Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of Chinese History.
The first Dynasties: The Xia and Shang Dynasties (2100- 1050 BC)
China’s first dynasty, the Xia, dates back to 2000 BC. The Xia is so largely shrouded in mystery though, that some scholars consider it potentially mythical. The Xia’s founder was the legendary Yu the Great, who supposedly developed an irrigation technique that saved farmers’ crops from a ‘Great Flood.’ Xia China existed 500 years before the first written Chinese artifacts, so the stories of this period would’ve been passed down orally, further clouding the Xia dynasty in mystery.
The Shang is the first dynasty in recorded Chinese history, thanks to the finding of inscriptions on tortoise shells unearthed by archaeologists. A great leader named Tang established the Shang dynasty after defeating the last Xia ruler in the ‘Battle of Mingtiao,’ which was fought during a great thunderstorm. Tang is known for lowering the number of drafted soldiers and starting various social programs to help the kingdom’s poor. The Shang’s achievements include advances in math, astronomy, artwork, military technology, rich burial practices, and ancestor worship as religion.
The Zhou Dynasty (1050 - 221 BCE):
The Zhou Dynasty, considered the last of the Ancient China dynasties, ruled longer than any other at an astounding 800 years. To help consolidate their power over such a vast region, the Zhou developed a feudal system with different regions led by appointed rulers. In a brilliant move designed to give their reign legitimacy, the Zhou introduced the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven,” essentially saying their emperor’s authority was ordained by God and required their emperor to be a virtuous and moral ruler.
Culturally the Zhou reigned during an incredible flourishing of the arts and humanities. Three major philosophical schools of thought emerged during the Zhou dynasty: Confucianism, which emphasized social and family structure, Daoism, which encouraged following the patterns of and being in balance with nature, and Legalism, which promoted systemic rewards and punishments.
The Warring States Period (481/403 - 221 BCE) and the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) :
Chaos ruled for the final 3 centuries of the Zhou Dynasty during a time known as “The Warring States Period.” 7 major states emerged from the feudal system, including the Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao. These states technically swore loyalty to the Zhou emperor but would attack one another with new and deadly iron age weapons at will, fielding massive armies over 1 million strong as they vied against one another, birthing the theory of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
Eventually, the Qin triumphed, not just through military might, but through economic and political ingenuity. They invented a much more efficient system for dividing administrative regions, allowing for large increases in both conscripts and taxes. This allowed them to field better equipped and larger armies than their opponents. After uniting China, King Zheng of the Qin awarded himself the title of ‘First Emperor.’ The Qin Dynasty is considered the first in the era of “Imperial China” and it was Zheng who built himself a city-sized mausoleum, famously guarded by the magnificent “Terracotta Army,” as well as begin work what would become the Great Wall of China.
Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE):
The Han Dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history, featuring an extended period of stability and prosperity as well as a flourishing of the arts. The most famous development during Han rule was the establishment of the “Silk Road,” a trade route which would reach all the way to Europe and help China become one of the wealthiest countries in the world for centuries. The Han embraced Confucianism, even adding its study to the imperial university.
Paper was invented in Han China by a man named Cai Lun in 105 CE using a combination of bamboo, hemp, tree bark, rags, and fishing nets smashed into a pulp and spread thin. This period also saw the first Chinese Dictionary, including characters from the Zhou and Shang periods that would prove invaluable for deciphering countless ancient inscriptions as well as the first written history of China called “The Grand Scribe’s Records,” which included 130 chapters still referenced by modern historians. Throughout its existence, the Han was troubled by constant feuding and intrigue amongst the royal family, eventually collapsing into chaos, leading to a military coup.
Six Dynasties Period (220- 581) and Sui Dynasty (581-618)
Politically, the ‘Six Dynasties Period’ was chaotic, with multiple dynasties gaining and losing power in rapid succession. Despite the turmoil, many cultural achievements were made, including a shift from Confucianism toward Daoism and Buddhism. Some significant inventions include the wheelbarrow and kites, coal first being used as fuel, and a vast proliferation of art including painting and poetry. This is also when the ‘Three Kingdoms’ period took place, immortalized by the Ming-era epic novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which takes place over a hundred years and describes the struggle between rival factions to reunite China.
Though the Sui Dynasty was brief, it ended the previous 4 centuries of strife and unified China under one Emperor, putting into place political, economic, and cultural practices that would help their successors, the Tang, become a zenith in Chinese cultural history. The architecture of the Sui was dominated by the legendary Yuwen Kai, who created an entire capital city at Daxing 6 times the size of its modern counterpart, (Xi’an) including a rotating pavilion capable of holding over 200 guests.
Tang Dynasty (618-906)
The Tang Dynasty lasted nearly 300 years and is considered a golden age for Chinese arts and culture. Their success came when Emperor Taizong set up Confucian state schools and used them to recruit talented scholars for civil service positions. This enabled hard-working lower-class citizens to work their way up in government without the need for familial connections.
The Tang also created an academy for poetry, developed block printing, and saw Buddhism and its monasteries reach new heights of power and popularity. Printing became a staple at many Buddhist monasteries as they worked to mass produce texts, helping them also serve as schools, inns, and event halls for large gatherings and celebrations.
In 835, Tang Emperor Wenzong became convinced his government officials were plotting against him and struck out in what would become known as “The Sweet Dew Incident.” Over 1,000 officials, as well as some of their families, were killed, plunging the countryside into chaos. A rogue general named Huang Chao took advantage of the turmoil and the government infighting by staging a coup and bringing the Tang Dynasty to its official end.
Five Dynasties Period (907-960) and Song Dynasty (960-1279)
The Five Dynasties Period contained 50 years of chaos, with 5 regime changes in the north and 10 in the south of China.
The Song Dynasty would be one of the longest and greatest in China’s history. It was established by Zhao Kuangyin, who instituted twin reforms of making high-ranking military positions rotational so no one general could grow too powerful. Kuangyin also put the civil service as supervisors of the military instead of the other way around.
During the Song dynasty, there was a huge population boom, economic growth, and many cultural developments which are now considered to be quintessentially Chinese. It was during the Song Dynasty that people switched from consuming mostly wheat and wine to consuming rice and tea. The first ‘Chinese roof’ buildings, with upturned corners, originated in the Song period as well. Despite its status as the most technologically and culturally advanced country in the world, the Song would not be able to survive the invasion of the Mongols.
Yuan Dynasty and the Rule of the Mongols (1279 - 1368)
The ‘Mongol conquest of China’ was started by Ghengis Khan in 1211 and wasn’t completed until 1279, by his grandson Kublai Khan. Kublai established the Yuan Dynasty as a global economic superpower with Beijing as its capital, but he and his successors would never fully assimilate. He often hired foreigners for important government positions and was always viewed as an invader by most Chinese people. Italian Marco Polo made his epic voyage and stayed during this time, returning after 17 years in Kublai Khan’s court as his ambassador to Europe.
At the time, Chinese culture began romanticizing about the pre-Mongol glory days, like the Song and Tang Dynasties. The “4 Masters of the Yuan Dynasty” were painters who embodied the new “literati” style known for valuing knowledge and personal expression over simple accurate representation. Another important development was the appearance of ‘blue and white wear,’ porcelain pieces that would become incredibly popular at the other end of the Silk Road in Europe.
The distrust between the Mongol Emperors and their Chinese subjects would lead to their final overthrow in 1368, making them the shortest lived of China’s major dynasties.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
The Ming Dynasty continued China’s legacy as the most advanced country in the world. Its trade goods of silk, spices, and porcelain allowed it to grow its wealth as its goods flowed along the Silk Road, fueling economies all the way to Europe. Some of the first firearms, developed during the Yuan dynasty, were used to overthrow the Mongols and establish the Ming Empire. One of the earliest medical books on Eastern Medicine was developed by the Ming, as well as the world’s largest encyclopedia, only recently surpassed by Wikipedia in 2004. They even completed the Great Wall in 1633, more than 2,000 years after its construction began.
The Ming sent Chinese explorer Zheng He on 7 naval expeditions around the Indian Ocean using navigational techniques and ships far ahead of their time. These voyages took place between 1405-1433, almost a full century ahead of European explorers like Columbus and Vasco de Gama. Ultimately, the Ming decided to focus internally on completing their wall and shunning outside culture rather than expanding their global influence.
Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)
The Qing Dynasty was the final imperial dynasty of China and is known for its initial prosperity and successes, as well as its eventual revolutions and failures. The Qing were Manchurians who struck during a period of turmoil. In their early years, they had 2 strong and long-lived emperors, Kangxi and Qianlong, who helped to cement their power. Kangxi in particular led a cultural backlash against previous dynasties’ Han culture, burning books and beheading intellectuals while simultaneously promoting Manchurian culture and art. They successfully repelled Russian attempts at expansion and only began losing power with the growing influence of the British.
Opium had been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, but the British began importing huge amounts for recreational use, leading to an epidemic of addiction. By 1800, the Qing attempted to outlaw Opium and its import, but the British responded by working with smugglers. The crisis erupted into the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, which the Qing lost. The resulting treatises gave Britain Hong Kong foreign access to dozens more ports for trade, as well as access for Christian Missionaries throughout China.
Revolution and the Republic of China (1911- 1949)
By the 20th century, there was growing support to establish Democratic rule in China and end Imperial Rule. American-educated Sun Yat-sen returned home at the beginning of the revolution, publishing the “Three Principles” and attempting to become President. However, a military leader named Yuan Shih-k’ai seized power and attempted to make himself emperor, fracturing China once again into loosely allied regions that lasted through to the Second World War.
During this time, two primary factions took shape: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Mao Zedong, and the Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek. This triggered a Civil War in 1927, which paused World War II. The Japanese had begun taking Chinese territory in the early 1930s and launched a massive invasion in 1937. The Japanese committed atrocities, including the “Massacre of Nanking,” where thousands of Chinese were killed or raped. When the Japanese were defeated, the two Chinese sides resumed the Civil War until the CCP won in 1949, leaving the Nationalists in control of only Taiwan.
The Age of Mao
Mao Zedong took control of China in 1949, attempting to create a Marxist paradise known as ‘The Great Leap Forward.” However, it was very quickly modified after famines resulted in the deaths of millions. Mao tempered his plans and introduced capitalist reforms, allowing farmers to sell surplus produce for profit and enacting factory reforms. He initiated a ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966 which saw the formation of a force of young zealots known as the ‘Red Guards’ to attempt to rid China of anti-communist ‘impurity’ by persecuting intellectuals and defacing ancient Chinese relics, causing havoc throughout the country.
Deng Xiaoping took power soon after the death of Mao and began instituting economic reforms. In 1979, Deng opened the country to foreign investment and reduced barriers to trade. The CCP has resisted further calls for democratic reforms, most famously violently putting down protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Modern China continues on a pace to become the world’s largest economy, but also continues to be accused of troubling human rights violations.