The Great Wall of China

More than 400 years ago, a Portuguese trader visited China and wrote a description of that country. He was overwhelmed by "the hugeness of the kingdom" and "the multitude of people." Almost everyone who has written about China since then has noted these same facts. China is the largest nation in Asia, the third largest in the world (exceeded in area only by Russia and Canada), and has more people than any other country. China's population is more than 1 billion, which means that more than one fifth of all the people on earth live in China.

If China's many people could be spread out over all parts of the country, they would not be especially crowded. But much of China is covered with high mountains, lofty plateaus, and desert, where the land is not suited to cultivation (farming), and relatively few people can live. Vast areas of China are almost empty of people, and one can travel for days without seeing signs of human life.

Most of the people in China live in the eastern part of the country, along the coast, on the plains, and in the basins drained by the great rivers. In contrast to other parts of China, the east teems with people, and almost every piece of usable land is under cultivation. The largest concentration of people is in the region that stretches north from the great Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) to Beijing (Peking), the capital. Here, in north China, Chinese civilization first began some 4,000 years ago.

Historical Background. For most of its long history, China was an empire, ruled by its emperors with the aid of a highly centralized government. Under the emperors there were periods of prosperity and good government, as well as times of economic want and political unrest. When the country's problems became too great, the people would revolt, and out of the civil strife would emerge a new emperor, who would found a new dynasty, or ruling house. This pattern of Chinese history is known as the dynastic cycle.

Altogether, there were 25 such dynasties. Some lasted for several centuries, while others held power for only a few decades or even less. China's first dynasty under a unified empire was the Qin (originally spelled Ch'in, from which the name "China" was derived), founded in 221 B.C. The last dynasty was the Qing (Ch'ing), also known as the Manchu, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, when it was overthrown by a revolution.

Between these eras, China underwent continuous expansion, grew into a great power, and developed a remarkable civilization. Early travelers to China from Europe discovered that the Chinese had invented gunpowder, the magnetic compass, paper, and printing long before these were known in the West.

China, however, had very little large-scale contact with Western nations until about the middle of the 1800s. This contact was not at first a happy one for China. The European nations were by now more powerful than China, in part because of their technological advancements. Seeking trade privileges and other concessions, they forcibly established themselves on Chinese territory.

The impact of the West was chiefly responsible for the weakening of the Chinese empire and the overthrow of its last dynasty. In its place the Chinese founded a republic in 1912. In 1949, following World War II and a bitter civil war, the republic was replaced by the Communist government that rules almost all of China today.


The constitution of the People's Republic of China states that China is a socialist nation, under the dictatorship of the working class. But it also says that the people must exercise their power through the Communist party. The National People's Congress, or legislature, does not really debate and decide issues. Mainly it listens to reports from Communist party leaders and approves what they have done. Under a new constitution adopted in 1982, a president serves as head of state.

From the founding of the People's Republic until his death in 1976, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) was chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Since 1982 the Central Committee has been headed by a general secretary. There are other important groups within the party. A politburo and its standing committee set broad guidelines that are put into effect by a secretariat. A military affairs committee directs the army, and an advisory commission advises party leaders.

While the Communist party of China makes all the major policy decisions, the day-to-day administration is in the hands of the government. The central government is run by the State Council, headed by a premier (prime minister). There are a number of ministries, which are similar to departments in the U.S. federal government. Below the central government in Beijing, there are 22 provinces and five autonomous regions, in addition to the three municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. The provinces and autonomous regions are further divided into many districts or counties, each of which has an administrative structure similar to the central government.

China Today
For more than a century China has been in a state of turmoil and change. It has been difficult for such an ancient civilization, long governed by tradition, to adjust to the new conditions of the modern world. The communist revolution was China's most recent effort to adjust to a changing world.

The Four Modernizations. While China under Mao Zedong had gone too far in trying to bring about change, China's new leaders followed a different road toward what they call the Four Modernizations. Their aim was to modernize agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. In order to achieve this, China began encouraging foreign investment and economic cooperation with other nations, even capitalist ones.

The Democracy Movement. But many younger Chinese also were calling for political reforms. In the spring of 1989, thousands of university students, joined by some workers, demonstrated in Beijing. For more than six weeks they occupied the capital's vast Tiananmen Square, demanding democracy and an end to corruption in government.

The students received support from Zhao Ziyang, the head of the Chinese Communist party. However, Deng Xiaoping and other government leaders saw the democracy movement as a threat to Chinese communism. Troops and tanks were called in to crush the demonstrations, killing hundreds of students. Zhao was removed from the leadership of the Communist party. Many protestors were later arrested and some were executed.

The use of brutal force by the Chinese communist leadership to suppress the democracy movement greatly damaged China's image abroad. Economic reforms continued, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union left China as the world's only communist superpower. Tensions between the mainland and Taiwan increased after a pro-independence candidate was elected president of Taiwan in 2000.

In November 2001, China was formally accepted into the World Trade Organization (WTO), pending ratification by the Chinese legislature.

Kenneth S. Cooper
George Peabody College, Vanderbilt University

Reviewed by C. T. Hu
Coauthor, China: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture

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