China History

Chinese history refers to the history from the birth of Chinese civilization to the present. China has a long history of about 5,000 years since the reign of Yellow Emperor. It has gone through many regime evolution and dynastic changes., which was once the most powerful country in the world, attracting worldwide attention for its economy, culture and technology. Yuanmou man is the oldest hominoid in China and the oldest dynasty is Xia Dynasty. Chinese society has progressed through five major stages – Primitive Society, Slave Society, Feudal Society, Semi-feudal and Semi-colonial Society, and Socialist Society. 

Timeline of Chinese History and Dynasties

Period Dynasty Period Dynasty
1.7 million years ago – the 21st century BC Prehistoric Times 2070–1600 BC Xia
1600 – 1046 BC Shang 1046 – 256 BC Zhou
221 – 207 BC Qin 202 BC – 220 AD Han
220 – 280 AD Three Kingdoms 265 – 420 AD Jin
420 – 589 AD Northern and Southern Dynasties 581 – 618 AD Sui
618 – 907 AD Tang 907 – 960 AD Five Dynasties and Ten States
960 – 1279 AD Song 907 – 1125 AD Liao
1038 – 1227 AD Western Xia Dynasty 1115 – 1234 AD Jin
1271 – 1368 AD Yuan 1368 – 1644 AD Ming
1644 – 1911 AD Qing 1912-1949 AD Republic of China
1949-present People’s Republic of China    

Prehistoric China(1.7 million years ago – 2070 BC)

There are three ages in the Prehistoric China: the Paleolithic Age, the Neolithic Age, and the Bronze Age. 

The archaeological site of Xihoudu in Shanxi Province has evidence of use of fire by Homo erectus, which is dated 1.27 million years ago, and Homo erectus fossils in China include the Yuanmou Man, the Lantian Man and the Peking Man.

The Neolithic age in China can be traced back to about 10,000 BC. The earliest evidence of cultivated rice, found by the Yangtze River, is carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. Early evidence for proto-Chinese millet agriculture is radiocarbon-dated to about 7000 BC.

Bronze artifacts have been found at the Majiayao culture site (between 3100 and 2700 BC). The Bronze Age is also represented at the Lower Xiajiadian culture (2200–1600 BC) site in northeast China. Sanxingdui located in what is now Sichuan province is believed to be the site of a major ancient city, of a previously unknown Bronze Age culture (between 2000 and 1200 BC).

Ancient China(2070 BC – 221 BC)

Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC)

China’s Xia dynasty (2070 BC to 1600 BC) was the first dynasty in ancient historical records such as Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals. 

The dynasty was considered a myth by historians until scientific excavation of the early Bronze Age site at Erlitou, Henan province, in 1959. However, it remains unclear whether these sites are the remains of the Xia dynasty or of another culture from the same period. 

Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC)

The written history of China begins with the Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 BCE). Archaeological discoveries provide evidence for the existence of the Shang dynasty. The findings at Anyang include the earliest written record of the Chinese so far discovered: inscriptions of divination records in ancient Chinese writing on the bones or shells of animals—the “oracle bones”, dating from around 1250 BC.

A series of thirty-one kings reigned over the Shang dynasty and the term Yin dynasty has been synonymous with the Shang dynasty in history. 

Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC)

The Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC) was the longest lasting dynasty in Chinese history. By the end of the second millennium BC, the Zhou dynasty began to appear in the Yellow River basin, beyond the territory of the Shang dynasty. Zhou appeared to have begun to rule under a semi-feudal system. 

The first part of the Zhou era was called the Western Zhou (1045–771 BC) which was a fairly peaceful time. After  770 BC, it was divided into three periods of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045–771 BC), the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC), and the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), which marked the transition from tribal society to feudal society. Many famous individuals such as Laozi,  Confucius and Sun Tzu lived during this chaotic period.

Imperial China (221 BC – 1912 AD)

Historians often refer to the period from the Qin dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty as Imperial China. The Imperial China Period can be divided into three subperiods: Early, Middle, and Late.

Major events in the Early subperiod include the Qin unification of China and their replacement by the Han, the First Split followed by the Jin unification, and the loss of north China. The Middle subperiod was marked by the Sui unification and their supplementation by the Tang, the Second Split, and the Song unification. The Late subperiod included the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

Qin dynasty (221–207 BC)

China was unified for the first time in 221 B.C and the Qin Shi Huang is the first to use the title of emperor in China. The empire existed only briefly from 221 to 206 B.C., but the Qin Dynasty had a lasting cultural impact on the dynasties that followed. 

Major contributions of the Qin include the concept of a centralized government, and the unification and development of the legal code, the written language, measurement, and currency of China. Also as part of its centralization, the Qin connected the northern border walls of the states it defeated, making the first Great Wall of China. After the emperor died, he was buried in a lavish tomb with an army of 8000 life-size terracotta soldiers(Terra-Cotta Warriors in Xian). The tomb was discovered in 1974.

Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)

Liu Bang, a peasant leader, overthrew the unpopular Qin regime and established the Han Dynasty. Han is renowned for its promotion of Confucianism as the state religion and opening the Silk Road trade route to Europe. 

To govern their empire, the Han developped a bureaucratic model based on Confucianism. A civil service examination system was initiated. Confucian scholars gained prominent status and intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors flourished. Two of the great Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain, date from Han times. 

Three Kingdoms (AD 220–280)

Three Kingdoms set up by Han generals in the three chief economic areas of China: Wei around the old capital in the north, Wu around the lower Yangzi, and Shu in the Sichuan Basin. This period was characterized by a gradual decentralization of the state that had existed during the Qin and Han dynasties, and an increase in the power of great families.

In 266, the Jin dynasty overthrew the Wei and later unified the country in 280.

Jin dynasty (AD 266–420)

The Jin dynasty was founded in ad 266 by Sima Yan, posthumously known as Emperor Wu (the “Martial Emperor of Jin”). The Jin dynasty conquered Eastern Wu in 280 and united the country. The period of unity was short-lived as the state was soon weakened by corruption, political turmoil, and internal conflicts.

Northern and Southern dynasties (AD 420–589)

In the early 5th century, China entered a period known as the Northern and Southern dynasties, in which parallel regimes ruled the northern and southern halves of the country. The Northern Wei rulers were ardent supporters of Buddhism. In 477, the Emperor Hsiao-Wen had built the Shaolin Temple near the capital at Luoyang. The Shaolin temple became the birthplace of Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism.

Similarly, in the south, monks propagated Buddhist ideas that were compatible with Daoist philosophy. Notable inventions from this period include: gunpowder (used initially for fireworks). 

Sui dynasty (581–618)

After almost 400 years of chaos ended, the Sui Dynasty eventually unified China again in 581 AD. 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 were adopted by later dynasties.

Standardized coinage were enforced throughout the unified empire. Sui China was known for its numerous mega-construction projects such as Grand Canal and the rebuilding of the Great Wall. 

Tang dynasty (AD 618–907)

The Tang dynasty was founded by Emperor Gaozu on 18 June 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. Buddhism became the predominant religion for the common people. Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the national capital, was the largest city in the world during its time.

The second emperor, Taizong, is widely regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. In late Tang period, the empire was worn out by recurring revolts of regional warlords, while internally, as scholar-officials engaged in fierce factional strife, corrupted eunuchs amassed immense power.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (AD 907–960)

During this half-century, China was in all respects a multi-state system. Five states quickly succeeded one another in the Central Plain, and more than a dozen concurrent states were established elsewhere. It was the last prolonged period of multiple political division in Chinese imperial history.

This ended when one of the northern kingdoms defeated its neighbors and established the Song Dynasty.

Song, Liao, Jin, and Western Xia dynasties (AD 960–1234)

In 979, the Song dynasty reunified most of the China proper, while large swaths of the outer territories were occupied by sinicized nomadic empires. The Khitan Liao dynasty, which lasted from 907 to 1125, ruled over Manchuria, Mongolia, and parts of Northern China. Meanwhile, in what are now the north-western Chinese provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Ningxia, the Tangut tribes founded the Western Xia dynasty from 1032 to 1227.

The Song period divides into two phases: Northern Song (960-1127) with a capital in Kaifeng, and Southern Song (1127-1279) with a capital at Lin’an (now Hangzhou). The Song dynasty is notable for the development of cities as centers of trade, industry, and maritime commerce. The “four great inventions” of the Chinese people in ancient times (paper, printing, the compass, and gunpowder) were further developed in the Song Dynasty.

Yuan dynasty (AD 1271–1368)

By the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongols under Genghis Khan had created a huge empire stretching from the Pacific to Europe. In 1271, Kublai Khan(the grandson of Genghis Khan) officially declared the creation of the Yuan Dynasty, and moved the capital to Dadu (present day Beijing). To unify China, he began a massive offensive against the Southern Song, and finally unified the country in 1279.

The city of Beijing was rebuilt and became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. Marco Polo from Venice traveled extensively in China, and later described China’s culture and marvels in his book.

Ming dynasty (AD 1368–1644)

The Ming dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368, who proclaimed himself as the Hongwu Emperor. He reorganized all aspects of government and society – mainly to prevent others from usurping power. When his son and successor, Zhu Di, ascended the throne, he started to build the Forbidden City in Beijing.

China experienced incredible expansion in all areas of economic life: agriculture, industry, commerce, and naval exploration. The imperial palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City reached its current splendor. Ming Great Wall was built and most of what remains of the Great Wall of China today was either built or repaired by the Ming.

Qing dynasty (AD 1644–1911)

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 entire territory of China and its people. 

By the middle of the 18th century, the feudal economy of the Qing Dynasty reached a zenith, spanning the reign of Emperor Kangxi, Emperor Yongzheng and Emperor Qianlong. In that period, both culture and science were much more prosperous than any other periods.

After the middle period, all kinds of social contradictions increasingly surfaced and Qing began to decline. Finally, the Revolution of 1911 led by Sun Yat-sen broke out and overthrew the Empire of Qing, bringing two thousand years of Chinese feudal monarchy to an end.

Modern China (Since 1912)

Republic of China (1912 – 1949)

After the success of the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, Sun Yat-sen was declared President. 

In the 1920s, Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south China, and set out to unite the fragmented nation. However, the Republic of China could not be firmly established across China, with civil war ensuing for decades.

People’s Republic of China (since 1949)

Major combat in the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949 with Kuomintang (KMT). On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. 

Since the founding, China has entered a Communist era of stability.