In the study of early man, the discovery in China of the so-called ‘Peking Man’ was a seminal moment in archaeology. Homo Erectus finds in China have been dated to an antiquity of well over a million years, and include the earliest known use of fire. Much debate, however, still surrounds whether these early peoples are at all related to modern Chinese.

The earliest known remains of China’s Neolithic past dates to around 10,000 BC, with evidence of farming first appearing at around 7,000 BC. Some one thousand years later the first evidence of written language emerges in the form of over 8,000 distinct carved pictograms, thought to be the prototype of modern Chinese calligraphy.

Several early cultures are known to have superseded each other in the area around the Yellow River, before the emergence of written history and the long succession of illustrious dynasties, so characteristic of much of China’s history.


Regarded by some as mythological, the first dynasty is recorded as the Xia, and said to have reigned from 2,100 – 1,600 BC, though contention still exists about the accuracy of the first written attempts of later Chinese scholars to give an ordered account of their past, and the archaeological record remains inconclusive.

Although archaeologically corroborated, little is known of the superseding Shang Dynasty (1,600 – 1,046 BC) and its 31 kings, but it was with the ascension of the Zhou (1,046 – 256 BC), China’s most enduring dynasty, that many of the concepts and philosophical foundations by which future governance would develop arose, including the hugely influential schools of Taoism and Confucianism.

From the middle period of its reign, Zhou control of the country became increasingly fractious, with power devolving to hundreds of local leaders who began to foster lofty ambitions of their own through conflict. Over time the warring factions were exhaustively whittled down to seven major states, before the eventual triumph of Qin Shi Huang, who became China’s first Emperor in 221 BC.


It is difficult to apprehend the sheer presence and egotism of Qin Shi Huang, whose building ambition dwarfs even the reputation of Ramesses the Great of Egypt, a realisation which emerged following the discovery of the terracotta army in 1974, itself but a small component of a city sized mausoleum.  

Though he reigned for only 12 years, he enlarged Chinese territory and inaugurated the construction of the Great Wall and Lingqu canal. He also presided over the centralisation of government and the development of its language, legal, measurement and currency systems, all reinforced by a rigorous social control, exemplified by the infamous book burning which destroyed almost all the entire vast treasury of ancient literature in China. 

460 scholars were buried alive merely for possession of the offending tomes, but mercifully, the priceless treasures of the I Ching, Taoist poetry and the Analects of Confucius survived the wanton destruction.

Following a period of civil war, the Qin were succeeded by the Han Dynasty, who ruled until AD 220, consolidating the concept of Empire upon Confucian principles. It was during this period that the famous ‘silk road’ established trading links with the west, through which Buddhism, another hugely influential component of the development of Chinese culture, arrived.

The succeeding Wei Dynasty was unable to exert influence over all China, which subsequently broke into 3 rival kingdoms. In AD 280 The Jin Dynasty briefly reunified the land but the period was riven with many ethnic uprisings, which would eventuate in the separation in AD 420 of northern and southern China, each with its own rulership.  

In the southern Kingdom much internal debate around the rising presence of Buddhism was resolved and following the reunification of China under the Sui Dynasty in AD 589, Buddhism was eventually officially recognised and supported.

Following financial collapse in AD 618, the Tang dynasty, founded by Emperor Gaozu, would see Buddhism become the most commonly practised belief and under this influence, poetry and art flourished. This prosperous era was driven by widespread trade and relatively equitable government, and is regarded as one of the golden ages in Chinese cultural achievement. The dynasty would also produce China’s only female Emperor, Wu Zetian.

In the later Tang period, a weakening of equality would foster a series of rebellions from both inside China and its vassal states, which would erode political harmony and culminate yet again in the break-up of China during the period known as the Ten Kingdoms (AD 907 – 960), following which power was contested principally between the Song and Jin Dynasties until the historically mighty figure of Gengis Khan ominously appeared at the Chinese border intent on invasion in 1205.

Defeating first the Jin and later the Song, the conquest of China by the Mongols was completed in 1279, whereupon the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of Kublai Khan, grandson of the conqueror, was established. 

During the war the appearance of another of history’s most remembered figures, Marco Polo, would bring China’s existence to the attention of the Europeans. Like Europe, China at this time also fell victim to plague, which decimated almost a third of its population.

Fed up of disease and foreign rule, the Chinese had begun to rebel against their Mongol masters, and the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown in 1368 with the ascendancy of one of China’s most famed periods of rule, the Ming Dynasty. Even today, artefacts reflecting the ceramic innovations from the Ming Dynasty command great revere and high value in global auction rooms, and assure the Dynasty’s status in history.

Despite the prevailing antipathy to foreigners, the early Ming period saw a flourishing of international trade, with the income used to fund a new navy, large standing army and extraordinary building achievements, such as the enhancement and extensive repair of the Great Wall, which was completed during this era, as was work on the Forbidden City in Beijing, attaining the form we see today.

During the Ming Dynasty, one of the worst recorded fatalities ever produced by an earthquake occurred in 1556, killing an estimated 830,000 citizens in the area of Shaanxi. Militarily, the dynasty continued to be harassed by its Mongol neighbours, and successfully defeated threats from the Portuguese in 1521 and 1522 and the Dutch in 1622-1624 and again in 1633.

From 1618, the Manchu tribes began to war with the government, and, in 1664, the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the peasant’s revolt, led by Li Zicheng, whose capture of Beijing precipitated the suicide of the last Ming Emperor, Chongzhen.

The Manchu Qing Dynasty completed its conquest of all Chinese territory by 1683, and additionally absorbed Tibet and Mongolia into Chinese rule, setting the geographical foundations of the China we know today. At its zenith, the Qing Dynasty had made China the world’s largest ever empire, ruling over a third of the world’s population, but this mighty civilisation would soon come under threat from the increasing European takeover of the east, particularly from the British, culminating in the eventual defeat of the Chinese in the first Opium War of 1840.

The treaty of Nanking, in 1842, resulted in the ceding of Hong Kong to the British and the Chinese forced to import opium for British profit, with incalculably destructive effects on the Chinese population, which surely ranks amongst the most pernicious of colonial crimes.

The gradual corrosion of Chinese society from widespread drug addiction, imposed foreign trade agreements, internal corruption, warring strife among the ruling elite and numerous suppressed rebellions weakened China’s former military stature, a decline in status exemplified by their defeat in the first Japanese War during 1894-1895.


The eventual overthrow of the weakened Qing Dynasty began in 1911, when the Wuchang uprising began in Wuhan and seized control of the country, declaring the Republic of China at Nanjing on the 12th of March, 1912, ending the great two thousand year period of imperial history, in which Sun Yat-Sen became the new leader, titled as China’s first President.

The promise held up by the new republic, however, fell into quick disarray when the President was forced to hand power to the chief of the new army, Yuan Shikai, who audaciously declared himself Emperor in 1915, a move which fuelled so much antipathy that he himself was forced to abdicate in 1916, dying in the following year, and leading to a fractious era of rule by competing warlords and uneasy coalitions.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had a profound effect on the aspirations of many to create a new model for society all over the world, including in the far east and, by 1920, the former President Sun Yat-Sen had established a nationalist revolutionary movement with help from the newly created Soviet Union, uniting with the emerging Chinese Communist Party in Southern China.

After Sun Yat-Sen’s death in 1925, his protégé, Chiang Kai Chek, took over the Nationalist helm and militarily overcame opposition in southern China. After forming an alliance with northern warlords in 1927, he then turned on the communists, and with his forces in the ascendancy, Chiang Kai Shek was free to form a government.

With the Japanese Empire's seizure of Manchuria in 1931, the Chinese hatred of the invaders put pressure on the government to unify with the communists, but the civil war between the parties continued. The communists were brought to the brink of collapse in 1934, when they escaped an encirclement by government armies and retreated to the province of Shaanxi during the period of the ‘Long March’, in which the future communist icon Mao Tse Tung began to emerge within the leadership of the diminished forces.

The continuing occupation of Chinese land by the Japanese led to a mutiny within Chiang Kai Shek’s government, forcing him in to an uneasy alliance with the communists against the foreign invaders, and it was during this struggle against a common enemy that communist forces began to reinvigorate their weakened position.

As the Japanese occupation became subsumed into the greater conflict of World War II, struggles between the nationalists and communists increased in frequency, with Mao Tse Tung using the period to hone his leadership skills and develop his plan for a future Chinese society. His efforts against the Japanese won him much admiration and support among the many millions of Chinese citizens whose sufferings were not adequately addressed by the government.

At the end of the war, under international agreement, Soviet forces entered Manchuria to bring a formal end to the Japanese occupation, during which Mao’s communists were able to secure much of the abandoned military hardware. With common purpose between opposing Chinese factions no longer relevant, attempts at peace between the two sides quickly collapsed and a full scale unfettered civil war erupted.

During the ensuing battles, resulting in great loss of life, the tide would eventually turn in the communists favour, aided ultimately by the populist appeal of a 'better life', which assured the Liberation Army of ample recruits. 


The war culminated in 1949, when Mao’s forces overcame the government capital, Nanjing and declared the Peoples Republic of China. Chiang Kai Chek’s forces retreated to Taiwan, where they were spared complete annihilation only by the advent of the Korean War in 1950, in which the United States of America prevented a Chinese invasion of the island, which remains still outwith China's control and a bone of contention with the Chinese government to this day.

In Mao’s subsequent efforts to transform Chinese society, an estimated 45 million people would die as a result of the new economic policies, known paradoxically as the ‘Great Leap Forward’, many millions of whom were executed. The economic failure would lead to Mao stepping down from the leadership in 1959, to be succeeded by Lui Shaoqi, though he retained Chairmanship of the ruling Communist Party.

In 1966, Mao reassumed power and initiated the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and began another deathly purge aimed at the ‘purification’ of the party to his ideology. It was during this period that the propagandist cult of Mao emerged to the full, with the production of the ‘Little Red Book’, bestowing upon Mao an almost God-like status.

With China in a state of international isolation, Mao sought closer relations with the United States of America and, following a meeting with US President Nixon, was admitted into the United Nations in 1972.

With the death of Mao in 1976, a struggle for power ensued, during which Deng Xiaoping emerged as leader, a position he would hold until 1992, instituting a period of economic reforms, which began to ‘soften’ towards free market economics. In 1997 Hong Kong was returned to China, and together with the emerging economic zone of Shanghai, propelled the Chinese economy into the modern world.

During this period, the anti-corruption protest of 1989 in Tiananmen Square was famously and ruthlessly suppressed but, despite this, China continued with its reforms, and joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

As everyone knows, China’s rapid expansion and transformation into a global economic superpower is evident everywhere, with many of the world’s major products being produced in the country. Although political ‘freedom’ still eludes its citizens, the liberal materialism that the population enjoy has thus far prevented a repeat of the 1989 uprising, though in Hong Kong, unrest over political control remains uncomfortable and has to be deftly handled.

Certainly, despite the sophisticated control of the Communist Party, China’s long history of uprisings and strife may once again come to the fore, with plenty of ethnic and political tensions simmering beneath the glossy surface of China’s modern facade. It is also true, as elsewhere in the world, that free market economic inequality within the population has undermined the values which brought the party to such power, and is further exacerbated by the marked regional differentials in income potential.

In China’s drive for world economic dominance, however, perhaps the greatest threats to China’s ambition are the lack of transparency in its economic structure and the serious environmental consequences of such staggering development, a problem the government increasingly has to recognise along with the rest of the world, which likewise faces incalculable perils.