The Long Dark History of China


            While China is becoming more important on the world stage and has enjoyed rapid economic growth, its human rights leaves a lot to be desired. This however is not anything new and the history of China has often been a story of cruel despots, warfare and death on a massive scale. Some of this was due to invaders like the Mongols and Manchus but much also resulted from power struggles within China.

            The first Chinese state appears to have been the Xia Dynasty that existed from 2070 to 1600 BC. It is hard to discern history from myth but one story about the Xia is that they had a lake of wine created into which courtiers were sent to drink until they became so intoxicated that they toppled in and drowned.

            The next dynasty, the Shang, practiced human sacrifice and killed 14,000 mostly young males by beheading, dismemberment, bleeding, beating or chopping to death. The remains of a 1,000 victims have been found in a single cemetery outside, Yin, the old Shang capital.

            Ancient China was much smaller than modern China but by 700 BC it comprised over 100 statelets run by warlords or minor kings. To the north was an arid expanse inhabited by nomadic herding peoples who were not adverse to raiding and pillaging. To the south were tropical forests and alien tribes. Chinese culture formed the Middle Kingdom and the rulers were becoming more despotic. War had been the province of a knightly class of elite warriors but now it was increasingly fought by mass armies under ruthless generals. Meanwhile bronze weapons were being replaced by iron weapons.

            Following centuries of war the state of Qin (or Ch’in after which the name China was derived) state became dominant. This was not achieved peacefully and one particularly cruel commander, after a battle in which 50,000 died, had 400,000 prisoners buried alive. By the year 236 BC the power of the Qin leader, Ying Zhen, was sufficiently secure for him to extend his rule and conquer nearby kingdoms. To capture one kingdom he diverted the Yellow River and drowned 100,000 people. More territories were captured until China covered 2,300,000 square kilometres.

            The Emperor of China was suspicious of intellectuals and scholars, and had their books burned in public ceremonies. In 214 BC he had 460 scholars burnt alive. A year later he had a 5,000 kilometre Great Wall of China built to protect against steppe nomads. It was built largely with forced labour and millions are thought to have died during its construction. He also had an enormous tomb built for himself which contained an army of life sized terracotta figures, 7,000 strong.

            After his death China was ruled by emperors who were not particularly successful and in 202 BC, rebels under Liu Bang seized power. Their ruler became emperor and took the title of Gaozu, founding the Han Dynasty that lasted for 400 years. Upon Liu Bang’s death in 195 BC his widow, Dowager Empress Lu was determined that one of her sons would the successor to the throne rather the son of another wife or concubine. She had a rival for the throne force fed poison and his mother had her limbs cut off, eyes gouged out, tongue cut out, and her body thrown into a pigsty.

            The Han faced a revolt by subject states known as the Rebellion of Seven States but this was successfully defeated.

            Under the rule of Emperor Wu who reigned from 157 to 87 BC, the empire was extended with territorial gains in Vietnam, Myanmar, Korea and Manchuria. In 133 BC the Chinese defeated the Xiongnu (also known as Huns) and set up colonies along the Silk Road.

            Nevertheless another rebellion broke out in 208 AD when two warlords, Liu Bei and Sun Quan combined their forces totalling 70,000 men and defeated 800,000 men under the imperial general, Cao Cao in the Battle of Red Cliffs. This was followed by the Three Kingdoms period, probably the bloodiest in Chinese history. Over a period of 60 years the population fell from 56 million to 17 million.

            When the Three kingdoms period came to an end the Jin Dynasty promised some stability but it was faced by trouble from outsiders such as the Xiongnu from the north who captured Luoyang and killed Emperor Huai in the year 313. His successor, Emperor Min was killed five years later while other barbarians invaded Chinese territory. The country began to break up with warring provinces rising and falling although the Eastern Jin Dynasty with a capital at Jiankang (later known as Nanjing) survived for another century.

            In 581, Emperor Wen brought lost territory back under Chinese rule, but was overthrown, and apparently poisoned, by his son, Yang Guang. The Grand Canal, 1,750 kilometres long, was completed under his reign. It was largely built by conscripted labour, less than half of whom survived the gruelling and dangerous work. The Great Wall of China was also rebuilt involving the death of six million workers. Others were to die, mainly from malaria, during an expedition into Vietnam. An unsuccessful war against the kingdom of Koguryo in northern Korea between 598 and 614 left hundreds of thousands dead.

            In 617 a rebellious general, Li Yuan, staged a military coup, killed the emperor and ruled in his place as Gaozu, the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty. In 626 his younger son, Li Shimin, killed his older brothers and their sons and forced Li Yuan to stand down. Li Shimin ruled as Emperor Taizong until he died in 649. In 755 a rebellion broke out that lasted for seven years and involved up to 36 million deaths. Another rebellion broke out in 874 although its leader, Wang Xianzhi was killed four years later another leader, Huang Chao, took his place. In an outbreak of xenophobia the rebels massacred 200,000 foreigners in the port of Guangzhou. The Tang dynasty finally fell in 907 and parts of the country broke away to form new states.

            In the north stability came with the establishment of the Northern Song Dynasty which then made conquests of kingdoms in the south. Peace however did not come and China suffered attacks by people like the Khitan from Mongolia, the Tanguts from the Tibetan borderlands, and the Jurchen from Manchuria. The Mongol leader Genghis Khan established an empire stretching from northern China to Europe, and his grandson, Kublai Khan, finally conquered the rest of China in 1279, becoming the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.

            The Yuan dynasty fell in 1368 when Zhu Yuanzhang, leader of a rebel group known as the Red Turbans took control and became the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. Ming rule was noted for the readiness to use fear, torture and a willingness to slaughter critics and suspected rebels. There was the penalty known as “nine Familial exterminations” under which nine generations of a family were killed just for a transgression committed by one family member. Hongwu, the first Ming emperor took this to the extreme when he caught his chief minister conspiring against him and had not only his relatives killed but also friends and associates, a total of 40,000 people.  Executions were made as painful as possible and included having victims flayed alive or suffer the death by a thousand cuts whereby victims were hacked to pieces bit by bit in a specific order so as to keep the victim conscious until the final blow. Emperor Yongle who succeeded to the throne in 1403 had his own nephew burned alive in his palace and introduced death by three thousand cuts. Yongle had the famous Forbidden City constructed using a million of his subjects as slaves during which many died of overwork, starvation and maltreatment. When he found out that one of his concubines had been unfaithful and had committed suicide he had all the other concubines, 2,800 in total put to death. Some Ming emperors expected their concubines to commit ritual suicide when their master died, while others had them buried alive in their master’s tomb. Making Mongolia accept status as a tributary state proved difficult and in 1372 a Chinese army of 150,000 was almost wiped out. In 1449 a Mongol force of 20,000 annihilated a Chinese army twenty times its size. In 1644 the Ming dynasty fell to rebels lead by Li Zicheng. His rule was short lived as the Manchus attacked from the north, conquered China and established the Qing dynasty.

            The Qing resorted to repressive measures to control their Chinese subjects, many of whom were enslaved. Conflict broke out with neighbouring peoples such as the Jinchuan of Tibet and the Dzungar, a people of Mongol descent. The Dzungar people were almost wiped out in genocidal war, those who survived being enslaved or dying from smallpox. Meanwhile the Qing Chinese Empire had doubled in size. The 19th century saw more troubles with the Taiping Rebellion leading to 20 million deaths and the Nian Rebellion by desperate peasants involving more than 100,000 deaths.

            The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911 with the National Party of China successfully rebelling and founding the Republic of China. Many of the ethnic Manchu were killed. Much of the country was controlled by warlords or Communists. Wars were fought but by 1949 the Communists under Chairman Mao Zedong came to power. Many people died due to the repressive nature of the regime, either killed outright or by hunger and mistreatment in prison.


            The period of the nationalist republic that began in China in 1911 was not always a happy one. The country was not united, much of it under the control of warlords or the Communists. Campaigns by the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek against the warlords were generally met with little opposition but the Communists were to prove much more difficult.

            Famines struck and in 1920-21 as much as 500,000 people died of hunger. Again in 1928-30 another famine saw between 2 and 3 million dying.

            In 1927 government forces of Chiang Kai-shek tried to take the city of Shanghai but were faced with a strike by 600,000 workers. The city’s industrialists, aided by gangsters put together an army of hired muscle to attack unionists and leftist militia. In the Shanghai Massacre, 300 Communists were executed and another 5,000 disappeared, their fate unknown. Chiang’s “White Terror” continued, and not just against the Communists, claiming 150,000 lives.

            In areas not controlled by the government, gangs of brigands roamed the countryside, pillaging, looting and kidnapping. They killed those who resisted or whose ransom was not received in time. However if a brigand was captured whole villages would join in the execution.

            Soldiers could be as bad as bandits and in Fujian province in 1931, peasants annihilated 2,500 soldiers who had carried out pillage and rape against the local people. West of Hunan, in 1926, a group of peasants killed as many as 50,000 “soldier-bandits” serving a local warlord. Violence often broke out between one group of peasants and another. In 1928 the “Little Swords” in Jiangsu Province killed 200 “Big Swords” and burned six villages. In another area people were hunted down and killed just for having the wrong name. Lepers could be burned alive as were many Christians.

            In areas controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mass terror was initiated even before the time of Josef Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936-1938 in the Soviet Union. The Chinese soviets claimed as many as 186,000 victims in Jiangxi in 1927 to 1931. In 1932 the soviets in Jiangxi established “corrective” labour camps not unlike concentration camps.

            The Communists tended to tax the peasants more heavily than did the Nationalists (Kuomintang) taking up to four times as much of their harvests. In fact during the war with the Japanese many peasants fled to Japanese occupied zones for fear they would be forced into the Communist’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

            The Communists tried agrarian reform well before the revolution of 1949 and this involved the persecution of landowners and the better-off peasants, except of course those who had joined the PLA. At least a million, and possibly up to 5 million were killed. Between four and six million Chinese “kulaks” were sent to “laogai” – i.e. work camps. The families of victims could be tortured and outright massacres occurred.

            Any counterrevolutionaries put on trial were almost always condemned to death. The victims could be cut to pieces by the Red Guards, parts of their flesh cooked and the victim’s family forced to eat it. The liver and heart of the victim would be shared out at a banquet in an act of vengeful cannibalism.

            In 1937 the Japanese started the invasion of China. After three months of furious fighting and a quarter of a million deaths the Japanese took Shanghai. During the fighting Chinese planes mistakenly bombed the Shanghai International Settlement killing thousands of civilians. The Japanese then took Nanjing where they embarked on an orgy of rape and slaughter.

            In Henan, still partly held by the Chinese Nationalist in 1942-1943, between two and three million people died of hunger. Cases of cannibalism were recorded. While the area had experienced a bad harvest the government refused to reduce the tax levy and even seized goods produced by the peasants. Many peasants were drafted as labour to build an anti-tank ditch which in practice proved useless.

            The Japanese were finally defeated in 1945 but peace did not come to China. In 1949 the Communists under Chairman Mao Zedong came to power.

            Repression under the Communists was severe and between 1949 and 1952, two million “bandits” were liquidated and many more imprisoned. The number of police and police stations rapidly increased as did the troops in the security services (secret police) which came to number 2.2 million. The prisons multiplied along with the increasing number of prisoners who were subject to torture and other physical violence, starvation-level rations, overwork and inhumane discipline. Death rates were high and generally over 5% although in a six-month period in Guangxi it reached 50%. Those not submissive enough were often killed and hundreds were buried alive.

            The Communists liquidated many considered to be counterrevolutionaries. Executions probably totalled a million. Those harried by the authorities often committed suicide with as many as 50 taking their own lives in one day.

            Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1959 to 1961 was supposed to raise living standards but actually had the opposite effect. It had been hoped to raise production of grain and steel and initially there were some successes. Soon it was obvious that many figures on increased production were being faked and in most areas things were going backwards. Mistakes such as planting seeds at five to 10 times normal density led to plants dying and the soil drying out. A campaign to exterminate the sparrows that ate grain wiped out many of the birds but led to a massive increase in parasites. Hydraulic equipment, hurriedly and carelessly built, proved to be useless or dangerous.

            The decline in grain production led to famine and up to 30 million people died of starvation. Unbelievably the government turned on the peasants who they blamed for the disaster. At least 10,000 were imprisoned and many died of hunger behind bars. Detainees were systematically tortured and children were killed and even boiled down and used as fertiliser. In Anhui, Communists cadres buried people alive and tortured others with red hot irons. In desperation some peasants resorted to cannibalism and children were eaten.

            The Cultural Revolution that began in the middle of 1966 and lasted for about a decade was not as deadly as the Great Leap Forward but nevertheless many still died. Total deaths have been estimated to have been between 400,000 and a million although some historians claim 3 million died. Many of the victims suffered horrendous tortures. The Red Guards who carried out the Cultural Revolution even resorted to cannibalism and at least 137 people in Guangxi were eaten. In another case Red Guards asked to be served human flesh in the canteen. In 1976 a man who had scribbled “Down with Chairman Mao” on a wall was executed and his brain eaten by a member of the security forces.

            The Red Guards were initially protected by the army and given free transport. Under Red Guard pressure universities were proclaimed to be for teaching Reds not experts. Intellectuals were humiliated and physically attacked, some committing suicide. Xenophobia was taken to extremes, “imperialist” tombs in some cemeteries were looted and Christian practices banned.

            In Beijing the Red Terror led to 17,000 deaths, over 33,000 houses being raided and 84,000 “blacks” being chased out of the city. In Wuhan, 32 people were beaten to death and 62 suicided. In the Daxing district 325 blacks and their families were killed, the oldest victim being 80-years-old and the youngest 38-days-old. In a purge of the Ministry of Security by police disguised as Red Guards 1,200 were executed. By 1978, 10,000 people in Shanghai, mainly intellectuals had died violently.

            Violence occurred in China’s frontier provinces including Tibet. Massacres were carried out in Mongolia and copies of the Moslem Quran were destroyed in Xinjiang. A group of Muslims from the Hui minority tried to break away from China in 1975 leading to 1,500 men, women and children being massacred.

            The Cultural Revolution came to an end with the death of Chairman Mao. One of his successors, Deng Xiaoping, carried out much of the economic modernisation that led to China’s current prosperity. Nevertheless China did not become democratic. In 2008 protests in Tibet were put down with excessive violence and peaceful protestors were imprisoned. As late as 2018 there were still 300 Tibetan political prisoners.

            In Xinjiang there has been repression against the Uighurs, a Turkish people who follow the Islamic religion. Many Uighurs wanted to separate from China and set up an independent nation. The Chinese government responded with repression, Mosques were demolished and many Uighurs were forced into re-education camps. These camps have been likened to Nazi concentration camps and stories of torture are common. Metal detectors, biometric data collection and facial-recognition systems are used to control the people of Xinjiang and other areas of China. Rather than progressing towards a Western style democracy China is becoming more totalitarian.


Kerrigan, Michael, “China: A Dark History, Amber Books Ltd, London, 2019 (ISBN 978-1-78274-922-6)

Margolin, Jean-Louis, “The Black Book of Communism”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999 (ISBN 0-674-07608-7) Chapter 21

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22.04 | 11:28

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