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A Guide to the Dynasties of China: History Essentials

Updated: May 21



Spring Dawn in the Han Dynasty, Qui Ying

Learning about one country's history is always interesting, and even more so if we are planning a trip there. However, when it comes to China, this can be a bit tricky and you might feel overwhelmed by the length and complexity of such a history.


And yet, in China is essential to know something about its history: not only because this way you will have a more enriching experience while visiting it, but also because every single Chinese knows it by heart and so much is often given for granted all around the country.


The imperial dynasties are definitely the most mentioned and probably the most loved by the Chinese people, and you will find very precise information that may make your visit a bit complicated if you really don't know a single thing about the great empire of China.


So here is a quick guide - common questions you may have, a bit of introduction to how Chinese history works, a visual timeline, an overview of the dynasties' deeds and a few tools for those who wish to get deeper into this topic!


 

In this article:


A Guide to the Dynasties of China: Overview
A Guide to the Dynasties of China
A Guide to the Dynasties of China: LTools for Travelers

 


A Guide to the Dynasties of China: Overview



INTRODUCTION


Visiting China means encountering dozens of cultural heritage sites along the way. Some may look familiar as we may know them from our general smattering of Chinese history and culture (such as the Terracotta Army or the Temple of Heaven), some others we may not understand or contextualize immediately.


Also, unless we have studied and spent a few hours getting into the functioning of China's long history, there will be many aspects of the country's culture that we won't be able to grasp. First and foremost, as soon as we step into the first heritage site, we will regret not having refreshed our memory on imperial dynasties, because basically everything we will find written will mention them, sometimes exclusively!


Having experienced this bewilderment myself, I decided to write this guide on Chinese dynasties with an essential recap that I believe may be enough to survive during your trip (or before visiting/experiencing any Chinese cultural event), something I wished I had while there!

 Important note: this is in no way a complete, exhaustive historical narration of the dynasties of China and does not mean to be one! As a historian myself, I am perfectly aware that summarising complex historical facts may over-simplify them, however, this only aims to be an introduction to the topic, hopefully useful for travelers and curious with little knowledge of Chinese culture and its ways!

➜ Over time, I will update and improve this post and write others to deepen the topic. In case you spot any mistake or wish to suggest a modification/new readings, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me!



WHY ARE CHINESE DYNASTIES SO IMPORTANT? USEFUL FACTS AND COMMON QUESTIONS


What is a dynasty in Chinese history? A dynasty in China is a succession of hereditary monarchs from the same family, which may sound similar to what we intend as such. However, while dozens of dynasties that fall under this meaning can be counted throughout Chinese history, there are a few orthodox dynasties, those officially included in the dynastic tables and covered in this post, that are called "朝, cháo". These are limited to the hereditary lines that, put together, guaranteed an unbroken line from remote times until 1911, the year of the last emperor's abdication. All other "unofficial" dynasties were normally referred to as "國, guó", kingdom.


How is the dynastic history perceived in China? The dynasties of China are held in great regard by the Chinese people today. This is not only due to strong patriotism but also to the fact that the Chinese perceive their history as a continuous line with no interruptions. This means that, while we look at past eras and epochs as closed chapters that are gone forever and in which people we see similarities but also profound differences, they literally feel a familial connection and live their lives like still part of that same culture that made dynastic emperors. This is also facilitated by the Chinese language and writing, which have remained the same (with some changes, of course!) throughout the centuries.


Does history still influence contemporary China? By now you may know that the answer to this question is yes! To help you understand this concept further, let's consider the name of China in Chinese: "中國, Zhōngguó". As you may notice, it does not have anything in common with the word "China", which is a standard name given by Westerners and recognized by Chinese people for diplomatic necessities. In the past, China was simply called after the name of the ruling dynasty. Zhōngguó is an ancient term, used from at least the 4th century BCE, and came to encompass the idea of Chinese civilization and culture that the unbroken line of dynasties had the duty to preserve but that transcended them. A mix of traditions, customs and literature that was passed on for millennia and that is now in the hands of the contemporary Chinese!


Also, here are a few basic pieces of information to help you understand why Chinese dynasties are important today:


  1. Traditional Chinese history and its narration do not work like in the Western world! We tend to define our eras and epochs with set dates, divisions and methodologies, with the ultimate goal of objectively reporting unbiased facts. In China, the most important thing is to maintain continuity, to give the idea that history is a straight line with virtually no interruption, thus connecting the legendary monarchs of remote times to today's Chinese people. Doing so sometimes requires adjustments and modifications to what would be "the truth" revealed by archaeology and historical sources.

  2. Do not be surprised by the similarities between dynasties that you may notice. China's dynastic history is said and was believed to follow a so-called "dynastic cycle" with an ascent to power, a golden period, one of decline and an ultimate fall, often by overthrowal/suicide. This is something that sometimes happened spontaneously and some others it was recreated by historians over the centuries to give the impression of a linear succession of events.

  3. Every Chinese today probably knows the dynastic line and has memorized it at school. This has been true for centuries and explains why many facts are regularly given for granted - imagine having to remind everyone of the Christmas date all the time: you wouldn't do it because sure most people simply know!



Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, heart of the imperial power from the Ming dynasty and until 1911

TIPS FOR VISITING CHINA TODAY


You likely won't have any problem contextualizing exhibitions, events and museums dedicated to China in the Western world - there will be panels, labels, audioguides and staff helping you.


If in China, however, you may indeed struggle a lot to understand what you are looking at. I remember my experience at Chengdu Museum and the frustration of being there, having the possibility of seeing some amazing artefacts and not being able to fully grasp their value. I was there with a few Chinese friends but I realized they too were having a hard time trying to simplify their knowledge of history and culture to explain it to us.


So here are a few tips/information for you:


  1. Try to have as much context as possible before visiting a museum/heritage site. A guide like this one is a good starting point, then something about the state/city you are in would also be great.

  2. Panels, labels and museum texts are often in Chinese only or include short texts/summaries in English (sometimes just titles!). They are often written for a Chinese audience or one pretty well accustomed to local culture.

  3. English audioguides are often only available at major heritage sites and do not always provide sufficient context.

  4. Private guided tours rarely include museums and often only briefly mention events and historical facts.


I have many posts scheduled for guides and guided tours around China that you may use during your visits. Here are a few available so far:





 


A Guide to the Dynasties of China



VISUAL TIMELINE


DYNASTY NAME

PERIOD

XIA Dynasty

ca. 2070 - 1600 BCE

SHANG Dynasty

ca. 1600/1570 - 1046/5 BCE

ZHOU Dynasty

1046/5 - 256 BCE

QIN Dynasty

221 - 206 BCE

HAN Dynasty

206 BCE - 220 CE

Six Dynasties Period

220 - 589 CE

SUI Dynasty

581 - 618 CE

TANG Dynasty

618 - 907 CE

Five Dynasties Period

907 - 960 CE

SONG Dynasty

960 - 1279

YUAN Dynasty

1279 - 1368

MING Dynasty

1368 - 1644

QING Dynasty

1644 - 1911



XIA DYNASTY (2070-1600 BCE)


Chinese Name: 夏朝, Xià Cháo

Capital: several over the decades

First Monarch: Yu the Great 大禹 (Dà Yǔ) - there are no precise dates of birth and death as he is considered a legendary figure

Fall: by overthrowal


We mentioned that Chinese history is built to have an unbroken line that connects today's country to antiquity. Well, this very line is said to have started with the Xia Dynasty, approximately in 2070 BCE.


As you may imagine, going back that far in time means uncertainty and doubt and thus not much is known about this dynasty. ➜ In fact, despite many scholars' attempts to bring the Xia Dynasty out of the legend, there is actually no documented proof of its existence (also, they did not yet master the art of writing). What we know about this dynasty comes from later Histories written by Chinese historians over the centuries (24 in total). The first one to mention the Xia Dynasty is that of Sima Qian 司馬遷, the great historian of China, who lived 145-86 BCE.

➜ Also, having a somehow set date in 2070 BCE does not mean that before that moment no human trace was present on Chinese soil, but just that the conditions were not mature enough to consider then-cultures a solid society that could be linked to the idea of China.


Anyway, Xia Dynasty allegedly began with the rise to power of Yu the Great大禹, around 2070 BCE. Yu is normally referred to as a king, but in reality he was likely a tribal lord who managed to organize several clans under his rule and drag the "country" (more or less corresponding to today's Henan Province) out of a period of famine and floods. His success granted him the approval of a legendary monarch and this latter's throne when he died.


The Xia Dynasty, a (pre?) Bronze Age culture, would continue to reign for a few centuries but at this point we must not imagine a real power: tribes were mostly managing themselves independently and the monarch worked as a pacifier. Actually, he was not always successful in doing so as we are told of several rebellions and turmoils. The last one, in ca. 1600 BCE, would lead to the overthrowal of the last Xia monarch, Jie 桀, and the beginning of the next dynasty line, the Shang.



Erlitou Museum
A view of the recently-opened Erlitou Museum, dedicated to Erlitou culture. By some the Erlitou culture is considered evidence of the Xia dynasty's existence


SHANG DYNASTY (1600/1570-1046/5 BCE)


● Chinese Name: 商朝, Shāng Cháo

Capital: Zhengzhou, Anyang

First Monarch: Cheng Tang 商汤 (Shāng Tāng - also known as Tianyi) - there are no precise dates of birth and death as his life remains mostly legendary

Fall: last king of the Shang committed suicide after defeat in battle


With the Shang dynasty, we leave the legends and we enter history. Or at least partially so.


The Shang period, which also corresponds to the earliest examples of Chinese writings, is the first one to have been confirmed by archaeological discoveries. Also, the names found on inscriptions and artefacts overall match ancient historical records, first of all that of Sima Qian (the same historian who wrote about the Xia dynasty).


And yet, Sima Qian tells us a story that has been reasonably debated: a neat succession of monarchs, all with their set of flaws and virtues, alternating each other until Dì Xīn 商帝辛 (r. 1075-1046 BCE) - a king with a tyrannical attitude - was forced to commit suicide after having been defeated by Wu of Zhou 周武王, the first of the Zhou dynasty, during the Battle of Muye (1046 BCE). ➜ This narration, although traditionally accepted by Chinese historiography, sounds tailor-made, as if constructed by the Zhou to justify their power and legitimize it, and also to maintain the line of Chinese history ordered and unbroken.


The Shang dynasty was probably a Bronze Age culture, advanced enough to master craftmanship, erect various buildings, have a complex religious system that included sacrifices and the cult of ancestors, and introduce writing. ➜ At the same time, the Shang kings were still more warlords than actual sovereigns and their power was not always solid: of the circa five centuries of Shang history, half of the time was spent between rebellions, battles and sieges.


The Shang, whose territory was larger than that of the Xia dynasty but still infinitely smaller than today's China, did not remain still throughout their long history. At least 2 capitals are known, Zhengzhou and Anyang (both in Henan Province), but there were probably more. Today, both centers are recognized for their historical and cultural value by the Chinese and are regularly visited together with the archaeological sites related to the Shang period.



Oracle Bone, China
A so-called oracle bone: artefacts like this were made of ox/turtle remains and used to write ancient symbols. These inscriptions are considered the earliest examples of Chinese writing | Image Credits: CGTN


ZHOU DYNASTY (1046/5-256 BCE)


● Chinese Name: 周朝, Zhōu Cháo

Capital: Hao (today's Fenghao) during the Western Zhou, Luoyang during Eastern Zhou

First Monarch: Wu of Zhou 周武王 (b. ? - d. 1043 BCE)

Fall: last king of the Eastern Zhou died in battle, later claimant to the throne was removed from power and killed

Notable Figures: Confucius, Laozi (founder of Taoism)


The Zhou Dynasty is the longest China ever known - it lasted some 789 years. Of course, such an extended period could not proceed smoothly. ➜ It has been split in two main parts: the Western Zhou (1045/6-771 BCE) and Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE). This division not only indicates a change in territories occupied but also the passage of power in the hands of different lineages within the Zhou dynasty.


As we saw, the Zhou dynasty came to power when Wu 周武王 (r. 1046-1043 BCE), the first Zhou king, killed the last Shang king, Di Xin, in 1046 BCE. ➜ These violent ends could sometimes be seen as usurpation, and the Zhou spent a few decades trying to legitimize their position. To do so, they introduced the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, a sort of duty the king had (as the Son of Heaven) to perpetuate divine power through their good govern until the end of time. This way, the Zhou pretended to be the natural successors of the Shang because, by killing Di Xin, Wu liberated China from tyranny and decline and proved worthy of the Mandate. ➜ The Zhou also assimilated Shang culture and commissioned the writing of the official Shang History (thus clearly biased and, therefore, hardly historically accurate!).


The Zhou period was characterized by contrasts: ● It was a moment of great cultural boom, with craftsmanship and bronze art reaching their peak, writing evolving and literature and philosophy blossoming (just think that two of the greatest fathers of Chinese culture lived in this period: Confucius (Kǒngzǐ) 孔子 and Lao Tzi 老子 , the founder of Taoism). ● These eight centuries were endlessly characterized by rebellions and wars.


With territories much larger than their Shang predecessors (now covering the entire North-Eastern portion of today's country), the Zhou established the so-called Chinese feudal system, basically granting power to an elite of nobles and princes, who ruled over city-states. But these city-states grew stronger over time, slowly eroding Zhou kings' own power: when the main lineage of the Zhou ended in 771 BCE, closing the Western Zhou period, the monarch was already weak. During the following centuries (Eastern Zhou), the situation collapsed, so much that the very last period (from 481 BCE) is called "of the Warring States" (in Chinese: 战国时期, Zhànguó Shídài).



Portrait of Confucius, Tang Dynasty
Traditional representation of Confucius made centuries after his death - no certain records remain of his appearance

QIN DYNASTY (221-206 BCE)


● Chinese Name: 秦朝, Qín Cháo

Capital: Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an)

First Monarch: Qin Shihuang 秦始皇 (259-210 BCE)

Fall: Qin Shihuang's son, Qin Er Shi 秦二世, was forced to commit suicide

Built in this period: Terracotta Army, first version of the Great Wall


The most attentive may have noticed a gap between the official end of the Zhou dynasty and the beginning of the Qin: from 256 to 221 BCE. It might look like a break in the unbroken line of Chinese history, but there's an explanation. ➜ Even though the last recognized Zhou King died in 256 BCE, another Zhou briefly tried to seize power but was ultimately defeated. So no panic, the order of things remains ordered.


Anyway, after this clumsy attempt, another family eventually took control of what was China back then (during the Qin it corresponded to the whole modern-day eastern territories and part of the south): the Qin. Qin was actually the name of one of those city-states that characterized the Zhou period and that were the ones truly holding power. Qin rulers had been particularly smart and, throughout the centuries, they had managed to conquer all neighbouring states and centralize power through bureaucracy, standards and cutting-edge innovations. So when the time was finally right to take over the throne, Ying Zheng did not fail and proclaimed himself First Emperor, assuming the name of Qin Shihuang 秦始皇 (literally, "First Emperor of Qin").


Qin Shihuang's reign would prove to be the very core of the Qin dynasty: he brought Qin state's neat organization and order to the empire, established a veritable centralized social system for the first time, successfully defended the borders (he introduced a first version of the Great Wall), and managed to initiate one of the golden ages of Chinese history. His ways were often associated with tyranny and despotism, but the silver linings apparently outdone the bad aspects.


Upon his death, the First Emperor was buried in a massive, regal tomb: disappeared for millennia, this incredible burial came back to light in 1974 and it is now known as the Terracotta Army.


His successors could not keep up with him though: his own son, Qin Er Shi 秦二世, was a weak ruler who dissolved his father's efforts and power in a matter of years. Forced to commit suicide in 206 BCE, with him ended the short-lived Qin dynasty, after just 15 years. ➜ However, much of the centralized and logistic system created in those years would remain for millennia and become the mainstay of modern China.



HAN DYNASTY (206 BCE - 220 CE)


● Chinese Name: 汉朝, Hàn Cháo

Capital: Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an) during the Western Han, Luoyang during the Eastern Han

First Monarch: Gaozu of Han 漢高祖 (reigned 202-195 BCE)

Fall: last emperor forced into abdication

Highlights: establishment of the Silk Road, Confucianism becomes the official religious philosophy of the Empire


It took the new dynasty a few years to stabilize its power, but in the end Liu Bang could successfully reign under the name of Gaozu of Han 漢高祖 (r. 202-195 BCE).


Remembered as the very first of the truly-Chinese dynasties, one of the golden ages in Chinese history and even as the "classical age" of China, the Han period was characterized by a strong military machine that allowed the sovereigns to expand territories and trades, but was nevertheless subject to rebellions, invasions and internal wars. ➜ These conflicts even led to a brief span of years when another “unorthodox” dynasty (the Xin) took over, thus dividing the Han era into Western Han (206 BCE - 9 CE), with capital Chang'an, and Eastern Han (9-220 CE), with capital Luoyang.


Anyway, these four Han centuries are certainly more known for their magnificence than for their flaws: the impact on the developing Chinese culture was so strong that, even today, the Chinese people like to call themselves "Han Chinese" to set them apart from foreigners and other populations within the country. Indeed, the Han worked hard to further centralize power, ameliorate the logistic, economic and engineering machine of the state, and to foster innovation.


These efforts resulted in a prosperity that would characterize most of the Han years. Among the most striking results are the mastery of silk weaving - which boosted trades, reaching the Roman Empire and thus establishing the Silk Road -, the expansion of Confucianism, which became the official state religious philosophy, and the development of writing, which was practised on paper.


Many notable literati, scientists and statesmen lived during this period, first and foremost the historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145-87 BCE), who we have already mentioned several times. His account of Chinese history until his days will remain a mainstay and is still studied by every Chinese student today. Also, Sima lived during the reign of the most important Han Emperor, whose reign and way of govern were set as the model for every later sovereign, Wu of Han 汉武帝 (reigned 156-87 BCE).


Then, as always, all good things must come to an end. The Han dynasty, which managed to double the territories under its influence, tame foreign invasions and even stretch its influence to touch present-day Korean Peninsula, Mongolia and Vietnam, was gradually weakened by internal discord and lust for power until intestine revolts brought to a coup d'etat that overthrown the last Han emperor, Xian 漢獻帝, in 220 CE.



Mural painting, Han Dynasty
Han dynasty's example of mural painting


INTERVAL: SIX DYNASTIES PERIOD (220 - 589 CE)


It is said that every golden epoch must be followed by a period of chaos, and in the case of Chinese history after the fall of the Han, this might be indeed true.


The so-called "Six Dynasties" period is a long time span that has been later "organized" and categorized with this name to give it a sense of order but actually represented a moment of profound distress in China's history. ➜ This denomination comes from the six subsequent dynasties that ruled disorderly over then-China for more than three centuries, starting from the forced abdication of the Han Emperor, when three figures emerged as claimants to the throne.


The great instability brought by this period, together with an increasing affluence of foreigners in the North, led rulers to turn their heads to the south of China, until that moment underpopulated and underdeveloped. ➜ For a long time, the South would be the new cradle of Chinese culture.


With the collapse of the Han system that made him popular, Confucianism also hit the break on its spread, leaving the way to Taoism and to a new, imported religion, Buddhism. ➜ Despite coming from abroad, Buddhism would soon acquire Chinese characteristics, and its cult would expand fast thanks to the reassuring effect it had on struggling populations. Temples and monasteries would be conspicuously built at this time. Literature and the arts also flourished in these centuries, the artists and literati inspired by harsh times.



SUI DYNASTY (581-618 CE)


● Chinese Name: 隋朝, Suí Cháo

Capital: Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an), Luoyang

First Monarch: Wen of Sui 隋文帝 (reigned 581-604 CE)

Fall: last emperor assassinated


The Sui dynasty, just like the Qin, was never destined to last. When the first emperor of this house, Wen 隋文帝 (r. 581-604 CE), obtained the throne, he did so after centuries of decentralization of power and chaos. He was certainly helped by the military skills he acquired from his family, but the dynasty he founded, the Sui, was to be remembered mainly as the precursor of a more successful one: the Tang.


The Sui period was not only a preparatory chapter though, something one can forget about. The North and the South were reunited under a more organized central power, major engineering projects were undertaken to protect and enforce the whole country, and culture continued to prosper through Buddhism, now merged in a genuine Chinese way with Taoism, Confucianism, and the theory of Ying and Yang.


On a darker note, relationships with neighbours were turning bitter: conflicts with the Turks and other foreign populations were the norm during the Sui, and in fact it was a disastrous military campaign in the Korean peninsula to ultimately disintegrate the dynasty's power. ➜ In 618, Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-618) was killed in a moment of extreme political weakness, promptly substituted with a puppet emperor and, one year later, by the first Tang emperor. Yang, in line with Chinese traditional narration, is remembered as despotic and brutal, probably to justify the end of the Sui and the need for a new dynasty to emerge.


Emperor Taizong of Tang
Emperor Taizong of Tang, one of the most popular and praised emperors in Chinese history

TANG DYNASTY (618-907 CE)


● Chinese Name: 唐朝, Táng Cháo

Capital: Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an)

First Monarch: Gaozu of Tang 唐高祖 (reigned 618-626 CE)

Fall: by overthrowal

Notable Figures: Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (598-649 CE)


We mentioned that the Sui dynasty, the predecessor of the Tang, set up the scene for what would come and that the Tang Emperors would benefit a great deal from the unified, pacified and more centralized state they left.


So when Emperor Gaozu 唐高祖 (r. 618-626) seized power in 618 CE, the conditions were favorable for the beginning of a new golden era. ➜ However, it was not him but his son, Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 626-649 CE) who introduced then-China to a long period of prosperity and expansion.


Taizong is another emperor among the few venerated as role models by their successors and the Chinese people. ● Under his rule the realm expanded greatly, reaching Mongolia, the Korean peninsula, Vietnam and even Afghanistan, while influencing other territories such as today's Japan. ● Taizong also strived to create an impartial, upright administration class and to eliminate corruption through the examination system, a method to select future administrators and statal officers based on education level and extended knowledge that would be used for centuries.


Thanks to Taizong's inspiring deeds, several other Tang emperors contributed to creating an internationally open country: during the Tang period, dozens of foreign emissaries and diplomats would visit the imperial court and trade would boom (the Silk Road reaching a new activity peak). Poetry blossomed and a few peculiar styles emerged (such as the so-called Classical Prose Movement 古文運動, Gǔwén Yùndòng), while art and craftmanship saw a rise in international popularity.


However, we all know by now that golden and prosperous times are not meant to last in Chinese history. An increasing flow of money and resources slowly generated a greedy and ambitious aristocracy, which grew stronger and independent over time, threatening the central power. A new taxation system and other vexations brought the situation to a point of no return: a disastrous internal rebellion movement, that of Huang Chao 黄巢, led to the temporary conquest of the capital, a trauma the Tang were not able to deal with, and the last emperor was soon after overthrown. Another period of disunion was on the way.


The Gathering of Kings, Yan Libei
The Gathering of Kings by Yan Libei (650 CE ca.) - this parade of foreign ambassadors paying homage to the emperor perfectly conveys the internationality of the Tang daynasty's court


INTERVAL: FIVE DYNASTIES AND TEN KINGDOMS PERIOD (907-960 CE)


This circa 50-year interval between the Tang and the Song dynasties has been often compared to the Six Dynasties period or the Warring States. ➜ But despite having been classified by the Chinese traditional historiography as "a state of disorder", it really just looks like a regular transitional episode from a weak, old power (the Tang) to a new and fresh one (the Song).


Indeed, when the last Tang emperor, Ai 唐昭宣帝, was overthrown in 906, the dynasty's power was already over. We said that in the last decades, the imperial system could not control the local states with their powerful military aristocracies, and many regions had basically become independent. At some point, the Tang were just destined to end.


However, while the Tang were not suitable for ruling anymore, no decent successor was to be immediately found - and this is how we enter the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. ➜ A time span with a long name that indicates half a century when Northern China was under the rule of five consequent dynasties, and Southern China was in the hands of 10 different kingdoms. ➜ The North was strong in the military, while the South was trade- and business-focused. The western part of the country, today's Sichuan, was living its own experience, flourishing during a long period of peace thanks to a strong mountain barrier.


The North was definitely more suitable for unifying China, since only the five dynasties potentially had enough strength and resources to control the entire country. The ten southern kingdoms were wealthy and prosperous, but could not compete militarily. ➜ No one seemed to be able to emerge and the Mandate of Heaven remained vacant - this is why this period is considered an interregnum: because there was no Son of Heaven on Earth.


Anyway, the Tang overall political and administrative system survived and was diversely utilized by the five dynasties, which were each consistently trying to re-unify China. ➜ A key to restoring union lay in the gradual dismantling of the aristocracy’s power in favor of a bureaucratic class with no territorial authority, thus preventing further internal rebellions that caused the fall of many dynasties in the past. Over the decades, a few powers stood out more than others, gradually pathing the way for the Song.



SONG DYNASTY (960-1279)


● Chinese Name: 宋朝, Sòng Cháo

Capital: Bianjing (modern-day Kaifeng) during the Northern Song, Lin'an (modern-day Hangzhou) during the Southern Song

First Monarch: Taizu of Song 宋太祖 (reigned 960-976)

Fall: North conquered by the Jurchen, last emperor of the South overthrown by the Mongols


In 960, Zhao Kuangyin, later known as Emperor Taizu 宋太祖 (r. 960-976), understood it was about time to take over the throne of the North and end the Five Dynasties period. ➜ He usurped the last sovereign of the fifth dynasty, founded his own dynasty named Song, then focused his attention on the South, still divided into ten kingdoms. In a matter of years, China was once again united and the Mandate of Heaven restored. And yet, even though it began with unity, the Song period actually introduced a factor that would impact Chinese history until contemporary times: the influence of foreign populations.


Indeed, the Song dynasty is normally divided into two sections: the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279) - as you can see, such divisions are recurrent in Chinese tradition! ● The Northern Song corresponds to a period when China (which now included the whole East, much of the North and the South of today's nation) was entirely in the hands of the Song with capital Bianjing. ● The Southern Song begins with the conquest of the North by the Jurchen in 1127 and the Song being pushed back to the South, with capital Hangzhou. It ends with the arrival of the Mongols in the South from the North, which they had meanwhile occupied.


Foreign invasions had rarely gone as far as occupying such huge portions of the empire. ➜ The Jurchen (an East Asian population) assumed Chinese customs and names to better hold on to power (their "unorthodox" dynasty was called Jin), but they still came from outside China. ➜ Same for the Mongols, who would defeat the Jurchen in 1234, take control of the North, then proceed with the conquest of the South in 1279, eventually re-unifying China and ending the Song's rule. The Mongols too assumed a Chinese name for their dynasty (Yuan) but their manners remained different and would influence the course of Chinese history.


Among these many changes, the one factor that always kept the Chinese spirit alive despite divisions is culture: during the Song, literature, art and crafts blossomed, assuming original characteristics that would inspire the future Chinese.

● In architecture, the Song are best remembered for the pagodas they built. This peculiar structure became a must for Chinese architecture and would be replicated over the centuries. We also still have a few precious examples of Song period's buildings.

● In philosophy and poetry, Confucianism evolved into Neo-Confucianism and once again heavily spread across the country. Trade and commerce boomed, allowing Chinese pottery and artefacts to reach the entire country, continent and the Western world.


Buddhist Temple, Sichuan, China
Religion with Chinese characteristics: in China, temples are always a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and cult of the imperial ancestors


YUAN DYNASTY (1279-1368)


● Chinese Name: 元朝, Yuán Cháo

Capital: Dadu (modern-day Beijing)

First Monarch: Kublai Khan 元世祖 (reigned 1271-1294)

Fall: last emperor forced away from his capital

Notable Figures: Marco Polo (1254-1324)


Unlike other major dynasties, the Yuan has many names: Great Mongolia, Great Yuan, Dai Ön Ulus, and more. Why? Because the Yuan Dynasty was the first non-Han (so non-ethnic Chinese) dynasty in the history of China, at least since the Han had set the standard for what being Chinese means.


As we saw, the previous dynasty, the Song, was slowly overthrown by foreigners. The Jurchen first, the Mongols later. These latter would eventually conquer the entire then-country and begin a foreign rule under a Chinese name (Song). It was the first time a foreign population managed to go that far.


In fact, especially at the beginning of their rule, the Mongols committed themselves to sinicization (so absorbing Chinese traits) and to a propositive merging process with the local population. ➜ However, the Yuan were originally part of a Mongol empire that was larger than life (it stretched till the Middle East, touching Eastern Europe), were of nomadic origins, and overall were mentally and culturally distant from the Chinese. Thus, they could never sinicize completely.


This resistance against change was both their peculiarity and their condemnation: while they brought novelties, a new (more authoritarian) administrative system and fostered exchanges and trade with faraway countries, the Mongols were never really accepted by the local population.

● With an international imperial court (they notably hosted Venetian merchant Marco Polo!) and customs that were half-here and half-there, the Yuan were short-lived, as at some point they could not integrate with the Chinese but were too Chinese to fit in with the other Mongols out there. ● This cultural division was also apparent in art and literature: while previous dynasties had commissioned and guided literati and artists, the Mongols let them technically free to choose their way of art, but preferred non-traditional options and often foreign influences. ➜ A whole parallel culture emerged, with Han Chinese using literature to protest and hope for a return to the Song (or, better said, to an ethnic-Chinese domination).


This whole situation gradually eroded the Yuan's power, until it reduced to mere fiction. Internal revolts became the norm, and a few ones, such as the Red Turban Rebellions (1351-1368), openly aimed to restore the Song dynasty. In the end, starting from the South, territories were re-conquered by the Han-Chinese population, until the last of the Tang was forced to give over the throne in 1368.


Ming ceramic
Ming's ceramic production in its blue and white tones became incredibly popular outside China and was heavily imported in Europe

MING DYNASTY (1368-1644)


● Chinese Name: 明朝, Míng Cháo

Capital: Beijing, sometimes Nanjing

First Monarch: Hongwu or Taizu 明太祖 (reigned 1368-1398)

Fall: last emperor committed suicide, Beijing seized by the Manchu


After decades of Mongol domination under the Yuan dynasty, China was ready to welcome a new Han-Chinese dynasty. Patriotism and nostalgia had increased in the hearts of the literati and the people, and when the first Ming emperor, Taizu (Hongwu) 明太祖, finally seized the throne from the last Mongol emperor, things seemed to be getting back in place. ➜ In reality, the Ming Dynasty was to become the last ever Han-based dynasty of China, which would end its imperial history with foreigners in power. But this was still far from happening back in 1368 when Taizu became emperor.


The Ming Dynasty was characterized by marked conservativism, a common trait in periods that followed external domination. Also, the Ming took a few aspects of their Mongolian predecessors' system and exasperated them: if the Yuan political machine tended to authoritarianism and over-control, the Ming set up a veritable absolutistic machine, with Emperor Taizu (Hongwu) literally trying to create an immobile method that could go on for centuries to come and let China sustain on itself.

➜ To achieve this, the Ming made sure that only carefully selected people could be given administrative roles: the government examination became a crucial step in any officer's career and literally every single bureaucrat had to pass it.


Was this approach successful? Partially yes, as China saw its influence over East Asia solidify to its highest level, with the notable exception of Japan, with whom China had to compete to maintain control of the Korean Peninsula. But the north remained unstable, the Jurchen and the Mongols not anymore ruling but still pushing on the borders, ready to strike. ➜ This constant threat led the Ming to defend their newly-built capital, Beijing, with a new section of the Great Wall. Today, that section is one of the most visited in the whole of China.


Among this conservatism trend, arts and literature struggled to find their voice. Architecture in particular was notoriously repetitive - something we can still notice today: during the Ming, the Forbidden City was built, and basically every building around the Empire would take on from that. ● A brighter note for ceramic, as Ming style is probably the best-known in the Western world: much of what we admire in European royal residencies or museum collections (in the tones of white and blue) comes right from the Ming period and is generically called "Ming". It was often even imitated and reproduced outside China.


Anyway, excessive control and repression naturally increased discontent and slowly led to attempts to riot against power: especially, rebellious spirits came from those very officials, bureaucrats and people close to the court, who all tried to exploit the imperial weaknesses to seize power. ➜ One of these rebellions, that of Li Zicheng 李自成 (a peasant backed by higher powers), would result in the conquest of Beijing, the capital. The Ming, hoping to save their power, in 1644 asked the Manchu for help. The Manchu, a Northern population occupying the extreme borders of China, helped the emperor but, in the end, opted for the establishment of their own dynasty, thus ending the Han-rule of China forever.


Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, the last residence of the emperors

QING DYNASTY (1644-1911)


● Chinese Name: 清朝, Qīng Cháo

Capital: Beijing

First Monarch: Shunzhi 順治帝 (first to reign over China), (r. 1643-1661)

Fall: last emperor forced to abdicate

Major Events: Opium Wars, Self-Strengthening Movement, First China-Japan War, Xinhai Revolution, End of Monarchy


The closer we get to our times, the harder is to simplify events in a few lines. Protagonists multiply, factors become complex and too many countries and entities are involved.


The Qing Dynasty, established in 1644 and meant to survive until 1911, was the last. With it, the monarchy and the 2000+ history of the Chinese Empire came to a definitive end. ● This dynasty was led by the Manchus, a foreign population that, contrary to the Mongols, strived to be sinicized and eventually merged with the local Han-Chinese.


The Qing period can be easily divided in two parts (although no such official division exists): from 1644 until the late 18th century, then the late 18th century to 1911, year of the final abdication.


● During the first "part", the Qing managed to keep the country under their control, even expanding the territories to become one of the largest empires of all times (with an extension bigger than today's China). The Qing could achieve this thanks to a few smart moves: as said, they did not refuse to be sinicized and tried to integrate with the Chinese, however, they avoided internal disloyalty by only assigning high positions to fellow Manchus. They also basically maintained the administrative system of their predecessors, the Ming, but smoothed the authoritarianism and adjusted those traits that previously led to revolt.


● The second "part" brought new and unprecedented issues, and no earlier dynasty's example could come to aid. Starting from the late 18th century, the Qing Empire, already much weaker due to overpopulation, famines, corruption and natural disasters, had to face the reality of a changing world. Unfortunately, with hindsight, we can say that the Chinese response was not a win. The Qin disdained the idea of trading with the Europeans - who had reached India, Indonesia, and were quickly approaching East Asia - preferring to keep on selling their products for solid money.


At this point, many of you may be familiar with what happened next. Qing China reached the 19th century in a decise refusal of what was happening around it: while several European and non-European countries had by then welcomed industrialization and (forcibly) accepted Western interference, China continued to keep foreigners out of its traditions, system and commerce.

While to our contemporary minds this may sound like legitimate defence and patriotism, it actually brought problems and the situation was in part miscalculated. Inthe Chinese were sending out goods to the Western world, which much appreciated them, but did not wish to make trade mutual. This ultimately resulted in an escalation: the British Empire, which at the time was extremely more powerful than any other competitor and the major importer of Chinese goods in the world, felt humiliated and decided to force its way into China's economy through opium. And not even the imperial law could stop addiction.

➜ When the Qing, worried by the trailblazing effect opium was having on China's society, tried to face the foreign forces (the notorious Opium Wars) but the result was disastrous. Decades of external domination, turmoil and decline followed, together with an unsuccessful attempt to acquire "Western" manners and industrialize the country in the hope of saving it.


Sometimes history cannot simply be stopped - the world was undoubtedly setting apart from old-fashioned monarchies that could not evolve. The Qing's power quickly deteriorated and not even the despotic rule of the controversial Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 could save it. The last Qing emperor, a boy named Xuangton or Pu Yi 溥儀 (r. 1908-1911), was eventually forced to abdicate in 1911.


This way ended the imperial history of China. On January 1st, 1912, the Republic of China was born at the hands of another iconic figure, Sun Yat-Sen or Sun Zhongshan 孫中山 (1866-1925). But this is another story..


Pu Yi's bedroom in the Forbidden City
The last Emperor's bedroom as it appeared when he left the Forbidden City


 


A Guide to the Dynasties of China: Tools for Travelers



LEARN MORE: BOOKS AND PODCASTS


Well, if you managed to go this far and reached the end of this guide then I truly hope you know enough to navigate through Chinese history!


However, as said, this is not a complete nor fully exhaustive journey through imperial China! Over the years, I have read a few books, spent hours listening to dedicated podcasts and watched many videos to understand more myself - what I learnt about learning Chinese history is that you first need to understand how Chinese mentality and culture work, and that many aspects of Chinese history are not necessarily defined or absolute.


Every narrator has their way of telling you this great story, but here below are a few suggestions. Some of them are about Imperial China, some others touch a few topics we have mentioned above.



Podcasts

  • The China History Podcast by Laszlo Montgomery (available on Spotify): with almost 15 years of activity, this podcast encompasses many aspects of Chinese history and offers great opportunities to discover more about specific topics and historical events.

  • The History of China by Eric Andresen (available on Spotify): 62 episodes to narrate the history of China from its origins until the end of the Han Dynasty. The author's approach is quite original and sarcastic - great pick if you like it this way!

  • The History of China by Chris Stewart (available on Spotify): narrating the entire history of imperial China in detail is definitely not easy, but this podcast seems to be going against all odds. Its journey began when podcasts were not a thing yet (in 2013) and continues to this day! Through 250+ episodes and a more classical approach, you can go through every dynasty and notable figure or event.



Books

  • China: A History by John Keay: a classic, this was the first book I ever read about Chinese history. Not the easiest, maybe not the best, but surely complete. CHINESE HISTORY FROM ORIGINS TO CONTEMPORARY TIMES

  • The Great Wall: China Against the World by Julia Lovell (2006): summarizing millennia of history is not easy, by now we know. Anyway, Julia Lovell did a nice job and the book can be a good starting point. CHINESE HISTORY FROM ORIGINS TO CONTEMPORARY TIMES

  • Imperial China, 900–1800 by Frederick W. Mote (2000): I told you before that China's history underwent a drastic change starting from the early 1800s. Well, Mote focuses on the richest chapter of this history, the heyday of the Empire, ending it right before the major turn of the 19th century. IMPERIAL HISTORY: SONG-QING

  • The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China by Julia Lovell (2011): it's Julia Lovell again, this time focusing on the Opium Wars, one of the best-known topics in Chinese history outside China and of the most suffered and debated inside China. OPIUM WARS AND COLONISATION PERIOD

  • The Spirit of the Chinese People by Ku Hung-Ming (1915): truly a classic, this was the first attempt to explain Chinese mentality to a non-Chinese, mostly Westerner audience. Reading this book can help you understand the country and its history, and is great if you are planning a trip there (you will feel the Chinese spirit). CHINESE CULTURE

  • Great State: China and the World by Timothy Brooks (2019): you may have heard of Brooks from Vermeer's Hat and so you may know already that he is incredibly good at explaining complex social and cultural dynamics. Here, he goes through the relationship of China with the outside world, which, as we saw, is and has always been complicated. CHINA'S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WORLD THROUGH HISTORY

  • The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan (2015): another big classic, translated all over the world, this book is a must-have for anyone interested in understanding how Asia and Europe connected during the past millennia and what this meant for China. Not always fluid, but good for beginners. HISTORY OF THE SILK ROADS



Terracotta Army, China
The Terracotty Army, defender of the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang



 


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