China is one of the world’s four ancient civilizations, and the written history of China dates back to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), over 3,000 years ago. Pre-1600 BC China is charted mainly by legend and pre-historic evidence. The ancient China era was c. 1600–221 BC. The imperial era was 221 BC – 1912 AD, from China’s unification under Qin rule till the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China era from 1912, and the modern China era from 1949.
Prehistoric China — Up to About 1600 BC
Prehistoric China’s chronology is divided into the Paleolithic Age, the Neolithic Age, and the Bronze Age. Without any reliable historical record, most of what has been pieced together about prehistoric life in China comes from speculation about human activity at archaeological sites and unearthed relics. The rest comes from what might be truth within Chinese mythology.
The Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BC) — Early Bronze Age China
Possibly the first dynasty in ancient China, it’s generally believed that the Xia Dynasty consisted of several clans, living along the Yellow River. Most of the evidence for the Xia Dynasty, including its name, is perhaps just legend. There was a bronze age Yellow River civilization at this time at Erlitou in Henan, however artifacts don’t show conclusively that this was the Xia Dynasty of later writings.
Ancient China (c. 1600–221 BC)
Chinese civilization began along the Yellow River in the Shang era, and spread from there when bronze age culture reached its peak. Then traditional Chinese philosophies, such as Confucianism and Daoism developed in the feudal Zhou era as China expanded in territory and population. Ancient China finally fractured into warring kingdoms for 200 years, and its reunification marked the start of the Imperial China age.
The Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC)
The Shang Dynasty was the first with historical records remaining — inscriptions on bones and bronze objects. Its capital was Yin (Anyang) and its territory was between the lower reaches of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.
The Zhou Dynasty (1045-221 BC)
Major philosophies and religions emerged that were the basis of Chinese belief in later eras, such as Confucianism and Daoism. This era was divided into three periods: the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045–771 BC); the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC), and the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). It marked the transition from tribal society to feudal society.
Imperial China (221 BC – 1912 AD)
The imperial China period makes up the bulk of Chinese history. With the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties, Chinese civilization was cultivated and prospered in times of peace, then reformed after rebellions and conquests.
The Qin and Han Dynasties (221BC –220 AD)
The short-lived Qin Dynasty was the first to unite China as a country under an emperor instead of a ruling clan. A bureaucratic government was introduced, and was continued by the less-extreme Han Dynasty.
The Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC)
Terracotta ArmyThe Terracotta Army. The First Emperor was first to use the title emperor in China. He and his Qin State united China by conquering the other warring states, and ruled with an iron fist. The Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) was the first and shortest imperial dynasty in China, famous for great building projects like the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)
The longest imperial dynasty, the Han Dynasty, was known for starting Silk Road trade, connecting China with Central Asia and Europe. During the Han era, agriculture, handicrafts, and commerce developed well.
During the reign of Emperor Wudi (r.140-87 BC), the Han regime had its greatest prosperity. The multi-ethnic country became more united during the Han regime.
China’s Dark Ages (220–581)
When the Han Dynasty fell into decline, it fractured into the Three Kingdoms Period (220–265). The Jin Dynasty then conquered most of China (265–420), but its hold on power was tenuous, and China again fractured into the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589).
China’s middle ages saw steady growth through a series of regime changes.
China went from being four warring kingdoms to being the most culturally sophisticated and technologically developed nation. Finally, it was consumed by the rise and fall of the phenomenal Mongol Empire, which stretched to Europe.
The Sui Dynasty (581–618)
It took a dynasty reminiscent of the power and vision of the Qin Dynasty to reunite China: the Sui Dynasty set the foundation for the more stable medieval age in China.
In 581, Yang Jian usurped the throne in the north, and, as Emperor Wen, united the rest of China under the Sui Dynasty.
It was a short, intense dynasty, with great conquests and achievements, like the Grand Canal and rebuilding of the Great Wall. It’s considered with the following Tang Dynasty (618-907) as a great Chinese era.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907)
The Tang Dynasty was the golden age for poetry, painting, tricolored glazed pottery, and woodblock printing.
After the Tang Dynasty, came half a century of division in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907–960), before one of the northern kingdoms defeated its neighbors and established control of a smaller China.
The Song Dynasty (960–1297)
During the Song Dynasty, handicraft industry and domestic and foreign trade boomed. Many merchants and travelers came from abroad. The “four great inventions” of the Chinese people in ancient times (paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder) were further developed in the Song Dynasty.
The Song coexisted with the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) in the northeast and the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227) in the northwest. The Song era was a period of technological advances and prosperity.
The Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) — Mongol Rule
In 1206 Genghis Khan unified all the tribes in Mongolia, founded the Mongol Khanate, and conquered an unprecedented swathe of Asia.
From1271 to 1279, his grandson, Kublai Khan, finally conquered Song China and founded the Yuan Dynasty. He made Dadu (modern-day Beijing) the capital of the first foreign-led dynasty in China.
Trade, technological development, and its introduction to foreign countries continued under Mongol rule. Marco Polo from Venice traveled extensively in China, and later described China’s culture and marvels in his book “Travels”.
The Final Dynasties (1368–1912) — Renaissance and More Foreign Rule
In the Ming and Qing dynasties the imperial social structure (the royal/rich class, the scholarly class, the working class, and the slaves)and imperial examinations continued. However, they became increasingly inadequate in the ages of exploration, colonization, and industrialization.
The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang replaced the waning Mongol empire in China with the Ming Dynasty. It was the last ethnic Chinese dynasty, sandwiched between two foreign ones. When his son and successor, Zhu Di, ascended the throne, he started to build the Forbidden City in Beijing. In 1421, he officially made Beijing his capital.
It was an era of native Chinese strength and prosperity, which faltered due to natural disasters and greedy leadership, as had so many dynasties before.
The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)
In the late Ming Dynasty, the Manchus in northeast China grew in strength. The Manchus attacked China for three generations in succession, and finally founded the Qing Dynasty.
The two most famous emperors of the Qing Dynasty were Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661–1772) and Emperor Qianlong (r.1735–96). Their reigns were “a golden age of prosperity”. However, the last Chinese dynasty remembers with shame the forced trade of the late Qing era. China was reduced to being a semi-colonial semi-imperial county since the first Opium War in 1840.
The Republic of China (1912–1949)
The Republican Revolution of 1911, led by Sun Yat-sen, ended the rule of the Qing Dynasty. However, the Republic of China could not be firmly established across China, with civil war ensuing for decades.
Modern China (1949–Now)
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China has entered a Communist era of stability, with the Reform and Opening Up policy of 1978 bringing in China’s phenomenal economic growth.