PWD Register

The Chinese claim a history of 5000 years. The first dynasty, the Xia, is yet to be archaeologically verified but is accepted as lasting from 2200 to 1700 BC, and is described in legends as having been preceded by a succession of god-like sovereigns who bestowed the gifts of life, hunting and agricultural knowledge. The existence of ensuing dynasties is similarly hazy, but clarity increases with each era, revealing agricultural societies who practised ancestor worship.

The Zhou period (1100-221 BC) saw the emergence of Confucianism and the establishment of the 'mandate of heaven' whereby the right to rule was given to the just and denied to the evil and corrupt, leading to the later Taoist view that heaven's disapproval was expressed through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and insect plagues.

The Chinese were united for the first time during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The dynasty standardised the writing system and completed construction of the Great Wall. The ensuing Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) featured much military conflict and the creation of the Three Kingdoms. Curiously, these war-torn centuries also saw the flowering of Buddhism and the arts.

Unity arose out of the chaos under the Sui dynasty (581-618) and was consolidated under the Tang (618-907), commonly regarded as the most glorious period of Chinese history. Military conquests re-established Chinese control of the silk routes and society was 'internationalised' to an unprecedented degree. Buddhism flourished under the Tang, splitting into two distinct schools: the Chan (Zen) and Pure Land (Chinese Buddhist).

The Song dynasty (960-1279) was marked by a revival of Confucianism and urban and commercial revolutions - it was during the 13th century that Marco Polo commented on the grand scale of China's prosperous cities. Genghis's grandson Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) established a capital at what is now Beijing and militarised the nation's administration. The novice Buddhist Hongwu established the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), with capitals at Beijing ('Northern Capital') and Nanjing ('Southern Capital') .

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in China, anchoring off the coast in 1516. A trade mission was established in Macau by 1557, but it was not until 1760 that other powers gained secure access to Chinese markets via a base in Guangzhou. Trade flourished, but in China's favour, as British purchases of silk and tea far outweighed Chinese purchases of wool and spices. In 1773 the British decided to balance the books by encouraging the sale of opium. By 1840 the Opium Wars were on.

The resulting treaties signed in British favour led to the cession of Hong Kong and the signing of the humiliating Treaty of Nanking. A subsequent land-grabbing spree by Western powers saw China carved up into spheres of influence. The Chinese agreed to the US-proposed free-trade Open Door Policy and all of China's colonial possessions soon evaporated, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia falling to the French, Burma to the British, and Korea and Taiwan to Japan.
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