China's recorded history goes back 5,000 years, though its unwritten history is much longer. Over 20 dynasties (ruling families) have ruled China; some, like the Han dynasty, lasted for four centuries.

While each dynasty added to the nation's development and sometimes changed its borders, the basic pattern of life persisted for over 2,000 years. Chinese society was heavily shaped by the philosopher Confucius (5th century BC), who advocated a social system based on a rigid hierarchy of relationships between men and women, parents and children, and subjects and ruler.

This pattern held even when dynasties changed. Some were overthrown by invaders. At other times, famines or natural disasters convinced people that a dynasty had lost the "mandate of heaven." Aspiring leaders then struggled for control, with someone eventually rising to establish a new, stable dynasty. Even during centuries of foreign rule, such as the Mongol dynasty established by Kublai Khan Yuan in the 13th century, the basic Chinese pattern of life persisted.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China experienced periods of great unrest. China's ancient social system had trouble coping with the new global economy, leading to galloping inflation, a growing drug problem and military conflicts with Western powers. Government bureaucracy was becoming more corrupt, and the Qing dynasty no longer provided stability or protection for most Chinese. Local warlords began fighting for control, and Japanese forces threatened the northeastern region of Manchuria.

Led by Mao Zedong, the Communists were one of the groups struggling for dominance. Unlike other groups, the Communists gained popularity by appealing directly to the peasant class. After China experienced a war with Japan and a civil war, the Communists established the new People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. The party initiated land reforms to eliminate poverty, but peasants who had hoped to finally own land found that they had to work on large rural communes.

After a period of prosperity, misguided industrial policies and a series of natural disasters weakened support for the government; it responded by proposing minor economic reforms. These developments created a power struggle within the Party. In 1966, Mao's supporters launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in which the Party encouraged Chinese youth to destroy all pre-revolutionary authority figures or sources of Western influence, such as teachers, artists and writers, and religious temples. For years the economy suffered as people struggled to survive the chaos that followed.

Change arose with Mao's death in 1976. Under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, the government began promoting new economic initiatives, yet refused to initiate political reform. Widespread social unrest and a growing demand for both democracy and an end to government corruption culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, which the government brutally repressed.

The years since have been a period of rapid economic growth. Jiang Zemin, head of the Communist Party, has encouraged a free-market economy and foreign trade, though without political reforms.

  Did you know?
The Great Wall of China, 6,000 kilometres long, was built in the 3rd century BC to protect China's heartland from northern invasions.

  Did you know?
The Portuguese established trade with China in 1516, securing the colony of Macau. The British soon followed. In 1840, Britain and China fought a trade war over opium, resulting in the defeat of China and the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain until 1997.