From at least 1766BCE to the twentieth century of the Common Era, China was ruled by dynasties. A dynasty is a family that passes control from one generation to the next. A dynasty does not have to last for a long time. One Chinese dynasty lasted more than 800 years while another lasted only fifteen years.
The ancient Chinese believed their ancestors in heaven had chosen their leaders. They called this the Mandate of Heaven. The Chinese people often rebelled against a weak leader if they believed he had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
There are indications of an earlier Hsia Dynasty, but the Shang were the first Chinese dynasty to leave written records. The Shang also developed a lunar calendar consisting of twelve months of 30 days each. Ruling from approximately 1766BCE to about 1040BCE, Shang rulers expanded the borders of their kingdom to include all of the land between Mongolia and the Pacific Ocean.
The Shang practiced human sacrifice. When a Shang king died, many of his subjects would join the ruler in his grave. Some citizens were beheaded first while others were buried alive. When a Shang king died, his next oldest brother replaced him. When there were no brothers, the ruler’s oldest maternal nephew became king. A maternal nephew would be a child of one of the deceased king’s cousins – that is, a son of his mother’s siblings.
The Chou were initially nomads who lived west of the Shang. In time, the Chou overtook the Shang partly from their ability to extract iron from rocks. They used the metal to create powerful weapons. The Chou overthrew the Shang and ruled China from 1040BCE to the third century before the Common Era.
Chou rulers appointed nobles to govern different parts of their empire. The nobles subdivided the land into farms for extended families. An extended family might include many generations and would often include cousins and second cousins. Landholding families were loyal to their nobles and the nobles were in turn loyal to the Chou rulers. This system of loyalties and protections is called feudalism.
The Chou rulers taxed their subjects but they used the wealth they collected to build huge walls to defend their cities from nomadic warriors. The Chou also built roads, irrigation systems, and dams.
Chinese nobles gradually gained more power than the Chou rulers in a period of Chinese history historians call the Age of Warring States. It was during this period of instability that a great teacher named Confucius tried to develop good government.
Rulers of the Ch'in dynasty managed to unify China and end the Age of Warring States by 221BCE. The Ch'in rulers clearly explained their laws to the people—and then strictly enforced them. Ch’in rulers standardized weights and measures and carried out irrigation projects. The Ch’in replaced the feudal system by giving peasant farmers the land they lived on. Many Europeans first learned of China during the Ch'in dynasty, and it is from Ch'in that we get the word China.
The Ch’in rulers were heavily influenced by a group of philosophers known as the Legalists. The Legalists believed that a powerful leader and a stable legal system were needed to create social order. They tried to suppress all thoughts that disagreed with their philosophy. People who discussed ideas not approved by the Legalists faced execution. One Ch’in ruler ordered 460 scholars to be buried alive because the scholars disagreed with the teachings of the Legalists.
China grew into a powerful empire between 202BCE and 220CE during the Han Dynasty. Scholars trained in the teachings of Confucius ran the Han governments with great skill. During the Han Dynasty, the Chinese invented paper, recorded the history of their land, and first learned of Buddhism.
The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, came from a region of northeast China called Manchuria. The Manchus were weak rulers who were unable to stop other nations from interfering with China.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British began to sell a dangerous drug called opium to the Chinese people. When the Manchu government protested, the British overran China in a series of conflicts later known as the Opium Wars. As a result, the British seized island Hong Kong in 1841, and the weakened Manchus were forced to cede control parts of China to foreigners.
In 1894, Japan seized the island of Taiwan off the east coast of China. By the dawn of the twentieth century British, French, American, German, Russian, and Japanese forces controlled parts of China. Many Chinese became convinced that the Manchus had lost the Mandate of Heaven. They began to support a group known as the Nationalists, who pledged to free China from foreign rule. In 1911, the Nationalists drove out the last of the Manchu rulers, a six-year-old boy emperor, ending more than four thousand years of dynastic control in China.
The Dynasties of China
Hsia (c. 2200 - 1766BCE) – Most historians believed the Hsia to be a mythical dynasty, but recent archaeological findings seem to have verified their existence.
Shang (1766 - c.1040BCE) – Excavations have confirmed descriptions in ancient Chinese literature of a highly developed culture. The Shang Dynasty was distinguished by an aristocratic government, great artistry in bronze, a writing system still in use today, an agricultural economy, and armies of thousands whose commanders rode in chariots.
Chou (c.1040 - 256BCE) – The semi-nomadic Chou people from northwestern China overthrew the Shang king. The Chou developed a feudal society in China.
The Age of Warring States (c.481- 221BCE) – Local warlords became more prominent as the Chou Dynasty slowly lost power. This is why the Chou Dynasty overlaps the Age of Warring States for more than two centuries.
Ch’in (221-206BCE) – A group of warlords known as the Legalists strengthened state power and control over the people. Weights and measures, and the Chinese writing system were unified. The Ch’in began contraction of the Great Wall.
Han (206BCE - 220CE) – The Han Dynasty is often compared to the Roman Empire. It is considered the "Golden Age of Chinese History." Today the Chinese word for Chinese person means "a man of Han."
Sui (581-618) – The short-lived Sui dynasty reunified China after four hundred years of fragmentation.
Tang (618-907) – Li Yuan was a Sui general who founded the dynasty that made China the largest, wealthiest, and most populous nation of that time. The Tang based their laws on based on Confucian thought.
Song (907-1279) – The Song reunified China after decades of rebellion. The Song rulers issued paper money and both gunpowder and the compass were first used in this era.
Yuan (Mongols) (1279-1368)
– Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty after his Mongol tribes invaded China. The Yuan encouraged trade with Europe; Marco Polo was the most famous of the early Europeans to make the overland journey to China.
Ming (1368-1644) – As famine and plague swept China, the Mandate of Heaven passed to Zhu Yuanzhang, who led a peasant army to victory over the Mongols. The Ming were known for orderly government and control over Chinese peasants.
Qing (Manchus) (1644-1911) – Founded by conquerors from Manchuria in 1644, the Qing was the last imperial dynasty of China. China became a republic when the Qing were overthrown in 1911.
After the fall of the dynasties, China’s Nationalists formed a republican government that was overthrown by Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution in 1949.