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China now and then

China now and then

Home - China Briefing - China now and then

China (Zhōngguó) is a cultural region and ancient civilization in East Asia. China refers to one of the world's oldest civilization comprising successive states and cultures dating back more than 6,000 years. China has one of the world's longest periods of mostly uninterrupted civilization and one of the world's longest continuously used written language systems. The successive states and cultures of China date back more than six millennia. For centuries, China was the world's most advanced civilization, and the cultural center of East Asia, with an impact lasting to the present day. China is also the source of many great technical inventions developed throughout world history, including the four great inventions of ancient China: Paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.

china map


China was one of the earliest centers of human civilization. Chinese civilization was also one of the few to invent writing independently, the others being ancient Mesopotamia (Sumerians), Ancient India (Indus Valley Civilization), the Mayan Civilization, and Ancient Egypt. The Chinese script is still used today by the Chinese and Japanese, and to a lesser extent by Koreans and Vietnamese. This script is one of the few, and the only major, logographic script still used in the world.


Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest occupants in China date to as long as 2.24 million to 250,000 years ago by an ancient human relative (hominin) known as Homo erectus. One particular cave in Zhoukoudian (near current-day Beijing) has fossilized evidence that current dating techniques put at somewhere between 300,000 and 550,000 years old. Evidence of primitive stone tool technology and animal bones associated with H. erectus have been studied since the late 18th to 19th centuries in various areas of Eastern Asia including Indonesia (in particular Java) and Malaysia. It is thought that these early hominids first evolved in Africa during the Pleistocene epoch. By 2 million years ago, the first migration wave of H. erectus settled throughout the Old World.
Fully modern humans (Homo sapiens) are believed to originally have evolved between roughly 200,000 and 168,000 years ago in the area of Ethiopia or Southern Africa (Homo sapiens idaltu). By 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, modern human beings had settled in all parts of the Old World (25,000 to 11,000 BCE in the New World). In the last 100,000 years, all proto-human populations disappeared as modern humans took over or drove other human species into extinction.
The earliest evidence of fully modern humans in China comes from Liujiang County, Guangxi, where a cranium has been found and dated to approximately 67,000 years ago. Although much controversy persists over the dating of the Liujiang remains, there is a partial skeleton from Minatogawa in Okinawa, that has been radiocarbon dated to 18,250 ±650 to 16,600 ±300 years BP, which implies that modern humans must have reached China before that time.

Dynastic rule

The first dynasty according to Chinese sources was the Xia Dynasty, but it was believed to be mythical until scientific excavations were made at early bronze-age sites at Erlitou in Henan Province. Since then, archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the possible existence of the Xia dynasty at the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts.
The first reliable historical dynasty is the Shang, which settled along the Yellow River in eastern China from the 18th to the 12th century BCE. The Shang were invaded from the west by the Zhou who ruled from the 12th to the 5th century BCE. The centralized authority of the Zhou was slowly eroded by warlords. In the Spring and Autumn period there were many strong, independent states continually warring with each other, who deferred to the Zhou state in name only. The first unified Chinese state was established by the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE, when the office of the emperor was set up. This state did not last long, as its legalist approach to control soon led to widespread rebellion.
The Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BCE until 220 CE. Another period of disunion followed. In 580 CE, China was reunited under the Sui. Under the succeeding Tang and Song dynasties, China had its golden age. Between the 7th and 14th centuries, China was one of the most advanced civilizations in the world in technology, literature, and art, although change was gradual. In 1271, Mongol leader Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty, with the last remnant of the Song Dynasty falling to the Yuan in 1279. A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Mongols in 1368 and founded the Ming Dynasty, which lasted until 1644. The Manchu-founded Qing Dynasty, which lasted until the overthrow of Puyi in 1911, was the final dynasty of China.
Regime change was often violent and the new ruling class usually needed to take special measures to ensure the loyalty of the overthrown dynasty. For example, after the Manchus conquered China, the Manchu rulers put into effect measures aimed at subduing the Han Chinese identity, such as the requirement for the Han Chinese to wear the Manchu hairstyle, the queue.
In the 18th century, China achieved a decisive technological advantage over the peoples of Central Asia, with which it had been at war for several centuries, while simultaneously falling behind Europe.
In the 19th century China adopted a defensive posture towards European imperialism, even though it engaged in imperialistic expansion into Central Asia itself. At this time China awoke to the significance of the rest of the world, in particular the West. As China opened up to foreign trade and missionary activity opium became available. Two Opium Wars with Britain weakened the Emperor's control. One result was the Taiping Civil War which lasted from 1851 to 1862. It was started by Hong Xiuquan, who was partly influenced by Christianity and believed himself the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus. Although the imperial forces were eventually victorious, the civil war was one of the bloodiest in human history, costing at least twenty million lives (more than the total number of fatalities in the First World War), with some estimates of over 30 million. The flow of opium led to more decline, even in the face of noble efforts by missionaries such as Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission to stem the tide. Further destruction followed the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 which aimed to repel Westerners. Although secretly supporting the rebels, Empress Ci Xi publicly aided foreign forces suppressing the uprising. In the end the Boxers were defeated by the Eight-Nation Alliance.

Republican China

On January 1, 1912, the Republic of China was established, ending the Qing Dynasty. Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party), was proclaimed provisional president of the republic. However, Yuan Shikai, a former Qing general who had defected to the revolutionary cause, soon forced Sun to step aside and took the presidency for himself. Yuan then attempted to have himself proclaimed emperor of a new dynasty; however, he died of natural causes before fully taking power over all of the Chinese empire.
After Yuan Shikai's death, China was politically fragmented, with an internationally-recognized, but virtually powerless, national government seated in Beijing. Warlords in various regions exercised actual control over their respective territories. In the late 1920s, the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek, was able to reunify the country under its own control, moving the nation's capital to Nanjing and implementing "political tutelage", an intermediate stage of political development outlined in Sun Yat-sen's program for transforming China into a modern, democratic state. Effectively, political tutelage meant one-party rule by the Kuomintang.
The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (part of World War II) forced an uneasy alliance between the Nationalists and the Communists. With the surrender of Japan in 1945, China emerged victorious but financially drained. The continued distrust between the Nationalists and the Communists led to the resumption of the Chinese Civil War.

People's Republic of China

After its victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Communist Party of China controlled most of Mainland China. On October 1, 1949, they established the People's Republic of China. Post-1978 reforms on the mainland have led to some relaxation of the control over many areas of society. In 1997 Hong Kong was returned to the PRC by the United Kingdom and in 1999 Macao was returned by Portugal.



Top-level political divisions of China have altered as administrations changed. Top levels included circuits and provinces. Below that, there have been prefectures, subprefectures, departments, commanderies, districts, and counties. Recent divisions also include prefecture-level cities, county-level cities, towns and townships.

Most Chinese dynasties were based in the historical heartlands of China, known as China proper. Various dynasties also expanded into peripheral territories like Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The Manchu-established Qing Dynasty and its successors, the ROC and the PRC, incorporated these territories into China. China proper is generally thought to be bounded by the Great Wall and the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Manchuria and Inner Mongolia are found to the north of the Great Wall of China, and the boundary between them can either be taken as the present border between Inner Mongolia and the northeast Chinese provinces, or the more historic border of the World War II-era puppet state of Manchukuo. Xinjiang's borders correspond to today's administrative Xinjiang. Historic Tibet occupies all of the Tibetan Plateau. China is traditionally divided into Northern China and Southern China, the boundary being the Huai River and Qinling Mountains.

great wall




Most languages in China belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family, spoken by 29 ethnicities. There are also several major "dialects" within the Chinese language itself. The most spoken dialects are Mandarin (spoken by over 70% of the population), Wu (Shanghainese), Yue (Cantonese), Min, Xiang, Gan, and Hakka. Non-Sinitic languages spoken widely by ethnic minorities include Zhuang (Thai), Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur (Turkic), Hmong and Korean.
Putonghua (Standard Mandarin, literally Common Speech) is the official language and is based on the Beijing dialect of the Mandarin group of dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China. Standard Mandarin is the medium of instruction in education and is taught in all schools. It is the language used in the media, for formal purposes, and by the government. Non-Sinitic languages are co-official in some autonomic minority regions.
"Vernacular Chinese" or "baihua" is the written standard based on the Mandarin dialect which has been in use since the early 20th century. An older written standard, Classical Chinese, was used by literati for thousands of years before the 20th century. Classical Chinese is still a part of the high school curriculum and is thus intelligible to some degree to many Chinese. Spoken variants other than Standard Mandarin are usually not written, except for Standard Cantonese (see Written Cantonese) which is sometimes used in informal contexts.
Chinese banknotes are multilingual and contain written scripts for Standard Mandarin (Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin), Zhuang (Roman alphabet), Tibetan (Tibetan alphabet), Uyghur (Arabic alphabet) and Mongolian (traditional Mongolian alphabet).


Over 59% of the mainland Chinese from the People's Republic of China (PRC), or about 767 million people, identify themselves as non-religious or atheist. However, religion and rituals play a significant part in the lives of many in the PRC, especially the traditional beliefs of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. About 33% of the population in the PRC follow a mixture of beliefs usually referred to by statisticians as "Traditional Beliefs," "Ancient Chinese Beliefs," or just "Other".
The People's Republic of China (PRC) is officially secular and atheist but it does allow personal religion or supervised religious organization. Taoism and Buddhism, along with an underlying Confucian morality, have been the dominant religions of Chinese society for almost two millennia. Personal religion is widely tolerated in the PRC today, so there has been a resurrection of interest in Buddhism and Taoism in the past decade. Among the younger, urban secular population, Taoist spiritual ideas of Feng Shui have become popular in recent years, spawning a large home decoration market in China.


Confucianism was the official philosophy throughout most of Imperial China's history, and mastery of Confucian texts was the primary criterion for entry into the imperial bureaucracy. The literary emphasis of the exams affected the general perception of cultural refinement in China, e.g. the view that calligraphy was a higher art form than painting or drama. China's traditional values were derived from various versions of Confucianism and conservatism. A number of more authoritarian strains of thought have also been influential, such as Legalism. There was often conflict between the philosophies, such as the individualistic Song Dynasty neo-Confucians, who believed Legalism departed from the original spirit of Confucianism. Examinations and a culture of merit remain greatly valued in China today. In recent years, a number of New Confucians have advocated that democratic ideals and human rights are quite compatible with traditional Confucian "Asian values".
With the rise of Western economic and military power beginning in the mid-19th century, non-Chinese systems of social and political organization gained adherents in China. Some of these would-be reformers totally rejected China's cultural legacy, while others sought to combine the strengths of Chinese and Western cultures. In essence, the history of 20th century China is one of experimentation with new systems of social, political, and economic organization that would allow for the reintegration of the nation in the wake of dynastic collapse.
The first leaders of the PRC were born in the old society but were influenced by the May Fourth Movement and reformist ideals. They sought to change some traditional aspects of Chinese culture, such as rural land tenure, sexism, and Confucian education, while preserving others, such as the family structure and obedience to the state. Many observers believe that the period following 1949 is a continuation of traditional Chinese dynastic history, while others say that the CPC's rule has damaged the foundations of Chinese culture, especially through political movements such as the Cultural Revolution, where many aspects of traditional culture were labeled "regressive and harmful" or "vestiges of feudalism" by the regime. They further argue that many important aspects of traditional Chinese morals and culture, such as Confucianism, Chinese art, literature, and performing arts like Beijing opera, were altered to conform to government policies and communist propaganda. The institution of the Simplified Chinese orthography reform is controversial as well. Today, the PRC government has accepted much of traditional Chinese culture as an integral part of Chinese society, lauding it as an important achievement of the Chinese civilization and emphasizing it as being vital to the formation of a Chinese national identity.
Rice is very important in Chinese culture. Not only is it the main part of the diet, but many Chinese myths and parables involve rice. Rice is the major grain crop in China, grown mainly in the Yangtze River valley and southern China, and on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. China produces and consumes more rice than any other country. Some archeologists theorize that rice cultivation originated in China. From 1981 to 1995, China sent 7,409 native rice varieties and 35 wild rice samples to the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI’s) International Rice Germplasm Center. In the same period, IRRI sent China 21,169 samples of cultivated rices and 1,565 samples of wild rices.

Arts, scholarship, and literature

Chinese characters have had many variants and styles throughout Chinese history. Tens of thousands of ancient written documents are still extant, from Oracle bones to Qing edicts. Calligraphy is a major art form in China, more highly regarded than painting and music. Manuscripts of the Classics and religious texts (mainly Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist) were handwritten by ink brush. Calligraphy later became commercialized, and works by famous artists became prized possessions.
Printmaking was developed during the Song Dynasty. Academies of scholars sponsored by the empire were formed to comment on the classics in both printed and handwritten form. Royalty frequently participated in these discussions.
For centuries, economic and social advancement in China could be provided by high performance on the imperial examinations. This led to a meritocracy, although it was available only to males who could afford test preparation. Imperial examinations required applicants to write essays and demonstrate mastery of the Confucian classics. Those who passed the highest level of the exam became elite scholar-officials known as jinshi, a highly esteemed socio-economic position.
Chinese philosophers, writers, and poets were highly respected, and played key roles in preserving and promoting the culture of the empire. Some classical scholars, however, were noted for their daring depictions of the lives of the common people, often to the displeasure of authorities.
The Chinese invented numerous musical instruments, such as the zheng (zither with movable bridges), qin (bridgeless zither), sheng (free reed), xiao (end blown flute) and adopted and developed others such the erhu (bowed lute) and pipa (plucked lute), many of which have later spread throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia, particularly to Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Sports and recreation

There is evidence that a form of football (i.e. soccer) was first played in China around 1000 CE, leading many historians to believe that it originated there. Professional football is still in its developmental stages, owing a kickstart to the recent formation of the Chinese Super League. Besides football, the most popular sports are martial arts, table tennis, badminton and more recently, golf. Basketball is especially popular with the young, in urban centers where space is limited.
There are also many traditional sports. Chinese dragon boat racing occurs during the Duan Wu festival. In Inner Mongolia, Mongolian-style wrestling and horse racing are popular. In Tibet, archery and equestrian sports are part of traditional festivals.
China has become a sports power in the Asian region and around the world. China finished first in medal counts in each of the Asian Games since 1982, and in the top four in medal counts in each of the Summer Olympic Games since 1992. The 2008 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, will be held in Beijing, China.
Physical fitness is highly regarded. Morning exercises are a common activity and the elderly are often seen practicing qigong in parks.

Board games such as International Chess, Go (Weiqi), and Xiangqi (Chinese chess) are also common and have organised formal competitions.
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