China, officially known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia and the world’s most populous country, with a population of around 1.404 billion in 2017. Covering approximately 9,600,000 square kilometers (3,700,000 sq mi), it is the third or fourth largest country by total area. Governed by the Communist Party of China, the state exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing), and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
China emerged as one of the world’s first civilizations, in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. For millennia, China’s political system was based on hereditary monarchies, or dynasties, beginning with the semi-legendary Xia dynasty in 21st century BCE. Since then, China has expanded, fractured, and re-unified numerous times. In the 3rd century BCE, the Qin reunited core China and established the first Chinese empire. The succeeding Han dynasty, which ruled from 206 BCE until 220 CE, saw some of the most advanced technology at that time, including papermaking and the compass, along with agricultural and medical improvements. The invention of gunpowder and movable type in the Tang dynasty (618–907) and Northern Song (960–1127) completed the Four Great Inventions. Tang culture spread widely in Asia, as the new Silk Route brought traders to as far as Mesopotamia and the Horn of Africa. Dynastic rule ended in 1912 with the Xinhai Revolution, when the Republic of China (ROC) replaced the Qing dynasty. China as a whole was ravaged by feudal warlordism and Japan during World War II. The subsequent Chinese Civil War resulted in a division of territory in 1949, when the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, on mainland China while the Kuomintang-led nationalist government retreated to the island of Taiwan. The political status of Taiwan remains disputed to this day.
China is a unitary one-party socialist republic and is one of the few remaining Communist states. Political dissidents and human rights groups have denounced and criticized the Chinese government of human rights abuses, suppression of religious and ethnic minorities, censorship and mass surveillance, and cracking down on protests such as in 1989. The Chinese government says that the right to subsistence and economic development is a prerequisite to other types of human rights, and that the notion of human rights should take into account a country’s present economic level.
Since the introduction of economic reforms in 1978, China’s economy has been one of the world’s fastest-growing with annual growth rates consistently above 6 percent. According to the World Bank, China’s GDP grew from $150 billion in 1978 to $12.24 trillion by 2017. According to official data, China’s GDP in 2018 was 90 trillion Yuan ($13.28 trillion). Since 2010, China has been the world’s second-largest economy by nominal GDP and since 2014, the largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity (PPP). China is also the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods. China is a recognized nuclear weapons state and has the world’s largest standing army, the People’s Liberation Army, and second-largest defense budget. The PRC is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council as it replaced the ROC in 1971, as well as an active global partner of ASEAN Plus mechanism. China is also a leading member of numerous formal and informal multilateral organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), WTO, APEC, BRICS, the BCIM, and the G20. China is one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations and is home to some of the world’s largest tech giants such as Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba. China has been characterized as a potential superpower, mainly because of its massive population, economy, and military.
The word “China” has been used in English since the 16th century. It is not a word used by the Chinese themselves. It has been traced through Portuguese, Malay, and Persian back to the Sanskrit word Cīna, used in ancient India.
“China” appears in Richard Eden’s 1555 translation of the 1516 journal of the Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa. Barbosa’s usage was derived from Persian Chīn (چین), which was in turn derived from Sanskrit Cīna (चीन). Cīna was first used in early Hindu scripture, including the Mahābhārata (5th century bce) and the Laws of Manu (2nd century bce). In 1655, Martino Martini suggested that the word China is derived ultimately from the name of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). Although this derivation is still given in various sources, it is complicated by the fact that the Sanskrit word appears in pre-Qin literature. The word may have originally referred to a state such as Yelang. Later, the meaning transferred to China as a whole. The origin of the Sanskrit word is still a matter of debate, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The official name of the modern state is the “People’s Republic of China” (Chinese: 中华人民共和国; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó). The shorter form is “China” Zhōngguó (中国), from zhōng (“central”) and guó (“state”), a term which developed under the Western Zhou dynasty in reference to its royal demesne. It was then applied to the area around Luoyi (present-day Luoyang) during the Eastern Zhou and then to China’s Central Plain before being used as an occasional synonym for the state under the Qing. It was often used as a cultural concept to distinguish the Huaxia people from perceived “barbarians“. The name Zhongguo is also translated as “Middle Kingdom” in English.
Archaeological evidence suggests that early hominids inhabited China between 2.24 million and 250,000 years ago.
The hominid fossils of Peking Man, a Homo erectus who used fire, were discovered in a cave at Zhoukoudian near Beijing; they have been dated to between 680,000 and 780,000 years ago. The fossilized teeth of Homo sapiens (dated to 125,000–80,000 years ago) have been discovered in Fuyan Cave in Dao County, Hunan. Chinese proto-writing existed in Jiahu around 7000 bce, Damaidi around 6000 bce, Dadiwan from 5800–5400 bce, and Banpo dating from the 5th millennium bce. Some scholars have suggested that the Jiahu symbols (7th millennium bce) constituted the earliest Chinese writing system.
Early Dynastic Rule:
According to Chinese tradition, the first dynasty was the Xia, which emerged around 2100 bce. The dynasty was considered mythical by historians until scientific excavations found early Bronze Age sites at Erlitou, Henan in 1959. It remains unclear whether these sites are the remains of the Xia dynasty or of another culture from the same period. The succeeding Shang dynasty is the earliest to be confirmed by contemporary records. The Shang ruled the plain of the Yellow River in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century bce. Their oracle bone script (from c. 1500 bce) represents the oldest form of Chinese writing yet found, and is a direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters.
The Shang was conquered by the Zhou, who ruled between the 11th and 5th centuries bce, though centralized authority was slowly eroded by feudal warlords. Some principalities eventually emerged from the weakened Zhou, no longer fully obeyed the Zhou king and continually waged war with each other in the 300-year Spring and Autumn period. By the time of the Warring States period of the 5th–3rd centuries bce, there were only seven powerful states left.
The Warring States period ended in 221 bce after the state of Qin conquered the other six kingdoms, reunited China and established the dominant order of totalitarian autocracy. King Zheng of Qin proclaimed himself the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty. He enacted Qin’s legalist reforms throughout China, notably the forced standardization of Chinese characters, measurements, road widths (i.e., cart axles’ length), and currency. His dynasty also conquered the Yue tribes in Guangxi, Guangdong, and Vietnam. The Qin dynasty lasted only fifteen years, falling soon after the First Emperor’s death, as his harsh authoritarian policies led to widespread rebellion.
Following a widespread civil war during which the imperial library at Xianyang was burned, the Han dynasty emerged to rule China between 206 bce and ce 220, creating a cultural identity among its populace still remembered in the ethnonym of the Han Chinese. The Han expanded the empire’s territory considerably, with military campaigns reaching Central Asia, Mongolia, South Korea, and Yunnan, and the recovery of Guangdong and northern Vietnam from Nanyue. Han involvement in Central Asia and Sogdia helped establish the land route of the Silk Road, replacing the earlier path over the Himalayas to India. Han China gradually became the largest economy of the ancient world. Despite the Han’s initial decentralization and the official abandonment of the Qin philosophy of Legalism in favor of Confucianism, Qin’s legalist institutions and policies continued to be employed by the Han government and its successors.
After the end of the Han dynasty, a period of strife known as Three Kingdoms followed, whose central figures were later immortalized in one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature. At its end, Wei was swiftly overthrown by the Jin dynasty. The Jin fell to civil war upon the ascension of a developmentally-disabled emperor; the Five Barbarians then invaded and ruled northern China as the Sixteen States. The Xianbei unified them as the Northern Wei, whose Emperor Xiaowen reversed his predecessors’ apartheid policies and enforced a drastic sinification on his subjects, largely integrating them into Chinese culture. In the south, the general Liu Yu secured the abdication of the Jin in favor of the Liu Song. The various successors of these states became known as the Northern and Southern dynasties, with the two areas finally reunited by the Sui in 581. The Sui restored the Han to power through China, reformed its agriculture, economy and imperial examination system, constructed the Grand Canal, and patronized Buddhism. However, they fell quickly when their conscription for public works and a failed war in northern Korea provoked widespread unrest.
Under the succeeding Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese economy, technology, and culture entered a golden age. The Tang Empire returned control of the Western Regions and the Silk Road, and made the capital Chang’an a cosmopolitan urban center. However, it was devastated and weakened by the An Shi Rebellion in the 8th century. In 907, the Tang disintegrated completely when the local military governors became ungovernable. The Song dynasty ended the separatist situation in 960, leading to a balance of power between the Song and Khitan Liao. The Song was the first government in world history to issue paper money and the first Chinese polity to establish a permanent standing navy which was supported by the developed shipbuilding industry along with the sea trade.
Between the 10th and 11th centuries, the population of China doubled in size to around 100 million people, mostly because of the expansion of rice cultivation in central and southern China, and the production of abundant food surpluses. The Song dynasty also saw a revival of Confucianism, in response to the growth of Buddhism during the Tang, and a flourishing of philosophy and the arts, as landscape art and porcelain were brought to new levels of maturity and complexity. However, the military weakness of the Song army was observed by the Jurchen Jin dynasty. In 1127, Emperor Huizong of Song and the capital Bianjing were captured during the Jin–Song Wars. The remnants of the Song retreated to southern China.
The 13th century brought the Mongol conquest of China. In 1271, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty; the Yuan conquered the last remnant of the Song dynasty in 1279. Before the Mongol invasion, the population of Song China was 120 million citizens; this was reduced to 60 million by the time of the census in 1300. A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan in 1368 and founded the Ming dynasty as the Hongwu Emperor. Under the Ming dynasty, China enjoyed another golden age, developing one of the strongest navies in the world and a rich and prosperous economy amid a flourishing of art and culture. It was during this period that admiral Zheng He led the Ming treasure voyages throughout the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as East Africa.
In the early years of the Ming dynasty, China’s capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. With the budding of capitalism, philosophers such as Wang Yangming further critiqued and expanded Neo-Confucianism with concepts of individualism and equality of four occupations. The scholar-official stratum became a supporting force of industry and commerce in the tax boycott movements, which, together with the famines and defense against Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598) and Manchu invasions led to an exhausted treasury.
In 1644, Beijing was captured by a coalition of peasant rebel forces led by Li Zicheng. The Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide when the city fell. The Manchu Qing dynasty, then allied with Ming dynasty general Wu Sangui, overthrew Li’s short-lived Shun dynasty and subsequently seized control of Beijing, which became the new capital of the Qing dynasty.
The Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 until 1912, was the last imperial dynasty of China.
Its conquest of the Ming (1618–1683) cost 25 million lives and the economy of China shrank drastically. After the Southern Ming ended, the further conquest of the Dzungar Khanate added Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang to the empire. The centralized autocracy was strengthened to crack down on anti-Qing sentiment with the policy of valuing agriculture and restraining commerce, the Haijin (“sea ban”), and ideological control as represented by the literary inquisition, causing social and technological stagnation. In the mid-19th century, the dynasty experienced Western imperialism in the Opium Wars with Britain and France. China was forced to pay compensation, open treaty ports, allow extraterritoriality for foreign nationals, and cede Hong Kong to the British under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the first of the Unequal Treaties. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) resulted in Qing China’s loss of influence in the Korean Peninsula, as well as the cession of Taiwan to Japan.
The Qing dynasty also began experiencing internal unrest in which tens of millions of people died, especially in the White Lotus Rebellion, the failed Taiping Rebellion that ravaged southern China in the 1850s and 1860s and the Dungan Revolt (1862–77) in the northwest. The initial success of the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s was frustrated by a series of military defeats in the 1880s and 1890s.
In the 19th century, the great Chinese diaspora began. Losses due to emigration were added to by conflicts and catastrophes such as the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–79, in which between 9 and 13 million people died. The Guangxu Emperor drafted a reform plan in 1898 to establish a modern constitutional monarchy, but these plans were thwarted by the Empress Dowager Cixi. The ill-fated anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901 further weakened the dynasty. Although Cixi sponsored a program of reforms, the Xinhai Revolution of 1911–12 brought an end to the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China.
On 1 January 1912, the Republic of China was established, and Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (the KMT or Nationalist Party) was proclaimed provisional president. However, the presidency was later given to Yuan Shikai, a former Qing general who in 1915 proclaimed himself Emperor of China. In the face of popular condemnation and opposition from his own Beiyang Army, he was forced to abdicate and re-establish the republic.
After Yuan Shikai’s death in 1916, China was politically fragmented. Its Beijing-based government was internationally recognized but virtually powerless; regional warlords controlled most of its territory. In the late 1920s, the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek, the then Principal of the Republic of China Military Academy, was able to reunify the country under its own control with a series of deft military and political manoeuvrings, known collectively as the Northern Expedition. The Kuomintang moved the nation’s capital to Nanjing and implemented “political tutelage”, an intermediate stage of political development outlined in Sun Yat-sen’s San-min program for transforming China into a modern democratic state.
The political division in China made it difficult for Chiang to battle the communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA), against whom the Kuomintang had been warring since 1927 in the Chinese Civil War. This war continued successfully for the Kuomintang, especially after the PLA retreated in the Long March, until Japanese aggression and the 1936 Xi’an Incident forced Chiang to confront Imperial Japan.
The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), a theater of World War II, forced an uneasy alliance between the Kuomintang and the PLA. Japanese forces committed numerous war atrocities against the civilian population; in all, as many as 20 million Chinese civilians died. An estimated 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in the city of Nanjing alone during the Japanese occupation. During the war, China, along with the UK, the US, and the Soviet Union, were referred to as “trusteeship of the powerful” and were recognized as the Allied “Big Four” in the Declaration by United Nations. Along with the other three great powers, China was one of the four major Allies of World War II, and was later considered one of the primary victors in the war.
After the surrender of Japan in 1945, Taiwan, including the Pescadores, was returned to Chinese control. China emerged victorious but war-ravaged and financially drained. The continued distrust between the Kuomintang and the Communists led to the resumption of civil war. Constitutional rule was established in 1947, but because of the ongoing unrest, many provisions of the ROC constitution were never implemented in mainland China.
People’s Republic (1949–present):
Major combat in the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949 with the Communist Party in control of most of mainland China, and the Kuomintang retreating offshore, reducing its territory to only Taiwan, Hainan, and their surrounding islands. On 21 September 1949, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China with a speech at the First Plenary Session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. This was followed by a mass celebration in Tiananmen Square on 1 October, at which the proclamation was made publicly by Mao at the Tiananmen Gate, the date becoming the new country’s first National Day.
In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army captured Hainan from the ROC and incorporated Tibet. However, remaining Kuomintang forces continued to wage an insurgency in western China throughout the 1950s.
The regime consolidated its popularity among the peasants through land reform, which included the execution of between 1 and 2 million landlords. China developed an independent industrial system and its own nuclear weapons. The Chinese population increased from 550 million in 1950 to 900 million in 1974. However, the Great Leap Forward, an idealistic massive reform project, resulted in an estimated 15 to 35 million deaths between 1958 and 1961, mostly from starvation. In 1966, Mao and his allies launched the Cultural Revolution, sparking a decade of political recrimination and social upheaval that lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. In October 1971, the PRC replaced the Republic in the United Nations, and took its seat as a permanent member of the Security Council.
After Mao’s death, the Gang of Four was quickly arrested and held responsible for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, and instituted significant economic reforms. The Party loosened governmental control over citizens’ personal lives, and the communes were gradually disbanded in favor of working contracted to households. This marked China’s transition from a planned economy to a mixed economy with an increasingly open-market environment. China adopted its current constitution on 4 December 1982. In 1989, the violent suppression of student protests in Tiananmen Square brought sanctions against the Chinese government from various countries.
Jiang Zemin, Li Peng and Zhu Rongji led the nation in the 1990s. Under their administration, China’s economic performance pulled an estimated 150 million peasants out of poverty and sustained an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of 11.2%. The country joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and maintained its high rate of economic growth under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s leadership in the 2000s. However, the growth also severely impacted the country’s resources and environment, and caused major social displacement. Living standards continued to improve rapidly despite the late-2000s recession, but political control remained tight.
Preparations for a decadal leadership change in 2012 were marked by factional disputes and political scandals. During the 18th National Communist Party Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao was replaced as General Secretary of the Communist Party by Xi Jinping. Under Xi, the Chinese government began large-scale efforts to reform its economy, which has suffered from structural instabilities and slowing growth. The Xi–Li Administration also announced major reforms to the one-child policy and prison system.
The Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir and Tian Shan mountain ranges separate China from much of South and Central Asia. The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the third- and sixth-longest in the world, respectively, run from the Tibetan Plateau to the densely populated eastern seaboard. China’s coastline along the Pacific Ocean is 14,500 kilometers (9,000 mi) long and is bounded by the Bohai, Yellow, East China and South China seas. China connects through the Kazakh border to the Eurasian Steppe which has been an artery of communication between East and West since the Neolithic through the Steppe route – the ancestor of the terrestrial Silk Road.
China’s landscapes vary significantly across its vast territory. In the east, along the shores of the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, there are extensive and densely populated alluvial plains, while on the edges of the Inner Mongolian plateau in the north, broad grasslands predominate. Southern China is dominated by hills and low mountain ranges, while the central-east hosts the deltas of China’s two major rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Other major rivers include the Xi, Mekong, Brahmaputra and Amur. To the west sit major mountain ranges, most notably the Himalayas. High plateaus feature among the more arid landscapes of the north, such as the Taklamakan and the Gobi Desert. The world’s highest point, Mount Everest (8,848 m), lies on the Sino-Nepalese border. The country’s lowest point, and the world’s third-lowest, is the dried lake bed of Ayding Lake (−154m) in the Turpan Depression.
China had the largest economy in the world for most of the past two thousand years, during which it has seen cycles of prosperity and decline. As of 2018, China had the world’s second-largest economy in terms of nominal GDP, totaling approximately US$13.5 trillion (90 trillion Yuan). In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP GDP), China’s economy has been the largest in the world since 2014, according to the World Bank.
Since economic reforms began in 1978, China has developed into a highly diversified economy and one of the most consequential players in international trade. Major sectors of competitive strength include manufacturing, retail, mining, steel, textiles, automobiles, energy generation, green energy, banking, electronics, telecommunications, real estate, e-commerce, and tourism.
China has been the world’s #1 manufacturer since 2010, after overtaking the US, which had been #1 for the previous hundred years. China has also been #2 in high-tech manufacturing since 2012, according to US National Science Foundation. China is the second largest retail market in the world, next to the United States. China leads the world in e-commerce, accounting for 40% of the global market share. China is the leader in electric vehicles, manufacturing and buying half of all the plug-in electric cars (BEV and PHEV) in the world in 2018. China had 174 GW of installed solar capacity by the end of 2018, which amounts to more than 40% of the global capacity.
China’s development is highly uneven. Its major cities and coastal areas are far more prosperous compared to rural and interior regions. China brought more people out of extreme poverty than any other country in history—between 1978 and 2018, China reduced extreme poverty by 800 million. China reduced the extreme poverty rate—per international standard, it refers to an income of less than $1.90/day—from 88% in 1981 to 1.85% by 2013. According to the World Bank, the number of Chinese in extreme poverty fell from 756 million to 25 million between 1990 and 2013. China’s own national poverty standards are higher and thus the national poverty rates were 3.1% in 2017 and 1% in 2018.
Since the late 1990s, China’s national road network has been significantly expanded through the creation of a network of national highways and expressways.
In 2018, China’s highways had reached a total length of 142,500 km (88,500 mi), making it the longest highway system in the world; and China’s railways reached a total length of 127,000 km by 2017. By the end of 2018, China’s high-speed railway network reached a length of 29,000 km, representing more than 60% of the world’s total. In 1991, there were only six bridges across the main stretch of the Yangtze River, which bisects the country into northern and southern halves. By October 2014, there were 81 such bridges and tunnels.
China has the world’s largest market for automobiles, having surpassed the United States in both auto sales and production. Sales of passenger cars in 2016 exceeded 24 million. In urban areas, bicycles remain a common mode of transport, despite the increasing prevalence of automobiles – as of 2012, there are approximately 470 million bicycles in China.
China’s railways, which are state-owned, are among the busiest in the world, handling a quarter of the world’s rail traffic volume on only 6 percent of the world’s tracks in 2006, as of 2017, the country had 127,000 km (78,914 mi) of railways, the second longest network in the world. The railways strain to meet enormous demand particularly during the Chinese New Year holiday, when the world’s largest annual human migration takes place. In 2013, Chinese railways delivered 2.106 billion passenger trips, generating 1,059.56 billion passenger-kilometers and carried 3.967 billion tons of freight, generating 2,917.4 billion cargo tons-kilometers.
China’s high-speed rail (HSR) system started construction in the early 2000s.
By the end of 2018, high speed rail in China had over 29,000 kilometers (18,020 miles) of dedicated lines alone, a length that exceeds rest of the world’s high-speed rail tracks combined, making it the longest HSR network in the world. With an annual ridership of over 1.1 billion passengers in 2015 it is the world’s busiest. The network includes the Beijing–Guangzhou–Shenzhen High-Speed Railway, the single longest HSR line in the world, and the Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway, which has three of longest railroad bridges in the world. The HSR track network is set to reach approximately 30,000 km (19,000 mi) by the end of 2019. The Shanghai Maglev Train, which reaches 431 km/h (268 mph), is the fastest commercial train service in the world. In May 2019, China released a prototype for a maglev high-speed train that would reach a speed of 600 km/hr (375 mph); and it is expected to go into commercial production by 2021.
Since 2000, the growth of rapid transit systems in Chinese cities has accelerated. As of January 2016, 26 Chinese cities have urban mass transit systems in operation and 39 more have metro systems approved with a dozen more to join them by 2020. The Shanghai Metro, Beijing Subway, Guangzhou Metro, Hong Kong MTR and Shenzhen Metro are among the longest and busiest in the world.
There were approximately 229 airports in 2017, with around 240 planned by 2020. More than two-thirds of the airports under construction worldwide in 2013 were in China, and Boeing expects that China’s fleet of active commercial aircraft in China will grow from 1,910 in 2011 to 5,980 in 2031. In just five years—from 2013 to 2018—China bought 1000 planes from Boeing. With rapid expansion in civil aviation, the largest airports in China have also joined the ranks of the busiest in the world. In 2018, Beijing’s Capital Airport ranked second in the world by passenger traffic (it was 26th in 2002). Since 2010, the Hong Kong International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport have ranked first and third in air cargo tonnage.
Flag of China:
The flag of China, officially the National Flag of the People’s Republic of China and also known as the Five-starred Red Flag, is a Chinese red field charged in the canton (upper corner nearest the flagpole) with five golden stars. The design features one large star, with four smaller stars in a semicircle set off towards the fly (the side farthest from the flag pole). The red represents the “revolution”; the five stars and their relationship represent the unity of the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The first flag was hoisted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on a pole overlooking Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, at a ceremony announcing the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
On July 4, 1949, the sixth working group of the Preparatory Committee of the New Political Consultative Conference (新政治協商會議籌備會, PCNPCC) created a notice to submit designs for the national flag. After a few changes, the notice was published in the papers People’s Daily, Beiping Liberation News, Xinmin News, Dazhong Daily, Guangming Daily, Jinbu Daily and Tianjin Daily during the period July 15–26.
Zeng Liansong, a citizen from Wenzhou, Zhejiang, was working in Shanghai at the time the announcement came out; he wanted to create a flag design to express his patriotic enthusiasm for the new country. In the middle of July, he sat down in his attic over several nights to come up with designs. His inspiration for the current design came from the stars shining in the night sky. He thought of a Chinese proverb “longing for the stars, longing for the moon”, (盼星星盼月亮, pàn xīngxīng pàn yuèliàng) which shows yearning. He viewed the CPC as the great saviour (大救星, dà jiùxīng “great saving star”) of the Chinese people, represented by a larger star. The idea for four small stars came from On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, a speech by Mao Zedong, which defined the Chinese people as consisting of four social classes, also referred to in Asian cultures as the four occupations (士農工商) shi, nong, gong, shang (“the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie”). The color yellow implies that China belongs to the Chinese people, a “yellow race”. After working out the details of the placement of the stars and their sizes (he had tried to put all of the stars in the center, but believed it would be too heavy and dull), he sent his “Five Stars on a Field of Red” (紅地五星旗, hóng dì wǔxīng qí) design to the committee in the middle of August.
By August 20, a between 2,992 and 3,012 designs had been sent to the flag committee, including input from committee members themselves such as Guo Moruo and Tan Kah Kee. From August 16 to 20, the designs were viewed at the Beijing Hotel and culled down to a list of 38. These designs are collected into a book named A Reference of National Flag Designs (國旗圖案參考資料). This book was then submitted to the newly established Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for further discussion. However, Zeng’s design was not included until Tian Han nominated it again.
On the morning of September 23, the representatives of the CPPCC discussed the national flags, but came to no conclusion. Some disliked the symbolism which Zeng attached to the four smaller stars, and said it should not include the bourgeoisie. The design Mao and others liked had a giant golden star in the corner on a red flag that was charged with a golden horizontal bar. But this design was strongly opposed by Zhang Zhizhong, who saw the golden bar as symbolizing the tearing apart of the revolution from the country. That night, Peng Guanghan (彭光涵) recommended Zeng’s design to Zhou Enlai. Zhou was satisfied with it and asked for a larger copy of the design to be made. Tan Kah Kee also gave his advice to Mao and Zhou that the power characteristics are more important than Chinese geography characteristics, so there was no need to insist on the golden bar which stands for the Yellow River.
Two days later, Mao had a meeting in his office about the flag. He persuaded everyone to adopt Zeng’s design, with some slight modifications. According to earlier discussions at the Beijing Hotel, the hammer and sickle from Zeng’s original design was removed since it was similar to the Flag of the Soviet Union. On September 27, 1949, Zeng’s modified design was selected unanimously by the First Plenary Session of CPPCC, which changed the flag’s name to “Five-star Red Flag”.
On September 29, the new flag was published in the People’s Daily, so the design could be copied by other local authorities. The flag was officially unveiled in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, at the formal announcement of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
The first flag flown over Tiananmen Square was sewn together by Zhao Wenrui (赵文瑞), a seamstress who finished the task around 1 pm on September 30. Zeng had a hard time believing that his design was picked, due to the missing hammer and sickle from the giant star. However, he was officially congratulated by the General Office of the Central People’s Government as the designer of the flag and received 5 million yuan for his work.
A more in-depth discussion including additional history, historical flags and interpretive commentary is available elsewhere.