Periods and Dynasties of Ancient China

Neolithic, Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin and Han Dynasties of Ancient China

Neolithic dog-shaped pottery gui, Dawenkou Culture, Shandong

Gary Lee Todd / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY- SA 4.0

Chinese recorded history goes back more than 3000 years and if you add archaeological evidence (including Chinese pottery), another millennium and a half, to roughly 2500 B.C. The center of Chinese government moved repeatedly throughout this period, as China absorbed more of eastern Asia. This article looks at the conventional divisions of the history of China into eras and dynasties, starting with the earliest about which we have any information and continuing through to Communist China.

"Events of the past, if not forgotten, are teachings about the future." - Sima Qian, Chinese historian of the late second century B.C.

The focus here is on the period of ancient Chinese history that begins with the advent of writing (as also for the Ancient Near East, Mesoamerica, and the Indus Valley) and ends with the period that corresponds best with a conventional date for the end of antiquity. Unfortunately, this date makes sense only in Europe: A.D. 476. That year is in the middle of the relevant Chinese period, the Southern Song and Northern Wei Dynasties, and is of no special significance for Chinese history.


First, according to historian Sima Qian, who chose to begin his Shiji (Records of the Historian) with the Yellow Emperor tale, Huang Di unified tribes along the Yellow River valley nearly 5,000 years ago. For these achievements, he is considered the founder of the Chinese nation and culture. Ever since 200BC, Chinese rulers, imperial and otherwise, have considered it politically convenient to sponsor an annual memorial ceremony in his honor. [URL =] Taipei Times - "Dumping the Yellow Emperor Myth"

The Neolithic (neo='new' lithic='stone') Period of Ancient China lasted from about 12,000 until about 2000 B.C. Hunting, gathering, and agriculture were practiced during this period. Silk was also produced from mulberry leaf-fed silkworms. The pottery forms of the Neolithic period were painted and black, representing the two cultural groups, Yangshao (in the mountains of the north and west of China) and Lungshan (in the plains in eastern China), as well as utilitarian forms for daily use.


It had been thought that the Xia were a myth, but radiocarbon evidence for this Bronze Age people suggests that the period ran from 2100 to 1800 B.C. Bronze vessels found at Erlitou along the Yellow River, in northern central China, also attest to the reality of the Xia.

The agrarian Xia were ancestors of the Shang.

More on the Xia

Reference: [URL =] The Golden Age of Classical Archaeology

Beginning of the Historical Era: Shang

The truth about the Shang (c. 1700-1027 B.C.), who, like the Xia, had been considered mythical, came as a result of the discovery of the writing on oracle bones. It is traditionally believed that there were 30 kings and 7 capitals of the Shang. The ruler lived at the center of his capital. The Shang had bronze weapons and vessels, as well as earthenware. The Shang are credited with inventing Chinese writing because there are written records, notably the oracle bones.

More on the Shang Dynasty


The Zhou were originally semi-nomadic and had co-existed with the Shang. The dynasty began with Kings Wen (Ji Chang) and Zhou Wuwang (Ji Fa) who were considered ideal rulers, patrons of the arts, and descendants of the Yellow Emperor. The great philosophers flourished in the Zhou period. They banned human sacrifice. The Zhou developed a feudal-like system of allegiance and government that lasted as long as any other dynasty in the world, from about 1040-221 B.C. It was adaptable enough that it survived when barbarian invaders forced the Zhou to move their capital to the East. The Zhou period is sub-divided into:

  • Western Zhou 1027-771 B.C.
  • Eastern Zhou 770-221 B.C.
  • 770-476 B.C. -- Spring and Autumn period
  • 475-221 B.C. -- Warring States period

During this period, iron tools were developed and population exploded. During the Warring States Period, only the Qin defeated their enemies.

More on the Zhou Dynasty


The Qin Dynasty, which lasted from 221-206 B.C., was begun by the architect of the Great Wall of China, the first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi (aka Shi Huangdi or Shih Huang-ti) (r. 246/221 [start of the empire] -210 B.C.). The wall was built to repel nomadic invaders, the Xiongnu. Highways were also built. When he died, the emperor was buried in an enormous tomb with a terra cotta army for protection (alternatively, servants). During this period the feudal system was replaced by a strong central bureaucracy. The second emperor of the Qin was Qin Ershi Huangdi (Ying Huhai) who ruled from 209-207 B.C. The third emperor was the King of Qin (Ying Ziying) who ruled in 207 B.C.

More on the Qin Dynasty


The Han Dynasty, which was founded by Liu Bang (Han Gaozu), lasted for four centuries (206 B.C.- A.D. 8, 25-220). During this period, Confucianism became state doctrine. China had contact with the west via the Silk Road during this period. Under Emperor Han Wudi, the empire expanded into Asia. The dynasty is to divided into a Western Han and an Eastern Han because there was a split following the unsuccessful attempt by Wang Mang to reform the government. At the end of the Eastern Han, the empire was divided into three kingdoms by powerful warlords.

More on the Han Dynasty

Political disunity followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty. This was when the Chinese developed gunpowder -- for fireworks.

Next: Three Kingdoms and Chin (Jin) Dynasty

Source of Quote

"Archaeology and Chinese Historiography," by K. C. Chang. World Archaeology, Vol. 13, No. 2, Regional Traditions of Archaeological Research I (Oct., 1981), pp. 156-169.

Ancient Chinese Pages

From Kris Hirst: Archaeology at

  • Longshan Culture
    A Neolithic culture of the Yellow River Valley.
  • Beixin Culture
    Another Neolithic Chinese culture.
  • Dawenkou
    Late Neolithic period of Shandong Province.
  • Shandong Excavations

Six Dynasties

Three Kingdoms

After the Han Dynasty of ancient China there was a period of constant civil war. The period from 220 to 589 is often called the period of 6 dynasties, which covers the Three Kingdoms, Chin Dynasty, and Southern and Northern Dynasties. At the start, the three leading economic centers of the Han Dynasty (the Three kingdoms) tried to unify the land:

  1. The Cao-Wei Empire (220-265) from northern China
  2. The Shu-Han Empire (221-263) from the west, and
  3. The Wu Empire (222-280) from the east, the most powerful of the three, based on a system of confederation of powerful families, which conquered the Shu in A.D. 263.

During the period of the three kingdoms, tea was discovered, Buddhism spread, Buddhist pagodas were built, and porcelain was created.

Chin Dynasty

Also known as the Jin Dynasty (A.D. 265-420), the dynasty was started by Ssu-ma Yen (Sima Yan), who ruled as Emperor Wu Ti from A.D. 265-289. He reunified China in 280 by conquering the Wu kingdom. After reuniting, he ordered the disbanding of the armies, but this order was not uniformly obeyed.

The Huns eventually defeated the Chin, but were never very strong. The Chin fled their capital, in Luoyang, ruling from 317-420, in Jiankan (modern Nanking), as the Eastern Chin (Dongjin). The earlier Chin period (265-316) is known as the Western Chin (Xijin). The culture of the Eastern Chin, remote from the Yellow River plains, developed a different culture from that of northern China. The Eastern Chin were the first of the Southern dynasties.

Northern and Southern Dynasties

Another period of disunity, the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties lasted from 317-589. The Northern Dynasties were

  • The Northern Wei (386-533)
  • The Eastern Wei (534-540)
  • The Western Wei (535-557)
  • The Northern Qi (550-577)
  • The Northern Zhou (557-588)

The Southern Dynasties were

  • The Song (420-478)
  • The Qi (479-501)
  • The Liang (502-556)
  • The Chen (557-588)

The remaining dynasties are clearly medieval or modern and so are beyond the scope of this site:

  • Classical Imperial China
  • Sui 580-618 A.D. This short dynasty had two emperors Yang Chien (Emperor Wen Ti), an official of the northern Zhou, and his son Emperor Yang. They built canals and fortified the Great Wall on the northern frontier and began expensive military campaigns.
  • T'ang 618-907 A.D. The Tang composed a penal code and started a land distribution project to help the peasants, and expanded the empire into Iran, Manchuria, and Korea. White, true porcelain was developed.
  • Five Dynasties 907-960 A.D.
  • 907-923 -- Later Liang
  • 923-936 -- Later Tang
  • 936-946 -- Later Jin
  • 947-950 -- Later Han
  • 951-960 -- Later Zhou
  • Ten Kingdoms A.D. 907-979
  • Song A.D. 960-1279 Gunpowder was used in siege warfare. Foreign trade expanded. Neo-Confucianism developed.
  • 960-1125 -- Northern Song
  • 1127-1279 -- Southern Song
  • Liao A.D. 916-1125
  • Western Xia A.D. 1038-1227
  • Jin A.D. 1115-1234
  • Later Imperial China
  • Yuan A.D. 1279-1368 China was ruled by Mongols
  • Ming A.D. 1368-1644 A peasant, Hongwu, led the revolt against the Mongolians to form this dynasty, which improved conditions for peasants. Most of the Great Wall known today was built or repaired during the Ming Dynasty.
  • Qing A.D. 1644-1911 The Manchu (from Manchuria) ruled China. They instituted dress and hair policies for Chinese men. They unsuccessfully outlawed footbinding.
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Periods and Dynasties of Ancient China." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Periods and Dynasties of Ancient China. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Periods and Dynasties of Ancient China." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).