Before becoming the powerful economic and geopolitical force at the turn of the 21st century that China is known for today, it experienced an increasingly challenging and tumultuous history. Starting with the latter 19th century, as the world entered into the modern and globally interconnected era, China was forced out of its highly isolationist and traditionalist worldview. As a result, for more than a century, China struggled to find its identity both politically and socially, facing a series of crises and upheavals that offered little stability and greatly impacted its struggling people. In order to explore these transitions, the paper is broken down into four key time periods that will examine the distinct events and impacts of the era on Chinese sociopolitical history.
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19th Century Turmoil
Through the 18th century and into the 19th century, China maintained an imperial system under the Qing dynasty. China was participating in the world economy trading goods but maintained an isolationist position. By the mid-19th century, the country was experiencing significant internal strains combined with imperial pressures of Western countries. Internal pressures included rapidly increasingly population which grew by 150 million in the 19th century alone, and lack of food supply. This led to a series of rebellions, the most well known of which are the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) and the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901).
The Taiping Rebellion was started by a Christian-based religious group with nationalist agenda which became known as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The rebellious group gained significant support, and occupied large territories across the Yangtze valley for a decade. The rebellion turned into a full-fledged civil war which became one of the bloodiest wars in history with anywhere between 20 and 70 million dead. Eventually the Qing dynasty and its allies prevailed in their defeat of rebels but resulted in draconic suppression and control over rebellious regions.1
Since the early 19th century, the West was experiencing a strong imbalance in trade with China, resulting in the outflow of money and silver to the country. Europe had few commodities, so the European nations, led particularly by the British Empire brought opium to China. Quickly realizing the addictive and destructive nature of opium for its population, China attempts to ban opium. This resulted in the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856 in which China was defeated and forced into ‘open-port’ treaties where foreign countries essentially controlled trade in port cities in China as well as losing territory such as Hong Kong to British rule.
By this time, the West consisting of the Eight Nation Alliance was carving up China for spheres of influence. For China which viewed itself as a self-sufficient and developed nation, this was shocking and radically changed its self-image as its traditional power and trade relationships were reversed. 2
After the 1860s, the Qing dynasty attempted to implement reforms to meet the political and military challenges of the West, adapting foreign technology but preserving Chinese values. However, these reforms struggled to take hold and foreign influence was increasing. The Boxer Rebellion at the end of the century was driven by a militia group in North China who were dissatisfied with the internal situation in the country but also the consistent foreign influence such as Christian missionaries, the loss of the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, and the spread of opium trade. The Boxer fighters converged on Beijing with the support of the Qing government and targeted foreigners and their property, beginning an official war. As a result, the Eight-Nation Alliance brought 20,000 troops to China, defeating the capital which was followed by plunder and executions of rebels and government officials, also forcing the government into paying reparations over the next decades.3
Therefore, at the end of the 19th century, China was a humiliated, defeated nation that was de-facto controlled by imperial powers. It changed the perception of the country about itself, realizing they were no longer an advanced and universalistic civilization that greatly undermined self-identity. Chinese values of the moral role of government, focus on self-development, and belief in moral qualities rather than technical and scientific development is believed to be the reason on why China fell behind as a civilization, unable to cultivate a class of technical experts in either industry or government, that essentially led to its inability to defend against political and military incursions of foreign powers.4
The rule of the emperor as the supreme authority was also greatly challenged. Overall, China struggled to adapt to the international system of affairs that had evolved in Europe where sovereign nation-states interacted as equals.
Impact on Daily Lives
The multiple internal and external crises had profound impacts on the large Chinese population, which was still primarily agrarian and living in rural areas. Due to increased populations, mismanagement of agricultural policies, and struggling bureaucracies – there was increased food shortages. Even the most distant regions could not absorb more internal migration, with West and South China being overcrowded. While new practices such as intense irrigation and adoption of New World crops helped, they came with consequences such as erosion of land. Eventually there was increased labor surplus, and by the mid-19th century there was increased unemployment and long-term famine. Starvation was widespread and prevalent, contributing to increasing death tolls.
Meanwhile, in the devastating crises and Western push of the drug in the country, many of the Chinese turned to opium, with some estimates suggesting that up to 10% of the population became addicted. Politically, the country was very divided as well, with many regions experiencing rebellions or joining the large ones. Furthermore, there were differing opinions regarding the foreign occupation and the Boxer rebellion, such as the Southern provinces ignored the federal mandate to attack foreign enclaves. Without a doubt, this was one of the most challenging times for Chinese people, as many simply struggled to survive in the overwhelming combination of ecological, political, military, and social crises.
The early 20th century saw unprecedented political upheaval in China. The population dissatisfied with the Western imperialistic spheres of influence and the incompetence of the Qin dynasty began a collective uprising which began the Revolution of 1911. The imperial system which was in place for more than 2000 years was replaced by the Republic of China under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen. He soon turned over power to Yuan Shikai who attempted to establish himself as the new Emperor, but facing backlash he resigned as well, leaving a power vacuum in the country beginning the Warlord Era, when China was ruled by coalitions of provincial leaders.
China participated in WW1 on the side of the Allies by contributing labor and resources, but despite its pleas for independence, the Treaty of Versailles adopted a pro-Japanese stance by providing German territory and influence. It led to the extreme growth of nationalistic sentiments in the country in the context of the May Fourth Movement, a student-led anti-imperialist movement to protest the foreign influence on China. From this movement emerged two prevalent political parties, the Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).5
The KMT allied itself briefly with the CCP and began defeating warlords to reunite China under one rule in the Northern Expedition (1926-1927). However, the new leader of KMT Chiang Kai-shek seized control of the party and turned on the CCP, exiling the communists to the desolate northwest of the country where they established a guerilla base and reorganized under the infamous iconic leader Mao Zedong. This began a long 14-year old period of a bitter guerilla civil war between the KMT and CCP, including during the Japanese occupation of the country in 1931-1945, and only agreed to a united front during the period of WWII and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Both conflicts were extremely bloody for China resulting in tens of millions of deaths (>20 million) and 100 million refugees as all sides committed atrocities against civilians.6
Despite the political turbulence and internal fighting, the Chinese ideology shifted drastically away from its centric traditional values towards modernization and independence. While nationalism was the uniting force behind opposition to foreign oppression, other numerous political ideologies began to disseminate among the population, ranging from freedom and democracy to Marxism which sought liberation from imperialist subjugation by appealing to the working class. Marxism represented a Western theory based on scientific analysis of historic development and promised economic development that would improve the lives of many. The May Fourth Movement sought to also reform Chinese cultural traditions by adopting Western scientific and democratic systems of governance and self-sufficiency.
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Impact on Daily Lives
The daily lives of people improved little after the removal of the Qing dynasty. Arguably, life for peasants was noticeably worse. The country was fragmented, there was virtually no national leadership, government support or system, and economy was in shambles. The people relied largely on their own communities and regions to survive this era with lives being threatened by fighting among warlords or political parties as well as Japanese invasions. However, this era brough on some progression in terms of people’s participation in the political fate of their country. As political ideologies spread, many took it upon themselves to lead or spread their beliefs.
This was relevant especially among urban youth as students were behind the May Fourth Movement and other major political protests. It was a reflection that students, workers, and other social groups saw the necessity to understand the experiences of the people and push for reform.7 Meanwhile, everyday people and vulnerable populations found their voice as well. In the film, Raise the Red Lantern, it is seen how the wives of the local warlord are treated as concubines. However, they demonstrate defiance in small ways that they can. This is reflective of the people’s struggle and attitudes at this time, beginning to show defiance against the oppressors, even in small steps, while fighting for what they believed.
Post-WWII and Mid-20th Century
After the Japanese defeat in 1945, widespread conflict between the KCP and CCP began once again after failed negotiations. Despite being in a disadvantaged position and minority in the beginning of the first phase of the Chinese Civil War, the communists rallied back and controlled most of China by 1949, largely to the brilliant leadership of Mao Zedong, both militarily and politically. Meanwhile, the KCP leader Chiang became highly unpopular due to his antagonizing politics and pursuit of a centralized government which many peasants feared. The CCP and Zedong pursued tactical politics of appealing to the broad populations with the Marxist ideology. Upon defeat, the KCP and majority of its followers fled to the island of Taiwan forming the Republic of China, the officially recognized Chinese government until 1970s. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong with the victorious CCP formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the official government of mainland China to this day.8
Mao Zedong and the Communist Party sought to reshape China into a Marxist nation. The next several decades, influenced by the Soviet Union, China established five-year plans and developed a socioeconomic program known as the Great Leap Forward. However, the program also included massive indoctrination, with anyone not supporting the CCP, landowners and leaders of the past, and any other undesired were executed en masse along with civilian populations as part of the Cultural Revolution, a purge movement by communists to eliminate remnants of traditional Chinese society. The government took land, implemented collectivization, and set up massive national labor camp and indoctrination systems.
The forced atrocities are estimated to have caused over 45 million deaths. Mao’s rule attempted to modernize China but was counterproductive due to its fear tactics and atrocities. The Great Leap Forward was largely ineffective as private farming was prohibited, while official numbers were inflated by local governments fearing reprise. Despite significant investments, there was only modest if any production increase both in agriculture or industrial sectors.9
Impact on Daily Lives
The era of Mao Zedong could be compared to the Great Purge by Stalin earlier in the century. People lived in terror and confusion, repressed and terrified for their lives. The CCP that was once for the people and promised collective utilitarianism was suddenly taking away land and the few means that farmers had to feed their families. Any mention, belief, or even ownership of items related to traditional or religious values of China meant almost certain death as the Cultural Revolution was enforced by the brutal Red Guard. It was a period of purging and massacre, portrayed by propaganda as matter of purifying the land.10
As seen in film To Live, those who refused to give up their property, even that fairly acquired, were forced to execution or slave labor. Defiance was cut off and people were forced to give their last possessions for the welfare of the state. Those with education, such as doctors, were forced into hard labor. The population continued to struggle from famine as well as a lack of basic necessities. Meanwhile, the communist party and those who supported it, particularly in urban areas, turned to extremism. Alongside massive propaganda efforts, large swaths of the population were convinced that the CCP was doing the right things for China.
With the death of Zedong and some political turbulence, the late 20th century saw an era of political reforms and modernization in China under Deng Xiaoping, who was the Paramount Leader from 1978 to 1992. While communism and dedication to the CCP was still expected, the government loosened control over personal lives and began implementing massive economic reforms such as land leases for peasants and other incentives to increase product.
A form of a free-market economy began to appear, with a system that is known today as market socialism was taking form. Both agricultural and industrial economies began to rise, and more than 150 million peasants were pulled out of poverty.11 Towards the end of the century, urbanization and industrialization was rapidly increasing as China was recognized on the world stage and entered organizations such as the WTO.
The CCP still maintained control and sought to prevent dissent as was seen by the Tiananmen Square protests, which were similarly led by students to speak out against corruption and demanding greater rights and free speech. The state mechanism of propaganda and censorship was always in place and continued to grow with new technologies and methods of communication. However, China was much more open to both domestic and foreign influences while maintaining the Communist structure of governance and socialism within the country. Deng understood that China needed to develop with a stable environment that would be conducive to international trade and investment for further economic development. These reforms essentially set the precedent for China’s modern-day economic development and international superpower.12
Impact on Daily Lives
The reforms were a welcome relief for Chinese population. For the first time in more than a century, there was a sense of stability and potential opportunities for growth. In this period, China abandoned the blind ideological persecution and indoctrination, focusing its efforts on populist-based policies. The freedoms were just enough to make people feel unrestricted and begin to engage in daily routines and personal lives without the fear of survival. While rural areas remained poor for many more decades, there was some influx of wealth into suburban areas which helped families to obtain footing and participate in the reformed market-oriented economy.13
It is without a doubt that the recent modern history of China is devastating and challenging as the country struggled to find its identity and way to stability ever since the mid-19th century. The period between mid-1800s and WWII is known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’ for China and the post-war period was surrounded by intense political divides. Eventually, China began to stabilize and find its footing. Many of the country’s political systems, international positions, and social traditions stem from its unique history of struggles and challenges. Currently, China is known for its unique mix of Communist governance and a capitalist-influenced economy.
However, the governments control and micromanagement along with its investment into technology and military of the future demonstrates the lessons of the past, where China was weak, unable to provide for its people, and experienced extensive divides. Now, even amidst crisis, China has become a prosperous, internationally respected and feared, and socially protective nation, with many experts agreeing that the key events explored in this paper are the foundation to present-day China.
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