Chinese history

Chinese history: dynasties described in simple terminology and events

The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC).

The Records of the Grand Historian (c. 100 BC) and the Bamboo Annals (296 BC) describe a Xia dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BC) before the Shang, but no writing is known from the period.

The dynasty was considered mythical by historians until scientific excavations found early Bronze Age sites at Erlitou, Henan in 1959. With few clear records matching the Shang oracle bones, it remains unclear whether these sites are the remains of the Xia dynasty or of another culture from the same period.

The Shang ruled in the Yellow River valley, which is commonly held to be the cradle of Chinese civilization.

A series of thirty-one kings reigned over the Shang dynasty. The term Yin dynasty has been synonymous with the Shang dynasty in history, although it has lately been used to refer specifically to the latter half of the Shang dynasty.

The Zhou dynasty (1046 BC to approximately 256 BC) is the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history.

The kings of Zhou invoked the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize his rule, a concept that was influential for almost every succeeding dynasty.

In the 8th century BC, power became decentralized during the Spring and Autumn period, named after the influential Spring and Autumn Annals.

The Hundred Schools of Thought of Chinese philosophy blossomed during this period, and such influential intellectual movements as Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism were founded,  partly in response to the changing political world. The first two philosophical thoughts would have an enormous influence on Chinese culture.

After further political consolidation, seven prominent states remained by the end of the 5th century BC, and the years in which these few states battled each other are known as the Warring States period. Though there remained a nominal Zhou king until 256 BC, he was largely a figurehead and held little real power.

Ying Zheng, the king of Qin, unified other six powers by 214 BC and proclaimed himself the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang).

After Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s unnatural death due to the consumption of mercury pills, the Qin government drastically deteriorated and eventually capitulated in 207 BC after the Qin capital was captured and sacked by rebels.

The (Western) Han dynasty was founded by Liu Bang, who emerged victorious in the Chu–Han Contention. A golden age in Chinese history, the Han dynasty’s long period of stability and prosperity consolidated the foundation of China as a unified state under a central imperial bureaucracy.

Major military campaigns were launched to weaken the nomadic Xiongnu Empire, limiting their influence north of the Great Wall. Along with the diplomatic efforts led by Zhang Qian, the sphere of influence of the Han Empire extended to the states in the Tarim Basin, opened up the Silk Road that connected China to the west.

After Emperor Wu, the empire slipped into gradual stagnation and decline. Eventually the dynasty was briefly interrupted by the usurpation of Wang Mang.

Emperor Guangwu reinstated the Han dynasty with the support of landholding and merchant families at Luoyang, east of the former capital Xi’an. Thus, this new era is termed the Eastern Han dynasty.

The Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in AD 184, ushering in an era of warlords. In the ensuing turmoil, three states tried to gain predominance in the period of the Three Kingdoms. This time period has been greatly romanticized in works such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In 266, the Jin dynasty by the Sima family overthrew the Wei and later unified the country in 280, but this union was short-lived.

The Jin dynasty was short, followed by the Northern and Southern dynasties, in which parallel regimes ruled the northern and southern halves of the country.

The short-lived Sui dynasty was a pivotal period in Chinese history. The Sui pioneered many new institutions, including the government system of Three Departments and Six Ministries, imperial examinations for selecting officials from commoners, while improved on the systems of fubing system of the army conscription and the Equal-field system of land distributions. These policies, which were adopted by later dynasties, brought enormous population growth, and amassed excessive wealth to the state.

Standardized coinage were enforced throughout the unified empire. Buddhism took root as a prominent religion and was supported officially. Sui China was known for its numerous mega-construction projects including the Grand Canal.

The Tang dynasty was founded in 618. It was a golden age of Chinese civilization and considered to be the most prosperous period of China with significant developments in culture, art, literature, particularly poetry, and technology.

The second emperor, Taizong, is widely regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history, who had laid the foundation for the dynasty to flourish for centuries beyond his reign.

The dynasty continued to flourish under the rule of Empress Wu Zetian, the only empress regnant in Chinese history, and reached its zenith during the long reign of Emperor Xuanzong, who oversaw an empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Aral Sea with at least 50 million people. There were vibrant artistic and cultural creations, including works of the greatest Chinese poets, Li Bai, and Du Fu.

The period of political disunity between the Tang and the Song, known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, lasted from 907 to 960. During this half-century, China was in all respects a multi-state system.

In 960, the Song dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu, with its capital established in Kaifeng (also known as Bianjing). In 979, the Song dynasty reunified most of the China proper.

Song were always under the threat of Liao, Jin, and Western Xia dynasties (AD 960–1234) along its northern borders. 

Despite its military weakness, the Song dynasty is widely considered to be the high point of classical Chinese civilization. The Song economy, facilitated by technology advancement, had reached a level of sophistication probably unseen in world history before its time.

The Song dynasty was considered to be the golden age of great advancements in science and technology of China.

The Yuan dynasty was formally proclaimed in 1271, when the Great Khan of Mongol, Kublai Khan, one of the grandsons of Genghis Khan, assumed the additional title of Emperor of China, and considered his inherited part of the Mongol Empire as a Chinese dynasty. In the preceding decades, the Mongols had conquered the Jin dynasty in Northern China, and the Southern Song dynasty fell in 1279 after a protracted and bloody war.

While the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty adopted substantially to Chinese culture, their sinicization was of lesser extent compared to earlier conquest dynasties in Chinese history.

Throughout the Yuan dynasty, there was some general sentiment among the populace against the Mongol dominance. Yet rather than the nationalist cause, it was mainly strings of natural disasters and incompetent governance that triggered widespread peasant uprisings since the 1340s.

The Ming dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368, who proclaimed himself as the Hongwu Emperor. The capital was initially set at Nanjing, and was later moved to Beijing from Yongle Emperor’s reign onward.

The dynasty had a strong and complex central government that unified and controlled the empire. The emperor’s role became more autocratic, although Hongwu Emperor necessarily continued to use what he called the “Grand Secretariat” to assist with the immense paperwork of the bureaucracy.

In 1556, during the rule of the Jiajing Emperor, the Shaanxi earthquake killed about 830,000 people, the deadliest earthquake of all time.

The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) was the last imperial dynasty in China. Founded by the Manchus, it was the second conquest dynasty to rule the territory of China proper, and roughly doubled the territory controlled by the Ming. The Manchus were formerly known as Jurchens, residing in the northeastern part of the Ming territory outside the Great Wall. They emerged as the major threat to the late Ming dynasty after Nurhaci united all Jurchen tribes and declared the founding of the Qing dynasty in 1636.

The Manchus enforced a ‘queue order,’ forcing Han Chinese men to adopt the Manchu queue hairstyle.

In the 19th century the empire was internally restive and externally threatened by western powers.

In the summer of 1900, the Boxer Uprising opposed foreign influence and murdered Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries.

Young officials of the Qing court, military officers, and students were inspired by an emerging public opinion formed by intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and the revolutionary ideas of Sun Yat-sen. A localised military uprising, the Wuchang Uprising, began on 10 October 1911, in Wuchang (Today part of Wuhan), and soon spread. The Republic of China was proclaimed on 1 January 1912, ending 2,000 years of dynastic rule.

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By Cloudy Seagail