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.
Here are the dynasties in chronological order: Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Lio, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing.
- 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.
- 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 construction begins.
- Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220–280). The empire declined due to clan infighting, divisions, land acquisitions, and invasions.
- Jin dynasty (AD 265–420). Attempts to unify China fails; Northern China remains fragmented into independent kingdoms, and slowly a north-south split emerges.
- Sui dynasty (581–618). It was short-lived, but a pivotal period in Chinese history. It unifies what is now considered modern China. In 581, Emperor Wen of the Northern Zhou succeeded to conquer the southern parts of China, ending three centuries of political division. The Sui developed many institutions of government, including the system of “Three Departments and Six Ministries,” or Imperial examinations for selecting government officials from commoners. These policies were adopted by later dynasties and brought enormous population growth. They created a very wealthy state. The government developed standardized coins and enforced them throughout the unified empire. Buddhism becomes the prominent religion. Sui China also took on numerous huge construction projects, like the construction of canals that helped with grain shipments and transporting troops. Chang’an becomes the world’s largest city.
- Tang Dynasty (618-907) The Chinese regard the Tang dynasty as the high point of Imperial China. It was founded by Emperor Gaozu in 618. The empire reached its greatest size prior to the Manchu/Qing Dynasty and became the center of the East Asian world. During its reign, Chinese writers develop a great lyric tradition; culture and the arts are thriving. The second emperor, Taizong, is often seen as the greatest emperors in Chinese history. He laid the foundation for the dynasty to flourish for centuries. Nation building proceeds through Combined military conquests and diplomatic maneuvers were implemented to eliminate threats from nomadic tribes, extend the border, and submit neighboring states into a tributary system. Military victories in the Tarim Basin kept the Silk Road open, connecting Chang’an to Central Asia and areas far to the west. In the south, lucrative maritime trade routes began from port cities such as Guangzhou. There was extensive trade with distant foreign countries, and many foreign merchants settled in China, encouraging a cosmopolitan culture. The Tang culture and social systems were observed and imitated by neighboring countries, most notably, Japan. Internally the Grand Canal linked the political heartland in Chang’an to the agricultural and economic centers in the eastern and southern parts of the empire.Underlying the prosperity of the early Tang dynasty was a strong centralized bureaucracy with efficient policies
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.