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Chinese History
A Quick Guide to Chinese History
This is a very quick glance at Chinese history, and ideal as a pointer to basic facts and 'Who did what when'.

Chinese history is very complex, and often Kingdoms are overthrown and disappear, only to reappear centuries later. This section only mentions the most important people and events, plus inventions. It covers a period of some 10, 000 years

For a much more detailed look at Chinese history, please refer to the era by Dynasty

You are always welcome to contribute - simply drop me a line

Chinese History Timeline

Main Dynasty Contemporary Kingdoms or Comments
Ancient China    
3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors
Xia Dynasty 2100–1600 BC    
Shang Dynasty 1600–1046 BC    
Zhou Dynasty 1045–256 BC    
   Western Zhou    
   Eastern Zhou    
   Spring and Autumn Period (770 to 476 BC)    
   Warring States Period (475 to 221 BC) Qin Kingdom  
Imperial China    
Qin Dynasty 221 BC–206 BC
Han Dynasty 206 BC–220 AD
    Western Han
    Xin Dynasty
    Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
    Wei, Shu & Wu
Jin Dynasty 265–420
   Western Jin
    Eastern Jin
16 Kingdoms 304–439  
Southern & Northern Dynasties 420–589

Sui Dynasty 581–618    
Tang Dynasty 618–907
( Second Zhou 690–705 )
5 Dynasties & 10 Kingdoms 907–960
Liao Dynasty 907–1125
Song Dynasty 960–1279
   Northern Song   W. Xia
   Southern Song Jin  
Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368
Ming Dynasty 1368–1644    
Qing Dynasty 1644–1911    
Modern China
Republic of China 1912–1949    
People's Republic of China (Mainland China) 1949–present Republic of China (Taiwan) 1945–present

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

40, 000 BC
The earliest Chinese remains have been discovered near Shanghai, and date from 40, 000 years ago. These are Homo Sapiens, and associated with Homo Erectus remains nearby. There is little in the way of tools, and scientists conclude that most tools were made of bamboo. Amongst surviving remnants are jade workings, and extremely crude clay vessels

20, 000 BC
Excavations near Chengdu and ChongQing in Sichuan Province reveal human settlements and burial rituals, as well as sacrificial ornaments, vessels, jewellery, and tools.

10, 000 BC
Early civilisations appear, most notably around the Yellow and Yangtze River's in modern day Henan and Shaanxi Provinces. Most mentionable are a tribe called the Xing Long Wa Circa 8, 000 BC

3 Sovereigns

Records from this period are usually treated as Myths and Legends, but new data is showing that accounts reflect real history and real people

The 3 Sovereigns are: The Heavenly Sovereign Fuxi, The Earthly Sovereign Nüwa (Adam and Eve?), and their son, The Human Sovereign Shennong. Shennong is credited with inventing farming, the plough and fishing, medicine; and also money and places to exchange goods. This could be said to represent the dawn of civilisation

5 Emperors
The 5 Emperors are: Huangdi - The Yellow Emperor, Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun. All these "emperors" were only people with great contributions or famous rulers of tribal unions. From the Bamboo Annals and Classic of History, their positions are known to have been attained by election by other chiefs in the tribal unions. When they die, their children may succeed the positions of the ruler of their own tribe, but not the position of the ruler of the tribal union

The most notable is The Yellow Emperor, and simply put -circa 5, 000 BC Huang Di defeated Yandi and Chi You in the river valleys of Henan province, and became the first leader of a united Chinese people. Han Chinese trace their direct ancestry back to Huang Di

The 3 Emperors
To avoid confusion: Yao and Shun are also known as the Three Emperors, and, along with Yu the Great, founder of the Xia dynasty; and were considered to be model rulers and moral exemplars by Confucians in later Chinese history

Early Kingdoms

1. Huang Di, The Yellow Emperor - created the first Chinese Nation
2. Da Yu, Yu the Great - was the person who reunited fledgling China after The Great Flood, and created the Xia Dynasty

Days Before Empire

Xia Dynasty - Circa 2, 000 BC
Highly advanced Bronze smelting and weaponry, war chariots, first pottery and writing

Shang Dynasty - Circa 1600 to 1046
Regarded as the first proper Chinese Dynasty
Writings indicate common usage of thinking such as: politics, economy, culture, religion, geography, astronomy, calendar, art, and medicine. Tomb excavations reveal that women were sometimes great military leaders.

China was basically a 'Closed Country' during the Shang dominion

Zhou Dynasty - Circa 1054 to 256 BC
The longest lasting of all Chinese Empires, which gave rise to modern Chinese culture, literature, and arts. Modern Chinese writing is traced back to the Zhou period specifically. The Zhou also cemented the earlier beliefs that the Emperor was of divine birth, and spoke directly to the heavens

The Zhou continued to use Bronze, whilst Iron smelting techniques were quite advanced in Southern China, and outside of their sphere of influence and control. Fragmentation eventually led to the Zhou being overthrown, but they reappear later in Chinese history

Days of Empire

Qin Empire (221 to 206 BC)

Huang Di, aka Qin Shi Huang (And also verbalised as The Yellow Emperor - except the Chinese characters are different but sound the same), overthrew the Zhou, and united China, becoming the first Emperor of all China

Foreigners from all over the world would naturally pronounce ‘Qin’ as ‘Chin’. The intimate form of this word is to add ‘ah’, therefore they became widely known as the 'Qin-ah' or ‘Chin-ah’ people = China.

This Empire lasted for a few years only, but was decisive in the formation of what we now refer to as Modern China. Therefore, Qin Shi Huang is given the title of Founder of China. However the Qin began under King Zhaoxiang in 306 BC, and they actually annihilated the Zhou Kingdom in 255 BC

Qin Shi Huang built the first Great Walls of China, and also developed the existing canal and irrigation networks substantially. It is thought his engineers developed 'Sea Level' as a base measurement for projects, and a concept that does not reappear in China for another 1, 200 years

Qin Shi Huang died of madness due to Mercury poisoning, which he ingested daily as a medicine His mausoleum (Like a Long Barrow) has been uncovered, and it supports tales that his lands were so rich = that they flowed with liquid silver

Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD)

The vast majority of modern Chinese peoples are ‘Han’ and come from, or were assimilated into this group. The Han brought Confucianism to China, and extended dominion and trade Westwards as far as the Caspian Sea. They had documented trading relations with the early Roman Empire, such as in 166 BC. This was overland, and later became known as ‘The Silk Road’

Perhaps most notably for European history, they fought and repelled the ‘xiongnu’, who are regarded as being the forefathers of The Huns

The Han ruled an area that can modestly be stated as being the Eastern part of modern China, including Northern Vietnam, but excluding Tibet. However, religion dictates that modern Buddhism came from Tibet around this time, as evidenced by the Chinese fable ‘Journey To The West’, which you will know simply as ‘Monkey’

Post Han
As in Europe, and especially in UK, this was a time of wars, with many factions claiming power and kingdoms, only to be replaced by other pretenders to the throne. Have a look at our section 'Post Han' if you want to know more

During this period China descended into various factions and warring states (Again)

Sui Empire (581–618

A short-lived and overly maligned Dynasty, mainly because of their overzealous use of force. However, they achieved one great thing, and that was to reunite China. They built The Grand Canal and extended The Great Wall + reformed land use. Without them it is likely that China would nowadays be many separate Countries!

Tang Empire (618 – 907)

The Tang dynasty gave rise to many arts and crafts that still flourish today in China. They also accepted both Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, and implemented an advanced system of feudal land use known as ‘Equal Field System’. They also kept trade routes open, especially to the West (Overland), and South by sea (Guangzhou).

Empress Wu Zetian, the only female ruler of China to do so in her own undisputed right.
Also worthy of mention: Princess Wencheng in the early Tang Dynasty - a wonderful woman diplomat.
Empress Zhangsun of Tang Dynasty, and wife of Emperor Taizong - a good model both as wife and empress

Interestingly: Culture flourishes and women also have equal rights

Post-Tang (907 - 1115)

The Tang dynasty is overthrown and followed by another unruly period.

Pertinent factors for foreigners to China: The Dali Empire based from Yunnan province comes and goes, but brings conflict and understandings between nomadic Tibetan's and lowland Chinese. You may want to trace your modern thinking about Tibet back to this era

Song Empire (1115 – 1254)

Another time of turmoil and great advances in science and arts. China had it’s Capital in Hangzhou

Gunpowder is used in warfare for the first time, meaning: Guns, cannons, and mortars are invented; and used!

The Last 900 Years - Pay Attention!

If you haven't already got the hang of Chinese history by now, in that the same pretenders to the throne keep reappearing in new guises at later dates - then wake-up!

This next period is really all about interactions for ultimate control between: The Mongols, The Jin (Jurchen aka Qing), and existing Chinese Royal Houses.

Traditional Chinese history does not include: West China, Tibet, The Dali Empire of Yunnan - at least up until the Mongol invasion. Southeast China is more of an autonomous trading partner rather than a vassal state. Therefore, you should consider these years in context, and know it is really all about control of the Yellow and Yangtze River valley's by Kingdoms that have been warring for millennia

Now, let us continue...

Yuan Empire (1271 – 1368)

This represents the Mongol invasion(s) of China, which went as far as the shores of Japan, included the domination and subjugation of Tibet, most of eastern Russia, and a lot of Europe.

The names you may know from history books are Genghis Khan, and his grandson Kublai Khan –> in xianadu did kublai khan a pleasure dome erect, etc… and it's ruins lie just outside modern Beijing!

What you may not know is that the Mongols were divided, as some like Kublai Khan wanted to adopt Chinese culture, whilst others did not.

My personal understanding is that the Mongol tribes brought an understanding of international money to China, as witnessed by the precedent that the names for the Yuan Empire, and Chinese currency are still synonymous to the present day = Yuan

Ming Empire (1368 – 1644)

After the demise of the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty reinvented China; bringing with them culture, arts and excellence of skills and thinking. Your treasured china may be named after this Dynasty?

Zheng He assembles a fleet and sails the known world. Trading relationships are established with East African States and Chinese control reaches as far as Turkestan.. China is 'Open' during the beginning of this Dynasty, but later it becomes more paranoid and 'Closed'. The Ming created  a bureaucracy that at first provided good governance to all the people, but later led directly to the demise of the Dynasty = Too much red tape!

Qing Empire (1644 – 1911)
  French political cartoon from late 1890s. A pie representing China is being divided between Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan.
Courtesy of Wikipedia:

The Qing are not Chinese, but come from Manchuria in what is now Southeast Russia, although it had been under Chinese rule for centuries. They are known for centuries as 'The Jin', a Chinese reference for The Jurchen People.

The Qing do not have to storm the Great Wall, the gates are opened and their small army is let through - such was the discontent with current central government manipulations in ordinary people's everyday lives. Europe should learn from this lesson, or ignore it at their peril. I digress...

The Qing simply took over power without a struggle, and assimilated themselves as Chinese rulers. This charade lasted for centuries, although the first warning signs of peasant revolt appeared as early as 1800. China became an ever more 'Closed' and insular culture as their reign progressed, but Chinese culture of the Qing variety flourished

The Qing would probably not have been overthrown, was it not for the greed of Western Powers: England, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan (And also: USA, Spain, Portugal, and the Dutch [Netherlands]).

You may have heard about things such as:
• The Opium Wars
• The Boxer Uprising
• The Xinhai Revolution and contemporary Wuchang Uprising
• Or wondered why China was fighting alongside Britain inside Burma during the late 17th Century

The latter Qing Empire is a very complicated period of world history. You can read our interpretation of the main events here: Qing Empire

Modern China (1912 to Present)

Well ... this is a whole lot more complex than anything above!

This is a time of turmoil, and events follow this generalised pattern: End of Empire, Dictatorship, Democracy, Dictatorship, Civil War, Japanese Invasion, Democracy, Civil War [re-Continued after a break of 8 years], Communist State, Ideological Communist State, New Way for Communism + Democracy

You need to know about five people and world events:

1. Dr Sun Yat Sen - patronaged the first Republic of China. His Party was called the KuoMingTang (KMT)
2. Mao ZeDong - Founded the Peoples Republic of China in 1949. First Chairman and foremost modern forefather
3. Deng XiaoPing - The creator of Modern China as we know it today and 'The Policy of 'Openness'
4. Jiang Zemin - Developed the Openness Policy and created the 'Three Represents' principles
5. Hu Jintao - Created the 'Scientific Development Concept'

To date, six men have held the office of the president of the People's Republic of China: Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Li Xiannian, Yang Shangkun, Jiang Zemin, and the current president, Hu Jintao

China today has 9 political parties, not just one!

Also note the Second World War started in China in 1937 with the Japanese invasion ... your local history lessons may have missed this fact? During these times, China was enduring a Civil War; which was 'Put on hold' in order to defeat the Japanese invaders.

Most notable events include 'The Long March', instigated by Mao to escape Nationalist forces let by Chiang Kai Shek. It lasted over one year and has similar standing to the Allies withdrawal from Dunkirk. From this new base, Mao (Assisted by Zhou Enlai) engineered social and peasant reforms, taking popular support in the countryside. They also created modern guerrilla warfare, and eventually won! The KMT fled to Taiwan, taking with them much treasure and 2 million people.

Chinese peoples are like a very large family. Like any family, they do not always agree wholeheartedly with each other. You should regard China and Taiwan as both believing in a united China - and one day quite soon this may become a reality. The framework is already in place, with the democracies of Hong Kong and Macao. China is proud to boast: 'One Country, two systems'

The country of modern China is just 30 years old, and follows the way forwards expounded by Deng XiaoPing. This has developed over several decades, and now finds a modern China ready to take its true place on the world stage. It is led by a young and proactive government under the leadership of President Hu Jin Tao and Premier Wen Jia Bao

To learn more about Chinese government, please click the link below for the excellent Chinese Government website in English language - which is full of current news, reviews, and details of China's political structure and hierarchy

Please see our History of Modern China for full details of the events of this century in a nutshell

Here is China!

This information is as supplied by Wikipedia, as dated March 2009 or later, and/or other reliable sources.

Maps (Unless stated otherwise) are provided in association with Thomas Lessman

Please check this information yourself as it may alter without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
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