China is, along with Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, one of the great civilizations which has consistently impacted the world from the time that our ancestors first came out of the forests and settled down to plant farms. In size, power, and worldwide influence China rivals the Roman or even the British Empires, and in longevity it defeats the fabled consistency of Egypt. European supremacy came only through the exploitation of technologies (like gunpowder) that had been developed by the Chinese centuries before but remained unused. Now, after many years of outside domination, the ancient culture of China is reasserting itself and taking its rightful place in the world stage. Read on for an overview of the history of China.
The Legendary Period, 2852-2205 BC
This is the earliest recorded period in China, although events and rulers of this time are known only through legends. During this period Chinese society consisted only of an array of small bronze-age kingdoms. Each kingdom was ruled by a king - or Wang. The first attempts at unification were taken by the legendary 'Five Rulers' who are said to have ruled the entire period in succession.
The Hsia Dynasty, 2205-1523 BC
This was the first recorded dynasty, although little is known about the rulers or events of this period and it is referred to only incidentally in legends.
The Shang Dynasty, 1766-1122 BC
The Shang was, by most historians' estimation, the true beginnings of Chinese history. This period shows the first signs of consistent characters for the Chinese language, and relative political unity. This only applies to the northern part of what we know as China. The southern part was most likely inhabited by people related to the native Taiwanese and the Polynesians.
The Chou Dynasty, 1122-255 BC
After the collapse of the Shang, political organization continued to decay long into the reign of the Chou Dynasty. Because of its length and great importance the Chou is generally divided into three periods: the Early, Middle, and Late. There is also an alternative system, which divides it into Western Chou, Spring and Autumn Period, and the Period of the Warring States. The latter system is the one used by Chinese historians, but the two correspond well enough that they will be used interchangeably here.
Early Chou, 1122-771 BC or Western Chou, 1122-722 BC
The Early Chou is mostly just a process of gradual state collapse. The authority of the Wangs faded until the empire split into as many as 13 small warring states. During this period, specifically in 841 BC, is the first externally verifiable date in traditional Chinese chronology, and thus this may be considered the true end of the Legendary Period1.
Middle Chou, 771-473 BC or Spring and Autumn Period, 722-481 BC
The Chou rulers were reduced to a very small central area known as the Kingdom of Chou. During this time Chinese philosophy and literature suddenly sprang into existence. Confucius and the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, and the system of Chinese elements all originate in this period. Sun Tzu also wrote his highly influential The Art of War at this time as an advisor for the Kingdom of Wu. The writings and teachings of Confucius and Sun Tzu were an attempt to end the constant warfare, but things continued to deteriorate after their deaths.
Late Chou, 473-256 BC or Warring States Period, 481-221 BC
As the Warring States Period went on, one of the states began to win. The Kingdom of Ch'in, located in Shensi Province, slowly defeated its enemies over a period of several hundred years. In 256 BC Chao-Hsiang, Wang of Ch'in, defeated and executed Nan Wang, last king of Chou. The capital was moved from Lo-yang to Ch'ang-An, a city at the bend of the Huang-He River.
Ch'in Dynasty, 255-207 BC
The reunification of China was finally completed in 221 BC by Wang Cheng. He immediately decided to come up with a new title: 'huangdi', which meant 'August God', or as we would say, Emperor. He then took upon himself the name Shihuangdi, 'First Emperor'. Wang became the title used for princes and also for kings of other lands. After this time emperors were generally known by their 'temple names', ie the names given to them after death which described their accomplishments. These tended to end either with 'di', which came to mean emperor, or 'tsu', which meant founder of a new dynasty. Shihuangdi was one of the most ruthless and brutal emperors in Chinese history. He was responsible for the building of the Great Wall and expanded Chinese control to the South China Sea. He was buried with the famous Chinese terracotta warriors near Sian. It was during the Ch'in Dynasty that the world's first compass was constructed in China, by balancing a piece of lodestone on a copper plate.
Former or Western Han Dynasty, 206 BC- 25 AD
Despite the iron grip of Shihuangdi, the Ch'in Dynasty soon collapsed and was replaced by the Han, founded by a former peasant, Liu Pang. Ever since the Chinese have called themselves the Han People and Chinese characters are called Hanzi, 'Han Letters'. The most important Emperor of the Former Han was Wu Ti. It was under his reign that Confucianism was established as the official moral ideology of China. Also at his court the first official Chinese history, the Shih Chi ('Historical Records') was written by the great historian Szu-ma Ch'ien.2. During the time of Wu Ti the great alchemist Wei Boyang compiled all the information known about sulphur and saltpeter, paving the way for the later invention of huoyao (gunpowder) during the Tang Dynasty.
Later or Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 AD
After the brief dictatorship of Wang Mang at the end of the Former Han the throne was seized by a distant Han relative, who retained the dynastic name. The seat of power was moved from the traditional Ch'in capital at the bend of the Huang-He river back to Lo-yang, the capital of the Chou period. The Empire continued to expand into Southeast Asia, Korea, and Mongolia as well as holding the Tarim Basin in what is now Russia. According to legend, paper was invented in 105 AD by Cai Lun, although archaeological records indicate that it may have been around as much as 200 years before then. Also in this period Buddhist missionaries from India first arrived, although they made little impact and were ignored by the emperors.
The Three Kingdoms Period, 220-265 AD
As Han power proved incapable of controlling the entirety of the newly conquered area, the empire split into three kingdoms. One, the Shu in the southwest, continued to be ruled by the Hans in what was known as the Minor Han or Shu Han Dynasty and was based in Ch'and-An. The Kingdom of Wei, in the north, was still based at Lo-yang and the Kingdom of Wu, in the southeast, established a new capital at the city of Nanking.
The Northern and Southern Empires, 265-589 AD
China became reoriented into two empires, as the Shu and Wu reunited at about the same time as the Wei was overrun by barbarians from the desert. The subsequent weakening of central authority in both north and south allowed Buddhism and other cultural changes to take effect. Another factor aiding Buddhism was the innovation of new forms: both Mahâyâna and Zen Buddhism originated around this period. The rulers of the Southern Empire were known as the Six Dynasties: the Western Tsin (265-316 AD), Eastern Tsin (317-419 AD), Anterior Sung (420-479 AD), Southern Ch'i (479-501 AD), Southern Liang (502-556 AD), and Southern Ch'en (557-589 AD).
The Sui Dynasty, 590-618 AD
Yang Chien, founder of the Sui Dynasty, was rather like the Chinese version of Charlemagne. He started in the barbarian north as a general, and proceeded to completely restore the borders from the time of the Han. The Sui Dynasty undertook massive building projects, such as the building of the Grand Canal which required 3 million workers and the duration of the entire dynasty. Those who evaded the work crews were executed. The unpopularity of the Sui eventually ended with the last emperor, Yang Kuang, being killed by the captain of his own guard.
The T'ang Dynasty, 618-906 AD
The T'ang Dynasty was possibly the most important in Chinese history. It was marked by conflict and violence, but also by great cultural and technological innovations.
Although technically founded by Li Yuan, the real mastermind behind the rise of the T'ang was the 16-year-old Li Shih-min who later ruled as Emperor T'ai Tsung. He established the system of civil service examination that would last 1300 years and only be destroyed with the end of the Empire. During his reign Buddhism was finally accepted officially as a proper Chinese religion and the first Christian missionaries, representing the Nestorian Sect, arrived in Ch'ang-an.
After his death, one of T'ai Tsung's concubines seduced his son and took over rule of the empire. First as consort, and later as the mother of the next two emperors, and finally under her own name from 690 to 705, the Empress Wu was perhaps the most powerful female figure in Chinese history. She was deposed in 705 after holding actual power for 45 years.
The last great figure of the dynasty was her grandson, Hsuan Tsung (712-755 AD). Much of his rule was troubled by rebellion, and also by the defeat of Chinese forces by invading Arabs at the Battle of Talas in 751. However, many notable aspects of Chinese culture originated in his reign, including the writing of books, manufacture of porcelain, and the drinking of tea as a recreational (rather than medicinal) beverage.
Problems with Tibet
As the T'ang declined, conflicts with the Tibetans became common. They seized the Tarim Basin in 763 and even briefly conquered the capital of Ch'ang-An itself the same year. Although they were beaten back, they later conquered the province of Kansu in 791, establishing the long-lived kingdom of Hsi-Hsia. At the end of the Dynasty in 878 all Chinese ports were closed to foreigners shortly before the rebel Huang Ch'ao seized Ch'ang-An. The greatly weakened T'ang was about to fall.
The Five Dynasties Period, 907-960 AD
The empire split into north and south again, although this time the 'legitimate' rule of China was continued in the north by the Five Dynasties3: the Posterior Liang (907 - 923 AD), Posterior T'ang (923-935 AD), Posterior Tsin (936-947 AD), Posterior Han (947-951 AD), and Posterior Chou (951-960 AD). The south split into the 'Ten Kingdoms'. During this time such cultural characteristics as foot binding and the excessively elongated fingernails of bureaucratic officials became widespread. Both customs were intended as an indicator that a person didn't have to engage in physical labour.
The Northern Sung Dynasty, 960-1126 AD
A coup against the last Posterior Chou emperor brought the Sung into power and resulted in a reunification of China. Unlike previously, however, the expansion of China was now hemmed in by the nearby presence of organized advanced states, the Hsi-Hsia and Liao Kingdoms to the north. The invention of moveable type, credited to Bi Sheng, occurred in the year 1045. During this period also the Crab Nebula Supernova was observed in China in 1054. A supernova is a particularly large exploding star which sheds enough light to temporarily turn the night as bright as day, and the supernova of 1054 was an extremely large and long-lasting one. Even today the remains of this star can still be seen in the form of the Crab Nebula and its central neutron star. Unlike in Medieval Europe, the Chinese astronomers who observed and recorded this event did so in a neutral and scientific way, which demonstrates their technological superiority at the time. In 1126 the Sung were displaced by the expansion of the Kin Kingdom, which had been itself displaced by the newest force in the region, the Mongols.
The Southern Sung Dynasty, 1127-1279 AD
The Southern Sung was essentially the same dynasty as the Northern Sung, except with its capital moved south. In the end, the Southern Sung are most known for their resistance to and eventual conquest by the Mongols under Kublai Khan. The final campaign took 12 years, from 1267 to 1279 and resulted in reported death tolls as high as 18,470,000 Chinese.
The Yüan Mongol Dynasty, 1280-1368 AD
The Mongols are a massive topic in the history of almost any Old World civilization and complete coverage of them and their conquests would stretch this entry beyond a reasonable length.
Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan, in some ways outdid his family precedent by completing the conquest of China. Although many factions within the Mongol Empire called for the conversion of all conquered territory into steppe, which would entail massive destruction of agriculture and depopulation, Kublai instead chose to make China the centre of the empire and was himself taken in by the luxurious sedentary Chinese lifestyle, began the circulation of the world's first paper money, and chose a Chinese name for his dynasty: Yüan, meaning 'Beginning'. However, this does not mean China was immune from the legendary Mongol ferocity: by one legend, after the final three-week stand of the Southern Sung was finally broken, Kublai ordered all people with the 5 most common Chinese names executed.
Mongol Foreign Policy
Also, Kublai's cultivation of Chinese art and philosophy didn't stop the Mongol thirst for conquest, and it was from China that the invasions of Siam4 and Japan were launched, both unsuccessfully. The invasion of Siam failed mostly because of the inability of Mongol ponies to navigate the thick, swampy jungles of Southeast Asia. The invasion of Japan, however, suffered a more spectacular fate, when almost the entire enormous fleet was destroyed by a massive out-of-season typhoon, known to history as the Kami kaze or Divine Wind. Despite their famous power, the Yuan retained power in China for less than 100 years. The militaristic way of life honed on the open steppes soon decayed into decadence among the fertile fields of the Yangtze and a popular uprising in 1368 broke the power of Kublai's descendant, Toghan-Temur Khan.
The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644 AD
The Ming was the first Chinese dynasty not to be named after one of the Warring States kingdoms (such as Han, T'ang, Sung, etc.), and simply meant 'Bright'. The name was intended as an auspicious way to begin the revival of Chinese home rule after the embarrassment of Mongol domination.
Another reason for the name is that the dynasty was founded by a peasant, Chu Yüan-chang, with no connection to any ancient aristocracy. Chu Yüan-chang was highly suspicious of scholars, and created a powerful military presence in his court in an attempt to balance their influence. He also established the system of emperors establishing an era name for their entire reign. This is convenient historically, as emperors in this period stopped using their given names after taking power and were simply referred to as 'The Current Emperor' during their lifetimes.
The Yung-Lo Emperor and Admiral Zheng He
The Yung-Lo Emperor (1403-1425 AD) was perhaps the most influential in the entire lengthy dynasty, and his reign has gained a great deal of recent press as the result of the book 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America. During this entire period, beginning at the very start of the 15th Century, large Chinese fleets (known as the baochuan, or treasure ships) under the command of Admiral Zheng He5 had been establishing trade routes to India and the east coast of Africa. These ships may have been as much as 306 feet (93 metres) long. Compared with European sailing technology of the time, these were vast monstrosities. The size and magnificence of the baochuan helped secure Chinese hegemony in the region. This was also helped by Zheng He's interference in local Indian politics and occasional amphibious landings intended to support Chinese-friendly local rulers.
1421: the book
1421 goes further, however, claiming that on the last of the great treasure ship voyages Zheng He and various of his captains actually managed such feats as reaching the Antarctic, sailing around the Americas, and circumnavigating the globe centuries before Europeans even conceived of these projects. Although some little evidence has been scraped together by the book's author, the issue remains controversial because all records of the treasure fleet were systematically destroyed immediately following the death of the Yung-Lo Emperor. This was largely due to the influence of the scholars at the court, who had taken power despite the precautions of Chu Yüan-chang and were afraid of foreign knowledge and technology. Thus when the Spanish and Portugese began expanding their influence across the globe, they were unopposed despite the superior numbers, size, and technology of the Chinese fleet. If it had been otherwise we might today learn about Admiral Zheng He in school rather than Columbus and Cook.
The Southern Ming Dynasty, 1644-1662 AD
The Southern Ming was by some standards not really its own dynasty, but rather the result of the displacement of the Ming rulers by the expanding Manchu6 kingdom to the north. The Manchus, by their attempts at enforcing cultural dominance upon the conquered Chinese, fueled popular resistance and allowed the Ming to continue fighting for nearly 20 years. The final destruction of Ming resistance brought all of China under foreign control from which it would not be free until 1912.
The Manchu Ch'ing Dynasty, 1662-1912 AD
Following the pattern of the Ming, the Ch'ing Dynasty came from ch'ing, meaning 'clear'. The Manchus enforced Manchurian clothing and customs on the people of China, but in politics were content to follow the Ming policy of isolationism. This seems to have been a result of the desire of the Manchu emperors to be seen as proper Chinese rulers. During the Ch'ing China was increasingly influenced by European nations, divided into 'spheres of influence'.
The Republic of China, 1912-present
The beginning of republicanism in China was a complex and ineffectual business. A popular uprising in the south, led by Sun Yat-sen, allied with a military faction under the authority of General Yüan Shih-k'ai in Peking. Yüan Shih-k'ai demanded the position of President and it was granted by Sun Yat-sen, who retired to the south. The new President soon considered declaring himself emperor, which was an unpopular move but he died before he could achieve it anyway. ROC authority fell apart and the country became split among feuding warlords, and the power of Peking was recognized only by foreign governments. In 1923 Sun Yat-sen set up his own government in Nanking, called the Kuomintang government. When he died in 1925 the party was taken over by his disciple Chiang Kai-shek, who marched north against Peking and took power in 1928. Chiang presided over the invasion of China by Japan during WWII but retained power until 1949 when he was defeated by another party, the Communists. The ROC fled to Taiwan, where it continues to claim mainland China to the present day. Meanwhile, Taiwan has become an economic power in its own right, considered one of the Four Tigers of Asian economics7.
The People's Republic of China, 1949-present
When Mao Zedong's Communist party took control in 1949, it initiated a period of harsh political oppression and murders in the name of the people. When Mao died in 1976 power was passed to Deng Xiaoping, who sought to catch up with the west by instituting economic reforms. This did not end the political oppression, however, and Deng ordered the famous Tiananmen Square killings in 1989. Deng died in 1997, but his combination of official defence of Communism and de facto free market policies continue to define modern China. For a future perspective see: The Future of the PRC.