10 Chinese Dynasties You Should Know

China has an extremely long history. With thousands of years of different dynasties, kingdoms, and emperors, it seems difficult to keep track of it all! Why should you try to learn about Chinese history and all the Chinese dynasties?

Despite its very long history, China is known for having a great understanding and knowledge of its own past. Many Chinese idioms have their origins in ancient stories and figures. Chinese politics, culture, and society today are deeply influenced by historical events and figures.

There are also many amazing facts about Chinese history to learn. Did you know that Chinese envoys traveled all the way to Somalia and Kenya? Do you know which dynasty Chinese people named themselves after? And what happened to the last emperor of China?

You don’t need a degree in Chinese history to study Chinese! But one thing you should know is the names of China’s ten most important dynasties: Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing.

The Shang Dynasty: 商代 Shāngdài (c. 16th-11th century BCE)

This dynasty is the first official dynasty in China. In the Shang Dynasty, China first began to develop its formal writing system by carving pictographic characters onto bones, shells, and other natural objects. These are called ‘oracle bone’ characters (learn more here). Bronze technology and the chariot were also used in the Shang.

The Zhou Dynasty: 周代 Zhōudài (1046-221 BCE)

The Zhou coexisted with the Shang until finally conquering it. During this dynasty, the “I Ching,” or “Book of Changes,” was written: a book of divination that first introduces concepts like the famous yin-yang (阴阳 yīnyáng) symbol. Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Legalism–three ancient Chinese philosophies–also emerged during this dynasty.

The Qin Dynasty: 秦代 Qíndài (221-207 BCE)

The Qin Dynasty…one of China’s shortest yet most famous dynasties! With his powerful armies and belief in the philosophy of Legalism, the famous first emperor Qin Shihuang (秦始皇 Qín Shǐhuáng) conquered all the rival kingdoms, bringing total unity to China. Qin Shihuang is known for ruling his dynasty with the rule of law and a powerful central government. When he died, he was buried in Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) surrounded by an army of Terra Cotta Warriors. You can visit Xi’an today and see his tomb!

Qin Shihuang was also responsible for the construction of the Great Wall of China. His ambition and impact upon modern Chinese tourism today is huge!

The Han Dynasty: 汉代 Hàndài (202 BCE–220 CE)

Today, Chinese call themselves the “Han people.” In fact, another word for the Chinese language is 汉语 Hànyǔ. And have you heard about the trend of young people today wearing traditional Chinese clothing, known as 汉服 hànfú?

This dynasty deeply influenced Chinese culture. During this time, the dynasty expanded its power into modern-day Gansu province, extending Chinese territory. Confucianism was patronized by the emperor, and the first university was founded to study its philosophy in 124 AD. Paper, water clocks, sundials, silk, and seismographs were all invented during the Han Dynasty. It was a high point of culture, art, and considered a period of ethnic unification.

The Sui Dynasty: 隋代 Suídài (581-617)

After the fall of the Han Dynasty, various kingdoms and groups ruled in China until the Sui unified them all. This dynasty saw China enter a golden age of agricultural and economic prosperity. Buddhism spread across China, inspiring art and sculptures still visible today.

The major legacy of the Sui Dynasty was the Grand Canal connecting China’s north and south. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been used since the Sui Dynasty to facilitate the transport of goods and people across China.

The Tang Dynasty: 唐代 Tángdài (618-907)

China’s golden age continued through the Tang Dynasty. China’s greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, lived in this era. Scholarship flourished with education and the publication of many great works of literature and encyclopedias. The Tang Dynasty exerted its influence up and down the Silk Road, to Korea, and Japan. The Tang capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) was full of international influence: Persians, Tibetans, Indians, Vietnamese, and Koreans lived and traded in this famous city.

If you are studying the Chinese language, the very first poem you learn in Chinese will probably be this famous one by Tang poet Li Bai:

Quiet Night Thoughts

At the end of my bed, the moon is shining bright,
I think it looks like frost upon the ground.
I raise my head and look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home.

Jìng Yè Sī

chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,
yí shi dī shàng shuāng.
jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,
dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

静夜思

床前明月光,
疑是地上霜.
举头望明月,
低头思故乡.

The Song Dynasty: 宋代 Sòngdài (960-1279)

The Song Dynasty flourished with the spread of education, a welfare system, Neo-Confucianism, and important inventions such as paper currency and high-quality pottery and porcelain. Artists pioneered new creative forms at the Imperial Painting Academy. Massive cities of more than a million people emerged. In and around the capital city of Kaifeng, Song builders created towering pagodas and other edifices still seen today.

The Yuan Dynasty: 元代 Yuándài (1279-1368)

Everything changed when the Mongols attacked. Begun by Ghengis Khan, the legendary Mongol leader, the establishment of the Yuan in China was finished by his grandson Kublai Khan. The dominance the Mongols established across Asia led to a peaceful period where trade flowed from east to west.  New ideas and inventions entered China from the Middle East: astronomy, medicine, cartography, cotton, and new crops like lemons and melons entered the Chinese diet.

The most famous European traveler, Marco Polo, visited the Yuan Dynasty from 1271-1292. He called Hangzhou “the greatest city which may be found in this world.” Of Beijing, he wrote: “The whole city is arranged in squares just like a chessboard, and disposed in a manner so perfect and masterly that it is impossible to give a description that should do it justice.”

The Ming Dynasty: 明代 Míngdài (1368-1644)

After the collapse of the Yuan, the Ming Dynasty began to rule China–returning the land to Chinese rule. The Ming Dynasty was incredibly significant: the population of the empire doubled, famous blue-and-white Chinese porcelain was produced and exported, and the Yongle Emperor (永乐 Yǒnglè) built the Forbidden City (故宫 Gùgōng). You can still explore this huge palace complex in Beijing today!

The most famous traveler of the Ming Dynasty was Zheng He. Born to a Muslim family, he quickly rose through the ranks to become an explorer and diplomat. Over a series of seven trips, he visited places across the known world including today’s Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Oman, Yemen, Somalia, and Kenya. After the death of Zheng He, China stopped sending missions abroad.

The Qing Dynasty: 清代 Qīngdài (1644-1911)

The Qing Dynasty was founded by the Manchus, a people group who lived north of the Great Wall in Manchuria (today, this is northeastern China). Sweeping south to conquer the Ming, the Manchus established China’s second non-Chinese dynasty. They would also be the very last imperial dynasty to ever exist in China.

The Qing began with incredible achievements. Multiple emperors expanded Chinese territory to its largest size. Great literary projects flourished, including the largest collection of books in Chinese history (四库全书 Sìkù Quánshū) and the publication of Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone (红楼梦 Hónglóu Mèng) which is considered one of the greatest novels in Chinese history.

But in its later half, the Qing was crippled by internal rebellions and peasant revolts, colonialization and imperialism carried out by foreign powers including the United States, France, Britain, and Japan, and outright wars with Britain and Japan. This period of Chinese history saw widespread famine and poverty. The last emperor of China, Pǔyí 溥仪, gave up his throne in 1911. 

The last emperor, Puyi, lived until 1967. He saw the transformation of China from an imperial dynasty to a People’s Republic.

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Savannah Billman has a master's degree in Chinese Law and Society at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. She holds a B.A. from NYU Shanghai and has also written for The World of Chinese, TechNode, SupChina, and Sixth Tone.
Savannah Billman

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