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Discovering China

The Climate of China

  • China's People
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  • The Climate of China
  • The History of China
  • The History of China

    China boasts one of the longest single unified civilizations in the world. Its history is characterized by dramatic shifts in power between rival factions, periods of peace and prosperity when foreign ideas were assimilated and absorbed, the disintegration of empire through corruption and political subterfuge, and the cyclical rise of ambitious leaders to found each new empire.

    Yangshao pottery amphora
    Yangshao pottery amphora

    First settlers

    From around 8000 BC, settlements of populations based on a primitive agricultural economy began to emerge in the eastern coastal regions and along the rich river deltas of the Huang He (Yellow River), the Yangzi, and the Wei. These civilizations focused on hunting, gathering, and fishing, and the cultivation of millet in the north and rice in the south. Each civilization is notable for its own distinct style of pottery, such as the bold earthenware of the Yangshao (5000–3000 BC) and the black ceramics of the Longshan (3000–1700 BC).

    Bronze Age China and the first kingdoms

    The first dynasty in China was founded by the Shang around 1600 BC. The Shang lived in large, complex societies and were the first to mass-produce cast bronze. Power centered on the ruling elite who acted as shamans of a sort, communicating with their ancestors and gods through diviners. Elaborate bronze food and wine vessels were used both for banqueting and for making ancestral offerings. Inscriptions on oracle bones provide the first evidence of writing, dating from around 1300 BC.

    Detail from
    Detail from "The first Emperor of
    the Han Dynasty Entering Kuan Tung"
    by Song painter Chao Po Chu

    In 1066 BC, the Zhou seized power, establishing their western capital at present-day Xi’an. The Western Zhou initially sustained many of the traditions of the Shang, but later reorganized the political system, and replaced the use of oracle bones with inscriptions on bronze and, later, writing on silk and strips of bamboo.

    The Eastern Zhou (770–221 BC) is divided into the Spring and Autumn period (770–475 BC) and the Warring States period (475–221 BC). The Eastern Zhou period was dominated by political conflict and social unrest, as rival factions jockeyed for power. It also saw economic expansion and development as the use of iron revolutionized agriculture. It was in this climate of unrest that the philosophical ideologies of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism emerged.

    Foundation of imperial China

    The Warring States Period was finally brought to an end as the Qin emerged victorious. In 221 BC, Qin Shi pronounced himself the first emperor (huangdi) of China and ruled over a short yet decisive period of history. The Qin state was based on the political theories of Legalism, which established the role of the ruler as paramount and espoused a system of collective responsibility. Following unification, Qin Shi conscripted thousands of workers to join together the defensive walls to the north, creating the Great Wall. He standardized the system of money, and weights and measures, and laid the foundations for a legal system. A ruthless ruler, Qin Shi died in the belief that his famous terracotta army would protect him in the afterlife from his numerous enemies.

    Archer from Qin terracotta army
    Archer from Qin terracotta army

    The founding of the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) heralded a "golden age" in Chinese history. Emperor Gaodi (r. 206–195 BC) established the capital of the Western Han (206 BC–AD 9) at Chang’an (Xi’an), and retained much of the centralized administration established by the Qin. Subsequent emperors developed the civil service examination to select able men for state office. Han society was founded on the principles propounded by Confucius, and the Confucian classics formed the basis of the civil service examination. Daoism and yin-yang theory coexisted with ancestor worship and would form the basis of indigenous Chinese belief (see Religion and Philosophy).

    The Han empire expanded with regions of Central Asia, Vietnam, and Korea being brought under Chinese control. In 138 BC, General Zhang Qian was sent to establish diplomatic links with Central Asia and returned with tales of rich pastures and "heavenly horses." The fine thoroughbreds of Ferghana (in modern Uzbekistan) were traded in exchange for Chinese silk, starting the flow of goods along the fabled Silk Road.

    Han rule was briefly interrupted as Wang Mang seized power in AD 9, only to be restored by Guang Wudi (r. AD 25–57), who established the Eastern Han capital in Luoyang. Once more, the Han expanded Chinese territory. Paper was by now in use for much official documentation and the first Chinese dictionary was produced. Buddhism began its spread to China with the first Buddhist communities being established in Jiangsu province.

    Period of division

    From the rule of Hedi (r. AD 88–105), the Eastern Han declined. Civil war finally split the country in 220. The next 350 years were characterized by almost constant warfare as China was ruled by over 14 short-lived dynasties and 16 "kingdoms."

    China was divided into the Northern and Southern dynasties (265–581), each region taking on its own distinct character. Foreign peoples took control of the North, such as the Toba branch of the Xianbei, who founded the Northern Wei in 386. These rulers were receptive to foreign ideas and religions, creating some of the finest Buddhist cave complexes first at Yungang, near their capital in Datong, and from 494, at Longmen, when they moved their capital to Luoyang.

    As foreign invaders took control of the North, the Han Chinese retreated south to establish their new capital at Jiankang (Nanjing). In a climate of relative stability, the south became the economic and cultural center as the population shifted to the Yangzi delta. Philosophy and the arts flourished alongside a renewed interest in Daoism and a growing interest in Buddhism.

    Sui emperors Yangdi and Wendi in a detail from
    Sui emperors Yangdi and Wendi
    in a detail from "Portraits of the 13 Emperors"
    by Tang painter Yen Li Pen

    Unification and stability

    Sancai glazed horse, Tang
    Sancai glazed horse, Tang

    Following military successes against the Liang and the Chen, the Northern Zhou general Yang Jian (541–604) pronounced himself emperor, taking the name Wendi, and founded the Sui dynasty in 581. This brief but significant dynastic rule established political and social stability. He undertook an extensive program of works including extending the Great Wall and the beginnings of the Grand Canal. The second emperor, Yangdi (569–617), restored diplomatic relations with Japan and Taiwan and extended trade to Central Asia.

    Glory of the Tang

    The Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) marks a high point in Chinese history. During this golden age, China enjoyed an extended period of peace and prosperity. The arts flourished and were enriched by foreign styles, motifs, and techniques such as silverworking. Foreign religions, such as Nestorian Christianity, were tolerated and co-existed alongside native Daoism and Confucianism. Woodblock printing was invented by the Chinese some time during the 7th century and hastened the spread of Buddhism.

    Following the An Lushan rebellion of 755, the Tang became increasingly inward looking. The great Buddhist persecution of 841–46 was symptomatic of a dynasty in decline, which finally fell in 907.

    The Liao dynasty (907–1125)

    The Liao dynasty, which at its largest covered much of Mongolia, Manchuria, and northern China, was ruled by semi-nomadic and pastoral people, the Qidan. The Liao maintained a dual administration, Qidan and Chinese, and even a prime-ministership, to ensure the survival of their own customs and traditions whilst utilizing the efficiency of Tang structures of government. In 1115, the Qidan were overthrown by another semi-nomadic people, the Ruzhen (Jurchen). With the support of the Northern Song, the Ruzhen took control of the north and founded the Jin dynasty. The Liao were forced westwards to the region of the Tian mountain range in present-day Xinjiang, where they established the Western Liao (1125–1211). The rest of northwest China was dominated by the Western Xia, a Tibetan related people who recognized the Liao as their overlords.

    Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907–960)

    While the north of China was dominated by the insurgence of semi-nomadic peoples from the steppe regions, the south was ruled by a series of short military dictatorships. The Song dynasty was founded in 960 by Zhao Kuangyin, a military commander of the later Zhou (951–960), whose imperial name became Shizong. In the Yangzi delta and regions to the south, the Ten Kingdoms existed in relative peace and stability and were reunited by the Song in 979.

    The Song dynasty (960–1279)

    The Song presided over a period of cultural brilliance and unprecedented growth in urban life during which the social makeup of China fundamentally changed. Less territorially ambitious than the Tang, the Song stimulated economic development through improved communications and transport. New industries based on mass production began to emerge, notably the porcelain industry based in Jiangxi province. During the Southern Song, China underwent an industrial revolution producing quantities of raw materials such as salt and iron on a scale that would not be seen in Europe until the 18th century.

    Illustration of Song Emperor Huizong, r. 1101–1125
    Illustration of Song Emperor Huizong,
    r. 1101–1125

    In this buoyant economic climate a new middle-class emerged, stimulating demand for the new range of consumer goods. Power shifted from the aristocratic elite to government bureaucrats, who spent their spare time practising the arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Collecting and connoisseurship led to an artistic renaissance and the founding of the first Imperial collections. Emperor Huizong was a great patron of the arts who used ancient precedents and values to buttress his own position. Neo-Confucianism and a renewed interest in Daoism marked a return to indigenous beliefs and traditional structures of power.

    The Northern Song repeatedly came under attack from the Western Xia in the northwest and the Jin in the northeast. Only 12 years after joining forces with the Song against the Liao, the Jin invaded the Northern Song capital at Bianliang (Kaifeng), capturing emperor Qinzong and forcing the court to flee southwards. The capital of the Southern Song (1127–1279) was established at Lin’an (Hangzhou) south of the Yangzi.

    Jin dynasty (1115–1234)

    The Jin were a semi-nomadic Tungusic people originating from Manchuria. War with the Song and persistent attacks from the Mongols resulted in a weakening of the Jin state which by the early 13th century formed a buffer state between the Song in the south and the Mongols in the north. In 1227, Mongol and Chinese allied forces defeated the Jin and in 1234 the Jin emperor committed suicide. The Jin state was integrated into the rapidly expanding Mongol empire.

    Mongol rule (1279–1368)

    Buddhist deity, Yuan
    Buddhist deity, Yuan

    The Mongol leader Genghis Khan united the various Mongol-speaking tribes of the steppes and in 1215 conquered northern China. He divided his empire into four kingdoms, each ruled by one of his sons. His grandson Kublai Khan (r. 1260–94), ruler of the eastern Great Khanate, finally defeated the Southern Song in 1279 and proclaimed himself emperor of the Yuan dynasty. China now became part of a vast empire which stretched from the East China Sea across Asia as far as Poland, Hungary and Bohemia. Two capitals were maintained at Dadu or Khanbalik (present-day Beijing) and Yuanshangdu (Xanadu). The Silk Routes opened once more, connecting China to the Middle East and Medieval Europe. Direct contact was now made for the first time between the Mongol court and European diplomats, Franciscan missionaries, and merchants. According to the writings of Marco Polo, the Italian merchant spent 21 years in the service of Kublai and his court.

    The Mongols ruled through a form of military government, in contrast to the bureaucratic civil service established by the Chinese. Although Chinese and Mongol languages were both used for official business, the Chinese were not encouraged to take up official posts. Muslims from Central and Western Asia took their place, and the Chinese increasingly retreated from official life.

    As there were no clear rules for succession, civil war broke out in 1328 between Mongol nobles. The secret societies of the Red Turbans and the White Lotus led peasant rebellions and in 1368 General Zhu Yuanzhang forced the Mongols out of China, becoming the first emperor of the Ming dynasty.

    Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

    The Ming (literally "brilliant") dynasty was one of the longest and most stable periods in China’s history. The founder of the Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang, rose from humble beginnings to become a general, ruling as the Hongwu emperor ("vast military accomplishment"). During his reign, Hongwu introduced radical changes to both central and local government, which he made binding on his successors. The emperor’s role became more autocratic as Hongwu dispensed with the position of Prime Minister, taking direct responsibility for overseeing all six ministries himself.

    Hongwu appointed his grandson to be his successor. Upon his death, his son the Prince of Yan, who controlled the region around Beijing, led an army against his nephew, taking Nanjing and proclaiming himself emperor Yongle ("Eternal Joy"). Yongle (r. 1403–24) moved the capital to his power base in Beijing, where he created a new city based on traditional principles of Chinese city planning. At its core lay the Forbidden City, the imperial palace and offices of government, surrounded by a grid system of streets, with four imperial altars at the cardinal points. The entire city was walled to provide both protection and enclosure. In 1421, Beijing became the official capital and would remain so until the present day. The Great Wall was reinforced, extended and faced with brick during the Ming dynasty.

    The existing battlements of the Great Wall, reinforced and joined together during the Ming dynasty
    The existing battlements of the Great Wall,
    reinforced and joined together
    during the Ming dynasty

    By the 15th century, China had become a significant maritime power, its ships dwarfing those of contemporary Europe. Blue and white porcelain, silk, and other luxury items were in high demand in the foreign markets of Japan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Yongle sent six maritime expeditions under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He, which reached as far as the east coast of Africa. In 1514 Portuguese traders first landed in China, purchasing tea which then became a fashionable drink in European society. Porcelain provided ballast for the ships, and other luxury items were brought back along with the cargo. Trade was dominated by the Dutch in the 17th century, only to be surpassed by the British a hundred years later. Jesuit missionaries, who arrived in the 16th century, claimed few converts but gained access to the emperor and the inner court.

    The arts thrived under the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–35), an artist and poet, who patronized the arts, notably the porcelain industry at Jingdezhen. In literature, the late Ming is noted for its great dramas and classical novels, such as Journey to the West (see Epic Novels). Philosophy of the time reinforced the Neo-Confucianism of the Song.

    The late Ming was dominated by peasant uprisings, incursions by Japanese pirates and Mongolian tribes, and excessive eunuch power. Rebellions within China eventually joined with external forces to end Ming rule.

    Qing rule (1644–1911)

    The Manchu leader Nurhachi established the Later Jin in 1616, organizing the scattered tribes of the north into eight banner units (see The Manchu Dynasty). In 1636, the Manchu ruler Abahai changed the name to Qing, literally "pure," and prepared the way for the capture of Beijing in 1644. Under Manchu control, China was once more ruled by a foreign people. The Manchus were keen to adopt the Chinese method of rule, encouraging Chinese scholars into the service of the new empire. Dual administration at national and provincial levels meant Manchu and Chinese bureaucrats worked side by side using first Manchu and later Chinese as the official languages of government. However, despite the close interaction of Manchu and Chinese, the ruling Manchus were careful to maintain a distinct separation in order to protect their own privileges and cultural traditions.

    The first emperors of the Qing were enlightened rulers who presided over one of the largest and most populous countries in the world. The territorial aspirations of the Kangxi emperor brought the regions of Central Asia and southern Siberia once more under Chinese control. Kangxi was succeeded by the Yongzheng emperor. It was his fourth son, the Qianlong emperor, "Lasting Eminence," (r. 1736–96)who heralded another golden age. An ambitious ruler, Qianlong was determined to extend China’s borders beyond those of the Tang, personally leading campaigns to Burma, Vietnam, and Central Asia.

    During the 18th century, contact with the west increased through Jesuit missionaries and trade. By the mid-18th century, the Chinese sought to control trade by refusing all official contact with Westerners and opening only Canton to foreign merchants. Pressure from European embassies increased as the British sent Lord Macartney in 1792–94 to establish diplomatic relations and open China to trade. China refused to grant a single concession to the British.

    The decline of the empire

    The 19th century is one of the most turbulent periods of Chinese history, as internal uprisings, natural disasters, and the relentless encroachment of the West culminated in the end of the empire. A succession of weak rulers were manipulated and controlled by the Dowager Empress Cixi, who ruled for much of the late Qing from "behind the curtain." The Taiping Rebellion of 1850–64 devastated south and central China.

    Western powers, frustrated by the reluctance of the Chinese to open to foreign trade, brought the Chinese under increasing pressure. Keen to protect the trade of opium from their colonies in India, the British engaged in the First Opium War (1840–42), which culminated in the Treaty of Nanjing, resulting in the opening of four new ports to trade, known as "Treaty Ports", the payment of huge indemnities, and the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. Following the Arrow War (Second Opium War) with Britain and France (1856), the European forces divided China into "spheres of influence" – the British strongest along the Yangzi and in Shanghai, the Germans controlling Shandong province, and the French controlling the borders with Vietnam. In 1900 the Boxers allied with imperial troops and attacked the foreign legations in Beijing . An eight-nation army defeated the onslaught, and Cixi fled to Xi’an, blaming everything on the emperor. The Chinese government paid once more for the loss of life and Cixi returned to Beijing until her death in 1908. The child emperor Pu Yi lived in the Forbidden City as the last emperor until his abdication. On 1 January 1912 the Republican leader Sun Yat-sen inaugurated the Chinese Republic.

    Sun Yat-sen, 1866–1925
    Sun Yat-sen, 1866–1925

    From empire to republic

    In the final years of the empire, many Chinese intellectuals recognized the need to modernize. Supporters of the Reform Movement of 1898 pro-pounded the adoption of western technology and education, and, following the Boxer Rebellion, a number of reforms were adopted. Elected regional assemblies were set up, further undermining the power of the Qing. In 1911 the empire collapsed completely. Sun Yat-sen was elected provisional President of China, but was soon forced to resign in favor of general Yuan Shikai, who sought to become emperor. Yuan was forced to back down when governors revolted and he died soon after in 1916. China then came under the control of a series of regional warlords until it was united once more with the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

    Communists and Nationalists

    Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), leader of the KMT
    Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975),
    leader of the KMT

    After the fall of the empire, the political landscape changed dramatically and became dominated by two forces, the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party, founded in 1921. The Nationalists were led first by Sun Yat-sen from his power base in Guangzhou, then by General Chiang Kai-shek who seized power in 1926. In 1923 the two Parties formed a "united front" against the warlords, but in 1926 the Communists were expelled from the KMT. Chiang Kai-shek led his army to Nanjing where he tried to establish a Nationalist capital, and betrayed the Communist-led workers of Shanghai who were massacred by underworld gangsters. The Communists were driven underground and Mao Zedong retreated to the countryside.

    High in the mountains of Jiangxi province, Mao and Zhu De founded the Jiangxi Soviet in 1930. From this inaccessible base, the communists began to redistribute land to the peasants and institute new marriage laws. In 1934, Chiang Kai-shek drove the communists from the area, forcing Mao to embark on the legendary Long March. Yan’an, where the march ended, became the new Communist Party headquarters and would remain so until 1945.

    Japanese attack

    Domestic turmoil laid China open to attack, and in 1931 the Japanese occupied Manchuria, founding the puppet state of Manchukuo and placing the last Qing emperor, Pu Yi, at its head. By 1937 the Japanese had occupied much of northern China, Shanghai, and the Yangzi valley ruthlessly taking cities, wreaking death and devastation. The Japanese were finally driven from Chinese soil in 1945, and China was plunged into civil war.

    The east is red

    By 1947, the Communist policy of land reform was reaping rewards and gaining the support of people in the countryside. In 1948–9, the Communists gained decisive victories over the KMT. On 1 October 1949 Chairman Mao pronounced the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, establishing a Nationalist government and taking with him many Imperial treasures.

    Zhou Enlai with President Nixon
    Zhou Enlai with President Nixon

    In the early years of the People’s Republic, the Chinese worked hard to re-build a country devastated by 100 years of turmoil. New laws sought to redress inequities of the past, redistributing land and outlawing arranged marriages. In 1957 the Party launched the Hundred Flowers movement, which initially encouraged freedom of expression. Unprepared for the storm of criticism which resulted, the Party promptly branded intellectuals as "rightists" and sent them to the countryside for re-education. Frustrated with the slow rate of change, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958. Large communes providing food and childcare replaced the family, releasing manual labor and improving productivity. But unrealistic productivity targets and the falsification of statistics concealed the disastrous effect of Mao’s experiment. Agricultural failure coupled with natural disasters resulted in the starvation of millions

    Having reformed agriculture and industry, Mao sought to transform society and launched the Cultural Revolution in 1965. The greatest excesses of the period were over by 1971, but the country was tightly controlled and directed until Mao’s death in 1976. Deng Xiaoping emerged as leader, implementing economic reforms which returned land to the peasants and encouraged greater economic freedom.

    Chinese traders on the Stock Exchange
    Chinese traders on the Stock Exchange

    The economic liberalization of the 1980s stimulated the economy but was unmatched by political freedom. On 4 June 1989 the democracy movement called for political reform and an end to corruption, but was brutally suppressed in Beijing’s Tian’an Men Square and in other large cities. Whilst many students and intellectuals fled abroad, others remain incarcerated in China’s jails. Deng Xiaoping pressed on with economic reform, and the 1990s saw the opening of Special Economic Zones and stock exchanges in Shenzhen and Shanghai. By 1992, the economy had become one of the largest in the world.

    The unprecedented rate of economic growth in the 1990s was matched by the transformation of the landscape as traditional buildings made way for modern highrises. The former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau were returned to China and foreign investment flooded in, with entrepreneurs prospering. Disbanding the state economy has also spawned inequity, and the gap between rich and poor grows increasingly wider. How the most populous nation on earth resolves the many issues it faces is of compelling interest to the rest of a world on whose future a re-awakened China is going to have a massive impact.

    In his later years, the Xuanzong emperor increasingly neglected his official duties as he became infatuated with his concubine, Yang Guifei. Intrigue and factions at court bred instability and in AD 750, General An Lushan, half Sogdian half Turkish by descent, seized control of the northeastern frontier. In 755 An Lushan stormed the capital forcing the court to flee for Sichuan. As they reached Mawai, Xuanzong’s troops mutinied and demanded the emperor hand over Yang Guifei. She was strangled before his eyes, and the tragic story of their love affair has been immortalised by poets. Although An Lushan was eventually defeated, the Tang dynasty fell into decline.


    8000 BC

    • 8000–6500 BC Neolithic period
    • 6500–5000 BC Earliest settlements in northern China

    6000 BC

    • 5000–3000 BC Yangshao culture based around the Wei river

    4000 BC

    • 2200–1600 BC Existence of semimythical first dynasty, the Xia

    2000 BC

    • 1600–1050 BC Shang dynasty
    • 1066–771 BC Power seized by Zhou
    • 1300 BC First writing on oracle bones

    1000 BC

    • 770–476 BC Eastern Zhou: Spring and Autumn period
    • c.551–479 BC Life of Confucius
    • 513 BC First mention of iron casting

    500 BC

    • 475–221 BC Eastern Zhou: Warring States
    • 221–206 BC Qin dynasty under first emperor, Qin Shi
    • 213 BC Burning of the books as part of process of "unification"
    • 206 BC–AD 9 Western Han capital established at Chang’an (Xi’an)

    200 BC

    • 165 BC First official examinations for the selection of civil servants
    • c.139–126 BC Official envoy Zhang Qian establishes first diplomatic and trading links of Silk Road

    100 BC

    • 1 AD 2 First known census: 57,671,400 individuals
    • 25–220 Eastern Han dynasty capital at Luoyang
    • 65 First mention of Buddhist community established at court of Prince Ying of Chu


    • c.100 First dictionary Shuo Wen produced with more than 9,000 characters
    • 190 Communications with central Asia are cut


    • AD 2 First known census: 57,671,400 individuals
    • 220 Civil war breaks out between the kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu
    • 265–581 China divided into Northern and Southern dynasties


    • 310 Massive exodus of Chinese upper classes to South
    • 386–535 Northern Wei, first of the ruling houses to adopt Buddhism



    • c.6th C First true porcelain produced
    • 581–618 Sui dynasty, initiated by Wendi’s reunification of China


    • c.7th C Woodblock printing first used in China
    • 618–907 Tang Dynasty heralds new golden age
    • 661 Chinese administration in Kashmir, Bokhara, and the borders of eastern Iran
    • 690–705 Empress Wu Zetian rules as first empress of China
    Tang silver
    Tang silver


    • 705 Famous poet Li Bai born


    • 755–763 An Lushan rebellion drives emperor and court from Chang’an to Sichuan
    • 770 Death of great poet Du Fu


    • 806 Earliest dated printed manuscript, the Diamond Sutra
    • 806–820 First bankers’ bill



    • 907–60 Period of division known as Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
    • 907–1125 Qidan people rule northeastern China as the Liao dynasty, making Beijing their southern capital
    • 10th c. Gunpowder and fire arms first used


    • 960–1126 Northern Song reunites China and bases capital at Bianliang (Kaifeng)
    • 990–1227 Western Xia people establish kingdom dominating northwest China


    • 1041–8 First attempts at printing with movable type


    • 1090 First attested use of compass on Chinese ships


    • 1115–1234 Jin dynasty founded in northeast China forcing Liao westwards
    • 1127–1279 Southern Song dynasty with capital at Hangzhou, after being forced south by the Jin


    • 1154 First issue of paper money (Jin)


    • 1206–1208 Song and Jin at war
    • 1214 Jin move capital from Beijing to Kaifeng in Henan province
    • 1215 Mongols capture Beijing
    • 1227 Genghis Khan dies, having united various Mongol-speaking tribes of the steppe
    • 1234 Jin emperor commits suicide and Jin integrated into Mongol empire


    • 1279–1368 Kublai Khan defeats Southern Song and rules China as emperor of the Yuan dynasty
    Mongol on horseback
    Mongol on horseback


    • 1328 Civil war breaks out between Mongol nobles


    • 1368–1644 Ming dynasty, founded by rebel leader General Zhu Yuanzhang


    • 1403 Construction of Great Walls in North China
    • 1420 Construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing completed
    • 1426–35 Xuande emperor becomes first Ming emperor to patronize the arts extensively



    • Early 16th century Later Ming monarchs neglect duties of government and eunuch power increases
    • 1514 Portuguese land in China, becoming the first Europeans to trade in tea and porcelain
    • 1538 Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci enters southern China and begins missionary duties
    Jade elephant, Ming
    Jade elephant, Ming


    • 1570 Popular novel Xi Yu Ji (Journey to the West) published
    • 1573–1620 Wanli reign begins well but dynasty declines as emperor takes little interest in duties


    • 1600s Dutch dominate European trade with China
    • 1601 Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci allowed to enter Beijing
    • 1620 The Taichang emperor poisoned by eunuchs
    • 1644–1800 Military expansion into Central Asia and Siberia; colonization of new territories Yunnan and Xinjiang
    • 1644–1911 Manchus establish Qing dynasty


    • 1650 First Catholic church in Beijing
    • 1661–1722 Rule of Kangxi emperor. Appoints Jesuits to run Board of Astronomy



    • 1723–1735 Kangxi’s son Yin Zhen seizes power ruling under name of emperor Yongzheng


    • 1736–1795 Qianlong, a great patron of the arts, rules over another golden age
    • 1747 Qianlong builds Yuanming Yuan in western style


    • 1757 Chinese restrict all foreign trade to Canton


    • 1792–94 Lord Macartney leads embassy to Beijing and unsuccessfully attempts to establish trade relations with England
    • 1796–1805 White Lotus Rebellion damages prestige and wealth of dynasty


    • 1816 Lord Amherst leads British envoy seeking to open China to trade


    • 1840–42 First Opium War with Britain


    • 1850–64 Taiping Rebellion
    • 1856–58 Arrow War (Second Opium War) with Britain and France
    • 1861 Empress Dowager Cixi begins "rule from behind the screen"


    • 1894 Sino-Japanese war
    • 1898 The Guangxu emperor imprisoned by Empress Cixi


    • 1900 Boxer uprising
    • 1908 Death of Empress Dowager Cixi
    Last Emperor Pu Yi
    Last Emperor Pu Yi


    • 1912 Abdication of emperor Pu Yi marks the end of Imperial China


    • 1921 Founding of the Chinese Communist Party
    • 1926 Chiang Kai-shek seizes leadership of National Party


    • 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria
    • 1934 Mao leads the Red Army on Long March
    • 1937 Japanese take much of northern China


    • 1945 End of World War II; Japan defeated
    • 1947 Civil War breaks out in China
    • 1949 Mao proclaims founding of People’s Republic of China


    • 1951–2 Rural co-ops established
    • 1958 Radical reform of the Great Leap Forward


    • 1965 Mao launches Cultural Revolution


    Little Red Book
    Little Red Book
    • 1972 President Nixon is first American president to visit China
    • 1976 Mao dies
    • 1978 Deng Xiaoping emerges as leader


    • 1989 Democracy movement suppressed in Tian’an Men Square


    • 1993 Jiang Zemin becomes president; construction of Three Gorges Dam begins
    • 1997 Hong Kong handed back to China; Macau, two years later


    • 2001 China admitted as member of World Trade Organization
    • 2003 Chinese launch first manned spacecraft; Hu Jintao becomes president
    • 2008 Beijing hosts the 2008 Olympic Games


    • 2010 Shanghai hosts the 2010 World Expo. Guangzhou also hosts the Asian Games.

    2020 Dynasty Timeline

    China was ruled by a succession of dynasties, broken by periods of fragmentation and civil war. The emperor’s authority was divinely granted through a mandate of heaven and was thus unlimited. Leaders of succeeding dynasties claimed that the previous leadership had displeased the gods and had therefore had its heavenly mandate withdrawn.

    Bronze tripod food vessel, Shang
    Bronze tripod food vessel, Shang

    Shang dynasty 1600–1050 BC

    The Shang dynasty marked the emergence of Bronze Age China and palace culture. A semi-divine king acted as a shaman and communicated with the gods.

    Western Zhou dynasty 1066–771 BC

    The Zhou founded their capital at Chang’an (Xi’an). They continued some Shang traditions, but reorganized the political system, dividing the nobility into grades. The feudal system of the Western Zhou broke down after the capital was sacked and the king slain.

    Eastern Zhou dynasty 770–221 BC

    The Zhou dynasty ruled at its eastern capital of Luoyang alongside numerous rival states. This long period of almost constant warfare was brought to an end when the Qin emerged victorious.

    Spring and Autumn 770–475 BC

    • Warring States 475–221 BC
    Statue of attendant from the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi
    Statue of attendant from the tomb of
    Qin Shi Huangdi

    Qin dynasty 221–206 BC

    • Qin Shi 221–210 BC
    • Er Shi 210–207 BC

    Western Han 206 BC – AD 9

    • Gaozu 206–195 BC
    • Huidi 195–188 BC
    • Shaodi 188–180 BC
    • Wendi 180–157 BC
    • Jingdi 157–141 BC
    • Wudi 141–87 BC
    • Zhaodi 87–74 BC
    • Xuandi 74–49 BC
    • Yuandi 49–33 BC
    • Chengdi 33–7 BC
    • Aidi 7–1 BC
    • Pingdi 1 BC–AD 6
    • Ruzi AD 7–9
    Broken terracotta heads found at Jingdi’s tomb
    Broken terracotta heads found
    at Jingdi’s tomb

    Eastern Han AD 25–220

    • Guang Wudi 25–57
    • Mingdi 57–75
    • Zhangdi 75–88
    • Hedi 88–105
    • Shangdi 106
    • Andi 106–125
    • Shundi 125–144
    • Chongdi 144–145
    • Zhidi 145–146
    • Huandi 146–168
    • Lingdi 168–189
    • Xiandi 189–220

    Period of disunity 220–589

    China was divided into the warring Wei, Wu, and Shu kingdoms. The Wei briefly re-united China under the Western Jin (280–316), the first of the six Southern Dynasties (280–589), with their capital at Jiankang (Nanjing). The north was ruled by a succession of ruling houses – the 16 Kingdoms (304–439). The nomadic Toba Wei set up the Northern Wei dynasty, the first of five Northern Dynasties (386–581) with a capital first at Datong, then at Luoyang.

    Sui 581–618

    China was once more united by the short and decisive rule of the Sui.

    • Wendi 581–604
    • Yangdi 604–617
    • Gongdi 617–618

    Tang 618–907

    • Gaozu 618–626
    • Taizong 626–649
    • Gaozong 649–683
    • Zhongzong 684 & 705–710
    • Ruizong 684–690 & 710–712
    • Wu Zetian 690–705
    • Xuanzong 712–756
    • Suzong 756–762
    • Daizong 762–779
    • Dezong 779–805
    • Shunzong 805
    • Xianzong 805–820
    • Muzong 820–824
    • Jingzong 824–827
    • Wenzong 827–840
    • Wuzong 840–846
    • Xuanzong 846–859
    • Yizong 859–873
    • Xizong 873–888
    • Zhaozong 888–904
    • Aidi 904–907
    Sancai-glazed dancing tomb figures
    Sancai-glazed dancing tomb figures

    Five dynasties & Ten Kingdoms 907–960

    Based north of the Yangzi, five successive dynasties swiftly usurped one another, with no dynasty lasting for more than three reigns. The Ten Kingdoms to the south went through a similarly turbulent period.

    Throughout this period and most of the Song dynasty, the northern frontiers were dominated by the semi-nomadic Liao dynasty (907–1125) in the east, and by the Western Xia (990–1227) in the west. In 1115, the Liao were overthrown by the Jin (1115–1234), who forced the Song southwards in 1127.

    Northern Song 960–1126

    • Taizu 960–976
    • Taizong 976–997
    • Zhenzong 998–1022
    • Renzong 1022–1063
    • Yingzong 1064–1067
    • Shenzong 1068–1085
    • Zhezong 1086–1101
    • Huizong 1101–1125
    • Qinzong 1126–1127
    Painting by Emperor Huizong
    Painting by Emperor Huizong

    Southern Song 1127–1279

    • Gaozong 1127–1162
    • Xiaozong 1163–1190
    • Guangzong 1190–1194
    • Ningzong 1195–1224
    • Lizong 1225–1264
    • Duzong 1265–1274
    • Gongdi 1275
    • Duanzong 1276–1278
    • Di Bing 1279

    Yuan 1279–1368

    Genghis Khan (1162–1227) united numerous Mongol speaking tribes and captured Beijing in 1215. His grandson, Kublai, completed the conquest of China by finally defeating the Southern Song in 1279.

    • Kublai Khan 1279–1294
    • Temur Oljeitu 1294–1307
    • Khaishan 1308–1311
    • Ayurbarwada 1311–1320
    • Shidebala 1321–1323
    • Yesun Temur 1323–1328
    • Tugh Temur 1328–1329 , 1329–1333
    • Khoshila 1329
    • Toghon Temur 1333–1368

    Ming 1368–1644

    • Hongwu 1368–1398
    • Jianwen 1399–1402
    • Yongle 1403–1424
    • Hongxi 1425
    • Xuande 1426–1435
    • Zhengtong 1436–1449
    • Jingtai 1450–1457
    • Tianshun 1457–1464 (Zhengtong restored)
    • Chenghua 1465–1487
    • Hongzhi 1488–1505
    • Zhengde 1506–1521
    • Jiajing 1522–1567
    • Longqing 1567–1572
    • Wanli 1573–1620
    • Taichang 1620
    • Tianqi 1621–1627
    • Chongzhen 1628–1644

    Qing 1644-1911

    • Shunzhi 1644–1661
    • Kangxi 1661–1722
    • Yongzheng 1723–1735
    • Qianlong 1736–1795
    • Jiaqing 1796–1820
    • Daoguang 1821–1850
    • Xianfeng 1851–1861
    • Tongzhi 1862–1874
    • Guangxu 1875–1908
    • Xuantong (Pu Yi) 1909–1912

    Tang Dynasty

    Tang rule AD 750
    Tang rule AD 750

    The Tang Dynasty is widely regarded as one of China’s golden ages, characterized by economic prosperity, territorial expansion, and political stability. During this period China reached its largest size to date: from Korea to Vietnam and across Central Asia to southern Siberia. Trade flourished by land and sea, stimulating the flow of luxury goods between East and West. Foreign religions were tolerated and Buddhism gained popular and imperial patronage. The arts and literature of the Tang are still considered to be among China’s finest, notably the famous poets Li Bai and Du Fu.

    Dunhuang silks

    During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism gained popular and imperial support, particularly under the rule of the devout Wu Zetian. Buddhist communities became important centers for the translation of sutras and the production of Buddhist arts, such as the fine silk paintings of Dunhuang.

    An Emperor’s Love and Demise

    In his later years, the Xuanzong emperor increasingly neglected his official duties as he became infatuated with his concubine, Yang Guifei. Intrigue and factions at court bred instability and in AD 750, General An Lushan, half Sogdian half Turkish by descent, seized control of the northeastern frontier. In 755 An Lushan stormed the capital forcing the court to flee for Sichuan. As they reached Mawai, Xuanzong’s troops mutinied and demanded the emperor hand over Yang Guifei. She was strangled before his eyes, and the tragic story of their love affair has been immortalised by poets. Although An Lushan was eventually defeated, the Tang dynasty fell into decline.

    The Cultural Revolution

    In 1965, Mao Zedong set in motion a chain of events that were to unleash the turmoil now known as the Cultural Revolution. Having socialized industry and agriculture, Mao called on the masses to transform society itself – all distinctions between manual and intellectual work were to be abolished and class distinction disappear. The revolution reached its violent peak in 1967, with the Red Guards spreading social unrest. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) finally restored order, but the subsequent years were characterized by fear, violence, and mistrust.

    hang’an’s (Xi’an’s) elaborate city walls enclosed a population of one million by the seventh century, making Chang’an the largest city in the world. The cosmopolitan capital was populated by Sogdians, Turks, Uighurs, Arabs, and Persians. Foreign envoys, including Koreans (the figure on the right) and westerners (standing next to the Korean), traveled to the Tang court for delegations and giving tribute, as seen in this tomb mural. This silver cup, part of a hoard of buried treasure dug up in 1970, shows distinct western influence, although the relief decoration is lavishly Tang. This pottery figure, decorated in three-color or sancai glaze, depicts life along the Silk Route. Merchants and pilgrims traveled the legendary route bringing with them objects crafted in gold and silver, textiles, exotic foods, and fine horses.
    hang’an’s (Xian’s) elaborate city walls enclosed a population of one million by the seventh century, making Chang’an the largest city in the world. The cosmopolitan capital was populated by Sogdians, Turks, Uighurs, Arabs, and Persians. Foreign envoys, including Koreans(the figure on the right) and westerners(standing next to the Korean), traveled tothe Tang court for delegations andgiving tribute, as seen in this tomb mural. This silver cup, part of a hoard of buriedtreasure dug up in 1970, shows distinctwestern influence, althoughthe relief decoration is lavishly Tang. This pottery figure, decorated in three-coloror sancai glaze, depicts life alongthe Silk Route. Merchants and pilgrimstraveled the legendary route bringingwith them objects crafted in gold and silver, textiles, exotic foods, and fine horses.

    The Red Guard

    Chairman Mao & Lin Biao
    Chairman Mao & Lin Biao

    Mao appealed to students to form the Red Guard, in whom he entrusted the fate of the revolution. The movement rapidly gathered momentum and the Red Guard, who raised Mao to godly status, traveled China spreading Mao Zedong "Thoughts," smashing remnants of the past, vandalizing temples, and wreaking havoc.

    Liu Shaoqi, president from 1959–66, was one of a number of high officials to be denounced, imprisoned, and paraded in
    Liu Shaoqi, president from 1959–66,
    was one of a number of high officials to
    be denounced, imprisoned, and paraded in
    "struggle rallies." He died from his experiences.
    Children were encouraged to take part in the Revolution. Their enthusiasm led to the destruction of family photographs and possessions. In some cases, children denounced their own parents.
    Children were encouraged to take part in
    the Revolution. Their enthusiasm led
    to the destruction of family photographs
    and possessions. In some cases,
    children denounced their own parents.

    Lin Biao spread the study of the "Thoughts of Mao" and compiled the Little Red Book which became obligatory reading for his army recruits. As head of the PLA, Lin Biao provided essential military backing and was Mao’s named successor. He died in a plane crash over Siberia in 1971 amid rumors of an imminent usurpation.

    Liu Shaoqi, president from 1959–66, was one of a number of high officials to be denounced, imprisoned, and paraded in "struggle rallies." He died from his experiences.

    Gang of Four

    Lynched effigies of members of the Gang of Four hanging from a tree
    Lynched effigies of members of
    the Gang of Four hanging from a tree

    The Gang of Four, as they became known, orchestrated attacks on intellectuals and writers, high officials, the party, and the state and were responsible for some of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Chunqiao, critic and propagandist, Yao Wenyuan, editor-in-chief of Shanghai Liberation Army Daily, Wang Hongwen, a young worker, and Mao’s third wife Jiang Qing, an ex-film star, dominated the political center unchallenged until Mao’s death in 1976. Millions of Chinese citizens watched their televized trial in 1980–81. Jiang Qing, who was singled out by propagandists and became one of the most hated figures in China, was defiant until the end, railing against her prosecutors throughout the trial. She took her own life in 1991, while serving her life sentence.


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