Hi everyone. I’m creating this podcast for Chinese learners who want to learn a bit about Chinese history. Each podcast provides a concise, easy-to-understand introduction to a particular aspect of Chinese history. It is also a useful resource for listening practice, as I’ve asked my friends to speak clearly and at a slow pace. I promise that no “big words” will be used – all the content is in layman’s terms, and is considered common knowledge in China. Enjoy!
Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History
#1: The Periodization of Ancient Chinese History
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Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History: #1: The Periodization of Ancient Chinese History
To aid in the research and writing of history, historians often divide Chinese history into different periods. There are various ways one can periodize Chinese history; one way is to divide it into four phases, namely: high antiquity, middle antiquity, modern history and contemporary history. This is the method adopted in this guide. Each period has its own characteristics in terms of culture, society and so on, and there were changes in the territory of China due to the movement of various ethnic groups.
Students should know that China has a long history of at least 3,000 years, or even more than 4,000 or 5,000 years. This introduction is mainly focused on Chinese ancient history. For the sake of brevity, detailed information about the prehistory of China, as well as history after the fall of the Qing dynasty, is not included. Apologies to listeners.
High Antiquity: from Prehistory to 3rd Century BC
The first major period of Chinese history is known as high antiquity. High antiquity ranges from prehistory to before the establishment of the Qin dynasty in the 3rd century BC. Chinese high antiquity includes four major periods – prehistory, the Xia Dynasty, the Shang Dynasty and the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty is further divided into two periods: the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.
Historical records state that the first Chinese dynasty was the Xia dynasty, which lasted from approximately 21st century BC to 16th century BC. The territory of the Xia dynasty cannot be clearly determined due to a scarcity of historical documents and the fact that no maps have been found. Although there are clear records of this time in extant documents, to date there is insufficient archaeological evidence to prove its existence and specific location.
The second dynasty of China, the Shang dynasty, spanned from approximately 16th century BC to 11th century BC. In the beginning of the 20th century, the royal capital of the late Shang Dynasty was discovered in Anyang, Henan province. The discovery of large numbers of oracle bones with text inscribed on them, as well as their successful interpretation, proved the existence of the Shang dynasty.
Approximately 500 years later, the Zhou people who lived in the central part of modern-day Shaanxi province developed and expanded, eventually wiping out the Shang court and ushering in the third dynasty in China’s history – the Zhou dynasty.
The Zhou dynasty is further divided into two periods. The first period is known as the Western Zhou period as its capital was located in the west. During this time, the Zhou kings gave some parts of its subjugated land and people to the Zhou family nobles to rule and manage, and some parts to outstanding subjects who assisted with the establishment of the Zhou dynasty. They also recognised the original rule of land and people by some tribal chiefs.
The territory of the Zhou dynasty covered modern-day Henan, Shandong, Hebei, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang and most of Jiangxi, as well as parts of Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei. The culturally developed area of the time was concentrated in most of Henan, as well as Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, Shandong, Anhui and parts of Hubei.
The second period of the Zhou dynasty is known as the Eastern Zhou dynasty as its capital was moved to the east. The first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty is known as the Spring and Autumn period. During this time, a number of different vassal states fought for total domination. The second half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty is known as the Warring States period. During this time, the Zhou emperor existed in name only, and feudal lords frequently launched military expeditions against each other. Meanwhile, relatively undeveloped ethnic groups gradually assimilated themselves with the people of the Central Plain of China.
Middle Antiquity: from 3rd Century BC to mid-17th Century AD
The second major period of Chinese history is known as middle antiquity. Middle antiquity lasted from 3rd century BC to mid-17th century AD. It includes the following six major periods: 1) the Qin and Han dynasties; 2) the Six Dynasties period; 3) the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties period; 4) the Northern and Southern Song, Liao, Jin and Western Xia dynasties; 5) the Yuan dynasty; 6) the Ming dynasty.
The Qin and Han Dynasties
The first unified imperial dynasty in Chinese history was the Qin dynasty. Its establishment brought feudal separatism to an end, and completed the expansion of China’s territory. The Qin dynasty, however, was short-lived, lasting only about 16 years, and was abruptly superseded by the Han dynasty. The Han dynasty, with a lifespan of approximately 422 years, is an extremely important dynasty in the history of China, and was also one of the most powerful states in the world at the time. It had far-reaching impacts on the development of each and every dynasty that followed it.
During its zenith, the Han dynasty reached, in the northeast, large areas of modern-day Liaodong and Korean peninsulas; in the north, the Great Wall of China; in the west, Gansu, and Xinjiang and some states of Central Asia which swore allegiance to the Han dynasty; and in the south, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong and Northern Vietnam. The Han dynasty, like the Zhou dynasty, is also divided into two periods – the Western Han dynasty and the Eastern Han dynasty, also known as the Former Han dynasty and the Later Han dynasty. We distingush the Western Han dynasty from the Eastern Han dynasty because in the middle of the Han Dynasty an official named Wang Mang usurped the throne and established a new dynasty called the Xin dynasty. The Xin dynasty however was short-lived, lasting only 16 years.
The Qin and Han dynasties were the beginning stages of the formation of the Chinese empire. The period established a number of institutions, such as the imperial system and the prefecture and county system, and founded the basic political system for the following 2,000 years. The territory of the Han dynasty is also essentially the main area in which the Han ethnic group are concentrated today – apart from Northeast China and Taiwan. At the same time, the assimilation that took place during the conflict and exchange between the Han ethnic group and the non-Han people on the frontier – for example, the Xiongnu in the north, the Nanyue in the south and the Qiang in the West – foreshadowed the major ethnic assimilation that would take place during the Six Dynasties period.
The Six Dynasties Period
After the Eastern Han dynasty, the Central Plain of China was in a fragmented state. This period is known as the Six Dynasties period, because it was made up of six short-lived dynasties, namely Wu of the Three Kingdoms, Eastern Jin and, of the Southern Dynasties, Song, Qi, Liang and Chen. They successively established their capitals at Jiankang, present-day Nanjing. Students should note that the 400 years following the end of the Eastern Han dynasty until the unification of China under the Sui dynasty is also called the Wei-Jin-Nanbeichao period.
China at the time was divided into the Wei, Shu and Wu states. For a period of time, China was unified under the Western Jin dynasty, but an ethnic minority in the North broke through the Great Wall and destroyed the Western Jin regime. This ushered in the Sixteen Kingdoms period in which the northern part of the Central Plain of China was in total chaos, and most of China was ruled by ethnic minorities.
Aristocratic Han families migrated to the south and, at Jiankang – that is, modern-day Nanjing – reestablished the Jin dynasty, known by historians as the Eastern Jin dynasty to distinguish it from other dynasties named Jin that established capitals at Luoyang. The Eastern Jin dynasty and the Sixteen Kingdoms established in the Central Plain were in parallel opposition for over 100 years. Soon after, the Xianbei people who roamed modern-day Northeast China and Mongolia rose to power, unified the North and established the Northern Wei dynasty. Afterwards it split into the Northern Zhou dynasty and the Northern Qi dynasty.
At the same time, the Eastern Jin dynasty in the South came to its demise, and was replaced by the four minor dynasties of Song, Qi, Liang and Chen. The period, which is also known as the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, is characterised by frequent conflict and social disorder. Yet, just as before, there are some major themes during the period that are worth learning about.
In the North, there was a major assimilation of the different ethnic groups, as the Han, Xiongnu, Xianbei and other groups assimilated with each other over a long period of time, resulting in a gradual decline in hostility, and an exchange of technologies and customs. Furthermore, the rulers that came from the ethnic minorities gradually came to accept Han rule, leading to the formation of a feudal system. In the South, as large populations arrived from the North, there was an influx into the Yangtze River Basin of large amounts of labour and production technologies. The economy in the South improved significantly, and economic development and ethnic assimilation laid the foundation for the future prosperity of the Sui and Tang empires.
The Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties Period
The Sui dynasty in the North replaced the Northern Zhou dynasty and unified the Northern Qi and the Southern Dynasties. The powerful and prosperous Tang dynasty superseded the short-lived Sui dynasty. Once again, China achieved unification. During its zenith, the Tang dynasty extended to the following regions: in the North, to modern-day Mongolia; in the West, to modern-day Iran; and in the South, to modern-day Northern Vietnam.
The Tang dynasty was the second period after the Han dynasty to have profound effects on the politics, economies and cultures of East Asia. The Turks and the Khitan in the North, as well as the Uighurs and Tibetans in the Northwest, had a close cultural and economic relationship with the Tang court. They played a role in the passing on of China’s porcelain, silk, tea and advanced technologies to the Middle East. Countries to the East and South such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam learnt and adopted much of the advanced technology, institutions, writing system, laws and customs of the Tang dynasty. This influence can be clearly seen even today.
Due to the significant influence of the Tang, they received an unprecedented amount of veneration the world over. Thus, today overseas Chinese are also commonly known as Tangren (“Tang people”). From 755 to 763 AD, an immense rebellion almost toppled the Tang dynasty. That some regions refused to obey the authority of the central government demonstrates its after-effects. This situation continued right up until the end of the Tang dynasty.
After the fall of the Tang dynasty, the territory of China fell into fragmentation once more. This period is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, or simply the Five Dynasties period. Similar to the Six Dynasties period, five successive independent regimes operated in the North – the Later Liang, Later Tang, Later Jin, Later Han and Later Zhou. Nearly all of them set up their capital at Bianliang, modern-day Kaifeng, Henan province. In the South, 10 minor states emerged in opposition to the North; this was a continuance of the feudal fragmentation of the late Tang Dynasty.
The Northern and Southern Song, Liao and Jin and Western Xia Dynasties
After about 80 years, the Song dynasty replaced the Later Zhou regime, thereby unifying the Central Plain and Southern China. However, the territory under the control of the Northern Song dynasty was much smaller than that of the Tang dynasty. Other parts of China were occupied by nomadic peoples. Northern Hebei was occupied by the Khitan, under the Liao dynasty; Gansu and Northwestern Shaanxi by the Tanguts, under the Western Xia dynasty.
During the first half of the 12nd Century, the Jurchen – ancestors of today’s Manchu people – rose to power. The Jurchens annihilated the Khitan dynasty, and then destroyed the Northern Song empire, forcing the Central Plain dynasty to move again to the South. At this time, the Jurchen established the Jin (金 Jīn, as opposed to晉/晋 Jìn) Dynasty at the Yellow River Basin, in parallel opposition to the Southern Song dynasty, which occupied the southern part of the Huai River, and the Western Xia dynasty, which occupied Gansu.
As large populations from the Central Plain once again migrated to the South, the Yangtze River and Pearl River basins were opened up for large scale development. At the end of the 12th century, the Mongolians rose to power in the steppes. As Genghis Khan and his descendants expanded their territory, the Mongolian Empire extended all the way to Eastern Europe. The Mongolian khanate which ruled China is known as the Yuan dynasty.
During the Yuan dynasty, there was free-flowing transportation both inside China and out – including foreign transportation by land and sea – and frequent exchange between China and the outside world. The prosperity of Dadu – present-day Beijing, Hangzhou, Quanzhou, and other cities in China surpassed that of previous dynasties. The Yuan dynasty established contact with the Vatican.
In approximately 1275, the Italian merchant Marco Polo arrived at Dadu via the Silk Road. He lived in China for 17 years, and was appointed as an official of the Yuan court by Kublai Khan. The book he wrote entitled the Travels of Marco Polo described China’s prosperous cities, society, customs, beliefs and local products in great detail. Economic and cultural development during the Yuan dynasty, as well as unprecedented exchange between Chinese and foreigners, had considerable impact on the course of world history.
In the middle of the 13th century, the Han Chinese drove out the Mongolians and established the Ming dynasty. Although the territory occupied by the Ming dynasty was no where near as large as the Yuan dynasty, during its zenith, it extended to the following regions: in the Northeast, to modern-day Amur, Russia; in the North, to the Mongolian steppes; in the West, to Gansu; in the Southwest, to Tibet; and in the South, to modern-day Northern Vietnam.
In terms of its ethnic composition, there was once again a major assimilation of the Central Plain and nomadic cultures in the wake of several non-Han occupations of the Central Plain. In terms of culture, ideologies from the Indian civilisation spread for over a thousand years and became more or less localised, with Buddhism being the most typical example. It was still mainly an agricultural-based society and economy. At the same time, handicraft and commercial industries gradually developed and flourished.
Modern History: from Mid-17th Century AD to Early 20th Century
The third major period of Chinese history is the modern history period – that is, from the middle of the 17th century AD to the beginning of the 20th century, covering the end of the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty. At the peak of the Qing dynasty, China’s territory in the Northeast extended to the far-east part of modern-day Russia, and the South to modern-day Taiwan. Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Okinawa were all tributary states of the Qing court.
During the mid-19th century, after the Opium Wars, the Qing dynasty was defeated repeatedly in engagements with foreign powers, and its power diminished greatly. Russia seized the region to the north of the Amur River, and Japan forcibly occupied Taiwan. China’s tributary states were successively colonised by Britain, France, Japan and other countries.
After more than 200 years of Manchu rule, gradually the Manchus were assimilated into Han Chinese culture, and the Manchu language forgotten by most Manchu people. The Mongolians, Hui, Uighurs, Tibetans, Miao and other ethnic minorities also accepted the rule of the Chinese government. During this period, Western culture gradually found its way into China.
Contemporary History: from 1912 to Present Day
The fourth major period in Chinese history is the contemporary history period. Contemporary history is reckoned from the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 up until the present time. The period put an end to over two thousand years of imperial autocracy, and established a new system of government – the democratic republic. In 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese History Mnemonic
The following is a mnemonic to help you remember the different periods of Chinese history.
Firstly, the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors,
Then, legend has it, Yao, Shun and Yu;
The Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties,
The Eastern Zhou, split into two periods;
The Spring and Autumn period, the Warring States,
Then unification under the Qin and the Former and Later Han dynasties;
The Three Kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu,
The Western and Eastern Jin dynasties, one after the other;
The Northern and Southern dynasties side-by-side,
The successive Sui, Tang and Five dynasties;
After the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties,
The imperial dynasties comes to an end.