5 Colossal Events That Changed China Forever

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

What was it? The loss of the First Opium War helped fuel the Taiping Rebellion. The Taiping were a group of unorthodox Chinese Christians led by a man who claimed to be Jesus’ younger brother. Seeking to establish a utopian heavenly kingdom on earth, millions of fanatical Taiping staged an anti-government rebellion. The rebellion was eventually put down, but not until twenty million Chinese had died on both sides, due not only to combat, but to the starvation, illness and crime associated with the conflict. To put this in perspective, the current population of the state of New York is also about twenty million.

Why does it matter now? Western attitudes toward religion are shaped by the experience of the religious wars in Europe following the Protestant Reformation (1517). After centuries of brutal sectarian violence, Westerners came to see the value of religious freedom and tolerance. John Locke (1632-1704), who has a major influence on U.S. political philosophy, gave a paradigmatic expression to this Western perspective on religion in his “Letter Concerning Toleration.” In contrast, the Taiping Rebellion taught China the dangers of allowing religious movements, especially fringe ones, to grow in strength. Consequently, when the Chinese government suppresses Falun Gong, or intervenes in the affairs of Chinese Christians, Westerners conceptualize it as a violation of a fundamental human right, while many Chinese see it as a legitimate effort to head off movements that could become dangerously apocalyptic.

Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)

What was it? The seeds of the Second Sino-Japanese War may be traced to the end of Japan’s Tokugawa Period (1603-1868). This was an era of peace and prosperity in Japan, but one in which society was dominated by the Shōgun, a military dictator, who ruled Japan with an iron fist and outlawed foreign contact. This isolationism came to an abrupt end in 1853 when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay, demanding that Japan sign a trade treaty. When the Japanese demurred, Perry began firing his canons on random buildings in the harbor until they changed their mind. While Japan’s first encounter with the modern West was as disastrous as China’s, Japan was able to rapidly modernize in response. The reasons for the different responses of China and Japan are complex, but include the fact that, in Japan, modernization could be cast as a “restoration” of the authority of the Meiji Emperor against the Shōgun, rather than as a wholesale overthrow of the social hierarchy. Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China is a very readable work that discusses China’s struggles to modernize.

By the turn of the century, Japan had a modern army and navy, which allowed it to easily defeat China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). As a result of this conflict, Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Japan later won the respect of Western powers with its victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which gave it control of Manchuria. At the end of World War I, as a reward for fighting on the Allied side, Japan was given the special economic and political privileges in Shandong province that Germany had previously enjoyed. China, which had fought on the Allied side with the promise that the German privileges would be completely revoked (not just given to someone else), was understandably outraged. Japan eventually provoked all-out war with China in 1937, in what was effectively the beginning of World War II. Historically, an unintended consequence of the war was to guarantee the victory of the Communists. The Communists had been almost annihilated by the pro-Western Nationalists prior to the start of World War II, but they were able to regroup while the Nationalists bore the brunt of the fighting against the Japanese. When the Japanese surrendered, the Communists overran the decimated and exhausted Nationalist forces.