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, estimated to be completed around 5000 years ago, and the actual writer is unknown.
This miraculous book recorded hundreds of mountains, rivers, historical figures, mythical animals, states, legends, customs, etc., based on their different geological locations.
According to the book's description of the wondrous and fantastic world, people could find many 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 were scattered in mainland China, and the boundary between the human and immortal's worlds was quite blurred.
Supernatural beings could come to the mortal world and help people, while excellent mortals could become deities due to their outstanding 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 highly accomplished ones became sovereigns of some prominent tribes.
Two of the most influential ones were the Flame Emperor (Yan Di) and the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), the most widely acknowledged ancestors of all Chinese people. Read More About Neolithic Civilizations in Ancient China
Xia Dynasty — The First Hereditary Empire
Yu the Great was the hero that led people and successfully defeated the vast 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.
More concrete archaeological evidence was still required to prove the Xia Dynasty’s existence.
However, many Chinese historical documents and pieces of literature already recorded and described this empire clearly, though most were simple and brief. Read More About Xia Dynasty
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, Tang, overthrew the last king of Xia and 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 then on, all of 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 officially ended. Read More About Shang Dynasty
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)
Moreover, this was an era of great wisdom.
Four leading philosophical schools, Taoism, Confucianism, Mohism, and Legalism, appeared, and their ideas were intensely debated and widely spread.
Great philosophers Lao Zi, Confucius, Mo Zi, and Sun Tzu, and their masterpieces (such as Dao De Jing and The Art of War) were glowing.
In the year 771 BC, King You of Zhou failed in a big war and was assassinated, ending 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 perished by State Qin in 256 BC. Read More About Zhou Dynasty
Spring and Autumn Period — Contention Over Hegemony
After King You of Zhou was defeated and sacrificed in 771 BC, his oldest son migrated to another city and became the next king under the support 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, and authority while becoming 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 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 About Spring and Autumn Period
Warring States Period — Endless Annexation Wars and Great Reformers
After hundreds of years of intensive fights over hegemony, seven powerful kingdoms were left, plus a small central Zhou government.
This was Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), when whoever was 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 aimed to perish other kingdoms and unify 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 ended the Zhou Dynasty.
Meanwhile, because of the great eagerness to win, every kingdom tried 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 defeated the other six kingdoms. Read More About Warring States Period
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, 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 Terracotta Army 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 About Qin Dynasty
Han Dynasty — Splendid Era of Legendary Civilians
In the late Qin Dynasty, uprising armies buried the Qin Empire. Then they 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 an ordinary peasant to the founder of a vast empire, his legendary experience set a good precedent for capable people.
Unlike previous aristocracy eras, many civilian or slave-born emperors, queens, generals, and officials in the Han Dynasty were talented and influential and hadn't been suppressed by their class origins.
One of the most accomplished monarchs, Emperor Wu of Han, married slave-born singer Wei Zifu as his queen, nominated a hostler as general and commanded Zhang Qian to open up the Silk Road.
This general, Wei Qing, and his nephew Huo Qubing defeated the strong Xiongnu and vastly expanded Han's territory.
Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
In 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 last for another two centuries.
Decades later, the eunuch group and empress dowagers' clans grasped more power. They gradually got involved in and manipulated politics while other officials competed 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.
He was a kind-hearted, successful doctor for the rest of his life while his empire, the Han Dynasty, officially ended. Read More About Han Dynasty
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 were eras of Three Kingdoms (220 — 280), the Jin Dynasty (265 — 420), and Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 — 589).
Each kingdom occupied some places in China and kept fighting, but none of them could unify 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 over ability.
Pottery Model of Noble's Fortress (Wu Bao) of the Three Kingdoms Era — Wuhan Museum
Meanwhile, essential ideologies, such as Confucianism and the 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, feeling the endless wars and chaos was 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 promoted national amalgamation, 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 Three Kingdoms, Wei, Northern and Southern Dynasties
Sui Dynasty — Ephemeral Splendor and Exceptional Innovations
Sui Dynasty (581 — 618) was established by Emperor Yang Jian and his beloved Queen Dugu.
This was a wealthy and innovative dynasty that built the Imperial Examination System and The Grand Canal, established a political system implemented in the following millennium, and developed agriculture, construction, technology, and science well.
However, this was also a very short empire, which the extremely controversial Emperor Yang Guang ended.
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. Read More About Sui Dynasty
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 the 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 to unite the nation and bring his people a remarkable reign.
They opened up a new chapter in Chinese history, including a considerable territory, advanced science and economy, fabulous cities, wealthy and happy civilians, open-minded aristocrats, and the most significant 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 as 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 great sovereign, she left a wealthy, prosperous empire to her grandson Li Longji.
The Tang Empire kept flourished under these exceptional monarchs' reigns.
After Emperor Li Longji met the love of his life, Lady Yang, he stopped being the diligent, excellent monarch he used to be. He trusted the empire to the hands of incapable, flattering officials and lived a luxurious, happy life with her.
His negligence caused the destructive An-Shi Rebellion, which lasted eight years and took away millions of lives.
This was a significant 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 primary purpose of the successive emperors of the Tang Dynasty was to recover the splendid prosperity they used to have. Still, no matter how hard they tried, none of them achieved this beautiful goal.
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 mighty Tang Dynasty finally ended after the destructor Zhu Wen assassinated almost the entire royal family and destroyed the fabulous capital city of Chang'an. Read More About Tang Dynasty
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms — Separation and Incessant Wars
After the Tang Dynasty ended, many generals refused to comply with the evildoer Zhu Wen. Hence, they built their independent kingdoms, and the whole 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 unified the middle kingdom, this dark era finally ended. Read More About Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
Song Dynasty — Wealthy and Artsy Empire
Song (960 — 1279) was a dynasty with controversial comments throughout history.
It was extraordinarily wealthy and open-minded, whose every aspect had developed to an advanced level. 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 scholar-officials were quite highly respected.
Moreover, many emperors of the Song Dynasty, whether 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.
After a series of stupid decisions that emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan made, Song failed.
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, and 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 to avenge and take 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 consistently been 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, defeated Jurchen Jin, and started invading Song.
After decades of intense, heroic wars, the last emperor of Song and tens of thousands of his people all sacrificed.
The Song dynasty ended then. Read More About Song Dynasty
Yuan Dynasty — Half Anarchy Era
Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) was built by Kublai Khan and had a vast territory and many vassal states because of their exceptional military achievements.
Within these 97 years of Yuan's rule, it had experienced 11 emperors. Besides, Kublai was the emperor for 23 years, and the last emperor Toghon Temür had worn the crown for 38 years; hence, 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 also canceled, which ensured the ruling class was exclusively Mongolian nobles.
Part of Painting (Xi Hu Yin Qu Tu), by Artist Qian Xuan of the Yuan Dynasty — The Palace Museum
Since they could not participate in politics, many intelligent, well-educated people stayed as commoners in the civilian world.
Except for those who 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 carefully reading the stars, he led his Mongolian 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 About Yuan Dynasty
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.
He gradually gained support from more intelligent generals and brave soldiers and changed his name to Zhu Yuanzhang.
After years of intense fighting, his army defeated other forces, overthrew the Yuan Dynasty, and unified the nation.
The Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) that he had established was another united golden era in the history of China, which was substantial, honorable, productive, prosperous, and well-developed.
It was a period with exciting stories of many glorious people, an era when officials could criticize and argue intensely with emperors without losing their lives, and a dynasty when ministers were bold and considered challenging the monarch 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.
Then the new monarch Zhu Di moved Ming’s capital city to Beijing and built the Forbidden City. Afterward, the successive emperors all lived in this royal palace.
Royal Palace of the Ming Dynasty — The Forbidden City in Beijing
Decades later, emperor Zhu Qizhen led a robust troop, marched northward indiscreetly, and encountered a big failure, which got him imprisoned and had Ming Empire’s strongest main force perish.
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 got back on track.
During this flourishing period, another great Neo-Confucianism philosopher Wang Yangming established the School of Minds, and an exceptional prime minister Zhang Juzheng implemented a successful reform that brought people better lives.
Then, the Ming Empire started to decline during 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 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, a crucial 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.
The 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 officially ended ever since. Read More About Ming Dynasty
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 absolute centralized power, while the Manchu people had many more privileges.
Qianlong Emperor implemented hundreds of Literary Inquisitions that had countless people executed and 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 the cultural havoc, the Qing Dynasty started to decline, far behind the western world.
Since the Qing lost in the First Opium War, also named First Anglo-Chinese War, in 1842, China stepped into one of the darkest periods in history.
The Qing Dynasty kept losing to England, France, America, Japan, and many other advanced western countries.
Following these military failures, Qing 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 About Qing Dynasty
Dark Period of Losing, Humiliating, and Exploring
The Republic of China was established in 1912 and unified the nation until 1928.
During this period, many warlords fought against each other, while many foreign forces kept grabbing all 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 ended in 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, and considerable 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 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 we live 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.