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The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), during the king Wu Ding's reign, who was mentioned as the twenty-first King of Shang by the same. Ancient historical texts such as the Book of Documents (early chapters, 11th century BC), the Bamboo Annals (c. 296 BC) and the Records of the Grand Historian (c. 91 BC) mention and describe a Xia dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BC) before the Shang, but no writing is known from the period, and Shang writings do not indicate the existence of the Xia. The Shang ruled in the Yellow River valley, which is commonly held to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. However, Neolithic civilizations originated at various cultural centers along both the Yellow River and Yangtze River. These Yellow River and Yangtze civilizations arose millennia before the Shang. With thousands of years of continuous history, China is among the world's oldest civilizations and is regarded as one of the cradles of civilization.
Table of Contents / Timeline
The Neolithic age in China can be traced back to about 10,000 BC. One of the defining traits of the Neolithic is agriculture. Agriculture in China developed gradually, with initial domestication of a few grains and animals gradually being expanded by the addition of many others over subsequent millennia. The earliest evidence of cultivated rice, found by the Yangtze River, is carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. Early evidence for proto-Chinese millet agriculture is radiocarbon-dated to about 7000 BC. Farming gave rise to the Jiahu culture (7000 to 5800 BC). At Damaidi in Ningxia, 3,172 cliff carvings dating to 6000–5000 BC have been discovered, "featuring 8,453 individual characters such as the sun, moon, stars, gods and scenes of hunting or grazing". These pictographs are reputed to be similar to the earliest characters confirmed to be written Chinese. Chinese proto-writing existed in Jiahu around 7000 BC, Dadiwan from 5800 BC to 5400 BC, Damaidi around 6000 BC and Banpo dating from the 5th millennium BC. With agriculture came increased population, the ability to store and redistribute crops, and the potential to support specialist craftsmen and administrators. The cultures of the middle and late Neolithic in the central Yellow River valley are known respectively as the Yangshao culture (5000 BC to 3000 BC) and the Longshan culture (3000 BC to 2000 BC). During the latter period domesticated cattle and sheep arrived from Western Asia. Wheat also arrived, but remained a minor crop.
Bronze artifacts have been found at the Majiayao culture site (between 3100 and 2700 BC). The Bronze Age is also represented at the Lower Xiajiadian culture (2200–1600 BC) site in northeast China. Sanxingdui located in what is now Sichuan province is believed to be the site of a major ancient city, of a previously unknown Bronze Age culture (between 2000 and 1200 BC). The site was first discovered in 1929 and then re-discovered in 1986. Chinese archaeologists have identified the Sanxingdui culture to be part of the ancient kingdom of Shu, linking the artifacts found at the site to its early legendary kings.
Ferrous metallurgy begins to appear in the late 6th century in the Yangzi Valley. A bronze tomahawk with a blade of meteoric iron excavated near the city of Gaocheng in Shijiazhuang (now Hebei province) has been dated to the 14th century BC. An Iron Age culture of the Tibetan Plateau has tentatively been associated with the Zhang Zhung culture described in early Tibetan writings.
Anyi, Nanchang, Jiangxi, China
The Xia dynasty of China (from c. 2070 to c. 1600 BC) is the earliest of the Three Dynasties described in ancient historical records such as Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals. The dynasty is generally considered mythical by Western scholars, but in China it is usually associated with the early Bronze Age site at Erlitou that was excavated in Henan in 1959. Since no writing was excavated at Eritou or any other contemporaneous site, there is no way to prove whether the Xia dynasty ever existed. In any case, the site of Erlitou had a level of political organization that would not be incompatible with the legends of Xia recorded in later texts. More importantly, the Erlitou site has the earliest evidence for an elite who conducted rituals using cast bronze vessels, which would later be adopted by the Shang and Zhou.
Anyang, Henan, China
Archaeological evidence, such as oracle bones and bronzes, and transmitted texts attest to the historical existence of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC). Findings from the earlier Shang period comes from excavations at Erligang, in present-day Zhengzhou. Findings from the later Shang or Yin (殷) period, were found in profusion at Anyang, in modern-day Henan, the last of the Shang's nine capitals (c. 1300–1046 BC). The findings at Anyang include the earliest written record of the Chinese so far discovered: inscriptions of divination records in ancient Chinese writing on the bones or shells of animals—the "oracle bones", dating from around 1250 BC.
A series of thirty-one kings reigned over the Shang dynasty. During their reign, according to the Records of the Grand Historian, the capital city was moved six times. The final (and most important) move was to Yin in around 1300 BC which led to the dynasty's golden age. The term Yin dynasty has been synonymous with the Shang dynasty in history, although it has lately been used to refer specifically to the latter half of the Shang dynasty.
Although written records found at Anyang confirm the existence of the Shang dynasty, Western scholars are often hesitant to associate settlements that are contemporaneous with the Anyang settlement with the Shang dynasty. For example, archaeological findings at Sanxingdui suggest a technologically advanced civilization culturally unlike Anyang. The evidence is inconclusive in proving how far the Shang realm extended from Anyang. The leading hypothesis is that Anyang, ruled by the same Shang in the official history, coexisted and traded with numerous other culturally diverse settlements in the area that is now referred to as China proper.
Luoyang, Henan, China
The Zhou dynasty (1046 BC to approximately 256 BC) is the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history, though its power declined steadily over the almost eight centuries of its existence. In the late 2nd millennium BC, the Zhou dynasty arose in the Wei River valley of modern western Shaanxi Province, where they were appointed Western Protectors by the Shang. A coalition led by the ruler of the Zhou, King Wu, defeated the Shang at the Battle of Muye. They took over most of the central and lower Yellow River valley and enfeoffed their relatives and allies in semi-independent kingdoms across the region. Several of these states eventually became more powerful than the Zhou kings.
The kings of Zhou invoked the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize their rule, a concept that was influential for almost every succeeding dynasty. Like Shangdi, Heaven (tian) ruled over all the other gods, and it decided who would rule China. It was believed that a ruler lost the Mandate of Heaven when natural disasters occurred in great number, and when, more realistically, the sovereign had apparently lost his concern for the people. In response, the royal house would be overthrown, and a new house would rule, having been granted the Mandate of Heaven.
The Zhou established two capitals Zongzhou (near modern Xi'an) and Chengzhou (Luoyang), moving between them regularly. The Zhou alliance gradually expanded eastward into Shandong, southeastward into the Huai River valley, and southward into the Yangtze River valley.
Xun County, Hebi, Henan, China
The Spring and Autumn period was a period in Chinese history from approximately 770 to 476 BCE (or according to some authorities until 403 BCE) which corresponds roughly to the first half of the Eastern Zhou period. The period's name derives from the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu between 722 and 479 BCE, which tradition associates with Confucius (551–479 BCE).
During this period, the Zhou royal authority over the various feudal states eroded as more and more dukes and marquesses obtained de facto regional autonomy, defying the king's court in Luoyi and waging wars amongst themselves. The gradual Partition of Jin, one of the most powerful states, marked the end of the Spring and Autumn period and the beginning of the Warring States period.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period who is traditionally considered the paragon of Chinese sages. Confucius's teachings and philosophy underpin East Asian culture and society, remaining influential across China and East Asia to this day.
Confucius considered himself a transmitter for the values of earlier periods which he claimed had been abandoned in his time. His philosophical teachings, called Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. His followers competed with many other schools during the Hundred Schools of Thought era, only to be suppressed in favor of the Legalists during the Qin dynasty. After the collapse of Qin and the victory of Han over Chu, Confucius's thoughts received official sanction in the new government. During the Tang and Song dynasties, Confucianism developed into a system known in the West as Neo-Confucianism, and later as New Confucianism. Confucianism was part of the Chinese social fabric and way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion.
Confucius is traditionally credited with having authored or edited many of the Chinese classic texts, including all of the Five Classics, but modern scholars are cautious of attributing specific assertions to Confucius himself. Aphorisms concerning his teachings were compiled in the Analects, but only many years after his death.
Confucius's principles have commonality with Chinese tradition and belief. With filial piety, he championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, recommending family as a basis for ideal government. He espoused the well-known principle "Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself", the Golden Rule.
The Warring States period (traditional Chinese: 戰國時代; simplified Chinese: 战国时代; pinyin: Zhànguó Shídài) was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the Spring and Autumn period and concluded with the Qin wars of conquest that saw the annexation of all other contender states, which ultimately led to the Qin state's victory in 221 BC as the first unified Chinese empire, known as the Qin dynasty. Although different scholars point toward different dates ranging from 481 BC to 403 BC as the true beginning of the Warring States, Sima Qian's choice of 475 BC is the most often cited. The Warring States era also overlaps with the second half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty, though the Chinese sovereign, known as the king of Zhou, ruled merely as a figurehead and served as a backdrop against the machinations of the warring states. The "Warring States Period" derives its name from the Record of the Warring States, a work compiled early in the Han dynasty. == Geography == The political geography of the era was dominated by the Seven Warring States, namely: Qin located in the far west, with its core in the Wei River Valley and Guanzhong. This geographical position offered protection from the other states but limited its initial influence. The Three Jins located in the center on the Shanxi plateau were the three successor states of Jin. These were: Han south, along the Yellow River, controlling the approaches to Qin. Wei located in the middle, roughly today's eastern Henan Province.
Xianyang, Shaanxi, China
The Qin dynasty was the first dynasty of Imperial China, lasting from 221 to 206 BC. Named for its heartland in Qin state (modern Gansu and Shaanxi), the dynasty was founded by Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of Qin. The strength of the Qin state was greatly increased by the Legalist reforms of Shang Yang in the fourth century BC, during the Warring States period. In the mid and late third century BC, the Qin state carried out a series of swift conquests, first ending the powerless Zhou dynasty and eventually conquering the other six of the Seven Warring States. Its 15 years was the shortest major dynasty in Chinese history, consisting of only two emperors. Despite its short reign, however, the lessons and strategies of the Qin shaped the Han dynasty and became the starting point of the Chinese imperial system that lasted from 221 BC, with interruption, development, and adaptation, until 1912 AD.
The Qin sought to create a state unified by structured centralized political power and a large military supported by a stable economy. The central government moved to undercut aristocrats and landowners to gain direct administrative control over the peasantry, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population and labour force. This allowed ambitious projects involving three hundred thousand peasants and convicts, such as connecting walls along the northern border, eventually developing into the Great Wall of China, and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army.
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. Additionally, its military used the most recent weaponry, transportation and tactics, though the government was heavy-handedly bureaucratic. Han Confucians portrayed the legalistic Qin dynasty as a monolithic tyranny, notably citing a purge known as the burning of books and burying of scholars although some modern scholars dispute the veracity of these accounts.
Chang'An, Xi'An, Shaanxi, Chin
The Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) was the second imperial dynasty of China. It followed the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), which had unified the Warring States of China by conquest. It was founded by Liu Bang (known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han). [note 1] The dynasty is divided into two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25–220 CE), interrupted briefly by the Xin dynasty (9–23 CE) of Wang Mang. These appellations are derived from the locations of the capital cities Chang'an and Luoyang, respectively. The third and final capital of the dynasty was Xuchang, where the court moved in 196 CE during a period of political turmoil and civil war.
The Han dynasty ruled in an era of Chinese cultural consolidation, political experimentation, relative economic prosperity and maturity, and great technological advances. There was unprecedented territorial expansion and exploration initiated by struggles with non-Chinese peoples, especially the nomadic Xiongnu of the Eurasian Steppe. The Han emperors were initially forced to acknowledge the rival Xiongnu Chanyus as their equals, yet in reality the Han was an inferior partner in a tributary and royal marriage alliance known as heqin. This agreement was broken when Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE) launched a series of military campaigns which eventually caused the fissure of the Xiongnu Federation and redefined the borders of China. The Han realm was expanded into the Hexi Corridor of modern Gansu province, the Tarim Basin of modern Xinjiang, modern Yunnan and Hainan, modern northern Vietnam, modern North Korea, and southern Outer Mongolia. The Han court established trade and tributary relations with rulers as far west as the Arsacids, to whose court at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia the Han monarchs sent envoys. Buddhism first entered China during the Han, spread by missionaries from Parthia and the Kushan Empire of northern India and Central Asia.
Luoyang, Henan, China
Cai Lun was a Chinese eunuch court official of the Eastern Han dynasty. He is traditionally regarded as the inventor of paper and the modern papermaking process. Although early forms of paper had existed since the 3rd century BCE, he occupies a pivotal place in the history of paper due to his addition of tree bark and hemp ends, which resulted in the large-scale manufacture and worldwide spread of paper.
Various legends tell of the presence of Buddhism in Chinese soil in very ancient times. While the scholarly consensus is that Buddhism first came to China in the first century CE during the Han dynasty, through missionaries from India, it is not known precisely when Buddhism entered China.
The Three Kingdoms from 220 to 280 AD was the tripartite division of China among the dynastic states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The Three Kingdoms period was preceded by the Eastern Han dynasty and was followed by the Western Jin dynasty. The short-lived state of Yan on the Liaodong Peninsula, which lasted from 237 to 238, is sometimes considered as a "4th kingdom".
The Three Kingdoms period is one of the bloodiest in Chinese history. Technology advanced significantly during this period. Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang invented the wooden ox, suggested to be an early form of the wheelbarrow, and improved on the repeating crossbow. Wei mechanical engineer Ma Jun is considered by many to be the equal of his predecessor Zhang Heng. He invented a hydraulic-powered, mechanical puppet theatre designed for Emperor Ming of Wei, square-pallet chain pumps for irrigation of gardens in Luoyang, and the ingenious design of the south-pointing chariot, a non-magnetic directional compass operated by differential gears.
Although relatively short, this historical period has been greatly romanticized in the cultures of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It has been celebrated and popularized in operas, folk stories, novels and in more recent times, films, television, and video games. The best known of these is Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Ming dynasty historical novel based on events in the Three Kingdoms period. The authoritative historical record of the era is Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms, along with Pei Songzhi's later annotations of the text.
Luoyang, Henan, China
The Jin dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China that existed from 266 to 420. It was founded by Sima Yan (Emperor Wu), eldest son of Sima Zhao, who had previously been declared the King of Jin. The Jin dynasty was preceded by the Three Kingdoms period, and was succeeded by the Sixteen Kingdoms in northern China and the Liu Song dynasty in southern China.
There are two main divisions in the history of the dynasty. The Western Jin (266–316) was established as the successor to Cao Wei after Sima Yan usurped the throne from Cao Huan. The capital of the Western Jin was initially in Luoyang, though it later moved to Chang'an (modern Xi'an, Shaanxi province). In 280, after conquering Eastern Wu, the Western Jin reunited China proper for the first time since the end of the Han dynasty, ending the Three Kingdoms era. However, 11 years later, a series of civil wars known as the War of the Eight Princes erupted in the dynasty, which weakened it considerably. Subsequently, in 304, the dynasty experienced a wave of rebellions and invasions by non-Han ethnicities termed the Five Barbarians, who went on to establish several short-lived dynastic states in northern China. This inaugurated the chaotic and bloody Sixteen Kingdoms era of Chinese history, in which states in the north rose and fell in rapid succession, constantly fighting both one another and the Jin.
The Northern and Southern dynasties was a period of political division in the history of China that lasted from 420 to 589, following the tumultuous era of the Sixteen Kingdoms and the Eastern Jin dynasty. It is sometimes considered as the latter part of a longer period known as the Six Dynasties (220–589). Albeit an age of civil war and political chaos, it was also a time of flourishing arts and culture, advancement in technology, and the spread of Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism. The period saw large-scale migration of the Han people to the lands south of the Yangtze. The period came to an end with the unification of all of China proper by Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty.
During this period, the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Han ethnicities in the north and among the indigenous peoples in the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the 1st century) in both northern and southern China and Daoism gaining influence as well, with two essential Daoist canons written during this period.
Notable technological advances occurred during this period. The invention of the stirrup during the earlier Jin dynasty (266–420) helped spur the development of heavy cavalry as a combat standard. Historians also note advances in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and cartography. Intellectuals of the period include the mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi (429–500), and astronomer Tao Hongjing.
Chang'An, Xi'An, Shaanxi, Chin
The Sui dynasty was a short-lived imperial dynasty of China of pivotal significance (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 much longer lasting Tang dynasty.
Founded by Emperor Wen of Sui, the Sui dynasty capital was Chang'an (which was renamed Daxing, modern Xi'an, Shaanxi) from 581–605 and later Luoyang (605–618). Emperors Wen and his successor Yang undertook various centralized reforms, most notably the equal-field system, intended to reduce economic inequality and improve agricultural productivity; the institution of the Five Departments and Six Board (五省六曹 or 五省六部) system, which is a predecessor of Three Departments and Six Ministries system; and the standardization and re-unification of the coinage. They also spread and encouraged Buddhism throughout the empire. By the middle of the dynasty, the newly unified empire entered a golden age of prosperity with vast agricultural surplus that supported rapid population growth.
A lasting legacy of the Sui dynasty was the Grand Canal. With the eastern capital Luoyang at the center of the network, it linked the west-lying capital Chang'an to the economic and agricultural centers of the east towards Jiangdu (now Yangzhou, Jiangsu) and Yuhang (now Hangzhou, Zhejiang), and to the northern border near modern Beijing.
After a series of costly and disastrous military campaigns against Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, ended in defeat by 614, the dynasty disintegrated under a series of popular revolts culminating in the assassination of Emperor Yang by his minister, Yuwen Huaji in 618. The dynasty is often compared to the earlier Qin dynasty for unifying China after prolonged division. Wide-ranging reforms and construction projects were undertaken to consolidate the newly unified state, with long-lasting influences beyond their short dynastic reigns.
Chang'An, Xi'An, Shaanxi, Chin
The Tang dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China that ruled from 618 to 907 AD, with an interregnum between 690 and 705. Historians generally regard the Tang as a high point in Chinese civilization, and a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Tang territory, acquired through the military campaigns of its early rulers, rivaled that of the Han dynasty.
The Lǐ family (李) founded the dynasty, seizing power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire and inaugurating a period of progress and stability in the first half of the dynasty's rule. The dynasty was formally interrupted during 690–705 when Empress Wu Zetian seized the throne, proclaiming the Wu Zhou dynasty and becoming the only legitimate Chinese empress regnant. The devastating An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) shook the nation and led to the decline of central authority in the dynasty's latter half. Like the previous Sui dynasty, the Tang maintained a civil-service system by recruiting scholar-officials through standardized examinations and recommendations to office. The rise of regional military governors known as jiedushi during the 9th century undermined this civil order. The dynasty and central government went into decline by the latter half of the 9th century; agrarian rebellions resulted in mass population loss and displacement, widespread poverty, and further government dysfunction that ultimately ended the dynasty in 907.
Chinese culture flourished and further matured during the Tang era. It is traditionally considered the greatest age for Chinese poetry. Two of China's most famous poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, belonged to this age, contributing with poets such as Wang Wei to the monumental Three Hundred Tang Poems. Many famous painters such as Han Gan, Zhang Xuan, and Zhou Fang were active, while Chinese court music flourished with instruments such as the popular pipa. Tang scholars compiled a rich variety of historical literature, as well as encyclopedias and geographical works. Notable innovations included the development of woodblock printing. Buddhism became a major influence in Chinese culture, with native Chinese sects gaining prominence. However, in the 840s Emperor Wuzong enacted policies to suppress Buddhism, which subsequently declined in influence.
The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, from 907 to 979 was an era of political upheaval and division in 10th-century Imperial China. Five states quickly succeeded one another in the Central Plain, and more than a dozen concurrent states were established elsewhere, mainly in South China. It was a prolonged period of multiple political divisions in Chinese imperial history.
Traditionally, the era is seen as beginning with the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907 and reaching its climax with the founding of the Song dynasty in 960. In the following 19 years, Song gradually subdued the remaining states in South China, but the Liao dynasty still remained in China's north (eventually succeeded by the Jin dynasty), and the Western Xia also remained in China's northwest.
Many states had been de facto independent kingdoms long before 907 as the Tang dynasty's control over its officials waned, but the key event was their recognition as sovereign by foreign powers. After the Tang collapsed, several warlords of the Central Plain crowned themselves emperor. During the 70-year period, there was near constant warfare between the emerging kingdoms and alliances they formed. All had the ultimate goal of controlling the Central Plain and claim themselves as the Tang's successor.
The last of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms regimes was Northern Han, which held out until Song conquered it in 979, thereby ending the five dynasties period. For the next several centuries, although the Song controlled much of South China, they coexisted alongside the Liao dynasty, Jin dynasty, and various other regimes in China's north, until finally all of them were unified under the Mongol Yuan dynasty.
Bairin Left Banner, Chifeng, I
The Liao dynasty, also known as the Khitan Empire, was an imperial dynasty of China that existed between 916 and 1125, ruled by the Yelü clan of the Khitan people. Founded around the time of the collapse of the Tang dynasty, at its greatest extent it ruled over Northeast China, the Mongolian Plateau, the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, southern portions of the Russian Far East, and the northern tip of the North China Plain.
The dynasty had a history of territorial expansion. The most important early gains was the Sixteen Prefectures (including present-day Beijing and part of Hebei) by fueling a proxy war that led to the collapse of the Later Tang dynasty (923–936). In 1004, the Liao dynasty launched an imperial expedition against the Northern Song dynasty. After heavy fighting and large casualties between the two empires, both sides worked out the Chanyuan Treaty. Through the treaty, the Liao dynasty forced the Northern Song to recognize them as peers and heralded an era of peace and stability between the two powers that lasted approximately 120 years. It was the first state to control all of Manchuria.
Tension between traditional Khitan social and political practices and Han influence and customs was a defining feature of the dynasty. This tension led to a series of succession crises; Liao emperors favored the Han concept of primogeniture, while much of the rest of the Khitan elite supported the traditional method of succession by the strongest candidate. In addition, the adoption of Han system and the push to reform Khitan practices led Abaoji to set up two parallel governments. The Northern Administration governed Khitan areas following traditional Khitan practices, while the Southern Administration governed areas with large non-Khitan populations, adopting traditional Han governmental practices.
The Liao dynasty was destroyed by the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in 1125 with the capture of the Emperor Tianzuo of Liao. However, the remnant Liao loyalists, led by Yelü Dashi (Emperor Dezong of Liao), established the Western Liao dynasty (Qara Khitai), which ruled over parts of Central Asia for almost a century before being conquered by the Mongol Empire. Although cultural achievements associated with the Liao dynasty are considerable, and a number of various statuary and other artifacts exist in museums and other collections, major questions remain over the exact nature and extent of the influence of the Liao culture upon subsequent developments, such as the musical and theatrical arts.
Kaifeng, Henan, China
The Song dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China that began in 960 and lasted until 1279. The dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu of Song following his usurpation of the throne of the Later Zhou, ending the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The Song often came into conflict with the contemporaneous Liao, Western Xia and Jin dynasties in northern China.
The dynasty is divided into two periods: Northern Song and Southern Song. During the Northern Song (Chinese: 北宋; 960–1127), the capital was in the northern city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng) and the dynasty controlled most of what is now Eastern China. The Southern Song (Chinese: 南宋; 1127–1279) refers to the period after the Song lost control of its northern half to the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in the Jin–Song Wars. At that time, the Song court retreated south of the Yangtze and established its capital at Lin'an (now Hangzhou). Although the Song dynasty had lost control of the traditional Chinese heartlands around the Yellow River, the Southern Song Empire contained a large population and productive agricultural land, sustaining a robust economy. In 1234, the Jin dynasty was conquered by the Mongols, who took control of northern China, maintaining uneasy relations with the Southern Song.
Technology, science, philosophy, mathematics, and engineering flourished during the Song era. The Song 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. This dynasty saw the first recorded chemical formula of gunpowder, the invention of gunpowder weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance. It also saw the first discernment of true north using a compass, first recorded description of the pound lock, and improved designs of astronomical clocks. Economically, the Song dynasty was unparalleled with a gross domestic product three times larger than that of Europe during the 12th century. China's population doubled in size between the 10th and 11th centuries. This growth was made possible by expanded rice cultivation, use of early-ripening rice from Southeast and South Asia, and production of widespread food surpluses. This dramatic increase of population fomented an economic revolution in pre-modern China.
The expansion of the population, growth of cities, and emergence of a national economy led to the gradual withdrawal of the central government from direct involvement in economic affairs. The lower gentry assumed a larger role in local administration and affairs. Social life during the Song was vibrant. Citizens gathered to view and trade precious artworks, the populace intermingled at public festivals and private clubs, and cities had lively entertainment quarters. The spread of literature and knowledge was enhanced by the rapid expansion of woodblock printing and the 11th-century invention of movable-type printing. Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi reinvigorated Confucianism with new commentary, infused with Buddhist ideals, and emphasized a new organization of classic texts that established the doctrine of Neo-Confucianism. Although civil service examinations had existed since the Sui dynasty, they became much more prominent in the Song period. Officials gaining power through imperial examination led to a shift from a military-aristocratic elite to a scholar-bureaucratic elite.
Yinchuan, Ningxia, China
The Western Xia or the Xi Xia, also known as the Tangut Empire, was a Tangut-led imperial dynasty of China that existed from 1038 to 1227. At its peak, the dynasty ruled over the modern-day northwestern Chinese provinces of Ningxia, Gansu, eastern Qinghai, northern Shaanxi, northeastern Xinjiang, and southwest Inner Mongolia, and southernmost Outer Mongolia, measuring about 800,000 square kilometres (310,000 square miles). Its capital was Xingqing (modern Yinchuan), until its destruction by the Mongols in 1227. Most of its written records and architecture were destroyed, so the founders and history of the empire remained obscure until 20th-century research in China and the West.
The Western Xia occupied the area around the Hexi Corridor, a stretch of the Silk Road, the most important trade route between northern China and Central Asia. They made significant achievements in literature, art, music, and architecture, which was characterized as "shining and sparkling". Their extensive stance among the other empires of the Liao, Song, and Jin was attributable to their effective military organizations that integrated cavalry, chariots, archery, shields, artillery (cannons carried on the back of camels), and amphibious troops for combat on land and water.
Acheng District, Harbin, Heilo
The Jin dynast lasted from 1115 to 1234 as one of the last dynasties in Chinese history to predate the Mongol conquest of China. It is also sometimes called the "Jurchen dynasty" or the "Jurchen Jin", because members of the ruling Wanyan clan were of Jurchen descent.
The Jin emerged from Taizu's rebellion against the Liao dynasty (916–1125), which held sway over northern China until the nascent Jin drove the Liao to the Western Regions, where they became known in historiography as the Western Liao. After vanquishing the Liao, the Jin launched a century-long campaign against the Han-led Song dynasty (960–1279), which was based in southern China. Over the course of their rule, the ethnic Jurchen emperors of the Jin dynasty adapted to Han customs, and even fortified the Great Wall against the rising Mongols. Domestically, the Jin oversaw a number of cultural advancements, such as the revival of Confucianism.
After spending centuries as vassals of the Jin, the Mongols invaded under Genghis Khan in 1211 and inflicted catastrophic defeats on the Jin armies. After numerous defeats, revolts, defections, and coups, they succumbed to Mongol conquest 23 years later in 1234.
The Yuan dynasty was a successor state to the Mongol Empire after its division and an imperial dynasty of China established by Kublai (Emperor Shizu), leader of the Mongol Borjigin clan, lasting from 1271 to 1368. In orthodox Chinese historiography, the Yuan dynasty followed the Song dynasty and preceded the Ming dynasty.
Although Genghis Khan had been enthroned with the Chinese title of Emperor in 1206 and the Mongol Empire had ruled territories including modern-day northern China for decades, it was not until 1271 that Kublai Khan officially proclaimed the dynasty in the traditional Chinese style, and the conquest was not complete until 1279 when the Southern Song dynasty was defeated in the Battle of Yamen. His realm was, by this point, isolated from the other Mongol khanates and controlled most of modern-day China and its surrounding areas, including modern Mongolia. It was the first non-Han dynasty to rule all of China proper and lasted until 1368 when the Ming dynasty defeated the Yuan forces. Following that, the rebuked Genghisid rulers retreated to the Mongolian Plateau and continued to rule until their defeat by the Later Jin dynasty in 1635. The rump state is known in historiography as the Northern Yuan dynasty.
After the division of the Mongol Empire, the Yuan dynasty was the khanate ruled by the successors of Möngke Khan. In official Chinese histories, the Yuan dynasty bore the Mandate of Heaven. In the edict titled Proclamation of the Dynastic Name, Kublai announced the name of the new dynasty as Great Yuan and claimed the succession of former Chinese dynasties from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors to the Tang dynasty.
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China
The Ming dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China, ruling from 1368 to 1644 following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty was the last orthodox dynasty of China ruled by the Han people, the majority population in China. Although the primary capital of Beijing fell in 1644 to a rebellion led by Li Zicheng, numerous rump regimes ruled by remnants of the Ming imperial family—collectively called the Southern Ming—survived until 1662.
The Ming dynasty's founder, the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368–1398), attempted to create a society of self-sufficient rural communities ordered in a rigid, immobile system that would guarantee and support a permanent class of soldiers for his dynasty: the empire's standing army exceeded one million troops and the navy's dockyards in Nanjing were the largest in the world. He also took great care breaking the power of the court eunuchs and unrelated magnates, enfeoffing his many sons throughout China and attempting to guide these princes through the Huang-Ming Zuxun, a set of published dynastic instructions. This failed when his teenage successor, the Jianwen Emperor, attempted to curtail his uncles' power, prompting the Jingnan campaign, an uprising that placed the Prince of Yan upon the throne as the Yongle Emperor in 1402. The Yongle Emperor established Yan as a secondary capital and renamed it Beijing, constructed the Forbidden City, and restored the Grand Canal and the primacy of the imperial examinations in official appointments. He rewarded his eunuch supporters and employed them as a counterweight against the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats. One, Zheng He, led seven enormous voyages of exploration into the Indian Ocean as far as Arabia and the eastern coasts of Africa.
By the 16th century, however, the expansion of European trade – albeit restricted to islands near Guangzhou such as Macau – spread the Columbian Exchange of crops, plants, and animals into China, introducing chili peppers to Sichuan cuisine and highly productive maize and potatoes, which diminished famines and spurred population growth. The growth of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch trade created new demand for Chinese products and produced a massive influx of Japanese and American silver. This abundance of specie remonetized the Ming economy, whose paper money had suffered repeated hyperinflation and was no longer trusted. While traditional Confucians opposed such a prominent role for commerce and the newly rich it created, the heterodoxy introduced by Wang Yangming permitted a more accommodating attitude. Zhang Juzheng's initially successful reforms proved devastating when a slowdown in agriculture produced by the Little Ice Age joined changes in Japanese and Spanish policy that quickly cut off the supply of silver now necessary for farmers to be able to pay their taxes. Combined with crop failure, floods, and epidemic, the dynasty collapsed before the rebel leader Li Zicheng, who was himself defeated shortly afterward by the Manchu-led Eight Banner armies of the Qing dynasty.
The Qing dynasty was the Manchu-led last dynasty in the imperial history of China. It was proclaimed in 1636 in Manchuria, in 1644 entered Beijing, extended its rule to cover all of China proper, and then extended the empire into Inner Asia. The dynasty lasted until 1912. The multiethnic Qing empire lasted for almost three centuries and assembled the territorial base for modern China. It was the largest Chinese dynasty and in 1790 the fourth-largest empire in world history in terms of territorial size.
The height of Qing glory and power was reached in the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735–1796). He led Ten Great Campaigns that extended Qing control into Inner Asia and personally supervised Confucian cultural projects. After his death, the dynasty faced changes in the world system, foreign intrusion, internal revolts, population growth, economic disruption, official corruption, and the reluctance of Confucian elites to change their mindsets. With peace and prosperity, the population rose to some 400 million, but taxes and government revenues were fixed at a low rate, soon leading to fiscal crisis. Following China's defeat in the Opium Wars, Western colonial powers forced the Qing government to sign "unequal treaties", granting them trading privileges, extraterritoriality and treaty ports under their control. The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) and the Dungan Revolt (1862–1877) in Central Asia led to the death of over 20 million people, from famine, disease, and war. The Tongzhi Restoration of the 1860s brought vigorous reforms and the introduction of foreign military technology in the Self-Strengthening Movement. Defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895 led to loss of suzerainty over Korea and cession of Taiwan to Japan. The ambitious Hundred Days' Reform of 1898 proposed fundamental change, but the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), who had been the dominant voice in the national government for more than three decades, turned it back in a coup.
In 1900 anti-foreign "Boxers" killed many Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries; in retaliation, the foreign powers invaded China and imposed a punitive Boxer Indemnity. In response, the government initiated unprecedented fiscal and administrative reforms, including elections, a new legal code, and abolition of the examination system. Sun Yat-sen and revolutionaries debated reform officials and constitutional monarchists such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao over how to transform the Manchu Empire into a modern Han Chinese nation. After the deaths of the Guangxu Emperor and Cixi in 1908, Manchu conservatives at court blocked reforms and alienated reformers and local elites alike. The Wuchang Uprising on 10 October 1911 led to the Xinhai Revolution. The abdication of Puyi, the last emperor, on 12 February 1912, brought the dynasty to an end. In 1917, it was briefly restored in an episode known as the Manchu Restoration, which was not recognized internationally.
The Anglo-Chinese War, also known as the Opium War or the First Opium War, was a series of military engagements fought between Britain and the Qing dynasty between 1839 and 1842. The immediate issue was the Chinese seizure of private opium stocks at Canton to stop the banned opium trade, and threatening the death penalty for future offenders. The British government insisted on the principles of free trade, equal diplomatic recognition among nations, and backed the merchants' demands. The British navy defeated the Chinese using technologically superior ships and weapons, and the British then imposed a treaty that granted territory to Britain and opened trade with China. Twentieth century nationalists considered 1839 the start of a century of humiliation, and many historians considered it the beginning of modern Chinese history.
The Boxer Rebellion, also known as the Boxer Uprising, the Boxer Insurrection, or the Yihetuan Movement, was an anti-foreign, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian uprising in China between 1899 and 1901, towards the end of the Qing dynasty, by the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yìhéquán), known as the "Boxers" in English because many of its members had practised Chinese martial arts, which at the time were referred to as "Chinese boxing".
The Eight-Nation Alliance, after initially being turned back by the Imperial Chinese military and Boxer militia, brought 20,000 armed troops to China. They defeated the Imperial Army in Tianjin and arrived in Beijing on August 14, relieving the fifty-five day siege of the Legations. Plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside ensued, along with summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers in retribution. The Boxer Protocol of September 7, 1901, provided for the execution of government officials who had supported the Boxers, provisions for foreign troops to be stationed in Beijing, and 450 million taels of silver— more than the government's annual tax revenue—to be paid as indemnity over the course of the next 39 years to the eight nations involved. The Qing dynasty's handling of the Boxer Rebellion further weakened their control over China, and led the dynasty to attempt major governmental reforms in the aftermath.
The Republic of China (ROC) was declared on 1 January 1912 after the Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. On 12 February 1912, regent Empress Dowager Longyu signed the abdication decree on behalf of the Xuantong Emperor, ending several millennia of Chinese monarchical rule. Sun Yat-sen, the founder and its provisional president, served only briefly before handing over the presidency to Yuan Shikai, the leader of the Beiyang Army. Sun's party, the Kuomintang (KMT), then led by Song Jiaoren, won the parliamentary election held in December 1912. However, Song was assassinated on Yuan's orders shortly after and the Beiyang Army, led by Yuan, maintained full control of the Beiyang government, who then proclaimed the Empire of China in 1915 before abolishing the short-lived monarchy as a result of popular unrest. After Yuan's death in 1916, the authority of the Beiyang government was further weakened by a brief restoration of the Qing dynasty. The mostly powerless government led to a fracturing of the country as cliques in the Beiyang Army claimed individual autonomy and clashed with each other. So began the Warlord Era: a decade of decentralized power struggles and prolonged armed conflict.
The KMT, under the leadership of Sun, attempted multiple times to establish a national government in Canton. After taking Canton for a third time in 1923, the KMT successfully established a rival government in preparation for a campaign to unify China. In 1924 the KMT would enter into an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a requirement for Soviet support. After the Northern Expedition resulted in nominal unification under Chiang in 1928, disgruntled warlords formed an anti-Chiang coalition. These warlords would fight Chiang and his allies in the Central Plains War from 1929 to 1930, ultimately losing in the largest conflict of the Warlord Era.
China experienced some industrialization during the 1930s but suffered setbacks from conflicts between the Nationalist government in Nanjing, the CCP, remaining warlords, and the Empire of Japan after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Nation-building efforts yielded to fight the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 when a skirmish between the National Revolutionary Army and Imperial Japanese Army culminated in a full-scale invasion by Japan. Hostilities between the KMT and CCP partially subsided when, shortly before the war, they formed the Second United Front to resist Japanese aggression until the alliance broke down in 1941. The war lasted until the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II in 1945; China then regained control of the island of Taiwan and the Pescadores.
Shortly after, the Chinese Civil War between the KMT and CCP resumed with full-scale fighting, leading to the 1946 Constitution of the Republic of China replacing the 1928 Organic Law as the Republic's fundamental law. Three years later, in 1949, nearing the end of the civil war, the CCP established the People's Republic of China in Beijing, with the KMT-led ROC moving its capital several times from Nanjing to Guangzhou, followed by Chongqing, then Chengdu and lastly, Taipei. The CCP emerged victorious and expelled the KMT and ROC government from the Chinese mainland. The ROC later lost control of Hainan in 1950, and the Dachen Islands in Zhejiang in 1955. It has maintained control over Taiwan and other smaller islands.
Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China (PRC) from atop Tiananmen, after a near complete victory (1949) by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War. The PRC is the most recent political entity to govern mainland China, preceded by the Republic of China (ROC; 1912–1949) and thousands of years of monarchical dynasties. The paramount leaders have been Mao Zedong (1949-1976); Hua Guofeng (1976-1978); Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989); Jiang Zemin (1989-2002); Hu Jintao (2002-2012); and Xi Jinping (2012 to present).
The origins of the People's Republic can be traced to the Chinese Soviet Republic that was proclaimed in 1931 in Ruijin (Jui-chin), Jiangxi (Kiangsi), with the backing of the All-Union Communist Party in the Soviet Union in the midst of the Chinese Civil War against the Nationalist government only to dissolve in 1937.
Under Mao's rule, China went through a socialist transformation from a traditional peasant society, leaning towards heavy industries under planned economy, while campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on the entire country. Since late 1978, the economic reforms led by Deng Xiaoping had made China the world's second-largest and fastest growing economy, with a specialty in high productivity factories and leadership in some areas of high technology. Globally, after receiving support from the USSR in the 1950s, China became bitter enemy of USSR on a worldwide basis until Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to China in May 1989. In the 21st century, the new wealth and technology led to a contest for primacy in Asian affairs versus India, Japan and the United States, and since 2017 a growing trade war with the United States.
- Berkshire Encyclopedia of China (5 vol. 2009)
- Cheng, Linsun (2009). Berkshire Encyclopedia of China. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Pub. Group. ISBN 978-1933782683.
- Dardess, John W. (2010). Governing China, 150–1850. Hackett Publishing. ISBN 978-1-60384-311-9.
- Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (2010). The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP. ISBN 978-0521196208.
- Elleman, Bruce A. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989 (2001) 363 pp.
- Fairbank, John King and Goldman, Merle. China: A New History. 2nd ed. (Harvard UP, 2006). 640 pp.
- Fenby, Jonathan. The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power 1850 to the Present (3rd ed. 2019) popular history.
- Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization (1996). One-volume survey.
- Hsu, Cho-yun (2012), China: A New Cultural History, Columbia University Press 612 pp. stress on China's encounters with successive waves of globalization.
- Hsü, Immanuel. The Rise of Modern China, (6th ed. Oxford UP, 1999). Detailed coverage of 1644–1999, in 1136 pp.; stress on diplomacy and politics.
- Keay, John. China: A History (2009), 642 pp, popular history pre-1760.
- Lander, Brian. The King's Harvest: A Political Ecology of China From the First Farmers to the First Empire (Yale UP, 2021. Recent overview of early China.
- Leung, Edwin Pak-wah. Historical dictionary of revolutionary China, 1839–1976 (1992)
- Leung, Edwin Pak-wah. Political Leaders of Modern China: A Biographical Dictionary (2002)
- Loewe, Michael and Edward Shaughnessy, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC (Cambridge UP, 1999). Detailed and Authoritative.
- Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900–1800 (Harvard UP, 1999), 1,136 pp. Authoritative treatment of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and early Qing dynasties.
- Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. (Facts on File, 1999). 662 pp.
- Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. (Harvard U. Press, 1999). 341 pp.
- Stanford, Edward. Atlas of the Chinese Empire, containing separate maps of the eighteen provinces of China (2nd ed 1917) Legible color maps
- Schoppa, R. Keith. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. (Columbia U. Press, 2000). 356 pp.
- Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China (1999), 876pp; scholarly survey from 1644 to 1990s
- Twitchett, Denis. et al. The Cambridge History of China (1978–2021) 17 volumes. Detailed and Authoritative.
- Wang, Ke-wen, ed. Modern China: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism. (1998).
- Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 (2012)
- Wright, David Curtis. History of China (2001) 257 pp.
- Wills, Jr., John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History (1994) Biographical essays on important figures.
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As you journey along the path, you meet an old man…
He tells you that modern neuroscience has proved that all our actions and decisions are merely the machinations of a predetermined universe and that our concept of 'free will' is naught but a comforting illusion.