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Imperial China



Site of Capital


Ca. 2200-1700BC

Erlitou, Hen


Ca. 1700-1200BC





Spring and Autumn Period / Warring States Period








Xian, Louyang






Kaifeng, Hangzhou











China's prehistory, supported by archaeological evidence of the Lantian Man, an upright walking hominoid, and the more advanced Peking Man, dates back 600,000 years. It's recorded history dates back more than 5,000 years. Throughout, China's history is one of the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties interspersed with periods of warring states and finally, of revolution, reform, and modernization.

Myth has it that the legendary Xia was China's first dynasty. It is reputed to have lasted 439 years, though its existence has yet to be confirmed by concrete historical documentation. The Shang and Zhou dynasties succeeded the Xia. Together these 3 dynasties made up the Three dynasties era (2200-256BC).

The Shang dynasty (1700-1200BC) was China's first verifiable dynasty. Shang events were first documented, during the Han dynasty and have been verified by subsequent findings. Under Sheng rule, China's knowledge of bronze technology and of its written language increased. The belief in ancestor worship, a central tenant of the Chinese belief system, dates from this period.

The Zhou dynasty (1200-256BC) introduced one of the most lasting ideas of Chinese politics, the Mandate of Heaven. Under this doctrine, heaven grants authority to strong and wise rulers and repeals the mandate from rulers who fail. The loss of the mandate is believed to be heralded by natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, famine or drought.

The waning years of the Zhou dynasty - from 600BC - and those following its collapse in 256BC, are known as the Spring and Autumn period, or the Warring States period. Though a time of violence, it was also one of innovation and change. The era witnessed discoveries in iron smelting and medicine and an increase in trade and diplomacy. Intellectually this was a vital time. Traditional beliefs began to give way in favor of new ideas based on the writings of Confucius. A scholar during this violent time, Confucius codified relationships between ruler and ruled, which, creating what was to become the central cultural ethic of China and many Asian countries.

The Qin dynasty (221-206BC) was the first to unify China. Qin Shi Huang is remembered as China's first emperor. He ruled ruthlessly and with absolute authority and even destroyed ancient practices or literature not corresponding to his ideas. Although the Qin dynasty, lasted only 15 years, its impact on Chinese culture was great. The feudal system was introduced and became a central feature of imperial China. Weights and measures, currency, and the written language were all standardized, setting the stage for lasting economic cohesion. Huge infrastructure projects were completed, including a road system and an early version of the Great Wall. One of the most impressive artifacts from the Qin period is the Terracotta army guarding Qin Shi Huang's tomb in Xian.

The Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) was China's first great imperial dynasty. Its founder, Liu Bang, later called Han Gaozu, introduced Confucianism as a political ideology and the central governing principle of Han rule. This ideology, which stressed a harmonious relationship between ruler and subject, remained dominant in the following dynasties. Under Han rule, China expanded territorially, economically, intellectually and culturally. The Silk Road was opened to allow trade in tea, spices and silk, with India, west Asia and Rome. The southern provinces were subdued and brought under Han control and Buddhism, which became one of the dominant religions in China was introduced from India. The Han dynasty had such an impact on the national character that to this day the majority of Chinese still call themselves "Han Chinese".

Following the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220, China entered a period of disunity. However, the idea of a unified China was never forgotten. Though violent and chaotic, the era witnessed the rise of Buddhism, and a thriving system of trade.

During the Tang dynasty (618-907) Chinese culture reached its most sophisticated peak. It was a time of new ideas in literature, music, art and agriculture. Tang China encouraged trade, and played host to traders, travelers and the ideas and religions they brought. Islam was introduced, though Buddhism remained the most influential foreign belief. China's influence on her neighbors increased. Tang China expanded into Tibet and both Japan and Korea both adopted the Chinese language and Buddhist religion. Politically, Wu Zetian, China's only empress, did away with the civil service based on birth created one of Imperial China's most lasting institutions, a civil service based on merit.

With the fall of the Tang, power once again shifted to the provinces. 5 separate dynasties rose and fell in the years 907-960. Between 960-1127, the Northern Song dynasty, founded by Song Tai Zu, held sway. In 1127 the Northern Song was pushed south by invaders from the north. The Southern Song dynasty (1127-1276) prospered south of the Yangzi River inventing, among other things, gunpowder, fine porcelain, and moveable type print.

Mongol conquest of China led to the collapse of the Southern Song. The Mongol invaders established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan was its first emperor. The empire ruled by Kublai was the largest the world has ever seen, stretching from the Pacific to the Adriatic. Yuan China was open to foreign influence, missionaries and travelers. In Kublai's court a cosmopolitan array of foreigners served active duty. Marco Polo spent several years in Kublai's service, and related his experiences in "The Travels of Marco Polo".

The Mongol capital was situated in present day Beijing and construction of the Forbidden City began in this period. By the early 14th century, however, the Yuan dynasty began to lose its grip on China. Rebellion by northern tribes dissatisfied with Mongol rule, followed by famine and floods in the south, prompted the messianic Red Turban Society to launch a rebellion, which helped pave the way for the fall of the Yuan in 1368.

Zhu Yuanzhang - later Hong Wu - a former rebel leader of the Red Turban Society founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Hong Wu was an extreme despot - he purged his civil servant corps and literati twice, killing thousands. Under Ming rule, state power was consolidated, with the creation of an autocratic government.

After throwing open its doors to foreign influence during the Yuan dynasty, Ming China closed them tightly. Emperor Wu, claiming nothing from the outside barbarian world was needed in China, instituted an isolationist policy. Most trade and diplomatic relations were halted. The Great Wall's, construction was completed - futilely as it turned out - to stem invasion from the north. It is the most lasting example of this isolationist policy.

China had been a great seafaring nation. However, after 1424 seafaring expeditions were forbidden and European countries rose uncontested as the great seafaring nations of the age. Despite its isolation, Ming China expanded her empire's control and parts of Turkestan, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Myanmar were brought under Chinese Influence.

Because of the isolationist policy, the vitalizing benefits of trade were virtually totally lost and Chinese culture turned inward. Culturally the Ming period is famous for its artistic accomplishments, especially the blue and white glazed porcelain vases - which were, and are, highly valued in China and abroad.

Corruption, court intrigues and inept emperors led to peasant uprisings, a Manchu invasion from the north, unhindered by the Great Wall, and the fall of the Ming in 1644.

The Manchus invaded China during the last years of Ming rule and founded China's final dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Manchu rulers immediately suppressed the peasant rebellions which had rocked the Ming, however, it took them 20 years to consolidate their power. The early Qing period saw an increase in agricultural production, the construction of massive flood control and public works projects, and a flourishing of the arts and scholarship. Much of the Qing period was one of wealth and expansion. China expanded to its greatest size ever, incorporating Inner and Outer Mongolia and Turkestan. Qing emperor Qianlong (1736-1796), regarded as one of China's great rulers, presided over a period of wealth and expansion during which China reached the apex of its power.

China's prosperity was not to last. Increased population, food and land shortages, official corruption and expensive military campaigns threatened Qing prosperity and authority. Increased contact with the militarily superior west in the later half of the 19th century further hastened the fall of the Qing in 1911.

Western nations had been trading with China for centuries, despite the closed-door policy. Under the Qing, trade was restricted to Guangzhou (Canton). This system of trade, known as the Canton System, was regulated to the extreme. Despite the regulations, western nations, Britain in particular, flocked to China.

By 1760, Britain's East India Company had joined the traders in Guangzhou in search of tea, silks and porcelain. Britain's thirst for tea created a balance of trade vastly favoring China. China was a willing exporter, but disdained western goods. Silver flowed into China and remained there. In 1793, Britain tried in vain to establish a trade treaty with China, however, her overtures to the Qing court were rebuffed. Britain's traders took the matter into their own hands and began a clandestine trade in opium to counteract the trade imbalance. Opium, by no means unknown in China, was heretofore a drug of only the very wealthy. Cheap opium, imported from India, had, by 1820, created a vast number of addicts. As the numbers rose, China's trade surplus became a deficit.

In 1836, the emperor strictly prohibited trade in Opium. Dealers and users were to be strictly punished. His order went unheeded. In 1840, in another attempt to stem the trade, chests of opium were seized and burned in Canton (Guangzhou). This action served as the impetus for Britain to start the First Opium War in which China's markets were forcibly and irrevocably opened. The term Gunboat Diplomacy stems from the gunboats used by the British to force China's doors open to trade.

After 2 years of fighting, the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) ended the First Opium War. China was no longer allowed to isolate herself from trade and diplomacy with the west. The treaty stipulated 5 Treaty Ports to be opened to trade, provided for the 99 year lease of Hong Kong to the British crown, and ensured the humiliating practice of extraterritoriality. Extraterritorialty stipulated that foreigners in China were to be subjected only to the laws of their homeland, not to the laws of China. The treaty system remained in force until 1943.

The Qing's humiliating defeat at the hands of foreigners in the Opium War heralded the collapse of the dynasty. Its defeat, compounded by floods, famine, and government corruption irrevocably weakened its mandate to rule.

By 1850, China was in chaos, engulfed by internal rebellions. A Chinese Christian evangelist, Hong Xiuquan, led the notorious Taiping Rebellion the largest of the rebellions. He preached Christianity, radical economic and political reforms, and anti-foreign rhetoric. His call to arms in 1850 was taken-up by 20,000 Chinese angry at Qing rule. The Taiping Army swept though the Yangzi basin swelling in numbers along the way. The rebellion was only suppressed with the help of the European powers, who took action for fear of a China controlled by Hong's anti-foreign government.

Following the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing government made a half-hearted and futile attempt to regain control and institute reform. Ci Xi, the Empress Dowager and dominant political figure in the Qing court, highlighted the court's lack of commitment to reform. The Summer Palace, including the beautiful, though useless, marble boat, was built at this time under Ci Xi's orders using misappropriated navy funds.

In the waning years of the 19th century China was plunged deeper into chaos. The Qing dynasty was further weakened, and its military ineptitude laid bare, when China suffered another humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese war. As demands from foreigners for trading, economic and political concessions mounted, so too did anti-foreign sentiment in China. Peasants began to form secrete anti-foreign societies.

The Boxers were one such society. They adhered to a mystical faith, which included spells and rituals, which, they claimed, made them invincible to the foreigner's bullets. The Boxer's anti-foreign stance won them the official support of the Qing court. The Qing court gave its explicit blessing to the Boxer Uprising (1900) in which hundreds of foreigners were massacred. An international army defeated the Boxers by and Ci Xi fled Beijing. Though the dynasty held on for another 10 years, the Boxer uprising signals the effective end of all but nominal Qing control.

After the Boxer rebellion, the Qing government made one last ditch attempt to reform and regain its mandate to rule, however, it had fallen from grace. As power devolved to provincial rulers, rebellion and uprisings became the norm.

In 1911 a popular uprising, led by the Tong Meng Hui (later the Kuomintang), Sun Yatsen's revolutionary society, finally toppled the Qing, thus ending 2,000 years of imperial rule.


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