9 things you should really learn about the history of China

China is the next superpower – but to be part of its future we must understand its past. BBC2's The Story of China presenter Michael Wood helps you get started

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The Chinese are coming. Their government aims to turn China into a “prosperous and democratic socialist society” by 2049, and though in the short term there are worrying signs of a new and assertive nationalism – not to mention social, political and environmental challenges – in the longer term it seems to me there is much room for optimism.

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After 4,000 years of Chinese civilisation, with its almost boundless invention and creativity, the world needs a prosperous – and a peaceful – China like never before.

To know about China you need to know its history. Nine is an auspicious number, representing long life and power: here, then, is the story of China told around nine key dates.


1. The Mandate of Heaven (1046 BCE)

The Chinese call their country Zhongguo, which means the Middle Kingdom. Originally that meant the land in the plain of the Yellow River, where Chinese civilisation arose in the Bronze Age. The first great dynasty was the Shang (c 1575–1046 BCE – ‘Before Common Era’, the equivalent to BC).

Legend said the last Shang king was cruel and lustful; he met his end, in a tale of incredible drama, when he walked into a fire dressed in his jade suit. His demise was foretold in the stars in a rare conjunction of five planets, which happens only once every 516 years. Helped by the Beijing Planetarium, we pinpointed the exact day!

The victors, the Zhou, established the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, in which a just ruler maintains harmony between Heaven and Earth. In reality, in China’s long history this was seldom achieved, but the ideal became deeply ingrained in the minds of the Chinese people.


2. The First Emperor (221 BCE)

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In 221 BCE, the Qin emperor created China’s first centralised, unified state. The famous Terracotta Army, excavated near Xi’an, guards his tomb. Amazing discoveries are still being made there, although the chamber itself – with its reputed pearl-studded ceilings and rivers of mercury – is yet to be opened.

The Qin emperor gave the world the name China. He standardised weights and measures, script and currency, built roads and the first Great Wall, but was also said to burn books and bury scholars alive. That tension between the humanist and the autocratic is one of the burdens, and challenges, of China’s history.


3. The Glory of the Tang (635)

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Emperor Wudi of the expansive Tang dynasty, rendered in ink on silk

Ask Chinese people their favourite period and most will say the Tang (618–907): an age of political, cultural and commercial expansiveness when China went out to the world.

In 635 the emperor Taizong welcomed a Christian mission to Xi’an and allowed them to build churches. The same year the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang arrived in the Indian capital, initiating one of the great cultural exchanges in history.

With the help of storytellers, shadow puppet players and Buddhist monks, we tell the tale as we travel along the Silk Road, down the Grand Canal and into the teeming markets of old Xi’an and Luoyang.


4. The Age of Invention (1088)

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If I could go back to one time in China it would be the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Its capital Kaifeng was perhaps the greatest city anywhere in the world before the 19th century. In its alleys are temples, churches and women’s mosques, not to mention China’s last Jewish community, and it had the world’s first great restaurant culture.

Long before the Renaissance, the Chinese invented printing, paper money, coke smelting, gunpowder, the magnetic compass, water-driven spinning machines, the endless chain-drive mechanism and, in 1088, the astronomical clock of Su Song (above), the Chinese Leonardo da Vinci. Turning the wheel of the 45ft-high working replica is like being on the bridge of a sailing boat as it clunks and gurgles while counting the hours.

And in the Song dynasty they even invented football, as we show in Beijing at the crunch Premier League match. As they say: zu qiu hui jia le – football’s coming home!


5. The Great Ming Voyages (1405)

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The Forbidden City, the Great Wall and fabulous cobalt-blue porcelain: the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) is how we imagine historic China.

In 1405 the usurper emperor, Yongle, sent the first of seven great voyages to India, Africa and the Persian Gulf. We filmed the construction of a spectacular full-sized replica of one of his ships in Nanjing. And we stayed in a Ming-dynasty merchant’s house in Suzhou to explore the lantern-lit canals, visit silk weavers and feast our eyes on an exquisite Ming garden. If you’re tired of Suzhou, you’re tired of life!


6. The Greatest Emperor (1705)

In 1644 the declining Ming state fell to the Manchus, who became China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911). Three emperors reigned between 1661 and 1795, during which time they doubled the size of China. The first, Kangxi, was one of China’s greatest rulers. In 1705 he commissioned The Complete Tang Poems, 48,000 of them, on hand-cut woodblocks.

Into this world in 1793 came the British, angling for a trade deal. Ambassador Macartney dismissed his hosts as “a crazy old man of war… which may drift for a while yet, but can never be rebuilt on the same keel”. The world was about to change.


7. The British & the Opium War (1841)

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Modern Chinese history begins here. The British blew the Chinese junks out of the water in the First Opium War and China entered its “century of humiliation” and of foreign domination. Ironically, Hong Kong and treaty ports such as Shanghai, today one of the biggest cities in the world, became the catalyst for the transformation of China in recent times.


8. The End of the Empire (1911)

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An execution during the Boxer Rebellion

Shaken by military defeat and internal rebellion, the imperial system was now in crisis. New ideas flooded in, from naval technology and railways to democracy and parliamentary government. This was a revolutionary time, with feminists, new world philosophers, socialists and constitutional monarchists all arguing over China’s future. Terminally rocked by the Boxer Rebellion, the empire fell in 1911 and China became a Republic. But in its brief life it never knew peace.


9. The Communist Revolution (1949)

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The Chinese were Britain’s allies in the First World War, providing 140,000 labourers on the Western Front. But in the Treaty of Versailles the German colonies in China were handed over to Japan, sparking fury and a new wave of political and cultural struggle. That the Communists won out was really an accident of history. It was the Japanese invasion that turned them into a liberation movement.

After all the suffering, the People’s Republic began in 1949 in a mood of optimism, but the truth is that all the 20th century’s one-party states were tyrannies, and Mao’s China was no different. In the Great Leap Forward and Great Famine, tens of millions of people died, the largest man-made catastrophe in China’s history.

Despite this, the Party held on to power and, though moves to political reform were put on hold after the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, its economic and social achievements since have been jaw-dropping. Today, China, the oldest state on Earth, is – despite some recent wobbles – flexing its muscles as the second-biggest economy in the world.

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The Story of China begins on BBC2 tonight (Thursday 21st January) at 9pm