CBC Digital Archives

The leaders of post-imperial China

"When the sleeping dragon awakes," Napoleon once said of China, "he will shake the world." In the 20th century, multiple upheavals shook the Asian giant. The rule of emperors gave way to civil war and the Communist revolution, closing China to the world. The doors slowly opened in the 1970s with new diplomatic ties and economic reforms. The crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 barely checked China's growth, and today the world's most populous nation is on its way to superpower status. CBC Archives presents China as CBC journalists have seen it over the decades.

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The first half of the 20th century was a time of great change in China. For centuries, China had been ruled by a series of dynasties, or imperial families. In 1912, the Republic of China was born when the emperor of the Manchu dynasty was overthrown in a revolution led by Sun Yat-sen. Two other leaders would dominate China before 1949: Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. China expert Lewis Walmsley describes the three leaders in this CBC clip.

After Sun's revolution fell into disarray in 1916, China was controlled by warlords who conscripted local peasants for private armies. But the revolutionaries carried on, with communists and nationalists united against the warlords. Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the leader of China's Nationalist party, the Guomindang. In 1927, he led a purge of the communists from the party, exiling them to mountain refuges.

Despite a looming threat from Japan in the 1930s, Chiang focused most of the country's resources on annihilating communist guerrillas. Led by Mao Zedong, a founder of the Chinese Communist Party, the communists set out northwards on the Long March, a 9,700-kilometre mountain trek, to establish a new base and launch a challenge to Chiang's leadership of China. 
• Before the 20th century, China's traditional dominant ideology was Confucianism. Named for the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC), this system of thought is both a political philosophy and a personal code of conduct. Confucius believed rulers should be self-disciplined and should lead by virtue, not by laws.

• The dynasties that ruled China for centuries date back to the 18th century BC. The Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BC) was the first, succeeded by the Zhou and, in the 3rd century BC, by the Qin dynasty. The Qin dynasty was the first to unite the various parts of the country.
• It's believed the name China derives from the Qin dynasty (pronounced "chin"). In Mandarin, the dominant language, China is called Zhongguo, or Middle Kingdom.

• Westerners, including famed 13-century explorer Marco Polo, have been travelling in China for about 2,000 years. Chinese silk and other goods were brought west on the Silk Road trade route. In turn, traders brought ivory, glass-making techniques and new breeds of horses back to China.
• The Silk Road closed in the 14th century, but by the early 19th century European trading companies had begun clamouring to buy Chinese goods such as tea, fabrics, porcelain and sugar.

• The Chinese enforced very strict rules in trading, and because they had no want for Western goods, they accepted only silver as payment. But that would change when European merchants introduced opium, an addictive drug, to China.
• The Opium War (1839-42) followed, and when it was over England had won the island of Hong Kong from China. Five cities on China's coasts were also opened to more trade.

• Further upheavals followed, culminating in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The rebellion was launched by a secret society of Chinese who opposed the presence of foreigners, particularly Christian missionaries, in their country. The rebellion was ultimately put down.
• Meanwhile, in 1894, Sun Yat-sen founded his own secret society of overseas Chinese to carry out the overthrow of the ruling Manchu dynasty.

• Sun was educated by British Anglicans in Hawaii and became a baptized Christian in 1884. He was also a physician.
• Sun's group's aim was to restore China to the Chinese and establish a republican government. Between 1905 and 1911 it tried 10 times to assassinate imperial leaders and destabilize Manchu rule. Success finally came in late 1911, propelling an uprising among officials and the military that forced the abdication of Emperor Puyi in 1912.

• The leader of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai, then took power. But after Yuan's death in 1916, control of the country fell to numerous regional warlords.
• In the early 1920s, Sun accepted the support of the Soviets to reorganize his revolutionary political party. It became known as the Guomindang (KMT), or Nationalist party.
• The party was "nationalist" in the sense that it opposed both dynastic rule and foreign imperialism.

• Sun died in 1925.
• The Chinese naming system differs from that in most of the Western world. In China, a person's family name comes first, followed by given names.
• The transliterated spellings of many Chinese place names and people's names have changed over the years. What was once Peking is now Beijing; communist leader Mao Tse-tung became Mao Zedong.
Medium: Radio
Program: University of the Air
Broadcast Date: Nov. 11, 1958
Host: Lewis Walmsley
Duration: 3:39

Last updated: October 21, 2013

Page consulted on April 15, 2014

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