If the second half of the 19th century was bad, the first half of 20th would be worse. Millions more would die after an unrelenting succession of wars, floods, drought and famine.
After the fall of empire, China’s political landscape changed dramatically and would soon be dominated by the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
World War 1
Emboldened by successful wars against China and Russia, Japanese aggression continues to build. At the same time, Europe’s aggressive empire-building starts to fade, as they become increasingly preoccupied by bigger problems back home.
1914: World War I breaks out. Japan aligns with Britain and France and seizes German’s Qingdao areas.
1919: After WWI ends, the Paris Peace Conference meets to set the peace terms for Germany and other defeated nations. The Chinese – who reluctantly joined the Allies—assumed that they would regain Qingdao. But instead, the Allies gives Qingdao to Japan.
May Fourth Movement
The Chinese—led by angry students—demand the return of Qingdao. Starting in what would later be Tiananmen Square, student riots flare up in Beijing and quickly spreads to Shanghai and other cities. This May Fourth Movement becomes a catalyst for change—signaling the start of great nationalist movement in China.
The Commies Join The Party
Shanghai got a big boost by the Taiping Rebellion. After rebels seized Nanjing, Western powers were forced to find an alternative port. By the 1920s, Shanghai was the 5th largest city in world—a cosmopolitan soup of foreigners, vice, and counterculture.
It was there in 1921 that Mao Zedong—inspired by calls for change and influenced by Communist writings—establishes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), under the slogan, “Destroy the Old China.” Soon, his People Power message catches on—peasants and workers start to drink the Kool Aid.
1925: Sun Yat-Sen dies from cancer. One of his lieutenants, Chiang Kai-shek takes over a fragile central government and soon starts to butt heads with the CCP.
1927: Chiang Kai-shek orders “White terror” purges of CCP members in Shanghai and other cities. Tens of thousands are killed. He names Nanjing as the real capital of the Republic. The CCP leave the cities and take control of the countryside.
1928: Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT forces take Beijing.
1931: Taking advantage of the infighting, Japan seizes Manchuria.
1933: Japanese seize the area around Chengde and attack passes on the Great Wall north of Beijing (you can see thousands of bullet holes near the Wall’s First Pass Under Heaven, aka: Shanhaiguan). The League of Nations condemns Japanese aggression. They walk out of the League in March.
THE LONG MARCH (or “These boots are made for walking”)
Meanwhile, KMT forces are close to completely defeating the Communists. In 1934, they’re close to surrounding them, but the remnants of the Mao’s Red Army somehow escapes–starting The Long March to their northern base of Yan’an in Shaanxi province—a 8,000 mile trek crossing 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers.
They started out with about 100,000 soldiers. A year later, only 7,000 made it to their destination. They regain strength as Mao develops his guerrilla warfare strategy.
The Xi’an Incident
The 1936 Xian Incident was a turning point for Mao’s Communists. Despite problems with the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek wants to focus on eliminating the Commies. As he put it, the Japanese were only a “disease of the skin” while the Communists were a “disease of the heart” (a graver threat to China’s survival).
But most of the KMT troops are less eager to fight their own countrymen, and more eager to defeat the Japanese. When he goes to their base in Xi’an to rally troops to fight Mao’s army, he’s faced with a mutiny. His own top officers place him under house arrest until he agrees to form a United Front with Mao against the Japanese.
1937: All out war begins with Japanese after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Beijing.
China is no match for Japan’s disciplined and modern war machine. They take Beijing, Shanghai, and soon most of China’s major coastal cities.
China is further hampered by lack of coordination and trust between the KMT and Communists. To this day, each side still blames the other for lack of resolve in fighting Japan.
The Nanjing Massacre
1937-8: Nanjing (Nanking) falls to the Japanese, starting the infamous reign of terror called the Nanking Massacre (sometimes called the “Chinese holocaust”). Of the estimated 200,000-300,000 Chinese killed, the majority were civilians. Tens of thousands–old and young—are brutally raped by Japanese soldiers (the subject of the 1997 book The Rape of Nanking and the 2009 movie, Nanking).
The incident continues to bedevil Sino-Japanese relations to this day (usually when Japanese leaders pay their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, the burial place of many officers considered to be war criminals by the Chinese).
WWII: A War of Attrition
Summer 1941: US support for China grows—volunteer airmen from the US fly to China to form the famous “Flying Tigers’ air force in Kunming.
December 1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. Eight hours later, they attack Hong Kong. The British surrender after 17 days of fierce fighting, marking the first time in history that a British Crown Colony surrendered to an invading force.
Allied forces and the Chinese hope to wear down Japan in China with a war of attrition. The Chinese campaign was able to divert more than half-million Japanese troops during Asian conflict (an estimated 70% of Japanese WWII casualties were in China).
1945: Japan surrenders.
Civil War Breaks out (AGAIN)
Bitterness between the two sides boils over soon after the Japanese surrender. Once again, the Nationalists reoccupied the cities while the CCP controlled the countryside. For the next four years, civil war engulfed China again.
On paper, the KMT Nationalists had the advantage—better resources and strong anti-Commie support from the US. But they had grown increasingly corrupt, ineffective, and unpopular during the war against Japan. One big problem was inflation, which kept rising as morale kept dropping.
Meanwhile, Mao Zedong is able to articulate a clearer and more inspiring vision. The CCP gains a reputation among workers and farmers as an organization of the common man. Chiang Kai-shek responds with increased repression (public executions on street corners were common).
The tide turns towards the Communist army— now called the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). Mao’s Red Army starts defeating KMT forces. The Commies take Beijing in January 1949. Nanjing and Shanghai would soon follow.
By the end of the year, remaining KMT forces flee to Taiwan (a former Japanese colony since 1895. They surrendered it after losing WWII…though to no country in particular). Chiang Kai-shek sets up a government in exile there—the Republic of China.
The KMT also escapes with many of China’s best treasures. Today, The National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan is by far the best place to see China’s ancient art and artifacts (almost 700,000 pieces, which are continuously rotated).
October 1, 1949: At a huge rally on Tiananmen Square, Mao claims the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).