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The History of China – Timelines and Dynasties

As an ancient oriental country, China has a long history that steps across over 5,000 years. Have you wondered exactly how many dynasties are included in this 5,000 years long timeline?

When learning the Chinese language, the history of China is a subject that closely connects to the development of Chinese characters and their pronunciation. Also, splendid and colorful traditional Chinese folk customs were formed when different minority groups and Han people integrated gradually. All of these elements are essential to facilitate your study of Chinese Mandarin. The Chinese culture and history carried behind the language are always useful for a language learner to know more about it.

Today, I’m going to briefly introduce the history of China, companying with a concise timeline and dynasties ranked in the order of time.

Xia Dynasty 2100 B.C. – 1600 B.C.

The international academia still holds a controversy over the existence of the Xia Dynasty because no traces of the exact literature record, cities sites, and ceremonial buildings belonging to the Xia Dynasty have been found. However, the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasty projects carried out by Chinese archaeological experts have drawn conclusions based on the Erlitou site and other shreds of evidence, proving the existence of the Xia Dynasty. The Xia Dynasty was established by Dayu’s son Qi, and the last monarch was Jie, a famous tyrant in history.

Shang Dynasty 1600 B.C.-1100 B.C.

As the appearance and interpretation of oracle bone inscriptions, starting from the Shang Dynasty, China officially entered the era of informative history (referring to the era when written or unearthed cultural relics recorded the social conditions at that time). The founding monarch of the Shang Dynasty was Cheng Tang. With the assistance of Yi Yin, he overthrew Xia Jie’s brutal rule; the last monarch of the Shang Dynasty was King Zhou, who was also a famous tyrant.

Zhou Dynasty 1100 B.C.-221 B.C.

After King Wu defeated King Zhou, the Zhou Dynasty was established. The Zhou Dynasty has 32 monarchs and 37 kings who enjoyed the country for 791 years. It is the longest dynasty in the history of China. The founding monarch of the Zhou Dynasty was King Zhou Wu. From King Zhou Ping, it moved into the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period; the last monarch of the Shang dynasty was King Zhou Zhe. In addition, all of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties belonged to the era of slave society.

Qin Dynasty 221 B.C.-206 B.C.

Qin was the first unified dynasty in Chinese history. In the previous Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties, the monarch (king) federation was adopted, while Qin adopted the system of prefectures and counties. Starting from the Qin Dynasty, China officially entered a feudal society. The founding emperor is Qin Shihuang Yingzheng, and the title of the emperor “皇帝huáng dì” starts from Yingzheng. The last emperor of the Qin Dynasty was Ziying, who was in power for only 46 days.

Han Dynasty206 B.C.-220 A.D.

The Han Dynasty was subdivided into the Western Han and Eastern Han periods.

Xiang Yu named Liu Bang, the king of Hanzhong. Later, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu and became emperor, and the country was called “Han.” The capital was Chang’an in the early Han Dynasty and Luoyang in the later period. Therefore, there are “Western Han” and “Eastern Han.”

Western Han 206 B.C.24 A.D.

The capital of the Western Han was located in Chang’an, which is called Xi’an nowadays. In the early Western Han Dynasty, the society and economy were dilapidated. To restore the social economy and consolidate feudal rule. Han Gaozu, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wen, and Emperor Jing implemented a recuperation policy: let farmers occupy some land and have time to engage in agricultural production; reduce the exploitation of farmers. As a result, the social economy quickly recovered and developed, and the “Regulation of Wenjing” appeared in the early Han Dynasty.

Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty sent Zhang Qian as an envoy to the Western Regions twice to explore the road to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It was called the “Silk Road,” and China’s splendid silk fabrics were transported to the west through this period. By the time of Emperor Xuan of the Han Dynasty, the national power reached its peak.

Eastern Han 25 A.D.220 A.D.

Liu Xiu established the Eastern Han Dynasty in 25 A.D. The priority of the powerful landlords in the Eastern Han Dynasty expanded and formed family clans. The Huns, Qiang, Di, and other ethnic groups moved inland. After the northern Huns moved west, the Xianbei occupied Mobei, which profoundly impacted later generations. With the close communication between the East and the West, Buddhism was introduced to China in 100 A.D.

Three Kingdoms 220 – 280

Although the main characters in the Chinese literary “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” are Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan, especially Liu Bei, the period of the Three Kingdoms actually began in 220 AD when Cao Pi usurped the Han Dynasty. The following year Liu Bei declaimed his emperor right in the south-western region (so-called Shu Han), and Sun Quan declaimed his emperor right in the Yangtze River region in 229 AD (so-called Dong Wu), which marks the Three Kingdoms were formally established. The Three Kingdoms ended in 280 AD when the Western Jin Dynasty replaced Dong Wu.

Western Jin Dynasty 266 – 316

Soon after establishing the Western Jin Dynasty, the “Eight Kings Rebellion” occurred within the ruling class. The war forced ordinary people to go bankrupt and became refugees. Production in the Guanzhong area was severely damaged, which lead to the weak of the Western Jin Dynasty. In 301, Li-Te, the leader of refugees, launched an uprising in Mianzhu, which effectively attacked the rule of the Western Jin Dynasty. The Hun aristocrat Liu Yuan took the opportunity to fight against the Jin Dynasty. In 316, the Huns captured Chang’an and destroyed the Western Jin Dynasty.

Eastern Jin Dynasty 317 – 420

The capital city of the Eastern Jin Dynasty is Jiankang, which is called Nanjing nowadays. After the demise of the Western Jin Dynasty, Sima Rui, the royal family of the Western Jin Dynasty, established the Eastern Jin Dynasty in Jiankang, which is partially south. In the north, several ethnic minorities have established more than a dozen countries called “Sixteen Kingdoms.”

Northern and Southern Dynasty 420 – 581

After the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the Southern Dynasties of Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen were collectively referred to as the Southern Dynasties. At the same time, the Northern Wei, established by the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei tribe, unified the north, and the latter split into the Eastern Wei and the Western Wei and then evolved into the Northern Qi and Northern Zhou, respectively, collectively referred to as the Northern Dynasties.

Sui Dynasty 581 – 618

Similar to the Qin Dynasty, the Sui Dynasty was also a short-lived unified dynasty, which laid the foundation for the subsequent prosperity of the Tang Dynasty. The founding emperor Yang Jian took the throne from his own grandson in the Northern Zhou Dynasty until Emperor Yang II of the Sui Dynasty. The Sui Dynasty promoted the imperial examination system to select outstanding talents, weakened the phenomenon of the monopoly of official officials, and the excavation of the Grand Canal had a profound impact on future generations.

Tang Dynasty 618 – 907

The capital city of the Tang Dynasty is Chang’an, which is called Xi’an nowadays. In 618, the Tang Dynasty was established by Li Yuan, who implemented a series of enlightened policies. His son Li Shimin’s ” Zhen Guan Reign period” pushed the prosperity of China during the feudal period to the peak: developed agriculture, handicraft and commerce, textiles, dyeing, Ceramics, smelting, shipbuilding, and other technologies have also been further developed, transportations had commuted both of water field and land field across the country. The prosperity after the mid-Tang Dynasty was mainly manifested in the prosperity of industry and commerce. In the 660s, China’s power not only took root firmly in the Tarim Basin, Junggar Basin, and Yili River Basin but even extended to many city-states in Central Asia.

Five Dynasties 907-960 & Ten Kingdoms 902 – 979

After the end of the Tang Dynasty, China experienced a period of great division. The five dynasties that had their capitals in the Central Plains, Later Liang, Later Tang, Later Jin, Later Han, and Later Zhou, were called the Five Dynasties. There were many separatist regimes outside the Central Plains, including Former Shu, Later Shu, Southern Wu, Southern Tang, Wu Yue, Min, Ma Chu, Southern Han, Southern Ping, collectively referred to as the Ten Kingdoms.

Song Dynasty

One interesting fact about the Song Dynasty is its culinary history. In the Song Dynasty, there was a climax in the development of Chinese cuisine. In Bianjing and Lin’an, there are hundreds of names for cold dishes, hot dishes, soups, and colorful dishes. At that time, there were already dishes and vegetarian dishes marked with South, North, and Sichuan flavors on the market, indicating that the main flavors of Chinese cuisine, which is famous as the Eight Major Chinese cuisines, had formed in the Song Dynasty.

Northern Song Dynasty 9601127

In 960 AD, the later Zhou Dynasty General Zhao Kuangyin launched the Chenqiao mutiny and established the Song Dynasty, which was called the “Northern Song Dynasty” in history. It stood side by side with the Liao, Jin, and Xixia regimes and had a close war and economic exchanges. In 1127, the Jin Bing went south and fell to Bianjing in the Northern Song Dynasty. The Northern Song Dynasty was destroyed, and it was called “Jingkang Change” in history.

Southern Song Dynasty 1127 – 1279

There were two capital cities of the Southern Song Dynasty, Nanjing and Linan, called Hangzhou nowadays. Zhao Gou rebuilt the Song regime in the south, known as the “Southern Song Dynasty” in history, and extended the advanced economy and culture of the north to the south. Astronomy, science and technology, and printing in the Song Dynasty are among the best in the world back to the time.

Liao Dynasty 916 – 1125

According to the establishment time, Liao should actually be placed before the Northern Song Dynasty. After all, the Liao Dynasty was established before Song. The Liao and the Northern Song dynasty stood side by side in China and were perished around the same time. Moreover, from the perspective of the territory, the Liao Dynasty was far larger than the Northern Song Dynasty. The Liao Dynasty was founded by the Yelu Abaoji and ended in Yelu Yanxi.

Jin Dynasty 1115 – 1234

It was founded by the Jurchen Wanyan Aguda, who successively destroyed the Liao Dynasty and the Northern Song Dynasty, then negotiated with the Southern Song Dynasty, and finally ended under the attack of Mongolia and the Southern Song Dynasty. The last emperor Wan Yan Chenglin was originally a clan general under Emperor Anzong of the Jin Dynasty. Emperor Anzong of the Jin Dynasty did not want to be the country’s last emperor, so he passed the throne to Wan Yan Chenglin when the enemy was about to break the city under siege. As a result, Wan Yan Chenglin died of the rebellion less than an hour after becoming the emperor, the one with the shortest reign in Chinese history.

Yuan Dynasty 1271- 1368

In 1206, the Mongolian Temuzhen established the Mongolian Khanate to fight and invade Central Plain and successively destroyed the Xixia, Xiliao, Jin dynasties. His grandson Kublai Khan entered the Central Plains in 1271 and established the Yuan dynasty. The capital was established at Dadu (now Beijing). Later, in 1279, in the Yashan naval battle, the Mongolian Khanate defeated the Southern Song Dynasty and unified China. The Yuan regime achieved national unification, including Xinjiang, Tibet, and Yunnan.

Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644

In 1351, the Red Turban Army uprising broke out in the late Yuan Dynasty. The rule of the Yuan Dynasty was subsequently overthrown. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty.

The Ming government continuously built Beijing city and built the Great Wall, which greatly strengthened the military power in the north, conducive to the unification of the multi-ethnic country and the development of the frontier.

After the mid-Ming Dynasty, due to the development of the commodity economy, the seeds of capitalist production relations emerged within the feudal society.

The decadent rule, the monopoly of eunuchs, and the high concentration of land rights in the late Ming Dynasty aggravated class contradictions. Finally, it broke out in the peasant war led by Li Zicheng. In 1644, a peasant army led by Li Zicheng captured Beijing and overthrew the Ming Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty 1636 – 1912

In the late Ming Dynasty, the Jurchen tribe in northeastern China rose rapidly to establish Jin, later changing to Qing. The Manchu Qing tribe entered the customs and set Beijing’s capital city to replace the Ming Dynasty. During the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty, Taiwan was unified and at the same time strengthened its jurisdiction over Tibet. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Qing Dynasty declined rapidly. Britain imported a large amount of opium into China during this period, and the Qing government tried to ban opium. To protect the opium trade, Britain launched a war of aggression against China in 1840. The Qing government finally signed the “Nanjing Treaty” with the British government to ensure free trade. After the Opium War, Britain, the United States, France, Russia, Japan, and other countries continued to force the Qing government to sign various unequal treaties. Since then, China has gradually become a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society.

A Brief Chinese Chronology

Name of the Dynasty

(In Chinese)

Name of the Dynasty

(In English)

Xia Dynasty2100 B.C.-1600 B.C.
Shang Dynasty1600 B.C.-1100 B.C.
Zhou Dynasty1100 B.C.221 B.C.
– 西周Western Zhou Dynasty

1100 B.C.-771 B.C.

– 东周Eastern Zhou dynasty

770 B.C.-256 B.C.

— 春秋— Spring and Autumn period770 B.C.-476 B.C.
— 战国— Warring States475 B.C.-221 B.C.
秦朝Qin Dynasty221 B.C.-206 B.C.
汉朝Han Dynasty206 B.C.220 A.D.
– 西汉Western Han

206 B.C.-24 A.D.

– 东汉Eastern Han

25 A.D.-220 A.D.

三国Three Kingdoms220280
– 魏Wei220-265
– 蜀汉Shu Han221-263
– 吴Wu222-280
西晋Western Jin Dynasty265-316
东晋Eastern Jin Dynasty317-420
南北朝Northern and Southern Dynasty
– 南朝Southern Dynasty
— 宋— Song420-479
— 齐— Qi479-502
— 梁— Liang502-557
— 陈— Chen557-589
– 北朝Northern Dynasty
— 北魏— Northern Wei386-534
— 东魏— Eastern Wei534-550
— 北齐— Northern Qi550-577
— 西魏— Western Wei535-556
— 北周— Northern Zhou557-581
隋朝Sui Dynasty581-618
唐朝Tang Dynasty618-907
五代      Five Dynasties907960
后梁Later Liang
后唐Later Tang
后晋Later Jin
后汉Later Han
后周Later Zhou
十国Ten Kingdoms902979










Former Shu

Later Shu

Southern Wu

Southern Tang

Wu Yue


Ma Chu

Southern Han

Southern Ping

Northern Han

宋朝Song Dynasty960-1279
北宋Northern Song Dynasty960-1127
南宋Southern Song Dynasty1127-1279
Liao Dynasty916-1125
Jin Dynasty1115-1234
元朝Yuan Dynasty1271-1368
明朝Ming Dynasty1368-1644
清朝Qing Dynasty1644-1911


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