Dynasties have been a part of Chinese history since ancient times. Little parts of China were ruled by regional dynasties, some of which eventually rose up to take over the entire country. These times of disorder have many names, but the states are generally called kingdoms. The periods where the country is united are referred to as empires. In both cases, it is dynasties that formed the heart of the states or state and only until the dissolution of the monarchy in 1912 did China finally end its dynastic history.
Xia Dynasty (c. 2205 – 1766 BCE)
Traditionally, the Xia was the first dynasty in Chinese history, although there is little evidence that any such dynasty existed. However, there is mounting evidence thatsomething existed before the Shang dynasty, so many are speculating that the Xia did exist, just not in the traditional form. As with most cultures' earliest history, the Xia are shrouded in mythology and mystic.
The myth is that the Xia was founded by a descendant of one of the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, Yu the Great. Seventeen Xia emperors ruled under the Chinese Mandate of Heaven—a concept that only one dynasty could rule under the will of the Gods—eventually being beaten and suppressed by the Shang dynasty. Historians are still out on whether this dynasty truly existed, but archaeologists have been finding enough evidence to prove that China was active, at least in the Yellow River region, during the 23rd century BCE.
|The Xia Dynasty|
Shang or Yin Dynasty (1766 – 1122 BCE)
The Shang dynasty spread out from the Yellow River basin in all directions, reaching inland and to the sea. Much more archaeological evidence exists for this dynasty, especially their turtle-backed oracle bones that depict the first-known instances of Chinese script. But their dynastic history is still rather vague.
Tradition states that the rebel king Tang defeated the last of the Xia rulers at the Battle of Mingtiao. Throughout the subsequent centuries, Shang culture thrived and the capital of the empire moved to many places before finally settling at Yin. The last emperor, Zhou, was defeated in the battle of Muye against the Zhou Dynasty, but his son was allowed to retain his kingly title as a vassal. However, a decade later, King Wugeng Lufu joined in a rebellion against the Zhou Dynasty but was defeated. The last remnant of the dynasty died with him. In all, thirty-one Shang emperors are thought to have ruled China.
|The Shang Dynasty|
Zhou Dynasty (1122 – 256 BCE)
The Zhou dynasty is one of the most famous of the many Chinese dynasties. It, in effect, established the original Chinese state and culture. Historically, Zhou is separated intoWestern Zhou and Eastern Zhou periods. The Western period was when the Zhou thrived, while the Eastern period is when it fell into utter decline, culminating in the Spring & Autumn period and the Warring states period of Chinese history.
Western Zhou was more centralized than its later successor, but the Zhou dynasty was always destined for failure. Soon after the conquest of Shang, the Zhou emperors divided up the empire into small kingdoms and gave them to his relatives. Over time, these kingdoms grew more distant from the emperor and became largely independent. There truly was no "golden age" for the Zhou dynasty. The dynasty was always at war with itself. It feel to pieces and was forced to change locations of its capital in 722 BCE, prompting the start of the Eastern Zhou period.
By 722 BCe, the Eastern Zhou had become mere figureheads in the political schemes of the powerful nobility. The Spring and Autumn period dates until 481 BCE and includes the time when the infighting states sought power from intellect and the studies of Daoism, Confucianism, Legalism, and Mohism developed. Even today, all these schools of thought have resonance in modern Chinese culture. The Warring States period that followed saw the utter collapse of the Zhou state. The figureheads went often unrecognized and the size of the actual Zhou state was centralized around its capital on the Yellow River. When the last Zhou emperor died in 256 BCE, his sons did not claim the title. Zhou dissolved and the Mandate of Heaven fell to the strongest competitor. Eventually, that person was Qin Shi who founded the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE. Thirty-nine Zhou emperors ruled China.
|The scattered Zhou Dynasty|
Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE)
Briefly mentioned in the Dynastology 145, the Qin Dynasty was the first "True" imperial dynasty in China. Prior to the reign of Shi Huangdi, the Mandate of Heaven fell on a "king" who ruled above vassal kings. Shi took the title a step further and made the emperor the Emperor (capital E). Unfortunately, his heirs were unable to do much with the title. Not long after his death, the Han rebelled and took over the leadership of China. Only three Qin rulers ruled China.
|The Qin Dynasty|
Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)
For information on the Han Dynasty, check Dynasty 145. It eventually fell into disarray, leading to the...
|The Han Dynasty|
Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280)
Poor management and palace plots led the Han into decline. A branch of it survived as the Shu Han, but it was in the minority. Two new kingdoms were on the rise during the Three Kingdoms period: Wei and Wu. All three kingdoms claimed to be the successor to the Han Dynasty, and therefore claimed the Mandate of Heaven. None of the states survived the century, though. Wei conquered Shu Han but was then conquered by the Jin, a rival clan that began as a vassal of Wei. Wu was conquered by Jin not long after.
|The Three Kingdoms|
Jin Dynasty (265 – 420) & the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (316 – 420)
The Jin Dynasty ruled all of China for only a decade, but had a strong influence on its politics for two centuries. Strong internal fighting occupied the majority of Jin's history. At first it was just unsatisfied nobles, but when northern invaders crossed the Great Wall, the Jin dynasty headed for the south. Sixteen rival kingdoms sprang up over a short period. Most of them proved to be nothing more than a nuissance to the Jin, but others remained constant threats. Eventually, two rose up and conquered the rest, ending Jin's titular leadership of China. Seventeen Jin emperors ruled China.
|The Eastern Jin Dynasty|
Southern & Northern Dynasties (420 – 589)
Those winners were the Northern Wei and the Southern Song dynasties. During this time, Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism spread throughout China. Han immigrants moved south and began their millennia-long migrational take-over of China. Chinese became the language of many aboriginal groups in the south, as well, beginning a long process of sinicization that would see the expansion of Chinese culture to throughout China, Korea, Mongolia and Indo-China.
The Southern Song dynasty was founded by Wu of Liu Song, who deposed the last Jin emperor and claimed the title for himself. The dynasty was short-lived, though, and the title of emperor was taken by the ruler of Southern Qi, then Liang, and finally Chen. In the north, the Northern Wei were half-steppe people and half-Chinese. Chinese influence quickly was forced into the steppe regions of Mongolia but the Wei dynasty didn't last long. The north became divided between Northern Qi and Northern Zhou. Zhou defeated Qi in 577 but another foe conquered Zhou three years later. That foe was a southern empire administrator named Yang Jian, who soon overthrew the Chen dynasty in the south. With the north and south subdued, he proclaimed himself Emperor Wen of Sui and began a new period of Chinese unification.
|The Southern & Northern Dynasties|
Sui Dynasty (589 – 618)
The Sui dynasty was the first period of Chinese unity since before 220. The Sui established their capital at Luoyang, the traditional capital of China. To combat problems from previous periods, the Sui centralized the government and established social programs to buy loyalty to the crown. A bureaucracy was created to manage everything, with the emperor overseeing it all. But loyalty proved to expensive to buy, as taxation and forced labor on the Great Wall and other large-scale projects caused resentment to grow. Ultimately, it was northern invaders who defeated the Sui, but the people had already largely lost faith in them. Pro-Han politics and the spread of Confucianism relegated nomadic tribes to second-class status, causing anger to grow. Seeing the changing tides, an eager aristocrat in the north proclaimed himself emperor, and few opposed his declaration. Sui had a scant four emperors before being overthrown by the Tang.
|The Sui Dynasty|
Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
The Tang dynasty were an ambitious lot. They literally nabbed the thrown away from the emperor while he was incapacitated in southern wars. They moved the capital to its first location, Chang'an. They became one of the highest cultural points in Chinese history. Most of the famous Chinese poets and artists herald from this period. And heck! The Tang even produced the only female monarch to rule in China's long history. Indeed, the Tang Dynasty was important to Chinese history. Most of the shape of modern-day China was achieved during this dynasty, minus Manchuria and Tibet. Much of its success was due to maintaining the good systems of the previous dynasty, while better moderating the bad policies.
The most interesting part of the Tang Dynasty, though, is probably its one aside: the Later Zhou dynasty, also known as the reign of Wu Zetian, China's only female monarch. Wu began as a lowly consort before using court intrigue to raise her to the highest position in the harem. When her son, the Crown Prince, began asserting his authority, he died mysteriously. Another son was forcibly exiled and later committed suicide. When the Emperor Gaozong died in 683, Wu saw her chance. She had her elder son deposed in favor of a younger one who became Emperor Ruizong. Wu took over the reigns of government in his stead. When a group of Tang princes rebelled against the queen regent, she deposed her son and took over the empire directly. She ruled for fifteen years with her son remaining her designated heir. She accomplished little in her reign, as most of her ideas were rejected by her successor, who was not Ruizong but rather her elder son, Zhongzong. Wu died a few months after her forced abdication in 705.
Rebellions plagued the last years of the Tang dynasty. Turks both invaded and were called in to defend China. But once they moved in, they were unwilling to move out without receiving excessive payments. Inflation went haywire and the empire went broke. The empire finally fell in 907 when a military governor named Zhu Wen deposed the last Tang emperor established the Later Liang dynasty, one of the many dynasties of the following period. There were twenty-four rulers of China during the Tang dynasty if you count Wu Zetian as one of them.
|The Tang Dynasty|
Five Dynasties, Ten Kingdoms, Two More Dynasties, and Some Other Stuff (907 – 1279)
Until the Yuan Dynasty came and forced China to unify, China remained divided for three hundred years after the Tang dynasty fell. It is sub-divided into different periods depending on geography and time. The Five Dynasties were a serious of dynasties that ruled in the north in rapid succession of one another—Later Liang, Later Tang, Later Jin, Later Han, and Later Zhou. For the most part, they claimed descent from but were separate from any previous dynasties of the same name. in the south, numerous kingdoms developed, although Ten Kingdoms are historically named—Wu, Wuyue, Min, Chu, Southern Han, Former Shu, Later Shu, Jingnan, Southern Tang, Northern Han. All of these were conquered and/or centralized under the Northern Song dynasty around 960.
The Song dynasty were the first to develop gunpowder as an offensive weapon. They used it against first the Manchurian Jin dynasty and later the Mongols. They had quickly conquered and centralized China but were unable to conquer it all. They restored many of the facets of the Tang dynasty and promoted science and education. Song was forced to relocate south when they were defeated in the north by the Jin dynasty. But that did not stop their progress. The majority of the Chinese population had migrated south, and while the Jin controlled the Yellow River valley, the Song ruled the Chinese people.
In the north, prior to the Jin dynasty, the Liao dynasty had developed in the region of Manchuria and Mongolia. They were foreign and, therefore, feared by the Chinese, but they adopted Chinese codes of law and became, in many instances, another Chinese successor state of the Tang. They were eventually taken over by the Jin, who were subsequently taken over by the Mongols.
|The Song Dynasty|
Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368)
The Mongols have been discussed before, but the deserve a brief mention here. They appeared out of nowhere and very quickly conquered the Jin dynasty of northern China. Their progress was halted by the Song for a while, but Kublai Khan finally succeeded in conquering the entire region. In the end, the Yuan dynasty in China—which descended from Ghengis Khan—ruled the largest empire China had ever, and has ever since, achieved. It matched very closely the modern borders of China today, but ventured much farther into the north, encompassing Mongolia and southern Siberia. And while the Mongols ruled China for less than a century, it was they who invited Marco Polo into their courts, thereby making China accessible to Europeans for the first time ever.
The later Mongols were poor Chinese rulers and people began to rebel against them. Eventually, Zhu Yuanzhang won a decisive victory against the Yuan dynasty and they went into exile. Zhu proclaimed the Ming dynasty while the Yuan retreated to Mongolia where their dynasty would continue until the 20th century.
|The Yuan Dynasty|
Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)
The penultimate dynasty of Chinese history, the Ming began as a rebellion against the Mongols and became one of the most infamous dynasties of all. It was the last Han dynasty of China (that is, it was ruled by the Han people). It is highly possible that the Ming found North America before the Renaissance Europeans, but, like the Vikings, settlement was not something they were interested in. Still, the Ming created one of the largest armies and navies known in history. Many Chinese landmarks such as the Great Wall, the Great Canal, and the Forbidden City of Beijing were improved or came into existence during this dynasty.
To Europeans, this period of Chinese history marks the start of the centuries of trade between Europe and China. Both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn routes were discovered and exploited during this time, and so Chinese goods proliferated Europe. "Ming" is still often associated with porcelain china rather than a Chinese dynasty today. But the trade brought inflation to the country due to a sudden influx in silver. That, mixed with decades of poor crops caused by the Little Ice Age, made the people lose their respect for the Ming. The Ming attempted to isolate the problem by isolating the country, cutting off trade except in specific cities. But that failed and eventually rebels started to challenge Ming authority, eventually overthrowing it.
|The Ming Dynasty|
Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912)
Perhaps oddly, the last dynasty of China was not of Han-descent (it was Manchurian) and it did not conquer the throne (a Chinese rebel did). Instead, it was a band of nomads who had formed a small state in Manchuria and decided to conquer China while the Ming were distracted with rebels. The last Ming emperor had even hanged himself rather than be caught by the rebels. Small movements to restore the Ming continued until 1912 when the empire was finally dissolved.
The Qing, or Manchu, Dynasty quickly adopted Chinese culture and society. It reopened trade with the west and established a wealthy, albeit indebted, empire. The modern borders of China almost identically reflect the state of Qing China around 1800. Many factors led to the decline of the empire, but the ultimate reason was simple: China was still using systems that had been put in place by the Han and Tang dynasties over a thousand years earlier. They could not cope with the increase in population, the effects of the Little Ice Age, or the requirements of international trade. Like so many dynasties before it, the Qing dynasty faced little rebellions springing up everywhere. The new rebellions, though, were armed with modern weapons supplied by the west, while the Qing were still struggling to get any such weapons. Even when all the rebellions ended with European aide, China was left with little. Successive child monarchs under regents weakened the government until the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 ended the Empire of China for good. Within months, the emperor was asked to step down and the Republic of China was declared.
|The Qing Dynasty|
And so ends a very brief (yet soo long) summary of the dynasties of China. Unlike European dynasties, most Chinese dynasties produced many children who continued to maintain separate lines of descent. Most Chinese today should have some trace of Shang, Zhou, Han, and other dynastic blood in their veins. Many of the reborn dynasties probably did have a good genealogical claim to the titles they took, and many descendants of the last three dynasties still know their ancestry today. And if either the People's Republic or the Republic of China ever decided to reinstate a monarchy, the Qing already have candidates lined up in the dozens.