a ninety-nine year lease on the New Territories of Hong Kong in the Second Convention of Peking.
The Chinese resented much during this period – notably missionaries, opium, annexation of Chinese land and the extraterritoriality that made foreigners immune to Chinese law. To the West, trade and missionaries were obviously good things, and extraterritoriality was necessary to protect their citizens from the corrupt Chinese system. To many Chinese, however, these were yet more examples of the West exploiting China.
Around 1898, these feelings exploded. The Boxers led a peasant religious/political movement whose main goal was to drive out evil foreign influences. Some believed their kung fu and prayer could stop bullets. While initially anti-Qing, once the revolt began they received some support from the Qing court and regional officials. The Boxers killed a few missionaries and many Chinese Christians, and eventually besieged the embassies in Beijing. An eight-nation alliance: Germany, France, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Austria-Hungary and Japan, sent a force up from Tianjin to rescue the legations. The Qing had to accept foreign troops permanently posted in Beijing and pay a large indemnity as a result. In addition, Shanghai was divided among China and the eight nations.
The Republican Era (First Republic)
The 20th century brought revolution. A mutiny by Imperial troops in Wuhan spread like wildfire, leading to the emperor's abdication in 1911. Sun Yat-sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān in Mandarin), a doctor, Christian, revolutionary, nationalist, socialist and democrat, became president of the newly formed Republic of China (中华民国 Zhōnghuá Mínguó). He stepped down shortly thereafter allowing the former Qing general Yuan Shih-kai to become president. After an abortive attempt at declaring himself emperor, Yuan died in 1916. Central rule collapsed and China broke into semi-autonomous warlord regions. Until 1949 the various warlords fought challenges to their local power from any outsider, regardless of nationality or ideology.
In 1919 frustrations with China's weakness at the hands of foreign powers, particularly Japan, led to student protests in Beijing. Today known as the "May Fourth Movement" (五四运动 Wǔ Sì Yùndòng) the students called for radical reforms to Chinese society including the use of the vernacular language in writing as well as development of science and democracy. The intellectual ferment of this era gave strength to two rising movements: the Kuomintang (KMT, established in 1919) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, established in 1921).
In 1926-28 a united front between the KMT and the CCP united much of eastern China under KMT rule after the "Northern Expedition." However, the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek turned on the Communists killing thousands and driving the movement underground. During this time, Mao Zedong set up a base area in the mountains of Jiangxi Province called the Jiangxi Soviet. The Kuomintang launched a series of extermination campaigns against the Communists. Pressure on the Jiangxi Soviet forced the CCP to flee west in 1934. The epic Long March led the CCP and Red Army from Jiangxi across southern and western China before ending in 1935 in Yan'an in Shaanxi Province.
From 1927 to 1937, the KMT consolidated authoritarian one-party rule. Often called the Nanjing Decade after the Kuomintang capital in Nanjing, the period was one of economic expansion, industrialization and urbanization. Many of the great trading families of Hong Kong made their fortunes in Shanghai during this time. Shanghai became one of the world's busiest ports and the most cosmopolitan city in Asia, home to millions of Chinese as well as a polyglot community of around 60,000 foreigners which included British Taipans, American missionaries, Iraqi Jews and refugees from Nazi Germany, Indian police, White Russians and many other notables. Nonetheless, KMT rule remained fragmented and weak outside of urban centers in eastern China. Severe problems persisted throughout the country including civil unrest, warlord conflict, banditry and major famines.
After the 1895 war, Japan continued its imperial expansion in East Asia. It formally annexed Korea in 1910. In 1931, it invaded Manchuria and established the puppet kingdom of Manchukuo under the nominal leadership of the last Qing emperor, Pu Yi. Japan launched a full-scale invasion in 1937 and overran much of eastern China by the end of the decade. Japanese behavior was often brutal; the most extreme example was the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. Chinese resistance was spirited. The Japanese generals thought they could take all of China in three months; instead it took them three months just to drive the Chinese army out of Shanghai and they never did manage to take the entire country. After the expected quick victory in China, Japan's generals planned to move most of their army to other fronts, but Chinese resistance kept roughly half the Japanese army tied up in China throughout the war. The Allies sent aid via the Burma Road.
As a result of the Japanese invasion, the Kuomintang and Communists signed a tenuous agreement in 1937 to form a second united front. The agreement broke down in the early 1940s. The Kuomintang frequently held back troops from fighting the Japanese and used them against the Communists, although they still did the vast majority of the set-piece fighting with the Japanese. The Communists used the power vacuum behind the Japanese lines to expand their guerrilla operations and set up rural networks. The stage was set for the Communists under Mao Zedong and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek to openly fight each other after Japan's defeat.
Outright civil war resumed in 1946. Corruption, hyperinflation, defections and desertions crippled the KMT government and army. In 1949, the Communists won; the Kuomintang took the national gold reserves and imperial treasure and fled to the island of Taiwan. The KMT reestablished themselves and promised to recapture the Mainland. Various Western countries refused to recognize "Red China" and continued to treat the Kuomintang as the only "legitimate" government of China, some until the early 1970s.
The People's Republic (PRC)
Mao Zedong officially declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Even as the Communists declared a new government, their armies were still advancing through Southern China. The last KMT armies retreated into northern Burma - where their descendants remain to this day - in 1950.
The East is Red
The new Communist government implemented strong measures to restore law and order and revive industrial, agricultural and commercial institutions reeling from more than a decade of war. By 1955, China's economy had returned to pre-war levels of output as factories, farms, labor unions, civil society and governance were brought under Party control. After an initial period closely hewing to the Soviet model of heavy industrialization and comprehensive central economic planning, China began to experiment with adapting Marxism to a largely agrarian society.
Massive social experiments such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动 bǎihuā yùndòng), the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 dàyuèjìn), intended to industrialize China quickly, and the Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 wúchǎn jiējí wénhuà dà gémìng), aimed at changing everything by discipline, destruction of the "Four Olds," and total dedication to Mao Zedong Thought, rocked China from 1957 to 1976 essentially delivering another civil war to mainland China. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are generally considered disastrous failures in China itself. The social, cultural and historical damage from the Cultural Revolution can still be seen evident today. Many traditional Chinese customs, such as the celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival (中元节 zhōngyuán jié), are still thriving in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese communities, but have largely disappeared from mainland China.
30 Years of Reform
Mao Zedong died in 1976. One month later his widow was arrested as part of the "Gang of Four." The gang was blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader. Deng and his lieutenants gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making. Economic output quadrupled by 2000 and continues to grow by 8-10% per year, but huge problems remain — bouts of serious inflation, regional income inequality, human rights abuses, ethnic unrest, massive pollution, rural poverty and corruption. China also remains firmly a one-party authoritarian state and political controls remain tight even though economic policy continues to be relaxed, enough for China to secure admission to the World Trade Organization, (WTO). In 2003, the CCP changed its statutes to accept a new category of members: "Red Capitalists." October 2007 saw the first official guarantees for private property, a clear step away from doctrinaire communist economics.
While the larger cities near the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have grown to become rich and modern, much of the more inland parts of the country remain poor and underdeveloped. The current president and CCP General Secretary, Hu Jintao, has proclaimed a policy for a "Harmonious Society" (和谐社会 héxié shèhuì) which promises to restore balanced economic growth and channel investment and prosperity into China's central and western provinces, which have been largely left behind in the post-1978 economic boom. This policy involves additional tax breaks for farmers, a rural medical insurance scheme, reduction or elimination of school tuition fees and infrastructure development to encourage investment in underdeveloped areas, e.g. the Beijing/Lhasa railway - a dream first put down on paper by Sun Yat-sen in the early 1900's. China continues to develop economically at a breakneck speed, but what lies ahead for the Middle Kingdom is anybody's guess.
People and habits
China is a very diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs and economic levels. The economic landscape is particularly diverse. The major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai are modern and comparatively wealthy. However, about 50% of Chinese still live in rural areas even though only 10% of China's land is arable. More than half the total population, some 800 million rural residents, still farm with manual labor or draft animals. Government estimates for 2005 reported that 90 million people lived on under ¥924 a year and 26 million were under the official poverty line of ¥668 a year. Generally the southern and eastern coastal regions are more wealthy while inland areas, the far west and north, and the southwest are much much less developed.
The cultural landscape is unsurprisingly very diverse given the sheer size of the country. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups; the largest by far is the Han which comprise over 90% of the population. The other 55 groups enjoy affirmative action for university admission, and exemption from the one-child policy. The Han, however, are far from homogeneous and speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible local "dialects"; which most linguists actually classify as different languages using more or less the same set of Chinese characters. Many of the minority ethnic groups have their own languages as well. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single unified Han Chinese culture, and while they share certain common elements such as Confucian and Taoist beliefs as a basis, the regional variations in culture among the Han ethnic group are actually very diverse. Many customs and deities are specific to individual regions and even villages. Celebrations for the lunar new year and other national festivals vary drastically from region to region. Specific customs related to the celebration of important occasions such as weddings, funerals and births also vary widely. In general contemporary urban Chinese society is rather secular and traditional culture is more of an underlying current in every day life. Among ethnic minorities, the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui and Miao are the largest in size. Other notable ethnic minorities include: Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Kirghiz and even Russians. In fact, China is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea and is also home to more ethnic Mongols than the Republic of Mongolia itself. Many minorities have been assimilated to various degrees with the loss of language and customs or a fusing with Han traditions. The exception to the rule is the current situation of the Tibetans and Uighurs in China who remain fiercely defensive of their cultures.
Some behaviours that are quite normal in China may be somewhat jarring and vulgar for foreigners:
-Spitting: in the street, shops, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, hallways, restaurants, on buses and even in hospitals. Traditional Chinese medical thought believes it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Spitting has declined considerably in more developed urban areas like Beijing and Shanghai since the SARS epidemic of 2002. However, in most other areas the habit persists to varying degrees, from moderate to ever-present.
-Smoking: almost anywhere, including areas with "no smoking signs". Few restaurants have no smoking areas although Beijing now forbids smoking in most restaurants; Enforcement can vary but with the exception of Hong Kong, it most likely will not be. Lower class establishments often do not even have ashtrays. Western restaurants seem to be the only ones who actually enforce the ban. Masks would be good idea for long distance bus trips. It is perfectly common for someone to smoke in a lift or even in the hospital. If your country of origin has banned smoking in most public places, than this aspect of China may be shocking.
-Anyone who does not look Chinese will find that calls of "hello" or "laowai" are common: lǎowài (老外) literally means "old outsider", a colloquial term for "foreigner"; the more formal term is wàiguórén (外国人). Calls of "laowai" are ubiquitous outside of the big cities (and even there, occasionally); these calls will come from just about anyone, of any age, and are even more likely from the very young and can occur many times in any given day. Dark skin discrimination is quite a common issue to deal with in China.
-Staring: This is common through most of the country. The staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity, almost never out of hostility. Don't be surprised if someone comes right up to you and just looks as if they are watching the TV, no harm done!
-Drinking: It is quite common for older members to toast younger members when eating. It is considered extremely disrespectful if you were to turn down the toast even in good faith(i.e. Underage in your home country, do not personally drink)
-Loud conversations, noise, discussions or public arguments: These are very common. Many mainland Chinese speak very loudly in public (including in the early mornings) and it may be one of the first things you notice upon arrival. Loud speech usually does not mean that the speaker is angry or engaged in an argument (although obviously it can). Full-blown fights involving physical violence are not very common, but they do occur. If you witness such an event, leave the vicinity and do not get involved. Foreigners are almost never targets in China and you will be treated with great respect provided you don't act recklessly. Noise means life, and China is rooted in a community based culture, so you may want to bring earplugs for the long bus or train ride!
-Pushing, shoving and/or jumping queues: This often occurs anywhere where there are queues, (or lack thereof) particularly at train stations. Again, often there simply are no queues at all. Therefore, queue jumping is a major problem in China. Best bet is to pick a line that looks like its moving or just wait for everyone to get on or off the bus or train first but you may be left behind! Keep in mind that the concept of personal space more or less does not exist in China. It is perfectly common and acceptable behavior for someone to come in very close contact with you or to bump into you and say nothing. Don't get mad as they will be surprised and most likely won't even understand why you are offended!
-General disregard of city, provincial and/or national rules, regulations and laws. This includes (among many other things) dangerous and negligent driving, (see Driving in China) that includes excessive speeding, not using head lights at night, lack of use of turn signals, and driving on the wrong side of the street, jaywalking, and smoking in non-smoking areas or defiance of smoking bans including hospitals, inside health clubs and even on football pitches!
-Sanitation: Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze.
Some long-time foreign residents say such behaviors are getting worse; others say the opposite. The cause is usually attributed to the influx of millions of migrants from the countryside who are unfamiliar with big city life. Some department stores place attendants at the foot of each escalator to keep folks from stopping to have a look-see as soon as they get off - when the escalator behind them is fully packed. What the actual causes of such behavior is include suggestions that China has been largely an agriculturally based society for centuries thrust suddenly into the modern age and/or the ghosts of the Cultural Revolution still at play.
On the whole, however, the Chinese love a good laugh and because there are so many ethnic groups and outsiders from other regions, they are used to different ways of doing things and are quite okay with that. Indeed the Chinese often make conversation with strangers by discussing differences in accent or dialect. They are often very used to sign language and quick to see a non-verbal joke or pun wherever they can spot one. (A laugh doesn't necessarily mean scorn, just amusement and the Chinese like a "collective good laugh" often at times or circumstances that westerners might consider rude.) The Chinese love and adore children, allow them a great deal of freedom, and heap attention upon them. If you have children, bring them!
In general, 3, 6, 8, and 9 are lucky numbers for most of the Chinese. “Three” means “high above shine the three stars” while the three stars include gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity. “Six” represents smoothness or success. Many young people choose the dates with “six” as their wedding days, such as the 6th, 16th and 26th. “Eight” sounds so close to the word for wealth that many people believe eight is a number that is linked to prosperity. So it is no surprise that the opening ceremony for the Olympics started at 8:08:08PM on August 8 2008. “Nine” is also regarded as a lucky number with the meaning of everlasting.
“Four” is a taboo for most Chinese because the pronunciation in Mandarin is close to “death”.