Modern China:
The History of China from 1912 to Present

The Republic of China

Many revolutionary societies had been fermenting towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, but the most organized one was headed by Dr Sun Yatsen. On October 10th, 1911, an uprising began in Wuhan. Sun Yatsen returned to China from exile and was elected president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of China in Nanjing on March 1912. However, the republicans had to make a deal with a Qing army general in order to convince the emperor to abdicate. Once achieving this, the general soon became a de facto emperor himself. His power would wane quickly, but by then China had fallen apart with the regions ruled by various warlords. Over the next decade, two major political forces developed and formed a loose alliance: the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), headed by Sun Yatsen, and the Communist Party of China.

Civil War and Japanese Invasion

In 1925 Sun Yatsen died and Chiang Kaishek took up leadership of the Kuomintang. Though the Kuomintang and the Communists would fight a bitter war in the years to come, Sun Yatsen is revered by both sides as the founder of modern China. Sun Yatsen’s monumental mausoleum can be visited at Purple Mountain in Nanjing.

Chiang Kaishek took a much harder line against the Communists than his predecessor and really kicked animosities off with a massacre of CPC members in Shanghai in 1927 (one massacre site can be visited at Shanghai’s Park of Revolutionary Martyrs). The following year Chiang’s troops had taken Beijing and established a government, though much of China was still not under Kuomintang control.

The Communists gradually regrouped with a policy of guerilla-style, rural-based revolt advocated by Mao Zedong. After taking heavy losses while trying to fight the Kuomintang forces head on, the Communist troops undertook the famous Long March in 1934. This saw tens of thousands of troops making their way from the south of China, over some of the country’s most rugged terrain, to meet up with the other Communist forces in the city of Yan’an in the north. The journey took a year and most of the men didn’t make it.

In the midst of this civil war, Japan had invaded and taken over all of Manchuria. In 1937, Japan attacked the rest of China. After making quick work of Shanghai, they marched on to Nanjing. The ensuing siege, known as the Rape of Nanking, was one of the most horrific events of any war. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall tells the story of these terrible events, while the Germ Warfare Base in Harbin, where bizarre experiments were carried out on locals, documents some of the other atrocities carried out by Japanese forces. The Kuomintang were forced to move their capital inland to Chongqing and formed a new, uneasy alliance with the Communists against the Japanese.

At the end of the Second World War, the civil war started again in earnest. It was the Communists who employed superior tactics and by 1949 they controlled most of China, while Chiang Kaishek had fled to Taiwan with his remaining forces.

The People’s Republic of China

On October 1st 1949, while standing on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Mao Zedong declared the foundation of People’s Republic of China. Ravaged for decades by civil war and war with the Japanese, China was in a sorry state in 1949. But the Communist leadership was able to harness the population’s feeling of elation at victory and push the country through a remarkable transformation. Land was taken from the landlords and redistributed to the peasants while industry was revived. However, agriculture struggled and the situation was made worse by the Great Leap Forward, started in 1958. The Great Leap Forward called for further collectivization, creating large-scale rural communes and also placed huge emphasis on steel production. Peasants were diverted from working on the land into trying to create quality steel in backyard furnaces – a task that was not possible. Coupled with bad weather and natural disasters, the Great Leap Forward caused widespread famine and mass starvation at the start of the 1960s.

With the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong became somewhat isolated within the Communist Party. To regain influence he set about creating a cult of personality around himself, with his Little Red Book a key component, an act that would eventually lead to the Cultural Revolution (1966-70). Mao’s Red Guards rampaged through the country on a mission of persecution and destruction against liberal elements and anything that symbolized China’s feudal or capitalist past. The Cultural Revolution succeeded in reestablishing Mao’s dominance in the Party, though in the years leading up to his death in 1976 he had only a limited role in managing the country. Mao Zedong’s corpse is still displayed in his mausoleum in the middle of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Reform and Opening Up

After Mao’s death it was Deng Xiaoping, who had been vilified during the Cultural Revolution, who rose to power. Deng started China on the path towards a market economy, instituting a policy of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. But while China gradually opened up to the outside world and its economy grew rapidly, Deng still kept a tight lid on political dissent.

Subsequent leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have kept China on the same course of economic reform and modernization. In 2008 the Beijing Olympic Games acted as a sort of coming out party for China, showing it to be a major player in the modern world.