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Adventures in China! The Great Wall

History, Politics and Culture of China

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Ancient History

The country’s ancient history is still very much alive in the everyday activities of today’s China. While sometimes shadowed by the growing technological society, historical traditions such as Confucianism and the complex dynasty system still have an obvious influence on modern-day China. Before you begin your China tour, enhance your experience with some background information on the origins of Chinese civilization.

Supposed to have co-existed in areas around the Yellow River as independent principalities from 2200-221 BC, it is believed that the Xia were conquered by the Shang, who were than later conquered by the Zhou. Little is known about the Xia Dynasty (2200 – 1750 BC). In fact, the Xia were once debated by historians to be a myth. While no writing examples have survived, it is almost certain that their writing systems were a precursor to the Shang dynasty’s “oracle bones” system. Shang Dynasty (1750 –1040) has produced the earliest records of an absolute Chinese writing system. These people were very advanced in working with bronze. Human sacrifice was also a large part of their culture. Later dynasties, upon uncovering the mass graves, replaced the Shang sacrifices with terra cotta figures – the clay statues resembling an underground army.

The Shang were conquered in 1040 by the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou practiced a system of a father-son king succession pattern, and unlike the Shang, rejected human sacrifice. The Zhou were able to maintain peace and stability for a few hundred years, until 771 BC, when the capital was stormed by “barbarians” from the west. After this the Zhou moved east causing a decline in their power.

On a tour of China you will learn the origins of concepts, and ideas birthed during this period that continue to be studied and practiced today. Some of the most important of such concepts are Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism (which profoundly influenced the later development of Zen Buddhism). Confucius (500BC) believed that moral men make good rulers and that virtue was attainable by following the proper behaviors. Confucius is also responsible for creating the thought that the Emperor had the mandate of heaven to rule, or was the “Son of Heaven”. Legalism called for the suppression of dissenters, and sought to unify a then divided China through control and imposition of fear. The concept of “loyal opposition” did not exist, since the Emperor had the mandate of heaven to rule. Small battles between divisions soon gave birth to a period characterized by massive armies and long battles.

Early Empire (221BC-589AD)

The warring years ended in 221 BC with the conquering Qin Shihuangdi, a devout legalist. Qin was responsible for linking together old defensive walls to create the beginnings of a China wall (which would later be built by the Ming Dynasty into the Great Wall it is today). Qin died in 210 BC, and not long after the dynasty fell to the Han. The Han perfected the bureaucratic process that all successive dynasties would follow. By developing a system based on the proper behavior from the Confucian Classics and loyalty to the Emperor, the Han made managing a country of roughly 60 million people possible for many years. Due to tribal raiders from the north and a huge population shift from the center of the empire, the Han dynasty lost control in 220 AD, plunging China into 350 years of chaos and disunity. During this period of “three kingdoms”, the ‘barbarians’ maintained control in the north, while the Han resided predominantly in the south. The other notable change was the introduction of Buddhism from India, which then merged with Daoism to form a popular religion and helped shape the emerging culture.

The Second Empire (589-1644)

The Sui Dynasty, while their rule was not exceptionally long, managed to re-unify China under one Emperor. Even though Sui, and the Tang to follow, were based in the north and considered part ‘barbarian’, these dynasties are accepted as being Chinese. The Tang are considered one of the greatest dynasties and extended China’s borders significantly during their rule. The only woman Empress took power during this dynasty, and a devastating eight-year civil war shattered Tang control and the country disintegrated during the following 150 years. The Song Dynasty was the next to step up to re-unify China; this dynasty ushered in a period of tremendous technological, economic and cultural growth. The Song developed agricultural and farming techniques that allowed for sufficient food distribution. These techniques can still be found in use today in remote areas of China, as you may see firsthand on a China tour. The Mongol invasion from the north slowly pushed this dynasty out of power.

The time of Mongol rule, while a dynasty in essence, is considered only an occupation. During this period, reactionary Neo-Confucianism was developed, which led to the Ming Dynasty’s rise to power. The Ming were responsible for moving the capital to Beijing, building the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty was the last to rule starting in 1644. Under the Qing the arts flourished, and China cut itself off from contact with the developing western nations. Rampant corruption, territoriality of western nations over China and decentralization led to many rebellions. One such rebellion was the Taiping, which lead to the final the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. On your tour of China you will find it interesting to observe the transformation the country has experienced and how present day China has come into existence.

See below a brief timeline of the history of the dynasties as well as what each is most noted for:
Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BCE) –Silk weaving invented. Chinese writing developed.
Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BCE) – Iron casting and multiplication tables. Large scale irrigation. Confucius teaches on code of behavior.
Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE)– Strict law code and tax system implemented. Writing, weights, and measures are standardized. Began construction of the Great Wall and Xi’an’s army of terracotta warriors.
Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) – Buddhism arrives from India.  Trade routes to India and Persia are established. Paper invented.
WARRING STATES (220 CE – 581) – Multiple warring kingdoms keep China in chaos.
Sui Dynasty (589-618) – Powerful emperors reunite China. Transportation network is developed, including Grand Canal.
Tang Dynasty (618-907) – Height of Silk Road trade. Golden age of art and learning.
Song Dynasty (907-1279) – First 50 years are marked by disorder. Age of high culture, printing, calligraphy, and poetry.
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) – Genghis Khan leads Mongols in attack on China, his grandson founds the Yuan Dynasty.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) – European traders arrive. commerce grows. Forbidden City is built, and Great Wall is extended.
Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) – Manchu invaders from the North set up this dynasty. Nationalist uprisings bring collapse.

Modern History

China has gone through startling changes in the past hundred years. China travel today provides the opportunity to learn more about the historical events that helped shape modern China.

The last Chinese dynasty ended officially in 1911, with the following years being marked by a battle for power between urban capitalist forces and Mao Zedong of the rural Chinese Communist Party. 

A republican China began in 1911, and due to continuing internal strife – including the development of nationalist and communist parties – China found itself vulnerable to a Japanese invasion in 1937. By 1945, 20 million Chinese had died. With the start of WWII, Japan redirected its attention toward the United States. China’s communist party then began to build up their ranks in the north in order to resume civil war after the Japanese were defeated.
After the end of WWII, China's nationalist party struggled with debt and disorganization, and was defeated by the CCP. Thereafter, Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

In 1958, after becoming increasingly estranged from the original financial backers in Moscow, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward. This program focused on collectivizing farms to increase crop production. The greatest man-made famine resulted, and millions of Chinese starved to death. In its recovery, China tried to position itself as a superpower. But in 1966, Mao’s promotion of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution led to the anti-authoritarian anarchy. Students were encouraged to join Red Guard units and fought government troops, and eventually fought each other for power. The revolution “officially” ending in 1969 with cessation of abuses, but in reality, it did not come to rest until the death of Mao in 1976, having accomplished little of importance.
Deng Xiaoping emerged with an economic reform program in 1978 and instilled the value of function. Propelled by events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, unarmed demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to question political reformation and were put down with force by the CCP. This is a popular sight for China tours to include – it can be an emotional visit for many travelers. Tiananmen Square evokes a variety of passions from local people, as well.

In 1993 Deng publicly approved of economic growth efforts, and afterwards the economy exploded with rapid growth. Deng, perhaps in an effort to change the course of Chinese politics, passed power to Jiang Zemin several years before dying, which may help to establish a pattern for stable transitions between leaders in the future. Though the legacy of intellectual oppression and censorship still exists today, China’s recent leaders have embraced free trade and as such the country’s economy is on the rise due to the influx of global trade.  On a China trip, travelers are able to observe how history has shaped current conditions within the country.


A better understanding of the country's political policies will help enhance your travel experience in China. Following the Cultural Revolution, Chinese leaders set their eye on developing a legal system to restrain abuses of official authority. In 1982 a new state constitution was adopted which included rules of law that even party leaders are subject to. Instead of party leaders, groups of informed citizens in urban and rural communities have been formed into committees that resolve most of China's civil disputes and minor criminal cases. The government has made legal reform a priority and legislation was passed to modernize the nation's judicial systems.

Many improvements have been made in an effort to establish human rights, including allowing citizens to sue officials for abuse of authority, as well as the establishment of trial procedures including rights due process. China acknowledges in principle the necessity to protect human rights and is beginning to undergo a process to bring its practices up to standards with international norms. While in its beginning stages, the initial groundwork is being laid to protect citizens from a repeat of the totalitarian rule of China's history.

China politics are as fascinating as its traditional cultures, diverse landscape, and rare wildlife. Taking the time to learn a little bit about the country's politics will only add to the intimacy of your China travel experiences.


People: Over one hundred ethnic groups have inhabited the country of China, many assimilating into neighboring ethnicities, disappearing altogether, or merging into the more prominent Han comprised of various smaller groups.

Language: On your China trip it is quite possible that you will hear variety in the language being spoken, as the Han speak several different dialects and languages that share a common written standard. This standard is called Vernacular Chinese and is based on Standard Mandarin, the most prominent spoken language. The People’s Republic of China now officially recognizes a total of 56 ethnic groups wrapped into this one country that is makes up 1/5 of the world’s population.

Religion: Though the Chinese government has officially classified the country as an athiest nation, supervised religions are allowed. Historically, Taoism and Buddhism are the dominant religions, with Christianity and Islam comprising less than 6% of the population when combined.

Literature: Chinese literature has been an ingrained art since the development of printmaking during the Song Dynasty. Many manuscripts of Classics and religious texts comprised of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist were manually written by ink brush. Tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts still exist and many more are being discovered each day.

Education: The Chinese developed a meritocratic method for creating opportunity for social advancement. Anyone who could perform well on the imperial examinations, which required students to write essays and demonstrate mastery of the Confucian classics, became elite scholar-officials known as jinshi. This method largely excluded females or those too poor to prepare for the test. This theory was largely different from the European system of blood nobility. Chinese philosophers, writers, and poets in past and present have been highly respected and continue to play key roles in promoting the culture of the Chinese empire.

Calligraphy: Even before you begin your China travels, it is likely you will have had previous exposure to one of China’s highest ranking art forms—calligraphy. Calligraphy ranks even higher in China than painting or music. It holds an association with elite scholars, and after becoming commercialized, the work of a famous artist becomes very valuable.

Art & Music: The amazing variation in Chinese landscapes has inspired great works of art and Chinese paintings; during your China trip, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to visit the regions of China that have long motivated the masters. Sushi and Bonzai, also native Chinese art forms, spread later to Japan and Korea due to their popularity. The Chinese have also contributed many musical instruments, including the zheng, xiao and erhu.

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