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The Xia and the Shang
Although the country we currently know as China—The People's Republic of China—is quite young, there have been a long series of kingdoms and empires in the region for nearly five thousand years. These different states, which are typically ordered as a series of successive dynasties, began with the semi-mythical Xia dynasty.
The Xia dynasty has no attested historical records, and is not mentioned by its immediate successors, casting doubt on its existence. The story of the Xia dynasty, which first appears in records of the Zhou dynasty, might have been created wholesale to justify the overthrow of dynasties in China. The story goes that there were first the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors; these legendary rulers brought all kinds of advancements to the people of China, like fire and silk. These rulers passed the mantle on to the most capable person to succeed them, until it passed to the first Xia emperor, Yu the Great. Yu passed his title on to his son, instead of the most qualified person, creating the first dynasty.
The last Xia king was corrupt and weak, and so he was overthrown by the Shang dynasty. This was the "first" example in Chinese history of the important philosophy the Zhou would call the Mandate of Heaven. According to the Mandate of Heaven, as it was with the Five Emperors, once the ruling dynasty was no longer worthy, the heavens would see their overthrow by a new dynasty.
While the Xia might not have existed, the Shang were very real. The Shang dynasty saw the creation of the earliest form of Chinese writing, which is fairly similar to the Chinese script used today. It also saw the creation of advanced bronze-working, and laid the foundations of later Chinese religion, medicine, and poetry.
The Western Zhou
After the Shang came the Zhou. The Zhou, claiming the Mandate of Heaven (which they may have invented themselves), overthrew the Shang around 1062 B.C. The Zhou were the longest lasting dynasty in Chinese history, ruling for nearly 800 years (although by the last few centuries they held little to no real authority). The most important figure in this early period was the Duke of Zhou; the Duke, who was the uncle of a young and inexperienced king, suppressed revolts against the throne, established the feudal system, and legitimized the dynasty by dispersing the idea of the Mandate. The Duke of Zhou would later serve as a model for many Confucian scholars due to his loyalty and his refusal to seize authority from his nephew.
The Zhou kingdom would continue to grow, eventually straining the feudal system as regional groups became less and less bound to central authority. In the latter days of the Western Zhou, the Marquis of Shen sacked the royal capital alongside "barbarians." The last king of the Western Zhou died, and a group of influential aristocrats declared the Marquis's grandson king. The capital moved east in 771 B.C., beginning the period of the Eastern Zhou.
The Spring and Autumn Period
The Eastern Zhou is typically divided into two periods; the Spring and Autumn Period, and the Warring States period. The Spring and Autumn Period gets its name from the "Spring and Autumn Annals," a history of the state of Lu. Royal authority declined throughout the Spring and Autumn period, and the different constituent states of China were effectively independent. The different states fought for land and influence, and many states were conquered entirely by their neighbors. Throughout this time period, the most powerful states and families of their day had hegemonic control over the other states, leading to some people calling this the Age of Hegemons. The period came to an end when the state of Jin, one of the most powerful states, was split into three independent entities. This would then launch the country into the Warring States Period.
The period is very well known for its explosion of philosophy and culture. The Spring and Autumn period saw the greatest part of what's known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought." Confucius and his disciples were active during this time, as well as Laozi, Mozi, and military philosopher Sunzi (also called Sun Tzu).
The Warring States Period
There are a couple different starting points for the Warring States period, depending on who you ask. The most common dates are: 475 B.C., picked by historian Sima Qian who wrote the "Records of the Grand Historian" in 94 B.C.; 453 B.C., the start of the Partition of Jin; and 403 B.C., the year in which the three states of Han, Zhao, and Wei were recognized as successors to Jin. After the Partition of Jin, the conflict in China escalated. Different regional powers expanded and rapidly subsumed their neighbors. By 260 B.C., nearly two dozen states had become seven.
13 years later, the thirteen-year-old Ying Zheng was crowned the King of Qin, one of the remaining great states. Beginning in 230 B.C., at the age of 29, he launched a massive series of military campaigns to unify the country. Within just nine years, after over a century of constant fighting, Ying Zheng conquered all of China and unified it under a single government. He declared himself Qin Shi Huangdi (or Qin Shi Huang), meaning "the first emperor of Qin." This was the first use of the term "emperor" to describe the ruler of all China.
The Qin Dynasty
The Qin dynasty (pronounced like "chin," from which we get "China") was as influential as it was short; that is to say, very. Qin Shi Huang undertook some of the most important changes in Chinese history, and some of the most remarkable public works projects. Under the first emperor, the feudal system was replaced with a system of governors and bureaucrats, measurements were standardized, and oversaw significant advances in military technology. He also started the creation of a national system of roads, the first Great Wall of China, and the Terracotta Army located at his tomb. More controversially, his administration saw the suppression of local cultures, the abuse of peasants by military officials to inflate their successes against "bandits," and the repression of thinkers and philosophers who didn't adhere to the philosophy of Legalism favored by Qin Shi Huang and the philosopher Hanfeizi.
After Qin Shi Huang's death in 210 B.C., his minister and the court eunuch saw to it that his least competent and most pliable son would become the next emperor. Qin Er Shi was the second and last Qin emperor as his incompetence saw a massive decline in the country's governance, and there were widespread popular revolts against Qin abuses. A series of assassinations and conflicts ensued, leading to the end of the Qin in 207 B.C.
The Han Dynasty
After the fall of the Qin, two rebel leaders held the loyalty of the country. Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han fought with each other over who would assume the mantle of emperor. Liu Bang came out victorious in 202 B.C. and declared himself Emperor Gaozu. This was the beginning of the Han dynasty, which is widely held as a golden age of Chinese history. Most ethnic Chinese today identify themselves as Han Chinese, and the current system of characters are often called Han script.
The Han are, like the Zhou, typically divided into the Western Han and the Eastern Han, with a 16 year interregnum between them. The Western Han ruled from 202 B.C. to 9 A.D., and the Eastern Han ruled from 25 A.D. to 220. At their greatest extent the Han held territory near the modern border of Kazakhstan, helping to establish the Silk Road, and governed nearly 60 million people. They saw the invention of papermaking, seismometers, the ship rudder, negative numbers, and more. The expansion of the coin economy saw a massive growth in wealth in the country, and China traded with foreign powers as far as Rome.
The Western Han warred regularly with the Xiongnu people to the North, but their downfall came after a series of deaths left the country in the hands of a series of regents. One of these, Wang Mang, declared the end of the Han dynasty and the start of his own Xin dynasty. Wang Mang attempted a series of bold reforms that failed, including distributing land evenly between families and the abolition of slavery, and he failed to address the economic problem facing the country. A peasant revolt led to the storming of his palace and his execution. After Wang Mang's death, the Han resumed their rule from a new capital, beginning the Eastern Han. The regime held steady for some time until about the second century. A series of emperors became embroiled in political maneuvering, and more and more of the governing of the country was entrusted to the eunuchs employed at the palace. For the next century, the country would split further over the issue of the eunuchs' influence in the court. Corruption and mismanagement led to a growing agricultural crisis. Popular discontent would brew into the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184, where Taoist groups would incite the public into a revolt that resulted in millions of casualties and lasted for over two decades. The government was thoroughly consumed by its many issues internal and external.