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The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911/12)
The Qing Dynasty ruled over the late imperial Chinese state from Beijing. Its borders shifted, growing beyond the previous Ming territories; they were relatively similar to the current territorial boundaries/claims of the People’s Republic of China. While the Qing presided over great prosperity and integrated a multiethnic empire, the dynasty was beset with internal and external conflicts that severely weakened itspower. It is hard to overstate how cataclysmic and unstable the late 19th century proved for China. The so-called “Century of Humiliation” and China’s perception as the “Weak Man of Asia” begin in this period.
1839 – 1842 First Opium War
War fought with Britain over opium trade, which China loses. The Treaty of Nanking that ends the conflict is the first so-called “unequal treaty,” resulting in China paying an indemnity, Hong Kong is given up to British colonization, and trade in China opened up further. In subsequent treaties, foreign “concessions” are granted (famously, in Shanghai), giving various powers extraterritorial rights (i.e., essentially colonial enclaves that were not under Chinese jurisdiction).
1850-1864 The Taiping Rebellion
An enormous rebellion with religious and political ambitions that was quelled by the Qing but with tremendous loss of life and resources.
1857 – 1859 Second Opium War
A second war with Britain, now also joined by France, that further expanded favorable conditions for foreign powers.
1861 – 1895 Self-strengthening Movement
Reform movement undertaken by the Chinese government as a result of losses suffered in the European wars.
1894 – 1895 First Sino-Japanese War
War fought between China and Japan over influence in Korea, which China loses, leading to an even deeper crisis of confidence about China’s position in the global order. Japan gains Taiwan as a colony and China opens treaty ports to Japanese business.
1898 – 1901 The Boxer Uprising
Increasing tensions resulting from imperialist expansion in China culminate in a popular movement in northern China; the anti-Western uprising was condoned by the Dowager empress. As a result, Qing authority faltered when Western powers suppressed the uprising and demanded restitution from the Chinese state.
1911/1912 Xinhai Rebellion, Founding of the Republic of China (ROC)
A series of domestic and international disasters leads to growing dissatisfaction with the ruling Qing dynasty, which is overthrown in a rebellion in 1911. On Jan. 1st, 1912, the Republic of China is established.
The Republican Period (1912-1949)
Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty, China enters a chaotic and complex historical moment. While a republic was proclaimed, the first Republican decade was beset by bloody political struggles without a strong central government. The Nationalist Party (Guomindang, a.k.a., KMT) consolidated power in the southern capital of Nanjing in the mid 20s, but bitter political rivalries and the onset of war with Japan trouble the young republic. After victory in WW2, the civil war between the incumbent Nationalist government and an upstart Communist Party resumes, ending with Nationalist defeat and retreat to a newly liberated Taiwan.
1919 The May Fourth Movement
The Treaty of Versailles (which ended WW1) allowed Japan to take over German territories in China, despite China’s participation in the war on the winning side of the allies (primarily through labor assistance). Protests begin with students in Paris and Beijing but soon become a nationwide movement calling for reform.
1921 Communist Party Founded
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is founded in the very cosmopolitan city of Shanghai.
1927 – 1937 Nanjing Decade
A decade of relative stability during which political power coalesced in Nanjing; the KMT, wary of political unrest, violently suppress Communists and other critics. Japan’s encroaching military presence in Northern China prompts cooperation between the KMT and CCP, but the KMT later turns on the Communists, only to reestablish cooperation to fight the Japanese invasion once again in the late 30s.
1937 – 1945 Second Sino-Japanese War
After a decade of hostilities in Northern China, Japan invades and occupies Shanghai. This conflict becomes part of WW2 and ends with Japan’s defeat in 1945.
1945 – 1949 Chinese Civil War
After victory over the Japanese, the Nationalists and Communists revert to a bitter civil war, which ends with Nationalist defeat and retreat to Taiwan, to this day, still officially known as the Republic of China.
Maoist China (1949-1976)
Mao consolidates rule over China and begins a socialist modernization program that begins postwar economic growth. While his tenure is marred with disastrous economic and political campaigns, resulting in violent persecution, loss of life, and economic decline, China enters a period of relative stability and regains sovereignty over lands and powers ceded to colonial powers. International diplomacy during this period sees China engage with both third world nations in Asia and Africa and the Cold War hegemons, the United States and the Soviet Union.
1949 The Founding of the People’s Republic
On October 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is founded on the mainland. Its capital is Beijing.
1949 – 1966 The Seventeen Years
The first period of Mao’s rule includes postwar reconstruction and results in growth, but the Seventeen Years is also a time of successive destructive political and ruinous economic campaigns.
1950 – 1953 The Korean War
A Chinese “volunteer” army enters the Korean War on the side of North Korea on October 13, 1950, as allied forces reached the Chinese border. The war ultimately ends in an armistice, but has a profound impact on China, whose army suffered staggering losses but demonstrated tremendous battlefield courage. The war is mythologized in film and literature, most recently, in China’s highest grossing film ever, The Battle at Lake Changjin (2023).
1955 The Bandung Conference
A conference of Asian and African Third World powers (including China) held in Indonesia focused on decolonization and Third World geopolitics in a Cold War world. The Nonaligned Movement, an anticolonial and antiimperialist counter to bipolar great power politics (specifically, the Cold War order) results.
Late 1950s The Sino-Soviet Split
After years of cooperation and support in postwar industrial development, the Chinese and Soviet governments split over ideological revisionism following the death of Stalin. Relations between the two nations begin to normalize only in the late 1980s.
1966 – 1976 The Cultural Revolution
This complex historical event begins with Mao’s call for a continuing revolution, now understood as Mao’s attempt to maintain political control over China. The initial phases of the Cultural Revolution see great turmoil and China almost slips into Civil War. Eventually, the army intervenes to restore order (1967). Young “Red Guards,” that is, radicalized youth who responded to Mao’s call, are “sent down” to rural areas to be educated about life among the people. Xi Jinping, the current leader of China, is among them. The Cultural Revolution is often understood as one of the greatest influences on China’s contemporary party elites, many of whom, like Xi, were profoundly affected by it.
1970 The East is Red Satellite
CHINA IN SPACE: After announcing plans to pursue space flight in 1968, China launches its first unmanned spacecraft, a satellite named after the revolutionary anthem, “The East is Red.”
1971 United Nations Recognizes the People’s Republic of China
The Republic of China (ROC), the Chinese state that had governed in Taiwan since 1949, is no longer recognized as China. The People’s Republic is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This is a profound realignment of geopolitics, and the shift is particularly traumatic for Taiwan, an American ally in the region.
1972 Nixon in China
President Nixon visits the PRC. Full diplomatic ties with the United States are established in 1979.
1976 Death of Mao
Chairman Mao dies, and soon after, the Cultural Revolution is formally ended. The Gang of Four, a clique that rose to great power during the Cultural Revolution, including Mao’s wife, is accused of and tried for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Their trial, in the early 1980s, ostensibly puts the Cultural Revolution to rest, though this period continues to haunt Chinese politics and society.
Reform and Opening (1978-1989)
Reform and Opening is a “New Era,” somewhat akin to the USSR’s perestroika, which cautiously moves China closer to a consumer market and opens it to Western trade and investment. This decade of reforms is characterized by shifts between more liberal and more conservative approaches; it culminates famously in the protests in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. Though China does not democratize politically, the 1980s are a period of profound change in the material and cultural life of the nation. Deng Xiaoping emerges as Mao’s successor, a role he would continue to play into the 1990s.
1978 Four Modernizations
Calls to modernize China’s agriculture, industry, defense, and science & technology are codified at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, kicking off a decade of reforms.
1986 863 Program
CHINA IN SPACE: Inspired in part by Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the 863 Program sought to develop China’s strategic science and technology sectors. The Shenzhou spaceship, China’s flagship spacecraft, is a result of this initiative.
1989 Tiananmen Square Protests
After a decade of economic reforms and increased cultural liberalization, tensions over the course of China’s reforms erupts as students call on the government to, among other items, admit past policy mistakes, end censorship, and increase transparency. Though events in Tiananmen Square have been extensively memorialized in Western press, the protests actually spread throughout China and led to a crisis of legitimacy. The government eventually responds with a brutal suppression of the student protestors. Discussion of Tiananmen remains censored and taboo in China to this day.
Postsocialist China (1989- )
Following the violent suppression of protests at the end of the 1980s, the Chinese government, led by Deng Xiaoping, faces a crisis and questions about how to proceed with economic reforms. Deng, over the opposition of more conservative communist voices, doubles down on economic growth in southern China. A period of tremendous growth follows, though increased prosperity also opens profound wealth gaps and relies on the exploitation of labor. China’s southern, coastal provinces become the “Factory of the World.” Workers migrate from rural areas to Chinese cities, reversing the nation’s urban/rural demographics, with about 2/3 of China’s population living in cities in 2022.
1992 Deng’s Southern Tour
Recalling the political pageantry of the Qing emperors, who regularly toured China’s south to ascertain political conditions and assert the power of central government, Deng travels to China’s southern, coastal provinces to encourage economic growth and increased trade. This move is seen to signal China’s shift to the export-oriented economy that has allowed China to become a global economic powerhouse in the last 30 years.
1992 Project 921
CHINA IN SPACE: Project 921, China’s Manned Space Program, is officially inaugurated.
1996 Taiwan’s First Democratic Election
After a democratization movement in the late 1980s, Taiwan holds its first direct presidential election. The PRC launches ballistic missiles over the island nation to intimidate voters, marking the Third Taiwan Straits crisis (two previous armed conflagrations between the PRC and ROC occurred in the Straits in the 1950s). The US positions two aircraft carrier groups near Taiwan and the crisis ends.
1997 Hong Kong Returns to Chinese Control
The British colonial lease on Hong Kong ends, and the territory is returned to Chinese sovereignty. China agrees that
Hong Kong will have relative independence and political system separate from the mainland through 2047. In recent years, the Chinese government has repeatedly reinterpreted the agreement in favor of more control from Beijing, resulting in massive protests in the city. The pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, for example, emerged from protests against a 2014 decision by the Chinese government to change election procedures.
1999 US Bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade
A US airstrike during NATO bombings in the Kosovo War erroneously hits the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three and unleashing strong anti-American sentiment in China.
2001 China enters the WTO
China’s entry in the World Trade Organization further integrates the Chinese economy with global markets.
2008 Sichuan Earthquake
A devastating, 8.0 magnitude earthquake near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, kills almost 90,000 people. The circumstances of the devastation were politically tense because of shoddy construction that compounded death tolls in schools. The quake and international relief efforts were very visible in global news.
2008 Beijing Olympics
The Olympics in Beijing were an enormous geopolitical coup, showing off China’s great economic achievements and showcasing Chinese culture to international audiences. The film director Zhang Yimou directed the spectacular opening ceremonies. Coverage of the full opening ceremony can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bufV3EgyPGU&ab_channel=Olympics
2008 First Chinese Spacewalk
2013 Belt and Road Initiative Launched
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a government project aimed connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe through infrastructural development that can increase economic activity between the regions. The scope of the BRI has expanded to include Latin and South America.
2017 Chinese Naval Base Opens in Djibouti
The People’s Liberation Army Navy opened its first overseas base in Djibouti, a small nation in the Horn of Africa. For comparison, note that the United States has about 750 overseas military bases.
2019 Far Side of the Moon
CHINA IN SPACE: Chinese spacecraft land on the far side of the moon.
2021 Mars and Tiangong Space Station
CHINA IN SPACE: A Chinese rover lands on Mars and work on the Tiangong Space Station begins, with all three modules of the station installed in 2022.
This film guide was developed by Julia Keblinska, The Ohio State University and is available online for classroom use worldwide. All the film guides can be accessed at EASC's Film Guide page.