A Brief History of China




China is the world’s third largest country by area after Russia and Canada and is the world's largest by population. The People’s Republic of China, is bounded on the north by the Republic of Mongolia and Russia; on the northeast by Russia and North Korea; on the east by the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea; on the south by the South China Sea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), India, Bhutan, and Nepal; on the west by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan; and on the northwest by Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan. China includes more than 3400 offshore islands. The total area of China is about 3,695,000 sq mi, not including Hong Kong, Macau, and land under the control of the Republic of China on Taiwan, which mainland China considers a renegade province. In 1971 the United Nations admitted the People’s Republic of China and expelled the Republic of China (Taiwan) from its membership. Although most world governments do not recognize Taiwan, the island maintains a distinct government and economy. Hong Kong, formerly a British territory, reverted to China in 1997. Hong Kong maintains a separate economy and has considerable political autonomy from Main Land China. The capital of China is Beijing and the country’s largest city is Shanghai.

More than one-fifth of the world’s total population lives within China’s borders. China gave birth to one of the world’s earliest civilizations and has a recorded history that dates back 3500 years. Zhonghuo, the Chinese name for the country, means "central land," a reference to the Chinese belief that their country was the geographical center of the earth and the only true civilization. By the 19th century China had become a politically and economically weak nation, dominated by foreign powers.

China underwent many changes in the first half of the 20th century. The imperial government was overthrown and in the chaotic years that followed, two groups—the Kuomintang and the Communists struggled for control of the country. In 1949 the Communists won control of China and the government of the Republic of China fled to Taiwan.

The accession of the Communist government in 1949 stands as one of the most important events in Chinese history; in a remarkably short period of time radical changes were effected in both the Chinese economy and society. Since the 1970s China has cast off its self-imposed isolation from the international community and has sought to modernize its economic structure.

Land and Resources

China encompasses a great diversity of landscapes and a corresponding variety of natural resources. Generally speaking, China’s higher elevations are found in the west, where some of the world’s highest mountain ranges are located. 

The country’s numerous mountain ranges enclose a series of plateaus and basins and furnish a notable wealth of water and mineral resources. A broad range of climatic types, from the subarctic to tropical, and including large areas of alpine and desert habitats, supports a magnificent array of plant and animal life.

Mountains occupy about 43 percent of China’s land surface; mountainous plateaus account for another 26 percent; and basins, predominantly hilly in terrain and located mainly in arid regions, cover approximately 19 percent of the area. Only 12 percent of the total area may be classed as plains.


The climates of China are similar, in their range and distribution, to those of the continental United States; temperate climates prevail, with desert and semiarid regions in the western interior and a small area of tropical climate in the extreme southeast. China’s climates, however, tend to be more continental and thus more extreme, and regional contrasts are generally greater.

The Asian monsoon exerts the primary control on China’s climate. In winter, cold dry winds blow out of the high-pressure system of central Siberia, bringing low temperatures to all regions north of the Yangtze River and drought to most of the country. In summer, warm moist air flows inland from the Pacific Ocean, producing rainfall in the form of cyclonic storms. Amounts of precipitation decline rapidly with distance from the sea and on leeward sides of mountains. The remote basins of the northwest receive little precipitation. Summer temperatures are remarkably uniform throughout most of the country, but extreme temperature differences between north and south characterize the winters.


The Chinese population is approximately 92 percent ethnic Han Chinese. The 8 percent minority population is settled over nearly 60 percent of China’s area. This gives the non-Han peoples of China a significance that looms larger than their percentage of the population might suggest.

Ethnic Groups

More than 70 million people belong to 55 national minorities. Most of these groups are distinguished from the Chinese by language or religion rather than by racial characteristics. The principal minorities are the Tai-speaking Zhuang, numbering about 15.5 million, largely in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; the Hui, or Chinese Muslims, about 8.6 million, in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Gansu, and Qinghai; the aboriginal Miao, about 7.4 million, in Guizhou, Hunan, and Yunnan; the Turkic-speaking Uygur, about 7.2 million, in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; the aboriginal (but largely assimilated) Yi, about 6.6 million, in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guangxi; the Mongols, about 4.8 million, in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Gansu, and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; and the Tibetans, about 4.6 million, in the Tibet (Xizang) Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan. Other groups include Tujia (5.7 million), Bouyei (2.5 million), Koreans (1.9 million), and Manchus. The Manchus are descendants of the people who conquered China in the 17th century and established the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty. Numbering 9.8 million, they are almost indistinguishable from the Han Chinese.

Population Characteristics

The first national census since the Communist takeover was compiled in 1953, in an effort to assess the human resources available for the first five-year plan. At that time, the population of China was found to be 582,600,000. A second census, taken in 1964, showed an increase to 694,580,000; the third, in 1982, revealed a population of 1,008,180,000, making China the first nation ever to pass the billion mark. Between 1953 and 1994, the death rate dropped from 22.5 to an estimated 7.3 per 1000 population; the birthrate declined from about 45 per 1000 in 1953 to an estimated 18.1 in 1994. As a result, the net natural increase declined from about 22.5 per 1000 in 1953 to 10.8 per 1000 in 1994. Nevertheless, at that rate China would still show an annual population growth of nearly 13 million.

The decrease in fertility recorded between the 1950s and 1990s was largely effected by government efforts to promote late marriages and, more recently, to induce the Chinese family to have only one child. This program has been coupled with the continual expansion of public health facilities that provide birth-control information and contraceptive devices at little or no cost. It was officially estimated in 1984 that 70 percent of all married couples of childbearing age were using contraception, and that 24 million couples had formally pledged to have no more than one child. Abortion is legal, and social pressures to terminate a pregnancy are applied to women who already have one child or more. The national minorities have generally been excluded from the government’s birth-control program, in keeping with a policy of allowing the non-Han peoples a maximum of cultural independence.

In 1980 the government reported that 65 percent of the population was under 30 years of age. Thus, a substantial proportion of the Chinese population will be of childbearing age for at least the next several decades. In September 1982, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party declared that the nation must limit the population to 1.2 billion by the end of the century, a goal requiring an intensification of population control efforts. In 1988 the government recognized the goal as unattainable and revised it to 1.27 billion.

China had an estimated 1996 population of 1,210,004,956. The population density was about 126 persons per sq km (about 327 per sq mi); this figure represents an average of a very uneven geographic distribution. The great bulk of the population is found in the 19 eastern provinces that have formed the historical heartland of China. This reflects the dissimilar historical land-use and settlement patterns of the Chinese and the non-Han. Since the 1960s the Chinese government has promoted settlement of the lands of the western provinces and autonomous regions.

Despite industrialization, China continues to be a predominantly rural, agricultural nation. Although major urban concentrations existed in China even before the time of the Roman Empire (44 BC-AD 476), the country as a whole has only slowly come to be urbanized. Nearly three-quarters of the population is classified as rural.

Spontaneous migration from the countryside to the city was prohibited from the mid-1950s because of the lack of productive employment for additional city dwellers. This prohibition was the outgrowth of the belief of Communist leader Mao Zedong that the class distinction between urban and rural people was a major cause of social inequality in China. During the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, the Chinese expended considerable energy on a campaign of sending educated urban youth to the countryside for several years or even permanent settlement. This movement was intended to provide urban skills in rural areas, thereby reducing peasant interest in migrating to the city. The rustication program was downplayed after the death of Mao in 1976 and virtually eliminated by the end of 1978, at which time migration to the cities began to increase.

Residential mobility within cities is also restricted by the government. A person must have government approval and guarantee of a residence and employment before moving. Some residential movement within the major cities has resulted, however, from the large-scale destruction of old housing and its replacement by four- and five-story apartment buildings.


One of the early acts of the Chinese Communist Party after it gained control in 1949 was to officially eliminate organized religion. Previously the dominant religions in China had been Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Because of the quasi-secular nature of Confucianism, and because most Chinese were affected by all three major faiths and thus lacked strong allegiance to a single religion, the population offered little resistance to the party’s move.

Chief among the more formal religions of China, in addition to Buddhism and Taoism, were Christianity and Islam. Most temples and schools of these four religions were converted to secular purposes. Only with the constitution of 1978 was official support again given for the promulgation of formal religion in China. The constitution also stated, however, that the Chinese population had the right to hold no religious beliefs and "to propagate atheism." The constitution of 1982 allows residents freedom of religious belief, and protects legitimate religious activities. Since then many temples, churches, and mosques have reopened.

Since religious rights were guaranteed, Christian groups in the cities and Buddhist sects in both the cities and countryside have been extremely active. The ethnic Chinese Muslims, or Hui, as well as the Muslim minority peoples such as the Uygur, Kazak, and Kirgiz, have held their faith in Islam continually but now practice their religion more openly.

Education and Cultural Activity

China has a long and rich cultural tradition in which education has played a major role. Throughout the imperial period (221 BC- AD 1912), only the educated held positions of social and political leadership. In 124 BC the first university was established for training prospective bureaucrats in Confucian learning and the Chinese classics. Historically, however, few Chinese have been able to take the time to learn the complex language and its associated literature. It is estimated that as late as 1949 only 20 percent of China’s population was literate. To the Chinese Communists, this illiteracy was a stumbling block for the promotion of their political programs. Therefore, the Communists combined political propaganda with educational development. The 1990 census showed the literacy rate has climbed to 78 percent.


One of the most ambitious programs of the Communist Party has been the establishment of universal public education for such a large population. In the first two years of the new government (1949-1951) more than 60 million peasants enrolled in "winter schools," or sessions, established to take advantage of the slack season for agricultural workers. Mao declared that a dominant goal of education was to reduce the sense of class distinction. This was to be accomplished by reducing the social gaps between manual and mental labor; between the city and countryside resident; and between the worker in the factory and the peasant on the land.

The most radical developments in education in China, however, took place between 1966 and 1978. During the Cultural Revolution, virtually all classrooms in China were closed from 1966 to 1969. The 131 million youths who had been enrolled in primary and secondary school remained out of school; many became involved in Mao’s efforts to shake up the new elite of China by the presence of youthful critics reviewing governmental programs and policies. Primary and secondary schools began to reopen in 1968 and 1969, but all institutions of higher education remained closed until the 1970 to 1972 period.

Government policies toward education changed dramatically during this period. The traditional 13 years of kindergarten to 12th grade were reduced to a 9- or 10-year plan for primary and secondary (or middle) school. Colleges that had traditionally had a four- or five-year curriculum adopted a three-year program, and part of this time was mandated as productive labor in support of the school or the course of study being pursued. A two-year period of manual labor also became essential for most secondary school graduates who wished to go on to college.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, a major review of these policies began. As a result, and because of the increased interest in the development of science in Chinese education, curricula again came to resemble those of the pre-Cultural Revolution years. Programs for primary and secondary schooling were gradually readjusted to encompass 12 years of study (although only nine years are compulsory), and high school graduates were no longer required to go to the countryside for two years of labor before competing for college positions.

A significant change in the educational system has been the reinstitution of standardized college-entrance exams. These exams were a regular part of the mechanism for upward mobility in China prior to the Cultural Revolution. During the experimentation of those years, antitraditionalists were able to eliminate the entrance exams by arguing that they favored an elite who had an intellectual tradition in their families. When colleges reopened from 1970 to 1972, admission was granted to many candidates because of their political leanings, party activities, and peer-group support. This method of selection ceased in 1977, as the Chinese launched their new campaign for the Four Modernizations. The government’s stated goals for rapid modernization in agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology required high levels of training. Such educational programs by necessity had to be based on theoretical and formal skills more than on political attitudes and the spirit of revolution. As a result of student disturbances in 1989, university students are again required to complete one year of political education prior to entering college.

By the early 1990s about 121.6 million pupils were enrolled in primary schools, and about 52.3 million students were enrolled in secondary schools; enrollments in 1949 had been about 24 million in primary schools and 1.25 million in secondary schools. About 2.04 million students enrolled in China’s 1075 institutions of higher learning.

Chinese higher education is now characterized by the "key-point system." Under this system the most promising students are placed in selected key-point schools, which specialize in training an academic elite. University education remains difficult to attain; as many as 2 million students compete each year through entrance examinations for 500,000 university openings. Students finishing secondary schools may also attend junior colleges and a variety of technical and vocational schools. Among the most prominent universities in China are Beijing University (1898); Hangzhou University (1952); Fudan University (1905), in Shanghai; and the University of Science and Technology of China (1958), in Hefei. An innovation in China’s educational system is the Television University. In the past, students received free university education but upon graduation were required to accept jobs in state-owned industries. The government instituted a pilot program in 1994, whereby the state allowed university students the option to pay their own tuition in exchange for the freedom to find their own jobs after graduation. This enabled graduates who paid their way to choose better paying jobs with foreign companies in China, or to demand better pay from state-owned enterprises. By the late 1990s, all incoming university students were required to pay their own tuition, although government loans were available.






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