Multiple dynasties and empires developed during the long history of China. Likewise, the concept of an
emperor suited ruling elite and bureaucrats as a method to keep the masses under control.
XIA DYNASTY (2070-1600 BC):
(Xia Dynasty Map)
The first dynasty mentioned in ancient Chinese histories, such as the "Bamboo Annals," was centered at
Yangcheng. Tradition credited the first emperor as
Yu the Great, who received the Mandate of Heaven. He
directed efforts to control flood waters of the Huang He
(Yellow River) and other rivers in his realm. The Shang Dynasty overthrew Xia.
Chinese archaeologists currently credit Erlitou Culture
as the original Chinese and Xia homeland. They reportedly constructed the world's largest pyramid about
40 miles southwest of Xi'an (known as the White Pyramid).
A large, stone-walled city at Shimao was built during the Longshan
period in Shaanxi province.
SHANG DYNASTY (1600-1046 BC):
(Shang Dynasty Map)
King Tang conquered Xia in 1600 BC and founded his capital at
Yin (modern Anyang). People offered human sacrifices and used oracle
bones, much like the Xia Dynasty. People were noted for excellent ceramic artifacts,
bronzeware and jade. The king routinely kept 1,000
soldiers (equipped with bronze weapons) at the capital and conscripted others to wage war.
ZHOU DYNASTY (1046-256 BC):
(Zhou Dynasty Map)
Although this dynasty was the longest in Chinese history, the Ji clan actually maintained control until
771 BC, during the period called Western Zhou. The capital was located at Haojing and
Luoyi (modern Luoyang). It also was noted for starting China's "Iron Age."
The military expanded subject territory until the "six armies" of Western Zhou were destroyed in the
Han River campaign during the reign of
SPRING & AUTUMN PERIOD (771-476 BC):
(Spring & Autumn Period Map)
Some scholars claim this period lasted until 403 BC. The name originated from the "Spring and Autumn Annals,"
a chronicle attributed to Confucius. It contained a history
about the State of Lu (capital at Qufu) between 722 and 479 BC.
Although the Zhou Dynasty maintained nominal control over China, the period actually reflected a
checkerboard of smaller quasi-independent states ruled by feudal princes. Warfare was common and resulted in
several large states conquering a multitude of smaller ones.
WARRING STATES PERIOD (476-221 BC):
(Warring States Period Map)
This was a continuation of warfare from the Spring and Autumn Period. The name derived from the "Record of the
Warring States" that was compiled during the Han Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty ruler continued to be merely a
figurehead. The period of instability ended when the Qin consolidated power over China. Military forces
adopted the use of iron weapons and cavalry. Governments also expanded irrigation and water control projects,
such as at Dujiangyan.
QIN DYNASTY (221-206 BC):
(Qin Dynasty Map)
Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of the Qin Empire.
During his 12-year reign, his forces conquered much of the Han Chinese homeland and ruled from Xianyang
(modern Xi'an). A legalist system emphasized
absolute rule of the emperor and strict obedience to laws. The empire began construction of the
Great Wall of China,
which the Ming Dynasty expanded. It was designed to prohibit barbarian incursions. The emperor was buried at
an underground tomb that included 7,500 terra-cotta warriors.
A farmer in modern China, Yang Quangyi,
discovered it while working in his field.
HAN DYNASTY (202 BC - 220 AD):
(Han Dynasty Map)
A rebel leader named Liu Bang founded the Han Dynasty and was posthumously known as Emperor
Gaozu of Han. His capital was located at
Chang'an. The period also was known as Western Han
(206 BC - 9 AD) and Eastern Han (25-220 AD) due to the Xin Dynasty (9-23 AD) under former regent,
Wang Mang. In 200 BC Xiongnu
forces under Modu Chanyu defeated the Han, and continued to raid until armies of
Emperor Wu compelled the Xiongnu into vassal status.
His forces likewise conquered the Dian kingdom in modern Yunnan,
Korea, and the
Nanyue kingdom. Wu was buried near Xi'an in the
The Han expanded operations along the Silk Road,
making travel safer for merchants. The Han Dynasty was known as an era of economic prosperity and
expanded the growth of money. Its coinage remained a standard until the Tang Dynasty. The Han
also became known for the rise of eunuchs in state affairs. It also boasted of highly skilled scholars
and inventors such as Zhang Heng. Collapse of
imperial authority precipitated an end to the dynasty.
Warlord Liu Bei founded the kingdom of Shu Han in 221 AD.
Its capital was at Chengdu in modern
Shu rulers often attempted unsuccessfully to conquer the kingdom of Cao Wei. Conversely, generals Deng Ai and
Zhong Hui from Wei defeated Shu Han and captured Chengdu in 263 AD.
In 220 AD Cao Pi, the son of Warlord
Cao Cao, founded the kingdom of Cao Wei, with a capital at
Luoyang. In 249 AD the Sima family took power after the death of Emperor
Cao Rui. The Goguryeo kingdom in
Korea seized land
in the Korean peninsula from Cao Wei. Sima Yan of Cao Wei eventually seized control and established the Jin Dynasty.
Sun Quan declared independence from Cao Wei after the Battle of
Red Cliffs and founded Eastern Wu (aka Sun Wu). A bloody period for control of the kingdom ensued upon the
death of Sun Quan. Sima Yan conquered Eastern Wu during his establishment of the Jin Dynasty. A major
accomplishment of the Wu period was development of the previously barbaric
Yangtze River Delta.
JIN DYNASTY (265-420 AD):
(Jin Dynasty Map)
This was divided into the Western Jin started by Sima Yan in 265 AD (capital at Luoyang) and the
Eastern Jin started by Sima Rui in 217 AD (capital at Jiankang). The Jin unified and freed China from the
chaotic Three Kingdoms era. However, barbarian incursions posed major problems, which eventually resulted in
the loss of territory in north China during the Wu Hu uprising (304-316 AD). The most skilled general was
Liu Yu, who usurped the throne in 420 AD. Jin Dynasty was famous for the quality of its
WU HU PERIOD (304-439 AD):
(376 AD Map)
This unstable period featured 16 kingdoms, most of which were part of the Wu Hu northern
nomadic tribes. The term reflected non-Chinese speakers, especially the
Xiongnu from modern
Mongolia. They served as mercenaries to
the Jin dynasty rulers but staged a rebellion against the corrupt emperor Hui in 290 AD. Qi Qnnian, a Di
chieftain in modern Sichuan
province, led the first revolt.
SOUTHERN & NORTHERN DYNASTIES (420-589 AD):
(560 AD Map)
Another period of civil war and destruction, this era also reflected advances in art, culture and
technology. Buddhism and
Taoism expanded throughout China. General
Liu Yu founded the Northern Dynasty in 420 AD.
The Southern Dynasties (Qi and subsequent Liang) vied with the Northern Dynasty.
SUI DYNASTY (589-618 AD):
(Sui Dynasty Map)
China again reunited under Emperor Wen of Sui, with its capital at
Chang'an. A major construction project was the
Grand Canal that connected
Hangzhou. The short-lived dynasty collapsed due to
widespread opposition to its tyrannical rule and a costly war against the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo.
TANG DYNASTY (618-907 AD):
(Tang Dynasty Map)
The Li family seized imperial control from the Sui in 618 AD, with its capital also at Chang'an
(modern Xi'an). Between 690 and 705 AD Empress
Wu Zetian briefly ruled as the only Chinese female sovereign
in her self-proclaimed Zhou Dynasty. The Tang period represented a golden age of Chinese culture
and Chang'an was the world's most populous city. Famous poets were Li Bai
and Du Fu. Imperial examinations for placement in government
favored the aristocracy. The dynasty could field 500,000 soldiers due to a population of 50 to 80 million.
Foreign trade and maritime imports also flourished. A major religious monument was the Buddha statue at
Leshan. The dynasty suffered natural calamities and the Huang Chao
rebellion (874-884 AD), which sacked Chang'an and Luoyang.
FIVE DYNASTIES & TEN KINGDOMS (907-960 AD):
(Five Dynasties Map)
During this period of upheaval after the Tang dynasty, China fragmented into five "Later" dynasties in the north
(Han 947-979 AD; Jin 936-947 AD; Liang 907-923 AD; Tang 923-936 AD; Zhou 951-960 AD). Ten kingdoms were in
the south (Chu 907-951 AD; Former Shu 907-925 AD; Jingnan 924-963 AD; Later Shu 934-965 AD; Min 909-945 AD;
Northern Han 951-979 AD; Southern Han 917-971; Southern Tang 937-975; Wu 907-937 AD; Wuyue 907-978 AD).
Li Cheng was a famous artist from Qingzhou of the
SONG DYNASTY (960-1279 AD):
(Northern Song Map; Southern Song Map)
The Song stabilized China and was the first world government to issue paper money and use gunpowder.
Northern Song capital was at Bianjing (modern Kaifeng);
Southern Song capital was at Lin'an (modern Hangzhou).
Expanded rice cultivation and reduced government interference in economic activities spurred a
doubling of China's population. Mongol hordes eventually conquered China and replaced the Song.
YUAN DYNASTY (1271-1368 AD):
(Yuan Dynasty Map)
Khublai Khan of the
Mongol Empire invaded China and replaced the
Song Dynasty in 1271 AD. His capital was located at Xanadu and later moved to Dadu (modern
Beijing). One famous visitor
who met Khublai Khan was Marco Polo from
Venice. Among the Khan's
successful campaigns was the conquest of Nan Chao
in 1253 AD. However, his forces twice failed to invade Japan
and the Dai Viet in Vietnam.
An estimated 25 million people (30%) died from Bubonic Plague, which contributed to the end of Yuan rule.
MING DYNASTY (1368-1644 AD):
(Ming Dynasty Map)
The Ming was considered a great era of orderly government and social stability. Court and wealthy women
wore elaborate dresses. The empire had
over one million troops and the world's largest naval dockyards. Admiral Zheng He
commanded fleets of huge ships on seven voyages that circumnavigated the earth and visited every
continent, including Australia and
Antarctica. His Nanjing-built
treasure ships included ones that were 460 feet
(140 meters) long. Such expeditions ended with the advent of a new emperor, whose advisors disdained
further expenditures on the fleets. They preferred to build the Forbidden City
(1406-1420 AD) and expand the Great Wall.
Ships from European powers gained a foothold in China, such as Portugal
in Macau. The Ming eventually
collapsed due to rebellion, natural disasters and an economic breakdown, particularly from a scarcity of silver.
In 1644 AD Beijing and the
Ming Dynasty fell to rebel forces under Li Zicheng.
QING DYNASTY (1644-1912 AD):
(Qing Dynasty Map)
The Jurchen Aisin Gioro clan from northeast China founded this final imperial Manchu dynasty. Subsequent rulers
ceded Hong Kong and five ports to
Great Britain after the First Opium War in 1842 AD.
The imperial court crushed a serious Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864 AD),
led by Hong Xiuquan, a failed scholar who falsely claimed to be a younger
brother of Jesus Christ. The government lost a
Second Opium War (1856-1858 AD), a Sino-French War in 1884 AD, and the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895 AD).
Empress Dowager Cixi, a concubine of Emperor Xianfeng,
took power in the name of her infant son. She supported the Boxer Rebellion
against Chinese Christians and foreign powers in 1900 AD. The Boxers objected to forced importation
of opium, particularly by the British, and the influence of Christian missionaries in China. Troops from eight
nations withstood a 55-day siege of the Peking Legation.
Empress Dowager Longyu abdicated during the Wuchang Uprising in 1911 AD.
Puyi was the final Chinese emperor (1908-1912 AD).
Following expulsion of forces from the Japanese empire
in World War II, Mao Zedong rose to power in the new