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This page would have been labeled Imperial China, but that title was already taken. This page contains the basic outlines of Chinese history prior to the founding of the Republic of China and the civil wars that led to the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Much of it comes courtesy of The Other Wiki.
Much like many other nations, Chinese history is commonly divided into dynastic periods. Generally speaking, each dynasty represents a period of relative unity and their rise and fall resulted in periods of chaos.
A massive bureaucracy was used by many emperors to administer their large territory, usually selected by competitive examinations from the Sui on. These often focused heavily on knowledge of the Confucian classics. This was a major force for keeping the writing system unified across the country.
Shang Dynasty (1766 BC - 1122 BC)
Preceded by the only vaguely known Xia Dynasty and the legendary 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors. A relatively small state centered on the Yellow River valley, this was a bronze age culture mostly known today for the workmanship of its artifacts and its position in the development of Chinese culture. And also oracle bones. Lots of oracle bones.
Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC)
Perhaps better remembered for events and people towards the end of the period and their influence on later Chinese culture than for anything the dynasty actually did. Generally characterised as feudal since the Zhou emperors were nominally rulers of a pretty large territory, but only directly ruled a relatively small royal domain.
Spring And Autumn Period (722 BC - 481 BC)
The time of Confucius, allegedly Laozi (founder of Taoism), Sunzi (author of The Art of War), and many other thinkers. A turbulent period when regional rulers (many connected to the imperial family) contested with one another for influence and hegemony.
Warring States Period (403 BC - 221 BC)
The feudal system broke down entirely and, as the name indicates, the seven resulting states went to war. Eventually, the state of Qin united the land and a new dynasty began. Many historians believe that Laozi really lived at this time, if he existed at all. Zhuangzi definitely did.
Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC)
Only two emperors (well, three, but the third one barely counts), but the first one was Qin Shi Huangdi and that one was really enough for at least two dynasties in any lesser country. Among other things, he unified the country (perhaps a quarter to a third the size of modern China); built the Great Wall of China (later rebuilt by the Ming); created that famous Terracotta Army as part of his burial complex; and standardized the laws, coinage, and writing system. Qin Shi Huang's successor was not nearly as capable and the dynasty soon ended.
The Qin dynasty created a model that the later dynasties followed. Their influence was such that the name the West still uses for the country--China--is derived from the word Qin, which was originally rendered into western languages as Chin. (The Chinese themselves mostly call the country Zhongguo, although it has other names).
Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220)
The big one. So famous that the dominant ethnic group in China still refers itself as Han Chinese. So big that the most widely used system of romanizing Chinese is called Hanyu Pinyin. So big that the Chinese word for "Chinese characters" is "hanzi", literally "Han characters", and was exported to other cultures as the Japanese word "kanji", Korean "hanja", and Vietnamese "Hán tự". You have one guess which part of their writing system it refers to.
Confucianism became solidly entrenched as the official philosophy. This was also the time when many Chinese inventions came forward: paper (a must for bureaucrats), advances in metallurgy (mostly in casting iron and producing steel), and other stuff.
The Han Dynasty was contemporary with the Roman Empire in the West and there was some trade contact via intermediaries--the Romans had to pass laws restricting the silk trade because Rome's gold reserves were being emptied, there was such demand for Chinese silk. There is some debate about whether Roman and Chinese soldiers ever met in combat--there have been claims that the Persians captured some Roman soldiers, then moved them to their other frontier and paid them to fight for them, where they then fought Han troops in the area of modern Afghanistan. In any case, Rome was greatly respected by the Chinese, who saw it as a sort of mirror of themselves at the other end of the world: the Chinese name for the Roman Empire is Daqin, meaning 'Great China.
The Han Dynasty was briefly overthrown by Wang Mang (who had already been ruling as regent of three different child emperors for several years) in 9 AD, but his self-proclaimed Xin Dynasty lasted only 14 years before he was killed in a peasant rebellion and the Han Dynasty was restored. As the restored Han Dynasty moved its capital to the east from Chang'an to Luoyang, historians divide it into the Western Han (prior to overthrow) and Eastern Han (after restoration) periods.
Three Kingdoms Era (AD 220-280)
Wei, Shu, Wu. Often referred to as Cao Wei after its founder Cao Pi, son of Cao Cao; Shu Han as successors to the Han; and Dong Wu after its location in the east. Very famous period, the setting of a major Chinese novel (well, one very famous one and presumably others), many Chinese operas, movies, TV series, and all those games from Koei.
Came about due to the collapse of the power of the Han emperors. Some date the beginning of the period to the Yellow Turban Rebellion of 184AD. From 190AD on, China was divided among feuding warlords before the three kingdoms around 220. Wei conquered Shu in 263 and the period ended with the overthrow of Wei by the Jin dynasty (265) and the subsequent conquest of Wu (280).
Jin Dynasty (265-420)
Founded by the Sima family, descendants of the Wei strategist Sima Yi, who was himself a descendant of Sima Qian, a historian from the early Han Dynasty.
Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589)
A period of civil war and division, marked also by artistic and cultural developments, including the maturation of Chinese Bhuddism and the development of the pagoda.
Sui Dynasty (581-618)
Completed the Grand Canal from Beijing (not the capital at this period) to Hangzhou. Considered tyrannical and dissolved in rebellion and assassinations after failing to conquer one of the Korean kingdoms.
Tang Dynasty (618-907)
Considered a high point of Chinese culture. To this day, Chinatowns may be referred to as "Tang ren jie", or "Street of the Tang People". Some time in the 9th century, gunpowder is discovered in China. With over one million inhabitants, the Tang capital is the largest city in the world (London's population, in comparison, is at the time in the vicinity of 10,000, and Tokyo is a sleepy Japanese fishing village in a backwater province). Chinese civilization significantly influences Vietnam, Korea and Japan, and embassies come all the way from the Byzantine empire. Actually expanded so far west that they clashed with The Caliphate. The Tang era is also notable for one of the most foremost achievements in Chinese literature: unrivalled poetry (Tang Shi) by the likes of Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, etc... ok, just: Loads and Loads of Characters.
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960)
Another period of unrest and war, brought on by the weakening of the Tang emperors and the redistribution of power to regional lords. The Five Dynasties formed and succeeded one another in the north and Ten Kingdoms were factions in the south.
Song Dynasty and Liao, Jin, Western Xia (960-1279 (overlapping))
The Song were the first government to issue paper money. It did not work out as well as they hoped. Again, contending dynasties, war, and then conquest by the Mongols. This was a time when China had reached such a level of technological development that it almost had its own industrial revolution; yearly steel output in Song China would not be equaled anywhere in the world until the mid-19th century. The forges of the Song-Empire produced more steel than great Britain in the entire 19th century, and the Song-engineers and artisans mastered the technology of steam powered forges, water-powered looms, outproducing everything the entire world knew at this time , mass-producing metal-goods, steel and textiles in massive quantities, making them affordable to even the poorest peasant.
During this Period, the Song Imperial army was equipped with fireweapons, multiple-rocket-launcher-systems, gun-artillery, and grenades, which made them the most technologically advanced army in their time.
The first real over-production crisis of humanity also occurred during this time, making the Song-court to stop the technological advancement and reverting to the old ways of doing things. And then they were ran over by the Mongols which leads to.....
Yuan Dynasty (1271-1378)
Founded by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. This was the court visited by Marco Polo. Beijing (then Dadu, 'Great Capital') became the capital. In terms of literature, drama was flourishing and the beginnings of the traditional Chinese novel are already discernible.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
This dynasty began in the south and overthrew the weakening Mongol rulers. Its founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, certainly was many things: born a poor peasant,he would emerge as one of China's foremost warlords. With brutal cunning, he managed to get the upper hand over his rivals, seizing the throne, and with increasing age ended up becoming more and more paranoid and murderous. That's at least Rags to Royalty, Magnificent Bastard (although very much indebted to good advisers), Complete Monster, Despotism Justifies the Means all rolled into one.
The Ming are certainly most famous for its porcelain and building most of the current Great Wall. Also sent the eunuch admiral Zheng He to explore the southern seas and as far as Africa, which he did with a fleet larger than all the world's navies of the time combined. In the mid-to-late Ming, the economy and thus urban life were flourishing; highly original philosophers such as Wang Yangming or Li Zhi would give important new impulses to the development of Chinese thought. Also famous for its novels, among them the Journey to the West and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Towards the end of the dynasty, the flourishing of culture was not mirrored politically; later imperial courts were plagued by corruption and the overbearing influences of eunuchs. Natural disasters, costly endeavours such as the intervention in Korea (the Imjin War) would strain imperial coffers. Ironically, it was not the Manchus who first brought an end to the dynasty: a peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng marched into Beijing; during those tumultuous and tragic events, the last official Ming emperor would commit suicide. Elsewhere, such as in Sichuan, warlords and other peasant leaders would take power, among them the Complete Monster Zhang Xianzhong.
Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912)
This dynasty was founded by Manchus, a group of people coming from Manchuria, to the northeast of China. For this reason, it is sometimes called the 'Manchu Dynasty'. Europe referred to the Manchus as 'Tartars' for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which was basically a generic term for any nomadic people in the region of Siberia. Contemporary maps of Qing China distinguish between the core Han 'China proper' in the south and 'Chinese Tartary' in the north (as opposed to 'Russian Tartary' in Siberia and 'Independent Tartary' in the area of Kazakhstan, nomadic peoples not part of any big empire).
The Manchus imposed traditional Manchurian ideas on China, but they also swiftly naturalised to the country, although for a long time only Manchurians could have any positions of power. Manchu identity was not so much strictly ethnical, but primarily depended on your belonging to one of the "Eight Banners". This dynasty persisted into the twentieth century, where it spectacularly collapsed and the seeds of modern China were born.
The beginnings of the dynasty were actually quite dramatic: the Manchu started as a federation of Jurchen tribes in what is now known as Manchuria (or Dongbei, the Northeast in Chinese). Under leaders such as Nurhaci and Huang Taiji, they would consolidate and strengthen their position, expanding their influence into Mongolia and Korea. Following the fall of the Ming, former imperial general Wu Sangui, who guarded the pass of the Great Wall to Manchuria would defect to them, thus opening up their way into China proper. And thus, after decades of brutal conquest and slaughter, late imperial China would enter another age of prosperity and cultural advancement, the High Qing. Its emperors were known by the nianhao Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong respectively. After that (actually already under the later Qianlong years) things started to go down south...
The reasons for the Qing Dynasty's eventual failure and collapse came from the fact that the Qing government had a death grip on the Idiot Ball. China had traditionally considered itself the dominant power of Asia, and for the most part, it had the strength to back that up. However, by the time the European colonial powers such as Britain, France or Portugal showed up, the government still believed that it was not only as good as but superior to the European countries, when in reality it was behind most European powers of the time - no Industrial Revolution, no nothing. As a result of this, the Qing government sold many things to the Europeans but bought very little from them in return, and severely limited their ability to sell. Annoyed at the enormous flow of their money that was going into China, the Europeans decided to get the Chinese hooked on opium to make their money back.
After two wars fought over this, both of which China lost due to its woefully out-of-date military, the Chinese were forced to accept European control of certain parts of China, had to buy European goods and pay the Europeans ridiculous amounts of reparation money. On the bright side, the opium trade was banned.
Around the middle of the 19th century, the Taiping Rebellion broke out in southern China, led by a decidedly unorthodox Christian convert claiming to be the brother of Christ named Hong Xiuquan. It lasted fourteen years, created a fair-sized state centered on Nanjing, and was finally put down with foreign aid. The conflict was one of the largest civil wars of all time, dwarfing even the one going on across the Pacific (coincidentally, named the Taiping Yang, or Peaceful Ocean in Mandarin).
At the same time, the Nien Rebellion up north put additional pressure on the Qing regime and even threatened the capital. The two rebel leaders failed to cooperate, leading to their eventual defeat.
The Qing government attempted a program of reform to make China more Western and hopefully save it from further humiliation. It failed, partly because the reformers actively squabbled with each other instead of the foreigners, partly because even the reformers thought all China needed was a better military and the rest could stay the same, and partly because the Empress was rumored to have taken the program's funds to build herself a boat made out of marble.
That Empress' name was Cixi (pronounced 'Tsih-shee'), and if there was ever a real life Dragon Lady, Cixi was it. Originally a concubine to the late emperor Xianfeng, Cixi stayed in power as regent for 48 years, originally in non-romantic union with fellow empress C'ian. This regency covered the 'rule' of multiple emperors. One was her son, who resisted her iron grasp by refusing to study, sneaking out to brothels, and finally dying of smallpox without having had the courtesy to sire a son. Lacking a traditional heir, the two empresses named Cixi's young nephew as the new Emperor. While all this was distracting everyone, however, modernisation was definitely not happening.
Finally the new Guangxu Emperor reached his majority and started trying to get things moving on his own. With the assistance of a man named Kang Youwei, they came up with a plan to massively shake up the social structure of China. This is known as the Hundred Days Reform. However, a lot of people currently in power didn't particularly appreciate having their jobs cut out from under them. Also, there was a plot underfoot to trick the Emperor into signing away control of China to Japan. Kang Youwei, hoping to get more people on his side, appointed a man named Yuan Shikai as leader of his forces. Yuan Shikai proceeded to tell Cixi exactly what was going on. Kang Youwei ran to Hong Kong to escape Cixi, and Guangxu abdicated and was put under house arrest for the remainder of his (and her) life - when she apparently had him poisoned as she was dying to ensure he wouldn't outlive her. Harsh, Cixi. Harsh.
Second, the lower classes of China were very annoyed at the Western incursions, and one group of peasants got it into their heads that it was their destiny to save China by getting rid of all the Westerners. They also believed that they were immune to bullets. Despite this, this group, known fully as the Harmonious Society of Righteous fists but more commonly as the 'Boxers', travelled across China attacking the foreign powers until they reached Beijing. There they besieged foreign buildings (primarily the embassies), opposed by the foreign-power armies called the League of 8. Cixi supported the Boxers; she even demanded that the Chinese armies come to Beijing to help them fight the foreigners. By this point, the armies were all 'suuure, right' and did virtually nothing to help out.
In 1901, the Boxer Protocol was signed, and Cixi finally started an actual reform program. Unfortunately, while the reforms were in more sweeping than the failed Hundred Days Reform had been, they still weren't enough to make much visible difference.
Thirdly, a man named Sun Yixian (you may know him as Sun Yat-sen or Sun Zhongshan) realised that China was still way behind, and that Cixi was taking China down a highway to Diyu and no mistake. He summarily started to support revolutionary ideas to turn China into a parliamentary democracy. Many of these ideas grew in popularity, particularly amongst China's armies.
To make a now extremely long summary short, Cixi's program failed and Sun Yixian's revolution got underway just as the Qing were setting up a provisional parliament. The rebels were powerful; in the intervening years China's armies had been filled with Sun Yixian's ideas. Whatever the army wanted was going to stick, and the Qing knew it. Realising that Yuan Shikai had the support of at least some of the army, Prince Chun, father of the last emperor of China, asked him to lead the fight against the rebels. Yuan Shikai happily did so, on the proviso that he got to be the undisputed leader of the armed forces. Yuan then went to negotiations with the rebels and was persuaded to support the newly formed republic...so long as he got to be the undisputed leader of the country.
This is the dynasty most often seen in Chinese dramas and kung-fu movies, perhaps because documentation from the time is more readily available, particularly of small details a historian of earlier dynasties might omit, and there is photographic evidence of everything from clothing to buildings. The queue hairstyle (forehead shaved, with a long braided pigtail at the back) associated with the period was imposed by imperial edict at the beginning of the dynasty on pain of death, partly as a measure to mark the submission of the Han population. That late in the dynasty people were cutting their queues off showed how ineffectual the Qing became.
It's worth mentioning though that while the decline of the Qing was quite spectacular, for 200 years they were pretty much the dominant power in Asia, and one of the most powerful nations in the world. Most of China's modern borders are based on the conquests under the Qing (including Tibet), and especially in its early period the Qing dynasty was characterized by expansion, discovery and reform. The Qing, it seems, will Never Live It Down.
More revisionist historians such as William T. Rowe do not see the Qing in such a negative light anymore though; Chinese nationalist historiography (and that includes the Communists') has often painted things in the darkest colours, but such views are have become less useful with the benefit of hindsight and more research. In other words, even in the later years the Qing were not actually doing that badly. With the intention of avoiding Natter, the above account leaves out the ongoing economic and ecological problems which were of a completely internal nature, which were also crucial factors in the fall of that dynasty.