in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries
China in the 1800s
In the 16th century, the Chinese economy was still the most sophisticated
and productive in the world, and the Chinese probably enjoyed a higher
standard of living than any other people on earth. The Qing (Ch'ing)
Dynasty (1644-1912), founded by the invading Manchus, continued this
splendor. Contemporary Chinese called the 18th century "unparalleled
in history," when all aspects of culture flourished. China was a
prosperous state with abundant natural resources, a huge but basically
contented population, and a royal house of great prestige at home and
By the late 18th century, however, the strong Chinese state contained
seeds of its own destruction, particularly its expanding population.
Having remained at 100 million through much of history, under the peaceful
Qing (Ch'ing), the population doubled from 150 million in 1650 to 300
million by 1800, and reached 450 million by the late nineteenth century
(cf. population of the U.S. was 200 million in the 1980s). By then, there
was no longer any land in China's southern and central provinces available
for migration: the introduction of New World (American) crops through
trade - especially sweet potatoes, peanuts, and tobacco, which required
different growing conditions than rice and wheat - had already claimed
previously unusable land. With only 1/10 of the land arable, farmers
had an average of only three (3) acres, with many having only one acre.
The right of equal inheritance among sons (versus primogeniture as practiced
in Japan) only hastened the fragmentation of land holdings. To compound
these problems, the state's political control was diminishing. The size
of the bureaucracy remained the same while the population grew. By the
19th century, district magistrates at the lowest level of the Chinese
bureaucracy were responsible for the welfare, control, and taxation of
an average of 250,000 people. This left control and responsibility for
government increasingly in the hands of local leaders whose allegiances
were to their localities and families, rather than to the state.
The West in China
When the industrializing European states attempted to entice China into
the newly forming world economy in the late 1700s and early 1800s, their
overtures were rebuffed by the Chinese, who quite rightly felt that they
had little to gain from trade with these states. Western military power
was far superior to that of the Chinese, however, and China was defeated
in a series of military confrontations and forced to sign "unequal
treaties" that opened Chinese ports (known as "treaty ports"),
first to European, and then to American and Japanese traders. The Chinese
were further humiliated by having to relinquish legal jurisdiction over
sections of these port cities and over foreigners residing in China.
Chinese were even excluded from facilities and areas controlled by foreigners.
The Chinese were also forced under the treaties to allow Western Christian
missionaries to proselytize in the interior of the country. Between the
first major confrontation, the Opium War of 1839-42, and the early 1900s,
the British, French, Germans, Americans, and Japanese competed for "spheres
of influence" within China until it was at risk of being "carved
up like a melon."
A series of natural catastrophes (drought and famine) and man-made disasters
(especially floods from deteriorating water-control works, made worse
by over-reclamation of the wetlands, lowlands, and mountain slopes that
were necessary to control water runoff) hit China in the late 19th century.
The weakness of the state and the disruption of the economy due to the
Western presence left China unable to provide for its huge population.
A series of rebellions occurred across the country. The Taiping (185l-1864),
Nian (Nien) (1853-1868), Moslem (1855-1873), and Boxer (1898-190l) rebellions
all took place in the latter part of the 19th century. During the Taiping
Rebellion, rebel forces controlled a large portion of China, and established
their capital in the city of Nanking. The power of the central government
was further weakened as military power was delegated to the provinces
to control these rebellions.
China's Response to Imperialism
The ability of the Western nations and then Japan to impose their economic
demands on China by force of arms was jarring to the Chinese view of
themselves as a highly developed civilization. Moreover, the Western
notion of a system of international relations conducted among sovereign
nation-states challenged Chinese identity as an advanced, universalistic
civilization. It was also difficult for the Chinese, whose emperor had
been recognized as the supreme authority by countries bearing tribute
to the Chinese court, to adapt to the system that had evolved in Europe
by the 1800s whereby sovereign nation-states interacted as equals.
Much of the intellectual history of the late Qing (Ch'ing) and Republican
periods (1912-1949) centers around the conflicting views within China
of how it should respond to foreign pressures. These fall roughly into
three categories: 1) anti-traditionalism, which rejected the traditional
claims of cultural superiority, dismissed Chinese culture as sick, corrupt,
and useless, and advocated complete Westernization; 2) pro-traditionalism,
which sought to completely reject any import of Western culture and to
strengthen the country through reform-within-tradition and cultural revival;
and 3) the idea of adopting Western technology in order to preserve the
essence of Chinese civilization, "Western learning for application,
Chinese learning for essence." The Chinese emphasis on the moral
role of government, the perfectibility of man, and the belief that moral
qualities and not technical expertise merited reward and ultimately benefited
society, led to an unwillingness to cultivate a class of technical experts--
in industry or in government. As China's predicament worsened, some intellectuals
began to argue that these Confucian values were at the root of China's
inability to repulse the military and political incursions of the West
and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Revolution and War
The combination of internal upheaval and foreign aggression led to the
collapse of the Qing (Ch'ing) or Manchu dynasty in 1911 and calls for
the establishment of a republic. Sun Yat-sen led the forces calling for
a republican government and established the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist
Party in 1912. The collapse of the dynastic system ushered in the turbulent "warlord
period," however, with regional power centers competing for control.
The country was partially reunited under the army of Chiang Kai-shek
and the Nationalist Party in 1928, but it was invaded by Japan in 1937
and subsequently engulfed by World War II.
In the 1920s some Chinese found an explanation for China's subjugation
by the imperialist powers and hopes for China's eventual liberation in
Marxism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in 1921 to promote
revolution based on Marxist principles. Under Mao's leadership, the Chinese
Communist Party established rural (as opposed to urban) vases and began
mobilizing farmers. Driven out of southern China by Chiang Kai-shek and
Nationalist troops, the CCP made its headquarters in the remote mountainous
area of Yenan in north China subsequent to the Long March of 1935-36.
The CCP gained strength by calling for united resistance against the
Japanese and by experimenting with land reform and other policies to
ease the plight of the peasants.
After the end of WW II with the defeat of Japan in 1945, a civil war
continued between the Nationalists and the Communists over the right
to lead China's political and economic development and reestablish China's
position in the world. On October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party,
under the leadership of Mao Zedong, proclaimed the establishment of the
People's Republic of China (PRC). The Nationalist government evacuated
to the island of Taiwan, where it established the Republic of China (ROC).
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