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History of China
China is the oldest continuous major world civilization, with records dating back about 3,500 years. Successive dynasties developed a system of bureaucratic control that gave the agrarian-based Chinese an advantage over neighboring nomadic and hill cultures. Chinese civilization was further strengthened by the development of a Confucian state ideology and a common written language that bridged the gaps among the country’s many local languages and dialects. Whenever China was conquered by nomadic tribes, as it was by the Mongols in the 13th century, the conquerors sooner or later adopted the ways of the “higher” Chinese civilization and staffed the bureaucracy with Chinese.
Northern China, in the plains around the Huang Ho (or Yellow River), bears evidence of more continuous human development than any other region on earth. Approximately 500,000 years ago Peking man lives in the caves at Zhoukoudian, about 30 miles (48 km) southwest of the modern city of Beijing. This is the farthest north that Homo erectus has been found, and hearths in the caves are probably the earliest evidence of the human use of fire. The same caves are occupied 20,000 years ago by modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, during the Stone Age. And 3500 years ago a nearby river valley becomes the site of one of the first great civilizations.
The Shang dynasty: 1600 – 1100 BC
The city of An-yang, rediscovered in the 20th century, is an important center of the first Chinese civilization – that of the Shang dynasty, which lasts from about 1600 to 1100 BC. Known to its occupants as the Great City Shang, its buildings are on both banks of the Huan river, to the north of the Yellow River. An-yang is at the heart of a society in which human sacrifice plays a significant role. Archaeology reveals this, as does an extraordinary archive of written records – stored on what the peasants of this area, in modern times, have believed to be dragon bones.
The dragon bones are the records, kept by the priests, of the questions asked of the oracle by the Shang rulers. The answer is found by the method of divination known as scapulimancy. The priest takes a polished strip of bone, usually from the shoulder blade of an ox, and cuts in it a groove to which he applies a heated bronze point. The answer to the question (in most cases just yes or no) is revealed by the pattern of the cracks which appear in the bone. With the bureaucratic thoroughness of civil servants, the priests then write on the bone the question that was asked, and sometimes the answer that was given, before filing the bone away in an archive (see Questions and answers on oracle bones).
Sacrifice, silk and bronze: 1600 – 1100 BC
Several of the inscriptions on the oracle bones mention sacrifices, sometimes of prisoners of war, which are to be made to a silkworm goddess. There is even a Shang court official called Nu Cang, meaning Mistress of the Silkworms. Silk, China’s first great contribution to civilization, has been an important product of the region for at least 1000 years before the Shang dynasty and the beginning of recorded history. The earliest silk fragments unearthed by archaeologists date from around 2850 BC.
The writing on the Shang oracle bones is in pictorial characters which evolve, often with only minor modifications, into the characters used in written Chinese today – 3500 years later. There can be no better example of the continuity underpinning Chinese civilization. The excavations at An-yang demonstrate that Shang craftsmen have reached an astonishing level of skill in the casting of bronze. And they reveal a reckless attitude to human life. A building cannot be consecrated at An-yang, or a ruler buried, without extensive human sacrifice (see the Sacrificial guardians of An-yang).
The roots of Chinese culture: 1600 – 1100 BC
The area controlled by the Shang rulers is relatively small, but Shang cultural influence spreads through a large part of central China. In addition to their writing of Chinese characters, the Shang introduce many elements which have remained characteristic of this most ancient surviving culture. Bronze chopsticks, for example, have been found in a Shang tomb. The Shang use a supremely confident name for their own small territory; it too has stood the test of time. They call An-yang and the surrounding region Chung-kuo, meaning ‘the Central Country’. It is still the Chinese name for China. And the Shang practise another lasting Chinese tradition – the worship of ancestors.
Most of the elaborate bronze vessels made in Shang times are for use in temples or shrines to ancestors. The richly decorated urns are for cooking the meat of the sacrificed animals. The most characteristic design is the li, with its curved base extended into three hollow protuberances – enabling maximum heat to reach the sacrificial stew. The bronze jugs, often fantastically shaped into weird animals and birds, are for pouring a liquid offering to the ancestor – usually a hot alcoholic concoction brewed from millet.
In Shang society ancestor worship is limited to the king and a few noble families. The good will of the king’s ancestors is crucial to the whole of society, because they are the community’s link with the gods. Over the centuries the king becomes known as the Son of Heaven. The shrine to his ancestors – the Temple of Heaven in Beijing – is the focal point of the national religion. In subsequent dynasties, and particularly after the time of Confucius, ancestor worship spreads downwards through the Chinese community. It becomes a crucial part of the culture of the Confucian civil servants, the mandarins.
The Zhou dynasty: c.1100 – 256 BC
In about 1050 BC (the date is disputed among scholars by several decades in either direction), a new power is established in China. This is the Zhou dynasty, deriving from a frontier kingdom between civilization and marauding tribes, westward of An-yang, up towards the mountains. After forming a confederation of other neighboring states, the Zhou overwhelm the Shang rulers. The new capital is at Ch’ang-an (now known as Xi’an), close to the Wei river. From here the Zhou control the entire area of central China, from the Huang Ho to the Yangtze. They do so through a network of numerous subordinate kingdoms, in a system akin to feudalism.
In 771 BC the Zhou are driven east from Xi’an, by a combination of barbarian tribes and some of their own dependent kingdoms. They re-establish themselves at Loyang, where they remain the nominal rulers of China (known as the Eastern Zhou) until 256 BC. During this long period their status is largely ceremonial and religious. Their main role is to continue the sacrifices to their royal ancestors – from whom the rulers of most of the other rival kingdoms also claim descent. In the 8th century there are hundreds of small kingdoms in central China. By the end of the 5th there are only seven. Tension and constant warfare give the period its character.
Confucius and Confucianism: from the 6th century BC
A lasting result of these troubled centuries is the adoption of the ideas of K’ung Fu Tzu, known to the west as Confucius. Like other spiritual leaders of this same period (Zoroaster, Mahavira, Gautama Buddha), Confucius is essentially a teacher. As with them, his ideas are spread by his disciples. But Confucius teaches more worldly principles than his great contemporaries. The unrest of his times prompts him to define a pattern of correct behavior. The purpose is to achieve a just and peaceful society, but the necessary first step is within each individual. Confucius lays constant emphasis on two forms of harmony. Music is good because it suggests a harmonious state of mind. Ritual is good because it defines a harmonious society.
The Confucian ideals are deeply conservative, based on an unchanging pattern of respect upwards, to those higher in rank (older members of a family, senior members of a community), which brings with it a corresponding obligation downwards. The pattern is extended outside this immediate world, with the highest respect accorded to the dead – in the form of ancestor worship. This concept of mutual obligation shares something with feudalism, but it gives less honor to military prowess. It is more like a Utopian bureaucracy, with responsible Confucians on hand at every level to oil the machinery of state. Confucius runs a school in his later years, proclaiming it open to talent regardless of wealth. His young graduates, more intellectually agile than their contemporaries, are much in demand as advisers in the competing kingdoms of China. So the master’s ideas are spread at a practical level, and his disciples begin as they will continue – as civil servants. Known in China as scholar officials, they acquire the name ‘mandarin’ in western languages from a Portuguese corruption of a Sanskrit word. The idea of a career open to talent becomes a basic characteristic of Chinese society. By the 2nd century BC China’s famous examination system has been adopted, launching the world’s first meritocracy.
Daoism: from the 4th century BC
Confucianism is so practical a creed that it can scarcely be called a religion. It is ill-equipped to satisfy the human need for something more mysterious. China provides this in the form of Daoism.
Laozi, the supposed founder of Daoism, is traditionally believed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. It is more likely that he is an entirely mythical figure. The small book which he is supposed to have written dates from no earlier than the 4th century BC. It is an anthology of short passages, collected under the title Daodejing. Immensely influential over the centuries, it is the basis for China’s alternative religion.
Daodejing means ‘The Way and its Power’. The way is the way of nature, and the power is that of the man who gives up ambition and surrenders his whole being to nature. How this is achieved is a subtle mystery. But the Daodejing suggests that the Way of water (the humblest and most irresistible of substances) is something which a wise man should imitate.
In the late 20th century, an era of ecology and New Age philosophies, the ‘alternative’ quality of Daoism has given it considerable appeal in the west. In Chinese history it is indeed alternative, but in a different sense. In the lives of educated Chinese, Daoism has literally alternated with Confucianism. Confucianism and Daoism are like two sides of the same Chinese coin. They are opposite and complementary. They represent town and country, the practical and the spiritual, the rational and the romantic. A Chinese official is a Confucian while he goes about the business of government; if he loses his job, he will retire to the country as a Daoist; but a new offer of employment may rapidly restore his Confucianism. The same natural cycle of opposites is reflected in the Chinese theory of Yin and yang, which also becomes formulated during the long Zhou dynasty.
Legalism: from the 4th century BC
Although the Zhou dynasty is the cradle of the two most lasting schools of Chinese thought, Confucianism and Daoism, it is brought to an end by a more brutal philosophy usually described as Legalism. Expressed in a work of the 4th century BC, the Book of Lord Shang, it responds to the lawlessness of the age by demanding more teeth for the law. A strict system of rewards and punishments is to be imposed upon society. But the ratio is to be one reward to every nine punishments. Punishment produces force, force produces strength, strength produces awe, awe produces virtue. Virtue has its origin in punishments’, proclaims the Book of Lord Shang.It is read with attention by the ruler of the Qin.
The Qin dynasty: 221 – 206 BC
By the 4th century BC the numerous Zhou kingdoms have been reduced, by warfare and conquest, to just seven. The most vigorous of these is the Qin kingdom, occupying the Wei valley. This region, as when the Zhou were here centuries earlier, is a buffer state between the civilized China of the plains and the barbaric tribal regions in the mountains. The Qin have learnt from their tribal neighbors how to fight from the saddle, instead of in the cumbersome war chariots used by the Zhou kingdoms. And Legalism gives them a healthy disregard for the Confucian pretensions of the more sophisticated kingdoms. In particular they are unimpressed by the claims to preeminence of the feeble state of Zhou.
In 256 the Qin overrun Zhou, bringing to an abrupt end a dynasty which has lasted on paper more than 800 years. In the following decades they conquer and annex each of the other five kingdoms. The last is subdued in 221 BC. The whole of central China is now for the first time under a single unified control, in effect creating a Chinese empire. The Qin ruler who has achieved it gives himself an appropriate new title, Shi Huangdi, the ‘first sovereign emperor’. His Qin kingdom (pronounced ‘chin’) provides the name which most of the world has used ever since for this whole region of the earth – China. Shi Huangdi rapidly sets in place a dictatorship of uniformity, based on terror. Much use is made of a scale of five standard punishments – branding on the forehead, cutting off the nose, cutting off the feet, castration and death. The only approved commodities in this empire are items of practical use. These do not include books or Confucians. In 213 BC it is ordered that all books (except those on medicine, agriculture and divination) are to be burnt (see Bamboo books). A year later it is reported that 460 Confucian scholars have been executed.
The collapse of the first empire: 210-206 BC
Like other megalomaniacs, Shi Huangdi predicts that his empire will last almost to eternity. 11,000 generations is his claim. In the event it lasts less than one generation – from 221 to 206 BC. When the emperor dies, in 210, the arrangement of his tomb reflects both his paranoia and his power. In his determination that no thief shall discover and desecrate his resting place, the workmen who construct it are buried with him – or so Chinese tradition has always maintained, adding that the tomb has crossbows permanently cocked to impale any intruder. When the tomb is eventually discovered, in 1975, it reveals an even more amazing secret – the famous Terracotta army of Xi’an.
Turmoil follows the death of the Qin emperor. During it his chief minister, Li Ssu, receives his own dose of Legalist medicine. His downfall is engineered by a palace eunuch, who arranges for him to suffer each of the first four punishments in turn and then, without nose, feet or genitals, to be flogged and cut in two at the waist.
A series of peasant rebellions, resulting from the brutality of the regime, accompanies the rapid collapse of the Qin dynasty. From the chaos there emerges the first undeniably great Chinese dynasty, the Han. But the centralizing effort of the Qin ruler does bequeath some lasting benefits to China. The Chinese will never again forget a political ideal deriving from this time – that the natural condition of their great and isolated land mass is to be a single entity. A practical token of this ideal is left by the Qin emperor in the form of the Great Wall of China – a boundary which securely defines the nation on the only side where nature does not already do so by mountain, jungle or sea.
The Han dynasty: 206 BC – AD 220
The Han is the first of the five great Chinese dynasties, each of them controlling the entire area of China for a span of several centuries. The others are the T’ang (7th-10th centuries), Song (10th-13th), Ming (14th-17th) and Qing (17th-20th). The Han is a great deal earlier than any of these, and it lasts – with one minor interruption – longer than any other. At its peak the imperial power stretches from the Pamir Mountains in the west to Korea in the east and to Vietnam in the south. With justification the Han dynasty comes to seem a golden age, and the Chinese have often described themselves as the ‘sons of Han’. The Han kingdom was one of the five states engulfed between 230 and 221 BC by the Qin emperor. During the rebellions which follow his death, the Han throne is seized in 206 by a man of peasant origin. After four years of warfare he is strong enough to claim the Qin empire. As founder of a great dynasty he is later given the title Kaozi – ‘exalted ancestor’.
As befits his origins, Kaozi is a rough character, with little respect for the Chinese official classes. The first great Chinese historian, Sima Qian, writing a century later, gives a vivid but improbable glimpse of the man. ‘Whenever a visitor wearing a Confucian hat comes to see the emperor, he immediately snatches the hat from the visitor’s head and pisses in it’. Confronted by the practical problems of running the empire, Kaozi overcomes his aversion to the Confucians. He even commissions a Confucian work on the principles of good government. And his successors make the Confucians the scholar-officials of the state. Under the most powerful of the Han emperors, Wudi (the ‘martial emperor’), scholars of other disciplines are banned from court. The Confucian examination system is made a cornerstone of the administrative system (see Chinese examinations). And an imperial academy is set up to study the supposed works of the master (most of them, in reality, written or compiled by his disciples).
The Chinese architectural tradition: from the 1st c. BC
No architecture survives in China from the early dynasties (with the spectacular exception of the Great Wall) because the Chinese have always built in wood, which decays. On the other hand, wood is easily repaired. When timbers of a wooden structure are replaced and repainted, the building is as good as new – or as good as old. The conservative tendency in Chinese culture means that styles, even in entirely new buildings, seem to have changed little in the 2000 years since the Han dynasty.
Documents of the time suggest that Han imperial architecture is already of a kind familiar today in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the vast palace built in the 15th century for the Ming emperors. Carved and painted wooden columns and beams support roofs with elaborate ornamented eaves. The painting of buildings provides ample opportunity for the Chinese love of rank and hierarchy. The Li Chi, a Confucian book of ritual complied in the Han dynasty, declares that the pillars of the emperor’s buildings are red, those of princes are black, those of high officials blue-green, and those of other members of the gentry yellow.
Minor improvements are introduced with the advance of technology. The colorful ceramic roof tiles of Chinese pavilions are an innovation in the Song dynasty in the 11th century. But in broad terms the civic buildings of China retain their appearance through the ages. A good example is the magnificent Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Its colors, frequently restored, are so fresh that the building looks new. But the structure dates from the early 15th century, in the Ming dynasty, and its appearance on its marble platform is almost identical to Marco Polo’s description of its predecessor in the 13th century.
The reign of the emperor Wudi: 142 – 87 BC
At the peak of the Han dynasty, under the emperor Wudi, the Chinese empire stretches to its greatest expanse and seems to need for nothing. Even the valuable commodities which previously have been acquired from beyond the empire’s northern boundary – horses and jade – are now regarded as home produce. They come from the steppes to the north of the Himalayas, where the nomadic Xiongnu are now increasingly brought under Chinese control.
Sima Qian, writing during Wudi’s reign, depicts the empire as Proudly self-sufficient, in his list of what is available and in which regions. Wudi employs military force more effectively than his predecessors against the Xiongnu, who are constantly pressing from the north. Searching for allies against these ferocious neighbors, he is intrigued by reports that there are other nomadic tribes, the Yueqi, enemies of the Xiongnu, living to the west of them. In 138 Wudi sends an envoy on a dangerous mission to make contact with these potential allies. The 13-year adventure of the envoy, Zhang Qian, is one of the great early travel stories (see the Journey of Zhang Qian). It is also the first fully documented contact between China and the west, and a significant step towards the opening of the Silk Road.
Several important technical advances are made in China during the Han dynasty. In warfare, the Chinese skill in working bronze is applied to the invention of the crossbow. In the story of communication there are two major turning points. Paper is invented, with a traditional date of AD 105. And although true printing must wait a few more centuries, an initiative of AD 175 proves an important stepping stone towards the first printed texts in Chinese.
Engraved texts: 2nd – 8th century AD
The emperor of China commands, in AD 175, that the six main classics of Confucianism be carved in stone. His purpose is to preserve them for posterity in what is held to be authentic version of the text. But his enterprise has an unexpected result. Confucian scholars are eager to own these important texts. Now, instead of having them expensively written out, they can make their own copies. Simply by laying sheets of paper on the engraved slabs and rubbing all over with charcoal or graphite, they can take away a text in white letters on a black ground – a technique more familiar in recent centuries in the form of brass-rubbing. Subsequent emperors engrave other texts, until quite an extensive white-on-black library can be acquired. It is a natural next step to carve the letters in a raised form (and in mirror writing) and then to apply ink to the surface of the letters. When this ink is transferred to paper, the letters appear in black (or in a color) against the white of the paper – much more pleasant to the eye than white on black. This process is printing. But it is the Buddhists, rather than the Confucians, who make the breakthrough.
Western and Eastern Han: 206 BC – AD 221
For the first 200 years of the dynasty, the Han capital is in the Wei valley – at Xi’an (the same site as Ch’ang-An, the first capital of the Zhou dynasty). During a brief interlude the throne is seized by a usurper, who forms the Hsin or ‘new’ dynasty (AD 8-23). The imperial family then recovers the throne and moves the capital further east into the plains. The emperors re-establish themselves at Loyang – again the very place to which the Zhou dynasty moved from Xi’an, nearly eight centuries earlier. At Loyang the Han survive for another 200 years, until eventually toppled in 221 after several decades of peasant uprisings – a pattern of events which has been common at the end of Chinese dynasties.
Period of Disunion: 3rd – 6th century AD
The centuries after the collapse of the Han dynasty are a time of chaos. The Chinese Standard Histories identify no fewer than ten dynasties and nineteen separate kingdoms during this period. It is often known now as the Six Dynasties (from six in succession which had their capital at Nanjing), or more accurately as the Period of Disunion. As in many chaotic times, much is achieved. One such achievement is the flourishing of Chinese Buddhism.The first Buddhists have reached China, along the Silk Road, in the 1st century AD. They flourish partly because they are warmly welcomed by a well-established indigenous religion, Daoism.
The Daoists see the Buddhists as kindred souls, and with good reason. Both religions have priests, monasteries and some form of religious hierarchy. Both believe in a withdrawal from the everyday business of life. Both differ profoundly from the Chinese alternative to Daoism – the practical, commonsense, worldly philosophy of Confucianism. Soon the two religions become so closely linked that a new Daoist theory evolves. The Buddha is actually Lao-Tzu, who was given this other name when he made a secret journey to bring the truth to India.
Centuries later, when Buddhism is favored above Daoism by Chinese rulers and when the great wealth of Buddhist monasteries provokes jealousy, the Daoist legend becomes neatly reversed. If the Buddhists are Daoists under another name, why should they enjoy any special treatment and such spectacular success? Such arguments underlie the eventual persecution of Buddhists, in the 9th century. Meanwhile their success is indeed astonishing. Buddhist carving in China stands as visible proof of their wealth and energy. In sheer quantity, if in nothing else, Buddhist carving in China would be a phenomenon in the history of sculpture. One site near the ancient capital of Loyang, at the eastern end of the Silk Road, makes the point very effectively. Any visitor to Long-men will be struck by the profusion of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Arhats and their guardians. But exactly how many statues are there? In 1916 a local magistrate attempts to count them. He arrives at a total of 97,306 separate figures. A more recent study suggests that 142,289 may be nearer the mark.
The Sui dynasty: 589-618
The man who reunites China in 589, forming the Sui dynasty, is an enthusiastic patron of Buddhism. He takes as his title Wen Ti, meaning the Cultured Emperor, and devotes much effort to building Buddhist stupas throughout the land. The local version of a stupa develops into a specifically Chinese form, that of the pagoda. His son, Yang Ti (the Emblazoned Emperor), undertakes an even more ambitious project, requiring so much forced labor that it contributes to the rapid end of this brief dynasty. But it has economic value and is a stupendous achievement. Yang Ti constructs the Grand Canal, linking the Yangtze to the Yellow River and thus to the twin capitals of Loyang and Xi’an.
The T’ang dynasty: 618-907
Rebellion breaks out against the second Sui emperor in 613, partly provoked by the burden of constructing his Grand Canal. In 616, fleeing from his capital at Xi’an, he and his court are towed down the canal to temporary safety in his specially designed barges. Two years later he is assassinated by his own troops.
Meanwhile one of the emperor’s high officials has seized power in Xi’an. By 618 he is in a position to declare himself the founder of a new dynasty, the T’ang. China enters its most dynamic era, a period rivaled only by the first two centuries of the Han dynasty. Chinese culture under the T’ang reaches new heights in ceramics and literature. The Chinese style influences Korea and Japan, and the two younger civilizations also give an increasingly warm welcome to Chinese Buddhism. Imperial control now extends once again from desert oases along the Silk Road in the northwest to parts of Manchuria in the northeast and to Vietnam in the south.
Beyond China’s borders to the west, the might of the emperor reaches further than at any previous time. Princes as far away as Bukhara and Samarkand recognize his sovereignty. The extent of the imperial Chinese bureaucracy under the T’ang dynasty makes possible an unusually thorough scientific project (echoing, for a different purpose, the brave amateur experiment of Eratosthenes 1000 years earlier). In 721 the emperor sets up nine research stations, across a span of more than 2000 miles, from Hue in the south to the Great Wall in the north.
For four years each station measures the sun’s shadow at noon on the summer and winter solstice. It is an elegant experiment in that no difficult synchronization is required. The shortest and longest shadows at each place are the correct answers, providing invaluable information for cartographers.
T’ang pottery: 7th – 9th century
T’ang is the first dynasty from which sufficient pottery survives for a Chinese style to become widely known in modern times. The surviving pieces are almost exclusively ceramic figures found in tombs. They represent the animals (particularly horses, but also camels) and the servants and attendants needed by the dead man in the next life.
The eclectic nature of Chinese religion is well suggested in the range of attendants considered helpful. A general by the name of Liu Tingxun, buried at Loyang in 728, is accompanied by two Confucian officials, two Buddhist guardians and two ferocious-looking earth spirits of a more Daoist disposition. Vigorously realistic in style, with bright and often dappled glazes, T’ang horses and tomb figures are among the most delightful and recognizable of styles of pottery. But the T’ang potters make another contribution of much greater significance in ceramic history. They discover the technique of the thin white translucent ware known as porcelain. There is much argument about the date of the first porcelain, for there is no precise agreement on how to define it (it is most commonly described as white china so thin that it is translucent and makes a ringing sound when struck). Other definitions involve the relative proportions of ingredients such as kaolin and porcelain stone.
Wares produced in north China during the T’ang dynasty, from as early as the 7th century, have the characteristics of porcelain. From the start they are widely appreciated. In a summer palace of the 9th century, far away on the Tigris at Samarra, broken fragments of T’ang porcelain have been found. The earliest known example of a foreigner marveling at this delicate Chinese ware derives from the same century and region. In 851 a merchant by the name of Suleiman is recorded in Basra, at the mouth of the Tigris, as saying that the Chinese have ‘pottery of excellent quality, of which bowls are made as fine as glass drinking cups; the sparkle of water can be seen through it, although it is pottery.
T’ang poetry: 7th – 9th century
Chinese poetry achieves its golden age during the T’ang dynasty. The ability to turn an elegant verse is so much part of civilized life that almost 50,000 poems (by some 2300 poets) survive from the period. Poetry is a social activity. Friends write stanzas for each other to commemorate an occasion, and competitive improvisation is a favorite game at a party or on a picnic. Early in the dynasty news of a child prodigy, a girl of seven, reaches the court. She is brought before the empress and is asked to improvise on the theme of bidding farewell to her brothers. The Resulting poem, delivered in this alarming context, is brilliant – though no doubt polished in the telling.
Chinese scholar officials, pleasantly torn between Confucianism and Daoism, write poetry when they are in their Daoist vein. Verses are composed when the official is on a journey with friends, or on holiday, or in temporary retirement in a thatched cottage in some delightful landscape. Most of the leading poets, though their inspiration lies among friends in the countryside, are also on the fringes of imperial court life. In this balance they echo to some extent the experience of Horace in imperial Rome. Like his short odes, the favorite T’ang form known as lü-shih (‘regulated verse’) is distinguished by its finely honed elegance.
Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu: 8th century
The three greatest T’ang poets are exact contemporaries in the early 8th century. One of them, Wang Wei, begins his career with a brilliant success in the official examinations but he rarely holds the high positions which this would normally imply (ssee Chinese examinations). More important to him is his villa in the mountains south of the capital city, at Wang-ch’uan. The beauty of the landscape inspires Wang Wei both as painter and poet. None of his paintings survive, but later Chinese landscapes reveal the closely related influence of the countryside in both art forms. A poet of the next dynasty writes of Wang Wei that there are pictures in his poems and poems in his pictures.
The other two leading T’ang poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, are unsuccessful in the examinations (see Chinese examinations). Instead they regularly present poems to the imperial court in the hope of finding preferment. Occasionally they are successful. But both men, for much of their lives, lead a nomadic existence – supporting themselves on small farms, or lodging in Daoist monasteries. Nevertheless they are able to acquire great fame in their lifetime as poets, thanks to the extensive network of educated Chinese officialdom. In 744 (when Li is 43 and Tu 32) their paths cross for the first time, and the two poets become firm friends. Friendship and Chinese poetry are closely linked.
The first printed book: 868
The earliest known printed book is Chinese, from the end of the T’ang dynasty. Discovered in a cave at Dunhuang in 1899, it is a precisely dated document which brings the circumstances of its creation vividly to life. It is a scroll, 16 feet long and a foot high, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text is that of the Diamond Sutra, and the first sheet in the scroll has an added distinction. It is the world’s first printed illustration, depicting an enthroned Buddha surrounded by holy attendants. In a tradition later familiar in religious art of the west, a small figure kneels and prays in the foreground. He is presumably the donor who has paid for this holy book.
The name of the donor, Wang Chieh, is revealed in another device which later becomes traditional in early printed books in the west. The details of publication are given in a colophon (Greek for ‘finishing stroke’) at the end of the text. This reveals that the scroll is a work of Buddhist piety, combined with the filial obligations of good Confucian ideals: ‘Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents.’ The printing of Wang Chieh’s scroll is of a high standard, so it must have had many predecessors. But the lucky accident of the cave at Dunhuang has given his parents a memorial more lasting than he could have imagined possible.
The T’ang in decline: 751-906
With the exception of printing, the great T’ang achievements take place in the first half of the dynasty. This is a repetitive pattern of Chinese history, for the vigor of the founding emperor of a dynasty – a self-made man – can rarely be matched by descendants who grow up in a palace environment, pampered by eunuchs and shielded from practical experience. The T’ang are also unfortunate in their neighbors. For the first time since communication with the west is established, during the Han dynasty, there is an expansionist new power beyond the Himalayas. The Arabs, with their Muslim faith, have the vitality traditionally considered in China to be characteristic of a new dynasty.
The Arabs and the Chinese: 751-758
By the mid-8th century, with the Arabs firmly in control of central Asia and the Chinese pressing further west than ever before, a clash is sooner or later inevitable. It comes, in 751, at the Talas river. The result is a shattering defeat for the Chinese. For the Arabs an interesting fringe benefit of victory is the valuable secret of how to make paper. Seven years later the Arabs again demonstrate their strength with an impertinent gesture at the opposite extreme of the Chinese empire. Arriving in 758 along the trade route of the south China coast, they loot and burn Canton.
Between the two Arab incursions, the T’ang administration is gravely weakened by the rebellion of an army commander serving on the northwest frontier. In 755 An Lu-shan marches east and captures both the western and eastern capitals, at Xi’an and Loyang. The emperor flees ignominiously. Two years later An Lu-shan is murdered by his own son. But the weakened condition of the empire is soon demonstrated again. In 763 the emperor is unable to prevent an invading Tibetan force from briefly capturing Xi’an.
The T’ang dynasty never again recovers its former strength. The next century and a half is characterized by violent struggles between powerful groups. One such clash is between the eunuchs who run the imperial palace, and who are now increasingly given command over the palace armies, and the regional governors controlling troops in the provinces. Another clash is between Daoists and Buddhists. In recent centuries the Buddhists have been the more favoured of the Daoists, an older indigenous sect by now jealous of the foreign upstarts, seek to influence the emperors against their rivals.
In 845 the Daoist campaign is finally and decisively successful. The emperor initiates a purge in which 4000 Buddhist monasteries are destroyed, together with many more shrines and temples. A quarter of a million monks and nuns are forced back into secular life.
Soon lawless provincial armies and popular unrest combine to make the country ungovernable. Rebellious peasants occupy Xi’an in 881. In 903 a surviving leader of that peasant uprising captures the emperor and kills him with all his eunuchs. Three years later he sets up a dynasty of his own with his capital at Kaifeng. A succession of similar warlords follow his example in a chaotic 50-year span known as the Five Dynasties.
The Song empire: 960-1279
The rapid succession of the Five Dynasties is brought to an end by a warlord who wins power in 960. He establishes the sixth in the sequence on a more firm footing, as the Song dynasty. He does so by reducing the power of regional commanders (keeping the best regiments under his own command at the center) and by giving greater authority to the civilian administration. As a result this is the heyday of the Confucians. Ever since the Han dynasty, scholar officials have supposedly been selected by merit in the civil-service exams (see Chinese examinations). But heredity and corruption have often frustrated this intention, reserving the jade insignia of office for the families of the powerful rather than the talented.
Now, under the Song emperors, the search for talent becomes rigorous. As an early Song ruler puts it, ‘bosoms clothed in coarse fabrics may carry qualities of jade’, and he is determined that such bosoms shall not ‘remain unknown’. The result is a China weaker in military terms than its predecessors but of greater sophistication. The territory controlled by the Song emperors is gradually reduced under pressure from less civilized intruders, particularly from the north. But enough remains to be the basis of a strong economy and a rich urban culture.
Northern Song: 960-1127
For the first half of the dynasty, known as Northern Song, the capital is at Kaifeng – an important center where the Grand Canal joins the Yellow River. The city includes 16 square miles within its walls and has an estimated population of more than a million people. It is not the only one of its kind. By the end of the dynasty Soozhou, Hangzhou and Canton (already the port for foreign merchants) are all of this size. In these great cities the Chinese enjoy the fruits of trade (now carried in exceptionally large merchant ships, and often negotiated in paper money), the benefits of technology (such as printing) and the aesthetic delights of pottery, painting and poetry.
These pleasures are interrupted from time to time by the demands of the Khitan, a tribe from eastern Mongolia who have settled in north China and have established their own version of a Chinese dynasty (the Liao, 907-1125). The Khitan are the first to make a capital city in what is now Beijing. They are such troublesome neighbors that the Song regularly make large payments to them (of silk, grain, copper and silver) in return for peace. A more drastic interruption occurs when another aggressive group from the northern steppes, the Jurchen, overwhelm the Liao dynasty in 1125. Two years later they capture the Song capital, Kaifeng, and carry off the Song emperor and 3000 of his court. But even this disaster proves only a dislocation.
Southern Song: 1127-1279
A prince of the imperial family, avoiding capture at Kaifeng, establishes a new administration at the other end of the Grand Canal, at Hangzhou. Here the Southern Song continue for another 150 years, in territory reduced to a mere fraction of the China of the T’ang empire. But civilized Chinese life thrives in the exceptionally beautiful city of Hangzhou, at the heart of China’s richest agricultural region – the rice fields of the south. It will continue to thrive until the arrival of another intruder, of a different calibre from all previous northern barbarians. Though not Chinese, he becomes emperor of China. He is perhaps the only emperor in Chinese history whose name is widely known – Kublai Khan.
Paper money in China: 10th – 15th century
Paper money is first experimented with in China in about910, during the Five Dynasties period. It is a familiar currency by the end of the century under the Song dynasty. Another three centuries later it is one of the things about China which most astonishes Marco Polo (see Bank notes in China). He describes in great detail how the notes are authenticated, and then unwittingly touches on the danger lurking within the delightful freedom to print money. He says that the emperor of China makes so many notes each year that he could buy the whole treasure of the world, ‘though it costs him nothing’. By the early 15th century inflation has become such a problem that paper currency is abolished in the Ming empire.
Chinese publishing: 10th – 11th century
Printing from wood blocks, as in the Diamond Sutra, is a laborious process. Yet the Chinese printers work wonders. In the 10th and 11th centuries all the Confucian classics are published for the use of scholar officials, together with huge numbers of Buddhist and Daoist works (amounting to around 5000 scrolls of each) and the complete Standard Histories since the time of Sima Qian. The carving of so many characters in reverse on wood blocks is an enormous investment of labour, but the task is unavoidable until the introduction of movable type. This innovation, once again, seems to have been pioneered in China but achieved in Korea.
Chinese arts: in the Song dynasty
In the heyday of classical Chinese culture, a civilized gentleman – meaning a Confucian official – should be adept in three different artistic fields. When he settles down before a fresh sheet of paper and dips his brush in the ink (ground from a block of pigment by a servant), no one can be certain whether he is about to pen an impromptu poem, paint a quick impression of a romantic landscape or fashion some traditional phrase in exquisite Chinese characters. The three skills, all expressed in the beauty of brush strokes, are closely linked. A ‘soundless poem’ is a conventional Chinese term for a picture. And a typical poem by the Song master Ou-yang Hsiu Sounds like a painting.
Poetry and painting in Song China (960-1279) are largely social activities, both in the creation and in the appreciation of the work. On a convivial occasion, with wine flowing, Confucians will compete with each other in writing or painting. In more sober vein, among connoisseurs, a collector will bring the scrolls from their boxes and will unroll them to be admired and discussed. China’s past is also now a theme for conoisseurs, in a fashion pioneered by Ou-yang Hsiu (and echoed centuries later in Italy during the Renaissance). Ou-yang Hsiu clambers ‘on precarious cliffs and inaccessible gorges, in wild forests and abandoned tombs’ to make rubbings which he publishes, in about 1000 portfolios, as his Collection of Ancient Inscriptions’.
Inevitably much of the painting done by enthusiastic amateurs is dull and conventional. This is particularly true during the reign of the emperor Hui Tsung. Himself a talented painter, of a carefully exact kind, he sets up an official academy of painting. Those who want to get on at court are unlikely to disagree with the emperor on matters of artistic style. Others, opting out of the system, come under the influence of Chan or Zen Buddhism with its emphasis on freedom of expression. The Chan painters of the Song dynasty, using a few quick brushstrokes to capture a fleeting visual moment, provide one of the most brilliant interludes in the story of Chinese art.
Pottery of the Song dynasty: 10th – 13th century
Of the many arts which thrive in China at this time, Song ceramics are outstanding. The simple shapes of the pottery and porcelain of this dynasty, and the elegance of the glazes (usually monochrome), have set standards of refinement admired in subsequent centuries throughout the world. Among the best known of these wares are the celadons, with their thick transparent green glazes, which are made at Longquan, near the southern Song capital of Hangzhou. Also influential are the black wares known as temmoku, popular with Buddhist monks for the tea ceremony and exported in large quantities for this purpose to Japan.
A tower clock in China: 1094
After six years’ work, a Buddhist monk by the name of Su Song completes a great tower, some thirty feet high, which is designed to reveal the movement of the stars and the hours of the day. Figures pop out of doors and strike bells to signify the hours. The power comes from a water wheel occupying the lower part of the tower. Su Song has designed a device which stops the water wheel except for a brief spell, once every quarter of an hour, when the weight of the water (accumulated in vessels on the rim) is sufficient to trip a mechanism. The wheel, lurching forward, drives the machinery of the tower to the next stationary point in a continuing cycle.
This device (which in Su Sung’s tower must feel like a minor earthquake every time it slams the machinery into action) is an early example of an escapement – a concept essential to mechanical clockwork. In any form of clock based on machinery, power must be delivered to the mechanism in intermittent bursts which can be precisely regulated. The rationing of power is the function of the escapement. The real birth of mechanical clockwork awaits a reliable version, developed in Europe in the 13th century. Meanwhile Su Sung’s tower clock, ready for inspection by the emperor in 1094, is destroyed shortly afterwards by marauding barbarians from the north.
The Chinese junk: 12th century – 15th century
The design of the Chinese junk (a western word from the Malayan djong, meaning ‘boat’) is perfected during the later part of the Song dynasty, when the loss of the northern empire increases the importance of overseas trade. A merchant fleet, and a navy to defend it, become essential. The resulting junk is an ideal craft for the South China seas. The region suffers violent typhoons, so a strong hull is essential. The Chinese achieve this by means of the bulkhead – a partition across the interior of the hull, and sometimes along its length as well. Bulkheads make the hull rigid and also provide watertight compartments – invaluable when a leak at sea needs repair.
The Chinese junk has other pioneering features later copied elsewhere. Traditionally built without a keel (allowing access to shallow waters), the junk is ill-equipped to sail a straight course until an important innovation of the Song period – the addition of the sternpost rudder. This is a large heavy board which can be lowered on a sternpost when the junk moves into deep water. Coming below the bottom of the boat, and capable of hinging on its post, it fulfils the function both of keel and rudder. Until this time, throughout the world, the conventional method of steering a boat has been by means of a long oar projecting from the stern.
Another important innovation on the Chinese junk is multiple masts. Marco Polo describes sea-going junks as having four masts, with a further two which can be raised when required. Each mast has square-rigged sails. They concertina on themselves, when reefed, in the manner of a Venetian blind. These ships are huge. Marco Polo claims that sixty private cabins for merchants can be built on the deck, and archaeological evidence suggests that by the 15th century a large merchant junk is about 450 feet from the bow to the high poop in the stern – six times the length of the contemporary Portuguese caravel. In 1973 the discovery of a junk of the 13th-century confirms much of what Marco Polo reports from the time of Kublai Khan.
Kublai Khan and the Yüan dynasty of China: 1252-79
From 1252 Kublai presses south through the mountainous western regions of China, into Szechwan and Yünnan. His attention is distracted by the death of his brother, the great khan Mangu, in 1259. Kublai is elected khan in his place by the Mongol nobles campaigning with him in China. But the same position is claimed by a younger brother, Ariq Böge, at Karakorum. Kublai defeats his brother in 1264. As Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol empire, he is now free to give his full attention to China. In 1267 he reveals the seriousness of his ambitions when he moves the imperial capital south from Karakorum to Beijing – a town severely damaged by his grandfather, Genghis Khan, in 1215.
Kublai Khan builds himself a magnificent city at Beijing. Its walls are 24 miles in circumference and some 50 feet high. The Mongols call it Khanbaliq, the ‘city of the Khan’; and under a version of this name, as Cambaluc, it becomes famous even in Europe. From this base in the north he sets about overwhelming the Song dynasty. As early as 1271 he makes it plain that he sees himself not as an invading barbarian but as the Chinese emperor of a new dynasty. In that year he announces a Chinese name for his dynasty – Ta Yüan, meaning ‘Great Origin’. Ancestors are vital in China, so his grandfather Genghis Khan is given a posthumous Chinese title: T’ai Tsu, ‘Grand Progenitor’.
Kublai soon makes good these Chinese pretensions. In 1276 Hangzhou, the capital of the surviving Song dynasty, falls to his armies. The young emperor and his mother are brought to Kublai’s court and are treated with civility. By 1279 there is no further Song resistance. The Chinese chroniclers record, from that year, the start of a new dynasty – the Yüan, the first in the empire’s history to be ruled by an outsider. But Kublai Khan is determined not to be an outsider. He even adopts the administrative system of the Chinese bureaucracy. The only difference is that he employs more foreigners than a Chinese emperor would. One of them, Marco Polo, has left a vivid (if one-sided) glimpse of Mongol China.
Kublai Khan is sovereign over regions more extensive than any previous Chinese empire. Even allowing for the fact that his authority in the Mongol territories in the west is only nominal (as the great khan), he has under his direct control Mongolia, Tibet, Manchuria, Korea and the whole of China down to the South China Sea. Only one great prize escapes him, frustrating his clean sweep of the region. Two expeditions against Japan are costly disasters – in 1274 and again in 1281, during Marco Polo’s years in China.
Marco Polo in China: 1275-1292
Marco spends seventeen years in China, fulfilling a wide variety of tasks in Kublai Khan’s administration. He is in effect a member of an occupying force, speaking Mongolian but not Chinese, so his understanding of the people is limited. But he travels a great deal, often trading on his own account as well as serving the emperor, and he describes many cities. Hangzhou is his favorite. He pretends not to be certain which is more impressive – the number of its bridges or the number of its prostitutes. His interests seem more with the latter. Those who sample these women, he says (as if speaking of someone else), ‘are so much taken with their sweetness and charms that they can never forget them’.
Marco has often been criticized for failing to mention one peculiarity of China – the drinking of tea, which is already by this time a Chinese addiction. The two oddities which strike him most forcibly are a marvelous black stone, useless for building with, which the Chinese dig up and burn (one of the earliest references to coal); and their use of bank notes (see Bank notes in China). Paper money is not a Mongol innovation, being in use already in the Song dynasty, but Marco gives a fascinating description of government officials stamping the notes with a cinnabar seal.
The Ming dynasty: 1368-1644
Kublai Khan’s grandson and successor, Timur, contrives to keep order in the empire for a few years after the great khan’s death in 1294. But a series of disasters in the early 14th century unsettles the dynasty. A civil war between rival Mongol princes breaks out in 1328. There is widespread famine. Disastrous floods cause armies of peasants to be press-ganged into heavy work on the river defences. Rebel bands begin to wreak havoc, demanding the ejection of the foreigners and the restoration of a Chinese dynasty.
The leader of one such band is a Buddhist monk, of peasant origin, by the name of Zhu Yuanzhang. In 1356 Zhu succeeds in capturing a town which he renames Nanjing, ‘southern capital’. In 1368 Zhu marches to seize the northern capital, Beijing. The Mongols flee north to the steppes, and Zhu announces the start of a new dynasty with himself as emperor. Like the Mongols, with their choice of Ta Yüan, he gives his dynasty a glorious name – Ming, meaning ‘brilliant’.
Zhu inaugurates a custom of a similar kind which survives to the end of the Chinese empire. He chooses a congenial name for his reign – in this case Hung Wu, ‘vast military power’. Chinese emperors from this time onwards are known by the title of their reign. Zhu, the founder of the new dynasty, becomes the Hung Wu emperor – though the phrase is often now used as though Hung Wu were his own name. The new emperor turns out to be a strict disciplinarian. His officials must invariably run when in his presence, and misdemeanors are punished with public canings. Officials in Ming China are treated like prefects at an old-fashioned boarding school; the button on a mandarin’s cap changes through nine different colours as he rises in the strict hierarchy of the civil service. It makes for a well-behaved but unenterprising society. One exception to the otherwise undynamic nature of the Ming dynasty is an expansion of China’s maritime trade.
Chinese sea trade: 15th century
The greatest extent of Chinese trade is achieved in the early 15th century when Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, sails far and wide with a fleet of large junks. At various times between 1405 and 1433 he reaches the Persian Gulf, the coast of Africa (returning with a giraffe on board) and possibly even Australia. Typical Chinese exports are now porcelain, lacquer, silks, items of gold and silver, and medicinal preparations. The junks return with herbs, spices, ivory, rhinoceros horn, rare varieties of wood, jewels, cotton and ingredients for making dyes.
The Jesuits in China: from 1583
The China which first becomes known to the west, in full and accurate detail, is that of the Ming empire. In 1421 the third Ming emperor moves the capital north from Nanjing to Beijing, laying out the great palace and administrative complex known now as the Forbidden City. Here one of his successors is visited by the first European to make a systematic study of China and the Chinese. He is Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary. He arrives in China in 1583 from the Portuguese trading post on Macao. It is his intention to seek an interview with the emperor, for whom he has brought presents from Europe. It takes eighteen years before Ricci succeeds in reaching the emperor. But during that time he has become a fascinated student of China.
Ricci learns the Chinese language, studies the Chinese classics and translates them into Latin. He even writes Chinese books himself so as to bring Christian truth to these very civilized infidels. Of all the pagans in history, Ricci soon concludes, these are the wisest. He particularly admires the ancient philosopher K’ung Fu Tzu, and it is through Ricci that Europe first hears of the Chinese sage (under the name by which the Jesuit transliterates him into Latin, Confucius). Ricci, settling into the environment, wears the robes of a mandarin. He even attends a ritual in honour of Confucius in the Temple of Heaven in Nanjing, convincing himself that the occasion is one of reverence rather than worship.
Ricci’s example establishes a strong and sympathetic Jesuit presence in China which lasts into the Qing dynasty, in the early 18th century. Reports of Jesuit flexibility, in the Ricci tradition, are ill-received in Rome – provoking the so-called rites controversy. But the Jesuits have provided the first reliable reports of this ancient civilization. Europe is greatly impressed. Chinese rationalism chimes perfectly with the ideas of the Enlightenment. The Chinese style is imitated in the chinoiserie which becomes the fashion in European furniture and interior decoration. And the Chinese secret of porcelain is desperately sought by European potters, in a race won in 1709 in Meissen.
he Qing dynasty: 1644-1912
Manchuria, the region north of Korea, has never been included within China. Its inhabitants, barbarians to the Chinese, are racially closer to their western neighbors, the Mongols. Nevertheless the Manchus themselves imitate and adopt many of the more sophisticated Chinese ways. So their eventual intervention in China brings no very abrupt change. By the mid-17th century the Ming empire, nearly three centuries old, is enfeebled and decadent. Pampered emperors, rarely seen in public, leave practical matters in the hands of much-hated palace eunuchs. Peasant uprisings, characteristic of the end of Chinese dynasties, become frequent.
In 1644 a rebel band captures Beijing. The Ming emperor hangs himself in a pavilion on a private hill overlooking his great palace, the Forbidden City. The Ming commander in the north invites the neighbouring barbarians, the Manchus, to help him in recovering the imperial city. They do so, and then keep it for themselves. The Manchu hereditary chieftain is a boy of six. His people now establish him as the Son of Heaven (the official title of a Chinese emperor). But it is evident that this is a development planned during his father’s reign. The Manchus, already the conquerors of Korea, have declared the start of a new Chinese-style dynasty in 1636. They have chosen the name Qing, meaning ‘pure’.
The Qing conquest of the whole of China is complete by 1683. The conquerors insist on one change emphasizing the dominance of a new group. All Chinese men are now required to shave part of the head, leaving a long pigtail (known as a queue) hanging down behind. The first century of the Qing dynasty is a time of prosperity and expansion. Chinese rule extends north of the Great Wall from Turkestan in the west to Manchuria in the east. Tibet is brought under Chinese protection. Taiwan is colonized. This great empire, in its wealth and sophistication, is now of great interest to Europe. But it is the west which eventually causes the downfall of the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty.
Western barbarians: 18th-19th century
In Chinese tradition people from outside the empire are classed together as one group – barbarians. If they are allowed into China, it is only for the single purpose of bringing tribute to the emperor. By complying with local tradition the Jesuits, during the 17th century, disarm the Chinese in their distrust of foreign ways. They also impress them with western technology (Ricci particularly delights the emperor with a striking clock). But the Jesuits are followed by other Europeans, including unruly merchants. In 1703 the Qing emperor Kangxi, on a tour of the southern provinces, is alarmed to discover how many westerners are ‘Wandering at will over China’.
Kangxi, foreseeing trouble, imposes restrictions on Europeans entering the empire. But the 18th century is a period when the sea-going nations of the west are in an expansive mood. Prosperous and self-confident Europeans, masters of the oceans and eager to trade, are perplexed to find their advances rejected by the Chinese. An intriguing glimpse of the frustration of the Europeans, in their baffled inability to make any headway in China, can be seen in the experience of the British and Dutch embassies which are briefly received, in 1793 and 1794, at the court of Kangxi’s grandson, the Qianlong emperor.
The kowtow and a taste for tea: 1793-1794
In July 1793 two British ships reach the China coast. The first carries Lord Macartney and his retinue, sent by George III as an embassy to the Chinese emperor Qianlong. Macartney has a specific task – to win trading concessions and, if possible, a British offshore base similar to Portugal’s Macao. The second ship carries presents for the emperor, of the kind which have proved most popular in the past. There are scientific instruments, clocks and watches, a planetarium and even (the latest western marvel) a hot-air balloon. The embassy and the presents are loaded into splendid barges and are dragged up the Grand Canal towards Beijing.
A pretty banner flutters at the masthead of the leading barge. Its Chinese characters, when translated, are discovered to say ‘The English Ambassador bringing tribute to the Emperor of China’. This is not the relationship which Lord Macartney has in mind. Much time is now spent negotiating with mandarin officials who try to insist on the ambassador kowtowing (touching his forehead three times to the ground) when coming into the imperial presence. He refuses to do so, agreeing merely to kneel on one knee and bow his head. This, according to the English account, is accepted. The audience and the accompanying banquet go well, but the emperor refuses to discuss practical matters of trade.
Three weeks later a letter for George III is brought with much solemnity to the ambassador. It explains that there is no need for any trading agreement, since the nations of the world have always brought precious commodities as tribute to China. ‘Consequently there is nothing we lack, as your principlal envoy has himself observed. We have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures.’ Some in Europe blame Macartney’s failure on his refusal to kowtow, so in 1794 Holland tries the opposite tack. The Dutch ambassador is calculated to have kowtowed thirty times (once to some dried grapes sent as a present by the emperor). He too returns home without a trading agreement.
The truth is that the need for reciprocal trade is all on the European side because the west, and especially Britain, has developed a passion for one particular Chinese product – tea. The Chinese are happy to sell their tea to British merchants, but they want only hard currency in exchange. Precious silver is draining away to the east, just as gold flowed from Rome along the Silk Road. Eventually the British solve their trade balance by encouraging a Chinese addiction greater even than the English thirst for tea. The East India Company grows opium in India for the Chinese market. And the British will go to any length to ensure that the Chinese enjoy it.
In the 1920s, Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south China and set out to unite the fragmented nation. With Soviet assistance, he organized the Kuomintang (KMT or “Chinese Nationalist People’s Party”), and entered into an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After Sun’s death in 1925, one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek, seized control of the KMT and succeeded in bringing most of south and central China under its rule. In 1927, Chiang turned on the CCP and executed many of its leaders. The remnants fled into the mountains of eastern China. In 1934, driven out of their mountain bases, the CCP’s forces embarked on a “Long March” across some of China’s most desolate terrain to the northwestern province of Shaanxi, where they established a guerrilla base at Yan’an.
During the “Long March,” the communists reorganized under a new leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). The bitter struggle between the KMT and the CCP continued openly or clandestinely through the 14-year long Japanese invasion (1931-45), even though the two parties nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese invaders in 1937. The war between the two parties resumed after the Japanese defeat in 1945. By 1949, the CCP occupied most of the country. Chiang Kai-shek fled with the remnants of his KMT government and military forces to Taiwan, where he proclaimed Taipei to be China’s “provisional capital” and vowed to re-conquer the Chinese mainland. The KMT authorities on Taiwan still call themselves the “Republic of China.”
The People’s Republic of China
In Beijing, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.). The new government assumed control of a people exhausted by two generations of war and social conflict, and an economy ravaged by high inflation and disrupted transportation links. A new political and economic order modeled on the Soviet example was quickly installed. In the early 1950s, China undertook a massive economic and social reconstruction program. The new leaders gained popular support by curbing inflation, restoring the economy, and rebuilding many war-damaged industrial plants. The CCP’s authority reached into almost every aspect of Chinese life. Party control was assured by large, politically loyal security and military forces; a government apparatus responsive to party direction; and the placement of party members into leadership positions in labor, women’s, and other mass organizations.
The “Great Leap Forward” and the Sino-Soviet Split
In 1958, Mao broke with the Soviet model and announced a new economic program, the “Great Leap Forward,” aimed at rapidly raising industrial and agricultural production. Giant cooperatives (communes) were formed, and “backyard factories” dotted the Chinese landscape. The results were disastrous. Normal market mechanisms were disrupted, agricultural production fell behind, and China’s people exhausted themselves producing what turned out to be shoddy, un-salable goods. Within a year, starvation appeared even in fertile agricultural areas. From 1960 to 1961, the combination of poor planning during the Great Leap Forward and bad weather resulted in one of the deadliest famines in human history. The already strained Sino-Soviet relationship deteriorated sharply in 1959, when the Soviets started to restrict the flow of scientific and technological information to China. The dispute escalated, and the Soviets withdrew all of their personnel from China in August 1960. In 1960, the Soviets and the Chinese began to have disputes openly in international forums.
The Cultural Revolution
In the early 1960’s, State President Liu Shaoqi and his protege, Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, took over direction of the party and adopted pragmatic economic policies at odds with Mao’s revolutionary vision. Dissatisfied with China’s new direction and his own reduced authority, Party Chairman Mao launched a massive political attack on Liu, Deng, and other pragmatists in the spring of 1966. The new movement, the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” was unprecedented in communist history. For the first time, a section of the Chinese communist leadership sought to rally popular opposition against another leadership group. China was set on a course of political and social anarchy that lasted the better part of a decade.
In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his “closest comrade in arms,” National Defense Minister Lin Biao, charged Liu, Deng, and other top party leaders with dragging China back toward capitalism. Radical youth organizations, called Red Guards, attacked party and state organizations at all levels, seeking out leaders who would not bend to the radical wind. In reaction to this turmoil, some local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders and other officials maneuvered to outwardly back Mao and the radicals while actually taking steps to rein in local radical activity.
Gradually, Red Guard and other radical activity subsided, and the Chinese political situation stabilized along complex factional lines. The leadership conflict came to a head in September 1971, when Party Vice Chairman and Defense Minister Lin Biao reportedly tried to stage a coup against Mao; Lin Biao allegedly later died in a plane crash in Mongolia. In the aftermath of the Lin Biao incident, many officials criticized and dismissed during 1966-69 were reinstated. Chief among these was Deng Xiaoping, who reemerged in 1973 and was confirmed in 1975 in the concurrent posts of Politburo Standing Committee member, PLA Chief of Staff, and Vice Premier.
The ideological struggle between more pragmatic, veteran party officials and the radicals re-emerged with a vengeance in late 1975. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and three close Cultural Revolution associates (later dubbed the “Gang of Four”) launched a media campaign against Deng. In January 1976, Premier Zhou Enlai, a popular political figure, died of cancer. On April 5, Beijing citizens staged a spontaneous demonstration in Tiananmen Square in Zhou’s memory, with strong political overtones of support for Deng. The authorities forcibly suppressed the demonstration. Deng was blamed for the disorder and stripped of all official positions, although he retained his party membership.
The Post-Mao Era
Mao’s death in September 1976 removed a towering figure from Chinese politics and set off a scramble for succession. Former Minister of Public Security Hua Guofeng was quickly confirmed as Party Chairman and Premier. A month after Mao’s death, Hua, backed by the PLA, arrested Jiang Qing and other members of the “Gang of Four.” After extensive deliberations, the Chinese Communist Party leadership reinstated Deng Xiaoping to all of his previous posts at the 11th Party Congress in August 1977. Deng then led the effort to place government control in the hands of veteran party officials opposed to the radical excesses of the previous two decades.
The new, pragmatic leadership emphasized economic development and renounced mass political movements. At the pivotal December 1978 Third Plenum (of the 11th Party Congress Central Committee), the leadership adopted economic reform policies aimed at expanding rural income and incentives, encouraging experiments in enterprise autonomy, reducing central planning, and attracting foreign direct investment into China. The plenum also decided to accelerate the pace of legal reform, culminating in the passage of several new legal codes by the National People’s Congress in June 1979.
After 1979, the Chinese leadership moved toward more pragmatic positions in almost all fields. The party encouraged artists, writers, and journalists to adopt more critical approaches, although open attacks on party authority were not permitted. In late 1980, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was officially proclaimed a catastrophe. Hua Guofeng, a protégé of Mao, was replaced as premier in 1980 by reformist Sichuan party chief Zhao Ziyang and as party General Secretary in 1981 by the even more reformist Communist Youth League chairman Hu Yaobang. Reform policies brought great improvements in the standard of living, especially for urban workers and for farmers who took advantage of opportunities to diversify crops and establish village industries. Literature and the arts blossomed, and Chinese intellectuals established extensive links with scholars in other countries.
At the same time, however, political dissent as well as social problems such as inflation, urban migration, and prostitution emerged. Although students and intellectuals urged greater reforms, some party elders increasingly questioned the pace and the ultimate goals of the reform program. In December 1986, student demonstrators, taking advantage of the loosening political atmosphere, staged protests against the slow pace of reform, confirming party elders’ fear that the current reform program was leading to social instability. Hu Yaobang, a protege of Deng and a leading advocate of reform, was blamed for the protests and forced to resign as CCP General Secretary in January 1987. Premier Zhao Ziyang was made General Secretary and Li Peng, former Vice Premier and Minister of Electric Power and Water Conservancy, was made Premier.
1989 Student Movement and Tiananmen Square
After Zhao became the party General Secretary, the economic and political reforms he had championed came under increasing attack. His proposal in May 1988 to accelerate price reform led to widespread popular complaints about rampant inflation and gave opponents of rapid reform the opening to call for greater centralization of economic controls and stricter prohibitions against Western influence. This precipitated a political debate, which grew more heated through the winter of 1988-89.
The death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, coupled with growing economic hardship caused by high inflation, provided the backdrop for a large-scale protest movement by students, intellectuals, and other parts of a disaffected urban population. University students and other citizens camped out in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu’s death and to protest against those who would slow reform. Their protests, which grew despite government efforts to contain them, called for an end to official corruption and for defense of freedoms guaranteed by the Chinese constitution. Protests also spread to many other cities, including Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou.
Martial law was declared on May 20, 1989. Late on June 3 and early on the morning of June 4, military units were brought into Beijing. They used armed force to clear demonstrators from the streets. There are no official estimates of deaths in Beijing, but most observers believe that casualties numbered in the hundreds. After June 4, while foreign governments expressed horror at the brutal suppression of the demonstrators, the central government eliminated remaining sources of organized opposition, detained large numbers of protesters, and required political reeducation not only for students but also for large numbers of party cadre and government officials.
Following the resurgence of conservatives in the aftermath of June 4, economic reform slowed until given new impetus by Deng Xiaoping’s dramatic visit to southern China in early 1992. Deng’s renewed push for a market-oriented economy received official sanction at the 14th Party Congress later in the year as a number of younger, reform-minded leaders began their rise to top positions. Deng and his supporters argued that managing the economy in a way that increased living standards should be China’s primary policy objective, even if “capitalist” measures were adopted. Subsequent to the visit, the Communist Party Politburo publicly issued an endorsement of Deng’s policies of economic openness. Though not completely eschewing political reform, China has consistently placed overwhelming priority on the opening of its economy.
Third Generation of Leaders
Deng’s health deteriorated in the years prior to his death in 1997. During that time, President Jiang Zemin and other members of his generation gradually assumed control of the day-to-day functions of government. This “third generation” leadership governed collectively with President Jiang at the center. In March 1998, Jiang was re-elected President during the 9th National People’s Congress. Premier Li Peng was constitutionally required to step down from that post. He was elected to the chairmanship of the National People’s Congress. Zhu Rongji was selected to replace Li as Premier.
Fourth Generation of Leaders
In November 2002, the 16th Communist Party Congress elected Hu Jintao, who in 1992 was designated by Deng Xiaoping as the “core” of the fourth generation leaders, the new General Secretary. A new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee was also elected in November. In March 2003, General Secretary Hu Jintao was elected President at the 10th National People’s Congress. Jiang Zemin retained the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. At the Fourth Party Plenum in September 2004, Jiang Zemin retired from the Central Military Commission, passing the Chairmanship and control of the People’s Liberation Army to President Hu Jintao.
China is firmly committed to economic reform and opening to the outside world. The Chinese leadership has identified reform of state industries and the establishment of a social safety network as government priorities. Government strategies for achieving these goals include large-scale privatization of unprofitable state-owned enterprises and development of a pension system for workers. The leadership has also downsized the government bureaucracy.
The Next 5 Years
The next 5 years represent a critical period in China’s development. To investors and firms, especially following China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, China represents a vast market that has yet to be fully tapped and a low-cost base for export-oriented production. Educationally, China is forging ahead as partnerships and exchanges with foreign universities have helped create new research opportunities for its students. China will host the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and views this as an opportunity to showcase to the world China’s development gains of the past two decades. The current leadership is committed to generating greater economic development in the interior and providing more services to those who do not live in China’s coastal areas, goals that form the core of President Hu’s concepts of a “harmonious society.” However, there is still much that needs to change in China. Human rights issues remain a major concern, as does China’s lack of effective controls to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related materials and technology. Abatement of pollution and improvements in systems to ensure food, drug, and product safety are issues on which the United States has begun work with China.
People of China
Nationality: Noun and adjective–Chinese (singular and plural).
Population (July 2009 est.): 1,338,612,968.
Population growth rate (2009 est.): 0.655%.
Health (2009 est.): Infant mortality rate–20.25 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy–73.47 years (overall); 71.61 years for males, 75.52 years for females.
Ethnic groups: Han Chinese 91.5%; Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uyghur, Tujia, Yi, Mongol, Tibetan, Buyi, Dong, Yao, Korean, and other nationalities 8.5%.
Religions: Officially atheist; Daoist (Taoist), Buddhist, Christian 3%-4%, Muslim 1%-2%.
Languages: Standard Chinese or Mandarin (Putonghua, based on the Beijing dialect), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, minority languages
Education: Years compulsory–9. Literacy–90.9%.
Work force (2008 est., 808 million): Agriculture and forestry–43%; services–32%.
The largest ethnic group is the Han Chinese, who constitute about 91.5% of the total population. The remaining 8.5% are Zhuang (16 million), Manchu (10 million), Hui (9 million), Miao (8 million), Uyghur (7 million), Yi (7 million), Mongol (5 million), Tibetan (5 million), Buyi (3 million), Korean (2 million), and other ethnic minorities.
There are seven major Chinese dialects and many subdialects. Mandarin (or Putonghua), the predominant dialect, is spoken by over 70% of the population. It is taught in all schools and is the medium of government. About two-thirds of the Han ethnic group are native speakers of Mandarin; the rest, concentrated in southwest and southeast China, speak one of the six other major Chinese dialects. Non-Chinese languages spoken widely by ethnic minorities include Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and other Turkic languages (in Xinjiang), and Korean (in the northeast).
The Pinyin System of Romanization
On January 1, 1979, the Chinese Government officially adopted the pinyin system for spelling Chinese names and places in Roman letters. A system of Romanization invented by the Chinese, pinyin has long been widely used in China on street and commercial signs as well as in elementary Chinese textbooks as an aid in learning Chinese characters. Variations of pinyin also are used as the written forms of several minority languages.
Pinyin has now replaced other conventional spellings in China’s English-language publications. The U.S. Government also has adopted the pinyin system for all names and places in China. For example, the capital of China is now spelled “Beijing” rather than “Peking.”
Religion plays a significant part in the life of many Chinese. Buddhism is most widely practiced, with an estimated 100 million adherents. Traditional Taoism also is practiced. Official figures indicate there are 20 million Muslims, 15 million Protestants, and 5 million Catholics; unofficial estimates are much higher. While the Chinese constitution affirms religious toleration, the Chinese Government places restrictions on religious practice outside officially recognized organizations. Only two Christian organizations–a Catholic church without official ties to Rome and the “Three-Self-Patriotic” Protestant church–are sanctioned by the Chinese Government. Unauthorized churches have sprung up in many parts of the country and unofficial religious practice is growing. In some regions authorities have tried to control activities of these unregistered churches. In other regions, registered and unregistered groups are treated similarly by authorities and congregations worship in both types of churches. Most Chinese Catholic bishops are recognized by the Pope, and official priests have Vatican approval to administer all the sacraments.
With a population officially just over 1.3 billion and an estimated growth rate of about 0.6%, China is very concerned about its population growth and has attempted with mixed results to implement a strict birth limitation policy. China’s 2002 Population and Family Planning Law and policy permit one child per family, with allowance for a second child under certain circumstances, especially in rural areas, and with guidelines looser for ethnic minorities with small populations. Enforcement varies, and relies largely on “social compensation fees” to discourage extra births. Official government policy opposes forced abortion or sterilization, but in some localities there are instances of forced abortion. The government’s goal is to stabilize the population in the first half of the 21st century, and current projections are that the population will peak at around 1.6 billion by 2050.
Government of China
Type: Communist party-led state.
Country name: conventional long form: People’s Republic of China, local short form: Zhong Guo, abbreviation: PRC, local long form: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo.
Constitution: December 4, 1982.
Independence: Unification under the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty 221 BC; Qing (Ch’ing or Manchu) Dynasty replaced by a republic on February 12, 1912; People’s Republic established October 1, 1949.
National holiday: Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, 1 October (1949)
Constitution: most recent promulgation 4 December 1982
Legal system: a complex amalgam of custom and statute, largely criminal law; rudimentary civil code in effect since 1 January 1987; new legal codes in effect since 1 January 1980; continuing efforts are being made to improve civil, administrative, criminal, and commercial law.
Branches: Executive–president, vice president, State Council, premier. Legislative–unicameral National People’s Congress. Judicial–Supreme People’s Court.
Administrative divisions: 23 provinces (the P.R.C. considers Taiwan to be its 23rd province); 5 autonomous regions, including Tibet; 4 municipalities directly under the State Council.
Political parties: Chinese Communist Party, 70.8 million members; 8 minor parties under Communist Party supervision.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
Chinese Communist Party
The 73.1 million member CCP, authoritarian in structure and ideology, continues to dominate government. Nevertheless, China’s population, geographical vastness, and social diversity frustrate attempts to rule by fiat from Beijing. Central leaders must increasingly build consensus for new policies among party members, local and regional leaders, influential non-party members, and the population at large.
In periods of greater openness, the influence of people and organizations outside the formal party structure has tended to increase, particularly in the economic realm. This phenomenon is most apparent today in the rapidly developing coastal region. Nevertheless, in all important government, economic, and cultural institutions in China, party committees work to see that party and state policy guidance is followed and that non-party members do not create autonomous organizations that could challenge party rule. Party control is tightest in government offices and in urban economic, industrial, and cultural settings; it is considerably looser in the rural areas, where the majority of the people live.
Theoretically, the party’s highest body is the Party Congress, which traditionally meets at least once every 5 years. The 17th Party Congress took place in fall 2007. The primary organs of power in the Communist Party include:
* The Politburo Standing Committee, which currently consists of nine members;
* The Politburo, consisting of 25 full members, including the members of the Politburo Standing Committee;
* The Secretariat, the principal administrative mechanism of the CCP, headed by Politburo Standing Committee member and executive secretary Xi Jinping;
* The Central Military Commission;
* The Discipline Inspection Commission, which is charged with rooting out corruption and malfeasance among party cadres.
The Chinese Government has always been subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); its role is to implement party policies. The primary organs of state power are the National People’s Congress (NPC), the President (the head of state), and the State Council. Members of the State Council include Premier Wen Jiabao (the head of government), a variable number of vice premiers (now four), five state councilors (protocol equivalents of vice premiers but with narrower portfolios), and 25 ministers, the central bank governor, and the auditor-general.
Under the Chinese constitution, the NPC is the highest organ of state power in China. It meets annually for about two weeks to review and approve major new policy directions, laws, the budget, and major personnel changes. These initiatives are presented to the NPC for consideration by the State Council after previous endorsement by the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Although the NPC generally approves State Council policy and personnel recommendations, various NPC committees hold active debate in closed sessions, and changes may be made to accommodate alternate views.
When the NPC is not in session, its permanent organ, the Standing Committee, exercises state power
The government’s efforts to promote rule of law are significant and ongoing. After the Cultural Revolution, China’s leaders aimed to develop a legal system to restrain abuses of official authority and revolutionary excesses. In 1982, the National People’s Congress adopted a new state constitution that emphasized the rule of law under which even party leaders are theoretically held accountable.
Since 1979, when the drive to establish a functioning legal system began, more than 300 laws and regulations, most of them in the economic area, have been promulgated. The use of mediation committees–informed groups of citizens who resolve about 90% of China’s civil disputes and some minor criminal cases at no cost to the parties–is one innovative device. There are more than 800,000 such committees in both rural and urban areas.
Legal reform became a government priority in the 1990s. Legislation designed to modernize and professionalize the nation’s lawyers, judges, and prisons was enacted. The 1994 Administrative Procedure Law allows citizens to sue officials for abuse of authority or malfeasance. In addition, the criminal law and the criminal procedures laws were amended to introduce significant reforms. The criminal law amendments abolished the crime of “counter-revolutionary” activity, although many persons are still incarcerated for that crime. Criminal procedures reforms also encouraged establishment of a more transparent, adversarial trial process. The Chinese constitution and laws provide for fundamental human rights, including due process, but these are often ignored in practice. In addition to other judicial reforms, the Constitution was amended in 2004 to include the protection of individual human rights and legally-obtained private property, but it is unclear how those provisions will be implemented. Although new criminal and civil laws have provided additional safeguards to citizens, previously debated political reforms, including expanding elections to the township level, and other legal reforms, including the reform of the reeducation through labor system, have been put on hold.
The China country reports in the State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom Reports noted China’s well-documented and continuing abuses of human rights in violation of internationally recognized norms, stemming both from the authorities’ intolerance of dissent and the inadequacy of legal safeguards for basic freedoms. Reported abuses have included arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention, forced confessions, torture, and mistreatment of prisoners as well as severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, privacy, worker rights, and coercive birth limitation. China continues the monitoring, harassment, intimidation, and arrest of journalists, Internet writers, defense lawyers, religious activists, and political dissidents. The activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those relating to the rule of law and expansion of judicial review, continue to be restricted. The Chinese Government recognizes five official religions–Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, and Protestantism–and seeks to regulate religious groups and worship. Religious believers who seek to practice their faith outside of state-controlled religious venues and unregistered religious groups and spiritual movements are subject to intimidation, harassment, and detention. In 2009, the Secretary of State again designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
At the same time, China’s economic growth and reform since 1978 has dramatically improved the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese, increased social mobility, and expanded the scope of personal freedom. This has meant substantially greater freedom of travel, employment opportunity, educational and cultural pursuits, job and housing choices, and access to information. In recent years, China has also passed new criminal and civil laws that provide additional safeguards to citizens. Village elections, though often procedurally flawed, have been carried out in over 90% of China’s approximately one million villages.
We have conducted 12 rounds of human rights dialogue with China since Tiananmen. During 2003 and 2004, no progress was made on the commitments China made at the 2002 dialogue, and we declined to schedule another round at that time. In July 2009, the United States and China affirmed our commitment to cooperate and enhance human rights issues through our human rights dialogue and other initiatives on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Both sides agreed to hold the next human rights dialogue before the year ends.
Two significant and sensitive anniversaries were commemorated in 2009: March 10 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, and June 4 marked the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. On March 10, 2008, protests in Lhasa marking the 49th anniversary turned violent, and led to protests and unrest throughout Tibet and the majority-Tibetan areas in surrounding provinces. Several people have been tried and executed for their involvement in the riots, in which 19 people died, according to official news sources. Various other groups claim a much higher death toll.
On July 5, 2009, ethnic violence erupted in Urumqi in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The unrest continued in the following days, with Chinese state media reporting over 150 deaths and more than 1,000 injured. There was a significantly increased security presence in Urumqi and its surrounding areas and subsequently some mosques in Xinjiang were closed.
Economy of China
GDP (2008): $4.222 trillion (exchange rate-based).
Per capita GDP (2007): $2,459 (exchange rate-based).
GDP real growth rate (2008): 9.8%.
GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 12.5%, industry/construction: 47.3%, services: 40.3%
Inflation rate: 1.8%
Labor force: 791.4 million
Labor force – by occupation: agriculture: 49%, industry: 22%, services: 29%
Electricity sources: fossil fuel: 80.2%, hydro: 18.5%, other: 0.1%, nuclear: 1.2%
Industries: mining and ore processing, iron, steel, aluminum, and other metals, coal; machine building; armaments; textiles and apparel; petroleum; cement; chemicals; fertilizers; consumer products, including footwear, toys, and electronics; food processing; transportation equipment, including automobiles, rail cars and locomotives, ships, and aircraft; telecommunications equipment, commercial space launch vehicles, satellites
Agriculture: rice, wheat, potatoes, sorghum, peanuts, tea, millet, barley, cotton, oilseed, pork, fish
Exports: machinery and equipment, plastics, optical and medical equipment, iron and steel
Export partners: US 21.4%, Hong Kong 16.3%, Japan 11%, South Korea 4.6%, Germany 4.3%
Imports: machinery and equipment, mineral fuels, plastics, iron and steel, chemicals
Import partners: Japan 15.2%, South Korea 11.6%, Taiwan 11.2%, US 7.4%, Germany 4.6%
Currency: yuan (CNY)
Currency Exchange Rate: 1 Chinese Yuan equals 0.15 United States Dollar
Economic ReformsSince 1979, China has reformed and opened its economy. The Chinese leadership has adopted a more pragmatic perspective on many political and socioeconomic problems, and has reduced the role of ideology in economic policy. China’s ongoing economic transformation has had a profound impact not only on China but on the world. The market-oriented reforms China has implemented over the past two decades have unleashed individual initiative and entrepreneurship. The result has been the largest reduction of poverty and one of the fastest increases in income levels ever seen. China today is the fourth-largest economy in the world. It has sustained average economic growth of over 9.5% for the past 26 years. In 2006 its $2.68 trillion economy was about one-fifth the size of the U.S. economy.
In the 1980s, China tried to combine central planning with market-oriented reforms to increase productivity, living standards, and technological quality without exacerbating inflation, unemployment, and budget deficits. China pursued agricultural reforms, dismantling the commune system and introducing a household-based system that provided peasants greater decision-making in agricultural activities. The government also encouraged nonagricultural activities such as village enterprises in rural areas, and promoted more self-management for state-owned enterprises, increased competition in the marketplace, and facilitated direct contact between Chinese and foreign trading enterprises. China also relied more upon foreign financing and imports.
During the 1980s, these reforms led to average annual rates of growth of 10% in agricultural and industrial output. Rural per capita real income doubled. China became self-sufficient in grain production; rural industries accounted for 23% of agricultural output, helping absorb surplus labor in the countryside. The variety of light industrial and consumer goods increased. Reforms began in the fiscal, financial, banking, price-setting, and labor systems.
By the late 1980s, however, the economy had become overheated with increasing rates of inflation. At the end of 1988, in reaction to a surge of inflation caused by accelerated price reforms, the leadership introduced an austerity program.
China’s economy regained momentum in the early 1990s. During a visit to southern China in early 1992, China’s paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, made a series of political pronouncements designed to reinvigorate the process of economic reform. The 14th Party Congress later in the year backed Deng’s renewed push for market reforms, stating that China’s key task in the 1990s was to create a “socialist market economy.” The 10-year development plan for the 1990s stressed continuity in the political system with bolder reform of the economic system.
Following the Chinese Communist Party’s Third Plenum, held in October 2003, Chinese legislators unveiled several proposed amendments to the state constitution. One of the most significant was a proposal to provide protection for private property rights. Legislators also indicated there would be a new emphasis on certain aspects of overall government economic policy, including efforts to reduce unemployment (now in the 8-10% range in urban areas), to rebalance income distribution between urban and rural regions, and to maintain economic growth while protecting the environment and improving social equity. The National People’s Congress approved the amendments when it met in March 2004. The Fifth Plenum in October 2005 approved the 11th Five-Year Economic Program aimed at building a “harmonious society” through more balanced wealth distribution and improved education, medical care, and social security.
China is the world’s most populous country and one of the largest producers and consumers of agricultural products. Over 40% of China’s labor force is engaged in agriculture, even though only 10% of the land is suitable for cultivation and agriculture contributes only 13% of China’s GDP. China’s cropland area is only 75% of the U.S. total, but China still produces about 30% more crops and livestock than the United States because of intensive cultivation, China is among the world’s largest producers of rice, corn, wheat, soybeans, vegetables, tea, and pork. Major non-food crops include cotton, other fibers, and oilseeds. China hopes to further increase agricultural production through improved plant stocks, fertilizers, and technology. Incomes for Chinese farmers are stagnating, leading to an increasing wealth gap between the cities and countryside. Government policies that continue to emphasize grain self-sufficiency and the fact that farmers do not own–and cannot buy or sell–the land they work have contributed to this situation. In addition, inadequate port facilities and lack of warehousing and cold storage facilities impede both domestic and international agricultural trade.
Industry and construction account for about 46% of China’s GDP. Major industries are mining and ore processing; iron; steel; aluminum; coal, machinery; textiles and apparel; armaments; petroleum; cement; chemicals; fertilizers; consumer products including footwear, toys, and electronics; automobiles and other transportation equipment including rail cars and locomotives, ships, and aircraft; and telecommunications.
China has become a preferred destination for the relocation of global manufacturing facilities. Its strength as an export platform has contributed to incomes and employment in China. The state-owned sector still accounts for about 40% of GDP. In recent years, authorities have been giving greater attention to the management of state assets–both in the financial market as well as among state-owned-enterprises–and progress has been noteworthy.
Though China’s economy has expanded rapidly, its regulatory environment has not kept pace. Since Deng Xiaoping’s open market reforms, the growth of new businesses has outpaced the government’s ability to regulate them. This has created a situation where businesses, faced with mounting competition and poor oversight, will be willing to take drastic measures to increase profit margins, often at the expense of consumer safety. This issue acquired more prominence in 2007, with the United States placing a number of restrictions on problematic Chinese exports. The Chinese Government recognizes the severity of the problem, recently concluding that up to 20% of the country’s products are substandard or tainted, and undertaking efforts in coordination with the United States and others to better regulate the problem.
Together with strong economic growth, China’s demand for energy is surging rapidly. In 2003, China surpassed Japan to become the second-largest consumer of primary energy, after the United States. China is the world’s second-largest consumer of oil, after the United States, and for 2006, China’s increase in oil demand represented 38% of the world total increase in oil demand. China is also the third-largest energy producer in the world, after the United States and Russia. China’s electricity consumption is expected to grow by over 4% a year through 2030, which will require more than $2 trillion in electricity infrastructure investment to meet the demand. China expects to add approximately 15,000 megawatts of generating capacity a year, with 20% of that coming from foreign suppliers.
Coal makes up the bulk of China’s energy consumption (70% in 2005), and China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. As China’s economy continues to grow, China’s coal demand is projected to rise significantly. Although coal’s share of China’s overall energy consumption will decrease, coal consumption will continue to rise in absolute terms. China’s continued and increasing reliance on coal as a power source has contributed significantly to putting China on the path to becoming the world’s largest emitter of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide and green house gases, including carbon dioxide.
The 11th Five-Year Program, announced in 2005, calls for greater energy conservation measures, including development of renewable energy sources and increased attention to environmental protection. Moving away from coal towards cleaner energy sources including oil, natural gas, renewable energy, and nuclear power is an important component of China’s development program. China has abundant hydroelectric resources; the Three Gorges Dam, for example, will have a total capacity of 18 gigawatts when fully on-line (projected for 2009). In addition, the share of electricity generated by nuclear power is projected to grow from 1% in 2000 to 5% in 2030. China’s renewable energy law, which went into effect in 2006, calls for 10% of its energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Since 1993, China has been a net importer of oil, a large portion of which comes from the Middle East. Net imports are expected to rise to 3.5 million barrels per day by 2010. China is interested in diversifying the sources of its oil imports and has invested in oil fields around the world. Beijing also plans to increase China’s natural gas production, which currently accounts for only 3% of China’s total energy consumption. Analysts expect China’s consumption of natural gas to more than double by 2010.
In May 2004, then-Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) that launched the U.S.-China Energy Policy Dialogue. The dialogue has strengthened energy-related interactions between China and the United States, the world’s two largest energy consumers. The U.S.-China Energy Policy Dialogue builds upon the two countries’ existing cooperative ventures in high energy nuclear physics, fossil energy, energy efficiency and renewable energy and energy information exchanges. The NDRC and the Department of Energy also exchange views and expertise on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technologies, and we convene an annual Oil and Gas Industry Forum with China.
In July 2009, during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the two countries negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to Enhance Cooperation on Climate Change, Energy, and the Environment in order to expand and enhance cooperation between the two sides on clean and efficient energy, to protect the environment, and to ensure energy security.
One of the serious negative consequences of China’s rapid industrial development has been increased pollution and degradation of natural resources. Many analysts estimate that China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in 2009. A World Health Organization report on air quality in 272 cities worldwide concluded that seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities were in China. According to China’s own evaluation, two-thirds of the 338 cities for which air-quality data are available are considered polluted–two-thirds of them moderately or severely so. Respiratory and heart diseases related to air pollution are the leading cause of death in China. Almost all of the nation’s rivers are considered polluted to some degree, and half of the population lacks access to clean water. By some estimates, every day approximately 300 million residents drink contaminated water. Ninety percent of urban water bodies are severely polluted. Water scarcity also is an issue; for example, severe water scarcity in Northern China is a serious threat to sustained economic growth and the government has begun working on a project for a large-scale diversion of water from the Yangtze River to northern cities, including Beijing and Tianjin. Acid rain falls on 30% of the country. Various studies estimate pollution costs the Chinese economy 7%-10% of GDP each year.
China’s leaders are increasingly paying attention to the country’s severe environmental problems. In 1998, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) was officially upgraded to a ministry-level agency, reflecting the growing importance the Chinese Government places on environmental protection. In recent years, China has strengthened its environmental legislation and made some progress in stemming environmental deterioration. In 2005, China joined the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development, which brings industries and governments together to implement strategies that reduce pollution and address climate change. During the 10th Five-Year Plan, China plans to reduce total emissions by 10%. Beijing in particular invested heavily in pollution control as part of its campaign to host a successful Olympiad in 2008. Some cities have seen improvement in air quality in recent years.
China is an active participant in climate change talks and other multilateral environmental negotiations, taking environmental challenges seriously but pushing for the developed world to help developing countries to a greater extent. It is a signatory to the Basel Convention governing the transport and disposal of hazardous waste and the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and other major environmental agreements.
The question of environmental impacts associated with the Three Gorges Dam project has generated controversy among environmentalists inside and outside China. Critics claim that erosion and silting of the Yangtze River threaten several endangered species, while Chinese officials say the dam will help prevent devastating floods and generate clean hydroelectric power that will enable the region to lower its dependence on coal, thus lessening air pollution.
The United States and China are members of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (APP). The APP is a public-private partnership of six nations–Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States–committed to explore new mechanisms to meet national pollution reduction, energy security and climate change goals in ways that reduce poverty and promote economic development. APP members have undertaken cooperative activities involving deployment of clean technology in partner countries in eight areas: cleaner fossil energy, renewable energy and distributed generation, power generation and transmission, steel, aluminum, cement, coal mining, and buildings and appliances.
The United States and China have been engaged in an active program of bilateral environmental cooperation since the mid-1990s, with an emphasis on clean energy technology and the design of effective environmental policy. While both governments view this cooperation positively, China has often compared the U.S. program, which lacks a foreign assistance component, with those of Japan and several European Union (EU) countries that include generous levels of aid.
Science and Technology
Science and technology have always preoccupied China’s leaders; indeed, China’s political leadership comes almost exclusively from technical backgrounds and has a high regard for science. Deng called it “the first productive force.” Distortions in the economy and society created by party rule have severely hurt Chinese science, according to some Chinese science policy experts. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, modeled on the Soviet system, puts much of China’s greatest scientific talent in a large, under-funded apparatus that remains largely isolated from industry, although the reforms of the past decade have begun to address this problem.
Chinese science strategists see China’s greatest opportunities in newly emerging fields such as biotechnology and computers, where there is still a chance for China to become a significant player. Most Chinese students who went abroad have not returned, but they have built a dense network of trans-Pacific contacts that will greatly facilitate U.S.-China scientific cooperation in coming years. The U.S. space program is often held up as the standard of scientific modernity in China. China’s small but growing space program, which successfully completed their second manned orbit in October 2005, is a focus of national pride.
The U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement remains the framework for bilateral cooperation in this field. A 5-year agreement to extend the Science and Technology Agreement was signed in April 2006. The agreement is among the longest-standing U.S.-China accords, and includes over 11 U.S. Federal agencies and numerous branches that participate in cooperative exchanges under the Science and Technology Agreement and its nearly 60 protocols, memoranda of understanding, agreements, and annexes. The agreement covers cooperation in areas such as marine conservation, renewable energy, and health. Biennial Joint Commission Meetings on Science and Technology bring together policymakers from both sides to coordinate joint science and technology cooperation. Executive Secretaries meetings are held biennially to implement specific cooperation programs. Japan and the European Union also have high profile science and technology cooperative relationships with China.
The U.S. trade deficit with China reached $268 billion in 2008. U.S. imports from China accounted for 16.1% of overall U.S. imports in 2008. At the same time, the share of many other Asian countries’ imports to the United States and the U.S. trade deficit with the Asia-Pacific region as a whole have fallen. U.S. goods exports to China, which accounted for 5.5% of total U.S. exports in 2008, totaled $71.5 billion, a 9.5% increase of $16.2 billion from 2007 ($55.3 billion). The top three U.S. exports to China in 2008 were electrical machinery ($11.4 billion), machinery ($9.7 billion), and aircraft ($5.1 billion). In July 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met with P.R.C. Vice Premier Wang Qishangin Beijing for the inaugural round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (for further details, please refer to the S&ED section below). In November 1991, China joined the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, which promotes free trade and cooperation in the economic, trade, investment, and technology spheres. China served as APEC chair in 2001, and Shanghai hosted the annual APEC leaders meeting in October of that year.
China formally joined the WTO in December 2001. As part of this far-reaching trade liberalization agreement, China agreed to lower tariffs and abolish market impediments. Chinese and foreign businessmen, for example, gained the right to import and export on their own, and to sell their products without going through a government middleman. By 2005, average tariff rates on key U.S. agricultural exports dropped from 31% to 14% and on industrial products from 25% to 9%. The agreement also opens up new opportunities for U.S. providers of services like banking, insurance, and telecommunications. China has made significant progress implementing its WTO commitments, but serious concerns remain, particularly in the realm of intellectual property rights protection.
China is now one of the most important markets for U.S. exports: in 2008, U.S. exports to China totaled $71.5 billion, a 9.5% increase of $16.2 billion from 2007. U.S. agricultural exports have increased dramatically, totaling $12.2 billion in 2009 and thus making China our fourth-largest agricultural export market. Leading categories include: soybeans ($7.3 billion), cotton ($1.6 billion), and hides and skins ($859 million).
Export growth continues to be a major driver of China’s rapid economic growth. To increase exports, China has pursued policies such as fostering the rapid development of foreign-invested factories, which assemble imported components into consumer goods for export, and liberalizing trading rights. In its eleventh Five-Year Program, adopted in 2005, China placed greater emphasis on developing a consumer demand-driven economy to sustain economic growth and address global imbalances.
The United States is one of China’s primary suppliers of power generating equipment, aircraft and parts, computers and industrial machinery, raw materials, and chemical and agricultural products. However, U.S. exporters continue to have concerns about fair market access due to strict testing and standards requirements for some imported products. In addition, a lack of transparency in the regulatory process makes it difficult for businesses to plan for changes in the domestic market structure.
In April 2009, the United States and China announced that the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) will continue to serve as the primary venue for the two countries to discuss trade issues. Under the Obama administration, the JCCT, which will be led by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk on the U.S. side and Vice Premier Wang Qishan on the Chinese side, will not only focus on discussing trade issues, but will also include broader issues such as healthcare and innovation and industrial policies.
China’s investment climate has changed dramatically in a quarter-century of reform. In the early 1980s, China restricted foreign investments to export-oriented operations and required foreign investors to form joint-venture partnerships with Chinese firms. Foreign direct investment (FDI) grew quickly during the 1980s, but slowed in late 1989 in the aftermath of Tiananmen. In response, the government introduced legislation and regulations designed to encourage foreigners to invest in high-priority sectors and regions. Since the early 1990s, China has allowed foreign investors to manufacture and sell a wide range of goods on the domestic market, and authorized the establishment of wholly foreign-owned enterprises, now the preferred form of FDI. However, the Chinese Government’s emphasis on guiding FDI into manufacturing has led to market saturation in some industries, while leaving China’s services sectors underdeveloped. China is now one of the leading FDI recipients in the world, receiving over $80 billion in 2007 according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
As part of its WTO accession, China undertook to eliminate certain trade-related investment measures and to open up specified sectors that had previously been closed to foreign investment. New laws, regulations, and administrative measures to implement these commitments are being issued. Major remaining barriers to foreign investment include opaque and inconsistently enforced laws and regulations and the lack of a rules-based legal infrastructure.
Opening to the outside remains central to China’s development. Foreign-invested enterprises produce about half of China’s exports, and China continues to attract large investment inflows. Foreign exchange and gold reserves were $2.033 trillion at the end of 2008, and have now surpassed those of Japan, making China’s foreign exchange reserves the largest in the world.
Geography of China
Location: Eastern Asia, bordering the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, between North Korea and Vietnam
Geographic coordinates: 35 00 N, 105 00 E
Map references: Asia
Area: total area: 9,596,960 sq km (approximately 3.7 million sq. mi.) land area: 9,326,410 sq km comparative area: slightly larger than the US. World’s fourth-largest country (after Russia, Canada, and US); Mount Everest on the border with Nepal is the world’s tallest peak.
Land boundaries: total: 22,143.34 km border countries: Afghanistan 76 km, Bhutan 470 km, Burma 2,185 km, Hong Kong 30 km, India 3,380 km, Kazakstan 1,533 km, North Korea 1,416 km, Kyrgyzstan 858 km, Laos 423 km, Macau 0.34 km, Mongolia 4,673 km, Nepal 1,236 km, Pakistan 523 km, Russia (northeast) 3,605 km, Russia (northwest) 40 km, Tajikistan 414 km, Vietnam 1,281 km
Cities: Capital–Beijing. Other major cities–Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Harbin, Chengdu.
Coastline: 14,500 km
Maritime claims: continental shelf: claim to shallow areas of East China Sea and Yellow Sea territorial sea: 12 nm
Climate: extremely diverse; tropical in south to subarctic in north
Terrain: mostly mountains, high plateaus, deserts in west; plains, deltas, and hills in east lowest point: Turpan Pendi -154 m highest point: Mount Everest 8,848 m
Natural resources: coal, iron ore, petroleum, mercury, tin, tungsten, antimony, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium, magnetite, aluminum, lead, zinc, uranium, hydropower potential (world’s largest).
Elevation extremes: lowest point: Turpan Pendi -154 m, highest point: Mount Everest 8,850 m (1999 est.)
Natural hazards: frequent typhoons (about five per year along southern and eastern coasts); damaging floods; tsunamis; earthquakes; droughts; land subsidence
Environment: China current environmental issues include air pollution (greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide particulates) from reliance on coal produces acid rain; water shortages, particularly in the north; water pollution from untreated wastes; deforestation; estimated loss of one-fifth of agricultural land since 1949 to soil erosion and economic development; desertification; trade in endangered species.