Top contemporary Chinese leaders

Look back at the five Chinese presidents who shaped the world’s most populous country.

Qin Shi Huang (221-210 B.C.)

When the Qin people arrived from the west and defeated many competing nations militarily in 221 B.C., China became united. By taking away the domains of feudal lords, their commander, who proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang (First Emperor of Qin), formed a powerful centralized government. In addition, he ordered the building of several palaces, thousands of miles of highways connecting the provinces to the capital, and an early version of the Great Wall of China. He also standardized weights and measurements, the currency, and the writing system.

Qin Shi Huang did not allow opposition because he adhered to Legalism, which maintains that individuals are fundamentally bad and illegitimate. In 213 B.C., almost all Daoist, Confucian, and other non-Legalist writings were destroyed, and the next year, over 460 non-Legalist scholars were executed by being buried alive. In 210 B.C., Qin Shi Huang perished on his own, probably as a result of taking too much mercury in the vain hope that it would help him become immortal. Thousands more life-size terracotta warriors were also interred with him, but they weren’t found until the 1970s. Contrarily, the pro-Confucian Han Dynasty succeeded the Qin Dynasty barely four years after Qin Shi Huang’s passing.

Kublai Khan (1279-1294)

Soon after unifying the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian steppe in 1206, the Mongol king Genghis Khan launched attacks into modern-day China. In 1279, his grandson Kublai Khan finished the conquest and for the first time placed all of China under foreign authority. The founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai, believed the Chinese were inferior in terms of law, so he hired foreigners like the Venetian trader Marco Polo to run the country.

However, Kublai also made a concerted effort to win over the public by mending the effects of the war, relaxing his predecessor’s harsh criminal code, supporting the arts, and extending the effective Mongolian mail system into China. He also gave his forefathers Chinese names after his death and constructed an imperial capital in the style of China in what is now Beijing. Despite having gout, despair, and being morbidly obese, Kublai maintained his hold on authority until his passing in 1294. Soon after, the Mongol empire began to fall, and the Yuan Dynasty was toppled in 1368.

Sun Yat-sen (1912)

China had to cede territory to Britain, Russia, and Japan as a result of a succession of lost conflicts in the 19th century. A doctor called Sun Yat-sen was inspired to start planning an armed revolution as a result of these humiliations and the slow pace of change that followed them. Sun desired the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a government based on the values of nationalism, democracy, and social progress. He went to another country in order to seek funds and gain sympathizers after his initial insurrection in 1895 ended in failure. After a few more revolutions, the Republic of China was founded on January 1, 1912, with Sun serving as its interim president.

However, Sun decided to step down the next month in return for the abdication of China’s emperor since the revolutionaries were still lacking in military might. Former Qing commander Yuan Shikai was elected president as part of the agreement that put an end to more than 2,000 years of imperial rule. Then Yuan abandoned the republican cause by assuming unrestricted authority and ushering in a period where warlords ruled. Sun persevered despite not giving up, uniting his supporters under the Nationalist Party flag and subsequently joining forces with the Soviet Union, but he passed away in 1925 before his dream could be accomplished.

Mao Zedong (1949-1976)

Mao Zedong, a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, defied Marxist-Leninist theory by assembling a “Red Army” of peasants rather than relying on industrial workers. After the Communist and Nationalist civil war broke out in 1927, he waged a guerilla battle from the countryside, becoming famous—and rising to the position of party leader—for organizing a disciplined retreat of around 6,000 kilometers. After World War II, the two sides were once more at each other’s throats, notwithstanding a brief period of cooperation in the late 1930s to stave off Japanese forces entering. Finally, in 1949, Mao founded the People’s Republic of China while the Nationalists fled to Taiwan.

Immediately after taking office, Mao expelled hundreds of thousands of counterrevolutionaries, distributed land to peasants, claimed Tibet, and sent soldiers to Korea to fight the United States. He then enacted the Great Leap Forward, which involved putting people into communes in an effort to boost industrial and agricultural productivity. It was a catastrophic failure that led to a famine that may have killed up to 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), which saw paramilitaries known as Red Guards prowling the nation in search of academics and other perceived enemies of the state, another 1.5 million people perished. Mao continued to be in charge until his passing in September 1976.