Click the images below for a visual look at the history of Chinese airlines up to 2014:
CAAC Genealogy - The Big Three
Hainan Airlines Group
Other Chinese Airlines Genealogy
1945-1985: Revolution & Rapprochement
Following WW2 air traffic within China was in chaos, with no scheduled operations and the majority of aircraft and facilities destroyed. The creation of a Civil Aviation Bureau in 1950 and its replacement by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) four years later only slowly changed this situation, whilst at the same time consolidating all aspects of air traffic under a single body. It wasn't until the mid-60s that traffic returned to even its pre-war levels, not helped by effects of the Great Leap Forward, but then again air travel in Communist China was not for the general public but only for government and communist party officials.
A major feature of the Great Leap Forward's second Five Year Plan was decentralisation and this saw CAAC split into six regional bureaus (Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Lanzhou) with 22 provincial and municipal authorities beneath them. The Great Leap Forward was not a success and the following Cultural Revolution a disaster. In parallel, relations with the Soviet Union were worsening and Soviet support dried up. Unsurprisingly this combination of factors saw a major retrenchment of the small gains aviation had made since 1945.
Following Mao's 'victory' in the Cultural Revolution more moderate policies saw the country return to a semi-normal state and the end of the enforced isolation pursued up till then. This was partly to counter the Soviet threat and led to a rapprochement with the USA and an expansion of international air service with Boeing 707s. Following Mao's death in 1976 attempts to centralise the CAAC were not a success and with continuing economic strife caused by the policies of centralised planning a reformist view became acceptable whereby elements of a market economy would be introduced. The reforms were gradually rolled out across the economy and by 1985 it was aviation's turn.