China & its Revolutions

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In 1911 the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, collapsed. Little more than a year earlier it was at the height of its power. In the late 1800’s the Qing dynasty began to suffer from corruption, peasant unrest, and ineffective government. These weaknesses were made worse due to rapid population growth. By 1900 there were over 400 million people in China. This created extreme food shortages and many Chinese peasants died in a series of famines.

The weaknesses of the Qing Dynasty were highlighted through their interactions with foreign nations. Following the humiliating defeat to the British in the Opium War, the Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing (1842). Under the terms of the treaty the Chinese were forced to open 5 major ports to British trade and to give Britain ownership of Hong Kong. This treaty also created extraterritoriality, where Europeans living in China lived in their own sections and had their own laws. At the same time the Chinese government was fighting to contain internal peasant revolts. The most famous of these was the Tai Ping rebellion. This massive peasant rebellion lasted almost 14 years and claimed the lives of over 20 million people. Following the Tai Ping rebellion regional warlords became very powerful and they started to give land to Europeans in return for money without the permission of the Emperor. As more foreigners came to China they brought missionaries who tried to convert Chinese people to Christianity. Some Chinese groups saw this as a serious threat to their traditions. In 1900 the Boxers (A secret society that practiced shadow boxing - they believed this would protect them from bullets) went through China killing European and Chinese Christians, and European businessmen. This rebellion was also crushed and the Qing dynasty was forced to pay damages to the European nations.

In 1911 China faced its first revolution. A revolt under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen, overthrew the Qing Dynasty, ending 2000 years of Chinese Imperial rule. In reality very little changed. There was an attempt to westernize China and only the wealthiest Chinese citizens benefitted. Most Chinese people were still poor farmers and were controlled by wealthy land owners. Due to increased western influence and increased trade, many cities did become wealthy but only a small number of Chinese elites benefitted from this.

In order to rid China of foreign influence and powerful regional landlords the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party formed an alliance in 1923. They called themselves the Revolutionary Army and by 927 they had taken over most of China. These two groups did not really trust each other and in 1928 Chiang Kai Shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalist party massacred members of the Communist party. Chiang Kai Shek saw communists as a great threat to China. He once said that “The Japanese are like a disease of the skin, but the Communists are like a disease of the heart.”

Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists tried to eliminate the communists. The Chinese Communist Party was led by the young Mao Zedong, the son of a peasant farmer. Mao and his 90,000 Communist troops tried to flee to Northwest China, where they knew they would be safe. On foot, they marched 6000 miles through mountains, marshes, rivers and deserts. They travelled over 24 miles every day. Only 10% of the Communists survived the journey. Though they were not in power, they were safe and were waiting for the right time to try to take over China.

Chiang Kai Shek ruled China as a dictator. He ruled out any opposition and censored free speech. Though he did introduce some reforms to modernize China, this only benefitted the wealthy elites and those who lived in China’s cities. There was little economic development for the majority of the Chinese people continued to suffer from food shortages, economic depression and social inequality.

Unlike China, Japan did modernize successfully and became a powerful nation in Asia. As an imperial nation, Japan looked to expand its control over nearby nations. Due to the fact that China had become weak it was a relatively easy target for the Japanese. The Japanese conquered large parts of China and their soldiers were brutal conquerors. In 1937 the Japanese army destroyed the city of Nanjing and massacred 100,000 civilians and prisoners of war.

Following the defeat of Japan by the allies and the end of World War II, two governments existed in China. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek controlled the South and the Communist government, LED BY Mao Zedong, controlled northern China. The Communists had built an army called the People’s Liberation Army and it included over 1 million troops. A full scale Civil War broke out where the Communists fought against the Nationalists. The Communists Party promised that they would redistribute land to China’s peasants and remove the corruption of the elite in China’s cities. Because of these promises the Communists gained the support of the majority of the Chinese people. The communists were able to defeat the Nationalists and forced them to flee to the island of Taiwan. On October 1st 1949, Mao Zedong became the leader of China. This became known as the Communist Revolution. He announced that “The Chinese people have stood up,” and he stated that “nobody will insult us again.”

When he came to power Mao looked to turn Chinese society into a society without any social classes. One of Mao’s first moves was to take all private land from landowners, give small amounts to individual peasants and create collective farms in every village, where all villagers worked the land. Mao also took all private businesses and made them the property of the Communist Party. Though peasants were initially happy, they did not realize how difficult life was on a collective farm. Looking to boost agriculture even more so that he could support more factory workers, Mao initiated what he called, The Great Leap Forward, in 1955. In this plan Mao created communes (combined collective farms). Each commune had 30,000 workers that worked day and night to produce as much as they could. The communes competed against each other and often lied to the government about how much they were producing. Peasants melted down any metal they owned to make tools for farming. These tools were of poor quality and broke very easily. The Great Leap Forward was a disaster. The communes were unable to produce enough food for themselves and those in the cities. Over 15 million peasants died of starvation.

Mao wanted to change the culture of China. He did this in two ways. When he first came to power he encouraged intellectuals, teachers, and artists to share their opinions about communism. He offered them protection so they would feel open about sharing their views. This was a trick and those who criticized communist were rounded up, arrested and sent to prison camps or executed. In 1966 Mao launched what he called the “Cultural Revolution.” His aim was to destroy the “four olds” of China – old ideas, old customs, old culture, and old habits. To do this he created the Red Guard. The Red Guard was a communist military police made up of committed young communists who went around the country cleansing Chinese society of impure communists. The Read Guard burned foreign books, they destroyed churches and temples, they changed street signs to reflect communist heroes and they publically beat anyone who was not a model communist. The Chinese Education system was re-written and individual households, businesses and universities were forced to teach and read Mao’s ideas from his “little red book.”

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s the Chinese government did make a number of changes that benefitted women. Women were granted legal equality to men. Women could take part in politics and had equal marriage and divorce rights. Mao also ended the centuries old practice of foot binding. Women were expected to work alongside men on collective farms and communes.

That being said, many of Mao’s programs hurt the Chinese people and many people grew weary of all the programs designed to make them more revolutionary and to work even harder on collective farms. When Mao Zedong died in 1976 he was succeeded by Deng Xiaoping a more practical leader. Deng sought to modernize China and bring western ideas and influence. Though China remains under the leadership of the Communist Party, many argued the revolution had ended.

Questions for Reading

1. From the late 1800s to the 20th century, what were some of the "underlying" cause of unrest in China? (Incubation period)

2. What changes occurred in China after the revolution of 1911?

3. Explain the role of the Nationalists and Communists in the Chinese Government

4. Highlight the role of Mao in China.