ChinaOnYourMind: A Brief Chronology of Chinese History

Chinese History Timeline

Date Dynasty
ca.2205-1766B.C. Xia
1700-1027 B.C. Shang
1027-771 B.C. Western Zhou
770-476 B.C. Spring and Autumn period
475-221 B.C. Warring States period
221-207 B.C. Qin
206 B.C.-A.D.220 Han
A.D. 220 - 581 Anarchy and Partition
A.D.581-618 Sui
A.D. 618-907 Tang
A.D. 907-960 The Five Dynasties and The Kingdoms
A.D. 960-1127 NorthernSong
A.D. 1127-1279 SouthernSong
1279-1368 Yuan
1368-1644 Ming
1644-1911 Qing
1911-1949 Republic of China
1949- Peopl's Republic


It is always been said that the middle Yellow and Wei rivers valleys are the cradles of Chinese civilization. The beginning of which has been traced to Neolithic settlements around 5,000 B.C.

The earliest Dynasty, according to Chinese history records, is the Xia (c. 2205-1766BC). The founder of the dynasty is Da Yu (Yu the Great). He was made king because of his leadership in controlling the floods that afflicted the river valleys of China. Legend has it that Da Yu worked so hard on the flood project that he past through his own home many times without stopping by to meet his family.

So far, no archaeological evidence has been discovered in support of its existence. Many scholars still consider the Xia mythical.

The Shang (c. 1600-1027 BC) And The Western Zhou (1027-771 BC)

Shang Kingdom was an aristocratic culture which waged war with the help of horse-drawn chariots and bronze weapons according to its oracle bone divination records. Its rulers inhabited palaces in considerable walled settlements which included suburbs, where specialized industries (bone, bronze, pottery) were concentrated. The Shang cities were walled with rammed earth.

The rulers of Shang appear to have been shamans of a sort, entrusted with ancestor worship which included the offering of sacrifices. They used prepared bones (scapulae of oxen, ventral shells of turtles) in their oracular consultation on the outcomes of military campaigns, hunts, illnesses, and other natural events. Shallow grooves were carved on the bones and heat applied to produce a T-shaped crack which was "read" for messages from gods and ancestors. Ancestor worship is stilled continued in traditional families.

Shang Dynasty also invented the first written language in China. The script was used to record the results of "reading" the bones. It comprises 5,000 characters which include simple graphs, more complex signs for abstract ideas and phonetic symbols.

Massive Shang graves revealed that the coffin of the deceased was accompanied by sets of ritual bronzes wrapped in silk and filled with offerings of food and wine, chariots complete with horses and drivers and, in some cases, dozens of human sacrifices. These human sacrifices are believed to be prisoners of war.

The Shang Dynasty was eventually overthrown by Zhou, formerly a vassal of Shang. The Zhou moved its capital to Xi'an.

Zhou continued many of the Shang's practices. Most Zhou texts were inscribed on bronzes, later on silk and trips of bamboo and wood.

Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC) And the Warring State Period (475-221 BC)

Nan Hengshan is the place for the god of fire in Taoism. Historically, many officials even emperors have come here to pray for deliverance from the floods.

Nan Hengshan is more famous for its misty fog, endless bamboo oceans and mountain capping clouds than its temples. Hugh Farley's description of the scenery in 1935 summarizes, " Magnificent, on the other hand, was the view, for the temples stands oln a pinnacle of rock with unobstructed vision in all directionsˇ­.Never before in China have I so fully appreciated the proximity or contrast of fertility and barrenness, of water and of drought, of living greenness like the sea and stark brownness like the desert."

Qin, the First United Empire (221-206 BC)

The ruler of Qin based on the system of his new and united country on the theory of legalists who advocated that law should be order (rather than arising out of custom or common practice in the settlement of disputes).

The ruler called himself Qinshihuang (Qin Dynasty's First Emperor). He not only united China through military forces, but also unified weights and measures, introduced a standard currency, and imposed a Qin writing style. In addition, he also started the development of a road and canal system.

Had he stopped there, he would have been one of the greatest rulers of Chinese history. Unfortunately for his legacy, he attempted to unify thoughts as well to better control his people. His name is for ever tied with the "Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars" because he ordered all books except those on medicine, agriculture and divination burnt and many prominent scholars buried alive for their different opinions.

His ruthlessness and many expensive campaigns such as the construction of the roads, canals and Great Wall of China took their toll. His dynasty was overthrown not long after his own demise.

Qinshihuang left behind a form of political organization which was to endure for some 2,000 years. The most remarkable innovation was the bureaucratic apparatus that gradually replaced the old feudal structure.

The Han Dynasty

Qin Dynasty's ruthless laws and endless expensive campaigns cut its own life short. Rebellion broke out and a new dynasty, Han, came into being.

The first emperor of Han Dynasty, Liu Bang, was an uneducated man. He worked as a butcher and a farmer when he was young. Despite the lack of formal school education, he was a charismatic person. More important for his eventual success, he wisely recognized the value of learned advisers. He was able to identify talent buried under bad reputations. For example, his most important talented general, Han Xin had a reputation of being a coward. When he was young, Han Xin was not very confrontational. Once, he was bullied by a local thug in a market. The thug asked Han Xin to get down on his knees and crawl between his legs. Han Xin took a look at the thug's large frame and got down on his knees without saying a word. All his friends were very ashamed of his act afterwards. Thus the reputation of being a coward followed him until when Liu Bang was considering letting him lead his army. After hearing the story of Han Xin's crawling , Liu Bang laughed and assigned him the position without any hesitation. His aids were confused. Liu Bang said to them," A true hero knows when to withdraw and when to attack. I am looking for an intelligent general, not a local brawler." Han Xin proved to be the key for Liu Bang's success in wiping out his rivals and unifying the country.

Once he was firmly in power, Liu Bang continued his effort of selecting the most talented people to help him run the country. He started the system of recruiting civil servants by examination. He revived the influence of Confucian philosophy by including the knowledge of the sage's works in the examination. These examinations offered a measure of social mobility for commoners unavailable within a feudal system. Many classic Chinese novels evolve around love stories between poor students and rich girls. The endings are dependent upon the results of the examinations.

With the talent recruited via examinations, Liu Bang established a centralized bureaucratic government that was based on the Confucian ideology of paternalistic rule by superior, educated and moral men. An imperial university was set up on 124 BC. Within a hundred years it had 3,000 students. However, the Han bureaucracy was smaller than that of later dynasties.

During Han Dynasty, population flourished and the census of AD 2 revealed a population of nearly 60 million people with cities of up to a million inhabitants. Agriculture and technology advanced greatly as well. The magnetic compass and paper were invented in Han dynasty. It was also during Han that ox-drawn plough became commonplace. This technology can still been seen often in China's country today.

Another significant event that happened during Han dynasty was the opening up of Silk Road. In order to find allies against the Hun horsemen who constantly harassed and looted the north border area, an emperor of Han sent one of his aides to Central Asia. The aid's journey opened up what was to become the Silk Road. It was through the Silk Road Buddhism was brought to China in the first century AD.

The Han dynasty lasted more than four centuries with a minor interruption. It was the longest ruling dynasty in Chinese history.

Anarchy and Partition(220-581)

Fourteen different short-lived dynasties and 16 kingdoms were established in this period when China was divided, with different rulers in different parts, and almost constant warfare.

During this period of difficult time, religions flourished. Buddhism with its path to salvation and sense of abstract continuity in the endless cycle of rebirths mad great progress. There was also a renewed interest in Taoism. Groups of intellectuals started to defy the idea of taking the imperial examinations and serving in the government. Instead, they gathered to write poetry, play the lute, drink wine and discuss Taoism philosophy. They were the original hippies. There was a group called "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Studio". They were seven of the most famous scholars of their time. Despite their talent, they looked down upon the people who wanted to work for the government. They vowed to have nothing to do with it. One time, a powerful general wanted to ask one of them to marry his daughter to the general's son. He defied him by being so drunk for seven days that he could not even wake up. In the end, the general had to give up.

The most famous literature produced on the rich materials of this time was Three Kingdoms by Xia Naian of the 14C. It depicted the wars, alliances and betrayals among the three kingdoms between 220 and 265. It is considered one of the four Chinese classical literature treasures.

Sui, the Reunion (581-618)

History always repeats itself. Just as Qin dynasty united the separate states in 221BC into a short-lived empire, Sui put and end to the warring states and reunited China. Qin lasted fourteen years and Sui lasted less than thirty-seven years. The first emperor of Qin dynasty united China for the first time and was one of the most brutal and ruthless rulers of all time. The first emperor of Sui reunited China and gained a similar reputation in folklore as a merciless tyrant. The periods after both dynasties were considered "golden ages" of China.

The first emperor of Sui dynasty was raised in a Buddhist Temple until he was twelve years old. As a result, he remained devoted to Buddhism all his life, making huge donations to temples after many of his killing sprays.

Sui's legal system was modeled after Qin's. Sui's first emperor also ordered works on the existing canal system. The Great Canal was a waterway which linked up existing but derelict channels and which, when completed stretched from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. This project important in bringing to the emperor's capital and his armies and integrating north and south. However, it exacted great hardship on countless construction workers and the resentment caused by expensive projects like this ultimately caused the downfall of the Sui dynasty.

Tang Dynasty, the Golden Age (618-907)

The Tang dynasty was considered as the Golden Age of Chinese history because of the flourishing culture, the prosperous economy and the far-reaching trade. History books referred to the Tang dynasty as "The Great Tang". The glory of this dynasty was built on an early period "equal field" system and a newly-revived civil service exam system. The "equal field" system allocated land to all able body males so that the government had stable tax incomes.

Agriculture advanced greatly. Rice was transported along the expanding canal network to be stored in imperial barns. Vast revenues from the well-established tax system supported Tang's military campaigns and diplomacy. Tang dynasty developed great relationship with Tibet through marriages between the royal families and technology export. Korea and Japan were also dominated by it culture. Traces of Tang dynasty influences can be found today in Japan's traditional customs and clothing.

Trade extended as far as India. The capital, Chang'an (present day Xi'an) was a crossroads of foreign merchants, monks, and travellers. Diplomats arrived from Persia and the Byzantine Empire could be find wondering about in the city. A considerable number of foreign traders settled in the city. The inhabitants of modern day Muslim Quarter are the direct descends of the Middle East traders of Tang dynasty.

The Tang dynasty was also one of the most inventive time of Chinese history. The greatest invention was undisputedly woodblock printing. This invention leveraged off a Han dynasty invention of paper and greatly promoted the development of literacy. Four of the greatest poets of all time, Li Bai, Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi represented this glorious flowering of creativity. Among them, Li Bai was the father of romanticism of Chinese poetry. According to folklore, he drowned himself by trying to pick up the moon's reflection in the water.

There were to women of colorful characteristics during Tang dynasty. One of them was Wu zetian, the only official empress of Chinese history, whose ascend to the top was accomplished by complex intrigues and utter ruthlessness. The story of romantic misery between Concubine Yang Guifei and Emperor Tang Xuanzong has been a favorite subject ever since. See Xi'an for more details of both stories.

The Five Dynasties and TheTen Kingdoms( 907-960)

This period was a period of warring states and short-lived dynasties again.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Song was another period of united China after a short division. The Song dynasty had two capitals, Kaifeng in the north and Hangzhou in the south. Some people divided the dynasty into the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279) based on the capital locations.

The Song dynasty was a period of productive introspection. People called it the "revival" age. Confucianism was re-evaluated and many schools of philosophies based on Confucianism sprouted through the country. The most prominent philosopher among them was Zhu Xi. His comprehensive view of things combined the five essential of the universe, metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) an the theories of Yin and Yang. He proclaimed, following Confucians, that men were innocent at birth and this goodness can be cultivated. He also tried to preserve the family as the basis of society and maintained that the emperor was the father of his people.

Initially, Song was able to maintain peace with the nomadic tribes in the north and, therefore, the government was able to concentrate its resources on the development of various aspects of its economy. Under the governance of many able emperors and their aids, the dynasty experience another efflorescence of artistic and intellectual creativity. One brilliant minister, Wang Anshi, made a especially significant mark in history by attempting drastically to reform the economy. He shifted the tax burden from the poor to the rich, involved the government in the development of economy and promoted education. He was eventually overthrown by the bitter rich. However, the policies he initiated were preserved to some degree.

Sea trade from coastal ports (Quanzhou and Ningbo) boomed during Song Dynasty.

The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

The Yuan Dynasty was probably best known because of the stories so vividly told by Marco Polo. Being founded by Chinggis Khan's grandson Khubilai Khan, Yuan dynasty has a couple of firsts. It was the first time a nomadic tribe dominated the entire China and it was the first time a meaningful word was chosen for a dynasty's name. All previous dynasty names were either surnames or placenames of significance. Yuan means the "original" or "beginning".

The Yuan dynasty established its capital in Peking ("Beijing"). Although small cities were existent before, Peking as a new city was constructed from scratch. The Great Canal was extended north to reach Peking and supply the capital with grain from rice-producing south China.

The Mongols made sure that they would not be assimilated by the majority Chinese. Different ethnic groups within the empire were formally distinguished. At this time, Mongols adopted the Tibetan form of Lamaist Buddhism and patronised Buddhist monasteries and temples. One can still find Lama temples from Yuan Dynasty in Beijing today.

Chinese culture continued to develop under alien rule. Chinese drama gained great popularity and novels first appeared during this time as well.

Family rivalries, weak rulers and farmer rebellions post Khubilai Khan caused the ultimate downfall of Yuan dynasty.

Ming Dynasty ( 1368-1644)

A farmer monk, the first emperor of Ming dynasty rose to power quickly and became the leader of a disciplined army which ultimately drove the Mongols back to the Gobi Desert.

Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of Ming, modeled his own government structure after Han, Tang and Song dynasties. In addition, he further concentrated the power in the emperor's hands. The civil servant examinations became more competitive and vigorous during this time.

Being ever sensitive to the threats from the north, Zhu Yuanzhang's successor, Yongle (Eternal Joy) Emperor, moved the capital to Peking. It was during this time, the 'forbidden city' was constructed. The layout of today's streets and lanes in Peking is the same as it was in the early 15c.

Technology, philosophy and literature advanced during this period. It was also during Ming that the Great Wall was enforced. Despite the restriction in the north, the Ming dynasty actively explored the sea. During the reign of Yongle Emperor, an eunuch admiral Zheng He made seven expeditions that reached the shores of Arabia, and as far as Timor in the east Indian ocean. Unlike later European voyagers and unfortunately for China, it didn't use their sea power to become a maritime trading empire. The result of the expeditions was a report Zheng He submitted to Yongle Emperor in which he stated that China's civilization was far more advanced than the rest of the world and he saw no reason China should ever need to deal with the "barbarians". China never regained its marine power ever since.

Towards the end of Ming, another external threat erupted. This time it was from the sea. Japanese pirates greatly disrupted China trade activities and smuggling was almost out of control. This forced Ming into an expensive war with Japan.

Internally, the government was controlled by corrupted eunuchs and farmers were forced away from their lands because of heavy taxation.

Another non-Chinese groups, the Manchus from Manchuria, seized the opportunity and took over China. They form the last dynasty of China, the Qing dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

The conquerors of China and the founders of Qing dynasty, Manchus, took a different from the other alien rulers, the Mongols by adopting Chinese methods of rule. They utilized many Chinese advisors and tried very hard not to be perceived as policemen.

During Qing dynasty, the Manchus greatly expanded the areas under China's control. Manchu's power extended to as far as Central Asia. China also prospered the early Qing rule. However, the later stage of Qing was a different story. Official corruption, emperor incompetence, and foreign invasion turned China from a super power into "the Sick Man of the East". After a war (1839-1842) fought over the ban of opium imports to China, the British forced the Qing government to open five ports along the east-coast for trading with foreign merchants.

The last powerful ruler of Qing dynasty was Dowager Empress Cixi. Although never officially took over the throne, she remained the most powerful ruler of Qing for a long time. Staunchly resisting modernization and crushing any reform attempts, Cixi put the last nail on Qing's coffin. The dynasty did not long survive Cixi. The revolution led by Sun Yat-sen finally overthrew the rule by the Manchus and founded the Republic of China. Sun Yat-sen was declared president.

The last boy-emperor, Puyi, formally abdicated in February 1912. More than 2,000 years of imperial dynasties were ended. One can get a sense of his life story by watching the movie " The Last Emperor".

Republic of China (1911-1949)

Without military backing, Sun Yat-sen's idealism of people's rights and welfare proved to be insufficient. He resigned in 1912.

In 1921, Mao Zedong and 12 other maxists gathered in Shanghai and established the Chinese Communist Party. In 1923, the communists decided to unite with Sun's Nationalist Party (KMT) against the warlords. After Sun's death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek took control of KMT. He didn't wait long to break up the alliance with the communists. In 1926, he expelled them from KMT.

From 1926 to 1934, the communists developed its power amongst the peasants by redistributing land at places they controlled. Viewing the communists as a bigger threat than the warlords, Chiang kept launching massive encirclement campaigns against them. The communists were forced to begin a secret exodus to break out of the siege and find a new place for their power base. This long trip was called "The Long March".

The Long March lasted about one year. Only less than one tenth of the soldiers survived. After it, Mao Zedong emerged as the unchallenged leader of communist party, a status he viciously protected and maintained until his death in 1976.

Years of warlord rule and civil wars further weakened China. Seizing the opportunity, Japan invaded China in 1931 by occupying Manchuria first. It enthroned the last emperor of Qing, Puyi, as a puppet ruler of Manchuria.

Japan launched full-scale invasion of China in 1937. The war between Japan and China would last until 1945. During this period, Japan committed unspeakable crimes against Chinese people. The unbelievable brutality and barbarian behaviors shown by Japanese soldiers were exemplified by "the Rape of Nanjing". After occupying Nanjing, Japanese army went an organized rampage of raping and killing. They even held killing competitions among themselves. One army captain won the competition by decapitating more than 100 people in three days. The Rape of Nanjing left more than a quarter of million civilians dead.

After the defeat of Japan, China went through another civil war between KMT and the Communist Party. In the end, the communists won and founded People's Republic of China in 1949. KMT fled to Taiwan and continued the Republic of China.

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