School in a Book: History of China

BASIC HISTORY OF CHINA

Ancient History (3000 BCE to 500 CE)

The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers: The two rivers in China along which ancient agriculture-based civilizations arose. Though early Chinese dynasties were centered along the Yellow River, both of these areas are considered cradles of civilization.

The Xia Dynasty: The first Chinese dynasty, located along the Yellow River in the 2000s BCE. Due to sparse historical references and no historical records, this dynasty’s existence is disputed. It did not feature strong monarch; instead, it was a collection of small, mostly independent farming villages led by a ruling clan. During this time, irrigation and dams were developed.

The Shang Dynasty: The second Chinese dynasty and the first with written records. Like the Xia Dynasty, it was located along the Yellow River and was ruled not by a strong monarch, but by a ruling clan. This dynasty featured bronze and jade works; horses and chariots; domesticated animals; wheat, millet and rice agriculture; silk and calligraphy; and ancestor worship.

The Zhou Dynasty: The third Chinese dynasty, which was characterized by civil war. During this time, paper was invented.

The Warring States Period: The period during the Zhou Dynasty (around 500 BCE) during which Chinese towns were in civil war.

The Qin Dynasty: The fourth Chinese dynasty and the first to feature an emperor. This dynasty marked the beginning of China’s imperial (strong monarch) era and saw great advancements; however, it only lasted fifteen years. The wheelbarrow was invented during this dynasty.

Shi Huang Di (Qin Shi Huang): The first emperor of China. Sometimes called the Yellow Emperor, Shi Huang Di united who, after the Warring States Period, united China for the first time and started the Qin Dynasty. (This happened around 200 BCE. “China” comes from “Qin.”) Born Qin Shi Huang, the emperor changed his name to Shi Huang Di, which means “first emperor.” He introduced standardized weights and measures, a single currency and a writing system; created the Terra Cotta Soldiers; began construction of the Great Wall of China and the Silk Road; instituted Confucianism as the official state religion; replaced feudal system aristocrats with capable administrators; built roads, canals, irrigation systems and other infrastructure improvements and more. However, a modernist, Shi Huang Di also destroyed classic literary works, including some by Confucius.

Xiling Ji: Wife of Huang Di, who is credited with the discovery of silk

Great Wall of China: The wall started by Shi Huang Di in the 200s to help protect China from invaders, such as the Mongols

Silk Road: The trade route stretching across China and into Europe. Traversing it was treacherous and could take several years each direction.

Terracotta soldiers: The over 7,000 larger-than-life terracotta statues that were housed in Shi Huang Di’s tomb

The Han Dynasty: The fifth Chinese dynasty and one of the most powerful and important in Chinese history. Co-existing with the Roman Empire, the Han dynasty started trade with Central Asia and Europe along the Silk Road. During this time, Confucianism became the official Chinese religion and Buddhism and Taoism also grew in popularity. Chinese inventions during this time included the first anesthetic, the first seismograph and improvements in paper making. For a time, its capital was the largest city in the world, and China was as large as the Roman Empire.

Emperor Liu Bang: The first emperor during the Han Dynasty. Popular, he relaxed harsh laws and instituted fair Confucian laws. He also worked to replace classic writings destroyed by the Qin Dynasty, introduced Buddhism from India and beat back the Huns of Mongolia.

Mandarins: The professional Chinese officials that ran the government during the Han Dynasty. Their education included an exam on Confucianism.

Wei Dynasty, Jin Dynasty, and the Southern and Northern Dynasties: The other ancient Chinese dynasties to rule (briefly) before the more stable period that began around the start of the Middle Ages. Like Rome, China was in political disarray during this time due to economic troubles and border encroachment by outsiders. Buddhism grew in popularity during this time, partly due to its emphasis on suffering well.

The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

The Sui Dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that restored stability during the early Middle Ages. During this time, China built the Grand Canal and rebuilt the Great Wall. Even more important, a strong bureaucracy was established. Bureaucratic positions were established and given to highly educated individuals who passed an imperial exam. This merit-based bureaucratic system lasted until the 1900s and provided a strong foundation for Chinese culture, unity and economy. Japanese emissaries sent to China brought these ideas back to their country, which vastly influenced their government.

The Tang Dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that successfully expanded their western border in order to keep control of the Silk Road. A well-organized empire and one of the largest in history, it remained stable for 300 years, ruling over territories from Korea to Thailand to Afghanistan.

The Tibetan period: The period of Chinese history during which Tibet defeated parts of China and China was highly unstable. During this time, the Chinese invented porcelain and printed the first book. 

The Song dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that restored Chinese unity after the Tibetan period, then made considerable economic, technological and cultural advancements. During this time, China’s economy surpassed western economies. They perfected porcelain making; flourished in theater, poetry and painting; made peace on their borders; increased shipbuilding; invented gunpowder, clocks, movable-type printing, paddle wheel boats and the magnetic compass; expanded agriculturally; grew in population to 100 million; modernized banking; expanded trade; enacted government reforms; remained peaceful; started using the world’s first paper currency; and starting the practice of foot binding.

The Mongol Empire: The Chinese empire led by Mongols under Kublai Khan, which was established after China fell to them in the late Middle Ages. The Mongols conquered China with fast horses, far-firing bows and a disciplined army.

Genghis Khan: The first leader of the Mongol army, who took leadership of his small warlike tribe at the age of thirteen and, with it, conquered most of Eurasia. Genghis Khan means “emperor of all men.”

Kublai Khan: The grandson of Genghis Khan and the second leader of the Mongol army who completed the conquest of China (and other places in Asia) in the late part of the Middle Ages. 

The Yuan Dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that was started by Kublai Khan in China, and which Khan ruled as emperor. Khan encouraged trade, opening the important Silk Road to the west.

Marco Polo: The Italian merchant and explorer who famously spent seventeen years at the court of Kublai Khan and wrote about the luxuries enjoyed by the Chinese

The Ming Dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that followed the Yuan Dynasty, which returned China to Chinese leadership and restored peace and stability. (“Ming” means “bright” in Chinese.) Though the Mongols retained control of parts of China during the first part of this dynasty, by 1400 they had fallen from power in China (and in many of their other conquered lands). During this dynasty, the Forbidden City was built; roads, canals, palaces and temples were erected; trade and art flourished; and the capitol was moved from Xian to Beijing.

The Forbidden City: The extravagant residence of the emperor that was built during the Ming Dynasty. No one was allowed to enter or leave it without the emperor’s permission. It is said that it included 9,999 rooms. Its halls and temples, some of which were used solely by the emperor, were astonishingly ornate.

Early Modern Times (1500 CE to 1900 CE)

Overview of China during the colonial period: Colonists arrived in southern China in early colonial times, establishing thriving trading ports. The foreigners were met with suspicion by the Chinese, and for good reason: colonists waged war over port control and balanced imports and exports.

The Qing Dynasty: The last imperial dynasty of China, which ruled from the mid-1600s till 1911. Prosperous, it was ruled by the Manchu people. They expanded the Chinese empire to become the largest in the world in 1800; brought efficiency without greatly disturbing existing Chinese customs; and increased trade, especially of tea, porcelain, cotton and silk. However, they were isolationists, only allowing Chinese to take silver as payment for their goods and disallowing foreign goods to enter China. This policy increased illegal foreign trade, including the opium trade.

The Manchus: The rulers of the Qing Dynasty and a foreign people from the northeast. At first, the Manchus lived separately from the Chinese in closed-off areas and Chinese men had to wear long hear in pigtails to show inferiority to the Manchus; however, both Manchus and Chinese were allowed to be civil servants (mandarins). Eventually the Manchus assimilated and were accepted.

The first and second Opium Wars: The wars between China and the colonists over the illegal importing of opium into China. The Opium Wars occurred partly because the colonists were not allowed to trade their goods for Chinese goods, only silver. This policy caused an increase in illegal foreign trade, with opium as a key export. Colonists encouraged heavy opium use by the Chinese and exported huge quantities to this country. When Chinese officials burned British stores of opium, Britain sent warships. Britain won the war and took Hong Kong as its own. After this, China was forced to open trade and made trade agreements with many countries.

The Modern Era (1900 CE to the Present)

The Boxer Rebellion:

The Republican Revolution: The revolution led by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 which overthrew the Qin Dynasty and ended the Chinese imperial era

Sun Yat-sen: The first president of the Republic of China and the leader of the Republican Revolution

Republic of China: The government that followed the Qin Dynasty and was ruled by a president and military leaders. It had two centers, one in the north in Beijing and one in the south at Nanjing. It was characterized by continuous civil war between the communist north and the nationalist south. It fell in 1949.

Chinese Civil War: The war that began with the Republican Revolution and continued throughout the time of the Republic of China until Mao’s communists emerged as victors and created the People’s Republic of China

China during World War I:

China during World War II:

Chiang Kai-Shek: The leader of the joint nationalist and communist forces who defeated northern rebels during the beginning of the Chinese Civil War, then became the leader of the Nationalist Party after the communists broke away

Mao Zedong: The leader of the Communist Party who prevailed after the long Chinese Civil War and created the People’s Republic of China

The Long March: The deadly march of Mao and his communist army from the south to the north before taking power

Chinese-Japanese War: The war between China and Japan that took place during the Chinese Civil War. It started in the 1930s when Japan invaded China and captured several important cities, including Beijing. For a time, nationalists and communists paused their civil war and allied to fight them. When they defeated Japan in 1945, they resumed fighting each other.

People’s Republic of China: The modern government of China, which was founded by Mao Zedong in 1949. Strictly communist for several decades, in the late 1970s it began adopting free trade policies that brought on an economic boom.

Great Leap Forward: Mao Zedong’s campaign to end poverty through the redistribution of land to be run by giant peasant communities. It was a failure, leading to widespread food shortages and the death of millions by starvation.

Cultural Revolution: Mao Zedong’s campaign to suppress anti-communist ideas in which over one million intellectuals, political opponents and others were placed in concentration camps and killed

Little Red Book: The nickname for Mao’s political treatise titled The Thoughts of Chairman Mao

Tiananmen Square demonstration: The 1989 student demonstration in Beijing in which 3,000 people were killed and 10,000 people were injured for advocating for democracy

Return of Hong Hong: The 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China after 100 years of colonial rule by the British

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