Timeline and Dynasties of Ancient China
The following is a brief chronological account of the major events that occurred from ancient China’s inception (around 2200 BCE) to its demise in 1911 CE. They have been grouped according to the dynasties that ruled over ancient China.
8000 BCE- 2070 BCE: Pre-historic dynasties
The Yellow River and the Yangtze River were what drew the first settlers to the region. With the passage of time, the settlers formed thriving communities and villages. Soon, those establishments started to become more and more organized. They had village heads. The most prominent of these village heads was the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor and his successors were the first people to invent the technique of silk making.
2070- 1600 BCE: The Xia Dynasty
Although its existence has been up for debate, there is a small section of historians that believe that Xia dynasty was not a mythological dynasty but rather an actual dynasty that existed from 2070 to 1600 BCE. They believe that Xia Dynasty was the first relatively organized set of rulers to exert control over settlements in and around the Yellow River. Established by Yu the Great, Xia dynasty controlled most parts of the Yellow River for more than 500 years.
Yu the Great was instrumental in reversing the dire situations that came as a result of flooding along the Yellow River. In addition to this, Yu brought several conquered Sanmiao tribes under his control. He also encouraged polytheism among his followers. In ancient China’s pantheon of gods, the god-king was called Shangti—the “great ancestor”. Shangti’s sphere of influence included war, agriculture, weather, and governance.
After Yu’s death, his son, Qi, picked up from where the father left off. As compared to dynasties that came after, this semi-mythological dynasty was not that organized and sophisticated militarily and culturally.
In the Battle of Mingtia (around 1600 CE), General Tang, who would later form the Shang dynasty, overthrew Jie, the last ruler from Xia dynasty. Historians believe that the Xia dynasty had become too lavish in their administration of the settlements. Hence Tang had to intervene to save the people.
1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty
After Tang took control of ancient China, the first thing that he did was to slash down unnecessary public spending on lavish projects. Tang was an efficient and just ruler. He also reduced taxes. His efforts culminated in ancient China flourishing once again.
The Shang dynasty is considered the first dynasty in ancient China because it was around this period that writing was invented in China. This form of writing was called the Oracle Bone Scripts.
Over its 500-year reign, the Shang dynasty produced about 31 emperors. The last ruler to come out of Shang dynasty was Di Xin. Di Xin was accused of living extravagantly to the detriment of his people. He was overthrown in a bloody battle that saw him commit suicide by self-immolation.
1046-256 BCE: The Zhou Dynasty (the age of philosophical reasoning)
The Zhou dynasty was created by aggrieved followers of Zhou. Thus after the Shang dynasty wrongfully murdered Lord Zhou, Zhou’s followers rebelled against the Shang dynasty in 1046 BCE. The first rulers in the Zhou dynasty were Ji Chang and Ji Fa.
Zhou dynasty lasted for about 800 years. It came in two phases. The first phase was called the Western Zhou Period that lasted from 1046 to 771 BCE. The second period was called the Eastern Zhou period and it spanned from 771 to 256 BCE.
During Zhou dynastic rule, culture grew tremendously. The Zhou dynasty is credited with producing the most number of philosophers in China’s history. This philosophical age of reasoning could boast of several renowned philosophers such as Sun-Tzu, Mencius, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, and Tao Chien.
771-476 BCE: the Spring and Autumn Period
Notwithstanding the above, the late periods of the Zhou dynasty witnessed the worst form of civil wars among states in ancient China. Zhou rulers completely lost control over those states and provinces.
476 – 221 BCE: The Warring States Period
For about 250 years, a total of seven states (Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan and Zhao) ferociously fought among themselves. These states were all vying for the honor of ruling China. After several battles, the rulers of the Qin state emerged victorious. They successfully vanquished the other 6 states. This brought some respite to the region.
What made Qin’s fighting strategy particularly unique was that they did not abide by the set rules and courtesies of wars. As a result of this, they were able to have an edge on the battlefield.
By the year 221 BCE, Ying Zheng, from the Qin State, had succeeded in bringing all the various warring states under his control. He picked the title, “Shi Huangdi”.
221- 206 BCE: The Qin Dynasty (the Imperial Era of China)
Under Ying Zheng’s (Shi Huangdi) rule, several divisions, in terms of the walls that separated states and provinces, were removed. Zheng also began the construction of the Great Wall of China. He has been credited with building a 15-meter wide road as well as a 7500-kilometer long road. As a result, Emperor Zheng’s initiatives, trade, and commerce grew.
But he was not so fair to the past. Ying Zheng destroyed all historical books and artifacts associated with past dynasties. In his later years, he did not hesitate in suppressing dissent. This made him very unpopular.
Today, historians know Zheng as the emperor that was responsible for building 8000 terracotta warriors. The emperor was obsessed with securing immortality. When he realized that was impossible, he built lavish tombs and hordes of terracotta soldiers, commanders and animals to protect him in the afterlife.
After his death, his son, Hu-Hai, became emperor; and in a similar fashion, Hu-Hai turned out to be a very ruthless emperor.
202 BCE- 220 CE- The Han Dynasty
Liu-Bang replaced the Qin Dynasty with the Han Dynasty. Spanning about 400 years, the Han Dynasty helped introduce new trading routes to the west. They were also responsible for making technological advances in things such as writing, medicine, and gun powder. As a matter of fact, the Han Dynasty were the first people to write history down. They are also credited with inventing paper. There were high levels of literacy because schools were built. The roads that were built during this time facilitated transportation and trade within and outside the empire.
Emperor Gaozu embraced Confucianism as the official thought or doctrine of the government. Irrespective of this, the Han dynasty never once tried to suppress other religious or philosophical thoughts. This allowed literature and education to boom. In addition to this, taxes were slashed; and the budget on the army was reduced.
Emperor Wu was responsible for coming up with the Tiachu Calendar. This calendar was used throughout China’s history. Wu also expanded the territory of China.
In the north, the Han Dynasty defeated the Huns. By 138 CE, ambassadors from China were dispatched to the west to secure friendlier relations and trade deals. It was also around this time that Silk Road was opened.
In spite of these numerous and well-thought-out reforms, the peasants still remained poor. In 9 CE, Wang Mang rose up and rebelled against the Han Dynasty. Emperor Wang Mang founded the Xin Dynasty (9-23 CE). He focused on redistributing lands from the owners to poor peasants. However, due to poor policy execution, the land reforms Wang Mang did not get to have the desired outcome with his policies. There was also stiff opposition from landowners. Soon unemployment was at an all-time high and the people started resenting him. To make matters worse, the Yellow River flooded. Wang Mang’s rule became very unstable. He was assassinated by a mob of angry peasants.
After the death of Wang Mang, Emperor Guang-Wu from the Hans dynasty overturned most of Wang Mang’s policies. Lands were returned to their original owners. Order was restored once again.
589-618 CE: The Sui Dynasty
Emperor Yan Jia established the Sui Dynasty. It was during his reign that construction of the Grand Canal begun. The Sui Dynasty expanded the Great Wall. Also, coinage became the medium of payment. In 618 CE, Gao-Tzu of Tang overthrew Yang and became emperor of China.
618-907 CE: The Tang Dynasty
This era is described as the Golden age of China. There were relative peace and prosperity. Gao-Tzu made a lot of budget cuts by running the empire in an efficient manner. However, his son, Li-Shimin, overthrew him in 627 CE. He also killed his brothers and other advisors. Li-Shimin became Emperor Taizong. He built a number of Buddhist temples. Chinese culture spread across eastern Asia as well into some parts of central Asia.
From 649 to 683 CE, Taizong’s son, Gaozong , rules as emperor of China. After his death, Gaozong’s wife became Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690- 704 CE). During her reign, living conditions in China improved tremendously. She installed efficient communication and trade systems to facilitate trade along the Silk Road.
Between 712 and 754 CE (under Emperor Xuanzong) China had risen to become the most populous and wealthiest empire on earth.
In 755 CE however, General An Lushan rebelled because the government had become too extravagant. His rebellion was crushed in 763 CE. In the ensuing years, about 36 million people perished from wars, hunger, and diseases. Trade and commerce also took a nose dive. The government temporary fled the scenes.
907-960 CE: The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, ancient China entered into a chaotic era. The land witnessed series of wars among five dynasties. This period is viewed as one of the most troublesome periods in China’s history. Eventually, the chaos was halted by a powerful general called Zhao Kuangyin.
960- 1279 CE – Sung Dynasty
Under Sung (Song) Dynasty, the movable printing press gets invented in 1041. Sung brought stability and peace. In 1271, Marco Polo made his way to China.
1279-1368 CE: Yuan Dynasty
Kublia Khan, emperor of the Mongols, defeated the Sung Dynasty. He installed the Yuan Dynasty
1368- 1644: Ming Dynasty
Emperor Zheng He sets up foreign relations and trade routes to places in India and Africa. Zheng also started works on the Forbidden City. In 1420, Beijing replaces Nanjing as the new capital of the empire. A century later, in 1517, the first Portuguese traders make their way into China.
1644- 1912: Qing Dynasty
Collapsing in 1912 CE, the Qing Dynasty was commonly described as “one full of rotten autocrats in fancy suits”. Many historians believe that Qing Dynasty’s excessive draconian rule is what plunged China into centuries of stalled scientific and cultural progress. This situation was even made worse after the First Anglo-Chinese War in 1842. China continued to lag behind in terms of economic development and technology. The empire also entered into unfair treaties with several western powers.
In 1911, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown during the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Its replacement was the Republic of China. After 14 years of republicanism, China was invaded by Imperial Japan in 1931. Japan maintained a strong grip on China until the end of the Second World War. Japanese occupation left in its wake the death of several tens of millions in China.
In 1949, Kuomintang and the last remnant of the Republic of China fled to Taiwan. They were replaced by the People’s Republic of China under communist leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976).