Brief Introduction to Chinese History — Dynasties, Rise and Fall of Empires, and Important Historical Events
Prehistoric Legends and Primitive Cultures
— Chinese People’s Ancestor Worship
There is an ancient Chinese book named the Classic of Mountains and Seas, which was estimated completed around 5000 years ago and the actual writer is unknown.
According to the description of the wondrous and fantastic world in the book, people could find many of the prototypes even in the current world.
It is a comprehensive collection of the Primitive Society, myth, and legend, which described an era with mysterious immortals and brave, influential heroes.
During this period, many Primitive Cultures scattered in mainland China, and the boundary between the human and immortal's world was quite blurred.
Supernatural beings could come to the mortal world and help people out, while excellent mortals could become deities due to their great accomplishments.
Jade Dragon of Hongshan Culture (Around 4000 BC — 3000 BC) — National Museum of China
Together, the deities and humans changed the world and made it a better place to live, through their diligence, strong will, and exceptional courage.
This was the origin of Chinese people’s Ancestor Worship and the initial stages of Chinese culture.
Among the human superheroes, the extremely accomplished ones became sovereigns of some big tribes.
Xia Dynasty — The First Hereditary Empire
Yu the Great was the hero that led people and successfully defeated the huge flood, and one of the possible writers of the Classic of Mountains and Seas.
After he got the throne from King Shun, Yu the Great built the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), the first Hereditary Empire in the history of China.
Currently, more concrete archaeological pieces of evidence were still required to prove the Xia Dynasty’s actual existence.
Many Chinese historical documents and pieces of literature, however, already recorded and described this empire clearly, though most of them were simple and brief. Read More
Shang Dynasty — Era of Oracle Bone Scripts and Superstition Worship
There was a clan named Shang, which used to respect the Kings of the Xia Dynasty as their sovereigns.
Centuries later, Shang’s current lord named Tang overthrown the last king of Xia established the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC).
This was the first dynasty in the history of China that was documented directly by Chinese characters, when people recorded important events on oracle bones, tortoise shells, and bronze wares.
From that time on, all Chinese history has been documented clearly and continuously.
Unearthed Inscriptions on Bones regarding King Wu Ding’s Divination about Shang Empire — National Museum of China
Shang Dynasty lasted for over 500 years and had 31 kings in total.
The people of this epoch were quite famous for their extreme passion and respect for superstitions. Many contents in oracle bone inscriptions documented their divination activities and results.
The last king of Shang, Di Xin was a controversial monarch; he was brave and accomplished, but also had been documented as a luxurious tyrant.
After his army was defeated, the king burnt himself down in the royal palace, and the Shang Dynasty was officially ended. Read More
Zhou Dynasty — Further Developed Society
and Great Philosophers
Zhou was originally a vassal state of the Shang Dynasty.
Generations later, a lord of Zhou was wrongly sentenced to death by a king of the Shang Dynasty. Afterward, Zhou’s successive lords had been planning for vengeance, until Lords Ji Chang and Ji Fa finally succeeded.
They defeated the last king of Shang and established the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC).
This was the longest Chinese dynasty, also a more mature empire that published the first code, which stipulated explicit rights and duties, as well as the strict etiquette of different social statuses.
Unearthed Bronze Ding of the Zhou Dynasty, Representative of Paramount Power — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
In the year 771 BC, the King You of Zhou failed in a big war and got assassinated, which ended Zhou's authority as a centralized sovereign with absolute power.
Afterward, the Zhou's successive kings gradually lost control over their vassal states until Zhou was perished by State Qin in the year 256 BC. Read More
Spring and Autumn Period — Contention
After King You of Zhou was defeated and sacrificed in the year 771 BC, his oldest son migrated to another city and became the next king, under the supports of some vassal states.
This opened up the chapter of the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) when many vassal states kept competing over hegemony, and the kings of Zhou kept losing land, tribute, authority, and became political pawns of ambitious overlords.
Overlords during this period, such as Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin, still cared about a decent reputation, public opinions, hierarchies, and basic rules that had been set at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty.
They still respected the kings of Zhou as nominal, honorable sovereigns, and never tried to initiate wars against the kings. Read More
Warring States Period — Endless Annexation
Wars and Great Reformers
After hundreds of years of intensive fights over hegemony, there were seven powerful kingdoms left, plus a small central Zhou government.
This was Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) when whoever stronger could get more power and land by force, and many of the former decency and etiquette were replaced by conspiracies and wars.
In this era, former lords claimed themselves as kings and their land as kingdoms, and most kings were aimed at perishing other kingdoms and unifying the whole of China.
While those former vassal states were expanding into independent, powerful kingdoms, their suzerain, the central Zhou government, on the contrary, kept shrinking.
The last king of Zhou only ruled his capital city and around 30,000 civilians, while huge kingdoms like the Sate Qin had over a million soldiers.
Unearthed Jade Mythical Animal of the Warring States Period — The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)
After the last king of Zhou passed away in his palace in 256 BC, the king of Qin occupied Zhou’s capital city and put an end to the Zhou Dynasty.
In the meanwhile, because of great eagerness to win, every kingdom was trying their best to attract talented people, when many great reformers showed up and made exceptional contributions.
The most influential one was Shang Yang, whose reform provided the State Qin with the most advanced system and aggressive troops.
Later, General Bai Qi led Qin’s army and severely weakened the other six countries’ strengths.
Afterward, the State Qin became the strongest empire and perished the other six kingdoms in the end. Read More
Qin Dynasty — Transient Great Empire
and Constructions of Wonders of the World
An ambitious, exceptional king named Ying Zheng ascended to the throne and became the King of State Qin.
With the assistance of remarkable general Wang Jian, Ying Zheng perished the other six kingdoms and established the first unified feudal imperial empire, the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), and claimed himself the first emperor in China, the Qin Shi Huang.
The Qin Dynasty was a short but quite glorious era, which brought the ideology of unification and implemented an advanced governance system.
Qin Shi Huang, one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history, unified the currency, measurement, and language nationwide.
He also built the Great Wall to defend against the Xiongnu in the north, and the Terra Cotta Warriors to guard his mausoleum underground.
After he departed, many uprising armies appeared, including peasants, civilians, and nobles of former perished kingdoms. Together, they overthrew Qin's reign. Read More
Han Dynasty — Splendid Era of
In the late Qin Dynasty, uprising armies buried the Qin Empire and then kept fighting against each other, until Liu Bang led his army defeated other forces, and established another unified empire, the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD).
The Han people, the majority ethnic group in China today, were named after this dynasty.
Liu Bang, the founder emperor of the Han Dynasty, was a civilian. From a normal peasant to the founder of a huge empire, his legendary experience set a good precedent for capable people.
Unlike previous aristocracy eras, there were many civilian or slave-born emperors, queens, generals, and officials in the Han Dynasty, who were talented and influential, and hadn’t been suppressed by their class origins.
This general Wei Qing and his nephew Huo Qubing successfully defeated strong Xiongnu and largely expanded Han's territory.
Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
In the year 8 AD, a regent named Wang Mang snatched the throne and established a new empire. He implemented a series of radical policies, which made him look like a possible time traveler.
But his reform didn’t bring people wealthy and happy lives as he had promised, therefore, many uprising armies started to rebel.
One of them was led by a peasant named Liu Xiu, who was also a descendant of the royal family of the Han Empire. He successfully defeated other troops and reestablished the Han Dynasty, which made this empire lasted for another two centuries.
Decades later, the eunuch group and clans of empress dowagers’ grasped more and more power. They gradually got involved in and manipulated politics, while other officials also competing over authority.
The last emperor Liu Xie had been struggling with powerful eunuchs, and then was controlled by strong overlords. After his final counterattack failed, he was forced to abdicate the throne.
During the rest of his life, he was a kind-hearted, successful doctor, while his empire, the Han Dynasty, officially ended. Read More
Turbulent Era, Powerful Aristocrats,
and Deviant Artists
After the unified Han Dynasty ended, China stepped into a period of separation, when coexisting regimes kept fighting against each other.
There had been eras of Three Kingdoms (220 — 280), the Jin Dynasty (265 — 420), North and South Dynasties (420 — 589).
Each kingdom occupied some places in China and kept fighting, but none of them could unify the whole of the nation and build a unified empire, like the Qin and Han Dynasties.
Furthermore, this was an era of aristocracy and manorial economies.
Nobles obtained vast power and land, while more and more people became slaves.
Consequently, political power was strictly limited to aristocratic clans. Family origins, again, triumphed ability.
Pottery Model of Noble's Fortress (Wu Bao) of the Three Kingdoms Era — Wuhan Museum
Meanwhile, essential ideologies, such as Confucianism and Divine of King, were severely challenged and suppressed.
Hence, intelligent and well-educated people started to pursue peace in nature, Taoism, or metaphysics. They paid more attention to art, literature, and alcohol, since the endless wars and chaos were not an ideal environment to realize their decent political ambitions.
Kingdoms in the south kept growing steadily, whose culture and economy both developed well.
While, in the North, a great but sad king named Yuan Hong implemented reforms that had promoted national amalgamation, as well as economy and politics.
Decades later, this divisive period was ended by a king in the north named Yang Jian, who defeated other kingdoms and established a unified empire named Sui. Read More
Sui Dynasty — Ephemeral Splendor
and Exceptional Innovations
This was a wealthy and innovative dynasty, which built the Imperial Examination System and The Grand Canal, established a political system that had been implemented in the next millennium, and developed agriculture, construction, technology, and science well.
However, this was also a very short dynasty that was ended by the extremely controversial Emperor Yang Guang.
He took over a wealthy, stable empire from his father, but buried it by himself through many radical policies, most of which were not theoretically wrong though. Read More
Tang Dynasty — Poetic Golden Era
In the late Sui Dynasty, a noble named Li Yuan claimed that he would try to bring peace to the country. He welcomed late Emperor Yang Guang’s grandson and respected him as the monarch.
Next year, Li Yuan took over the throne and built the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907). His son Li Shimin, the second emperor of the Tang, led the army unified the whole of the nation, and brought his people a great reign.
They opened up a brand new chapter in Chinese history, which included a huge territory, advanced science and economy, fabulous cities, wealthy and happy civilians, open-minded aristocrats, and greatest poets.
Li Shimin's favorite son Li Zhi, the third emperor of the Tang, was a brilliant monarch that further developed the empire. He married Wu Zetian, one of his father's imperial concubines, and nominated her the new queen.
After Li Zhi passed away, Wu Zetian abolished her sons and claimed the throne, as the first and only empress in Chinese history.
Unearthed Gold Card in the Mount Song, Writing that Emperor Wu Zetian Prays for the Forgiveness from Deities about All the Sins that She had Committed — Henan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
As a remarkable sovereign, she left a wealthy, prosperous empire to her grandson Li Longji.
The Tang Empire kept flourishing under these exceptional monarchs' reigns.
After Emperor Li Longji met the love of his life Yang Yuhuan, he stopped being the diligent, excellent monarch that he used to be. He trusted the empire to incapable, flattering officials, and lived a luxurious, happy life with her.
His negligence, then, caused the destructive An-Shi Rebellion, which lasted for eight years and took away millions of lives.
This was an important turning point when the Tang transformed from a super prosperous empire to a declining country.
Unearthed Jade Cup Carved with Lonicera Japonica Pattern — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Afterward, the main purpose of the successive emperors of the Tang Dynasty was to recover the splendid prosperity they used to have, but none of them achieved this beautiful goal, no matter how hard they had tried.
Consequently, in the late century of the Tang Dynasty, some excellent emperors managed the empire well and brought prosperous reigns, while other incapable ones seriously worsened it.
A series of ups and downs later, the powerful Tang Dynasty finally reached its end after the destructor Zhu Wen assassinated almost the entire royal family and destroyed the fabulous capital city Chang'an. Read More
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
— Huge Separation and Incessant Wars
After the Tang Dynasty was ended, many generals refused to comply with the evildoer Zhu Wen. Hence, they built their own independent kingdoms, and the whole of the nation fell into separation again.
This was the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907 — 979) when over 15 regimes had been established and then perished.
As one of the most chaotic periods in the history of China, the war was the main theme here.
Until a remarkable general named Zhao Kuangyin established a new regime and then unified the middle kingdom, this dark era finally came to the end. Read More
Song Dynasty — Wealthy, Artsy,
and Controversial Empire
Song (960 — 1279) was a dynasty with controversial comments throughout history.
It was extremely wealthy and open-minded, whose every aspect had developed to an advanced level. In the meanwhile, this empire had a much smaller territory, strong enemies, and tremendous tragic encounters.
Outside Song's middle kingdom, some coexisting nomadic regimes, including Liao Dynasty, Jurchen Jin Dynasty, Dali Kingdom, Western Xia, and Mongol Empire, had been fighting against Song.
It was also a dynasty in which the emperor and general’s power were restrained, while civil-officials were quite highly respected.
Moreover, many emperors of the Song Dynasty, no matter if they were excellent monarchs or not, were extraordinary artists.
Since Emperor Zhao Kuangyin built Song in the year 960, the empire was well developed, and civilians lived in peace and wealth.
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival
Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty, by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — The Palace Museum
Until the destructive Incident of Jingkang outburst in 1126, when strong Jurchen Jin's troops invaded the capital city of the Song Empire.
Song’s entire royal family, including these two emperors, was captured and humiliated, large numbers of civilians lost their lives, half of the Song’s territory was occupied by Jurchen Jin, while many people’s proudness, dignity, and stable lives were snatched.
A prince named Zhao Gou luckily escaped to southern China and reestablished Song Dynasty there.
But he executed the most capable general Yue Fei, and lost the last chance to revenge for his captive father and the entire family, for many complicated reasons.
Emperor Zhao Gou's Imperial Edict Wrote to Yue Fei, Appraising His Loyalty and Exceptional Achievement — Taipei Palace Museum
Afterward, despite many people's ambitions and efforts in revenging and taking back their lost lands and dignity, they never realized this dream.
This much smaller Song Empire still was very wealthy and prosperous, however, it had been always underestimated and criticized, because of its incompleteness.
Decades later, the invincible Genghis Khan and his aggressive troop became stronger in the north, and his Mongol Empire kept expanding through wars. Soon, they allied with Song and perished Jurchen Jin, and then started to invade Song.
After decades of intense, heroic wars, the last emperor of Song and tens of thousands of his people all sacrificed.
The Song dynasty was ended then. Read More
Yuan Dynasty — Half Anarchy Era
Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) that was built by Kublai Khan had a very big territory and many vassal states, because of their exceptional military achievements.
Within these 97 years of Yuan's ruling, it had experienced 11 emperors in total. Besides Kublai was the emperor for 23 years, and the last emperor Toghon Temür had worn the crown for 38 years, each of the others reigned for very short terms.
When the nobles were busy competing over the throne, initiating invasive wars, and fighting against rebel forces, they paid less attention to normal governances, let alone civilians.
The Imperial Examination was canceled as well, which made sure the ruling class was Mongolian nobles, exclusively.
Part of Painting (Xi Hu Yin Qu Tu), by Artist Qian Xuan of the Yuan Dynasty — The Palace Museum
Many intelligent, well-educated people, since they cannot participate in politics, then stayed as commoners in the civilian world.
Except that some of them started to write drama, which appeared and flourished in the Yuan Dynasty.
The half anarchy, however, didn’t work very well. By the end of the Yuan Dynasty, there were many uprising armies nationwide.
Yuan Empire’s last emperor Toghon Temür was very good at astrology. After having carefully read the stars, he led his Mongolia nobles and army and escaped northward, when an uprising army was marching toward his capital city.
Since then, Yuan's reign as a national regime was officially ended. Read More
Ming Dynasty — Era of Strong,
Glorious, and Dignified
A poor orphan who used to beg for food joined an uprising army at the end of the Yuan Dynasty.
Gradually, he gained support from more intelligent generals and brave soldiers and changed his name to Zhu Yuanzhang.
After years of intense fights, his army defeated other forces, overthrown the Yuan Dynasty, and unified the whole of the nation.
The Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) that he had established was another united golden era in the history of China, which was strong, honorable, productive, prosperous, and well developed.
It was a period with interesting stories of many glorious people, an era when officials could criticize and argue intensely with emperors without losing their lives, a dynasty when ministers were bold and considered challenging the monarch was honorable and respectful.
After Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang passed away and gave the throne to his grandson, his fourth son snatched the throne from this legit heir through war.
Royal Palace of the Ming Dynasty — The Forbidden City in Beijing
Decades later, emperor Zhu Qizhen led a strong troop marched northward indiscreetly and encountered a big failure, which got him imprisoned and had Ming Empire’s strongest main force perished.
Soon, Beijing was being besieged and attacked.
Luckily, a remarkable minister named Yu Qian saved the Ming Empire from this life-and-death crisis. Afterward, everything went well, and back on track.
During this flourishing period, another great Neo-Confucianism philosopher Wang Yangming established the School of Minds, an exceptional prime minister Zhang Juzheng implemented a successful reform that brought people better lives.
Then, the Ming Empire started to decline under the late years of emperor Zhu Yijun’s reign.
When the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty Zhu Youjian ascended to the throne as a teenager, he had to deal with long-term natural disasters, partially conflicting, continuous refugee-peasant uprisings, and a powerful nomadic regime named Manchu in the northeast.
Years of his diligent, difficult work didn’t save or reverse the situation.
Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
After a refugee army broke into Beijing city, emperor Zhu Youjian committed suicide, in exchange for his people’s safety; but this was just his wishful thinking.
Then, an important general of the Ming Empire, Wu Sangui, opened the gate of the Shanhai Pass, an extremely important military stronghold, and let the Manchu army march across the Great Wall.
Millions of people were still loyal to the Ming Dynasty, who supported some princes of Ming as new kings and kept fighting against the Manchu army.
Decades of countless intense wars and massacres later, they all failed.
Manchurian ruling class buried lots of slaughter documents, forced everyone to change their clothes and hairstyle, and established a new national regime.
The Ming Dynasty was officially ended ever since. Read More
Qing Dynasty — Rotten Autocracy
in A Fancy Coat
Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), the last feudal empire in the history of China, was the most authoritarian era when the emperor was in charge of everything.
The ruling class was no longer civil officials chosen from the Imperial Examination; on the contrary, it set back the wheel of history and changed to the nomadic aristocrat-dominated system.
In this system, the Imperial Examination still exists, however, the Manchu nobles obtained the absolute centralized power, while the Manchu people had many more privileges.
Qianlong Emperor implemented hundreds of Literary Inquisitions that had countless people executed, also, burnt down millions of books that displeased the Manchu nobles.
Gem Decorated Gold Ceremonial Wine Cup (Jin Ou Yong Gu Bei) of the Qianlong Emperor — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
After these cultural havocs, the Qing Dynasty started to decline, which was far lagged behind the western world.
Since the Qing lost in the First Opium War, also named First Anglo-Chinese War, in the year 1842, China stepped into one of the darkest periods in history.
The Qing Dynasty kept losing to England, France, America, Japan, and lots of other advanced western countries.
Following these military failures, Qing had signed a series of unequal treaties and paid large amounts of war indemnities.
Until the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in the year 1912, and the Manchu clothes and hairstyle were finally abolished. Read More
Dark Period of Losing, Humiliating, and Exploring
The Republic of China established in 1912 and unified the whole of the nation until 1928.
During this period, many warlords still fought against each other, while many foreign forces kept grabbing all types of interests as much as possible.
Then, Japan invaded in the year 1931.
Every inch of Chinese land had experienced intense fights and witnessed countless blood and sacrifices. This was part of the Second World War, which was ended in the year 1945.
Over 35 million Chinese died during this period, including soldiers and civilians.
This period was dark for the Chinese, not only because of these countless failures, sufferings, huge losses in population, and economy; more importantly, it was a huge collapse of cultural confidence.
They don’t know if they could turn around the lagged behind, desperate situation, and if they could regain independence, prosperity, peace, and dignity.
The People's Republic of China was built in 1949, after the Kuomintang, the ruling party of the Republic of China, failed and escaped to Taiwan.
China experienced ups and downs since after.
It’s never easy to briefly describe the society that we are living in now, since everyone has their view and saying.
History needs to be discussed, investigated, and testified, by time, large numbers of people, and lots of potential new information.
However, a certain fact is that the Chinese are trying their best to regain the lost confidence, dignity, and glory, step by step.