The history of Modern China is divided into two periods - 1911 to 1949 and from 1949 onwards. From 1911 to 1949, China was known as the Republic of China and the Nationalist Party Kuomintang (KMT) ruled the country. From 1949 onwards, China is officially known as the People's Republic of China under the Communist Party of China rule after the Communist division won against the Nationalist in the Civil War that lasted for 4 years from 1945 to 1949.

Many events were instrumental in shaping China to what it is today and some of the most important historical events are explained in the following sections.

1911: Xinhai Revolution.

The Republican revolution broke out on October 10, 1911, in Wuchang, the capital of Hubei Province, among discontented modernized army units whose anti-Qing plot had been uncovered. The revolt quickly spread to neighboring cities, and Tongmeng Hui members throughout the country rose in immediate support of the Wuchang revolutionary forces.

Xinhai Revolution in Shanghai

By late November, 15 of the 24 provinces had declared their independence of the Qing Empire. On January 1, 1912, Sun was inaugurated in Nanjing as the provisional president of the new Chinese republic. But power in Beijing had already passed to the commander-in-chief of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai, the strongest regional military leader at the time.

To prevent civil war and possible foreign intervention from undermining the infant republic, Sun agreed to Yuan's demand that China be united under a Beijing government headed by Yuan. On February 12, 1912, the last Manchu emperor abdicated. On March 10, in Beijing, Yuan Shikai was sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China.

1919: May 4th Movement

This "new culture" movement began in China around 1916, following the failure of the 1911 Revolution to establish a Republican government, and continued through the 1920s. Its importance equals, if not surpasses the more commonly known political revolutions of the century.

The movement articulated the contempt for traditional Chinese culture felt by many Chinese intellectuals. These intellectuals blamed traditional culture for the dramatic and rapid fall of China into a subordinate international position, and maintained that China's cultural values prevented China from matching the industrial and military development of Japan and the West.

The May 4th Movement takes its name from the massive popular protest that took place in China in May 1919, following the announcement of the terms of the Versailles Treaty that concluded WWI. According to the treaty, Germany's territorial rights in China were not returned to the Chinese, as had been expected, but were instead turned over to the Japanese. The outpouring of popular outrage coalesced in a new nationalism with repeated cries for a "new culture" that would reinstate China to its former international position. The way out of China's problems, many believed, was to adopt Western notions of equality and democracy and to abandon the Confucian approach that stressed hierarchy in relationships and obedience. Science and democracy became the code words of the day.

On the morning of May 4, 1919, student representatives from thirteen different local universities met in Peking and drafted five resolutions.

  1. Opposed the granting of Shandong to the Japanese under former German concessions.
  2. Draw awareness of China's precarious position to the masses in China.
  3. Recommend a large-scale gathering in Peking.
  4. Promote the creation of a Peking student union.
  5. Hold a demonstration that afternoon in protest to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles

On the afternoon of May 4th over 3000 students from Peking University and other schools gathered together in font of Tiananmen and held a demonstration. The general opinion was that the Chinese government was "spineless". They voiced their anger at the Allied betrayal of China and the government's inability to secure Chinese interests in the conference.

Students in Beijing as a whole went on strike, and students in other parts of the country responded one after another. From early June, in order to support the students' struggle, workers and businessmen in Shanghai also went on strike. The center of the movement moved from Beijing to Shanghai. In addition to students, a wide array of different groups also publicly displayed disagreement with the Chinese government.

Under intense public outcry, the Beiyang government had to release the arrested students and dismiss Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang and Luzongyu from their posts. Also, the Chinese representatives in Paris refused to sign on the peace treaty: the May Fourth Movement won the initial victory.

However, this move was more symbolic than anything else. Japan still retained control of the Shandong peninsular and the islands in the Pacific it had obtained during World War 1. Even though these protests and marches did not manage to achieve all their objectives, the partial success of the movement exhibited the ability of China's various social classes to successfully collaborate, an ideal that would be admired by both Nationalists and Communists.

1926 - 1928: Northern Expedition

During the summer of 1925, Chiang, as commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army, set out on the long-delayed Northern Expedition against the northern warlords. Within nine months, half of China had been conquered.

By 1926, however, the Kuomintang had divided into left- and right-wing factions, and the Communist bloc within it was also growing. In March 1926, after thwarting a kidnapping attempt against him, Chiang abruptly dismissed his Soviet advisers, imposed restrictions on CCP members' participation in the top leadership, and emerged as the preeminent Kuomintang leader. The Soviet Union, still hoping to prevent a split between Chiang and the CCP, ordered Communist underground activities to facilitate the Northern Expedition, which was finally launched by Chiang from Guangzhou in July 1926.

In early 1927 the Kuomintang-CCP rivalry led to a split in the revolutionary ranks. The CCP and the left wing of the Kuomintang had decided to move the seat of the Nationalist government from Guangzhou to Wuhan. But Chiang, whose Northern Expedition was proving successful, set his forces to destroying the Shanghai CCP apparatus and established an anti-Communist government at Nanjing in April 1927.

There were now three capitals in China: the internationally recognized warlord regime in Beijing; the Communist and left-wing Kuomintang regime at Wuhan; and the right-wing civilian-military regime at Nanjing, which would remain the Nationalist capital for the next decade.

But in mid-1927 the CCP was at low ebb. The Communists had been expelled from Wuhan by their left-wing Kuomintang allies, who in turn were toppled by a military regime. By 1928 all of China was at least nominally under Chiang's control, and the Nanjing government received prompt international recognition as the sole legitimate government of China. The Nationalist government announced that in conformity with Sun Yat-sen's formula for the three stages of revolution--military unification, political tutelage, and constitutional democracy--China had reached the end of the first phase and would embark on the second, which would be under Kuomintang direction.

1934 - 1936: Long March

The Long March saved Mao Zedong and the Communist Party from the attacks by the Kuomintang. It came about when the Chinese Communists had to flee a concerted Kuomintang attacked that had been ordered by Chiang Kai-shek.

In the autumn of 1933, the Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek launched a huge attack against the Communists who were then based in the Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in southeast China. The German general, Hans von Seeckt, advised advised Chiang Kai-shek not to launch a full frontal attack on Jiangxi. Seeckt's 'slow-but-sure' process lead to the area controlled by the Communists shrinking quite rapidly.

Overview map of the route of the Long March

It was then that the Communists changed tactics. Against the advice of Mao, the Communists used full-scale attacks against the Kuomintang. They were advised by Russian agents lead by Otto Braun who advised full-frontal attacks and he convinced the Communist hierarchy that Mao was wrong. He also branded Mao as being politically wrong because peasants in Jiangxi were being killed by the Kuomintang and the Red Army did nothing to assist them. Mao was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee.

Mao tried to win back support by pushing for a breakout by the Red Army followed up by an attack on the Kuomintang in their rear. This was rejected in favor of Braun's idea for a full-scale retreat from Jiangxi with a push for a communist base in Hunan where the Chinese Communist's Party Second Army was based. The retreat - which was to be called the Long March - started in October 1934.

The Red Army started the Long March, carrying whatever they could. 87,000 soldiers started the retreat carrying such items as typewriters, furniture, printing presses etc. It took the Red Army 40 days to get through the blockhouses surrounding Jiangxi but no sooner had they done this than they were attacked at Xiang by the Kuomintang. In the Battle of Xiang, the Red Army lost 45,000 men - over 50% of their fighting force.

Clearly, poor strategy played its part in this. Braun planned for the Red Army to march in a straight line. The Kuomintang was able to predict where the Red Army would be at any given point. Also the fleeing communists took with them equipment that was bound to hold up their retreat - the printing presses, typewriters were not of military value in survival terms and hindered speed of movement. After the Battle of Xiang, Braun was blamed for these failings but the damage had been done. In January 1935, control of the Red Army was handed over to Mao and Braun was suspended.

Mao, supported in his work by Zhu De, adopted new tactics. He wanted the Red Army to move in a completely unpredictable way. As the Red Army moved away from Xiang, it used twisting movement patterns that made predicting its direction very difficult. Mao also split up the Red Army into smaller units. In theory this made them more open to attack - in practice, they were more difficult to find in the open spaces on China.

By October 1935, what was left of the original 87,000 Red Army soldiers reached their goal of Yan'an. Less than 10,000 men had survived the march. These survivors had marched over 9000 kilometers. The March had taken 368 days and is considered one of the great physical feats of the Twentieth Century.

1937 - 1945: 2nd Sino-Jap War

Few Chinese had any illusions about Japanese designs on China. Hungry for raw materials and pressed by a growing population, Japan initiated the seizure of Manchuria in September 1931 and established ex-Qing emperor Puyi as head of the puppet regime of Manchukuo in 1932.

The loss of Manchuria, and its vast potential for industrial development and war industries, was a blow to the Nationalist economy. The League of Nations, established at the end of World War I, was unable to act in the face of the Japanese defiance. The Japanese began to push from south of the Great Wall into northern China and into the coastal provinces.

Chinese fury against Japan was predictable, but anger was also directed against the Kuomintang government, which at the time was more preoccupied with anti-Communist extermination campaigns than with resisting the Japanese invaders. The importance of "internal unity before external danger" was forcefully brought home in December 1936, when Nationalist troops (who had been ousted from Manchuria by the Japanese) mutinied at Xi'an. The mutineers forcibly detained Chiang Kai-shek for several days until he agreed to cease hostilities against the Communist forces in northwest China and to assign Communist units combat duties in designated anti-Japanese front areas.

Japanese troops advance upon Chinese army

The Chinese resistance stiffened after July 7, 1937, when a clash occurred between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beijing (then renamed Beiping) near the Marco Polo Bridge. This skirmish not only marked the beginning of open, though undeclared, war between China and Japan but also hastened the formal announcement of the second Kuomintang-CCP united front against Japan.

Mao taught party cadres to lead the masses by living and working with them, eating their food, and thinking their thoughts. The Red Army fostered an image of conducting guerrilla warfare in defense of the people. Communist troops adapted to changing wartime conditions and became a seasoned fighting force. Mao also began preparing for the establishment of a new China.

In 1940 he outlined the program of the Chinese Communists for an eventual seizure of power. His teachings became the central tenets of the CCP doctrine that came to be formalized as Mao Zedong Thought. With skillful organizational and propaganda work, the Communists increased party membership from 100,000 in 1937 to 1.2 million by 1945.

In 1945 China emerged from the war nominally a great military power but actually a nation economically prostrate and on the verge of all-out civil war. The economy deteriorated, sapped by the military demands of foreign war and internal strife, by spiraling inflation, and by Nationalist profiteering, speculation, and hoarding.

Starvation came in the wake of the war, and floods and the unsettled conditions in many parts of the country rendered millions homeless. The situation was further complicated by an Allied agreement at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 that brought Soviet troops into Manchuria to hasten the termination of war against Japan.

1945 - 1949: Civil War

Through the mediatory influence of the United States a military truce was arranged in January 1946, but battles between Nationalists and Communists soon resumed. The civil war, in which the United States aided the Nationalists with massive economic loans but no military support, became more widespread. Battles raged not only for territories but also for the allegiance of cross sections of the population.

Belatedly, the Nationalist government sought to enlist popular support through internal reforms. The effort was in vain, however, because of the rampant corruption in government and the accompanying political and economic chaos. By late 1948 the Nationalist position was bleak. The demoralized and undisciplined Nationalist troops proved no match for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The Communists were well established in the north and northeast.

Chiang Kai-shek

Although the Nationalists had an advantage in numbers of men and weapons, controlled a much larger territory and population than their adversaries, and enjoyed considerable international support, they were exhausted by the long war with Japan and the attendant internal responsibilities. In January 1949 Beiping was taken by the Communists without a fight, and its name changed back to Beijing.

Between April and November, major cities passed from Kuomintang to Communist control with minimal resistance. In most cases the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under Communist influence long before the cities. After Chiang Kai-shek and a few hundred thousand Nationalist troops fled from the mainland to the island of Taiwan, there remained only isolated pockets of resistance. In December 1949 Chiang proclaimed Taipei, Taiwan, the temporary capital of China.

1958 - 1961: Great Leap Forward

Mao had toured China and concluded that the Chinese people were capable of anything and the two primary tasks that he felt they should target was industry and agriculture. Mao announced a second Five Year Plan to last from 1958 to 1963. This plan was called the Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward planned to develop agriculture and industry. Mao believed that both had to grow to allow the other to grow. Industry could only prosper if the work force was well fed, while the agricultural workers needed industry to produce the modern tools needed for modernization. To allow for this, China was reformed into a series of communes.

Card issued to celebrate the Great Leap Forward

By the end of 1958, 700 million people had been placed into 26,578 communes. The speed with which this was achieved was astounding and the government did all that it could to whip up enthusiasm for the communes. Propaganda was everywhere - including in the fields where the workers could listen to political speeches as they worked as the communes provided public address systems. Everybody involved in communes was urged not only to meet set targets but also to beat them. If the communes lacked machinery, the workers used their bare hands. Major constructions were built in record time - though the quality of some was dubious.

The Great Leap Forward also encouraged communes to set up "back-yard" production plants. The most famous were 600,000backyard furnaces which produced steel for the communes. When all of these furnaces were working, they added a considerable amount of steel to China's annual total - 11 million tonnes.The figures for steel, coal, chemicals, timber, cement etc all showed huge rises though the figures started at in 1958 were low. Grain and cotton production also showed major increases in production.

A poster from the Great Leap Forward, urging people to make steel

Mao had introduced the Great Leap Forward with the phrase "it is possible to accomplish any task whatsoever." By the end of 1958, it seemed as if his claim was true.

However, in 1959, things started to go wrong. Political decisions and beliefs took precedence over commonsense and communes faced the task of doing things that they were incapable of achieving. Party officials would order the impossible and commune leaders, who knew what their commune was capable of doing or not, could be charged with being a "bourgeois reactionary" if he complained. Such a charge would lead to prison.

Quickly produced farm machinery produced in factories fell to pieces when used. Many thousands of workers were injured after working long hours and falling asleep at their jobs. Steel produced by the backyard furnaces was frequently too weak to be of any use and could not be used in construction - its original purpose. Buildings constructed by this substandard steel did not last long.

The backyard production method had taken many workers away from their fields - so desperately needed food was not being harvested. Ironically, one of the key factors in food production in China was the weather and 1958 had particularly good weather for growing food. Party leaders claimed that the harvest for 1958 was a record 260 million tons - which was not true.

The excellent growing weather of 1958 was followed by a very poor growing year in 1959 and 1960. 9 million people are thought to have starved to death in 1960 alone; many millions were left desperately ill as a result of a lack of food. The government had to introduce rationing. This put people on the most minimal of food and between 1959 and 1962, it is thought that 20 million people died of starvation or diseases related to starvation.

By 1959, it was obvious that the Great Leap Forward had been a failure. Mao called on the Communist Party to take him to task over his failures but also asked his own party members to look at themselves and their performance.

Some party members put the blame of the failure of the Great Leap Forward on Mao. He was popular with the people but he still had to resign from his position as Head of State (though he remained in the powerful Party Chairman position).

The day-to-day running of China was left to three moderates: Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. In late 1960, they abandoned the Great Leap Forward.

1966 - 1976: Culture Revolution and the Tiananmen Incident

In the early 1960s, Mao was on the political sidelines and in semi seclusion. By 1962, however, he began an offensive to purify the party, having grown increasingly uneasy about what he believed were the creeping "capitalist" and antisocialist tendencies in the country. As a hardened veteran revolutionary who had overcome the severest adversities, Mao continued to believe that the material incentives that had been restored to the peasants and others were corrupting the masses and was counterrevolutionary.

To arrest the so-called capitalist trend, Mao launched the Socialist Education Movement, in which the primary emphasis was on restoring ideological purity, re-infusing revolutionary fervor into the party and government bureaucracies, and intensifying class struggle. There were internal disagreements, however, not on the aim of the movement but on the methods of carrying it out.

Opposition came mainly from the moderates represented by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who were unsympathetic to Mao's policies. The Socialist Education Movement was soon paired with another Mao campaign, the theme of which was "to learn from the People's Liberation Army."

In connection with the Socialist Education Movement, a thorough reform of the school system, which had been planned earlier to coincide with the Great Leap Forward, went into effect. The reform was intended as a work-study program in which schooling was slated to accommodate the work schedule of communes and factories. It had the dual purpose of providing mass education less expensively than previously and of re-educating intellectuals and scholars to accept the need for their own participation in manual labor. The drafting of intellectuals for manual labor was part of the party's rectification campaign, publicized through the mass media as an effort to remove "bourgeois" influences from professional workers.

Liu Shaoqi

By mid-1965 Mao had gradually but systematically regained control of the party with the support of Lin Biao, Jiang Qing (Mao's fourth wife), and Chen Boda, a leading theoretician. In the next six months, under the guise of upholding ideological purity, Mao and his supporters purged or attacked a wide variety of public figures, including State Chairman Liu Shaoqi and other party and state leaders. By mid-1966 Mao's campaign had erupted into what came to be known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the first mass action to have emerged against the CCP apparatus itself.

Considerable intraparty opposition to the Cultural Revolution was evident. On the one side was the Mao-Lin Biao group, supported by the PLA; on the other side was a faction led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, which had its strength in the regular party machine. Premier Zhou Enlai, while remaining personally loyal to Mao, tried to mediate or to reconcile the two factions.

Mao felt that he could no longer depend on the formal party organization, convinced that it had been permeated with the "capitalist" and bourgeois obstructionists. He turned to Lin Biao and the PLA to counteract the influence of those who were allegedly "`left' in form but `right' in essence."

The PLA was widely extolled as a "great school" for the training of a new generation of revolutionary fighters and leaders. Maoists also turned to middle-school students for political demonstrations on their behalf. These students, joined also by some university students, came to be known as the Red Guards.

Millions of Red Guards were encouraged by the Cultural Revolution group to become a "shock force" and to "bombard" with criticism both the regular party headquarters in Beijing and those at the regional and provincial levels.

Red Guard activities were promoted as a reflection of Mao's policy of rekindling revolutionary enthusiasm and destroying "outdated," "counterrevolutionary" symbols and values. Mao's ideas, popularized in the Quotations from Chairman Mao, became the standard by which all revolutionary efforts were to be judged.

The "four big rights"--speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates, and writing big-character posters --became an important factor in encouraging Mao's youthful followers to criticize his intraparty rivals. The "four big rights" became such a major feature during the period that they were later institutionalized in the state constitution of 1975.

The radical tide receded somewhat beginning in late 1967, but it was not until after mid-1968 that Mao came to realize the uselessness of further revolutionary violence. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and their fellow "revisionists" and "capitalist roaders" had been purged from public life by early 1967, and the Maoist group had since been in full command of the political scene.

The activist phase of the Cultural Revolution--considered to be the first in a series of cultural revolutions--was brought to an end in April 1969. This end was formally signaled at the CCP's Ninth National Party Congress, which convened under the dominance of the Maoist group. Mao was confirmed as the supreme leader. Lin Biao was promoted to the post of CCP vice chairman and was named as Mao's successor. The party congress also marked the rising influence of two opposing forces, Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and Premier Zhou Enlai.

Lin Biao

Without question, the turning point in the decade of the Cultural Revolution was Lin Biao's abortive coup attempt and his subsequent death in a plane crash as he fled China in September 1971. The immediate consequence was a steady erosion of the fundamentalist influence of the left-wing radicals. Lin Biao's closest supporters were purged systematically. Efforts to depoliticize and promote professionalism were intensified within the PLA. These were also accompanied by the rehabilitation of those persons who had been persecuted or fallen into disgrace in 1966-68.

Deng Xiaoping

Among the most prominent of those rehabilitated was Deng Xiaoping, who was reinstated as a vice premier in April 1973, ostensibly under the aegis of Premier Zhou Enlai but certainly with the concurrence of Mao Zedong. Together, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping came to exert strong influence. Their moderate line favoring modernization of all sectors of the economy was formally confirmed at the Tenth National Party Congress in August 1973, at which time Deng Xiaoping was made a member of the party's Central Committee (but not yet of the Political Bureau).

Zhou Enlai

In January 1975 Zhou Enlai, speaking before the Fourth National People's Congress, outlined a program of what has come to be known as the Four Modernizations for the four sectors of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology.

The year 1976 saw the deaths of the three most senior officials in the CCP and the state apparatus: Zhou Enlai in January, Zhu De (then chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and de jure head of state) in July, and Mao Zedong in September.

The radical clique most closely associated with Mao and the Cultural Revolution became vulnerable after Mao died, as Deng had been after Zhou Enlai's demise. In October, less than a month after Mao's death, Jiang Qing and her three principal associates-- denounced as the Gang of Four--were arrested.

To learn more about the Cultural Revolution and the impact it had on China, visit:

1989: Tiananmen Protests

The protests were sparked by the death of a pro-democracy and anti-official, Hu Yaobang whom protesters wanted to mourn. By the eve of Hu's funeral, 1,000,000 people had gathered at Tiananmen Square. The protests lacked a unified cause or leadership; . The demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, but large-scale protests also occurred in cities throughout China, including Shanghai, which remained peaceful throughout the protests.

The movement lasted seven weeks, from Hu's death on 15 April until tanks cleared Tiananmen Square on 4 June. In Beijing, the resulting military response to the protesters by the PRC government left many civilians dead or severely injured. Following the conflict, the government conducted widespread arrests of protesters and their supporters, cracked down on other protests around China, banned the foreign press from the country and strictly controlled coverage of the events in the PRC press. Members of the Party who had publicly sympathized with the protesters were purged, with several high-ranking members placed under house arrest. There was widespread international condemnation of the PRC government's use of force against the protesters.