Drug trafficking, foreign intrusions, rebellions, the collapse of the government, the splintering of the country, foreign invasion, war, war, and more war, famine, and finally, the collapse of society itself. What a chaotic and dramatic couple of centuries China endured! There is probably no other country on earth whose recent history can match China’s for tragedy and suffering.
Our brief, five-and-a-half minute video, “China: The Fall before the Rise,” provides a dynamic and engaging summary of China’s recent history, with a particular focus on the tragic fall China endured prior to the beginning of reform in 1980. We have also prepared a companion video that explains a few of the lessons about China that can be gleaned from China’s recent history.
Below is a brief description of each episode in Chinese history that our video covers. Simply reading through the list gives one a sense of the terrible tragedies China endured. For example, in a little over one century (1850-1970), China endured at least three episodes that resulted in the death of more than 20 million people (The Taiping Rebellion, The War Against Japan (WWII), and the famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward. The death toll from the Cultural Revolution may have also been 20 million, but estimates vary widely).
Manchus Invade China (The Qing Dynasty)
Tribes from the north invade and conquer China, beginning the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The Qing were Manchu, not ethnic Chinese, meaning that the Qing Dynasty was basically a foreign power that ruled China.
As trade with China grows, to counter balance Chinese exports, foreigners begin selling opium to the Chinese. China tries cracking down on drugs which leads to The First and Second Opium Wars, leading to Great Britain getting Hong Kong, among other losses for China.
Foreigner Take a Bite Out of China (foreign spheres of influence)
By force and threat, six foreign countries (Great Britain, America, Japan, France, Germany, and Russia) gain control of a part of China in which they set their own laws and have their own military. China is “carved up like a watermelon.”
Internal Rebellions (Taiping, White Lotus, Nian, etc.)
A series of rebellions took place, the three most serious occurring in different parts of the country from 1850-75. The largest, the Taiping rebellion, was led by man who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ. An estimated 20 million people die during the rebellion.
Boxer Rebellion (trying to throw the foreigners out)
The government can’t get rid of the foreigners so the people try. The foreigners win. The bullying continues. China is forced to agree to pay an indemnity equal to 180% of the government’s annual revenue at that time.
The Last Emperor and the Failure of Democracy
Weakened by foreign pressure and internal rebellion, the Qing Dynasty falls in 1912. The subsequent attempt at democracy is sloppy, chaotic, and short-lived. Military units mutiny. Provinces secede. In the blink of an eye, democracy in China dies as the country begins to break apart.
The Warlord Period
The power vacuum created by the fall of the Qing and the failure of democracy leads to military strongmen who could command an army taking power for themselves. In essence, China breaks into regions controlled by warlords.
The Japanese Invasion and War (WWII)
Japan became the bully that drove all other bullies out of China and tried to take the country all for itself. In the end Japan failed, but the death toll on the Chinese was brutal with more than 20 million dead.
After the end of WWII it was still left to be decided how China would be governed. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Party squared off in one final showdown which resulted in 6 million deaths and a victory for the CC.
All land and property are confiscated as the Communists takeover the country. One million die in skirmishes as landlords resist the communist reforms. Meanwhile intellectuals are warned and punished for speaking out.
The Great Leap Forward
Mao mobilized the masses in an attempt to modernize China’s economy at hyper speed. He ended up creating one of the greatest famines the world has ever seen. Plus the violence and oppression wrought to enforce the program was terrible. The death toll was huge, 20-40 million.
The Cultural Revolution
When Mao’s authority is challenged because of the Great Famine, he attempts to protect his power by turning the people against the people in what was essentially a government-sponsored journey into anarchy, chaos, bedlam and violence, all directed toward the goal of punishing those disloyal to “Mao Zedong Thought.” The country in essence ground to a halt. Schools closed. Government agencies stopped functioning. Death and suffering were everywhere.
If we went further back, five hundred years or more, we would see China as a great power—a leader in administration, science, etc.. But that isn’t China’s most recent history, and it is the most recent history that has the greater impact on the present. From the wreckage of China’s fall would come a new leader, with a new plan and a new path for China. That China had endured so much pain and fallen so low, makes its unlikely rise that much more amazing.