The Last Dynasty?


Now that we have reached the 20th century, is it perhaps time for the archaeologist to step down? Or can I claim that the archaeologist is someone who takes the long view, who can see the big picture of the whole of history? So perhaps I should continue and take a long-sighted, archaeological view of what has been happening in China in the 20th century and 21st century?  And from the archaeological point of view, do I not see China continue the same dynastic pattern as before? The Qing dynasty collapses, is followed by an age of disunity when the country is divided between different warlords; and then comes the great dynamic but very cruel emperor who brings China together again and founds a new dynasty, but who has significant drawbacks (to put it mildly). Then there is a succession of good emperors who make China once again into a great empire. Can 20th century China, with certain adjustments, be interpreted in this way?


Sun Yat Sen, the first President of the Republic of China

The Qing dynasty fell in 1911 when the emperor Puyi formally abdicated and the Republic of China was proclaimed. A period of disunity followed, an age of Warlords, each desperately trying to rule over a small bit of China. There were however two major antagonists, each trying to bring China together under their command, the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party. The Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang, the KMT began as the leading party. The leader was Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925) who was proclaimed as the first President of the Republic of China. Sun Yat-Sen is what might be called a respectable revolutionary, indeed today he is the only figure of this warlord period who is admired both in mainland China and in Taiwan. He was qualified as a medical doctor, was baptised as a Christian, but spent much of his life in exile abroad (rather like the Greek Eleftherios Venizelos). He tended to fail as a revolutionary fighter – indeed he was abroad when the revolution finally succeeded, and he had to be recalled to be the first President. But he preached the “Three Principles” which formed the new China: Nationalism, Democracy and the ‘Livelihood of the People’ (whatever that may be). But he died at the early age of 59 and was succeeded by a rather more controversial revolutionary, Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975).


Chiang Kai-shek, who succeeded Sun Yat Sen as head of the Nationalist party, but who opposed the Communist party, and when the Nationalists were defeated, led them into taking over Taiwan.

Chiang was a dynamic character with a fiery temper and he soon made the big mistake of falling out with the rising Communist Party. He did not believe in democracy but they did, or at least in their version of democracy, ruled by workers and peasants. (Communists always like to believe they are democratic). By 1935 it looked as if the Nationalists were winning and had penned up the Communists in the southern province of Jiangxi.







The route of the ‘Long March’, which began in Jiangxi in the south east, and went on a 6,000 mile journey to Shaanxi in the north west. There were several different ‘Long Marches’.

However they escaped and set out on a ‘Long March’ lasting over a year (1934-1935), going round in a semi-circle and ending up in the north-western coal mining province of Shaanxi. Here they regrouped in an area where there were rather more workers, but then two years later the Japanese invaded, so the Communists and Nationalists patched up their differences and entered an uneasy alliance.


In the Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese invaded China and conquered the areas marked red on the map.

The Japanese invasion is known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, the first being from 1894-95, while the second began in 1937 and lasted until the Japanese were atom bombed into surrender in 1945. The Sino-Japanese War is an aspect of the Second World War that is little known in the West, but whereas the Japanese marched down to Burma and captured Singapore from the British with contemptuous ease, the Chinese offered a sterner challenge. The Japanese captured nearly half the country; at an early stage they took Shanghai and they soon marched on to capture the populous province of Henan at the heart of China. But the Chinese fought back with dogged guerrilla warfare and the Japanese got bogged down:  they had the Americans to fight and they needed to retain their newly conquered territories in Burma and in South East Asia. The end came rather suddenly, and it was to the Chinese an unexpected but very welcome collapse.

Once the Japanese were out of the way, Nationalists and Communists once again began fighting each other and there was a short, sharp civil war. The Communists were by this time much better organised, and under the inspiring leadership of Mao Zedong they soon won out, and on 1st October 1949 they proclaimed the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC). The Nationalists fled to Taiwan where they took over an island that was certainly not expecting this invasion. Taiwan under Chang Kai-Shek was a fairly grim story, but after his death in 1975 his successors had been economically successful and politically canny.


Mao Zedong


Mao with his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, called “Madame Mao,” 1946 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Our story now falls into two parts: first the rule of Mao Zedong (the first emperor?) and then the rule of his successors. The rule of the first emperor falls into two halves: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Both were hugely traumatic, both involved a huge loss of life, but the old China with its ranked society, its aristocracy and its peasants was destroyed for ever and a new society finally emerged. When the Communists took over they began by following the example of communist Russia and undertook land reform, launching collectivist farming and state operated industry. But the pace was too slow for Mao, and he determined to make a Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). Agriculture was totally transferred to communes, private plots were forbidden, small scale iron and steel making was encouraged, and there were massive infrastructure projects and the Yellow River was finally pushed behind massive banks.


Backyard furnaces in China during the Great Leap Forward era.

The first year was a big success, but in the second year everything fell apart. The harvest failed, the backyard furnaces producing iron and steel could not reach the right temperature and only produced brittle iron, the communes all reported that they had fulfilled their quotas, but they were all lying. Grain continued to be exported to the Soviet Union even though the Chinese did not have enough: famine set in, and it is estimated that by the time the five-year programme came to an end in 1962, between 20 and 46 million people had died of famine.






Chinese propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution: “Destroy the old world. Forge the new world.” A Red Guard crushes the crucifix, Buddha, and classical Chinese texts with a hammer; 1967.

This was a bit of a setback for Mao, and for four years he laid low. The Revolution was not going well, the revolutionary fervour was dying down, and what is more, new elites were emerging from among the people. This must be stopped and so in 1966, after four years of relative quiescence, a Cultural Revolution was launched to bring back the old revolutionary fervour. Bands of youngsters were organised as Red Guards to terrify and re-educate their elders. Schools were closed, intellectuals were sent out into the countryside to be re-educated and the most terrifying reign of terror that the world had ever seen was launched. It lasted in its full fervour for three years until 1969 when it was partially abated, though it continued to some extent until Mao’s death in 1976. China at the end of it was a very different place.



Despite the one-child policy, the population of China continues to rise.



Despite everything, China in a way flourished: the population which had been 540 million in 1949 had grown to just over 940 million in 1976. Life expectancy which had been 35 years in 1948 had increased to 66 years in 1976, while infant mortality fell from 227 per 1,000 births to 53 per 1,000 births in 1981. The figures are no doubt doctored, but they are nevertheless impressive. Indeed, the population growth was alarming. It was argued that 700 million was the ideal target for the population of China, and so in 1980 a one-child policy was introduced, limiting families to one child. The policy has in many ways been a huge success in that the population growth has slowed, especially when compared to India and Africa where the population explosion continues. Nevertheless, the population of China continues to grow and is today in excess of 1.3 billion, so it is clear that the policy has been widely evaded. The policy only applies in towns, and in the countryside two children are allowed, and in the autonomous regions – Tibet and Mongolia, it does not apply at all. Recently, further exemptions have been announced.


The policy has its critics, both fair and unfair. One criticism is that as the population grows old, one young worker may have to support two parents and four grand-parents. Another criticism is that there is an excess of boys, and the policy needs to be rejigged to encourage the production of girls. But much of the criticism in the west seems unjustified: China with its one child policy is economically booming, while India and Africa and the Muslim countries are economically dead. One suspects that it is better to have to support two parents and possibly four grandparents rather than have to bring up a dozen children.


Chou en Lai in 1946,

But the real secret behind Mao Zedong’s success – if success is the right word – is the man behind the throne: Chou En-Lai. Chou was a contemporary and in the early days they ran the Communist party together, indeed at one time Chou was the boss and Mao was his assistant. But Mao had the charisma and became the great leader, but Chou was one of the world’s great diplomats and a superb administrator and it was he who kept China together and tempered at least some of Mao’s excesses. He died just six months before Mao in 1976.


The five generations


Deng Xiaoping, who set China on the road to economic success.

Following Mao there have been four great leaders of the Chinese people. They are referred to in terms of generations, Mao being the first generation and the current ruler Xi Jinping being the fifth. After Mao’s death there was an unseemly scramble for power. His chosen successor was ousted, the Gang of Four were set aside and humiliated, and Deng Xiaoping became the paramount leader (1976-1992). He proved to be a genius: although politically conservative – none of this democratic nonsense – he pragmatically introduced a market economy. Underlying the surface in China there was a great entrepreneurial ability waiting to be unleashed; he unleashed that ability and China has roared ahead.


There is however one black spot, one mystery that needs to be unravelled, but it is a mystery which I cannot unravel. This is the mystery of what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The date is important, because this is the date of the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, of the Prague Spring and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Communism was collapsing in Europe: would it collapse in China too? Protests began in a small way with students protesting in Tiananmen Square, complaining at first at the death of Ha Waobang, a prominent politician who had been a little soft in his handling of an earlier protest. The protests built up, inspired by what was happening in Europe, demanding democracy, freedom and economic reforms. Eventually the government decided that enough was enough and on 4th June the tanks were sent in and the protest was smashed. A number were killed, perhaps around 1,000: the numbers are unknown, but how far can it be said that by comparison with similar protests, the number was not excessive?

Here in the West, the Tiananmen Square incident is regarded with outrage as the suppression of an outbreak of democracy and had it succeeded China would have emerged with a fully democratic government and everything in the garden would have been lovely. The reverse can surely be argued: the protesters may have wanted ‘democracy’ but they were also unhappy with the economic reforms which were hugely successful. It could be said that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and economically China has become increasingly prosperous, and that even if not democratic, it is nevertheless a society where in terms of freedom and happiness, it is not unsuccessful. Would it really have been better if China had gone the way of Russia, and a thoroughly corrupt ‘democracy’ had emerged – with economic stagnation?

Deng Xiaoping was shaken by the events at Tiananmen Square but he continued as Paramount Leader . However, in 1992, at the 14th meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (to give it is its full title), it was decided that in future the leader should be elected for a ten-year stint, and this system has now triumphantly survived for three further elections. With rather more fanfare a new doctrine called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics was proclaimed to stand alongside Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Cynics allege that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics should really be called Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics. But the crucial change is surely that a new leader, or in my terminology a new Emperor, should be elected by the 25 strong politburo every 10 years: this is the crucial element in the new Chinese constitution.


Jiang Zemin (1992-2002)

The first ruler to be elected under the new rules was Jiang Zemin (1992-2002), who has been described as a spider rather than a tiger. His great achievement was that Hong Kong and Macau were both returned to Chinese rule. Under him economic development roared ahead, though possibly at the expense of an increase in corruption and pollution. But he was a spider, with great influence through his ‘Shanghai clique’, some of whom were later purged for corruption.




Hu Jintao the paramount leader from 2002 to 2012, was a said to be a technocrat (originally a water engineer), but he was a superb conciliator.

Hu Jintao, who was elected after him, (2002-22012) was rather different. He was a technocrat, beginning as a water engineer and rising through the Communist Youth League. He ruled by consensus, closely associated with his colleague Wen Jiabao the premier, and between them they began tightening up on the problems of corruption and pollution. And when the time came to retire, he went cleanly, unlike his predecessor who retained his position as Chairman of the Central Military Commission for two years after his retirement date.





Xi Jinping, the current paramount leader, who is prepared to cut back on economic growth in order to tackle corruption and pollution.

And then in 2012 he was followed by the current leader, Xi Jinping who is both General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and also Chairman of the Central Military Commission. He calls his policy the Chinese Dream. Perhaps sensibly he has realised that the prime need in China is not economic expansion, but a crackdown on corruption and pollution, even if this means a slower rate of economic expansion. But at the same time he is tightening the screws on ideology to see that the existing system continues.

But China seems to be flourishing: the emperors are no longer chosen by the Royal family but by the 25 members of the Politburo, themselves chosen by, or representing the upper echelons of the Communist Party. It is a system that could be said to be to some extent ‘democratic’ – indeed it is not unlike the fascist theory of authoritarian democracy, derived from Gentile and (ultimately) Hegel. The system seems to be working well, though it depends on whether Xi Jinping retires at the end of his 10 year stint. We blame them for not being ‘democratic’, but what does this mean? How far are our concepts of democracy universally applicable in a one-size-fits-all philosophy? I think Chinese would point to their 1500 years of Imperial history, when for much of the time they were the biggest and most prosperous country in the world. Is not the present system an updated version of their traditions, avoiding as they would say, the short-term focus of Western democracy and enjoying the advantages of being able make long-term decisions?

We must wait and see. But I think we need to look at China today through the lens of China in the past. China had in the past had a long-term winning formula: should we not wonder whether today’s formula may not prove durable, and continue the success of China in the past?


As an archaeologist, I am writing this book to celebrate civilisation and freedom and democracy and to argue that these ideas first arose in the market economy of Greece and Rome. China challenges many of my ideas: as I said at the beginning of this excursus on Chinese history, China is an enigma. 

On to the Chinese Palaces, and the part they played in Chinese civilisation



Created: 4th  May 2015