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China is one of the world's oldest continuous civilisations. Its history is marked by many dynasties, civil wars and foreign invasions.
The traditional history of China extends back 5,000 years to the third century BC, when the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors were said to have ruled over the land in a time of peace. This period was followed by the Xia Dynasty, which lasted for approximately four and a half centuries. From an archaeological point of view, practically nothing is know about either of these periods. There is, however, archaeological evidence confirming traditional Chinese histories of the Shang Dynasty, which followed the Xia period.
The Shang kingdom was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty in either 1050 BC or 1122 BC. During the Zhou period, 7 different states sprang up, who fought against each other for supremacy in 260 years known as the Period of the Warring States. Ultimately, it was the Qin Dynasty which triumphed, marking the beginning of the Chinese Empire.
The Qin Dynasty can be credited with two of China's most famous attractions: it was Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi who was buried with the Terracotta Army, and it was during the Qin period that the building of the Great Wall was commenced.
Many different dynasties gained power during China's Imperial era. China was divided during the time of the Southern and Northern Dynasties, reunited under the Sui Dynasty, divided again in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, overrun by the Mongol Empire (the Yuan Dynasty) and restored under local rule by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. The Ming Dynasty was the last Han Chinese dynasty, replaced by the Manchurians who started the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The Qing dynasty lost official political control in 1911. The Qing Emperor was a figure head in government until 1944. Its final years are depicted by the movie The Last Emperor.
From the late 19th century through to the early 20th century, a revolutionary movement inspired by Dr. Sun Yat-sen emerged, eventually leading to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. Sun Yat-sen was president for just four months, and he was followed by Yuan Shikai, who ruled until 1916 more as warlord then a president. Following his death, China became fragmented. Sun Yat-sen struggled to unite the country in 1920, but his death five years later saw his followers split into two rival factions: the Nationalists also known as the Kuomintang (Guomingdan) led by Chiang Kai-shek and later the Communists, who were led by Mao Zedong after 1934. The Nationalists and Communists fought bitterly, even throughout the Japanese occupation from 1931 to 1945. In 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communists had secured most of China, and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China, even though not all the fighting was over yet.
The early years of communist rule were very hectic. The first move by the central government was to purge the population of potential sympathizers to the old government. The official number is 700,000 people were executed during the purges. Most historians estimate a much higher number around 1 or 2 million people. Then central government created several disastrous programs ranging from political to science. In 1957, the government started the 100 Flowers Campaign, which proclaimed "free speech." Slowly people started to speak more freely than the central government liked. In response the government punished thousands of people.
In 1958, Mao initiated what may be one of the darkest periods in human history, perversely called the Great Leap Forward. The plan behind the Great Leap Forward was to produce steel in backyard furnaces in order to compete with the USA. Towns were given quotas to fill and people started to work. In order to fill the quotas farmers stopped working in the fields; even worse still, they melted down their tools and cooking equipment to meet the steel demands of the central government. No one spoke up because of what happened to people during the 100 Flowers Campaign. This result was the worse famine in human history, and the only famine not caused by a war or a natural event. Anywhere between 14 and 43 million people died during the Great Leap Forward before it was brought to an end in 1960. It also stripped most of Eastern China of all its forests.
It looked like after the failure and misery of the Great Leap Forward that Mao would be forced to step down. Slowly he was being pushed from power by rising stars like Deng Xiaoping. Mao moved himself back into power by declaring the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 after following the lead of some students and Beijing University. The cultural revolution was Mao's attempt to continue the communist revolution. The youth were encouraged to join the Red Guards, a military like organization. The red guards went into cities and villages denouncing, torturing and humiliating millions of people that did not hold up their ideals of communism. Their main targets were academics, small business owners, decedents of landlords, artists, religious and local leaders. The effect of the red guards was felt in every part of China, especially in major cities with academic centers and minority areas with large religious populations.
All towns were forced to construct a Red Hall. The red halls were a public meeting place where people could come together and denounce their neighbors. They also confiscated or destroyed any cultural relic that they could get their hands on. The only reason why some major sights, like the Forbidden City and the Potala Palace, were protected was because Zhou Enlai sent his own personal troops to guard them. Some historians blame the insanity of the cultural revolution on Mao's advancing Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's Disease, which started in the mid 1950s. The terror of the red guards continued until Mao's death on September 2nd 1976, although the last years of the cultural revolution where not as intense as the first.
Mao Zedong remained the leader of the People's Republic of China (hereafter, China) until his death, which initiated a power struggle, eventually won by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. Deng introduced some economic reforms which sparked the modernisation process in China. His reforms were criticised by both the conservatives and the liberals. It was the latter group which led the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, protests which saw China's reputation in the world plummet.
A third generation of leadership took over after 1989, and it continued to focus on economic growth and not on liberalizing the government. Since then, China has emerged as a global superpower, with a population of over 1.3 billion people. In 2008, it hosted the Olympic Games in Beijing. The dragon continues to grow every year but no one really knows where it is going.
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