Timeline of Chinese History


In reviewing the following timelines of Chinese history and dynasties, note the patterns evident in the Han and that recur over the course of Chinese history:

  • The cycle of long periods of political unity (the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties each govern for 250-300 years) are interspersed by periods of political disunity;
  • Note the pattern of territorial pressure and incursions from China's north by nomadic groups, who are attracted by the wealth of the settled, agricultural civilization of China. The most illustrative examples are those of the Mongols, who conquer China and establish the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE), and of the Manchus, who again conquer China and establish the last dynasty, the Qing, that rules for 300 years (1644-1911 CE). Each of these invaders rules through the Chinese bureaucracy, leading to the expression that China "sinicizes its conquerors."
  • Note the patterns of cultural continuity: the evolution of the bureaucratic structure -- the civil service examination system, the scholar-gentry who sit for exams and staff the civil administration; the refinement of the Confucian classics as the basis of education and elite selection; the growth of commercial activity and the development of a unified and sophisticated marketing system over the vast, economically diverse area of China; the tendency toward political unification and reunification.
  • Note the pattern of dynastic formation, ascendance, and decline, which is often referred to as the "dynastic cycle." The last years of many dynasties were marked by inefficient administration and corruption, which, when compounded by natural calamities such as flood or droughts, led to social unrest among the population. Movements and rebellions incorporating popular religious ideas took place in the last years of the Han, Yuan, and Qing dynasties, while political rebellions brought down the Tang and Ming dynasties. (This is when the Chinese often say a dynasty has lost the "Mandate of Heaven.")

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Timeline of Chinese History

China's Dynasties Capitals
1200 BC 1122 (?) Shang Zhengzhou/Chengchow
600 BC
Warring States Period
221 BC Qin/Ch'in Chang'an/Ch'angan (today's Xi'an/Sian)
206 BC unification
Han Xi'an
Confucianism est'd.
222 AD Six Dynasties
central govt. decline
Buddhism intro'd.
600 AD 589 AD Sui Chang'an
second unification (Xi'an)
Tang/T'ang Chang'an
1127 Northern Song Kaifeng
Southern Song Hangzhou/Hangchow
1279 Yuan (Mongols) Beijing
1368 Ming Nanjing
1644 Qing/Ch'ing (Manchus) Beijing
1800 Beijing
1912 Republic Nanjing
1949 People's Republic Beijing

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Chinese History: A Chronological Outline


5000 Neolithic cultures

3000 Xia/Hsia Dynasty (ca. 2200-1750)

1800 Shang Dynasty (ca. 1750-1100)

One of the Three Dynasties, or San Dai (Xia, Shang, and Zhou), thought to mark the beginning of Chinese civilization: characterized by its writing system, practice of divination, walled cities, bronze technology, and use of horse-drawn chariots.

1200 Zhou/Chou Dynasty: Western Zhou (ca. 1100-771) Eastern Zhou (771-256)

A hierarchical political and social system with the Zhou royal house at its apex: power was bestowed upon aristocratic families as lords of their domains or principalities. Although often compared to European "feudalism," what actually gave the system cohesion was a hierarchical order of ancestral cults. The system eventually broke down into a competition for power between rival semi-autonomous states in what became known as the Spring and Autumn period (722-481) and the Warring States (403-221) period. It was during these tumultuous times that Confucius (551-479) lived.

300 Qin/Ch'in Dynasty (221-206)

Created a unitary state by imposing a centralized administration and by standardizing the writing script, weights and measures. Known for its harsh methods of rule, including the suppression of dissenting thought.


Han Dynasty: Western Han (202 BCE- 9 CE) and Eastern Han (25 CE 220 CE)

Modified and consolidated the foundation of the imperial order. Confucianism was established as orthodoxy and open civil service examinations were introduced. Han power reached Korea and Vietnam. Records of the Historian, which became the model for subsequent official histories, was completed.

Period of Disunity (220-581)

The empire was fragmented. The North was dominated by invaders from the borderland and the steppes. The South was ruled by successive "Chinese" dynasties. Buddhism spread.

600 Sui Dynasty (581-618)

China reunified.

700 Tang/T'ang Dynasty (618-906)

A time of cosmopolitanism and cultural flowering occurred. This period was the height of Buddhist influence in China until its repression around 845. Active territorial expansion until defeated by the Arabs at Talas in 751.

1000 Song/Sung Dynasty: Northern Song (960-1126) and Southern Song (1127-1279)

An era of significant economic and social changes: the monetization of the economy; growth in commerce and maritime trade; urban expansion and technological innovations. The examination system for bureaucratic recruitment of neo-Confucianism was to provide the intellectual underpinning for the political and social order of the late imperial period.

1200 Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

Founded by the Mongols as part of their conquest of much of the world. Beijing was made the capital. Dramas, such as the famous Story of the Western Wing, flourished.

1400 Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, laid the basis of an authoritarian political culture. Despite early expansion, it was an inward-looking state with an emphasis on its agrarian base. Gradual burgeoning of the commercial sector; important changes in the economy and social relations in the latter part of the dynasty; also a vibrant literary scene as represented by publication of the novel Journey to the West.

1700 Qing/Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912)

A Manchu dynasty. Continued the economic developments of the late Ming, leading to prosperity but also complacency and a dramatic increase in population. The acclaimed novel Dream of the Red Chamber was written in this period. Strains on the polity were intensified by a rapid incorporation of substantial new territories. Its authoritarian structure was subsequently unable to meet the military and cultural challenge of an expansive West.

20th Century

Republic (1912-1949)

Weak central government following the collapse of the dynastic system in 1911-12; Western influence was shown by the promotion of "science" and "democracy" during the New Culture Movement. The attempt of the Nationalist government (est. 1928) to bring the entire country under its control was thwarted by both domestic revolts and the Japanese occupation (1937-45). The Nationalists fled to Taiwan after defeat by the Communists.

People's Republic (1949- )

Communist government. The drive for remaking society ended in disasters such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Economic reform and political retrenchment since around 1978.

Prepared by Michael Tsin, previously assistant professor of Chinese history, Columbia University; currently Director of Asian Studies, University of Florida.
© 1995 Columbia University, Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching, (Ainslie Embree and Carol Gluck, eds., Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharp Inc. 1995).

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