School in a Book: History of China

I definitely have a soft spot for the gigantic, epic country of China, whose story is one of political unity and distinctness. For a land of this size, China’s ability to maintain its cultural and political identity for almost as long as civilization has existed is an impressive feat indeed.


Ancient Times (3000 BCE to 500 CE)

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 Due to sparse historical references and no historical records, this dynasty’s existence is disputed.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 a 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. It is known for its bronze and jade works; its horses and chariots; its domesticated animals; wheat, millet and rice agriculture; its silk and calligraphy; and its ancestor worship.

The Zhou Dynasty: The third dynasty in Chinese history that lasted from the 1000s BCE to the 200s BCE. It is known for its long period of political and social upheaval, including civil wars and conflicts between different states, and for the development of Confucianism and Taoism.

The Warring States Period: The period of political and social upheaval in ancient China that occurred during the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty from the 400s BCE to the 200s BCE. During this period, various states vied for supremacy, leading to a breakdown in central authority and unity.

The Qin Dynasty: The fourth dynasty in Chinese history, which took place during the 200s BCE. It is known for its short 15-year duration; for being the first dynasty to unify China under a single emperor, Shi Huang Di; and for Shi Huang Di’s many contributions to culture and infrastructure.

Shi Huang Di: The first emperor of China, whose name means “first emperor”. He was known for reuniting China under a central government after the Warring States Period; for introducing standardized weights and measures, a single currency and a writing system; for beginning the construction of the Great Wall of China and the Silk Road; for making Confucianism the official state religion; for replacing the feudal aristocrats with capable administrators; and for building roads, canals, irrigation systems and other infrastructure. He is also known for destroying classic literary works, including some by Confucius, in the name of modernization. His original name was Qin Shi Huang and he was also known as the Yellow Emperor.

Leizu: The wife of Shi Huang Di, who is credited in Chinese legend with the discovery of silk

The Great Wall of China: The wall started by Shi Huang Di in the 200s to help protect China from invaders, such as the Mongols. During the Ming Dynasty in the late Middle Ages, it was rebuilt and extended to form a continuous structure stretching over 13,000 miles across China’s northern border. It is made of a variety of materials, including brick, tamped earth, stone, and wood, and includes watchtowers, battlements, and other defensive structures.

The Silk Road: A vast network of trade routes that connected China with the Middle East, Africa and Europe that greatly influenced cultural development. Traversing it was treacherous due to harsh climates, bandits, rugged terrain and political instability and a trip could take several years each direction.

The terracotta soldiers: The over 7,000 larger-than-life terracotta statues that were created after the death of Shi Huang Di and placed in his tomb to serve as guardians as well as to accompany him in the afterlife and protect him in the underworld. They include replications of soldiers, chariots, horses, and other figures, and each one is unique, with different facial expressions, hairstyles, and clothing, indicating that they were modeled after real individuals. Their creation involved thousands of laborers and craftsmen, and their discovery is considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of modern times.

The Han Dynasty: The fifth Chinese dynasty, which took place in the early 200s CE and is considered one of the most powerful and important Chinese dynasties. It is known for its political stability and economic prosperity; for its establishment of foreign diplomacy and trading along the Silk Road; for its scientific achievements, including the invention of paper, anesthetic, the compass and the seismograph; and for its cultural achievements such as the spread of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. For a time, its capital was the largest city in the world, and China was as large as the Roman Empire.

Liu Bang: The founder of the Han Dynasty, whose son became its first emperor. He is known for relaxing harsh laws and replacing them with fair Confucian laws; for working to replace classic writings destroyed by the Qin Dynasty; and for his overall popularity.

The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

The Sui Dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that restored stability during the early Middle Ages after a time of political, economic and social instability following the Han Dynasty during which many short-lived dynasties ruled. It lasted from the late 500s to the early 600s CE. It is known for the construction of the Grand Canal, which connected the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, and the establishment of a strong, merit-based bureaucracy which lasted until the 1900s in which prized government positions were given to those who passed the imperial exam covering various topics including Confucianism.

Mandarins: The Western term for the shi or daifu, professional Chinese officials that ran the government

The Tang Dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that ruled from the 600s CE to about 900 CE, a time considered a golden age in Chinese history. It is known for its peace and prosperity; its effective organization; its expansion of China’s western borders; its effective control of the Silk Road; its advancements in art, literature and music; and its technological advances, which include the invention of porcelain and gunpowder. It ruled territories from modern-day Korea to Thailand to Afghanistan.

The Song dynasty: The Chinese dynasty that ruled from the mid-900s CE to the late-1200s. It continued the advances of the Tang Dynasty and is known for its advances in porcelain making, theater, poetry, painting and shipbuilding; its establishing of peace at its borders; the invention of clocks, movable-type printing, paddle wheel boats and the magnetic compass; its expanded system of agriculture; its population explosion; its trade expansion; its use of the world’s first paper currency; its starting the practice of foot binding; its government reforms; and its modernized form of banking.

The Mongol Empire: The empire led by Mongols under Kublai Khan ruled during the 1200s and 1300s CE and that spread across Asia and Europe, including China, with its capital in modern-day Beijing (known as Khanbaliq).The Mongols conquered China with fast horses, far-firing bows and a disciplined army.

Genghis Khan: The military general who founded the Mongol Empire in the 1200s CE. At the age of thirteen he took leadership of his small warlike tribe and with it, conquered Mongolia and created a unified empire. Then he extended its borders from China to Eastern Europe. His name means “emperor of all men.”

Kublai Khan: The grandson of Genghis Khan and the fifth leader of the Mongol Empire, succeeding his older brother Mongke Khan. He is known for founding the Yuan Dynasty in China and becoming its emperor.

The Yuan Dynasty: The unified Chinese and Mongolian dynasty that lasted from the mid-1200s to the mid-1300s CE and was started and led by Kublai Khan as emperor. It is known for being the first foreign-led dynasty in China; for expanding foreign trade and cultural exchange, partly by opening the Silk Road to the West; for advancing the arts and sciences; and for starting the construction of the Forbidden City.

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 ruled from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600s, which returned China to Chinese leadership and restored peace and stability. 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 elsewhere. This dynasty is known for finishing the construction of the Forbidden City; for constructing many roads, canals, palaces and temples; for expanding trade; and for moving the capital city from Xian to Beijing.

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

Early Modern Times (1500 CE to 1900 CE)

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. It is known for expanding the Chinese empire to become the largest in the world by 1800; for bringing efficiency without greatly disturbing existing Chinese customs; for increasing trade, especially of tea, porcelain, cotton and silk; and for maintaining a mostly isolationist policy that was challenged by foreign powers. Officially, the dynasty allowed Chinese to take only silver as payment for their goods and disallowed foreign goods to enter China. However, during this time, illegal foreign trade occurred, including trade in opium.

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 hair in pigtails to show inferiority to the Manchus; however, both Manchus and Chinese were allowed to be civil servants. Eventually the Manchus assimilated and were accepted.

The first and second Opium Wars: The wars that occurred in the mid-1800s primarily between China and Britain over the illegal importing of opium into China. They 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 both wars 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: A violent uprising in China that occurred around 1900, which was led by a secret society called the Boxers, who opposed foreign influence in China and the spread of Christianity. Believing that their martial arts training made them invulnerable to bullets and other weapons, they attacked foreign missionaries, Christian converts, and others. A coalition of eight foreign powers, including the United States, Britain, France, and Japan, sent troops to suppress the rebellion and were successful. This suppression further weakened the Qing Dynasty.

The Republican Revolution: The revolution led by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, ended the Chinese imperial era, and established the Republic of China

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

The Republic of China: The government that followed the Qing Dynasty, which included a new democratic constitution, the promotion of modern education, and the empowerment of women. It had two centers, one in the north in Beijing and one in the south at Nanjing. It was continuously threatened by civil war between the communist north and the nationalist south. It fell in 1949 when the Communist Party won and established the People’s Republic of China.

Chinese Civil War: The war that began with the Republican Revolution in the 1920s 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 in 1949. The Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, controlled the central government, while the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, operated from rural areas. The Nationalists received support from the United States and other Western powers, while the Communists received support from the Soviet Union. The war was temporarily interrupted during World War II when the two sides united to fight the Japanese, but resumed after the war. The Communists won in 1949, with the Nationalists fleeing to Taiwan, and Mao establishing the People’s Republic of China.

Chiang Kai-Shek: The leader of the Nationalist Party in China, who fought the Communist Party for control of China in the Chinese Civil War

Mao Zedong: The leader of the Chinese Communist Party who prevailed after the long Chinese Civil War and created the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He ruled the country from 1949 until his death in the 1970s. He was also known as Chairman Mao.

The Long March: A year-long, 6,000-mile military retreat by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China during the mid-1930s. It was led by Mao Zedong for the purpose of evading the Nationalist government’s army during the Chinese Civil War. Many died due to hunger, disease, and battles with the Nationalist forces. However, it was considered a success, as it allowed the Communist Party to regroup and strengthen its organization, as well as gain popular support among the peasants who lived along the route.

The Sino-Japanese War: The war between China and Japan that started in 1937 when Japan took advantage of the turmoil of civil war in China to invade and occupy large parts of it. It ended with the surrender of Japan to the Allies in 1945. China was aided by the U.S., the U.K. and other Western powers. The war included atrocities committed by both sides, including Japan’s Three Alls Policy (“kill all, burn all, loot all), which resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese civilians, as well as guerrilla warfare tactics by the Chinese. China was led by Chiang Kai-shek, who formed a temporary alliance with Mao’s communist forces to fight the Japanese. After the surrender of Japan, civil war resumed.

People’s Republic of China (PRC): 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 and increase industrialization, which he launched in the late 1950s. It called for the establishment of large collective farms known as communes, where people lived and worked together, as well as government-run steel factories. It was one of the largest man-made disasters in history, leading to widespread food shortages and the death of 20 to 45 million people 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. It started during the 1960s and also included the destruction of historical artifacts and cultural sites; the closing of schools; economic disruption; and more.

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

Tiananmen Square demonstration: The series of student demonstrations that took place in Beijing in 1989 during which an unknown number of people were killed and injured for advocating for democracy

The return of Hong Hong: The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China after 100 years of British colonial rule

Special Administrative Region (SAR): The name given to Hong Kong and Macau to denote their unique political status within the PRC. These areas maintain their own legal, economic, and political systems, while also being subject to the authority of the PRC.

Special economic zones (SEZs): Geographic regions in China that have reduced governmental restrictions and regulations on business. The first four were established in the late 1970s and early 1980s to attract foreign investment, increase exports and grow the economy. New zones continue to be added, and they contribute significantly to China’s economic success.


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