You Gotta Know These Chinese Dynasties

  1. The Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC) is the first Chinese dynasty attested from written records. Archaeological excavations at the “ruins of Yin,” near the modern city of Anyang, uncovered the remains of a Chinese civilization from the Bronze Age. Shang dynasty writings are those found on “oracle bones,” pieces of ox bone or turtle shell that were heated to produce a pattern of cracks that supposedly foretold the future.

  2. The Zhou [“Joe”] dynasty (1046–256 BC) were chariot warriors who overthrew the Shang dynasty. Although the Zhou ruled for nearly 800 years, during much of the time period, real power lay in the hands of feudal lords. The sacking of the Zhou capital by barbarians in 771 BC marks the beginning of the Eastern Zhou and the Spring and Autumn Period (771 BC – 476 BC). During the Spring and Autumn Period, the Hundred Schools of Thought (including Confucianism) flourished and Sun Tzu wrote his Art of War. The end of the Zhou era devolved into the Warring States period (476 BC – 221 BC), during which power coalesced into seven independent feudal states. The state of Qin eventually grew powerful and efficient enough that it was able to defeat the other six states and complete the unification of China.

  3. The Qin [“chin”] dynasty (221 – 206 BC), despite its short duration, is usually considered the origin of many of the institutions of imperial China. The founding emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (usually shorted as Qin Shi Huang), has gained an ill-deserved reputation in traditional Chinese historiography because he destroyed many Confucian texts in his infamous book burning. Qin Shi Huang also standardized weight measurements, unified the Chinese script, and used conscripts to build the Great Wall. After his death, the suicide of the crown prince led to a period of incompetent rule and revolts that caused the collapse of the Qin dynasty.

  4. The Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) is considered a golden age of Chinese civilization; its influence was so great that the majority ethnic group in China is still called the Han. Its founder, Liu Bang (later Emperor Gaozu), was born a peasant. Through resourceful recruitment of talented followers and strategic violation of ceasefire agreement with his rival Xiang Yu, Liu Bang managed to reunite China and established his capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an). Instability in the early years of the Han dynasty was caused by the depredations of the nomadic Xiongnu, a problem that was solved by its seventh emperor, Wudi. Emperor Wu, considered one of the greatest rulers of China, began a war of conquest against the Xiongnu and greatly expanded China’s frontiers. He also formalized China’s bureaucracy, sent envoys like Zhang Qian to Central Asia, and established Confucianism as the official state doctrine. Despite his success, his campaigns drained the treasury and his successors were unable to maintain the land he conquered. After a series of poor rulers, the Wang family, who claimed legitimacy through wives of various emperors, and their leader Wang Mang toppled the Han dynasty. Wang Mang established the Xin (meaning “new”) dynasty and attempted to restore the ways of the Zhou dynasty. But he was unable to maintain power because of a catastrophic changing of the course of the Yellow River, which spawned peasant protest movements like the Red Eyebrows. Eventually, a scion of the Liu family, Liu Xiu, restored the Han dynasty, moving the capital to Luoyang and establishing the Eastern Han. Subsequent rebellions called the Yellow Turbans and the Five Pecks of Rice hastened the end of the Han dynasty.

  5. The short and turbulent period of the Three Kingdoms (AD 184–280) has had an enormous cultural impact thanks to the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. After a period of disunion, the lands of the former Han dynasty coalesced into three kingdoms: Cao Wei north of the Yangtze, Eastern Wu in the lower Yangtze, and Shu Han in the Sichuan region. The Battle of Red Cliffs (AD 208) was fought during this period. Under the leadership of the Sima family, Cao Wei managed to defeat the other two kingdoms. The reunification was, however, short–lived. For the next four centuries, China went through a period known as the Southern and Northern Dynasties.

  6. The Tang dynasty (618–907) is considered another golden age of Chinese culture: during the Tang period important poets such as Li Bai (or Li Po) and Du Fu lived and the printing press was invented. The Tang dynasty, which reunited China after the collapse of the short-lived Sui dynasty, was ruled by the Li family and its capital was at Chang’an (modern day Xi’an). Its first ruler, like the founder of the Han Dynasty, used the title of Emperor Gaozu. Gaozu forced by his second son, Li Shimin (later Emperor Taizong), to abdicate after Li Shimin killed two of his brothers in an ambush. Despite his bloody path to power, Taizong is considered to be one of the greatest rulers in Chinese history, subjugating much of what is now western China and parts of central Asia. After his death, power came to be concentrated in the hands of Empress Wu. Empress Wu (or Wu Zetian), the only woman to become emperor of China, called her rule the “Second Zhou dynasty.” Wu was a notable supporter of Buddhism and promoted the imperial examination, but succession troubles resulted in the premature end of her dynasty. During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, the An Lushan rebellion (also called An Shi rebellion) wrecked the foundations of the Tang dynasty. Although it was suppressed, the An Lushan rebellion concentrated power in the hands of regional military overlords. The dynasty had a tumultuous end in 907 that marked the beginning of the Five dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

  7. The Song dynasty (960–1279) is known for its devotion to cultural activities instead of warfare and for the establishment of Neo-Confucianism as state doctrine, with the imperial examination as the primary way of recruiting talent. It was also during the Song dynasty that gunpowder and the compass were discovered. The Song dynasty, even in its early years, could not rule all of China proper and was forced to relinquish parts of northern China to the “barbarian” Liao dynasty, paying tribute for peace. Although like most dynasties, it began as the ventures of a military leader, its first ruler, Taizu, realized that his rival generals could take power from him. He then induced all his major commanders to retire, setting up the dominance of the scholarly elite over the military elite throughout the Song dynasty. This policy was continued by his successors. In the north, however, the Liao dynasty was eventually replaced by the militaristic Jin dynasty, who captured the Song capital at Kaifeng along with two Emperors. The remnants of the court fled across the Yangtze and established the Southern Song with a new capital at Hangzhou, maintaining peace with the Jin through annual tribute. This state of affairs was brought to an end after the Song dynasty aided the Mongols in crushing the Jin, only to discover that they themselves were the next target. Despite the might of the Mongol war machine, the Song dynasty managed to repel major Mongol offensives for nearly 40 years, before it was finally defeated.

  8. The Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) was a short-lived dynasty established by the invading Mongols, who destroyed the Jin and Song states. Its most notable ruler was Kublai Khan, whose invasions of Japan were thwarted typhoons that the Japanese called the kamikaze, or “divine wind.” Yuan rulers were hostile to many Chinese institutions and thus received minimal support from the Chinese elites. The Red Turban rebellion of the 1350s marked the beginning of the end for the Yuan.

  9. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was the last native dynasty of China; its rulers came from the Zhu family. The use of the word “china” to describe fine porcelain originated from this period, as the Ming were well-known for producing high-quality porcelain. Its founding ruler, Zhu Yuanzhang (Emperor Hongwu), was a peasant leader of the Red Turbans who helped expel the Mongol Yuan rulers from China. He was succeeded by his grandson, who quickly lost power to Zhu Di (Emperor Yongle). During the reign of the Yongle emperor, the eunuch Zheng He led treasure fleets on seven voyages to display Chinese greatness. Zhu Di moved China’s capital to Beijing. After his death, the Ming dynasty banned maritime commerce, which left the dynasty vulnerable to pirates. The Ming dynasty came to an end after the rebellion of Li Zicheng, which was caused by inadequate government response to inflation, famine, and floods. Simultaneously, the Manchu people, tributaries of the Ming from northeast China (“Manchuria”) in modern day Manchuria, marched on the Great Wall. The Manchus suppressed Li Zicheng’s revolt and took power in Beijing themselves.

  10. The invading Manchus established the Qing [cheeng] dynasty (1644–1911), the last dynasty to rule imperial China. An important institution of the Qing dynasty was the banner system, which acted as a guaranteed welfare system for Manchus and gave them benefits in the imperial examination (positions were often duplicated, with one Han Chinese and one Manchu from the banners). The foundations of the Qing dynasty were established under its second ruler, the Kangxi Emperor who put down the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. He is also famous for the Kangxi dictionary, which is known for popularizing the system of Chinese radicals. During the last century of Qing rule, China was weakened both by foreign attacks (the Opium Wars against Britain) and internal dissent (the devastating Taiping Rebellion of 1850–1864). Attempts to modernize Qing rule (the Self-Strengthening Movement and the Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898) proved inconclusive. Qing Dowager Express Cixi, who opposed the reformers, was implicated in the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-foreign uprising of 1900 that caused eight Western nations to send military forces to Beijing. China’s last emperor was Puyi, who came to the throne at the age of two in 1906. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing Dynasty and created the Republic of China.

This article was contributed by NAQT writer Libo Zeng.

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