I learned almost nothing about Chinese history when I went to school in Germany. In our times, it is really important to learn global history, and not just the history of our own countries or continents. The following short overview of Chinese dynasties is a frame for understanding at least the outline of Chinese history.
1) First, the dynasties in chronological order: Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Lio, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing.
2) Zhou (770-240BC) is an era of constant warfare and power struggles. Confucius and Lao-tzu (creator of Daoism) are born during this period. Their writings have an enormous impact on Eastern thought and governance. The famous terracotta warrors also date back to Zhou.
3) Qin (221-206BC) and Han (202BC-220AD). This is the start of China as an empire. Trade routes reach all the way to Turkey, The population is 58M in 2AD (slightly larger than contemporary Rome). The great wall starts construction.
4) Tang (581-907) unifies what is now considered modern China.
They link Northern and Southern China by huge canals and inter-regional trade flourished. Chang’an becomes the world’s largest city. Culture and the arts start to thrive.
5) Song (907-1276) is not able to control East Asia like Tang or Han. They broker deals with neighboring states for a shaky peace. The status quo continues. By the 11th century, China is outpacing Europe in terms of agricultural productivity, industrial technology, and sophistication of commercial organization.
6) Ghengis Khan (1162-1227) creates huge lightning force of calvary that eventually covers 2/3 of Asian continent. Some of the cities under his (and grandson’s) control: Beijing, Lhasa, Moscow, Kiev, Ormuz, and Baghdad. The divisions between Mongol ruling class and Chinese are kept clear by law, status, and language. The Chinese resent this alien rule.
7) Ming (1368-1644) is founded by Taizu, who is was the first commoner to become emperor in 1,500 years. The population continues to grow, but the country is not entirely under control. Mongols attack from the North, while the Japanese attack from the east.
8) Manchus (1644-1900) from Manchuria (east of Mongolia, above Korea) create the Qing dynasty. They govern efficiently. They force their subjects to adopt the Manchu hairstyle (shaved heads with braided hair in the back) as a symbol of their loyalty. Trade with Europe increases exponentially. By 1800, Europe was buying 1/7 of all Chinese tea. This eventually leads to the Opium wars. Various colonial powers all vy for a piece of China.
The 20th Century history of China is one of the most intriguing stories in world history – see the related posts.