China Dynasties from 2000 BC to 2000 AD

The "China" that we know today commenced with the Qin dynasty (find it above?) and thus dates back well over two millennia. To the left is a depiction of the first emperor, Qin Shihuang, and on the right a photo of Qing dynasty emperor Pu Yi -the last emperor in a row of 157.

Many historians subscribe to the somewhat simplistic theory by which a repetitive cycle starting with a strong, central leader develops into a bureaucratic ruling class imposing taxes and ends in a weakening of power, economic downfall and a new battle for supremacy until a new, strong leader emerges.

The rise of Xia, generally recognized as China's first "dynasty", coincides with the making of bronze. Power is centered at Erlitou, close to today's Luoyang, and based on a sedentary, land-locked agriculture. Palaces and houses are made entirely of wood.

Power succession is hereditary and rulers communicate with the spirits of their ancestors for guidance. Tools like ploughs, augers, arrowheads, fishhooks and musical instruments are common and incisions in pottery prove advances in the evolution of writing.

Eastern Shang (appx. 1500 BC - 1050 BC) tribes assume power when the Xia ruler loses Heaven's favor. Ancestor worship remains the core of religious beliefs and elaborate rituals play a vital political role reaffirming the right to govern. Bronze vessel craftsmanship becomes a fine art.

Rulers maintain large, powerful armies with war chariots. Frequent military- and diplomatic expeditions consolidate supremacy. New cities are built by "decree" to expand domain rather than as a natural result of trade. Tensions between central power and peripheral interest eventually cause the fall of Shang.

Nomadic tribes from the Wei River basin conquer the Shang territories and establish the (Western) Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC - 771 BC). Central power moves south to Fengjing (near today's Xi'an) and "China" is expanded south to the Yangtze River.

In this prosperous period society becomes feudal, layered into a ruling class governing farmers, craftsmen and -at the bottom of the social ladder- merchants. Agriculture expands production significantly through the introduction of crop rotation.

China's first "golden age" expires when Zhou moves capital east to Luoyang -hence Eastern Zhou. Zhou's power declines, the 170 fiefs become independent "states" and, in the end, Zhou reigns -but no longer rules.

Despite the tumultuous times large social and economic progress takes place: Private land ownership, breakdown of class barriers, development of infantry armies, circulation of currency, introduction of iron, etc. The hard times inspire a new class of social thinkers like Confucius and Mencius -all in vain hoping for a return to the peace and order of the golden Western Zhou period.

This is the height of the feudal power period of what is next for the first time to become a unified "China". Although incessant wars between the seven States never offered peace, this period is nevertheless characterized by rapid economical and cultural expansion.

This is also the final death rattle of the once so mighty Zhou. The period starts with usurpation of government in the Qi State and the division of the Jin State into ZHAO, WEI and HAN. It all ends 255 years later when the western State of Qin annexes the other six major States in 221 BC.

The short-lived Qin Dynasty (221BC - 206BC) is the first to unite all of China under one emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Xianyang (near Xi'an) regains its status as capital and China is expanded south to Guangzhou. New roads and canals yield a much improved infrastructure but art and litterature suffer.

Unified currency, language, measurements etc. secures durability of a "China". China's name (Qin=China), The Great Wall and the Terracotta Army all stem from this era. The harsh government soon leads to rebellion and China's very first dynasty is replaced by the (Western) Han dynasty after only 15-16 years.

Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 7 AD) policy of recuperation and relaxing after the harsh Qin Dynasty ensures a rapid recovery of the social economy. Crackdown on separatists strengthens centralized state power and consolidates the unified, multiethnic feudal country. Coin minting becomes a state monopoly and Confucianism is made the orthodox state ideology by proscribing all non-Confucian schools of thought.

The "silk road" ermerges! Prosperity at first peaks but then declines from intensified struggles for land annexation forcing more and more people into slavery -ultimately leading to a severe social crisis.

Capitalizing on the unstable situation Wang Mang, a relative of the imperial family, proclaims himself emperor of his Xin Dynasty (8 AD - 23 AD). To improve China's predicament he instigates land-, currency- and slave reforms -but all in vain. In 23 AD a peasant uprising overthrows the dynasty.

Great economic progress is achieved during the Western Han and Xin: Water conservancy projects, ox plowing, iron farming tools, exquisite lacquerware and brightly colored silks and satins. Commerce prospers as does foreign trade.

The Han family finally restores the dynasty in 25 AD with capital in Luoyang -hence named the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD - 220 AD). Policies in favor of the aristocracy are introduced in an attempt to reestablish the fortunes of the empire. Landlords expand their power and influence, gaining extensive portions of farmland and slaves. Corruption causes numerous peasant uprisings eventually undermining the Han rule.

Brilliant achievements are made in astonomy, mathematics, seismology, medical science, philosophy, history, literature and art. The invention of paper from plant fibers forever changes the world.

In 220 AD China plunges into the first phase of her 'Dark Ages'. The Three Kingdoms of Wei (with capital in Luoyang), Shu Han (capital Chengdu) and Wu (capital Jiankang -today's Nanjing) each claims its legitimate right to govern China. The period is remembered as the golden age of chivalry and romance, which is later immortalized in the famous novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (stamp, right).

Wei, the most powerful kingdom, encourages barbarian tribes from the west and north to settle inside The Great Wall and with their aid defeats and annexes Shu Han in 265 AD, establishing the Western Jin.

China proceeds into the second phase of her 'Dark Ages' when in 265 AD Wei conquers Shu Han and founds the Western Jin Dynasty. In 280 AD also Wu under Modi -preoccupied with his 5,000 strong harem- is defeated and China is reunited. Buddhism makes a strong entrance and tea drinking becomes popular.

Non-Chinese tribes settle in the north causing a huge migration of Chinese to the south eventually leading to the foundation of the Eastern Jin Dynasty with capital in Jiankang (today's Nanjing). This confusing period is also known as The Sixteen Kingdoms. At first all is peaceful but later vicious struggles break out.

In this 'Period of Disunion' China enters the last phase of her 'Dark Ages'. The Toba Wei of Turkic origin unifies northern China in the Northern Wei empire, moves its capital from Datong to Luoyang and embarks on a drastic policy of sinicization. In the south, the years 420-581 is a dismal story of changing dynasties (Liu Song, Qi, Liang and Chen) fighting mostly unsuccessful wars against the 'barbarian' north.

Buddhism has a common influence on both north and south. Also Daoism prospers, but as a collection of local sects. Land reforms in the north create a sound economic basis for the reunification of China in 581.

The Sui Dynasty (581-618) heralds the revival of imperial glory. In its nearly forty years the Sui introduces a strongly centralized military and civil administration on a sound economic basis -the essence of a successful dynasty. Historically, the Sui proves a perfect prelude for the subsequent glorious Tang dynasty.

The Sui builds The Grand Canal and links north and south with an effective canal system. While using Buddhism as a unifying source the Sui revives Confucianism as a source of good administration and legitimacy. China is finally reunited !!

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) sees China's second golden age. Power is again centralized in Chang'an (today's Xi'an), a magnificent city with over two million inhabitants, under strong emperors and a professional administration, a system lasting till 1911. Printing is invented and literature becomes popular. Buddhism peaks till year 843 when the emperor confiscates temples and land and forces monks to take regular work.

Despite the prospering trade and economy, central power gradually weakens to the advantage of the military governorates. Rebellions and violence continually break out and the last Tang emperor is deposed in 907.

One of China's darkest periods follows the glorious Tang. In the north five dynasties in succession yield but pillaging, burning, killing, extortion, sacking of cities etc. by organized bandits and local warlords. The ten regional kingdoms in the south are more stable. Protected by its mountains, Chengdu, capital of the Shu Kingdom, becomes a safe haven for Tang exiles -and for keeping Tang civilization alive.

In 960 Zhao Kuangyin (later Song Emperor Taizu), a leading general of Chinese origin, overthrows the Later Zhou emperor, unites north and south, restores imperial unity and establishes the Song Dynasty.

Northern Song (960-1126) secures dominance by scholar-officials with a more centralized government than ever. The economy is booming and art, philosophy and theatre prosper. Landscape painting emerges as does the first real paper money.

Militarily weak, survival is attained through treaties with the northern Khitans and the western Xia. Continued wars boost technological innovations like gunpowder. In 1126 the Manchurian Jurchen Jin overruns north China and only one Song prince escapes, founding the Southern Song with Hangzhou as capital.

Southern Song (1127-1279) with Hangzhou as capital sees a blossoming economy, a doubling of the population and a new peak of Chinese civilization. Agriculture (cotton and rice) is further improved and China becomes a major exporter of fine porcelain. China turns to the seas producing a flourishing maritime trade.

But Song faces an unstoppable enemy. Djenghis Khan (1167-1227) conquers Korea, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and southern Russia. His grandson, Khubilai Khan, takes power in 1260 and establishes his capital in Dadu (today's Beijing). In 1279 he conquers the last of the Song Empire and establishes the Yuan Dynasty.

Ruling China as the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) the Mogols discriminate against ethnical Chinese although technically allowing a self-rule under Mongol supervision. Dadu (today's Beijing) is made capital and to supply the city with grain The Grand Canal is extended northwards joining the Yellow River and Dadu.

Mass-produced art is exported in large quantities and trade via ocean and by caravan flourishes. Marco Polo visits Khubilai Khan. Culture continues to prosper and religion is tolerated. The suppression and growing bureaucracy eventually leads to revolts. Natural disasters augment the breakdown in 1368.

Zhu Yuanzhang, a farmer and leader of a popular uprising, conquers Yingtian (today's Nanjing) in 1356 and Beijing in 1368. Pronouncing himself emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) he makes Yingtian capital.

At first a golden age, Confucian ministers soon put an end to Chinese expansionary visions and the nation isolates itself and revels in its past history. The Great Wall is fortified and numerous buildings are built in China's main cities, incl. The Forbidden City in Beijing, made capital around 1420. Incompetent emperors, corruption and natural disasters eventually lead to rebellion. The last Ming emperor hangs himself.

For the next two centuries China is at peace under the Manchurian Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Export, art and agriculture blossom but the ruling class isolates itself from its own people and the world.

Fatally trusting that the West need Chinese tea, silk and porcelain more than political influence, Qing is ill prepared for Britain's answer to its silver deficit with China: refined Opium. The last century of Qing is bloody seeing the Taiping Rebellion, the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. In 1908 the 3-year old Pu Yi becomes the last Chinese emperor until China is pronounced a republic on December 29, 1911.

It is 1911. Imperial officials are corrupt and incompetent. Despite attempts to introduce reforms, people suffer, peasants rise, foreign powers carve up China and armed struggles break out all over China.

On 10/10/1911, the Revolutionary Party launches an anti-Manchurian rebellion. Sun Yatsen is elected provisional president of the Chinese republic in Nanjing and general Yuan Shikai negotiates a settlement witht the Manchu. In February 1912 the 7-year old Pu Yi abdicates bringing an end to imperial China. Also in that month Sun Yatsen resigns allowing Yuan Shikai to become the first president of the Republic.