What is happening in China in 500CE

The Han dynasty, whose empire marked the high point of ancient Chinese history, fell in 220 CE. It was followed by almost three centuries of division, invasion and, in the north, barbarian rule. Unlike with the western Roman empire, however, the fall of the Han empire did not lead a steep decline in material civilization.

Northern China

The Northern Wei, who are of Mongolian origin and who have ruled northern China since their conquest in 425-435 CE, have ended the worst of the divisions and have brought more than half a century of peace and stability to the region. Of all the barbarian dynasties, they have pursued a policy of Sinicisation most purposefully, giving their state a much greater degree of strength and durability than its rivals and predecessors.

Southern China

Southern China has been unified under one government since the fall of the Han. Despite the succession of weak, faction-ridden dynasties, this region, spared the upheavals to the north, has seen considerable economic expansion and population growth.

During this period of division, Buddhism, which came from India in late Han times, has become a major religion in China.

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What is happening in China in 2500BCE

Over the past millennia, farming cultures in China have been becoming more and more complex.

Civilization is emerging in Ancient China

In the Yellow River region of China, farming, based on millet cultivation, is the backbone of the economy, and small towns and villages dot the landscape. The larger settlements are surrounded by thick beaten-earth walls, an indicator of endemic warfare. Elaborate burials for the elite suggest that the region is home to competing chiefdoms, ruled by warlike aristocracies. Even at this ancient period of China’s history, pottery shards carry inscriptions which include composite ideographs, conveying simple meanings. These show that the Chinese system of writing is gradually developing. The long history of China’s civilization is dawning.

The expansion of rice farming in southern China

In the Yangtze region, wet-rice cultivation predominates. As in the north, farming villages have become established here, often on lake sides where paddy fields can most easily be laid out.

In the hills and forests to the south of the Yangtze region, tribal peoples such as the Tai live lives largely based on hunting, gathering and fishing. Wet-rice cultivation is gradually penetrating this region as well, and farming settlements have reached the south China coast.

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What is happening in China in 1500BCE

The Yellow river region of China is now ruled by the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BCE).

The Shang Dynasty

Under the Shang, Chinese Bronze Age civilization fully emerges into the light of history. The first real cities of ancient East Asia, with tens of thousands of inhabitants, have appeared here.

Although the kings of the Shang state probably exercise direct rule over only a part of the region, their authority is acknowledged over a much wider area of northern and central China, through subordinate lords and tribal chiefs. These rule their own territories independently, but acknowledge the overlordship of the Shang king.

Fine bronzes

A system of writing, which in all essentials is the modern Chinese script, is already in use at this ancient period. Bronze technology is well developed. Indeed, the Chinese are already making some of the finest bronzes ever produced in world history.

Cultural influences eminating from the Yellow river region are bringing a more advanced material culture to the Yangtze region, and this is leading to population expansion. A distinctive, non-literate but materially advanced culture is developing here.

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What is happening in China in 1000BCE

The Shang dynasty has been replaced by the Zhou dynasty as rulers of ancient China (1122 BCE). The Zhou will be the longest-enduring dynasty in China’s history. Their ancestors had previously ruled a border territory regarded as semi-barbarian by the Shang court. The change of dynasty, however, has seen no sharp decline in the material level of Chinese culture.

The Zhou dynasty kings have distributed territory to a large number of princes of the Zhou clan and other loyal followers, and royal power has thus become divided amongst more than a hundred subordinate fiefs. Some modern scholars describe this state of affairs as “feudal”.

Chinese expansion under the Zhou

At the same time, the Zhou state has expanded, both outwards into surrounding lands and also internally as Zhou lords annex “barbarian” territory still remaining within the borders. As a result, this is a crucial period for the expansion of ancient Chinese civilization.

In the Yangtze Valley, a mixed culture is growing up, in which Zhou and native features mingle. Further south, tribal peoples are coming under increasing pressure from the more settled peoples of the north, and some tribes begin migrating south and west, into South East Asia; there they will become the ancestors of the Mon and Khmer peoples. The history of South East Asia will be repeatedly affected by developments in southern China.

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What is happening in China in 500BCE

This is a crucial period for Chinese civilization – a time of great upheaval, but also of great creativity, in Ancient China’s history.

Fragmentation of the Zhou kingdoms

The many fiefs into which earlier Zhou dynasty kings had divided their realm have, through a process of warfare and annexation, been absorbed into a few larger political units. These can now fairly be called states in their own right, only loosely acknowledging the authority of the Zhou kings.

Centralized, bureaucratic states

These states are developing centralised bureaucracies, well-organized armies, and sophisticated tax systems to pay for them. Technological and conomic advances have led to the expansion of commerce, the growth of towns, a flourishing merchant class, the introduction of metal coinage and, centuries before the west, the invention of cast iron. Into this fluctuating environment comes one of the most influential philosophers in world history, Confucius (551-479 BCE). In this time of change he calls people back to their ancient duties of honour and obedience.

Expansion of the Chinese world

The organized state pattern of the Yellow River region has penetrated the Yangtze Valley. Peoples formally regarded as “barbarian” by the Zhou are being absorbed into Chinese civilization. Throughout much of southern China, however, native peoples cling to their former way of life. A major ethnic group in southern China at this ancient period are the Thai people.

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What is happening in China in 200BCE

The past 300 years have been tumultuous ones for China. Indeed, this period of ancient Chinese history is traditionally known as the age of the “Warring States”. The competition between the states increased, and armies grew much larger, with professional generals, often of humble origin, commanding massed ranks of infantry and cavalry. The smaller states were swallowed up in the larger, until only six powerful kingdoms were left.

Economic progress

Despite this constant warfare, Chinese civilization has continued to advance. Trade and industry have expanded, towns and cities have grown, education has spread and technological innovation has continued: for example, the Chinese have developed steel by this date, centuries before other parts of the world.

The first imperial dynasty

Starting in the 250s BCE, one of these states, Qin, conquered all the others, one by one. The rulers of the Qin dynasty were thus the first in China’s history to rule a unified Chinese empire.

The Qin imposed a rigid centralization upon the vast country. Their empire lasted barely a generation, however, before it dissolved into anarchy. Out of this chaos a leader eventually emerges who founds the long-lasting Han dynasty.

The Han dynasty

This ruler, who takes the reign-name Gaozu, has adopted much the same centralized system of government as the Qin, but in a milder form. Taxes and labour services are less onerous than under his predecessors, and the laws less severe. He has thus successfully established his rule over the entire country, and the Han dynasty he founds will rule ancient China for 400 years.

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What is happening in China in 30BCE

The past two centuries have been a tranquil period in Ancient China‘s history. The Han dynasty emperors have expanded their empire’s borders on all fronts. Under the emperor Wudi (141-86 BCE), in particular, the Xiongu were subdued, north-west China garrisoned and colonized, northern Korea conquered and the annexation of south China completed.

Internal peace and prosperity

Internally, however, China has seen nearly two centuries of peace and stability.The vast country has increasingly come under the control of the elaborate and well-run Han bureaucracy. Officials are normally recruited from the wealthy landowning class. They are highly educated: under the Han, Confucianism has been installed as the official ideology of the ruling class, and their education is based on a rigorous study of the Confucian classics. Officials are promoted on recommendation, which brings many very able men to high office. These are developments which will influence Chinese history for more than 2000 years.

The Han dynasty marks the high point of Ancient China. The peace of the Han era has encouraged commerce and industry to flourish, and agriculture has also expanded. Much new land has been brought under cultivation, especially in border regions; and continued technological advance has seen the introduction of, amongst other innovations, the seed drill and the wheelbarrow.

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A great chapter in the history of ancient China is coming to an end, with the Han dynasty now in its death throes.


About 200 years after the founding of the Han dynasty (202 BCE), a succession of weak emperors led to the usurpation by the chief minister Wang Mang (reigned 9 – 27 CE). He attempted some radical reforms, which caused first confusion, then a destructive civil war, and finally the restoration of the Han dynasty.

This was followed by years of reconstruction, renewed economic expansion and restored imperial power. It was during this period that paper was invented, to meet the needs of the civil servants.

…and decline

Latterly, however, the foundations of the later Han empire have been undermined by a succession of child-emperors. This has resulted in unchecked factionalism at the Han court, and in the provinces, an increasingly corrupt bureaucracy.  As a direct result, widespread peasant revolts have broken out, causing immense destruction.

At the same time, a renewed barbarian threat has emerged with the reunification of the Xiongnu nomads.

The Han dynasty is now in terminal decline, and has only twenty years to go before it succumbs to these many dangers. China’s long history is entering a troubled period.

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What is happening in China in 750CE

After centuries of division, China was reunified by the Sui dynasty in 589. This dynasty did not last long, but in their brief time in power they constructed the Grand Canal, which would unify China’s economy; and they restored the examination system for recruiting government officials. This had been first instituted under the Han, but then abandoned.

After a brief civil war the Tang dynasty came to power in 618. This was able to build on the foundations laid by the Sui to become one of the most brilliant dynasty’s in China’s long history.

The Tang emperors brought stability and good government to China, as well as pushing out the frontiers of the Chinese empire further than ever before. The great Taizong (624-49), who set the dynasty on strong foundations, was succeeded by less capable emperors, but this allowed one of the most remarkable personalities in all Chinese history to exercise power, the empress Wu (649-705, first as concubine of the emperor, then as wife, and finally, after 690, in her own right). She expanded the examination system so that more non-aristocratic officials came to hold the most senior positions in government.

Under her son, the emperor Xuanzong (712-56), the Tang empire has reached a peak of power. Culturally, Xuanzong’s reign is later seen as a golden age in Chinese civilization, particularly in the field of poetry.

However, there are causes for concern. Over-powerful generals now control the frontiers, and the elderly emperor is increasingly withdrawing from affairs of state, under the spell of a beautiful concubine. This situation will very soon lead to one of the most terrible rebellions in China’s history, bringing disaster for the Tang dynasty and for the whole of China.

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What is happening in China in 979CE

In 755, one of the most disastrous events in China’s history occurred when a powerful frontier army commander, An Lushan, revolted and seized the capital, Loyang. His rebellion was not crushed until 763, after causing great destruction and loss of life throughout China. The later Tang emperors were unable to assert the same degree of control over their empire as their predecessors had done, and the centralized rule of the early Tang was never fully restored.

One of the feature of the late Tang period was that the regime turned against the Buddhist establishment. It confiscated its vast wealth and ordered thousands of monks back to secular life. Buddhism would remain a popular religion in China right up to the present day, but mostly without official patronage.

Eventually, the familiar tale of child-emperors, factionalism at court and widespread peasant revolt led to the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907, and China again fragmented into several states.

This period of division did not last nearly as long as the earlier one in China’s history, following the fall of the Han dynasty. By 969 China was largely reunified under the Song dynasty.

In northern China, however, two barbarian dynasties reign, the Liao and the Western Xia (the latter founded as a recognized dynasty in 1038, but existing as a state from the mid-10th century). In the Liao, a small ruling nomad group governs the state along Chinese lines, and under them Chinese gentry families participate fully in the Chinese culture of the period. The Western Xia is a more purely nomadic tribal confederation.

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What is happening in China in 1215CE

The centuries of Song dynasty rule have seen unprecedented economic growth and population expansion for China. A revolution in farming, based largely on wet-rice cultivation, has greatly increased crop yields, and has been accompanied by dramatic commercial and industrial expansion, both within China itself and throughout South East Asia. This has been the great age of Chinese technological innovation, with printing, gunpowder, shipbuilding techniques, the compass, paper money and porcelain all either appearing for the first time or seeing great advances.

In their internal policies, the Song emperors have expanded the examination system as a means of recruiting officials, and China is now administered largely by a class of professional scholar-officials. This class now professes a reformed Confucianism which modern scholars label “Neo-Confucianism”. This has borrowed elements from Buddhism and Taoism to provide a more emotionally satisfying form of the ancient ideology. It will be the dominant belief-system of China’s ruling class up to the 20th century.

The Song dynasty now only rules the south of the country, however. In 1135 a major invasion by the Jurchen, a people from central Asia, conquered the entire north of China from the Song and formed the Jin empire. Though ruled by a small minority of nomadic descent, this functions as a Chinese state.

The Song dynasty of this period is therefore give the label  “Southern Song”. It has been left with by far the richest and most populous part of China, and under them the advances which began under the early Song have continued.

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What is happening in China in 1453CE

The past few centuries have been ones of great upheaval in Chinese history. The Mongols from central Asia conquered northern China in the 1230s, annexing it to their empire which stretched as far west as the Middle East and (within a few years) Russia. Southern China fell to them in the 1270s. The Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-94), presented himself as a legitimate Chinese ruler, of the Yuan dynasty, and maintained the traditional Chinese bureaucracy, though with Mongols in the topmost positions.

After Kublai Khan, the Mongols weakened and their vast empire fragmented into separate states. Yuan dynasty China was one of these. From the 1330s, an increasing number of rebellions culminated in the expulsion of the Mongols from China. Native Chinese rulers of the Ming dynasty were installed on the throne.

The Ming emperors have restored the Confucian bureaucracy, along with the examination system, to its predominant position in the state. In the early 15th century they briefly sent out a number of major naval expeditions to South East Asia and beyond, reaching as far as Africa. In Inner Asia, however, the Mongols remain a dangerous threat to China, and the Ming have completely rebuilt the Great Wall – one of the greatest feats of engineering in world history.

Internally, the country is largely tranquil, and the economy and population is expanding strongly.

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What is happening in China in 1648CE

The Ming dynasty presided over a reasonably tranquil period in Chinese history. However, the Ming emperors, for the most part nonentities, fell increasingly under the control of eunuch factions at court. These factions were frequently in bitter conflict with the scholar-officials of the imperial bureaucracy. The turbulence of life at the centre meant that some deep-seated problems in the administration of the Ming empire were not addressed properly.

In the 16th century the Ming dynasty showed the classic symptoms of dynastic decline, repeated at regular intervals throughout China’s history: corrupt and ineffective administration in the provinces, famine and floods inadequately dealt with, peasant revolt and invasion from across the frontiers.

One group of invaders are a people from the northern steppes who, having developed a Chinese-style state in Manchuria (hence the name by which they are known to history, the Manchus), have taken advantage of rising chaos in China to march on the capital and seize the throne (1644). They have thus established a new dynasty, the Qing (“brilliant”), and, under their regent, Dorgon, are now in the process of pacifying the entire country. After initial struggles a final, glorious phase in China’s imperial history will begin.

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What is happening in China in 1789CE

The Qing (Manchu) dynasty has ruled China for the past 150 years, though it was not until 1680 that the country was fully in their hands. Although of foreign origin, the Qing have established an orthodox Confucian state, complete with bureaucracy, examination system, and law code. However, Manchu officials serve alongside Chinese in all the topmost posts, and the Chinese male population are required to wear their hair in a queue as a sign of their subjection.

In one of the most remarkable succession of rulers in all world history, China has been governed for more than a century by just three very able rulers, the Kangxi emperor (1667-1722), the Yongzheng emperor (1722-35) and the Qianlong emperor (1736-95). These emperors have pushed out the frontiers of the Qing empire to include vast areas of central Asia, never previously under Chinese rule. They have centralized power, ensured high standards of administration, and presided over a prolonged period of peace. Due largely to this peace, but also to new crops introduced from America (maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts), migration to hitherto under-developed areas and the bringing of much new land into cultivation, and productivity gains in Chinese farming methods, the 18th century has seen a doubling of the population. From 150 millions in the late 17th century it has grown to 300 millions. Commerce has expanded considerably, especially long-distance trade within the empire, and industries such as porcelain, steel and textiles have flourished.

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What is happening in China in 1837CE

China in the period of the later Qing dynasty was by now showing signs of strain. Despite the expansion of food production in China, by the end of the 18th century there were clear indications that it was not able to keep pace with the continuing rise in population. Each acre was having to feed more people, and standards of living – especially amongst already-poor peasants – were slipping. These adverse trends manifested themselves in a fashion repeated throughout the history of China: rural disorder and banditry leading to full-scale peasant uprisings. Such uprisings began to break out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The White Lotus rebellion took the Qing government several years to bring under control (1796-1804). However, at this date these episodes were comparatively local affairs.

At the same time, the Qing government was getting increasingly concerned with the rise in opium smuggling into the country, and the spreading addiction to the drug at all levels of society. Opium was being brought to China by British merchants in ever-larger quantities, both because the Chinese government placed severe restrictions of legitimate trade and because China’s economy was so self-sufficient that it had little need for the kind of goods British merchants had to offer. Such was the scale of the problem that by 1837 the senior Qing dynasty ministers were concluding that the Opium trade had to be stamped out once and for all.

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What is happening in China in 1871CE

The history of imperial China has now entered its final phase. Tensions over trade between China and Britain, particularly over the role of British merchants in bringing illegal opium into the country, led to the outbreak of the first Opium War (1839-42). In this, the superiority of Western forces over Chinese told, and the treaty which ended it was the first of several “unequal treaties” China would be forced to sign, favorable to foreign interests. The most enduring result of this one was the establishment of Hong Kong as an outpost of the British empire.

Continuing population growth and spreading poverty within the Chinese empire led to the outbreak of the most destructive uprising in China’s history (and in world history as well). This was the Taiping rebellion, which began in 1850, and was aimed at driving the Qing dynasty from China. Within a couple of years, the Qing government had lost control over a large part of southern and central China. Then, with the rebels undefeated and another major revolt breaking out further north, China found herself at war with Britain (and now France) again (1858-60). This led to the emperor’s Summer Palace in Beijing being burnt down – and of course, to another “unequal treaty”. More rebellions broke out in various provinces of the empire, and rebel forces roamed, apparently at will, through the length and breadth of China. The Qing dynasty found itself facing challenges on all sides, not least because the Chinese people were increasingly thinking of the Qing, who had originally come from outside China, as part of the problem.

By the time the Taiping rebellion had been crushed (1864), 20-30 million lives had been lost. There followed a period of rebuilding, which was remarkably successful given the circumstances, and included the resettlement of large areas of depopulated lands. Some attempts at modernizing China’s armed forces were also made.

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What is happening in China in 1914CE

The long imperial era of China’s history has ended and the last of its dynasties has left the stage.

In 1894-5, a war with Japan ended in humiliating defeat for the China. Japan gained Taiwan and other territories, and other foreign powers joined in a free-for-all at China’s expense: they demanded (and got) more ports along the coast of China and claimed wide “spheres of influence” around them. The complete dismemberment of the Chinese empire was only averted by rivarlies between the great powers of the day.

These developments undermined support for the Qing dynasty, now widely seen as puppets of the foreign powers, and they deepened the already bitter hatred of foreigners within China. The last years of the 19th century saw the rise of a particularly violent anti-foreign movement known as the Boxers, and many Western missionaries were killed. The Qing court seemed to endorse the movement, and the foreign community in Beijing came under threat from Boxer groups. The Western powers sent an international force to protect their compatriots, which sacked Beijing (1901). The foreign governments then demanded a huge indemnity from China.

At this point the Qing court enacted a wide range of modernizing measures, but these were too little, too late to save the last of China’s imperial dynasties. In 1911 some Qing policies aimed at bolstering their rule sparked opposition throughout the country, and local garrisons and provincial assemblies one by one seceded from the empire. The commander of the army in Beijing declared a Republic on January 1st, 1912.

Despite the best efforts of such figures as the widely-respected Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese republic almost immediately starts collapsing into civil war.

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What is happening in China in 1960CE

The years after the fall of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Chinese republic were some of the most turbulent in China’s history.

Within a few years of its proclamation in 1912, the government of the republic had lost control of the country, and China fell into chaos. Some measure of order was restored by the Nationalist Party (the Guomindang) in 1926, but then a bitter struggle broke out between it and the rising Communist Party (many Chinese students and workers had become attracted to Communism as a way of dealing with the many problems faced by China in the early 20th century).

The Nationalists gained the upper hand, and, hard pressed by Goumindang forces, the Communists carried out a gruelling treck – the “Long March” – from their bases in southern China, to link up with more of their forces to the north (1934-6). This event consolidated Mao Zedong’s leadership of the Party.

For the next ten years, until the end of World War 2, all Chinese forces were committed to fighting the Japanese. Immediately this fighting was concluded, however, the struggle between the Communists and the Goumindang resumed. By 1949 the Communists had control of all China except for Taiwan, to which the Goumindang had fled. The Communists proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

Under Communism, China has been transformed. The gentry class, throughout China’s history the mainstay of imperial China, has been eliminated, farmland had been collectivized, women have been given equal rights with men, and under Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, China is straining to create an industrial socialist utopia.

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What is happening in China in 2005CE

The history of Communist China since 1960 has been in two distinct phases, the first one of upheaval, the second one of great economic expansion.

The “Great Leap Forward” (1956-60) ended in the deadliest famine of the 20th century. Some years of economic recovery followed before China suffered a second great upheaval, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). “Red Guards” – school and university students – roamed the country meeting out violence and extreme humiliation to anyone they deemed too conservative. Half a million lives were lost, and millions of other lives were greatly disrupted.

Mao Zedong died in 1976. Immediately the pent-up disgust with the radicals saw the rise of Deng Xiaoping, who dominated Chinese politics until his death in 1997. He opened up China’s economy to the outside world, and since then China has seen the most dramatic economic expansion in world history. It has not been accompanied by political liberalization, as was shown most famously in 1989, when student demonstrations in favour of democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ended in a violent clamp-down. Nevertheless, countless millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and gained a measure of prosperity, which their parents and grandparents could never have dreamt of.

The return of Hong Kong from Britain (1997) and Macao from Portugal (1999) to China finally ended European rule on Chinese soil.

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500 CE