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The prehistory of China even predates the rise of modern man. Zhoukoudian, outside of Beijing, was the site of the famous Homo Erectus fossils known as Peking Man. Although the site can be visited today, the original fossils disappeared during World War II.
Chinese civilization rose in the Yangzi and Yellow River Valleys. Banpo Village near Xi'an is the site of a neolithic village. Early artifacts and skeletons can be viewed in museums around China.
China started to come together as a nation after 700 B.C. At that time, China was divided into several kingdoms, and philosophies about governing flourished. During the period known as the Spring and Autumn period, Confucius (Kong zi) and Lao Tsu (Lao Zi), the founder of Taoism, lived.
It was just before 200 B.C. that the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi unified China under a brief, brutal reign. The name China used in the west probably comes from the name Qin, which is pronounced similarly to the English word "chin". The famous Terracotta army near Xi'an guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi. The tomb itself lies in a large earth mound that has not yet been opened.
Many dynasties followed. Buddhism came to China during the Han dynasty. Among the most important dynasties were the Tang and Song. Marco Polo would have visited China in the Song, though scholars debate whether or not he actually ever reached China.
The Mongols conquered China in the thirteenth century A.D. and created their capital at Beijing. The Ming dynasty returned rule of China to the Han Chinese, who ruled for several centuries and rebuilt much of the Great Wall as it is seen today in hopes of preventing another barbarian invasion from the north. The wall failed. In 1644, Manchu's from the Northeast invaded and conquered China, establishing the last Imperial dynasty that ruled China until 1911, when the Republic of China was founded. Most of the traditional architecture that can be seen in China today is from the Qing Dynasty. Because most Imperial buildings and temples in China were built of wood, they often burned down and few older buildings have survived.
Between 1911 and 1949, China was largely controlled by feuding warlords. Japan took over control of Manchuria in the 1930s and invaded other parts of Eastern China throughout the remainder of the Second World War. During and following the war, the Communists and Nationalists vied for control of China. Following a bitter Civil War, the triumphant Communists declared the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
Mao Zedong ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976. During that period, the country attempted to modernize and implement Communism very rapidly through movements such as the Great Leap Forward. Land was taken from wealthy landlords, redistributed to peasants, and then reclaimed by the state collectives. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao launched an attack against officials of the Communist Party and traditional thinking. During this chaotic period many historical artifacts and temples were damaged and destroyed, people were imprisoned, beaten, and killed, and Mao was worshipped as if a god.
In 1978, Deng Xiaoping wrested control of China from Mao's chosen successor Hua Guofeng, and began a period of pragmatic economic reforms. In the following decades, China reopened to the outside world and the economy flourished. Strict political control was retained, and challenges crushed. Most notoriously, student protesters were killed on or near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 following two months of protests on the square. Members of the religious group Falun Gong also have been severely repressed following a protest outside of the government compound, Zhongnanhai, demanding official recognition as a legal religious group.
The biggest and most widespread general trends of economic reform while retaining strict, one-party rule have continued under the Presidencies of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The development of China's Eastern cities continues at a dizzying pace.