Imagine China has lived under 24 dynasties and about 400 emperors – kings! The written history of China can be said to date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), over 3,000 years ago. The first dynasty was founded in the 21st century B.C., and China was first unified in 221 B.C.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the first people inhabited China between 250,000 and 2.24 million years ago . A cave (near present-day Beijing) exhibits fossils of Peking Man, an example of Homo Erectus who used fire . You can read more about this period in my post of Beijing’s history.
The founding of China’s first dynasty, Xia Dynasty in the 21st century B.C. marked a change from a primitive society to a slave society. Slave society developed further during the Shang (16th-11th century B.C.) and the Western Zhou (11th century-770 B.C.) Dynasties. This era was followed by the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 B.C.), and the transition from the slave society to feudal society.
The first Chinese dynasty that left historical records, called Shang Dynasty, settled along the Yellow river in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century BC. The oracle bone script of the this Dynasty represents the oldest form of Chinese writing yet found, and the direct ancestor of the modern Chinese characters.
The Shang were invaded from the west by the Zhou, who ruled between the 12th and 5th centuries BC. Many independent states eventually emerged out of the Zhou state, and continually waged war with each other. During this period there were seven powerful sovereign states in what is now China, each with its own king, ministry and army . In the Zhou Dynasty Beijing was a prosperous market town (but not China’s capital city) called Ji or Jicheng ( about 1000 years BC).
The First Emperor
In 221 B.C., Ying Zheng, a man of great talent and bold vision, ended the rivalry among the independent principalities in the Warring States Period.
He established the first centralized, unified, multi-ethnic state in Chinese history, under the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). He called himself Shi Huang Di (始皇帝), the First Emperor. During his reign, he standardized the script, currencies, and weights and measures, established the system of prefectures and counties, and began the construction of the world-renowned Great Wall. He also built a large palace and a mausoleum (the Terracotta Army). At the end of the Qin Dynasty, Liu Bang, a peasant leader, overthrew the Qin regime in cooperation with Xi’ang Yu, an aristocratic general. A few years later, Liu Bang defeated Xi’ang Yu and established the strong, Han Dynasty in 206 B.C.
During this Dynasty, that lasted until A.D. 220, agriculture, handicrafts, and commerce were well developed. During the reign of Emperor Wu Di, the Han regime reached the period of its greatest prosperity. The multi-ethnic country became more united during the Han regime, which existed in total 426 years. ‘Han’ cultural identity has endured to the present day.
The Han Dynasty expanded the territory with military campaigns reaching Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and Central Asia. Han China gradually became the largest economy of the ancient world. and was called the First Golden Age of China. In this period the Chinese started using paper, porcelains. The emperor conquered the Xiongnu nomads, sent Zhang Qian as an envoy to the Western Regions (Central Asia), and in the process pioneered the route known as the ‘Silk Road’ from the Han capital Chang’An through Xinjiang to Europe. One of the Four Beauties of Ancient China, Wang Zhaojun, was married as a ‘political bride’ to chieftain of the Xiongnu in 33 B.C. Her life and influence created a famous inspiring story about marriage between the Han and the Xiongnu.
Han Dynasty was followed by the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265) of Wei, Shu, and Wu. It was followed by the Jin (265-420), the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), and the Sui Dynasty (581-618).
In 618, Li Yuan founded the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Later, Li Shimin (r. 626-649), son of Li Yuan, ascended the throne as Emperor Taizong, considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history.
After the Tang Dynasty, came the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960).
The Song Dynasty (south) / The Liao and Jin Dynasty (north)
The Song Dynasty was the first government in world history to issue paper money. During the this Dynasty there was also the Liao and Jin Dynasty in the North, with Beijing as their Capital City. See my post on the Evolution of Beijing for more on this topic. During this period the population of China doubled in size to around 100 million people, mostly due to the expansion of rice cultivation in central and southern China, and the production of abundant food surpluses.
The Song Dynasty also saw a flourishing of philosophy and the arts, as landscape art and portrait painting were brought to new levels of maturity and complexity, and social elites gathered to view art, share their own and trade precious artworks. Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Chu Hsi reinvigorated Confucianism with new commentary, infused Buddhist ideals, and emphasized a new organization of classic texts that brought about the core doctrine of Neo-Confucianism.
During the Song and Yuan dynasties, handicraft industry and domestic and foreign trade boomed. Many merchants and travelers came from abroad. Marco Polo from Venice traveled extensively in China, later describing the country’s prosperity in his book ‘Travels’.
The “four great inventions” of the Chinese people in ancient times, paper making, printing, the compass and gunpowder, were further developed in the Song and Yuan dynasties, and introduced to foreign countries.
The Yuan Dynasty
In 1271, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty; the Yuan conquered the last remnant of the Song Dynasty in 1279. Before the Mongol invasion, Song Cina reportedly had approximately 120 million citizens; the 1300 census which followed the invasion reported roughly 60 million people. At this time Beijing was called Dadu and became the political center of the whole unified China. Read my post on the Evolution of Beijing.
The Ming Dynasty
With a total of 16 emperors, the Ming Dynasty lasted 276 years, from 1368 to 1644.
A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 and founded the Ming Dynasty. Under the Ming Dynasty, China enjoyed another golden age, developing one of the strongest navies in the world and a rich and prosperous economy amid a flourishing of art and culture. It was during this period that Zheng He led explorations throughout the world, reaching as far as Africa. In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, China’s capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. Zhu’s achievements made him one of the most outstanding statesmen in Chinese history, along with Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty and Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty.
The golden age of the Ming Dynasty thrived under Emperor Chengzu’s reign, known as the Yongle period (circa 1402). During this period, foreign relations were further strengthened via Zheng He’s voyage to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The Ming regime also strengthened its relations with ethnic minority groups, promoting the economic and cultural exchanges among different nationalities. Its jurisdiction extended to the inside and outside of the Hinggan Mountains, Tianshan Mountains and Tibet.
When Emperor Yingzong ascended to the throne in 1436, the Ming Dynasty began its decline, mainly due to the monopoly of eunuchs. Corruptive officials levied heavy taxes on peasants, triggering countless uprisings. At the same time, the Ming Dynasty faced the danger of attacks from external forces.
During the reign of Emperor Jiajing (circa 1521), Zhang Juzheng was appointed to carry out a comprehensive reform in politics, the economy and military. For some time, things had changed for the better but, before long, a eunuch named Wei Zhongxian seized and abused his power, which accelerated the Ming’s decline.
At the same time, the Nüzhen of the northeast became powerful and finally overthrew the Ming Dynasty during a storm of peasant uprisings. Emperor Chongzhen hanged himself at the foot of the Coal Hill behind the imperial palace.
The Qing Dynasty
The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) was the last imperial dynasty in China. It was founded by the non-Chinese people of the Manchus who originally lived in the northeast, a region later called Manchuria.
The Manchus used the disintegration of the central government of the Ming Empire 明 (1368-1644) to conquer China. They established a political system that successfully integrated the Chinese intellectuals into the administration of the empire. The Manchu people was organised militarily in the Eight Banners (baqi 八旗) and lived in “Manchu cities” in Beijing and most provincial capitals.
The early and high Qing emperors with the reign mottos Kangxi 康熙 (1662-1722), Yongzheng 雍正 (1723-1735) and Qianlong 乾隆 (1736-1795) were patrons of arts and literature. They also substantially expanded the territory of China by defeating the Oiratsor Dzungars (Western Mongols) that had tried to establish an independent khanate in Central Asia, and by conquering the Uyghur city states (modern Xinjiang), Tibet and the island of Taiwan. Qing China was the largest and most powerful empire of the world in 1795.
At the end of the eighteenth century increasing problems began to haunt China. Monetary inflation and rampant corruption among the officialdom led to numerous peasant rebellions. The long period of peace had contributed to a sharp increase in population growth, with ever more people not being able to nourish themselves. Qing China was caught in the so-called “high equilibrium trap” (Mark Elvin) with a relatively high agricultural productivity without technical progress. Very cautious towards the sea and its dangers, the Qing – like their predecessors, the Ming – were hesitant in the question of promoting international trade. The government allowed foreigners to purchase tea, silk and chinaware in one single port, Canton (Guangzhou 廣州, Guangdong), but refused to open more ports to British and other overseas merchants. The question of opium smuggling was the spark igniting the first of a series of wars in which Western powers “opened” China for trade and missionaries. These concessions were made by the Qing in the so-called “unequal treatises” in which China was made a “semi-colony” of Western powers.
Qing China’s society was “upside down” (Lin Man-Houng), and these problems exploded in the large Taiping Rebellion that nearly brought the Qing dynasty to an end. Political reforms in the late nineteenth century were only begun hesitatingly, and therefore caused the rise of political parties. The most successful of these were of a revolutionary character. In 1911 a mini-revolution initiated the disintegration of the empire and the foundation of a Republic (1912-1949) without any clear political concept.
The Revolution of 1911 is of great significance in modern Chinese history: the monarchical system was discarded with the founding of the provisional government of the Republic of China. The victory was soon compromised by concessions on the part of the Chinese bourgeoisie, and the country entered a period dominated by the Northern Warlords, headed by Yuan Shikai.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China has entered a new Communist era of stability, with the Reform and Opening Up policies of 1978, bringing in China’s phenomenal economic growth.