The 1840 Opium War fought between China and Britain marked the beginning of modern Chinese history. Before the war, the Qing government had already fought a series of battles with Western nations, but it was the Qing defeat during the Opium War that led to the debilitating "Unequal Treaties". Under this treaty, Western nations were able to strip China of its resources and take advantage of its people. In the late 19th century, when capitalism and imperialism fed off each other, Western incursions into China increased.
As was the case in Africa, imperial powers were influential in areas where they had territorial power. In effect, China lost its own sovereignty as Western powers had control of China's customs revenues and could set their own tariffs and taxes for imports.
During this era, China lost control of Macau and Hong Kong and the Old Summer Palace was burned by Anglo-French forces in 1860.
Whilst foreign countries were encroaching into China, endemic government corruption made any efforts to oppose Western encroachment nearly impossible. After the Opium War, some of the country's best scholars believed that China could strengthen itself by adapting Western science and technology as Japan had done.
Consequently, the scholars actively sought to reform the military and the antiquated Confucian education system despite strong opposition from conservative Qing officials. Due to China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, greater impetus was given to the reformists. In 1898 reformers led by Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao and the near powerless Emperor Guangxu, proposed dramatic reforms to the Qing government by adopting Western-styled political institutions that would have turned the Qing into a constitutional monarchy. Since ultimate power was held by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was loath to relinquish any of it, the reform movement ended in failure after 100 days.
Popular uprisings, some of which had egalitarian overtones undermined Qing authority throughout China. Under the leadership of Hong Xiuquan, a failed scholar, the Taiping Rebellion began in 1851. This movement organised and mobilised peasants under a pseudo-Christian banner. 1899 saw the Boxer Uprising ignited. The Boxers were originally an underground organisation based heavily on superstitious beliefs. It quickly developed into an anti-foreign movement with the aim of expelling Westerners from China.
Some reformers felt that drastic change was necessary to revitalise China. Mere reform of the imperial dynasty was no longer possible, therefore China required the overthrow of the Qing if it were to survive. In 1911, led by the tireless, revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, the Qing dynasty was overthrown. The next year, in 1912, the Republic of China was founded with its capital in Nanjing. The government was based on Sun's "Three Principles of the People".
Three months after the founding of the Republic of China, China fell into the hands of northern warlords led by Yuan Shikai, a former Qing general. Yuan had grandiose plans to crown himself emperor of his own imperial dynasty, but facing universal condemnation, his effort to don the yellow robes of the emperor failed.
Meanwhile, a social revolution was occurring alongside the political revolution. A "New Culture Movement" was launched in 1915. Advocates hoped that democracy and scientific progress could transform China's old culture & they believed that advanced technology from the West and the philosophies of the West's Enlightenment could save China from going backwards even further. During this period, writing in the Chinese vernacular became fully developed with the stiff formal writing of classical Chinese being dropped. Supporters of this new literature included Lu Xun, one of China's most influential writers and social commentators whose works include The True Story of Ah Q.
In 1919, the May Fourth Movement was spawned by university students protesting China's weakness at the hands of exploitative warlords and Western imperialism and became one of modern China's most pivotal moments. It was one of the earliest manifestations of Chinese nationalism. As people searched for the answers to China's woes, some turned to Marxism and in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was established in Shanghai. In 1924, the Nationalists and Communists formally established a united front to combat the rule of the warlords.
In the spring of 1927, the Nationalist government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, formally returned the seat of national power to Nanjing. This was a time of internal turmoil as the Nationalists and the Communists constantly fought. Eventually the Nationalists surrounded the Communist base in the Jiangxi Soviet. In a daring breakout, Communists were forced to embark on a strategic retreat from 1934 to 1935, the epic Long March. The Communists marched 25,000 li (a li is equal to half a kilometre) through swamps and mountains to Yan'an while all the way being pursued by the Nationalists.
In 1931, the Imperial Japanese Army launched a massive invasion of northeast China. In 1937, the Japanese began a general invasion and all-out war broke out. Faced with a Japanese onslaught, the Nationalists and Communists once again formed a united front against a common enemy. After Japan's defeat in the Second World War, civil war broke out between the Nationalists and Communists. In 1949, the Nationalists were defeated and retreated from the mainland to Taiwan.