A Short History of Modern China: Background information when reading A Case of Two Cities

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A Case of Two Cities

An Inspector Chen novel

by Qiu Xiaolong

A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2006, 320 pages
    Oct 2007, 320 pages

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Beyond the Book:
A Short History of Modern China

Print Review

  • In 1911 the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, ending 2000 years of imperial rule. There were many revolutionary groups but the most organized was founded by Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • In WWI the Chinese government sided with the Allies. In return they were promised that the German concessions (foreign territories within a country) in Shangdong province would be returned to Chinese control; at the time China, especially the coastal areas, were a mass of foreign concessions, colonies and treaty ports, owned by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan and others. However, not only was the territory not handed back, it was awarded to the Japanese. On May 4, 1919 Beijing students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square, starting the nationalistic movement known as the May Fourth Movement.
  • In the early 1920s, Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Nationalist Party (KMT), who at that point had never been in power, accepted Soviet aid and formed an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with the aim of reunifying China which, since 1911, had been controlled by various warlords. Sun died in 1925 and the leadership was taken over by Chiang Kaishek.
  • Chiang launched his "Northern Expedition" unifying Southern China. In Shanghai he launched a massacre of CCP members, one member who escaped was Mao Zedong. The Communists were forced to flee the cities for the countryside. The Nationalists tried to hunt them down and in 1934 were closing in on the main Communist positions. Under the cover of night, the Communists broke out and started running and didn't stop for over a year, by which time they had traveled about 6,000 miles and only 4-8,000 of the original 100,000 remained. This became known as the Long March (more about this in Sun Shuyun's The Long March).
  • Meanwhile, the Japanese occupied Manchuria which proved helpful to the Communists, as the Nationalist troops sent North to eliminate the CCP were much more interested in fighting the Japanese. In 1937 the Japanese invaded China from their base in Manchuria and they soon occupied the major coastal cities (by the end of the war in 1945 about 20 million Chinese had been killed by the Japanese).
  • Initially the outbreak of WWII did not effect the situation in China, however after 1941 the Japanese war effort was refocused fighting America, and the Communists started to consolidate their control over North China.
  • At the end of WWII, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists began again. In 1949 the Nationalist leaders fled to Taiwan and Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People's Republic of China.
  • In 1958 Mao initiated the Great Leap Forward, the aim of which was to increase crop production by collectivizing farms and using excess labor in the factories. The result was the greatest man-made famine in human history that led to about 30 million people starving to death between 1958 and 1960.
  • By 1962 China had broken with the Soviet Union entirely, and in 1966 Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, calling on students to form units of Red Guards, with the aim of overthrowing his perceived enemies and regaining the control he'd lost during the Great Leap Forward. In the resulting chaos 3 year chaos, millions were persecuted and at least 1/2 million died.
  • The Cultural Revolution ended officially in 1969 but effectively continued until Mao's death in 1976, at which time Deng Xiaoping (who had been "purged" twice during the Revolution) emerged as leader and launched his economic reform program.
  • The question of political reform followed on the heels of economic reform, coming to a head in the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The leaders of the Communist Party saw the demonstrations as an attack to their authority. Officially 200 unarmed demonstrators died, but the actual figure is believed to be much higher.
  • Reform stopped for 3 years, but in 1993 Deng, in one of his last public appearances, toured the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and gave his firm approval to the project - from which point on the Chinese economy exploded.

    This article was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the October 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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