Chinese History 101: Know Your Dynasties

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: June 24th, 2011 | Updated: September 15th, 2014 | Comments

History of China

Trying to do a "brief history of China" just turns into a browse-fest. As soon as you start reading about the Zhou or the Song Dynasty, you splinter off into a vast corpus of thought, art, legalisms, strategy, palace intrigue and wonderful all-encapsulating eight character phrases. During this small respite from a long session reading something deep, profound and Chinese, I am going to break things down according to epoch and/or dynasty so those of you who can't remember if it was the Qing or the Qin who came first can finally have a reference to hark back to. I promise to be as brief as possible. Very well then, let's begin shall we?


The Mythical Xia (c.2000-C.1700 BC) 

The mythical origins of Chinese civilization go back about 4,000 years to the Xia Dynasty, of which we know next to nothing. The basic nature of the civilization is hinted at through the discoveries of ancient bronze work and bones with picto- and ideographs scratched on them. Yellow River valleys, extending east from the coast all the way to present-day Shaanxi and north to present-day Beijing. The Xia were most likely ruled by a priest-king who struggled against wealthy landowners for control of the realm while keeping a boot on the necks of the serf-peasant masses.

The Legendary Shang (c.1700-c.1100 BC)

The Shang Dynasty are a step down from mythical, being merely legendary: although not much is known, it is confirmed that the Shang did indeed exist. The Shang are the political, social and philosophical foundation from which Chinese culture sprang forth. The Shang nobility worshiped their ancestors, believed the king to be an intermediary between God or Heaven and trusted that all things consisted of two elements, Yin and Yang. They ruled the cradle of Chinese civilization: the Yellow and Yangzte River valleys west to the mountains and north to the plains with their capital at and around present-day Anyang.

The Civilized Zhou (c.1100-256 BC)

Few empires in history survived longer than the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou were warriors from the mountainous west who took advantage of Shang weakness and overthrew them, bringing the capital west with them to present-day Xi'an. Although they became figureheads in the 8th century, the Zhou king remained a living figurehead for another 500 years before the warlords who were tearing the realm apart finally decided to kill him. The Zhou are separated into Western Zhou (pre-figurehead, with the capital near Xi'an) and the Eastern Zhou (post-figurehead, capital at Luoyang).

The dynasty's greatest contribution to Chinese culture was the Mandate of Heaven, which was much more explicit and binding than the Shang "intermediary" position. The Mandate of Heaven was given to good, benevolent kings. This reserved the right of the people (or an ambitious warlord) to rebel and overthrow a reigning king for having lost the mandate. The Zhou realm was the one of the most advanced empires of its time, anywhere in the world. The Zhou smelted iron and used it for war and industry. Canals and roads facilitated trade in all manner of goods across the empire, including lacquered pottery, precious metals, silks and by the end of the Zhou period the people were using copper coins. The Zhou may also have been the first Asians to use chopsticks.

Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC)

Spring and Autumn Period

This era is named after a yearly report prepared by the bureaucrats of a state that existed during this period, the state of Lu. The reports were known as "Spring and Autumn Annals" and those that survive are a primary source of information on the social, political and military structure of a Chinese state more than 2,500 years ago. After the authority of the Zhou king waned into meaninglessness, hundreds of polities emerged into the vacuum and battled for the right to exist. The constant instability, war, injustice and general chaos that beset the lives of the people in this period led to the rise of philosophers and thinkers. Confucius, Lao Tzu and Sun-Tzu lived during this period. The idea of Legalism also flourished during the Warring States period—legalists promoted a social system based on strict and immutable laws, eradication of the aristocracy and centralization.

Warring States Period (476-221 BC) 

The seven remaining states to arise out of the chaos were the Qin in the west; Zhao, Han and Wei in the central river valleys; Chu to the southeast; Qi around present day Beijing; and the Yan in the northeast. Non-stop war and intrigue between these seven states eventually led to all of them being swallowed up by the Qin in 221 BC, establishing the first unified Empire, from Xi'an to the coast and Beijing down to to North Vietnam.

Qin Dynasty

The Ruthless Qin (221-202 BC)

The Qin Empire only lasted as long as the Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi himself. Before he died, the Qin Emperor connected the Great Wall, began the world famous Terracotta Army to guard his epic mausoleum in Xi'an and burned cartloads of books. He was a ruthless tyrant and in modern films he is depicted as a hardhearted patriot who did what needed to be done to save the Motherland. The Qin Empire is considered to be the first unification of what is known today as the modern Chinese state—China as a culture existed long before, but it was the Qin who created imperial China.

The Proverbial Han (202 BC-220 AD)

Probably one of the most successful dynasties in Chinese history— though not the longest at 400 years—Chinese people today call themselves Han, and rightfully so, because the state that the Han established closely resembles the "ideal Chinese state" according to tradition. A strong monarch ruled over a bureaucracy of educated gentlemen taken (usually) from the landowning aristocracy while the toiling masses kept one eye on the fields and another on the Mandate of Heaven. The Han had a flourishing economy and strong civic pride that was based on Legalist-Confucianism. The first great Histories were written during this period and for much of the four centuries, there was peace. This period, known as a Pax Sinica, corresponds to the Pax Romana of Augustus Octavian.

The Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD) and Six Dynasties (280-489 AD)

Three Kingdoms

This was another long period of chaos and struggle as the shards of the Han empire fought amongst each other. After the decline of the Han, three "successors" vied for control of the once-unified territory, the Shu-Han in present day Sichuan; the Cao Wei in the north; and the Dong Wu in the south—the Three Kingdoms. This period is the setting for one of China's greatest works of literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Three Kingdoms gave way to a succession of six short lived and violent dynasties, most notably the Jin, invaders from the north.

The (Forgotten) Sui (589-618)

The Sui Dynasty re-unified the country, brought an end to the chaos and started building the Grand Canal to help heal the nation. Buddhism and Taoism flourished during this period, alongside and often on top of Legalist-Confucianism. The Sui are best remembered for handing the ball off to the Tang Dynasty.

The Glorious Tang (618-907)

The Tang is considered by many sinologists and Chinese to be the most glorious dynasty. Ever. The capital, Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) may have been the most cosmopolitan city of its time. The empire stretched west across the desert, south to border India, north as far as Mongolia and the money flowed freely.

Tang Dynasty

Trade in silk, tea, salt, silver and horses was the backbone for an economy that fueled extensive projects like temple building for throne-hugging Buddhists, canals for troops and trade, expeditions against pesky barbarians and an all-round extravagant lifestyle upheld by a complex and diverse society. 100,000 foreigners worked and traded out of Canton (Guangzhou). Papermaking became de rigeur as did composing beautiful verses, inscribing deep thoughts onto scrolls with ink and brush and just being elegant, open-minded and awesome.

The Striving Song (960-1234)

The Song Dynasty was preceded by 50 years of chaos and war and during the dynasty itself, the Song shared control of China with the Western Xia Dynasty and the Northern Jin Dynasty. The Song were constantly at war with their neighbors, especially the Jin, but the situation was balanced enough to remain stable for three centuries, allowing the society to give birth to even more great works and innovations such as gunpowder which got big during the Song. The dynasty's economy was the engine of East Asia and kept them alive even after the Jin chased them out of their northern capital of Kaifeng (Northern Song Dynasty), forcing them to flee to Hangzhou and become a tribute-paying vassal (Southern Song Dynasty). Foot binding became (un)popular with the ladies and a society of strivers and merchants seized control of the latter half of the Song, who were safe enough behind their economy and river gunboats to not worry too much more about either the Jin or the Xia.

The Fierce, Yet Soft and Cuddly Yuan (1271-1368)

All that striving and struggle came to naught when the Mongols swooped down on the world and conquered everything in their path. Nothing is more romanticized than the brutal and ferocious Mongol wars that devastated every power in Asia—from the Russian princes and the Caliph in Baghdad to the Song Emperors and Thai kings. The Mongols under Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty, which was basically a bunch of Mongols trying to be Chinese. This exercise in self-softening was a predictable failure, when the ethnic Han under a peasant rebel general overthrew the Yuan, ushering in the Ming Dynasty. Marco Polo made his famous journey east during the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan capital was in Beijing.

The Mighty Ming (1368-1644)

Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant with a martial streak, led the disaffected masses against their Mongol overlords in the 1340s and by 1368 he became Emperor Hong Wu, the first Ming Emperor. The Ming Dynasty was a large, centralized state with a very complex system of checks and balances involving land owners, bureaucrats, the emperor's entourage and the volatile masses. The Grand Canal was enlarged and improved as was the Great Wall. China's greatest admiral, Zheng He, made his voyages to India, Africa and beyond during the Ming Dynasty, giving the world a look at the best silks and pottery and the largest ships. The Ming were beset by rebels on all sides toward the end of the dynasty and eventually fell to northern warriors in 1644.

The Great Qing (1644-1911)

The Manchu clans of the north looked down on the soft heartland of China, licked their chops and invaded. The resulting dynasty was the Qing, the best-known dynasty to the west. Their clothing styles such as the qipao and the pigtail haircut are still iconic images of old China and the great Forbidden City and Summer Palace of Beijing are associated with the Qing. The Qing ruled over a large empire that encompassed parts of Tibet and Mongolia, stretching south to Vietnam and west to Afghanistan.

The height of the Qing Empire came during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (the second Qing Emperor sitting the throne in Beijing) as well as that of his son and especially his grandson Emperor Qianlong. They struggled against several rebellions, including the destructive Taiping Rebellion while also fending off several foreign powers intent on gaining access to China's treasure and resources. Qing resistance to rebels and foreign powers led to war and conflict and an eventual weakening of the state to such a point that territory was conceded to foreign nations after the Opium Wars and central rule eroded along the fringes. The coup de grâce came in 1911 when the modern revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing and set up a republic that would quickly succumb under Japanese invading forces and a long civil war between the Communists under Mao Zedong and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. Okay. Now, back to my tea and calligraphy.

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