Central Themes for a Unit on China

Consultants: Professors Irene Bloom, Myron Cohen, Andrew J. Nathan, Madeline Zelin (Columbia University), Andrew Walder (Stanford University), in consultation with Sue Gronewold (Kean University), and Elizabeth P. Tsunoda (Washington University). Edited by Roberta Martin, Asia for Educators.

Originally designed in the 1980s to support the New York State 9th-10th grade Global History requirement, the themes are designed to provide an infrastructure for the myriad facts and dates encountered in studying the long histories of the East Asian countries. The themes are reprinted here for educators seeking new perspectives to bring to bear on the individual histories of each of the East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — and of South and Southeast Asia also.

Introduction to the Themes

These recurrent "central themes" may be referred to repeatedly in the study of Chinese history, suggesting distinctive patterns to students, until a portrait of cultural difference is accumulated. Of many possible themes, six are discussed here as illustrative of Chinese culture and its relation to the world:

Theme 1: National Identity and China's Cultural Tradition

China is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in history and the dominant cultural center of East Asia; with flourishing philosophical, political, economic, artistic and scientific traditions, China developed a strong cultural identity as a universalistic civilization. China has struggled for the last century with the challenge of forging a new identity in a world of nation-states and of redefining its cultural values in a modern world.

Theme 2: Agriculture and Population: The Agrarian Dilemma in China's Modernization

China's economy depended traditionally on wet rice agriculture, a labor-intensive method of cultivation with uneven demands for labor input. Chinese farmers solved this problem by using their families as their labor forces. Traditional agricultural technology and population growth thus became closely related: the best chance a Chinese peasant had to improve his life was to have a large family, intensify the family effort to cultivate rice in the traditional way, then use whatever extra income the family generated to buy more land until the amount of land owned matched what the whole family, working together, could farm at maximum productivity — or even exceeded the family's capacity, an impetus to expand the family size. This was a highly sophisticated system. It provided neither incentive for modernization nor surplus for the state, however, as population and output remained in equilibrium. Collectivized agriculture was introduced in the 1950s as a means of generating agricultural surplus to support urban industrial development, but it proved not to be a satisfactory solution. Under the economic reforms inaugurated in the 1980s, farming is once again contracted to individual peasant families. While successful in raising output, the return to family farming is working against the other essential policy of population control.

Theme 3: Family and State: The Importance of Hierarchy and Paternalism in the Ordering of Society

Government and society in China were traditionally grounded in the Confucian philosophy, which held that the correct ordering of relationships within the family was key to the ordering of society in general; emphasis was on hierarchical relationships and the paternal line, with the eldest male holding supreme authority and responsibility for the family unit. The state claimed to be modeled on the family, with the emperor serving as the father of the people. Government in China was characterized by rule of man not law, rule by moral example, and rule by personal rather than official authority. These cultural patterns and assumptions continue to influence the Chinese political system and shape popular expectations of the role of government in China today. They are also reflected in the structure of work unit relationships in Chinese factories, schools, and institutions.

Theme 4: The Perfectibility of Man and the Moral Role of Government

The dominant strain of Confucian thought stressed the perfectibility of man, through self-cultivation, education, and the practice of ritual. One of the government's main functions in the Confucian state is to educate and transform the people, by moral example of the emperor and his officials. The belief that the state is the moral guardian of the people and that men are perfectible is reflected in a number of institutions, historically in the merit bureaucracy, or civil service, in which all officials are supposed-to be selected for their moral qualities, and more recently under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), in the style of Communist party leadership, the treatment of deviance, and the revolutionary role assigned to the peasantry in China.

Theme 5: The Relationship Between the Individual and Society in China

The relationship between the individual and the state in China is understood not in adversarial terms, as is characteristically the case in the modern West, but in consensual terms. China did not, therefore, develop an elaborate system of civil law; instead, mediation between aggrieved parties is stressed, with local leaders emphasizing negotiation, compromise, and change through education rather than assignment of blame and punishment. Neo-Confucian ideals also held that it was the responsibility of the educated individual to serve the state and the society.

Theme 6: Commercial Development in Place of Industrial Development

The geographical and political unity of China provided an environment in which the Chinese developed an intricate market network extending deep into the countryside in the form of periodic, rural markets that are in turn linked to regional markets. China differed from Europe, where the existence of many small countries led to trade barriers and local shortages that forced technological improvements within individual countries. In the Chinese situation, the absence of trade barriers and the existence of a huge and varied geography and population with much regional diversity meant China never was under pressure to develop labor-saving devices or to engage in expansionist or colonizing activities to the extent of those undertaken by the West and Japan in the modern period. The corresponding lack of industrial development put China in a disadvantageous military and economic position when faced with foreign encroachment in the 1800s, and industrial development has been a priority since that time. The re-emergence of the traditional Chinese market system in contemporary China has greatly facilitated economic growth under the reforms of the 1980s.

The Themes in Context

I. The Physical / Historical Setting of China

Ancient Civilization and Dominant Cultural Center

  • Chinese civilization is one of the world's oldest continuous civilizations. Civilization developed in China from earliest times in the valleys of three major rivers, the Huang He (Yellow River), the Chang Jiang (Yangtze), and the Xi Jiang (West River). These river systems, running west to east, have shaped agricultural development and population growth throughout China's history (Theme 1). The Chinese coastline and the Grand Canal (first constructed in 605 C.E.) were important for providing north-south communication, furthering unification of the country and mitigating the regionalism fostered by the intersection of mountain chains.
  • Mountains and deserts in the west of China limited its contact with other major centers of civilization in the Middle East and South Asia. Elements of Chinese civilization — literary Chinese and its writing system, Confucian thought, and Buddhism (in forms developed and refined in China after its origination in India) dominated the high culture of East Asia, creating a cultural sphere that encompassed what are today Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. China's traditional self-image was as a cultural center of the world. This is apparent in the Chinese name for China: Zhongguo, which means Middle Kingdom or Central Kingdom. (Theme 1). The Chinese thought of their culture as universalistic, that is, outsiders could join or become assimilated into it. This strong identity as a universalistic civilization has been an important unifying factor throughout China's history, even during times when the country was divided (Theme 1). The Chinese written language, which transcends dialects, has also been an important element fostering China's cultural unity throughout history.
  • China was unified by its first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (Ch'in Shih Huang-ti), who established the Qin (Ch'in) dynasty in 221 BC Consolidated under the Han dynasty (206 BC-222 AD.), the empire was comparable in dates, size, and strength with the Roman Empire. The Roman and Chinese empires traded through intermediaries on an overland route through Central Asia; Chinese silk was an especially prized commodity in Rome. The English name "China" is derived from "Qin."
    Poetry, fine porcelain, calligraphy, landscape painting, philosophy, political thought, historical writing, scientific advances in astronomy, chemistry, and medicine, and the production of fine silks and teas all flourished in China from earliest times, but particularly during the 7th to 12th centuries, China's "golden age", under the Tang and Song (Sung) dynasties (Theme 1).

Agriculture and Population

  • China's economy depended traditionally on wet rice agriculture most particularly in southern and central China, where the climate and soil support two and sometimes three growing cycles a year. (Wheat is the staple crop in north China, but due both to the nature of the crop and the climate, the output per field is lower than that of rice.)
  • In wet rice agriculture, seeds are sown in small seedbeds; the seedlings are then transplanted one by one to prepared paddy fields. While the plants are maturing, they must be kept irrigated, but as the rice ripens the fields are drained. The rice is then harvested and threshed by hand. Wet rice agriculture is labor-intensive (as is the cultivation of silk worms and tea) (Theme 2). Labor is particularly important when the fields are prepared, seedlings transplanted, and again when the rice is harvested. At these times, increasing the size of the labor force can significantly increase the productivity of each field. In some areas a farmer can increase productivity by double or triple cropping, a technique that requires even greater concentrations of labor, because the harvesting of one crop and the transplanting of the next crop occur virtually simultaneously. At other times during the winter or while the rice is maturing, the demand for labor is greatly diminished. Traditionally, Chinese farmers, with their families as their labor force, put everyone to world in the field when labor was needed (Theme 3). During slack periods, women and younger children could do other work for the family, including handicraft production.
  • Traditional agricultural methods and population growth were thus closely related. As output increased, population increased to the extent it could be supported; as population increased, the added labor led to increased production. The more workers available to help in the field, the more rice one field could produce, so it was to a family's advantage to have many sons (since daughters married out of the family, they generally were not considered assets). High infant mortality and the reliance of aged parents on their children for support reinforced the ideal of the large family. At the same time, the larger the family, the more rice the farm had to produce in order to feed them. Consequently, the best chance a Chinese peasant had to improve his life was to have a large family, intensify the family effort to cultivate rice, then use whatever extra income they were able to produce to buy more land until he owned Just as much land as the whole family, working together, could farm at maximum productivity (Theme 2). In a minority of cases, even more land might be purchased for rental to tenants.

Family and State

  • Government and society in China were grounded in the Confucian philosophy, which held that there was a basic order in the universe and a natural harmony linking man, nature, and the cosmos (heaven); it also held that man was by nature a social being, and that the natural order of the universe should be reflected in human relations. The family unit was seen as the primary social unit; relationships within the family were fundamental to all others and comprised three of the "five relationships" that were the models for all others: sovereign-subject, husband-wife, parent-child, elder brother-younger brother, friend-friend. In this hierarchy of social relations, each role had clearly defined duties; reciprocity or mutual responsibility between subordinate and superior was fundamental to the Confucian concept of human relations. The virtue of filial piety, or devotion of the child to his parents, was the foundation for all others. When extended to all human beings, it nurtured the highest virtue, humaneness (jen), or the sense of relatedness to other persons (Theme 3).
  • In traditional Chinese society, therefore, the family, not the group or the individual, was central. The kinship network linked related families and also the living with the deceased through veneration of ancestors.
  • The eldest male held supreme authority within the family (Theme 3); the status of females was unequal. Property was owned jointly by males and passed on to males equally. Emphasis was on the paternal line of ancestors; great importance was attached to honoring these ancestors to ensure the continuity and prosperity of the family. Marriages were arranged by families.
  • Because of the strong sense of identification between an individual and his family and the idea of mutual responsibility, population registration, taxation, and self-policing were carried out for the government not by individuals but by families grouped, for administrative efficiency, into larger units under the bao-jia (pao-chia) system. Families and neighbors were responsible for mutual surveillance.
  • In traditional China it was assumed by adherents of all schools of thought that government would be monarchial and that the state had its model in the family (Theme 3). The ruler was understood to be at once the Son of Heaven, and the father of the people, ruling under the Mandate of Heaven. Traditional thinkers, reflecting on the problem of government, were concerned primarily not with changing institutions and laws but with ensuring the moral uprightness of the rule and encouraging his appropriate conduct as a father-figure (Theme 3). The magistrate, the chief official of the lowest level of government and the official closest to the people, was known as the "Father-mother" official. Even today, under a radically different form of government, the Chinese term for state is guo-jia or "nation-family," suggesting the survival of the idea of this paternal and consensual relationship (Theme 3 and Theme 5). The first and third of the "five relationships" — i.e., emperor and minister, father and son — indicate the parallels between family and state.
  • The notion of the role of the state as guarantor of the people's welfare developed very early, along with the monarchy and the bureaucratic state. It was also assumed that good government could bring about order, peace, and the good society (Theme 3 and Theme 5). Tests of the good ruler were social stability, population growth (a reflection of ancient statecraft where the good ruler was one who could attract people from other states), and ability to create conditions that fostered the peoples welfare. The Mandate of Heaven was understood as justifying the right to rule, with the corollary right to rebel against a ruler who did not fulfill his duties to the people. The state played a major role in determining water rights, famine control and relief, and insuring social stability. The state encouraged people to grow rice and other grains rather than commercial crops in order to insure an adequate food supply, it held reserves in state granaries, in part to lessen the effects of drought and floods, particularly common in northern China. For fear of losing the Mandate of Heaven governments levied very low taxes which often meant that the government could not provide all the services expected of it, and that officials ended up extorting money from the people.

The Perfectibility of Man and the Moral Role of Government

  • The dominant strain of Confucian thought stressed the perfectibility of man (Theme 4). Confucius (a political philosopher who lived c. 551-479 BC) expressed a belief in the fundamental similarity of all persons and in the perfectibility and educatability of each individual. Mencius and Hsun Tzu, two of his prominent successors, held different views on human nature, Mencius arguing that it contained the seeds of goodness, and Hsun Tzu that, in its uncultivated state, human nature tended to evil. Both, however, believed that human beings were perfectible through self-cultivation and the practice of ritual (Theme 4). From the 11th century onward, Neo-Confucian philosophers, engaged in the renewal and elaboration of Confucian thought, subscribed to the Mencian line, stressing the potential goodness of human nature and the importance of developing that goodness through education.
  • Belief in the innate goodness and perfectibility of man has had strong implications for the development of the Chinese political system. The ruler's main function in the Confucian state was to educate and transform the people (Theme 4). This was ideally accomplished not by legal regulation and coercion, but by personal rule, moral example, and mediation in disputes by the emperor and his officials. Confucian political theory emphasized conflict resolution through mediation, rather than through the application of abstract rules to establish right and wrong, as the best means for achieving social harmony.
  • The belief that the state was the moral guardian of the people was reflected in a number of institutions. Most important among these was the merit bureaucracy, or civil servant, in which all officials were to be selected for their moral qualities, qualities that would enable them not only to govern, but to set a moral example that would transform the people. Because Confucianism was a moral system, the Confucian classics had to be mastered by prospective officials. Official position and examination degree, not wealth or business acumen, were universally recognized marks of status.

The Individual and Society

  • The relation between the individual and the state was understood not in adversarial terms, as is characteristic of the modern West, but in consensual terms (Theme 3 and Theme 5). Therefore, China did not develop an elaborate system of civil law. Instead, mediation between aggrieved parties was prescribed, with local leaders emphasizing negotiation, compromise, and change through education rather than assignment of blame and punishment.
  • Neo-Confucian ideals held that:
    • the educated individual had a responsibility to serve the state (Theme 5);
    • a morally upright official should courageously remonstrate with the ruler if his policies are damaging to the state;
    • the state could prosper only if the people prospered; and
    • any disruption in the economy or social order was probably due to corrupt political institutions.
  • These ideas contributed to the longevity, strength, and adaptability of traditional Chinese political institutions. The best people were motivated to serve in government. While corruption was not uncommon, the ideal of public service and responsibility for the people's welfare remained strong. A powerful tradition of remonstrance and reform helped to insure that the system adapted to change.

Legalism and a Strong State

  • A complementary philosophical strain in Chinese thought to Confucianism was Legalism, first applied in the short-lived dynasty of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (Ch'in Shih Huang-ti, 221-207 B.C). Proponents of Legalism stressed an administrative approach to efficient and pragmatic government; universal and codified law rather than morality (in contrast to the Confucian emphasis); and state power as an end in itself. As first applied, Legalism proved too harsh and disruptive, but for two millennia thereafter the Chinese state combined aspects of the Legalist structure with the Confucian spirit, recognizing the effectiveness of a centralized, bureaucratic rule which could oversee massive public works, state monopolies, standardized weights, measures, and even script, attempt intellectual control, and enforce social order by suppressing revolt (Theme 1 and Theme 3).

Advanced Commercial Development in Place of Industrial Development

  • Geographic unity, river systems, and canals facilitated the development of internal trade in China. The mainland forms a natural unit almost cut off by mountains from the outside world. Its size and the political unity that prevailed for much of its late imperial history, however, promoted interregional trade within China (Theme 6). The absence of trade barriers and the existence of a vast and varied geography meant that shortages in one part of China could be made up through trade with another. Similarly, labor needs in one area could be filled by migration or by shifting manufacture to another area. Geographic factors that facilitated this internal trade were the Yangtze River, the complex network of rivers in the south, and China's long coastline. China, in contrast to the West and Japan, thus never felt pressure to develop labor-saving technologies or engage in extensive expansionist or colonizing activities. (This also contrasts markedly with the political and economic history of Europe, where the existence of many small countries led to trade barriers and local shortages, prompting individual countries to make technological advances and wage costly wars that contributed to the rise of large financial empires and political imperialism.)
  • The Chinese state control of commercial development fluctuated. Responsible for popular welfare, the state encouraged the production of staple food crops; merchants, on the other hand, were considered unproductive and therefore constituted the lowest class in the traditional Confucian hierarchy. From the Tang dynasty (618-907) onward, however, with growing population and expansion of territory, state control of the economy gradually receded. Except for strategic goods like salt and certain metals — like copper and lead needed for currency — the state did little to control commerce. (This contrasts with European states, where cities required a charter from the royal house, and with Japan, where cities were allowed to develop only in the castle towns of the daimyo and in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, these latter three having special functions connected to the central government). Moreover, the Chinese government did not rely very heavily on commercial taxation; its main sources of income were land and salt taxes. (This contrasts with Western Europe, where government taxes on commerce were heavy.) This environment fostered the development of an intricate market network which extended deep into the countryside and which was comprised of periodic, village markets with links to regional markets (Theme 6). A primitive national market, remarkable given China's vast territory, existed in certain essential commodities, such as grain, cotton, and tea. A number of factors, including China's size, the difficulties involved in using metal currencies in conducting long-distance trade, and the minor role played by government in regulating the economy, help explain why China was the first country to develop paper money, sophisticated brokerage practices, and banking institutions.

II. Modern China

China Before the Modern Era

  • China's stable social and political institutions spawned great scientific achievements, intellectual and artistic developments. The "golden age" of the Tang (618-907) and Song (Sung) (907-1127/1279) dynasties was followed by the commercial expansion and economic prosperity of the Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (Ch'ing) (1644-1912) dynasties (Theme 1 and Theme 6). Marco Polo, travelling to China during the Yuan dynasty when the Mongols controlled China (1279-1368, between the Song and Ming dynasties) commented with amazement on the contrast between its civilization and that of Venice, an advanced enclave in Europe at the time. His tales of the Chinese cities were dismissed as fantasy by most Europeans.

China in the 18th and 19th Centuries During the Period of European Economic Expansion

  • In the 16th century, under the Ming dynasty, 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) or Manchu dynasty (1644-1912) continued this splendor. Contemporary Chinese called the 18th century, when all aspects of culture flourished, "unparalleled in history." 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 abroad (Theme 1).
  • Yet by the late 18th century, 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 United States was 200 million in the 1980s) (Theme 2). 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 was losing its control in much of the country. 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 (Theme 3). 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 traditional labor-intensive and highly productive agricultural system that prevailed throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (Ch'ing) (1644-1912) periods, while very sophisticated, provided neither incentives to modernize nor surplus for the state, and eventually resulted in what has been called China's "high-level equilibrium trap" (or "agricultural involution"). A Chinese peasant had little capital to invest in machinery, his fields were small enough that his family could farm them effectively with manual labor and too small to make the use of machinery profitable. Wealthy landlords who controlled properties large enough to make the use of modern agricultural technology feasible, found it more profitable to rent the land to numerous small tenant farmers, from whom they collected an average of half the harvest in rent (Theme 2). Chinese peasants thus seldom had any surplus income. Because they produced most of the goods, including handicrafts, they needed, they did not stimulate a domestic market for manufactured goods (Theme 6).

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 (Theme 1 and Theme 6). 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 (Theme 1). 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."
  • When a series of natural catastrophes (especially 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 found China unable to provide for its huge population and faced with a series of rebellion across the country (Theme 3). The Taiping (1851-1864), Nian (Nien) (1853-1868), Moslem (1855-1873), and Boxer (1898-1901) rebellions all occurred 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 Nanjing. The power of the central government was further weakened as military power was delegated to the provinces to control these rebellions.
  • 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 (Theme 1). Moreover, the Western notion of a system of international relations conducted among sovereign nation-states challenged Chinese identity as an advanced, universalistic civilization. Also, it was difficult for the Chinese, whose emperor had been recognized as the supreme authority by countries bearing tribute to the Chinese country, to adapt to the system that had evolved in Europe by the 1800s of sovereign nation-states interacting as equals. (Theme 1).
  • 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. The ideas fall into roughly three categories:
    • anti-traditionalism, which rejected the traditional claims of cultural superiority, dismissed Chinese culture as sick, corrupt, and useless, and advocated complete Westernization;
    • pro-traditionalism, which sought to completely reject any import of Western culture and to strengthen the country through reform-within-tradition and cultural revival;
    • the idea of adopting Western technology in order to preserve the essence of Chinese civilization ( "Western learning for application, Chinese learning for essence" ) (Theme 1).
  • 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 (Theme 4). This was in part 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.
  • The Western view was that China was blocking the development of its market, but even after the opening of markets in China through the treaty ports, the "China Market" never developed to the extent the West had envisioned. Except for opium and machine spun cotton yarn, the West had little to offer the Chinese that they did not already make and market well (Theme 6). Western traders were also seldom able to break into the highly developed internal trading network within China. Thus, while colonial rule in this period led to the imposition of a modern trade system on other countries in Asia and Africa, this never happened in China. Instead, two trade systems existed side by side, the traditional one and a modern one centered largely on the foreign treaty ports (Theme 1 and Theme 6).
  • In trying to discover the source of the strength and success of the West, the Chinese applied their own basic ideas to the interpretation of Western concepts: "democracy" was understood as a highly developed form of individual respect for the state, and "human rights" were understood as the state's bestowing on every individual, not just officials, the responsibility to speak up on behalf of the welfare of the people and to insist on the moral uprightness of the rulers (Theme 5).

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 (Theme 1). Sun Yat-sen led the forces calling for a republican government and established the Goumindang (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 in Marxism an explanation for China's subjugation by the imperialist powers, a scientific method to achieve economic prosperity for all, and a means of defeating the imperialist powers through a revolution led by the working class (Theme 1). The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in 1921. During the Japanese occupation, the CCP established rural (as opposed to urban) bases in peasant areas, following the Long March of 1935-36 into the remote mountainous area of Yenan. The CCP gained strength by calling for united resistance against the Japanese and experimenting with land reform and other policies to ease the plight of the peasants.
  • After World War II ended 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 to re-establish China's position in the world. On October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), 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).

III. Contemporary China

China Since 1949

  • Since 1949 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has exercised authoritarian power as a single ruling party, making policy and controlling all state functions. Party organizations exist in every social institution of any importance at all levels of society. Membership is selective and provides benefits in the form of access to power, status, and information. The party has evolved from an organization of revolutionaries committed to an ideology (a vanguard party) (Theme 4) to an organization of the powerful and privileged whose membership brings social status and material gain, and whose proclaimed ideology justifies its monopoly of power. 
  • The policies of the CCP have been directed at meeting the two central challenges facing China in the 20th century: economic development and modernization to benefit the world's largest population (Theme 2), and the reestablishment of China's position and identity as a world leader. (Theme 1) 
  • From 1949 to 1976 the personality and policies/ideas of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), chairman of the CCP, dominated China's development effort and its foreign policy. Ever since his death in 1976, new policy experiments have been undertaken to spur economic development and national power. Among these has been the development of a large private sector in the economy, and adoption of an "opening" policy of increased economic and cultural interaction with Europe, the United States, Japan, and the rest of the world, a departure from the policy that had prevailed for three decades of limiting China's participation in the world economy.
  • But even while fostering a private sector and joining the global trading economy, the Chinese government did not do away with the large state-owned sector of the economy. The government still formally owns all land, runs the largest banks, utility companies, the railway system and major airlines, and maintains the dominance of state-owned enterprises in heavy industry and other crucial sectors. It controls nominally privately owned enterprises through informal mechanisms.

Maoist Policies

  • Mao Zedong stressed the need to adapt Marxism, a Western ideology, to the Chinese context, a process he called “the Sinification of Marxism” (Theme 1); this led to the development of "Maoism" or "Mao Zedong Thought."
  • The Chinese belief in the perfectibility of man through education, self-cultivation, and the moral example of rulers was reflected in the CCP style of rule under Mao: party members, steeped in ideology, were meant to lead by their personal commitment and moral example (Theme 4). Mao's philosophy was particularly evident in the treatment of those who deviated from party policy, as it changed and evolved. If anyone strayed from the current party line, a "struggle" would be undertaken that aimed in theory to reform and return the "deviant" to what was viewed as a useful role in society, although in practice it often led to the person’s internal exile, imprisonment, or death. "Rectification campaigns" and "criticism/self-criticism" meetings were used to convince people of the error of their opinions (Theme 4 and Theme 5).
  • The Chinese belief in man's perfectibility through education might also be seen in Mao's belief that by participating in the revolutionary struggle, the peasantry could become the key element in the Chinese revolution. This contrasted with the orthodox Marxist view that urban industrial workers, the proletariat, were central to the revolution, but it was appropriate to China's situation as a predominantly peasant society (Theme 1 and Theme 4). Mao disparaged pure book learning, however, and emphasized learning through practice.
  • Also in contrast with orthodox Marxist theory, Mao believed that man could overcome objective conditions and accomplish things by sheer force of will (or "voluntarism") as depicted in the traditional Chinese fable of "The Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountains," which he cited. This led to tension between being "red" (i.e. politically, and by extension, morally cultivated) and being "expert" (i.e. having scientific, technical, or intellectual qualifications). This conflict became particularly acute during The Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Mao encouraged "de-professionalization" and "de-urbanization" of industry and, in lieu of formal education, sent students to the countryside to live with and learn from the peasants, who were idealized as the source of revolutionary zeal. Party members, whose qualifications were primarily political, normally had authority over experts, such as factory managers and school principals, reflecting the notion that moral qualities, not technical experience, ultimately benefit society (Theme 4). But during the Cultural Revolution, even many party members were denigrated as "bourgeois authorities" because they were not as radical ideologically as Mao's loyalists.

China as of 2020

  • Following Mao's death a new approach to economic development, labeled "reform and opening," was espoused by China's leaders under Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p'ing), who ruled from behind the scenes while others occupied the top party and government posts. Deng’s successors as top leaders – Jiang Zemin (1989-2002), Hu Jintao (2002-2012), and Xi Jinping (2012-) – continued and extended his development strategy. Agriculture was freed from direct state control, so farmers could produce for the market and even lease their land-use rights to other farmers. People could create private enterprises, some of which eventually grew very large. Failing state-owned enterprises were closed or merged with more successful ones. The resulting SOE’s, fewer but larger, continued to receive various benefits from the state, but were pressured to operate according to market principles so that they could make profits (Theme 6). The government welcomed foreign investment in many sectors of the economy and joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. These measures engaged China deeply with the global economy, but the government also deployed various policies to protect key domestic industries from the full brunt of foreign competition. China became a huge importer of oil and raw materials and a huge exporter of manufactured products, the so-called factory to the world. Chinese GDP surpassed that of Japan in 2010, making it the world’s second-largest economy, and many economists predicted it would overtake the U.S. economy as the largest economy some time in the 2030s.
  • The fastest growing sectors of China’s economy have been outside of the state sector, and as a result the percentage of output produced by state industry has shrunk from 80 percent in 1980 to about 40 percent in 2020. The fact that the state sector is shrinking in total importance leads some to believe that China may "grow out of" the state sector, making the task of reform less difficult than it would otherwise be. However, so far, the government has maintained a robust state sector even though it is less profitable than the private sector.
  • China occupies the third largest land area in the world (surpassed only by Russia and Canada), with the world's largest population (Theme 2), estimated in 2020 at approximately 1.4 billion people, or 1/5 of the world's population. For nearly four decades after the death of Mao, population control was a central element in China's economic development policies, with each family allowed only one child except in special circumstances. The one-child policy was motivated by the fear that population growth could negate the gains made in the economy. But the one-child policy led to situation in which too few working age people were supporting too many retired people. The government abolished the policy in 2015. But China continues to have one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
  • At the start of the reform period, about 18% of the Chinese population lived in urban areas and China had no group that could be considered middle class in income and life style. By 2018 the urban population had reached 60% and about 20% of the population were considered middle class. The proportion of the workforce in agriculture declined from 74% at the time of Mao Zedong's death in 1976[1] to 27% in 2018. The shifts from a rural to an urban economy and from a low-income to a middle-income economy are expected to continue in the coming years - a social and economic transformation of major proportions. However, with a population four times that of the United States, even in such a large economy average per capita GDP remained modest by global standards. In 2020 the country's premier announced that 40% of the population still had incomes below US$140 per month, leaving "poverty reduction" as a major item on the government's agenda.[2]
  • But the "reform" part of "reform and opening" was largely limited to economic policy. There were intermittent calls for political reform - most spectacularly, in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that ended in the bloody crackdown known as the Tiananmen Incident or June Fourth Incident - but the regime remains a one-party authoritarian system, ruled by a "vanguard party" of about 90 million members (6% of the population) who are required to show allegiance to the party's ideology and to its leaders. Xi Jinping, who became the top leader in 2012, concentrated power in himself, created a cult of personality, and abolished term limits, making himself the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. Under Xi, dissenters were repressed more harshly than at any previous time in the post-Mao period, unauthorized Catholic and Protestant congregations faced government harassment, an estimated one million ethnic minority Uyghurs were forced into concentration-camp like "reeducation centers" to try to dissuade them from their belief in Islam, and a draconian National Security Law was imposed on the previously autonomous city of Hong Kong.

The Family and State in China Today

Individual and group
  • Despite the harsh demand for discipline within the ruling party, and crackdowns on dissidents, religious believers, and ethnic minorities outside the party, most Chinese enjoyed more personal freedom in the post-Mao period than in the Mao years (Theme 5). In urban areas during the Mao era, most people were assigned to a work unit (factory, office, school) by the government. People rarely changed work units, usually remaining in the same work place for their entire lives. In the post-Mao period the labor market became more fluid, due to the rise of private enterprises, including those that are foreign-invested or foreign-owned, and to the increased use of migrant labor from the rural areas in urban industry and construction. People could move to different cities for work and could travel for tourism within China and internationally. People could dress as they liked and enjoy as many of the pleasures of a consumer society as they could afford.
  • A nationally issued identity card is the basic form of adult identification, like a driver's license in the United States. It establishes the person's right to reside in the town or city of residence. The larger cities, where life is more comfortable, are officially closed to new permanent residents. However, tens of millions of "temporary residents" now reside in Chinese cities for varying lengths of time. These people find temporary housing in the cities, send much of their earnings back to relatives in the countryside, and eventually return to their places of origin to establish businesses or return to agriculture.
  • In the Mao era work units provided almost all new housing in urban China, and it was very scarce in the early 1980s. At that time there was an average of 6 square yards of housing space per capita, the demand for a larger or better apartment is great. After decades of massive housing construction in Chinese cities, most urban housing is now privately owned. The average housing space has doubled to roughly 12 square yards per person, and urban apartments have plumbing, toilet and shower facilities, heating and electrical systems that were still rare in the early 1980s.
  • In the Mao era, work units provided housing, health care, recreational programs. Today, most employees live in their own housing (sometimes former work unit housing that they were allowed to purchase), health and retirement benefits are provided by local government schemes, people can travel without the unit's permission, and the unit interferes little in family life. However, work units remain partly responsible for social stability. If the political police believe that an employee has shown disloyalty to the state, the police are likely to ask the party committee or security office of the work unit to get involved and warn the employee to behave better.

State and Society: Democracy and Centralism

  • By reinterpreting Western ideas in light of Chinese problems, the transitional thinkers of the late 1800s and early 1900s left for later generations an unresolved tension between democracy and statism: are democratic freedoms and civil rights valuable only to the extent that they help individuals to serve the state (Theme 5), or is it also legitimate for the individual to exercise these rights for his own benefit or as a check against the abuse of state power? Some Chinese argue that this is a false choice, because a strong state can be created only when citizens have strong rights and citizens' rights can be protected only by a strong state. For now, state power is dominant, but the demand for individual rights continues to be expressed in the form of labor and environmental protests, protests over land seizures, critical writings by intellectuals, and postings on social media. The state is pushing back to make sure individualism does not get out of hand, using civic education in schools, nationalistic themes in official media, heavy police and electronic surveillance in the cities, and a nascent "social credit" system that aims to collect a range of information on each citizen and restrict the personal freedoms of those who are seen as unreliable.
  • The Chinese also continue to address the question of how their understanding of democratic values and human rights fits into the international dialogue. The official position is that Western-style "bourgeois" democracy is false. Only "socialist" democracy is authentic, because it is founded on a unity of interests among all citizens and between citizens and the state (Theme 3 and Theme 5). But some Chinese believe that the official version of democracy is merely a rationalization for one-party dictatorship or the dictatorship of a strong personality, while the true Chinese democratic ideal of all the citizens pulling together for the welfare of the entire nation (Theme 5) can be achieved only if the citizenry enjoys real freedoms, as in the West.
  • The official position is that citizens' rights are granted and limited by the state in accord with national conditions so as to maintain an orderly process of development; the dissident and reform view is that Western-style freedoms are a universally valid claim of the individual against the state which must be protected, and that to do so ultimately fosters political stability and economic growth.

National Identity: Defining What It Means to be Chinese

  • The Chinese continue to wrestle with the question of what is it that makes them Chinese: how can they modernize without losing sight of their cultural values and their national identity? Does modernization mean Westernization (Theme 1)? Various thinkers and groups have had different opinions on this, leading to internal conflicts between pro- and anti-Westernizers. Some view Western influence as "spiritual pollution," while others consider it "the trend of the times," simply what it takes to be a modern society.
  • The view that China's heritage itself was the major obstacle to economic development and modernization had its origin in the late Qing reforms, was a core belief of the May Fourth Movement, and was espoused by the Chinese Communist Party during the revolution that led to its accession to power. It was given cataclysmic expression in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, especially at its height in 1966-67, when old books were burned, cultural relics destroyed, and all traces of Confucian thought denounced. In the 1980s a reevaluation of China's cultural and historical traditions began, and in the early 2000s the government promoted Confucian values of harmony and deference as an aid to maintaining social stability (Theme 1).
  • Over the course of the post-Mao period, three positions could be discerned among Chinese thinkers and leaders, echoing those of the late 1800s:
    • a "neotraditional" synthesis of Western thought (in this case, Marxism) with traditional l Chinese values (deference to seniors, paternalistic government, economic self-sufficiency, a Chinese-centered rather than cosmopolitan culture). In recent years the Marxist elements have been submerged into a more general nationalistic pride in China’s economic development and its rising political importance in the world system;
    • advocacy of complete Westernization, including the abandonment of socialism and Marxism and the adoption of constitutional democracy (since it is illegal to voice these ideas openly, it is difficult to gauge the strength of this opinion), a position held mainly by younger people and reformers;
    • a mixed position that advocated the adoption of Western technology and managerial methods, while attempting to isolate these elements from China's distinctive cultural values. The idea of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" represents this desire to adopt all that is useful from the West while still retaining a distinctive, and indeed superior, Chinese cultural identity (Theme 1).

IV. China in Global Context

China Today

  • Chinese intellectuals and political leaders have debated the question of how China is to view itself: as a member of the socialist world, the third world, or the Western-dominated international trading society. More recently, China's traditional self-image as a universalistic civilization and a world cultural center has reasserted itself, as the Chinese government and some leading intellectuals present China as having a unique civilization and a unique development model which other countries can learn from. (Theme 1).
  • China, with its large population, massive resource-rich territory, and an economy that has developed rapidly, has achieved the status of a major power and is considered by most analysts to be a "peer competitor" to the United States. China has the world's largest navy, a substantial nuclear arsenal, and is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
  • Within the Pacific region, China is a major economic and political force. Its relations with Japan, North and South Korea, and its southeast Asian neighbors, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, will be determined by how they perceive this power will be used.
  • The Chinese government's stance toward the democratically elected government on Taiwan constitutes a major regional problem. Taiwan's government seeks to protect its autonomy, while the Chinese government maintains its claim to be the sole legitimate state over all Chinese territory, including Taiwan. China has refused on principle to abandon what it considers its right to use military force if necessary to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence.
  • Beyond the Pacific, China enjoys growing influence, largely because of its importance as a trading partner, investor, and provider of aid and loans through its Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure in over 60 countries. So far, China has used its influence chiefly for economic and diplomatic access, and has not sought to create a globe-spanning network of military bases.
  • As China has grown into a peer competitor of the United States, relations between the two countries – always a mix of cooperation and competition – have become strained. The two countries enjoy deep economic and educational ties, and face the need to cooperate on global issues like climate change, pandemic disease, and transnational crime. But China’s naval buildup and global economic clout threaten the established U.S. position of primacy in Asia.
  • Although both the U.S. and China agree that Taiwan is part of China, the United States has long supported the government on Taiwan and insists that reunification with the mainland should be achieved by peaceful means; China maintains that this is an internal matter to be settled by the Chinese themselves and protests the continuing U.S. commitment to preventing military attack on Taiwan.
  • American policy-makers and foreign policy intellectuals debate what mix of cooperation, competition, and containment to adopt toward China. On the Chinese side, policy-makers and most analysts fear that the U.S. will try to prevent China from assuming its legitimate role as a major power. Having experienced foreign encroachment and intrusion in their internal affairs from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the Chinese remain sensitive to any perceived challenges to their national sovereignty.


  1. Robert Ash, “Squeezing the Peasants,” China Quarterly 2006, Table 1, p. 108, found at Google Books here
  2. https://www.ft.com/content/6e248944-8395-45ae-9008-a86e4ee40eee.