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People's Republic of China | Facts and History

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GreatWallViewStockGetty-2000x1334-.jpg

Great Wall of China

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TerracottaWarriorsHorsesPeteSaloutosviaGetty-1600x1063-.jpg

Qin Shi Huangdi's terracotta soldiers and horses, Xi'an

Pete Saloutos via Getty Images
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Shanghai's financial district from the Bund

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The history of China reaches back over 4,000 years. In that time, China has created a culture rich in philosophy and the arts. China has seen the invention of amazing technologies such as silk, paper, gunpowder, and many other products.

Over the millennia, China has fought hundreds of wars. It has conquered its neighbors, and been conquered by them in turn. Early Chinese explorers such as Admiral Zheng He sailed all the way to Africa; today, China's space program continues this tradition of exploration.

This snapshot of the People's Republic of China today includes a necessarily brief scan of China's ancient heritage.

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital:

Beijing, population 11 million.

Major Cities:

Shanghai, population 15 million.

Shenzhen, population 12 million.

Guangzhou, population 7 million.

Hong Kong, population 7 million.

Dongguan, population 6.5 million.

Tianjin, population 5 million.

Government:

The People's Republic of China is a socialist republic ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of China.

Power in the People's Republic is divided between the National People's Congress (NPC), the President, and the State Council. The NPC is the single legislative body, whose members are selected by the Communist Party. The State Council, headed by the Premier, is the administrative branch. The People's Liberation Army also wields considerable political power.

The current President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party is Xi Jinping. The Premier is Li Keqiang.

Official Language:

The official language of the PRC is Mandarin, a tonal language in the Sino-Tibetan family. Within China, however, only about 53 per cent of the population can communicate in Standard Mandarin.

Other important languages in China include Wu, with 77 million speakers; Min, with 60 million; Cantonese, 56 million speakers; Jin, 45 million speakers; Xiang, 36 million; Hakka, 34 million; Gan, 29 million; Uighur, 7.4 million; Tibetan, 5.3 million; Hui, 3.2 million; and Ping, with 2 million speakers.

Dozens of minority languages also exist in the PRC, including Kazakh, Miao, Sui, Korean, Lisu, Mongolian, Qiang, and Yi.

Population:

China has the largest population of any country on Earth, with more than 1.35 billion people.

The government has long been concerned about population growth, and introduced the "One-Child Policy" in 1979. Under this policy, families were limited to just one child. Couples who got pregnant for a second time faced forced abortions or sterilization. This policy was loosened in December of 2013 to allow couples to have two children if one or both of the parents were only children themselves.

There are exceptions to the policy for ethnic minorities, as well. Rural Han Chinese families also have always been able to have a second child if the first is a girl or has disabilities.

Religion:

Under the communist system, religion has been officially discouraged in China. Actual suppression has varied from one religion to another, and from year to year.

Many Chinese are nominally Buddhist and/or Taoist, but don't practice regularly. People who self-identify as Buddhist total about 50 per cent, overlapping with the 30 per cent who are Taoist. Fourteen percent are atheists, four percent Christians, 1.5 per cent Muslims, and tiny percentages are Hindu, Bon, or Falun Gong adherents.

Most Chinese Buddhists follow Mahayana or Pure Land Buddhism, with smaller populations of Theravada and Tibetan Buddhists.

Geography:

China's area is 9.5 to 9.8 million square kilometers; the discrepancy is due to border disputes with India. In either case, its size is second only to Russia in Asia, and is either third or fourth in the world.

China borders 14 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, India, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.

From the world's tallest mountain to the coast, and the Taklamakan desert to the jungles of Guilin, China includes diverse landforms. The highest point is Mt. Everest (Chomolungma) at 8,850 meters. The lowest is Turpan Pendi, at -154 meters.

Climate:

As a result of its large area and various landforms, China includes climate zones from subarctic to tropical.

China's northern province of Heilongjiang has average winter temperatures below freezing, with record lows of -30 degrees Celsius. Xinjiang, in the west, can reach nearly 50 degrees. Southern Hainan Island has a tropical monsoon climate. Average temperatures there range only from about 16 degrees Celsius in January to 29 in August.

Hainan receives about 200 centimeters (79 inches) of rain annually. The western Taklamakan Desert receives only about 10 centimeters (4 inches) of rain and snow per year.

Economy:

Over the past 25 years, China has had the fastest-growing major economy in the world, with annual growth of more than 10 per cent. Nominally a socialist republic, since the 1970s the PRC has remade its economy into a capitalist powerhouse.

Industry and agriculture are the largest sectors, producing more than 60 per cent of China's GDP, and employing over 70 per cent of the work force. China exports $1.2 billion U.S. in consumer electronics, office machinery, and apparel, as well as some agricultural produce each year.

The per capita GDP is $2,000. The official poverty rate is 10 per cent.

China's currency is the yuan renminbi. As of March 2014, $1 US = 6.126 CNY.

History of China:

Chinese historical records reach back into the realm of legend, 5,000 years ago. It is impossible to cover even the major events of this ancient culture in a short space, but here are some highlights.

The first non-mythical dynasty to rule China was the Xia (2200- 1700 BCE), founded by Emperor Yu. It was succeeded by the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), and then the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BCE). Historical records are scanty for these ancient dynastic times.

In 221 BCE, Qin Shi Huangdi assumed the throne, conquering neighboring city-states, and unifying China. He founded the Qin Dynasty, which lasted only until 206 BCE. Today, he is best-known for his tomb complex in Xian (formerly Chang'an), which houses the incredible army of terracotta warriors.

Qin Shi Huang's inept heir was overthrown by the army of commoner Liu Bang in 207 BCE. Liu then founded the Han Dynasty, which lasted until 220 CE. In the Han era, China expanded west as far as India, opening trade along what would later become the Silk Road.

When the Han Empire collapsed in 220 CE, China was thrown into a period of anarchy and turmoil. For the next four centuries, dozens of kingdoms and fiefdoms competed for power. This era is called the "Three Kingdoms," after the three most powerful of the rival realms (Wei, Shu, and Wu), but that is a gross simplification.

By 589 CE, the Western branch of the Wei kings had accumulated enough wealth and power to defeat their rivals, and unite China once more. The Sui Dynasty was founded by Wei general Yang Jian, and ruled until 618 CE. It built the legal, governmental, and societal framework for the powerful Tang Empire to follow.

The Tang Dynasty was founded by a general called Li Yuan, who had the Sui emperor assassinated in 618. The Tang ruled from 618 to 907 CE, and Chinese art and culture flourished. At the end of the Tang, China descended into chaos again in the "5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms" period.

In 959, a palace guard named Zhao Kuangyin took power and defeated the other small kingdoms. He established the Song Dynasty (960-1279), known for its intricate bureaucracy and Confucian learning.

In 1271, the Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Mongols subjugated other ethnic groups including the Han Chinese, and eventually were overthrown by the ethnic-Han Ming.

China flowered again under the Ming (1368-1644), creating great art and exploring as far as Africa.

The final Chinese dynasty, the Qing, ruled from 1644 to 1911, when the Last Emperor was overthrown.  Power struggles between warlords such as Sun Yat-Sen touched off the Chinese Civil War. Although the war was interrupted for a decade by the Japanese invasion and World War II, it picked up again once Japan was defeated. Mao Zedong and the Communist Peoples Liberation Army won the Chinese Civil War, and China became the Peoples' Republic of China in 1949. Chiang Kai Shek, leader of the losing Nationalist forces, fled to Taiwan.

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