A (Very) Brief History of China 

Affiliate Disclosures

China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, boasting over four thousand years of history. Granted, many of those years were spent as a hotch-potch of numerous warring states rather than as a single unified country. But it would still be accurate to say that, despite this, it is still the history of one region, people, and culture.

The Four Main Periods of China – Broadly Speaking

four periods of china

China’s history can broadly be divided into four periods – Ancient China, Imperial China, Republic of China, and the People’s Republic of China. There is some debate on whether the country is entering a fifth era right now – but more on that later.

Regardless, the first two periods are definitely the longest in the country’s history. They span twelve distinct periods or dynasties, although some periods are shared by two or more warring dynasties. Keep in mind that we’ll be using Western chronology for simplicity’s sake.

Timeline of China’s History 

Xia Dynasty:

The 5-century era between 2,100 BCE and 1,600 BCE is known as the Xia Dynasty period of Ancient China. During this time, the country’s capital changed between Luoyang, Dengfeng, and Zhengzhou. This is the first known period of China’s history even though technically there are no preserved records dating from this time.

Shang Dynasty

The Shang Dynasty is the first period of China’s history with written records. With the capital at Anyang, this dynasty ruled for about 5 centuries – from 1,600 BCE to 1,046 BCE.

Zhou Dynasty 

The Shang Dynasty was followed by the longest and one of most influential periods of Chinese history – the Zhou Dynasty. This was the period that oversaw the rise of Confucianism. It spanned eight centuries from 1,046 BCE to 221 BCE. The capitals of China at this time were first Xi’an and then Louyang.

Qin Dynasty 

The succeeding Qin Dynasty couldn’t replicate the longevity of the Zhou dynasty and lasted for only 15 years until 206 BCE. However, it was the first dynasty to successfully unite all of China as one country under the same Emperor. During all previous dynasties, there were large regions of the land under differing dynasties, warring for power and territory with the dominant dynasty. Unsurprisingly, the Qin dynasty also marks the switch between the period of Ancient China to that of Imperial China.

Han Dynasty 

After 206 BCE came the Han Dynasty, another famous period. The Han dynasty oversaw the turn of the millennium and continued on until 220 AD. This is roughly the same period as that of the Roman Empire. The Han dynasty oversaw much turmoil, but it was also a time that birthed an impressive amount of China’s mythology and art.

Wei and Jin Dynasties

Next came the period of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, ruled by the Wei and Jin dynasties. This period of over 3 centuries going on from 220 AD to 581 AD saw numerous regime changes and near-constant conflict.

Sui and Tang Dynasty 

From there followed the Sui Dynasty, which unified the Northern and Southern dynasties. It was the Sui that also brought back the rule of the ethnic Han over all of China. This period also oversaw the sinification (i.e., the process of bringing non-Chinese cultures under Chinese cultural influence) of nomadic tribes. The Sui ruled until 618 AD. 

Tang Dynasty 

The Tang dynasty ruled until 907 AD and was distinguished for having the only female emperor in China’s history, the Empress Wu Zetian who ruled between 690 and 705 AD. During this period, a successful model of government was implemented. The stability of the period resulted in a golden age of sorts, with great cultural and artistic advancements. 

Song Dynasty 

The Song Dynasty was a period of great innovation. Some great inventions during this period were the compass, printing, gunpowder, and gunpowder weapons. It was also the first time in the history of the world that paper money was used. The Song Dynasty continued until 1,279 AD. But during this period, there were endless conflicts between Northern and Southern China. Eventually, Southern China was conquered by the Yuan Dynasty, led by the Mongols. 

Yuan Dynasty 

The Yuan regime’s first emperor was Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Borjigin clan. This was the first time that a non-Han dynasty ruled all of China’s eighteen provinces. This rule lasted until 1,368. 

Ming Dynasty 

The Yuan Dynasty was followed by the famous Ming dynasty (1368-1644) which built most of the Great Wall of China and lasted for about three centuries. It was the last Imperial dynasty of China ruled by Han Chinese.

Qin Dynasty 

The Ming Dynasty was followed by the Qing Dynasty – led by the Manchu. It brought the country into the modern era, and only ended in 1912 with the rise of the Republican Revolution.

Republican Revolution 

After the Qing dynasty rose the Republic of China – a short but vital period from 1912 to 1949, which would lead to the emergence of the Republic of China.  The Revolution of 1911 was led by Sun Yat-sen. 

This was China’s first foray into democracy and resulted in turmoil and unrest. Civil war raged across China for decades and the Republic never really managed to take root across the vast country. For better or for worse, the country eventually transitioned into its final period – the People’s Republic of China.

Communist Party of China 

peking monument

During this time, the Communist Party of China (CPC) managed to establish complete control over China. The People’s Republic initially followed an isolationist strategy, but eventually opened for interaction and trade with the outside world in 1978. For all its controversy, the Communist era did bring about stability in the country. After the Opening Up policy, there was also tremendous economic growth.

Some might argue, however, that this opening up also marks the start of a slow transition into a fifth era – a hypothesis that China itself denies as of now. The reasoning behind the idea of a new fifth period is that a large amount of China’s recent economic growth is due to the introduction of capitalism. 

A Fifth Era?

china four main periods

In other words, while the country is still ruled by its Communist party and is still called “The People’s Republic of China”, a majority of its industry is in the hands of capitalists. Many economists credit that with the rapid boom of China’s economy, marking it as a totalitarian/capitalist country, not as a communist one. 

Additionally, there seems to be a slow cultural shift as the country is once again focusing on ideas such as heritage, its imperial history, and other palingenetic nationalist concepts that the CPC avoided for decades, preferring to instead focus on the “People’s Republic” and not on history. 

Where exactly such slow shifts will lead, however, remains to be seen.

Nina Jay

Nina Jay

Nina Jay has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.