Art and Culture/Chinese Dynasties

From Quiz Revision Notes

Note – there is no definite list of Chinese dynasties. Apart from the dynasties listed here, there were also several other short-lived dynasties and states throughout Chinese history. Some sources disagree on dates, and there may be overlaps between dynasties. Some dynasties, people, and places may be known by other names.


Xia (c. 2100 BCE – c. 1766 BCE)

Little is known about the Xia dynasty, which was once considered more myth and legend than fact.

Bronze age civilisation.

Established dynastic principles.

The Xia dynasty is said to descend from the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi.

Yu the Great established the Xia dynasty and was famed for his introduction of flood control.

King Jie was defeated by Tang of Shang, bringing an end to the Xia Dynasty.


Shang (c. 1766 BCE – c. 1122 BCE)

Also known as the Yin dynasty.

Bronze age civilisation.

United a large part of the current China under one Emperor.

Created the first Chinese writing system and invented the calendar.

Oracle bone script is an ancient form of Chinese characters that were engraved on oracle bones – animal bones or turtle shells used in divination.

Chinese bronze casting and pottery advanced during the Shang dynasty.

Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding and also served as a military general and high priestess

King Zhou was the last king of the Shang dynasty.


Zhou (c. 1122 BCE – 221 BCE)

The Zhou period was described as feudal, because the Zhou's fengjian system was similar to medieval rule in Europe.

Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism (based on the teachings of Kung Fu-tze or Kǒng Qiū), Taoism and Legalism were developed under the Zhou dynasty.

Legalism is a philosophical belief that human beings are more inclined to do wrong than right because they are motivated entirely by self-interest and require strict laws to control their impulses.

The Mandate of Heaven was the divine source of authority and the right to rule of China's early kings and then emperors. The first Chinese ruler to claim his position and authority came directly from Heaven was King Wen of Zhou.

The Western Zhou was the first half of the Zhou dynasty. It began when King Wu of Zhou overthrew the Shang dynasty at the Battle of Muye.

The Eastern Zhou was the second half of the Zhou dynasty. It was divided into two periods: the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States.

Tao Te Ching is a Chinese classic text written by Laozi, also known as Lao-Tzu.

The Art of War is a military treatise written by Sun Tzu.

Spring and Autumn Period

Spring and Autumn Period (c. 770 BCE – 475 BCE) is not considered a dynasty. It corresponds to the first part of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. During this period, the Zhou royal authority over the various feudal states eroded.

Warring States

Warring States (475 BCE – 221 BCE) is not considered a dynasty. It took place between the Zhou Dynasty and the Qin Dynasty, and was marked by intense military competition, political fragmentation, and cultural transformation. There were seven Warring States. The period ended with the Qin's wars of unification against the other six states.


Qin (221 BCE – 206 BCE)

First period of Imperial China.

Qui Shi Huang, who had already been king of Qin since 246 BCE, declared himself the First Emperor.

The Qin introduced a range of reforms such as standardized currency, weights, measures and a uniform system of writing, which aimed to unify the state and promote commerce.

Construction began on the Great Wall of China.

A number of irrigation systems were built.

The Terracotta Army was buried with Qui Shi Huang in Lintong County, outside Xi'an, Shaanxi in 210 BCE.


Han (206 BCE – 220 CE)

Following the fall of the Qin dynasty, a civil war broke out between two major contending powers – Xiang Yu's Western Chu and Liu Bang's Han. The war ended in 202 BCE with a Han victory at the Battle of Gaixia.

The dynasty was briefly interrupted by the Xin dynasty (9–25 CE) established by usurping regent Wang Mang, and is thus separated into two periods – the Western Han (202 BCE – 9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25 CE –220 CE).

Liu Bang became the first emperor of the Han dynasty, as Emperor Gaozu of Han.

The Han dynasty saw an age of economic prosperity and witnessed a significant growth of the money economy.

Cai Lun is traditionally regarded as the inventor of paper and the modern papermaking process.

The Silk Road was initiated and spread by the Han dynasty through exploration and conquests in Central Asia. Buddhism first entered China through the Silk Road.

Emperor Wu ruled for 54 years (141 BCE – 87 BCE). He led the Han dynasty through its greatest territorial expansion including into Korea and Vietnam.

Yellow Turban Rebellion was a peasant revolt against the Eastern Han dynasty in 184 CE.

Three Kingdoms

Three Kingdoms (220 – 280) was the tripartite division of China between the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu, following the Han dynasty and preceding the Jin dynasty.  It was one of the bloodiest periods in Chinese history. The historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms attributed to Luo Guanzhong is set during this period.


Jin (266 – 420)

Founded by Sima Yan (Emperor Wu).

The dynasty had two distinct phases: the Western (Xi) Jin (266 – 317) and the Eastern (Dong) Jin (317 – 420).

A series of civil wars known as the War of the Eight Princes weakened the dynasty. Subsequently, in 304, the dynasty experienced a wave of rebellions and invasions by non-Han ethnicities termed the Five Barbarians.

The dynasty was succeeded by the Sixteen Kingdoms in northern China and the Liu Song dynasty in southern China.

Sixteen Kingdoms

Sixteen Kingdoms (304 – 439) was a chaotic period in Chinese history when northern China fragmented into a series of short-lived dynastic states. The majority of these states were founded by the Five Barbarians.

Northern and Southern Dynasties

Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 – 589) followed the collapse of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. During this time, different dynasties and states emerged and competed for power and control over China. It is sometimes considered as the latter part of a longer period known as the Six Dynasties. Despite being an age of civil war and political chaos, it was also a time of flourishing arts and culture, and advancement in technology,


Sui (581 – 618)

The Sui unified the Northern and Southern dynasties, thus ending the long period of division following the fall of the Western Jin dynasty and laying the foundations for the Tang dynasty.

The dynasty was founded by Emperor Wen of Sui, who established Buddhism as the state religion.

The Grand Canal was built, and the Great Wall was refortified.

Emperor Yang was the second emperor.

The dynasty was unpopular because of the taxes they imposed and had to face many discontents and rebellions.


Tang (618 – 907)

The Li family founded the dynasty, seizing power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire. Li Yuan, known as Emperor Gaozu of Tang, ruled until 626.

The dynasty was a golden age of Chinese art and culture and is well known for expanding the reach of the Chinese economy through the development of trade routes, especially along the silk road.

Trade relations were established with the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire.

Woodblock printing was developed. A woodblock-printed copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra in the British Library is the earliest example of block printing which bears an actual date (868 CE).

Gunpowder was invented.

The Battle of Talas in 751 was between the Abbasid Caliphate along with its ally, the Tibetan Empire, against the Tang dynasty. The defeat for the Tang marked the end of their westward expansion and resulted in Islamic control of Transoxiana.

Zhou dynasty was established by Wu Zhou (commonly known as Wu Zetian) in 690, when she proclaimed herself huangdi (emperor). The dynasty interrupted the Tang Dynasty until its abolition in 705, when Wu Zetian abdicated and the Tang Dynasty was restored. Wu Zetian was the only female emperor of China.

The Tang Empire was at its height of power until the middle of the 8th century, when the An Lushan Rebellion destroyed the prosperity of the empire.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 – 979)

Five dynastic states quickly succeeded one another in North China, and more than a dozen concurrent dynastic states, collectively known as the Ten Kingdoms, were established in South China.

There was near constant warfare between the emerging kingdoms and alliances they formed.

Throughout the period, there was marked cultural and economic growth.

The last of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms regimes was Northern Han, which held out until the Song conquered it in 979.


Song (960 – 1279)

The dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu of Song, who usurped the throne of the Later Zhou (one of the Five Dynasties) and went on to conquer the rest of the Ten Kingdoms.

The dynasty had two distinct phases: the Northern Song (960 – 1127) and the Southern Song (1127 – 1279). Northern China was controlled by the Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234).

Period of calm and creativity.

The dynasty was the first in world history to issue banknotes or true paper money and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy.

First recorded chemical formula of gunpowder, the invention of gunpowder weapons.

The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, initially invaded the Jin territory in 1205 and the Jin dynasty was overthrown on 1234.


Yuan (1279 – 1368)

Kublai Khan officially proclaimed the dynasty in 1271.

Kublai Khan's armies conquered the Song dynasty in 1279 after defeating the Southern Song in the Battle of Yamen, and reunited China under the Yuan dynasty. This was the first time that China had been under foreign control.

In addition to Emperor of China, Kublai also claimed the title of Great Khan.

Marco Polo was welcomed to the court of Kublai.

Khanbaliq or Dadu of Yuan was the winter capital of the Yuan Dynasty in what is now Beijing. It was located at the centre of modern Beijing.

The Red Turban Rebellions were uprisings against the Yuan dynasty between 1351 and 1368, eventually leading to its collapse. The Battle of Lake Poyang between the Ming and the Han was arguably the largest naval battle in history. Remnants of the Yuan imperial court retreated northwards.


Ming (1368 – 1644)

The Hongwu Emperor was the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. He claimed the Mandate of Heaven in 1368.

The dynasty was established in Nanjing.

Beijing was designated as the capital in 1420. At the centre was the political node of the Imperial City, and at the centre of this was the Forbidden City, the palatial residence of the emperor and his family.

The Great Wall was completed.

Admiral Zheng made seven ‘great treasure voyages’ (1405 – 1433)

The period was also renowned for ceramics and porcelains. The major production centre for porcelain was the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, most famous in the period for blue and white porcelain. The Dehua porcelain factories in Fujian catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain by the late 16th century.

The Chongzhen Emperor was the last Emperor of the Ming dynasty. He hanged himself when the dynasty fell.

In the early 17th century, persistent drought and famine accelerated the collapse of the Ming dynasty.

Li Zicheng was a Chinese peasant rebel leader who overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644 and ruled over northern China briefly as the emperor of the short-lived Shun dynasty. A Ming officer named Wu Sangui opened the Shanhai Pass in the Great Wall to allow Qing forces through. Together, Wu and the Manchus defeated Li Zicheng's army near the pass.


Qing (1644 – 1912)

Manchu-led imperial dynasty and the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history. It emerged from the Later Jin dynasty (1616 – 1636).

It was the largest imperial dynasty in the history of China and in 1790 the fourth-largest empire in world history in terms of territorial size.

The Kangxi Emperor was the third emperor of the Qing dynasty, and the second Qing emperor to rule over China proper, reigning from 1661 to 1722. His reign of 61 years makes him the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history. He legalized private maritime trade along the coast, establishing a series of customs stations in major port cities.

The Qianlong Emperor (1735 – 1796) led Ten Great Campaigns that extended Qing control into Inner Asia.

Opium Wars: The British established their first treaty ports in China after the First Opium War by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. Further ports were opened to European trade after the Second Opium War was ended by the Treaty of Tientsin (1858) and the Convention od Beijing (1860).

Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) severely weakened the Qing dynasty.

Empress Dowager Cixi was a Chinese noblewoman, concubine and later regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908.

Boxer Rebellion was an anti-foreign uprising between 1899 and 1901, by the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists.

The 1911 Revolution was the spontaneous but popular uprising that ended the long reign of the Qing dynasty. It is also known as the Xinhai Revolution, after the Chinese calendar year in which it occurred. The revolution was the culmination of a decade of agitation, revolts, and uprisings. Its success marked the collapse of the Chinese monarchy.

The Xuantong Emperor, commonly known as Puyi, was the last emperor of China. He became emperor at the age of two in 1908 but was forced to abdicate in 1912.

Republic of China

Republic of China (1912 – 1949)

The Republic was declared on 1 January 1912 after the Xinhai Revolution. On 12 February 1912, regent Empress Dowager Longyu signed the abdication decree on behalf of the Xuantong Emperor.  Sun Yat-sen was the founder of the Republic and its provisional president.

The Chinese Civil War was fought between the Kuomintang-led government of the Republic of China and forces of the Chinese Communist Party, with armed conflict continuing until 7 December 1949, ending with Communist control of mainland China.