China’s history is a huge and daunting topic. Thousands of years, hundreds of emperors, dynasty after dynasty… But getting to grips with it all doesn’t need to be boring, and it certainly doesn’t have to take too long. In our series of Instant Expert guides, we’ll give you all the essentials with none of the tedium. First of all, let’s look at China’s dynasties. Most people have heard of the Qing, Ming, and Tang, but not many actually know much about what went on in each, or in the 13 others stretching back to prehistoric times. Here goes:
1. Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (三皇五帝), Prehistory
What happened before the first documented dynasty isn’t too clear. It’s pretty hard to separate myth from fact, but the story goes that three kings (Heavenly Sovereign, Earthly Sovereign and Human Sovereign) ruled over prehistoric China, along with five demigods.
2. Xia Dynasty (夏朝), 3000 – 1500 BC
The main sources for early Chinese history are the quaintly named Bamboo Annals, and the Shiji (or Records of the Grand Historian) by Sima Qian. The Neolithic Chinese lived in what is now Western Henan and Southern Shaanxi. Tomb findings suggest that they were skilled potters and craftsmen, and were advanced enough to have a calendar system using both the moon and the sun. The famous Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, ruled in the middle of the Xia Dynasty, and is credited with inventing martial arts. In total, there were 17 Xia emperors. The last was notoriously tyrannical, and his splintered kingdom was easily overtaken by the marauding Shang tribe.
3. Shang Dynasty (商朝), 1523 – 1028 BC
In this long dynasty of 30 emperors, agriculture flourished, and the first written characters were inscribed on oracle bones. The discovery of 11 tombs near Anyang in Henan during the 1920s and 30s tell us that the Shang were expert bronze casters and carvers, and made porcelain goods, silk, even musical instruments. Fortune telling was popular, along with ancestor- and earth-worship. Unfortunately, the same fate befell the Shang as the Xia – a power-crazed emperor who laid his kingdom open to attack, and committed suicide when his people joined forces with the enemy.
4. Zhou Dynasty (周朝), 1045 – 256 BC
The Zhou era was the longest dynasty in China’s history. It is most famous for Kongzi (Confucius) and the start of Chinese philosophy. When insurgents from Gansu and Shanxi took power from the last Shang emperor, they established their capital in Xi’an (known in those days as Chang’an). The dynasty was split into the Western and Eastern Zhou, divided by the brief Qin Dynasty (see below). The Eastern Zhou was a time of power struggle and war, including the periods known as Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States. Despite political unrest, the Zhou Dynasty was a time of intellectual progress, nurturing writers like Laozi and Mengzi. The divine right of emperors was established, and there was a move towards worshipping heaven instead of earth.
5. Qin Dynasty (秦朝), 221 – 207 BC
During the Warring States period, a warlord named Ying Zheng had gained power. He rose up against the Eastern Zhou emperor and established the first official imperial dynasty. Feudal rule was replaced by a centralised court of ministers, and there were improvements to agriculture and trade. As well as great achievements such as the construction of the Terracotta Army and the Great Wall, the invention of a currency system, and developments in writing, there was a sinister side: the burning of books and persecution of scholars by an emperor wary of new ideas.
6. Han Dynasty (汉朝), 206 BC – 220 AD
The Han Dynasty is a golden age in Chinese history, even giving its name to the main ethnic group. Peace reigned for most of the era, despite several peasant rebellions including the rather colourful-sounding Turban Rebellion, and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion. Astronomy and paper making techniques were honed, and ruddered ships were invented. Central government ruled over smaller administrative regions, and Confucianism spread.
7. Three Kingdoms (三国时代), 220 – 280 AD
The end of the Han Dynasty heralded many centuries of division. The country was separated into the Wei, Shu, and Wu kingdoms, with much infighting between the three. However, it was a time of creative and religious blossoming – Taoism spread, and painting became a form of personal expression, not just state-focused.
8. Jin Dynasty (晋朝), 265 – 420 AD
By the time of the Jin, China was huge – its boundaries stretched as far as the modern autonomous regions. The Western Jin period was blighted by insurgencies of nomadic tribes, while the capital shifted from Xi’an to Nanjing.
9. Southern and Northern Dynasties (南北朝), 420 – 589 AD
This period saw foreign Buddhism arrive from India, and pagodas were built to house holy texts. Thanks to the size of the country’s territory, it was able to amass a strong army and navy.
10. Sui Dynasty (隋朝), 581 – 618 AD
The Sui covered 38 years and three emperors - relatively short by dynastic standards. The country was unified, and big changes to bureaucracy meant that ministerial positions were no longer hereditary, but gained by sitting exams. The Great Wall was expanded, and the Great Canal was built outside Luoyang.
11. Tang Dynasty (唐朝), 618 – 907 AD
It was in the Tang Dynasty that China came to the attention of the rest of the world. The Sui Dynasty had ended, weakened by wars with Korea, and rebel leader Li Yuan rose up as the first Tang ruler. Xi’an was the centre of power once again, and the Silk Road opened-up trade with the West. Something of a poetic golden age, the Tang produced canonical lyricists Du Fu and Li Bai. A census places China’s population at 50 million, which ultimately led to the dynasty’s downfall – the country was too large to control.
12. Five Dynasties, Ten States (五代十国), 907 – 960 AD
The north and south were divided once again, and five short dynasties came in quick succession. The country was split into ten military territories ruled by warlords. Eventually, the child emperor Zhou was overthrown by General Zhao Kuangyin.
13. Song Dynasty (宋朝), 960 – 1279 AD
China’s capital was moved to Kaifeng in Henan Province. Paper currency was introduced, and the compass was invented. It was during this time that Mongolia was gaining strength under Genghis Khan. By the time his grandson Kublai Khan conquered China, heralding the start of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol realm had become the largest empire in the history of the world.
14. Yuan Dynasty (元朝), 1271 - 1368
Under Mongol rule, China’s capital shifted to Beijing for the first time. It was during this period that Marco Polo visited, taking back a wealth of information to the West, along with blue and white porcelain. However, just under a century after the Mongol invasion, China broke away and regained independence.
15. Ming Dynasty (明朝), 1368 – 1644
After overthrowing the Mongols, leader Zhu Yuanzhang established a new capital in Nanjing and started the Ming Dynasty. Cities like Beijing, Chengdu, and Yangzhou grew into metropolises, and capitalism took hold. Ming books such as Journey to the West and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms went on to become classics, and the famous eunuch seaman Zheng He took to the oceans with his giant fleet. The army grew to one million soldiers, and the Forbidden City was built. However, crop failure and famine meant that the last emperor submitted easily to a rebel coup.
16. Qing Dynasty (清朝), 1644 - 1912
Also known as the Manchu period because it was founded by tribal leaders from Manchuria in the northeast, the Qing was the final imperial dynasty of China. Both Tibet and Xinjiang were under Qing control, and the capital was established in Beijing. The mid 18th century saw the Golden Age of the Three Emperors (Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong) but the breakout of the Opium Wars in 1840 weakened the administration. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was a further blow, as Christian heretic Hong Xiuquan rallied against the government. Finally, in 1911, Sun Yat-Sen led the country to revolution, and the last of China’s dynasties came to an end.
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