China's Dynasties

Updated August 26, 2021 | Kristin Templin

One of (or some of) the world's oldest civilizations

China is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world and throughout much of their history, the country’s leadership has been claimed to be controlled by the Mandate of Heaven. This is incredibly important to consider when looking at China’s dynasties and what led to their rise and fall. Under the Mandate of Heaven, it is believed that heaven grants an emperor the right to rule, there can only be one emperor at a time, the emperor’s virtue determines his right to rule, and no one imperial dynasty has the right to rule in perpetuity. Events like peasant rebellions, droughts, floods, or earthquakes were all considered to be signs that a dynasty had lost their right to rule. Anyone who was able to assume leadership therefore had the right.

Ancient China

The Shang Dynasty ruled Northern China from 1600 - 1050 BC and is considered to be the first Chinese dynasty due to its cultural influence on the surrounding area as well as the written and archaeological evidence that it left behind. Some stories say that there was another dynasty before them, the Xia dynasty, but this is considered ahistorical.

When the Zhou Dynasty conquered the Shang Dynasty in 1050 BC, they greatly expanded the size of China. The Zhou Dynasty would go on to rule China for 789 years until 256 BC and is the longest Chinese dynasty in history. The Zhou Dynasty was very influential as the China that we know today began to take shape during this period, especially in the early period known as the Western Zhou Dynasty. They created the great classic works that would inspire Confucius, or Kongzi, in the latter half of the period. They also created the Mandate of Heaven that stated that China could only have one legitimate ruler and which was then used as a justification for the overthrow of successive dynasties.

The Unification of Imperial China

The Warring States Period began in 475 and lasted until 221 BC (theoretically under the rule of the Eastern Zhou dynasty). During this time, the seven states of China began to fight for control of China and finally in 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty claimed victory and emerged as China's new ruler. It is said that the leader of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huangdi, was the first ruler of a truly unified China and ordered the burning of books from the other states so that China would have only one history. He also ordered for sections of the Great Wall of China to be built as well as a canal connecting the north and south of the country. Surprisingly, the Qin didn't last too long after the death of the ruler, though, and the Han Dynasty gained power in China in 202 BC.

The Han Dynasty is, in many ways, the root of many Chinese traditions in the way Rome is to the West. The Western Han began to expand the empire westwards thanks to the profits made off of trading silk with Europe. The Han Dynasty adopted Confucian ideals, like valuing merit above a person's birth when naming government officials. In fact, thanks to the invention of paper, education in Confucius’s principles became a priority. The dynasty eventually collapsed in 220 AD. This led to the start of the Three Kingdoms Period.

"The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide."

During the Three Kingdoms Period, China was simultaneously controlled by three different kings. This turned out to be one of the bloodiest times in Chinese history with huge amounts of the population being killed. Despite the violence of the era, it has been heavily romanticized and was even turned into an incredibly popular Ming Dynasty novel called Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This is now considered one of the classics of Chinese literature and characters and events from the book are often portrayed through Chinese culture even today.

The end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period created a power vacuum that lasted until 581 when the Sui Dynasty gained control. The intervening years saw the the Jin Dynasties, the Sixteen Kingdoms period, and the Southern and Northern Dynasties; all of these were short lived.

The Sui introduced the civil service exams that went on to help China create a strong bureaucracy of qualified administrative personnel. This was considered China’s First Golden Age. They remained in power until 617 when they were replaced by the Tang Dynasty.

During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism began to grow in importance which had a major impact on Chinese culture and economics. This era can be considered the zenith of Chinese civilization and the Second Golden Age and Chinese culture spread throughout Asia. Towards the end of their reign in 906, the centralized government and military began to break down and China was ruled by warlords for around 50 years until the Song Dynasty was able to reunify China. They completely overhauled the military and during this time, there were many major improvements in military technology.

Although the Song Dynasty lost part of northern China to invaders, the southern territory went through an economic boom thanks to the expansion of rice cultivation and the population began to grow quickly which enabled the country to develop a more diversified economic system and social system. They also experienced a technological boom during which they developed the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and mass printing. This was used to create the first paper currency.

The Last Great Dynasties

The Song Dynasty was defeated by Genghis Khan and the Mongols in 1279 and the Yuan Dynasty began. This was the first time that one government controlled the entire Silk Road and ideas, technology, and materials flowed back and forth from Asia to Europe. The Mongol Empire collapsed in the mid-14th century and the Yuan Dynasty was replaced by Ming Dynasty.

The Ming Dynasty was a high point of art and culture and throughout their reign, trade links with Europe helped establish cultural ties with the western world. Flotillas were launched that dwarfed anything created by European states to explore parts of India, Persia, and the east coast of Africa and the Great Wall of China was retired to its former glory.

The Ming Dynasty was replaced by the Manchu Qing Dynasty who invaded China from Manchuria and were the second non-Han Chinese rulers of China after the Mongols. During their reign, the British decided to try and correct a trade imbalance by flooding China with opium. This eventually led to the Opium Wars which ended in China’s defeat and the loss of territory. The Qing Dynasty was the last dynasty of China and was ultimately replaced by the first Republic of China.

Sources +
See also: