Timeline of Chinese History and Dynasties

Timeline of Chinese Dynasties and Other Key Events

ca. 2100-1600 BCE Xia (Hsia) Dynasty  
ca. 1600-1050 BCE Shang Dynasty Capitals: near present-day Zhengzhou and Anyang
ca. 1046-256 BCE Zhou (Chou) Dynasty Capitals: Hao (near present-day Xi'an) and Luoyang
  Western Zhou (ca. 1046-771 BCE)  
  Eastern Zhou (ca. 771-256 BCE) Spring and Autumn Period
(770-ca. 475 BCE)
    Confucius (ca. 551-479 BCE)
    Warring States Period
(ca. 475-221 BCE)
221-206 BCE Qin (Ch'in) Dynasty Capital: Chang'an, present-day Xi'an
    Qin Shihuangdi dies, 210 BCE
206 BCE-220 CE Han Dynasty  
  Western/Former Han (206 BCE-9 CE) Capital: Chang'an
    Confucianism officially established as basis for Chinese state by Han Wudi (r. 141-86 BCE)
  Eastern/Later Han (25-220 CE) Capital: Luoyang
220-589 CE Six Dynasties Period Period of disunity and instability following the fall of the Han; Buddhism introduced to China
  Three Kingdoms (220-265 CE) Cao Wei, Shu Han, Dong Wu
  Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE)  
  Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589 CE)  
581-618 CE Sui Dynasty Capital: Chang'an
618-906 CE Tang (T'ang) Dynasty Capitals: Chang'an and Luoyang
907-960 CE Five Dynasties Period  
960-1279 Song (Sung) Dynasty  
  Northern Song (960-1127) Capital: Bianjing (present-day Kaifeng)
  Southern Song (1127-1279) Capital: Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou)
1279-1368 Yuan Dynasty The reign of the Mongol empire; Capital: Dadu (present-day Beijing)
1368-1644 Ming Dynasty Re-establishment of rule by Han ruling house; Capitals: Nanjing and Beijing
1644-1912 Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty Reign of the Manchus; Capital: Beijing
1912-1949 Republic Period Capitals: Beijing, Wuhan, and Nanjing
1949-present People's Republic of China Capital: Beijing

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Annotated Chronological Outline of Chinese History

10,000-2,000 BCE Neolithic Cultures
ca. 2100-1600 BCE Xia (Hsia) Dynasty
ca. 1600-1050 BCE

Shang Dynasty

One of the Three Dynasties, or San Dai (Xia, Shang, and Zhou), thought to mark the beginning of Chinese civilization: characterized by its writing system, practice of divination, walled cities, bronze technology, and use of horse-drawn chariots.

ca. 1046-256 BCE

Zhou (Chou) Dynasty: Western Zhou (ca. 1046-771 BCE), Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE)

A hierarchical political and social system with the Zhou royal house at its apex: power was bestowed upon aristocratic families as lords of their domains or principalities. Although often compared to European "feudalism," what actually gave the system cohesion was a hierarchical order of ancestral cults. The system eventually broke down into a competition for power between rival semi-autonomous states in what became known as the Spring and Autumn period (ca. 770-475 BCE) and the Warring States (ca. 475-221 BCE) period. It was during these tumultuous times that Confucius (551-479 BCE) lived.

221-206 BCE

Qin (Ch'in) Dynasty

Created a unitary state by imposing a centralized administration and by standardizing the writing script, weights and measures. Known for its harsh methods of rule, including the suppression of dissenting thought.

206 BCE-220 CE

Han Dynasty: Western/Former Han (206 BCE-9 CE) and Eastern/Later Han (25-220 CE)

Modified and consolidated the foundation of the imperial order. Confucianism was established as orthodoxy and open civil service examinations were introduced. Han power reached Korea and Vietnam. Records of the Historian, which became the model for subsequent official histories, was completed.

220-589 CE

"Period of Disunity" or Six Dynasties Period

The empire was fragmented. The North was dominated by invaders from the borderland and the steppes. The South was ruled by successive "Chinese" dynasties. Buddhism spread.

581-618 CE

Sui Dynasty

China reunified.


Tang (T'ang) Dynasty

A time of cosmopolitanism and cultural flowering occurred. This period was the height of Buddhist influence in China until its repression around 845. Active territorial expansion until defeated by the Arabs at Talas in 751.


Song (Sung) Dynasty: Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279)

An era of significant economic and social changes: the monetization of the economy; growth in commerce and maritime trade; urban expansion and technological innovations. The examination system for bureaucratic recruitment of neo-Confucianism was to provide the intellectual underpinning for the political and social order of the late imperial period.


Yuan Dynasty

Founded by the Mongols as part of their conquest of much of the world. Beijing was made the capital. Dramas, such as the famous Story of the Western Wing, flourished.


Ming Dynasty

The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, laid the basis of an authoritarian political culture. Despite early expansion, it was an inward-looking state with an emphasis on its agrarian base. Gradual burgeoning of the commercial sector; important changes in the economy and social relations in the latter part of the dynasty; also a vibrant literary scene as represented by publication of the novel Journey to the West.


Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty

A Manchu dynasty. Continued the economic developments of the late Ming, leading to prosperity but also complacency and a dramatic increase in population. The acclaimed novel Dream of the Red Chamber was written in this period. Strains on the polity were intensified by a rapid incorporation of substantial new territories. Its authoritarian structure was subsequently unable to meet the military and cultural challenge of an expansive West.


Republic Period

Weak central government following the collapse of the dynastic system in 1911-12; Western influence was shown by the promotion of "science" and "democracy" during the New Culture Movement. The attempt of the Nationalist government (est. 1928) to bring the entire country under its control was thwarted by both domestic revolts and the Japanese occupation (1937-45). The Nationalists fled to Taiwan after defeat by the Communists.


People's Republic of China

Communist government. The drive for remaking society ended in disasters such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Economic reform and political retrenchment since around 1978.

Prepared by Michael Tsin, previously assistant professor of Chinese history, Columbia University; currently associate professor of Chinese history, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Text ©1995 Columbia University, Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching,
(Ainslie Embree and Carol Gluck, eds., Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp Inc. 1995).

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"The Dynasties Song"

This "dynasties song," sung to the tune of "Frère Jacques,"
can help students remember the major Chinese dynasties in chronological order.

Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han
Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han

Sui, Tang, Song
Sui, Tang, Song

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic
Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

— Courtesy of the teachers on the College Board AP-World History Listserv

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