On the left, is a portrait of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong,
painted in 1736 by an Italian Jesuit missionary. At 25, Qianlong
had just become absolute ruler of China. In those days, China,
like all other independent countries, was governed by an hereditary
Qianlong was Emperor from 1736 to 1799 and during his long
reign China was probably the most stable and richest kingdom
in the world.
But Qianlong's reign was the apex of the Qing Dynasty and
after he died the ancient structures that supported Chinese
imperial government began to disintegrate. Little more than
a century later China's government collapsed.
Led by Sun Yat-sen, known as the father of modern China,
the Chinese set up a republic and began experiments with parliamentary
government that continue to this day.
At right is a photograph of the first President of China,
Yuan Shihkai, who was elected in 1912 by the members of China's
first National Assembly in Nanjing.
Yuan Shihkai commanded the most modern army in China. He
believed China needed an autocratic ruler and quickly became
a strong man. His supporters in the primitive legislature
called a special assembly that voted unanimously to make Yuan
Shihkai emperor and reestablish the monarchy on New Year's
Day 1916 (January 1 -- China had just replaced the Chinese
calendar with the Gregorian).
The Chinese Revolution
The world of 1916 swirled with change—old monarchies in
Europe were destroying one another in a savage war, women
wanted to vote, exhausted workers on farms and in factories
sought solace in narcotics while some fought for new ideas
such as "worker's rights" —and all these changes
swept across China too.
So much change had occured that the central government lost
control as whole sections of China declared independence.
Yuan Shikai died within months of becoming Emperor.
The popular uprising that started the Chinese Revolution
in 1911-12 remained a force but was already severely splintered.
Yuan Shihkai was more a symptom than a cause of China's problems.
His death marked the beginning of a long sad chapter in Chinese
history in which the country was torn to pieces by war brought
first by homegrown warlords, then foreign powers, and in the
end by a brutal battle for the very soul of China. There would
be little peace in China until the mid 1950s, some would argue
until the late 1970s.
The force that united the Chinese people was nationalism.
Of all the foreign ideologies that China has toyed with, examined,
or adopted over the years, nationalism is the only one that
A mere 10 years after Yuan Shikai's death China had a renewed
sense of its importance in the world and its greatness. It
was still fragmented but the momentum was toward unification
and the creation of a powerful nation.
At this point another military commander, Generallisimo Chiang
Kai-shek backed by the Soviet Union rose to
prominence after Sun Yat-sen died. China's "open door"
of commerce (famously upheld by the USA) let in foreign involvement
in China's internal affairs.
Before long what was left of China (Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia,
parts of Indo-China were lost when the Chinese empire collapsed)
became a batteground between the Soviet Union, Japan, and
the USA against a national populace divided between Nationalists
(the Kuomintang party founded by Sun Yat-sen and led by Chiang
Kai-Shek) and Communists waging a guerilla war.
The ensuing struggle lasted until 1949 when Mao Zedong, Chairman
of the Chinese Communist Party, declared a "people's
republic" centered in Beijing. His government differed
little from that of his rival Chiang Kai-shek in organization:
both featured one-party rule, subservient national assemblies,
and strong men. But Mao's republic was organized around communist
ideology reconstituted to embrace the country's dispossessed
agricultural workers and retain traditional Chinese bureaucratic
Most importantly, however, the central government created
by Chairman Mao continued the Chinese Revolution. By 1960
China, its people, its economy, its society, were transformed
and its status as a great power returned.
The third picture above is a news service photograph taken
in 1963 of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (Chou Enlai) on a state
visit to Morrocco. Behind him is Foreign Minister Chen Yi.