5 Colossal Events That Changed China Forever

"Knowledge of five major historical events is essential to fully understanding contemporary Chinese politics and foreign policy."

As Shakespeare reminds us, “what’s past is prologue.” This is especially the case with China, a nation with a continuous written history spanning three millennia. In particular, knowledge of five major historical events is essential to fully understanding contemporary Chinese politics and foreign policy.

Reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722)

What was it? The last Chinese dynasty was the Qing (1644-1911), and it reached its peak under the Kangxi Emperor. Kangxi’s reign was a time of efflorescence in literature and the arts, but also a period of aggressive military expansion. The territory effectively controlled by China has varied greatly over time. Many regions that are now part of the People’s Republic have not traditionally been under Chinese control, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and inner Mongolia. Indeed, some of the peoples of these areas dominated the Chinese. However, by the end of Kangxi’s reign, China had conquered all these provinces and more.

Why does it matter now? As Harold M. Tanner points out in his excellent China: A History, the West typically understands the changes China has undergone since the death of Mao Zedong (1976) as a matter of “opening” itself up after a period of “self-imposed isolation.” In contrast, the Chinese narrative is one of “a recovery of lost glory.” The image of that glory is the reign of Kangxi, in which China was the undisputed economic, military, and cultural power of Asia. And although the borders of Kangxi’s China are uncharacteristic of most of Chinese history, they typically coincide with China’s view of what “belongs” to it. Thus, Taiwan, which has not been governed by the People’s Republic since 1949, and had no substantial Chinese presence prior to the 17th century, is considered worth going to war over. And, as I always remind my draft-age students, the United States has a defense treaty with Taiwan, which would obligate us to defend them in the event of an attack from the mainland.

Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860)

What was it? By the early nineteenth century, Britain was spending large amounts of silver to buy Chinese silks, porcelain products, and especially tea. The English “tea” comes from tê, the word for tea in the dialect of Fujian, from which the British exported their products. However, China didn’t need anything Britain was selling, thereby creating a serious trade imbalance.  Ingenious British merchants facilitated the recreational use of opium, which they grew in British-controlled India and then sold in China. The Hongkong-Shanghai Banking Corporation, now known as HSBC, was founded to meet the needs of British merchants in China. This solved Britain’s trade problem, but created an addiction crisis in China. When China tried to enforce its laws against opium importation, Britain responded by waging war in the name of “free trade.” The technologically superior British military crushed the Chinese. As a result of the Opium Wars, China was, in the blunt words of one Western diplomat, “carved up like a melon” into “spheres of influence.” The United Kingdom and other European powers forced China to accept treaties that essentially allowed them to govern parts of China’s own territory. It was also during this period that Hong Kong was “leased” to Britain.

Why does it matter now? The Opium Wars began what China refers to as the “Century of Humiliations” (百年国耻) at the hands of foreign powers. Like an adult who was bullied in grade school, China continues to bristle at anything that even hints that others are pushing it around or trying to take what belongs to it. Calls to “Free Tibet” may resonate across the political spectrum in the United States, but China sees them as examples of foreigners interfering in its internal affairs. In fact, China has repeatedly compared the Tibetan independence movement to the secession of the Confederate States, and has even suggested that, as an African-American, President Obama should appreciate China’s policy on Tibet. The consequences of British control of Hong Kong also continue to be felt. Despite having been returned to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kongers (who are most comfortable speaking English or Cantonese) refer to the Mandarin-speaking mainlanders who have flooded Hong Kong as “locusts.” The statuses of Hong Kong and Tibet are related, since any concessions given to the one (like greater home rule) are sure to be demanded by the other.

Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864)