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The History of China
A Ridiculously Brief Overview

Page Outline

Linked Pages


Explanation

The Problem. It is almost impossible for a beginner to make much sense of Chinese historical dating because:

A Lame Solution. Some English writers have sought to impose simplification by referring to periods 11 through 15c (AD 581-1277, Suí through Sòng ) as "Medieval," with all before this being ancient and all after this modern. Such a scheme jars most readers, for whom, say 1450, is hardly "modern." However it at least has the merit of making "medieval" line up roughly with Europe and of discouraging the idiotic practice of calling all of pre-Republican China "ancient" (as especially careless people sometimes do).

A Better (Still Lame) Solution. In an effort to simplify keeping track of time without overburdening the reader, this web site uses period numbers, often in addition to names, to designate dynasties. In a few cases of very short and regionally circumscribed "dynasties," I have lumped them under a single number and appended letters to it.

When only a gross designation is necessary, I have confined myself to a number (from 00 to 23). When greater detail is useful, I have added a letter suffix. For example, 15 or 15a is the whole of the Sòng dynasty, but 15b is the earlier Sòng, specified in Chinese as the Northern Sòng (Běisòng 北宋), and 15c is the later, Southern Sòng (Nánsòng 南宋), which controlled much less territory.

Within the dynasties I have numbered the monarchs. Thus 15c-3 is Guāngzōng 光宗, the Southern Sòng emperor who reigned from 1189 to 1194. Chinese sources often date events only to a dynasty or only to a reign, so having a convenient code avoids the inaccuracy of translating such dates into rough centuries, as we normally do in English.

Early dates differ considerably in their correlation with the western calendar, but the numeral designations help overcome that.

The page you are reading provdes a quick overview of the Chinese dynasties as I have numbered them (which, except for using numbers, is pretty much how everybody else orders them too). The web links on the period numbers take you directly to a full list of all the monarchs and their traditional dates. Additional links are provided leading to longer discussions on Wikipedia and to brief, illustrated pages, with vigorously simplified maps, from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (Caution: MIA uses an older system for spelling Chinese names.)

You can also print out a one-page pdf-file dynasty list. Click here.

Some readers may wish to consult Paul Frankenstein's useful Condensed China: Chinese History for Beginners, that happens to be available on the Internet.

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1. The Pre-Imperial (Feudal) Era (Periods 1-4, ending in 222 BC)

Period 00 Archaeologically known pre-Shāng China.
I have used the zero point for all that is archaeologically known and dates before the founding of the earliest known dynasty. In contrast, periods 01 and 02 are used to acknowledge the sometimes quite detailed traditions of ancient Chinese historians about their remote past.
Period 01 Mythical Period of the "Five Emperors" 五帝纪 Wǔ Dì Jì (Reign List) (Wikipedia)
Chinese tradition postulates a period of great culture heroes who invented the arts of civilization, followed by the foundation of a dynastic line referred to as Xià (q.v.) The period of the Five Emperors is traditionally considered to run from about 10,000 BC to about 2207 BC.
Period 02 Xià dynasty (Reign List)
There is no entirely convincing archaeological evidence of a dynastic state that would precisely correspond with the Xià, which was therefore long assumed to be a "dummy dynasty" postulated by traditional Chinese historians to refer to the post-mythical, pre-state Neolithic society of China. The traditional dating was 2257 to1766 BC. Modern Chinese sources tend to date this period as extending from about the XXIInd or XXIst century BC. until about the XVIIth century BC. Majority opinion at this time associates it with the archaeological site of Èrlǐtóu 二里头 in Hénán Province and the broader archaeological complex linked to that name.
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
Longer Essay for This Period: Most Ancient China
Period 03 Shāng dynasty (Reign List)
Traditional dating was 1765-1122 BC. Evidence is mixed as to the dating of the Shāng state, but modern authorities tend to put it in the XVIIth century BC. until about the XIth century BC.
First examples of writing come from this period: inscribed ox scapulae and tortoise carapcaces constituting "oracle bones"; they seem to involve queries to ancestors or gods, often about weather. Royal tombs (with human sacrifices) but only modest palaces.
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
Period 04 Zhōu dynasty (Reign List)
Traditional dating was 1121-222 BC. Modern sources assume a starting date of the XIth century BC and an ending date of 222 or 221.
The Zhōu Dynasty (period 04a) is divided into a "peaceful" Western feudal period (Period 4b) and a tumultuous Eastern period (Period 4c), when from about 770 BC to 256 BC the feudal order was breaking down and local warlords fought for dominance.
Roughly the first half of the Eastern Zhōu (722-481) is referred to as the "Springs & Autumns" (Chūnqiū 春秋) period (period 04d), which sounds a lot more poetic than it was. (The name derives from Confucius' year-by-year listing of events in his home state, but it also accurately implies a lot of waxing and waning.)
The last two hundred years (403-222) of the Eastern Zhōu were the "Warring States" (Zhàn Guó 战国 period (period 04e), one of the darkest periods of Chinese history at least for people hoping to die a natural death.) By the Warring States Period many of the smaller states of south China have been consolidated into the state of Chǔ . The players are therefore fewer than during the Spring & Autumn Period. The period ends with the conquest of all of the contending powers by the western state of Qín , hardened, some would argue, but centuries of conflict with non-Hàn groups to its west.
The Zhōu was the classic period of feudalism in China. The Eastern Zhōu produced major philosophical works, including the writings of Lǎo zǐ 老子 and Zhuāng zǐ 庄子 and most of the Confucian Canon. (Link)
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link

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2. Early Imperial Era (Periods 5-6, 221 BC - AD 220)

Period 05 Qín dynasty (221-206 BC) (Reign List)
This brief and brutal dynasty is important because it ended feudalism and established the imperial state, headed by a totalitarian emperor with the right to intervene in all aspects of private and public life.
The famous first emperor of Qín, driven partly by a combination of Qín chauvinism and "superstition" (read: symbolic statements) standardized everything from axle lengths and weights and measures to written characters. Most non-medical and non-divinatory books were destroyed. The differentiation of religious from philosophical Taoism is dated to this time by many writers. Sīmǎ Qiān's 司马迁 remarkable biography of the First Emperor of Qín is available on this web site. (Link)
(Caution: Communist writers are required to use the word "feudal" (fēngjiàn 封建) as a pejorative term for all of pre-Communist Chinese history, but feudalism properly so called ended with the establishment of an imperial system.) (Definition of Feudalism, More About Feudalism.)
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
Period 06 Hàn dynasty (206 BC - AD 220) (Reign List)
This period is divided into the Former or Western Hàn (06b) and the Latter or Eastern Hàn (06d), interrupted by a brief rebellion that claimed dynastic status (06c) under the terrorist bandit (or reformer) Wáng Mǎng 王莽, who called his régime the "New" or Xīn dynasty.
This period saw a great expansion of the area under the sway of the centralized Chinese state. Confucianism emerged early as the regnant theory of governing when a canon was produced from the memory of earlier Confucian texts destroyed by the Qín régime. Buddhism first entered China in this period.
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link

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First Intermediate Era (Periods 7-10, AD 220-581)

Period 07 Three Kingdoms or Sānguó 三国 (220-280) (Reign List)
The collapse of the Hàn dynasty (period 06), like the collapse of most states throughout history, produced an era of powerful warlords competing for power and asserting greater and greater authority in their realms, as well as loyalists to the old regime struggling to save or restore it. The name of the post-Hàn —Three Kingdoms— period refers to three powerful states that I have designated 07b (the state of Wèi ), 07c (the state of Shǔhàn 蜀汉), and 07d (the state of Wú ).
This brief period is far and away the most popular subject of war stories that captured the imagination of generation after generation. Much of the saga was captured in an influential novel, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó Yǎnyì 三国演义), and there is probably no Chinese born later than 1300 who does not know the names of at least a dozen of the principal characters from this book and hence this period. Click here for a quick and useful Background to the Three Kingdoms, including a brief outline of some of the most picturesque events and personalities from this era most often commemorated in later popular stories.
This period saw the rise of Neo-Taoism, an interest sometimes attributed to the sense of disappointment at the failure of Confucianism to prevent the Hàn state from falling apart.
Wikipedia Link,
A series of southern states in periods 07, 08, and 10 are collectively referred to by some writers as the "Six Dynasties" (Liùcháo 六朝, period 07e), a term that ignores the complexity going on further north.
Period 07e The so-called "Six Dynasties"
The convenient but unfortunate term "Six Dynasties" (period 07e) is loosely used, especially by art historians, for pretty much everything in southern (today's central) China during the First Intermediate Era (periods 07-10). When used more narrowly, the term includes only:
  1. Eastern Wú Dynasty (period 07d)
  2. Eastern Jìn Dynasty (period 08c)
  3. Liú Sòng Dynasty 刘宋 (period 10c)
  4. Southern Qí Dynasty 南齐 (period 10d)
  5. Liáng Dynasty (period 10e)
  6. Chén Dynasty (period 10g).


Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
Period 08 Jìn dynasty (AD 265-420) (Reign List)
This largely northern régime overlapped in time with period 09 in the south, a sign of the political weakness of the time. Escapist Buddhism flourished in this period.
Usage Note: The Jìn dynasty (period 08) is not to be confused with the Jīn dynasty (period 18). Formerly the Jìn (08) was spelled "Tsin" and the Jīn (18) was spelled "Chin" to avoid a homonym without using a tone mark. Today in toneless Pinyin, Jìn (08) is spelled "Jin" and Jīn (18) is usually spelled "Kin" for the same reason. People who use tone marks do not have to deal with the problem.
Wikipedia Link
Period 09 16 States or Shíliùguó 十六国 dynasty (AD 304-439) (Reign List)
These are several small kingdoms overlapping with period 08 and with each other. I have assigned each of them a letter. The state of Western Qín (Xīqín 西秦) is 09h, for example.
Wikipedia Link
Period 10 Northern & Southern Dynasties or Nánběicháo 南北朝 (420-489 in the south, to 581 in the north) (Reign List)
Wikipedia Link

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Middle Imperial Era (Periods 11-12, AD 581-907)

Period 11 Suí dynasty (581-618) (Reign List)
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
Period 12 Táng dynasty (618-907) (Reign List)
Institutionalized Buddhism had become overwhelmingly important by the dawn of the Táng, and in the end the decision was taken to destroy it in the great persecution of AD 845, from which Buddhism as an institutional entity never recovered.
This period saw the dawn of the civil service in the form that was to persist until the end of the dynastic period. This was the golden age of Chinese poetry, but much self-consciously artful prose was written as well. Important overseas trade brought products that caused a high level of enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism.
Background to the Táng 唐 Dynasty Persecutions of Buddhism(link)
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link

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Second Intermediate Era (Periods 13-14, AD 907-979)

Period 13 Five Dynasties or Wǔdài 五代 (907-960) (Reign List)
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
Period 14 Ten States or Shíguó 十国 (902-979) (Reign List)
Wikipedia Link

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Third Imperial Era (Periods 15-19, AD 960-1367)

Period 15 Sòng dynasty (960-1279) (Reign List)
The Sòng dynasty is remembered, like the Hàn (period 06) and the Táng (period 12), as one of the apogees of Chinese civilization. Partly under the influence of philosophical Buddhism, several writers emerged as Neo-Confucians, whose reinterpretations of the Confucian Canon were to remain the state orthodoxy for the evaluation of entries in civil service exams.
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
In the later portion of this period (15c) the Sòng state no longer controlled northern China, which was taken over by a series of non-Hàn dynasties (periods 16, 17, 18), each with a slightly different geographical center, and each hostile to the others.
The following two maps are from a Chinese schoolbook. The left one shows the early or Northern Sòng 北宋 dynasty (period 15b, 960-1127). To its northeast is the Liáo dynasty (period 16, 947-1202), which extends much farther north than is shown on the map. To Northern Sòng’s northwest is the Xīxià 西夏 dynasty (period 17, 1032-1227). These largely Mongol groups pressed southward, and were themselves under pressure from other Mongol groups to the north of them.
Beeisonq
The Northern Sòng (Orange), Liáo (Purple) & Xīxià (Geen)
Nansonq
The Souther Sòng (Green), Jīn (Orange), & Xīxià (Purple)

In 1127 (about 160 years after the dynasty was founded), the Sòng government was forced to retreat southward, moving the capital from Biàn (modern Kāifēng 开封 in Hénán 河南 province) on the Yellow River further south to Lín’ān 临安 (modern Hángzhōu 杭州浙江 in Zhèjiāng province) in the Yangtze River valley).
Mongol forces and settlers continued their southward expansion. In 1202 the Liáo dynasty surrendered to the Mongol-speaking Jīn dynasty金代 (period 18, 1115-1234) and the northern Mongols swallowed up both Jīn (in 1234) and Xīxià (in 1227), moving south and finishing off the Southern Sòng in 1279, about fifty years after the move south.
Period 16 Liáo dynasty (907-1125) (Reign List)
Wikipedia Link
Period 17 Western Xià or Xīxià 西夏 dynasty (1032-1227) (Reign List)
Wikipedia Link
Period 18 Jīn ("Kin") dynasty (1115-1234) (Reign List)
The Jīn was a northern dynasty associated with the occupation of the region by the Jürchen Tartars (Rǔrén, now read Nǚzhēn 女真), ancestors of the Manchus (period 21).
Usage Note: The Jìn dynasty (period 08) is not to be confused with the Jīn dynasty (period 18). Formerly the Jìn (08) was spelled "Tsin" and the Jīn (18) was spelled "Chin" to avoid a homonym without using a tone mark. In toneless Pinyin, Jìn (08) is spelled "Jin" and Jīn (18) is spelled "Kin" for the same reason. (A mnemonic is that the earlier one takes the normal spelling and the later one is arbitrarily changed.) People who use tone marks do not have to deal with the problem.
Wikipedia Link
Period 19 Mongol or Yuán dynasty (1277-1367) (Reign List)
(The dynasty declared itself retroactively to have begun in 1206, the date preferred by some authors.)
The great empire of the Mongol Khans briefly stretched clear to Hungary and spread over China as well, where it swept away both the non-Hàn Jīn régime (period 18) governing the north and the remnant Sòng government (15c) in the south.
Marco Polo wrote of his visit in this period, when China formed the hub of a rich international empire. The Mongols united the whole of China with the northern regions they already controlled, and the gigantic (but generally hated by non-Mongols) The Yuán dynasty was magnificent in its way but inherently too large to be manageable (especially given widespread resentment of the "foreign" rulers among the Hàn population). Furthermore, the kinship-based alliances that held the Khanate together proved weak in the long pull, and the Yuán government collapsed as much by its own internal bickering as by pressure from outside or anti-régime forces.
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link

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Modern Era (Periods 20-23, AD 1368 to present)

Period 20 Míng dynasty (1368-1644) (Reign List)
The Míng dynasty reasserted Chinese independence after a longer period of broadly oppressive Mongol administration in the preceding Yuán dynasty (period 19). The period included further refinement of Neo-Confucian thinking. First visits by European Catholic missionaries brought western scientific and theological thinking to the attention of Chinese intellectuals. In literature the novel emerged as a major art form.
An important development at the end of this dynasty was coastal piracy in the southeast and the settlement of Táiwān 台湾.
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link

A chronicle of court scandal and other events at the end of the Míng dynasty is available on this web site. (Link) A chronology of the history of Táiwān is also available. (Link)
Period 21 Qīng dynasty (1644-1911) (Reign List)
The government was captured by a Jürchen royal house of Manchuria in northeastern China, which established a new government that rapidly came to look almost exactly like that of the Míng (period 20) except for the use of Manchu together with Mandarin as a court language. (Click here for more about the word "Manchu.")
The Catholic "rites controversy" resulted in missionaries being compelled by central Church authorities to condemn ancestor worship and therefore being ejected from China.
In the last century of this period China was invaded by western powers eager to maintain the ability to trade freely (including the importation of opium into China) and possibly hoping to establish imperial rule. Chinese failure to modernize the military made it impossible to resist imperial predation effectively, especially from Japan, and led to a crisis of confidence about Chinese traditionalism. A series of Qīng-period treaties with western powers is still regarded by Chinese as a national embarrassment, and the treaty of Simonoseki ceded Táiwān to Japan. This website contains a chronology of Táiwān (link) and the official English text of the Treaty of Simonoseki (link).
Wikipedia Link, Art of Asia Link
Period 22 Republic of China (ROC) 中华民国 (1911-present) (Reign List)
After a revolution in 1911, the new, self-consciously westernizing republican government sought rapid change in all aspects of society, promoting universal literacy (with language reform), a modern constitution, rationalized agriculture, land reform, open religious mission fields, establishment of universities, study of sociology, archaeology, etc. Many plans were frustrated by entrenched "warlords" in some regions, and most were put on hold when Japan invaded and occupied much of China in 1937. Communists, with help from Moscow, positioned themselves to win a civil war after the Japanese surrender.
In 1949 the government of the ROC moved "temporarily" to the province of Táiwān 台湾, newly surrendered by Japan. It remains there to this day. It technically claims to be the only legal government of all of China (plus Mongolia), but international pressure has forced various compromises with these claims, and popular pressure builds in Táiwān to declare the island an independent country, not part of China, at the same time that the mainland government asserts its claim to "regain" Táiwān as part of the PRC. A detailed chronology of Taiwan history is available on this web site (link).
Wikipedia Link 1(Mainland), Wikipedia Link 2 (Taiwan)
Period 23 People's Republic of China (PRC) 中华人民共和国 (1949-present) (Reign List)
Totalitarian Communism, initially linked to the USSR, sought state control of all aspects of life in the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s, precipitating widespread famines and conducting destructive campaigns to stamp out all traces of the pre-industrial past. By the end of a decade of mob violence in the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976), such policies (and the government itself) had been largely discredited.
A more realistic and less invasive, if still authoritarian, leadership emerged. In the decades from 1980 onwards it was impressively successful in converting China to an industrial state with world-wide economic and political influence, accomplished in part through massive exports, especially to the United States. As the government has felt more secure and the economic level of the population has risen, many Chinese cultural traditions attacked during the earlier decades of period 23 re-acquired their prior respectability and even became objects of pride.
Since its founding, the government of the PRC has claimed to be the only legal government of all of China, including Táiwān and Tibet, but excluding independent ("outer") Mongolia (formerly claimed by the ROC). The United States, like nearly all countries, officially agrees with this position.
Wikipedia Link

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