East Asia: China

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE In ancient times, China had been open to attack from nomadic horsemen who roamed the plains of northern China and Mongolia. Around 220 B.C., the emperor Shi Huangdi decided to build the Great Wall of China by closing the gaps between smaller walls built by earlier rulers. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were used as forced labor to build the Great Wall. The workers hauled and dumped millions of tons of rubble to fill the core of the wall. From the Yellow Sea in the east to the Gobi desert in the west, the Great Wall twisted and turned for thousands of miles, protecting and isolating China from the barbarian warriors beyond its borders.

China's Early History

China is the world's oldest continuous civilization. The beginnings of that civilization extend back into the mists of prehistory. Because of China's geography—the long distances that separated it from Europe and other continents—it followed its own direction.


China has been a settled society for more than 4,000 years. In its earliest days, China was made up of a number of Stone Age cultures. Then it was ruled by dynasties. A dynasty is a series of rulers from the same family. The first Chinese dynasty was the Shang. This dynasty arose during the 1700s B.C. It ruled a central area in China for about 600 years until it was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled part of northern China.

The next important dynasty, the Qin (chihn), gave its name to China. In 221 B.C., the Qin Dynasty united a number of smaller states under a strong central government and established an empire. The first Qin emperor was Shi Huangdi, the builder of the Great Wall. The Chinese empire, ruled by different dynasties, lasted for more than 2,000 years.

Another important Chinese dynasty was that of the Han. These rulers pushed the empire into central Asia, home to many nomadic tribes. Many other dynasties followed over the centuries.

In 1644, the Manchu people of Manchuria invaded China and established the Qing (chihng) Dynasty. In 1911, the Manchus were overthrown by revolutionaries, and this ended the dynasties and the Chinese empire.

China Opens Up to the World

Even though China remained isolated from other regions for centuries, that started to change in the 13th century. At that time, European travelers began to visit China. Marco Polo, for example, traveled from Venice, Italy, to China in the 13th century and wrote a book about his adventures, The Travels of Marco Polo.

China and Europe had few contacts until the 19th century, when European powers sought access to Chinese markets. At that point, China had a weak military and an ineffective government. Europeans took advantage of China and forced it to sign a series of treaties that granted special privileges to the Europeans. Consequently, China was carved up into spheres of influence controlled by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan. This outside control angered China, which burst forth in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Chinese militants attacked and killed Europeans and Chinese Christians in China. A multinational force of about 20,000 soldiers finally defeated the Boxers.


After the Boxer Rebellion, the Qing Dynasty, founded by the Manchus, attempted to reform the Chinese government, but it was too late. Many individuals and groups wanted to form a republic, which would give the people a voice in their government.

In 1912, Sun Yat-sen and others founded the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. However, the republic, led by Sun Yat-sen, was undermined by civil war throughout China.

When Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, a general named Chiang Kai-shek took over the Nationalist Party. Chiang's troops fought against the warlords of China and united most of the country in the 1920s. However, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party became an increasingly powerful force in China.

The Nationalists and the Communists fought for control of China. In 1949, the Communists, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, finally defeated the Nationalists. Mao and the Communists ruled mainland China (now called The People's Republic of China) from Beijing. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan.

After Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, a moderate, became China's most powerful leader through the 1980s. In 2003, Hu Jintao became president and Wen Jiabao became premier. Premier Jiabao took responsiblity for overseeing China's economic reforms.

Rural and Industrial Economies

When the Communist Party came to power in China in 1949, its leaders promised to modernize China by encouraging the growth of industry.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the central government tried to do this by planning all economic activities. That approach led to more failures than successes. Since the 1980s, though, China has allowed the marketplace and the consumer to play a role in the economy. As a result, China now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.


In spite of this economic growth, China remains a largely rural society, self-sufficient in agriculture. Its great river valleys provide rich soil for crops such as rice to feed the vast population. Most of China's workers—about 60 percent—work on farms.

Farming is possible only on about 13 percent of China's land because so much of western China is made up of mountains and deserts. Even so, China manages to grow enough food to feed its people. Much of the population is concentrated in the areas where food can be grown.

The eastern river basins of China produce crops such as rice, maize, wheat, and sweet potatoes. This productivity is aided by the long growing season in southern China. Farmers there can grow two or more crops on the same land during each year.


The industrial heartland of China is in the northeast. Here are abundant resources important to manufacturing, such as coal, iron ore, and oil. In addition, the northeast has better transportation systems than the rest of the country.

Shanghai leads China as a center of manufacturing and is one of the great industrial centers in the world. Other Chinese cities with many factories and industries include Beijing and Tianjin. Southeastern China has industrial centers in Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuhan, and Wuxi.

China has developed heavy industries, such as steel and machinery. It also produces consumer goods. For example, the country has a huge textile (cloth) industry that produces goods for the home market and export. Many textiles are exported to the United States.

A Rich and Complex Culture

As the world's oldest civilization, China has one of the world's richest cultures. The country has highly developed art, architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, pottery, printing, music, and theater. In all these areas, the Chinese have made influential contributions to the cultures of Korea, Japan, and other countries in the region.


Some of the earliest Chinese works of art have been found in burial sites. Pottery, bronze vessels, and jade disks have been discovered in the excavation of old tombs. In addition, paintings have been found on tiles decorating the walls of tombs. Chinese artists created beautiful works using different materials, such as clay, bronze, jade, ivory, and lacquer.


The Chinese introduced many inventions to the world, such as paper, printing, and gunpowder. Other Chinese inventions include the compass, porcelain, and silk cloth.


China has three major religions or ethical traditions. The beliefs of most people include elements of all three. Those traditions have influenced beliefs throughout the region.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived from 551 to 479 B.C. He believed in respect for the past and for one's ancestors. He thought that in an orderly society, children should obey their parents and parents should obey the government and emperor. He stressed the importance of education in a well-run society. His thinking about the importance of order, education, and hierarchy in a well-ordered society is called Confucianism.

Taoism gets its name from a book called the Tao-te Ching, based on the teaching of Lao-tzu, who lived in the sixth century B.C. He believed in the importance of preserving and restoring harmony in the individual and in the universe. He also thought the government should leave the people alone and do as little as possible. Another of his major beliefs was that the individual should seek harmony with nature.

Buddhism came to China from India and grew into an important religion in China by the 300s A.D. Confucianism and Taoism influenced Buddhism as it developed in China. Among ideas important in Buddhism are rebirth and the end of the rebirth cycle.

The Most Populous Country

One out of every five people in the world lives in China. This makes it the most populous country in the world.


China's estimated population in the year 2000 was about 1.3 billion. Somewhere between 30 and 40 Chinese cities have populations of more than one million people. Many of China's 22 provinces have more people than entire countries. In the year 2000, Henan province was estimated to have a population of about 93 million people—more than the population of Great Britain.

Seventy percent of the people live in 12 provinces located in the east.  About 6 percent of the people live in the west on 55 percent of the land.


One of the great achievements of China since 1950 has been to provide health care for its enormous and far-flung population. The country has pursued a dual strategy in developing its health-care system.

On the one hand, people make use of traditional Chinese medicines, including herbal remedies. Acupuncture is another important part of Chinese medicine.

On the other hand, China's doctors also use Western medicine to treat disease. Western drugs and surgery have their place in the treatment of illness. Most Chinese cities have hospitals, and the villages have clinics staffed by trained medical workers called “barefoot doctors.”

In the next section, you will read about two of China's neighbors, Mongolia and Taiwan. China has greatly influenced both places.