Chinas social tradition has come under heavy pressure from forces of modernization generated in a large part by the sustained contact with the West that began in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Western incursion, not only refined China militarily but brought in its course new ideas- nationalism, science and technology, and innovations in politics, philosophy, and art. Chinese leaders have sought to preserve the nations cultural uniqueness by promoting specifically Chinese blends of tradition and modernity. China has undergone several major political transformations from a feudal-like system in early historical times, to a centralized bureaucratic empire that lasted through many unpredictable changes till 1911, to a republic with a communist form of government in the mainland since 1949. Economic geography and population pressure help account for the traditionally controlling role of the state in China. The constant indispensability for state interference, whether for great public works programs or simply to keep such a large society together, brought up an authoritarian political system.
The family prevailed as the fundamental social, economic, and religious unit. Interdependence was very prominent in family relations while generation, age, sex and immediacy of kinship strictly governed relations within the family. Family rather than nation usually created the greatest allegiances with the result that nationalism as known to the West came late to the Chinese. In principle, the elite in the authoritarian political system achieved their positions through merit rather than birth or wealth. There was an examination system that provided a vehicle for recruiting talented citizens to serve the emperor, which was a valuable and unusual institution in a society characterized by personal connections.
Democracy, individualism, and private property were kept carefully in check. Central state authority, however, rarely penetrated to the local level. Chinese leaders invented bureaucracy to keep the country unified and mastered the art of keeping government small. The Chinese search for a modern state began in the nineteenth century when two major sources of disorder overwhelmed the imperial institutions: domestic disintegration and foreign invasion.
Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Chinese population had doubled and redoubled. The problem of the population explosion created tremendous pressure on the limited farmland to provide sufficient food supply. For economic, religious, of ethnic reasons, peasant uprisings began to erupt. Moreover, beginning with the Opium War of 1832-1842, the imperial army suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the industrial powers of the West.
The image of a shattering imperial dynasty directed rebellion and dissolution within China, exemplified by the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-1864 that nearly toppled the Qing dynasty. (Zheng, Party vs. State in Post-1949 China, 30) The reform measures in the first decade of this century were aimed at replacing dynastic rule with a new form of government. Among the most significant changes was the abolition of the civil service exam in 1905, which virtually cut off the connections among the emperor, the ruling ideology, and the official gentry. This time the imperial rulers hoped to save themselves by experimenting with some new institutional adaptations.
A revolution was menacing; students who had returned from abroad came with ideas harmful to the imperial rule. Following the overthrow of the imperial regime in the Revolution of 1922, central authority dissipated and the country was divided among regional warlords. Reunification, begun by the Nationalist government under the Kuomintang (KMT); was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The unparalleled institutional crisis hastened the Chinese search for alternative means of reorganizing China. Since the last dynasty, Qing, collapsed construction of a modern Chinese state had been the goal shared by many Chinese modernizers. For them, this magnificent goal meant that China could one-day stand in the world community on an equal footing with other member states.
While the first two decades of this century may have saw China in Chaos, this time period also produced a free intellectual environment. (Qtd. Imfeld, China as