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Archaeological records of a highly developed civilization in the area now known as China date back to around 4000 BC, suggesting that the Chinese people have shared a common culture longer than any other people on earth. China's first dynasty, the Shang, is believed to have been established around 1800 BC. At that time, the country remained split into many feudal states. Although the King was recognized for his ritual role, power was dispersed among feudal lords, and warring between feudal states was common.
Around 400 BC, a new class of learned men began to form, giving rise to what is sometimes called the Classic Age of Chinese thought. The most famous of these men was Confucius. Confucius asserted that social harmony depends on each individual understanding and acting in accordance with his or her “station in life.” Confucius’ teachings would have a greater influence on China’s development over the next 2,000 years than perhaps any other man, as Confucianism was the official state teaching from 202 BC to 1911.
In 221 BC, China’s first empire was established in which one emperor ruled over a unified China. The first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, centralized political power and standardized language, laws, weights, measures, and coinage. Unfortunately, he also suppressed learning and tried to destroy most religious texts. His dynasty lasted less than 20 years. Although specific Imperial dynasties came in and out of power, the system remained intact until the early part of the 20th century.
By the dawn of the 20th century, China was wracked with internal rebellion and economic stagnation. A Western-influenced political leader named Sun Yet-sen convinced the Chinese to adopt a republican form of government in 1911, touching off a prolonged period of civil war. In 1949, bolstered by the success of Russia following World War II, Communists rose to power and took control of the government, establishing the People's Republic of China. The first 30 years of rule by the Communist Party were marked by cycles of failed economic policies, disunity, and political purges. In particular the 1960s and early 1970s saw a period of economic, political, and social change known as the Cultural Revolution, described by Mao Zedong (the Chairman of the Communist Party) as a movement to counteract “liberal bourgeoisie” elements that wanted to return to capitalism. Although the Cultural Revolution officially ended in 1969, most historians agree it continued until Mao’s death in 1976.
After Mao’s passing, the backlash from the Cultural Revolution lead to the arrest of four influential Party leaders, called the Gang of Four. The public began to turn away from China dominated communism, and in the mid-1980s, the government adopted far-reaching economic reforms with market-oriented incentives. In 2003, the Party even changed its membership rules to include a new type of member—“red capitalists.” Nonetheless, modern China is still far from being an openly democratic or capitalist society; today they describe their new political system as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”