The Qing dynasty reached its height in the late 18th century, at which time the government of China controlled a larger portion of the Earth’s surface than ever before or since.
By the end of that century, however, trouble was brewing. Large-scale peasant uprisings were beginning to break out in different parts of the empire. The illegal import of opium in Western ships was becoming a major problem. European governments – especially the British – were clamoring for their merchants to be let in to the huge potential Chinese market.
Friction with foreign powers came to a head in the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1858-60), in which Chinese forces were roundly defeated. These led to the first of many “unequal treaties”, in which China was forced to give foreign merchants concessions. The first of these wars resulted in the Hong Kong being granted to the British as a commercial base. The second led to more such Western “treaty ports” being established. Throughout the 19th century more and more were granted, not just along the coast but deep inland, along the great rivers of China as well.
By this time a far more serious threat to the Qing regime had emerged. This was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), which saw huge swathes of central and southern China torn from government control. Only with the greatest of difficulty was this rebellion put down – at an estimated cost of some 20 to 30 million lives.
In the wake of this terrible rebellion an attempt was made by some senior officials to reform the Chinese government and modernize the economy. They never received the whole-hearted backing of the emperor, however, and although real changes were made, they were not the root and branch changes that were really needed to meet the Western threat.
As a result, in the later 19th century China fell increasingly under Western influence; traders and missionaries were soon able to penetrate almost every corner of the empire, and Western financial interests controlled large parts of the economy. Furthermore, Japan joined in the scramble for influence and control within China, and by the end of the century had secured control over the northern province of Manchuria.
By the early 20th century anti-foreign feeling was running high in China, leading to the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion (1901). This was put down by western forces, and it helped expose the weakness of the Qing regime’s position. As a dynasty of foreign extraction itself, and unable to protect the empire from foreign encroachment, the Qing were increasingly seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. In its final years it was more or less propped up by Western forces.
In 1912 the Qing dynasty was finally replaced by a Republic. However, almost immediately the country broke became fragmented under rival warlords, and a complex series of wars took place as they jostled for power.
Meanwhile, two other players began to emerge, both based in the modernizing cities of the coast. One was the Nationalist (Guomindang) party, originally led by Sun Yat-sen, then by Chiang Kai-shek. The other was the Communist Party. These two parties, sometimes allies, sometimes bitter foes, grew in strength. In 1926 Chiang Kai-shek brought the whole of the country under Nationalist control.
A few years later the Nationalist government decided to eliminate the Communists, and civil war broke out between the two. In 1934-5 a large contingent of Communists marched north from positions threatened by Nationalist troops and regrouped in safer areas. This episode, known as the Long March, ended with Mao Zedong as the undisputed leader of the Party.
In 1937 the invasion of China by the Japanese complicated the situation and compelled the Nationalists and Communists to co-operate again, at least to some extent. The Communists, with their espousal of guerrilla warfare, proved by far the more effective opponents to the Japanese, and this, plus their identification with the peasantry, gave them widespread support amongst the people.
By the time the Japanese were forced to leave the country, at the end of the Second World War (1945), the Communists had high levels of support throughout the country, and in 1949 were able to drive the Nationalists off the mainland, to the island of Taiwan.
Mao Zedong, the Communist Party Chairman, declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China. All land was confiscated to the state and distributed among the peasants; later, their holdings were merged into state-controlled communes. Similarly, all industry was placed under state control and likewise organized into communes.
In 1958 Mao inaugurated a new policy, labelled the Great leap Forward. The aim was to speed up China’s advance to a great industrial power; in the event it created chaos, misery and famine for millions of people. In 1966 Mao launched his Cultural Revolution, aimed at restoring revolutionary fervour to the Communist party. For ten years, until Mao’s death in 1976, gangs of young people called Red Guards terrorized all sections of society.
On Mao’s death the leadership took immediate steps to end the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Within a few years the government introduced wide-ranging economic reforms and opened China’s economy to the outside world. To the disappointment of many, especially students, these changes were not accompanied by political reform. In 1989 mass protests broke out in Beijing, and thousands of students occupied Tiananmen Square. These were put down with force. Since then the government has not allowed protests like this to develop.
In the final decade of the 20th century the economy of China grew enormously, as its factories produced goods for sale around the world. A great migration from the countryside to the cities took place, and millions of people were lifted out of dire poverty.