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Ancient China was one of the earliest centers of human civilization. Chinese civilization was also one of the few to invent writing, the others being Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley civilization, the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Minoan civilization of ancient Greece, and Ancient Egypt.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest hominids in China date from 250,000 to 2.24 million years ago. A cave in Zhoukoudian (near present-day Beijing) has fossils dated at somewhere between 300,000 to 780,000 years. The fossils are of Peking Man, an example of Homo erectus who used fire.
The earliest evidence of a fully modern human in China comes from Liujiang County, Guangxi, where a cranium has been found and dated at approximately 67,000 years old. Although much controversy persists over the dating of the Liujiang remains, a partial skeleton from Minatogawa in Okinawa, Japan has been dated to 16,600 to 18,250 years old, so modern humans probably reached China before that time.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Citation_needed ]
Chinese tradition names the first dynasty Xia, but it was considered mythical until scientific excavations found early bronze-age sites at Erlitou in Henan Province in 1959. Archaeologists have since uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs in locations cited as Xia's in ancient historical texts, but it is impossible to verify that these remains are of the Xia without written records from the period.
The first Chinese dynasty that left historical records, the loosely feudal Shang (Yin), settled along the Yellow River in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century BC. The Oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty represent the oldest forms of Chinese writing found and the direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters used throughout East Asia. The Shang were invaded from the west by the Zhou, who ruled from the 12th to the 5th century BC, until their centralized authority was slowly eroded by feudal warlords. Many independent states eventually emerged out of the weakened Zhou state, and continually waged war with each other in the Spring and Autumn period, only occasionally deferring to the Zhou king. By the time of the Warring States period, there were seven powerful sovereign states, each with its own king, ministry and army.
The first unified Chinese state was established by Qin Shi Huang of the Qin state in 221 BC, who proclaimed himself as the "First Emperor" and created many reforms in the Empire, notably the forced standardization of the Chinese language and measurements. The Qin Dynasty lasted only fifteen years, as its harsh legalist and authoritarian policies soon led to widespread rebellion.
The subsequent Han Dynasty ruled China between 206 BC and 220 AD, and created a lasting Han cultural identity among its populace that extends to the present day. The Han Dynasty expanded the empire's territory considerably with military campaigns reaching Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and Central Asia, and also helped establish the Silk Road in Central Asia.
After Han's collapse, another period of disunion followed, including the highly chivalric period of the Three Kingdoms. Independent Chinese states of this period such as Wu opened diplomatic relations with Japan, introducing the Chinese writing system there. In 580 AD, China was reunited under the Sui. However, the Sui Dynasty was short-lived after a failure in the Goguryeo-Sui Wars (598–614) weakened it.
Under the succeeding Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese technology and culture reached its zenith. The Tang Empire was at its height of power until the middle of the 8th century, when the An Shi Rebellion destroyed the prosperity of the empire. The Song dynasty was the first government in world history to issue paper money and the first Chinese polity to establish a permanent standing navy. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, the population of China doubled in size. This growth came about through expanded rice cultivation in central and southern China, and the production of abundant food surpluses.
Within its borders, the Northern Song Dynasty had a population of some 100 million people. The Song Dynasty was a culturally rich period for philosophy and the arts. Landscape art and portrait painting were brought to new levels of maturity and complexity after the Tang Dynasty, and social elites gathered to view art, share their own, and trade precious artworks. Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Chu Hsi reinvigorated Confucianism with new commentary, infused Buddhist ideals, and emphasized a new organization of classic texts that brought about the core doctrine of Neo-Confucianism.
In 1271, the Mongol leader and fifth Khagan of the Mongol Empire Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty, with the last remnant of the Song Dynasty falling to the Yuan in 1279. Before the Mongol invasion, Chinese dynasties reportedly had approximately 120 million inhabitants; after the conquest was completed in 1279, the 1300 census reported roughly 60 million people. A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Mongols in 1368 and founded the Ming Dynasty. Ming Dynasty thinkers such as Wang Yangming would further critique and expand Neo-Confucianism with ideas of individualism and innate morality that would have tremendous impact on later Japanese thought. Chosun Korea also became a nominal vassal state of Ming China and adopted much of its Neo-Confucian bureaucratic structure.
Under the Ming Dynasty, China had another golden age, with one of the strongest navies in the world, a rich and prosperous economy and a flourishing of the arts and culture. It was during this period that Zheng He led explorations throughout the world, possibly reaching America. During the early Ming Dynasty China's capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. In 1644 Beijing was sacked by a coalition of rebel forces led by Li Zicheng, a minor Ming official turned leader of the peasant revolt. The last Ming Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide when the city fell. The Manchu Qing Dynasty then allied with Ming Dynasty General Wu Sangui and overthrew Li's short-lived Shun Dynasty, and subsequently seized control of Beijing, which became the new capital of the Qing dynasty.
The Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1912, was the last dynasty in China. In the 19th century the Qing Dynasty adopted a defensive posture towards European imperialism, even though it engaged in imperialistic expansion into Central Asia. At this time China awoke to the significance of the rest of the world, the West in particular. As China opened up to foreign trade and missionary activity, opium produced by British India was forced onto Qing China. Two Opium Wars with Britain weakened the Emperor's control. European imperialism proved to be disastrous for China:
The Arrow War (1856–1860) [2nd Opium War] saw another disastrous defeat for China. The subsequent passing of the humiliating Treaty of Tianjin in 1856 and the Beijing Conventions of 1860 opened up more of the country to foreign penetrations and more ports for their vessels. Hong Kong was ceded over to the British. Thus, the "unequal treaties system" was established. Heavy indemnities had to be paid by China, and more territory and control were taken over by the foreigners.
The weakening of the Qing regime, and the apparent humiliation of the unequal treaties in the eyes of the Chinese people had several consequences. One consequence was the Taiping Civil War, which lasted from 1851 to 1862. It was led by Hong Xiuquan, who was partly influenced by an idiosyncratic interpretation of Christianity. Hong believed himself to be the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus. Although the Qing forces were eventually victorious, the civil war was one of the bloodiest in human history, costing at least 20 million lives (more than the total number of fatalities in the First World War), with some estimates of up to two hundred million. Other costly rebellions followed the Taiping Rebellion, such as the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars (1855–67), Nien Rebellion (1851–1868), Muslim Rebellion (1862–77), Panthay Rebellion (1856–1873) and the Miao Rebellion (1854–73).
These rebellions resulted in an estimated loss of several million lives each and led to disastrous results for the economy and the countryside. The flow of British opium hastened the empire's decline. In the 19th century, the age of colonialism was at its height and the great Chinese Diaspora began. About 35 million overseas Chinese live in Southeast Asia today. The famine in 1876–79 claimed between nine and 13 million lives in northern China. From 108 BC to 1911 AD, China experienced 1828 famines, or one per year, somewhere in the empire.
While China was wracked by continuous war, Meiji Japan succeeded in rapidly modernizing its military and set its sights on Korea and Manchuria. At the request of the Korean emperor, the Chinese government sent troops to aid in suppressing the Tonghak Rebellion in 1894. However, Japan also sent troops to Korea, leading to the First Sino-Japanese War, which resulted in Qing China's loss of influence in the Korean Peninsula as well as the cession of Taiwan to Japan.
Following this series of defeats, a reform plan for the empire to become a modern Meiji-style constitutional monarchy was drafted by the Emperor Guangxu in 1898, but was opposed and stopped by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who placed Emperor Guangxu under house arrest in a coup d'état. Further destruction followed the ill-fated 1900 Boxer Rebellion against westerners in Beijing.
By the early 20th century, mass civil disorder had begun, and calls for reform and revolution were heard across the country. The 38-year-old Emperor Guangxu died under house arrest on 14 November 1908, suspiciously just a day before Cixi's own death. With the throne empty, he was succeeded by Cixi's handpicked heir, his two year old nephew Pu Yi, who became the Xuantong Emperor. Guangxu's consort, who became the Empress Dowager Longyu. In another coup d'etat, Yuan Shikai overthrew the last Qing emperor, and forced Empress Dowager Longyu to sign the abdication decree as regent in 1912, ending two thousand years of imperial rule in China. She died, childless, in 1913.