The archaeology of ancient China takes us back four and a half millennia to roughly 2500 B.C. It is customary to refer to events in Chinese history according to the dynasty to which the period's ancient rulers belonged. This isn't just true of ancient history, since the last dynasty, the Qing, ended in the 20th century. Nor is this true just of China. Ancient Egypt is another long-lived society for which we use dynasties (and kingdoms
) to date events.
The first Chinese dynasty is the Xia. This was a Bronze Age dynasty that is known mostly from legend. The first three dynasties, the Xia, and the next two, the Shang, and Zhou, are sometimes called the "3 holy dynasties".
Like Egyptian chronology, with its "kingdoms" interlaced with intermediate periods, dynastic China faced various challenges that led to chaotic, power-shifting periods referred to by terms like "six dynasties" or "five dynasties," which may remind you of the Romans' year of the six emperors and year of the five emperors. The Qin Dynasty starts the imperial period, while the Sui Dynasty begins the period referred to as Classical Imperial China.
The Bronze Age Xia dynasty is thought to have run from the end of the third millennium B.C. to the middle of the second. It is the first dynasty, known through legends.
PD Courtesy Wikimedia User Vassil
The Shang dynasty is thought to have run from 1600-1100 B.C. It is also called the Yin Dynasty. Tang the Great founded the dynasty. King Zhou was its final ruler. Oracle Bones from this period attest to Chinese writing.
The Chou or Zhou dynasty ruled China from about 1027 to about 221 B.C. It was the longest dynasty in Chinese history. The Zhou period is sub-divided into:
- Western Zhou 1027-771 B.C.
- Eastern Zhou 770-221 B.C.
- 770-476 B.C. -- Spring and Autumn period
- 475-221 B.C. -- Warring States period
Update May 2, 2011:
Chinese archaeologists have announced a forgotten kingdom in Shanxi Province, the Xizhou Dynasty (1046 to 771 B.C.).
The Qin or Ch'in (likely origin of "China") existed during the Warring States Period and came to power as a dynasty (221-206/207 B.C.) by unifying China under its first emperor, Shi Huangdi (Shih Huang-ti). The Qin is the start of the imperial period, which ended fairly recently, in 1912.
The Han Dynasty was divided into two periods, the earlier, Western Han Dynasty, from 206 B.C. - A.D. 8/9, and the later, Eastern Han Dynasty, from 25-220. It was founded by Liu Bang (Emperor Gao) who moderated the excesses of the Qin. Gao maintained the centralized government and started an enduring bureaucracy based on intellect rather than aristocratic birth.
The turbulent 6 dynasties period of ancient China ran from the end of the Han dynasty in A.D. 220 to the conquest of southern China by the Sui in 589. The 6 dynasties who held power during the three and a half centuries were:
- Wu (222–280)
- Dong (Eastern) Jin (317–420)
- Liu-Song (420–479)
- Nan (Southern) Qi (479–502)
- Nan Liang (502–557)
- Nan Chen (557–589).
The Sui Dynasty was a short-lived dynasty running from A.D. 581 to 618 that had its capital at Daxing, which is now Xi'an.
The Tang Dynasty, following the Sui and preceding the Song Dynasty, was a golden age that lasted from A.D. 618–907 and is considered the high point in Chinese civilization.
9. 5 Dynasties
- Later Liang Dynasty (907-923)
- Later Tang Dynasty (923-936)
- Later Jin Dynasty (936-947)
- Later Han Dynasty (947-951 or 982)
- Later Zhou Dynasty (951-960)
10. Song Dynasty etc.
The turmoil of the 5 Dynasties period ended with the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The remaining dynasties of the imperial period -- leading to the modern era -- are:
- Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368
- Ming Dynasty 1368–1644
- Qing Dynasty 1644–1911