Timeline of China’s Modern History


  • After the 1911 collapse of the Qing Dynasty, China declares itself a republic in 1912 with Sun Yat-sen as the first president. Sun founds the Nationalist Party, Kuomintang (KMT) and later resigns in favor of Yuan Shihkai. Shihkai attempts to reinstate the monarchy but fails, and after his death in 1916 the country is left without a strong central leader, and the country descends into a period of control by warlords.


  • The Chinese Communist Party is founded in Shanghai. Mao Zedong leads the Long March and establishes revolutionary headquarters in Yenan.


  • Sun Yat-sen dies; Chiang Kai-shek assumes leadership of KMT and launches the Northern Expedition that reunifies China under Nationalist government.


  • Traditional arranged marriage continues in both the legal system and local customs; it is marked by complex negotiations of families through matchmakers regarding the bride price and the bride’s dowry.

December 1937-March 1938

  • During the Sino-Japanese War, the four-month Japanese occupation of Nanking known as the Rape of Nanking is the cause of an estimated 260,000 Chinese civilian casualties during the invasion.


  • Civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists results in the Communists’ victory; the Nationalist government evacuates to the island of Taiwan.


  • Mao proclaims the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.


  • A new marriage law bans polygamy and arranged marriages, promoting women’s equality and encouraging freedom of choice in selecting a spouse.
  • The Agrarian Reform Law redistributes the land of landlords and wealthy farmers to millions of peasants.


  • A planned economy demands rationed household goods and food. By national poverty line criteria, people in poverty are estimated at 260 million and the income gap between rural and urban populations grows.


  • Mao begins Rural Collectivization based on a five-year plan. Individual landownership is abolished and replaced with cooperatives.


  • An “Anti-Rightist” campaign is used by Mao to eliminate critical intellectuals. A half-million dissidents are sent to remote labor camps for “reform through labor.”


  • The “Great Leap Forward” plan calls for an unrealistic increase in industrial and agricultural production. All land is collectivized and farmers are organized into People’s Communes. Mao declares the goal of passing Great Britain in industrial production by 1972, and backyard furnaces for steel production are created across the country. However, the steel produced is of poor quality and the agricultural reforms cause one of the largest famines in human history, with an estimated 30 million deaths from starvation.


  • Under the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution China’s jurisdiction, research and educational systems are paralyzed. Student bands of “Red Guards” search and destroy anything considered bourgeois—anything representing capitalism, religion, tradition and the West. Most of China’s cultural heritage is destroyed. Mao’s rivals within the party are purged. Intellectuals and people with “counterrevolutionary” backgrounds are dragged from their homes to endure fatal “struggle sessions,” sent to labor camps or detailed to custodial work units.


  • Richard Nixon visits China, normalizing the relationship between the United States and China.


  • After the Cultural Revolution, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination is re-introduced, which ends the policy of only admitting people into higher education with farming, factory and military experience during 1971-1977.


  • The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Article 46 guarantees freedom of religion but with a number of restrictions.
  • Start of Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations program (agriculture, industry, defense and science) is instituted as a form of Chinese socialism.


  • Continuing China’s “Open Door Policy,” diplomatic relations are established between the United States and China.


  • The “One-Child Policy” is introduced to limit births nationwide as the population reaches 900 million. Violation of this family planning policy results in fines, confiscation of property, salary cuts or dismissal. Officials also refuse to issue house registry to “out of plan” children, thereby denying them education and other benefits.


  • The Chinese government begins a series of economic reforms that lead to less government control of business and landownership. A new household responsibility system replaces a collective system, and the privatization of state enterprises contributes to China’s economic growth.


  • Western-style fast food is introduced in China—KFC opens its first store, and McDonald’s will follow in 1991.


  • Tiananmen Square protests conducted largely by students bring international attention to China. Military clashes with the protesters, who demand freedom and democracy, result in multiple deaths.


  • China’s biggest special economic zone launches in the suburbs of Shanghai at Pudong, designed to be China’s new financial and commercial hub.


  • China takes control over Hong Kong’s sovereignty based on previous contractual agreements with the United Kingdom.


  • Government consolidates Internet regulations for mainland China.


  • China is admitted to the World Trade Organization and wins the bid for the 2008 Olympics.


  • For the first time since 1979, a review of every capital offense criminal case must be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court. The court reports that as a result about 15 percent of cases are now overturned, but China remains the world’s leading executioner, with the list of crimes punishable by death including theft, embezzlement and forgery.


  • The XXIX Summer Olympics are held in Beijing.


  • Twenty million migrant workers are reported to have lost their jobs in China due to the global economic crisis.


  • China becomes the world’s second-largest economy. In response to alleged cyberattacks on email accounts of human rights activists, Google ends its compliance with China’s Internet censorship and re-routes Internet searches to Google Hong Kong. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”


  • Becker, Jasper. The Chinese: An Insider’s Look at the Issues Which Affect and Shape China Today. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Fenby, Jonathan. Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present. HarperCollins, 2008.
  • Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic. The Free Press, 1986.
  • Introduction to China’s Modern History.” Asia for Educators.
  • Timeline: Chronology of Key Events.” China Profile. 2012.

Content last updated: April 30, 2012

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