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Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong Zhou Enlai in North Africa 1963 President Yuan Shikai 1912
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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 monarch.

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 fit.

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 patterns.

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.




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