On 5th May 1260, Kublai Khan was declared Emperor of the Mongolian Empire. A grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai reigned for 34 years and established the Yuan dynasty that was the first non-Han dynasty to control the whole of China. This is significant, because the Mongols were traditionally a nomadic tribe who ruled by the sword rather than diplomacy.
The area governed by Kublai Khan was enormous, sweeping from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Black Sea in the west, and from Afghanistan in the south to Siberia in the north. Historian John Man, who wrote noted a biography of Kublai, estimates that this area was approximately one fifth of the entire world’s populated area.
Having had little experience of political government, Kublai Khan was only able to rule his vast Empire by employing a range of civil servants and foreign administrators. Arguably the most famous of these was the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, who met and worked for him for a number of years. Although he was not the first European to visit China, Marco Polo was the first to document life in the Empire in any great detail and is the Western origin for many accounts of life in China under Kublai Khan. Although his writings broadly praised Kublai as the model sovereign, he did recognise his weaknesses. Despite being heralded as a Chinese Emperor, it was Kublai’s failure to fully integrate the Mongols into Chinese society that led to the downfall of his dynasty.
Thomas Stevens departed San Francisco on a large-wheeled Ordinary, also known as a penny-farthing, to become the first person to cycle around the world.
Stevens was born in England and emigrated to the USA when he was seventeen years old. A contemporary magazine describes him as having worked a railroad mill in Wyoming before securing a job at a Colorado mine where he had the idea of cycling across the United States. Having already developed a love of cycling, Stevens bought a 50-inch Columbia penny-farthing in 1884. Built by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Chicago, it was on this bicycle that he departed San Francisco at 8am on 22 April 1884.
The first leg of Stevens’ journey took him 3,700 miles east to Boston, which he reached after more than three months’ travelling along everything from wagon trails to canal towpaths. Determined to travel light, his handlebar bag contained only a change of socks and shirt, a raincoat that doubled as a tent, and a revolver.
Stevens arrived in Boston on 4 August, making him the first person to cycle across North America. He then chose to wait until the following year to cross the Atlantic to Liverpool and begin the next part of his journey. Crossing the Channel to France, he cycled across Europe to Constantinople before crossing into Asia.
Stevens made it to Iran before being forced to turn back to Turkey, having been denied passage through both Siberia and Afghanistan. He resorted to taking a steamship to Karachi from where he cycled to Calcutta and another ship to Hong Kong. More cycling to China’s east coast got him to a ship bound for Japan where his incredible ride finished on 17 December 1886. His journal records “DISTANCE ACTUALLY WHEELED, ABOUT 13,500 MILES”.
The United States table tennis team heralded the era of ‘ping pong diplomacy’ by becoming the first official American delegation to visit China in 20 years.
Relations between America and China had soured in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution, and grew worse as a result of the Korean War in which the countries fought on opposing sides. Relations were so poor that, by the time the two countries travelled to Nagoya in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in 1971, they had no diplomatic or economic relationship.
Richard Nixon intended to bring China in from the cold when he took up the presidency in 1969. Meanwhile, increasing tensions between China and the USSR had similarly led Chairman Mao to consider rebuilding relations with the United States. Both table tennis teams being in Nagoya offered the perfect opportunity.
Having missed the US bus after practice one evening, American player Glenn Cowan travelled back to his room with the Chinese team. Although the Chinese claim that Cowan “stumbled up the steps” of their bus, he claimed in an interview that he was invited to travel with them. Whatever the reality, during the short bus journey Cowan was given a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan mountains by the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong.
Favourable press coverage, which led Mao to comment on Zhuang Zedong’s positive actions as a diplomat, resulted in the entire American team being invited to China after the tournament ended. Having arrived in the country on 10 April, they spent ten days touring Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Their visit heralded a new period in Sino-American relations that culminated in President Nixon himself travelling to China the following year.
Port Arthur was a fortified naval base in the south of Manchuria that had been leased to Russia since 1898. After crushing the Boxer Rebellion as part of an eight-nation coalition, Russia infuriated Japan, which claimed parts of Manchuria within its own sphere of influence, by refusing to remove its troops. Japan was willing to recognise Russian dominance in Manchuria in return for access to Korea, but an agreement could not be reached and Japan broke off diplomatic relations on 6 February 1904.
Three hours before the Russian government received the declaration of war on 8 February, the Japanese Imperial Navy conducted a pre-emptive strike. Japanese Admiral Tōgō sent ten destroyers to Port Arthur where their torpedoes damaged two of the Russian fleet’s most powerful battleships as well as a cruiser. Although none of the ships were sunk due to the effectiveness of torpedo nets in the port, the Russian fleet was seriously weakened as the ships that had been hit were put out of action. The attack was halted at around 2am the following morning after the Russians turned on their searchlights and began to return fire.
At around 8am Admiral Tōgō sent a reconnaissance mission through the morning mist to inspect Port Arthur. With his observers reporting that the Russian fleet had been crippled by the previous night’s attack, the Japanese fleet were ordered to launch an attack on the port. In reality the reconnaissance was wrong and the Russians were prepared for battle. The Battle of Port Arthur resulted in ships on both sides suffering damage before the Japanese fleet retreated.
On the 13th December 1937, the Nanking Massacre began at the end of the Battle of Nanking – part of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Troops from the Imperial Japanese Army captured the city, which at the time was the capital of the Republic of China, and began a six-week long series of atrocities against the city’s residents. A highly contentious historical event, estimates of the number of victims vary from 40,000 to over 300,000 dead.
Japanese troops arrived at the city on the 9th December, and despite attempts by a group of foreigners in the city to negotiate a peaceful handover of the city, Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek ordered that the city be defended “to the last man”. Meanwhile, Japanese troops were ordered to “kill all captives”.
The Chinese defence collapsed on the 12th, and the victorious Japanese army entered the following day. According to eyewitness accounts, the following six weeks saw them engage in numerous war crimes including rape, murder, theft and arson. Captured Chinese troops were the victims of extrajudicial killings by machine gun or by being used for live bayonet practice. Meanwhile children, the elderly, and approximately 20,000 other women of the city were raped with many killed immediately afterwards.
Japanese General Iwane Matsui expressed his regret at the behaviour of his troops just a few days after taking control of the city, but atrocities didn’t end until the start of February 1938. At the end of the Second World War, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convicted only two people for their role in the massacre.
At 7:48 on the morning of the 7th December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the United States’ Hawaiian naval base at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen US Navy ships were sunk or damaged by 353 Japanese fighter, bomber and torpedo planes. Nearly 2,500 American servicemen were killed, with another 1,000 injured. The Japanese lost just 64 men.
Japan chose to attack Pearl Harbor in order to prevent the U.S. Pacific Fleet from becoming involved in Japan’s advance into Southeast Asia, particularly British-controlled Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Although the United States was not involved in the Second World War at the time, it had previously provided financial support to the Republic of China in the Sino-Japanese War and stopped selling equipment such as aeroplanes, parts and aviation fuel to Japan in1940. Remaining oil shipments were stopped in July 1941.
Japan’s military commanders became convinced that the USA would eventually intervene as they advanced further into Southeast Asia. On the 26th November, the main Japanese attack fleet left port for Pearl Harbour. However, Emperor Hirohito only gave final approval for the attack on the 1st December. By this point most Americans expected imminent war with Japan, but the attack on Pearl Harbour caught everyone by surprise.
At 7:48am on the 7th December the first wave of Japanese planes began their attack. The entire assault was over within 90 minutes. The following morning, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy” and called for Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan. They did so less than an hour later.
On the 20th October 1935, the 6,000 mile Long March by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China ended when the columns of troops led by Mao Zedong arrived in Shaanxi. Although the three armies involved in the march didn’t fully unite until two days later, Mao’s arrival at the foot of the Great Wall marked the successful end of the Red Army’s flight to safety.
Having fought a Civil War against the nationalist Kuomintang since 1927, by 1934 the Jiangxi Soviet was surrounded by Chiang Kai-Shek’s anti-Communist troops. Facing certain starvation if the siege was allowed to continue, the Communists opted to abandon the Soviet in a controlled breakthrough manoeuvre that began on the 16th October 1934.
Numbering nearly 100,000 people, the fleeing Communist army faced almost daily assaults from the Nationalists as they struggled north on a year-long journey that covered up to 16 miles a day. Although the primary aim of the march was to establish a safe base away from Nationalist interference, the Long March also served as a useful propaganda tool as Red Army troops came into direct contact with the local peasantry. The Eight Points of Attention, a set of orders for the good behaviour of troops, was central to this as the Red Army treated peasants with respect and gratitude, in stark contrast to the Nationalists.
It was during the Long March that Mao Zedong emerged as the leader of the Chinese Communists, and his survival alongside less than 10% of the original troops mythologised him as a leader and reinforced his authority.
The Chinese Communists in the People’s Liberation Army had been fighting the second stage of a long and costly civil war against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, known as the Kuomintang, since shortly after the end of the Second World War. The first stage had been suspended in 1937 in order to focus a combined Chinese army against the Japanese, but relations between the two Chinese contingents had remained poor.
Even before the Japanese surrender, the Kuomintang and the PLA had begun to receive support from the USA and the USSR respectively. In the aftermath of the Second World War this division continued until the two Chinese armies resumed full-scale war on 26 June 1946. A quarter of China’s land area and a third of the population were already under Communist control, and the PLA soon expanded to over 1.2 million troops supported by a militia of almost double that.
With the resumption of the Civil War, the Communist Party itself promised land reform to the peasantry. In return for supporting the PLA, peasants were told that they would be given possession of their own land instead of needing to rent it from unscrupulous landlords. This secured more support for the Communists and, combined with the effective ‘passive defense’ strategy, led to the gradual expansion of Communist control and a Kuomintang retreat.
By October 1949 almost all of mainland China was under Communist control and Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek and the retreating Kuomintang fled to the island of Taiwan in December.
On the 18th September 1931, the Manchurian Crisis – also known as the Mukden Incident –began when Japanese soldiers blew up a section of their own railway in the Chinese region of Manchuria. Although it caused only minimal damage, the explosion was blamed on Chinese rebels and led to the Japanese using it as an excuse to invade.
The South Manchuria Railway had been controlled by Japan since the end of the Russo-Japanese War, but the relationship between the Japanese military who guarded the line and the local Chinese population was tense. Following the onset of the Great Depression, some renegade members of the Japanese Kwantung Army believed that a conflict in the area would be beneficial for Japan.
A small quantity of dynamite was detonated near the tracks at around 10.20pm on the evening of the 18th September. The explosion caused such little damage that a train was able to go over the section of track ten minutes later without incident, but within hours the resident Japanese forces had driven the nearby Chinese garrison from their barracks in retaliation for the alleged attack.
Over the next few days the Japanese army took control of towns and cities along the entire railway line, acting independently of the government in Tokyo. The politicians, unable to reign in the army, eventually lent support to the invasion and sent additional troops to support the invasion.
The Chinese government appealed to the League of Nations for assistance, which promptly passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Japanese troops. Japan ignored the League, and ruled Manchuria as a puppet state.
On the evening of the 3rd June 1989, the People’s Liberation Army began firing on protesters taking part in the student-led Tiananmen Square protests.
Having begun after the death of a deposed liberal reformer within the ruling Communist Party in April that year, the Tiananmen Square protesters called for government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the restoration of workers’ control over industry. Having initially consisted mainly of university students, the protests soon gained support from the wider population and spread to over 400 cities nationwide. By the end of May, and with no end to the protests in sight, the politburo began to consider approving the use of force to disperse the protesters. The final authorisation was given at a meeting of the politburo at 4.30pm on the 3rd June.
When the army began to advance on Tiananmen Square later that evening, thousands of civilians filled the streets to build barricades despite warnings from state-controlled television to stay inside. At around 10pm, while still approximately 10km from Tiananmen Square itself, the army first used live ammunition on the crowds.
The army continued its advance towards the square throughout the night, arriving shortly after midnight. Although some students hurled projectiles at the soldiers, the vast majority maintained a peaceful protest. However, the army continued its advance and eventually forced the students to retreat from the square. Official figures reported 241 deaths, but unofficial estimates – including one by the US Ambassador at the time – place the figure at more than twice that.