Historical Background

One Hundred Years in China

Key in our attempt at understanding contemporary China is for us to learn about the nation’s past. A look at the 6000 year history of this vast and complex nation shows a country caught in the throngs of change. But we’ll start in this century in the year 1911. It was the year the Qing dynasty fell from more than four thousand years of dynastic rule. The death of the ruling empress left the dynasty without a figurehead and the revolutionary republicans seized the opportunity to gain control. Violent uprisings were held across the nation. Within two months of the start of the revolution, a provisional government was set up in Nanjing, (just west of Shanghi).

Over the next 38 years, China’s history included massacres of thousands of communists, grassroots rebellions, the bloody invasion by the Japanese during WWII and a civil war. China’s political and civil juggling came to an end in 1949 when Chairman Mao Zedong and the communist party gained control and established the People’s Republic of China.

The country was broke, the infrastructure was destroyed, and irrigation, farming and livestock populations had dwindled. The task of restructuring China was immense. In a few quick paragraphs, I’ll attempt to sum up three monumental events and campaigns in China’s recent history that have brought the nation to where it is today. The first, the Hundred Flowers Campaign.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign

In 1957, Mao called to the public to let “a hundred flowers bloom”. The idea was to open the doors to criticism for artists and intellectuals. Over the ensuing months, a flood of intellectual criticism poured into newspapers and media ranging from caution on dam construction, the need for population control and calling for an end to political corruption. Six months after the campaign 300,000 critics were branded rightist and either removed from jobs, incarcerated or sent to labor camps. Many considered the campaign a ploy from the government to draw out “rightists”, but the affect was a stifling of intellectual freedom and governmental criticism.

The Great Leap Forward

The stage of China’s history that is most influential for the Rivers in Demand project began in1958. By then, China’s agriculture still failed to provide for it’s burgeoning population, which was then approaching 800 million. Mao’s solution to this was called the Great Leap Forward. The essential idea was to take China, then a largely developing nation, and vault the country into a world power through increased production of steel and grain. Traditional knowledge was abandoned and logic was lost somewhere between the mantra of more grain and more steel. Powering this idea was a list of slogans that included “destroy the forests, open the wasteland”, “plant sprouts in the center of lakes”, and “squeeze land from rock peaks and squeeze grain from rocks”. By 1959, the effort had backfired and the country had slid into the world’s greatest man-made famine. The Three Hard Years, as they were called, resulted in the death of between 30-60 million people. The failure of the Great Leap Forward led to the resignation of Chairman Mao as the head of state, though he remained the leader of the communist party. The environmental implications of this brief era can be seen across the landscape, but it must be recognized that this era gives pertinent background to the current environmental history for China but it is only one period in a long legacy of the nation’s relationship with the environment. 

The Cultural Revolution

The most recent stage in China’s history is the Cultural Revolution. In an effort to re-consolidate power in 1966 to 1970, Mao succeeded in vilifying arts, intellectuals, religion, science and literature. Anything viewed as feudal, exploitative, or capitalist were a part of the past, and all things past were to be destroyed. Dress codes were enforced, families were divided, and violators of these norms were punished through physical beatings, execution, prison camps and a list of horrific penalties. The cultural revolution was a monumental event in recent history but because of its sensitivity, many people on the streets today lived through these years.  I don’t feel comfortable elaborate on it without a closer understanding of the events. That said, Mao did succeed in re-consolidating power.

A Contemporary Brief

Since the Cultural Revolution, China’s political turmoil has calmed. Relations with the west have strengthened and the economy has blossomed into the fourth largest in the world. The population is now at 1.3 billon people and the country has to contend with the task of caring for these people on an environmental legacy established during the Great Leap Forward. Culturally, the country is caught in a tug of war between rapid technological advancement and calls from the youth to loosen the government’s grasp on political freedom and a civil dynamic formed by the Cultural Revolution. The future of China will no doubt be as fascinating and complex as its past.  We will continue to expand on this section in the coming weeks.


~ by epicocity on March 19, 2008.

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