History of Hunan
Hunan’s primeval forests were first occupied by the ancestors of the modern Miao, Tujia, Dong and Yao peoples. The province entered written Chinese history around 350 BC, when under the kings of the Zhou dynasty, the province became part of the State of Chu. After Qin conquered the Chu heartland in 278 BC, the region came under the control of Qin, and then the Changsha Kingdom during the Han dynasty. At this time, and for hundreds of years thereafter, the province was a magnet for settlement of Han Chinese from the north, who displaced and assimilated the original indigenous inhabitants, cleared forests and began farming rice in the valleys and plains. The agricultural colonization of the lowlands was carried out in part by the Han state, which managed river dikes to protect farmland from floods. To this day many of the small villages in Hunan are named after the Han families who settled there. Migration from the north was especially prevalent during the Eastern Jin dynasty and the Northern and Southern dynasties periods, when nomadic invaders pushed these peoples south.
During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, Hunan was home to its own independent regime, Ma Chu.
Hunan and Hubei became a part of the province of Huguang until the Qing dynasty. Hunan province was created in 1664 from Huguang, renamed to its current name in 1723.
Hunan became an important communications center due to its position on the Yangzi River. It was an important centre of scholarly activity and Confucian thought, particularly in the Yuelu Academy in Changsha. It was also on the Imperial Highway constructed between northern and southern China. The land produced grain so abundantly that it fed many parts of China with its surpluses. The population continued to climb until, by the nineteenth century, Hunan became overcrowded and prone to peasant uprisings. Some of the uprisings, such as the ten-year Miao Rebellion of 1795–1806, were caused by ethnic tensions. The Taiping Rebellion began in the south in Guangxi Province in 1850. The rebellion spread into Hunan and then further eastward along the Yangzi River valley. Ultimately, it was a Hunanese army under Zeng Guofan who marched into Nanjing to put down the uprising in 1864.
Battle of Changsha
Hunan was relatively quiet until 1910 when there were uprisings against the crumbling Qing dynasty, which were followed by the Communist’s Autumn Harvest Uprising of 1927. It was led by Hunanese native Mao Zedong, and established a short-lived Hunan Soviet in 1927. The Communists maintained a guerrilla army in the mountains along the Hunan-Jiangxi border until 1934. Under pressure from the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces, they began the Long March to bases in Shaanxi Province. After the departure of the Communists, the KMT army fought against the Japanese in the second Sino-Japanese war. They defended Changsha until it fell in 1944. Japan launched Operation Ichigo, a plan to control the railroad from Wuchang to Guangzhou (Yuehan Railway). Hunan was relatively unscathed by the civil war that followed the defeat of the Japanese in 1945. In 1949, the Communists returned once more as the Nationalists retreated southward.
As Mao Zedong’s home province, Hunan supported the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. However, it was slower than most provinces in adopting the reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the years that followed Mao’s death in 1976.
In addition to Mao Zedong, a number of other first-generation communist leaders were also from Hunan: President Liu Shaoqi; General Secretaries Ren Bishi and Hu Yaobang; Marshals Peng Dehuai, He Long, and Luo Ronghuan; Wang Zhen, one of the Eight Elders; Xiang Jingyu, the first female member of the party’s central committee; Senior General Huang Kecheng; and veteran diplomat Lin Boqu. An example of a more recent leader from Hunan is former Premier Zhu Rongji.