China has played a critical role throughout world history, dominating the politics of East Asia, contributing great innovations, and leaving a lasting legacy. Sadly, though, people in the U.S. tend not to know very much about Chinese history, so for this article, we’re covering 5 central figures in Chinese history who are crucial to understanding the nation’s past.
Lao Zu (c. 571 BC — 471 BC)
Not many societies can claim that a philosopher-poet is central to their history, but the Chinese can. Lao Zu (also Laozi or Lao-Tzu) is a legendary figure in Chinese folk history. It is believed that Lao Zu lived around 500 BC. He is most famous as the author of the Tao Te Ching — and as such, the founder of the religion/philosophy Taoism.
Taoism is based on the concept of Tao, the source and basis of all existence, a sort of spiritual anima that permeates the universe. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Zu asks readers to be humble and work in harmony with this natural force. One central concept is We wei, or “non-action,” which is often translated to relate to the importance of not forcing anything.
His influence on Chinese culture (and indeed, all of East Asia) has been massive, even reaching beyond the region. Many westerners involved in anti-authoritarianism cite Lao Zu as a foundational thinker. Some people claim that Lao Zu tutored the young Siddartha Gautama, who would become Buddha.
Confucius (c. 551 BC — 479 BC)
One of the most influential figures (or perhaps the most influential) in Chinese history is Confucius. It is believed that Confucius lived around the same time as Lao Zu and served as a teacher, politician, and philosopher. His most famous works have been collected into what are now called The Four Books and The Five Classics.
The Four Books serve as an introduction to Confucianism, and consist of four titles: Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects, and Mencius. These books cover topics as wide-ranging as government, intellectual inquiry, virtue, morality, and more. Confucianism, which still governs Chinese culture today, presents a code of ethics stressing ancestor worship, loyalty, and family relationships. The Five Classics cover different topics: poetry, political documents and speeches, ceremonies and rites, history, and the I Ching.
Many people have heard of the I Ching (or Book of Changes), which details a system of divination using random numbers, hexagrams, and a set of yarrow sticks. The I Ching has been influential across the world as a means of making difficult decisions for centuries.
In popular culture, Confucius is often misquoted for amusement. For a list of quotes that have been truly attributed to Confucius, check out this list.
Sun Tzu (c. 544 BC — 496 BC)
Another of the greatest Chinese influences on the world comes from Sun Tzu, a military strategist who advised King Helü of Wu in the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient Chinese history. With the assistance of Tzu, the state was able to win five major battles and captured the city of Ying.
Sun Tzu is most famous for his book, The Art of War, which is one of the most popular books of all time. It is considered a masterwork of strategy. The first emperor of unified China considered The Art of War invaluable in his wars of unification.
The Art of War later gained great influence in Japan during the samurai era. The book reached Europe as well, and great strategists such as Napoleon are known to have studied it extensively. Even today, the work is studied widely by military professionals and those in parallel fields such as business.
Mao Zedong (1893 — 1976)
The founder of communist China and one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, Mao Zedong was born in 1893 to a wealthy farming family in Hunan province of south-central China.
During Mao’s childhood, the nation was undergoing turmoil. Protests against famine and corruption spread across the nation, and military crackdowns by the forces of the Qing emperor were brutal. In 1911, the empire was overthrown and a limited republican government was established.
Discontent remained across China, however, and by 1921 Mao had joined the newly-formed Communist Party. Between 1927 and 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to fight an open war against the government, in rebellions triggered by brutal crackdowns and massacres. Mao commanded large forces throughout this period, and by 1935 was the undisputed leader.
By 1949, a coalition led by Mao overthrew the ineffectual Chinese government and created the new People’s Republic of China. Over the next 30 years of his life, Mao ruled China with few challengers. During this period, he sent Chinese troops to Korea, persecuted political challengers, and instituted the “Great Leap Forward,” a program of land redistribution and agricultural changes that led to massive famine. He also oversaw the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, an initiative to weed out all “counter-revolutionary” elements from Chinese society.
He remains a controversial figure in world history, remembered as a dictator who oversaw human rights abuses, but also as an influential political theorist who modernized China and rid it of imperialism.
Deng Xiaoping (1904 — 1997)
Probably the second most prominent politician and figure in modern Chinese history is Deng Xiaoping. Born in 1904 in Sichuan province in southwestern China, Xiaoping came to join the communist revolutionaries in 1927. Within 10 years, he was a commander of 3 divisions, and when the People’s Republic was formally formed in 1949, Xiaoping became mayor of Chongqing.
Over the next several years, Xiaoping continued to rise in the party, serving in many high councils and positions of the state. But by 1966, he had fallen out of favor with Mao, who believed him to be more of a nationalist than a communist (which was true). He was forced to retire from his positions and work as a laborer at a factory.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Xiaoping began to emerge as the new leader of China. While he was never a central figurehead like Mao was, he ruled in the nation in all but name. Over the next several decades, he made many key reforms in China, including opening up limited free speech, transitioning towards a market-based capitalist economy, and working to restrict population growth.
After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Xiaoping’s political influence began to diminish, and he resigned from his official posts by 1992. However, he continued to influence politics behind the scenes until his death in 1997.