A Simplified History of China

by Ben Best

(This essay was written as background for my travel report A Trip to China)

A simplified history of China can be summarized in the following table, which I will proceed to explain in more detail.

Shang Dynasty17-11th century BCYellow River
Zhou Dynasty1027-771 BCnear Xian
Spring and Autumn770-476 BC
Warring States475-221 BC
Chin Dynasty221-207 BCXian
Han Dynasty206 BC - 220 ADXian
Sui Dynasty581-617 ADXian
Tang Dynasty618-907 ADXian
Northern Song Dynasty960-1127 ADKaifeng
Southern Song Dynasty1127-1279 ADHangzhou
Yuan Dynasty1279-1368 ADBeijing
Ming Dynasty1368-1644 ADNanjing/Beijing
Ching Dynasty1644-1912 ADBeijing
Chinese Republic1912-1949 ADBeijing
Civil War1927-1949 AD
Peoples' Republic1949 AD-presentBeijing
Cultural Revolution1966-1976 AD
(for more detail, see Chinese History Timeline)

Homo erectus fossils ("Peking Man", now called "Beijing Man" in China) have been found in the cave-ridden hills of Zhoukoudian (50 kilometers southwest of Beijing) which are an estimated 680,000 to 780,000 years old. Agricultural civilization began in China as early as 8,000 BC with the cultivation of millet & rice around the Yellow & Yangtze Rivers, respectively. Pottery in the south China area is the earliest found anywhere in the world — predating agriculture by more than 10,000 years [SCIENCE; Wu,X; 336:1696 (2012)]. Settlements along the Yangtze began to use silk and produce art having dragon motifs around 3,500 BC. Finely carved jade (a symbol of wealth and power in China comparable to gold in the West) first appeared around the Yellow River around 3,500 BC.

The first known Chinese dynasty was that of the Shang, which began in northeastern Hunan and later extended eastward along the Yangtze to the sea. Shang warriors used horse-drawn chariots. Various city-states served as capital during the 500 or so years of the dynasty. Religion was based on reverence for ancestors, heavenly bodies and a supreme god who dominated the forces of nature. Royalty have been found buried with their valuables, including servants who were buried alive. The invention of Chinese writing is associated with Shang, which would explain why the Shang is the first dynasty for which there is a written record.

A particularly despotic Shang ruler was overthrown by a western tribe known as the Zhou. Initially the Zhou were somewhat feudal, but they became increasingly centralized. The ruler was regarded as the "son of heaven" -- governing by divine right. In 771 BC the Zhou capital was sacked by barbarians and rebel lords.

The term Spring and Autumn Period comes from a history by Confucius which documented the period when a multitude of mini-states fought with each other on an on-going basis, although the battles were typically short and the armies involved typically small. Confucius, born in 551 BC, longed for the stability of a monolithic state with a benign dictator as emperor. Confucius espoused a humanistic philosophy which emphasized the importance of ethics & education to improve human society. The writings of Confucius were actually recordings made by a disciple named Mencius. Sun Tzu, author of THE ART OF WAR, lived during the Spring and Autumn Period, but his attitude toward war was decidedly different from that of Confucius.

Legalism grew out of Confucianism, but in contrast to Confucianism, which held that humans are fundamentally good, Legalism held that humans are fundamentally greedy and selfish. Initially Legalism taught that humans could be made good by indoctrination, but this belief was soon followed by the idea that only laws and state power could constrain human selfishness. In Legalism, the "rule of law" was to be superior to rule by men and all individuals were to be equal before the law.

Taoism (Daoism), which also emerged during the Spring and Autumn Period, placed more emphasis on nature and "doing what is natural". The source of Taoism was a book called THE WAY AND VIRTUE, purportedly written by a man named Lao-zi. The book contains many enigmatic and paradoxical sayings which were later to influence the development of Zen Buddhism. Taoist naturalism had many elements of mysticism & pantheism. Many pantheistic superstitions in Chinese culture were easily assimilated into Taoism, including Yin/Yang (a Male/Female "dialectical materialism"), Feng Shui, I Ching, the Chinese Zodiac, etc. (Feng Shui seeks to unblock "energy flow" for interior design, landscaping & urban planning in much the way acupuncture attempts to unblock energy flow in the body.)

The annexation of territory which occurred during the Spring and Autumn period culminated in the consolidation of power into the hands of seven states, leading to the Warring States Period. There was a proliferation of iron-working during this period, as iron replaced bronze in implements of combat. In 321 BC the kingdom of Chin (Ch'in, Qin) conquered the kingdom of Shu. Beginning in 230 BC the king of the Chin began a ten-year campaign which ended in the conquest of all of the other warring states in 221 BC, resulting in the unification of China. The king of the Chin became the first emperor of China, adopting the name Chin (Qin) Shihuang.

The Chin (Qin) Dynasty, which gave China its name, was ostensibly based on the philosophy of Legalism. A Burning of the Books decree ordered the destruction of books of other belief systems. The emperor persecuted scholars, preferring that his subjects engage in useful activities, such as the construction of his palaces. There was a standardization of weights, measures, currency & writing along with the legal system. Taxation was severe and hundreds of thousands of conscripts labored to build the emperor's mausoleum in addition to those who worked on the Great Wall (built to restrain the Huns who raided from the north). At the same time an army of Terra-Cotta warriors was constructed to defend the emperor in his afterlife. Emperor Chin Shihuang died in the remote Shandong Province while in search of an elixir of immortality. Soon after his death an army of peasants overthrew the totalitarian regime.

Four years of conflict ended in the establishment of the Han Dynasty. The Han dynasty showed more regard for peasant welfare and for scholarship than had the Chin, which helped the Han retain control. In search of horses larger than the pony-sized breeds of China, trade was established with the Kingdoms of Central Asia -- which ultimately became middlemen in trade with the West. The Han discovered that silk, which was a medium of exchange in China, was in great demand in the West. The Huns were driven from the north and the Silk Route (or "Silk Road") was established for expanded trade. The Han created an empire which rivaled that of Rome in size, wealth and power. Following the Roman conquest of Syria in 64 BC, Chinese silk was much sought-after by Roman patricians.

Under the Han, prominence of bureaucrats & palace eunuchs, so characteristic for most of Chinese history, came to the fore. The Confucian ideology of respect for tradition, obedience of children to parents throughout life, obedience of women to men and obedience of citizens to the emperor became the basis of the Imperial University (founded 124 BC) and the examination system for entry into the government bureaucracy. The wheelbarrow was a technological innovation of the Han period. Taoist alchemists used saltpeter mixed with sulfur as incendiaries. The earliest forms of paper were made from bamboo fiber and used as clothing in the early years of the Han, but by the late Han period true paper was being used for writing. Internal conflicts, hostile warlords and a rebellion led by a neo-Taoist secret society known as the Yellow Turbans contributed to the disintegration of the Han Dynasty.

Peasant rebellion, foreign invasion, weak rulers and strong regional warlords kept China disunited for hundreds of years following the fall of the Han. During this interim period Buddhism entered China, spreading with a missionary zeal to the point where 90% of the population of northern China was Buddhist. Thousands of Buddhist temples were built, with Buddhism becoming the predominant landowner -- analogous to the landholdings of the medieval Catholic Church in Europe. Rising to the challenge, a Taoist Church was established (having little relation to original Taoism) which built Taoist temples and cultivated alchemy (mainly seeking an elixir of immortality, but contributing to the development of porcelain, medicine and other technologies).

After hundreds of years of conflict China was reunited in 589 AD by Sui Wen-ti, a military leader. He favored Buddhism and built many Buddhist temples, but allowed Taoism to thrive. The use of heavy taxation and conscripted labor for large building projects by Wen-ti was carried to an extreme by his son, who also over-extended his resources with miliary expeditions against Korea.

The most massive construction project of the Sui Dynasty was the Grand Canal, an artery of commerce which remains the world's largest artificial waterway. The Grand Canal runs from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, cutting across the Yangtze, Hwang (Yellow) and other rivers that run from west to east. About half of the estimated six million who labored on the project reportedly died during construction. In the end, the oppressive dynasty was destroyed by popular revolts.

During the Tang Dynasty China was the largest, richest and most civilized country in the world. One million people lived within the city walls of Xian and another million may have lived in the immediate surroundings. The Taoist saltpeter and sulfur mixtures were combined with charcoal to make the world's first gunpowder. The world's first paper money is believed to have been issued during the Tang Dynasty. The first completely printed book was produced from wooden blocks (Chinese ideographic script is not well-suited to alphabetic typesetting, which began in Europe in the 15th century). The Han examination system based on Confucian orthodoxy for the recruitment of bureaucrats was reinstated, but children of bureaucrats could enter the bureaucracy without taking the exams. The Tang encouraged commerce-with and tolerance-of foreigners (as long as tribute was paid). Xian, being the eastern end of the Silk Route, was home to merchant communities of Zoroastrians, Manichaens, Nestorians and Islamists. Toward the end of the Tang Dynasty the real power was held by palace eunuchs, who chose and disposed-of emperors.

After about 50 years of regional warfare following the Tang, China was reunited under the Song (Sung) Dynasty. The Song was centered on Kaifeng, near the Yellow river. The Song mostly eliminated conscripted labor and gave farmers the right to buy and sell land. Coins of copper and silver replaced grain and silk as media of exchange and basis of taxation. Later paper money, bills of exchange and promissory notes were introduced. Chinese sailing ships were the biggest and best in the world, navigating through the use of chart and compass.

The enormous growth in wealth and population associated with the growth of agriculture, merchandising and industry enriched the government, allowing for the creation of welfare programs and an efficient bureaucracy. Whereas only 10% of government officials had come from civil service examinations under the Tang, nearly 50% were recruited in this way under the Song. The exams were based on the Confucian Classics. Although the new philosophy of Neo-Confucianism incorporated many elements of Buddhism and Taoism, the position of women in the Confucian hierarchy lowered their status. Foot-binding of women became widespread.

Thi military was not held in very high regard by the Song, who preferred paying tribute as a means to avoid war. China was unified under the Northern Song, but Manchurians drove the Song out of northern China in 1127. The Southern Song survived another 150 years with a capital at Hangzhou (terminus of the Grand Canal) on the southeastern coast.

In 1213 AD the Mongol invader Genghis Khan crossed the Great Wall. His grandson Kublai Khan completed the conquest and reunification of China in 1279 AD. The Mongols defeated the Song in the first war where firearms played a significant role. Kublai Khan became the first emperor of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty and he made Beijing the capital of the new empire. The Mongols promoted Tibetan Buddhism and persecuted Taoism. The Grand Canal was extended to Beijing, where artificial lakes and mountains were built for palaces.

When Kublai Khan died, however, the Yuan Dynasty went into a rapid decline until a peasant rebellion established the Ming Dynasty. The Ming looked to the Tang Dynasty as a model of the way Chinese should rule Chinese (a nationalist reaction against Mongol rule). The capital was moved to Nanjing, but was restored to Beijing in 1421 AD. Threatened by both the Japanese and the Mongols -- and later by the Europeans, the Great Wall was extensively rebuilt. Portugal established the colony of Macau in 1557. As had happened with the Tang Dynasty, the Ming was ultimately eroded by the insatiable grasping for wealth & power by palace eunuchs.

The Ming Dynasty formally ended when Beijing was attacked by rebel forces led by an irate postal clerk who had lost his job due to budget cuts. The last Ming Emperor hung himself from a tree as the rebels approached. A Chinese general allowed the Manchus through the Great Wall to drive the "bandits" from Beijing. Rather than leaving China, the Manchus continued to fight their way south, eventually conquering the whole of China -- establishing the Ching (Qing) Dynasty.

The Manchus prohibited Han Chinese from migrating to the Manchu homeland and forbid intermarriage. The Confucian civil service system was retained, but the highest government positions were reserved for Manchus. As had happened to the Mongols, the Manchu eventually became absorbed into Chinese culture. The Ching Dynasty became a continuation of the Ming.

The Ching were increasingly feeling the encroachments of Europeans -- and the encroachments were particularly pronounced during the 1800s when a series of "Opium Wars" resulted in indemnities paid to Western powers, annexation of Chinese port areas by Europeans and the promotion of opium-smoking in China. (Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842.) Most of the opium was produced in India, which provided income to British merchants and taxes to the British government in India. In 1861 a six-year-old emperor ascended to the Ching throne, but for the next 48 years the real power lay with his aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi who had formerly been a concubine. Japan seized Korea in 1885 and defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War of the mid-1890s. Britain, France, Germany and Russia sought increasing "spheres of influence", but were constrained by an American "open door" policy which allowed any foreign power to trade with China.

In 1912 the Cantonese Dr. Sun Yatsen led a rebellion which ended the Ching Dynasty and established the Chinese Republic. Sun Yatsen died of cancer in 1925. Chiang Kaishek's struggle for control of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party ultimately led to a massacre of Communists in Shanghai in 1927. In 1934 Mao Zedong led a Long March over six thousand miles of mountainous territory to escape Chiang's attacks and consolidate Communist forces. The Chinese were nominally united in opposition to the Japanese invaders during the Second World War. Major battles between the Nationalists and the Communists after World War II ended with the triumph of Mao's Peoples Republic of China in 1949.

Near the last decade of his life, Chairman Mao was feeling disturbed about Russian deviations from Communism and about the declining spirit of revolution in China. A Cultural Revolution was launched, led by Mao's wife and her associates (later called the Gang of Four). The Cultural Revolution sought to purge China of all bourgeois or non-communist cultural influences. Schools were closed and millions of teenagers were organized into Red Guards who ransacked temples and destroyed works of art. The country was flooded with hundreds of millions of "little red books" of Mao's thought. After three years of destruction Mao disbanded the Red Guards, sending them to labor in the countryside. But the Cultural Revolution did not really end until the death of Mao in September 1976. Within a month the Gang of Four was under arrest. Nearly one million people, particularly intellectuals and old Party members, had been persecuted in the name of ideological purity.

Industrial production had dropped precipitously during the Cultural Revolution -- down 20% in 1967 alone. In 1979 China's new leader Deng Xiaoping broke Mao's communes into smaller units and allowed a free market for excess crops. This and other anti-socialist reforms -- such as encouraging foreign investment -- allowed the economy to grow. In 1986 the Shanghai Stock Market was re-opened after having been closed for nearly 40 years. In 1988 the Politburo allowed most commodity prices to be freely determined by the market. But when students began demanding political as well as economic freedom, Deng took that as a sign that "they had too much freedom, not too little". From April 17 to June 3, 1989 hundreds of thousands of students occupied Tiananmen Square in peaceful protest. On June 3rd People's Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on people trying to block them at the Xidan intersection -- pursuing and killing many of those who attempted to flee. It was the beginning of the massacre that ended the demonstrations.

Mao's distrust of the Soviets had led to a nuclear buildup against the USSR, and a warming of relations with the United States. In 1971 mainland China joined the United Nations, replacing Taiwan. The US did not use its veto power to prevent the change. An accord was reached with US President Richard Nixon in which China committed itself to "a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question" and the US recognized the principle that Taiwan is a part of China. President Jimmy Carter granted diplomatic recognition to China in 1979. China was admitted to the International Monetary Fund in 1980. Hong Kong was returned to Beijing jurisdiction on July 1, 1999. On March 14, 2005 the Chinese parliament approved a law (by a 2,896 to 0 vote) authorizing the used of force against Taiwan if it tries to make its de facto independence formal and permanent.