The Dynasties of Ancient China

China boasts one of the oldest civilizations on Earth.

The archaeology of ancient China provides insight into historical events dating back four and a half millennia to roughly 2500 BCE. It is customary to refer to events in Chinese history according to the dynasty to which the period's ancient rulers belonged. This isn't just true of ancient history, since the last dynasty, the Qing, ended in the 20th century. Nor is this true just of China. Ancient Egypt is another long-lived society for which we use dynasties (and kingdoms) to date events.

The first Chinese dynasty was the Xia. This was a Bronze Age dynasty that is known mostly from legend. The first three dynasties, the Xia, and the next two, the Shang, and Zhou are sometimes called the "three holy dynasties".

Like Egyptian chronology, with its "kingdoms" interlaced with intermediate periods, dynastic China faced various challenges that led to chaotic, power-shifting periods referred to by terms like "six dynasties" or "five dynasties." These descriptive labels are similar to the more modern Romans' year of the six emperors and year of the five emperors. Thus, for example, the Xia and Shang dynasties may have existed concurrently rather than one after the other.

The Qin Dynasty starts the imperial period, while the Sui Dynasty begins the period referred to as Classical Imperial China.

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Xia (Hsia) Dynasty

Xia Dynasty Bronze Jue
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Bronze Age Xia dynasty is thought to have lasted from approximately 2070 to 1600 BCE. It is the first dynasty, known through legends as there are no written records from that era. Much of what is known from that time comes from ancient writings including the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals. As these were written thousands of years after the Xia dynasty fell, most historians assumed the Xia dynasty was a myth. Then, in 1959, archaeological excavations provided evidence of its historical reality.

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Shang Dynasty

A bronze yue, late Shang era.

Vassil / Wikimedia Commons

The Shang dynasty, also called the Yin Dynasty, is thought to have run from 1600-1100 BCE. Tang the Great founded the dynasty, and King Zhou was its final ruler; the entire dynasty including 31 kings. Written records from the Shang dynasty include records kept in Chinese script on animal shells and bones. These "oracle bones" date from about 1500 BCE.

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Chou (Zhou) Dynasty

Lacquer Wine Cups from the Warring States Period of the Chou Dynasty. Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Chou or Zhou dynasty ruled China from about 1027 to about 221 B.C. It was the longest dynasty in Chinese history. 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
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Spring and Autumn and Warring States

By the 8th century BCE, centralized leadership in China was fragmenting. Between 722 and 221 BCE, various city-states were at war with the Zhou. Some established themselves as independent entities. It was during this period that Confucianism and Taoism developed.

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Qin Dynasty

Great Wall of China

The Qin or Ch'in (likely origin of "China") existed during the Warring States Period and came to power as a dynasty (221-206/207 BCE) by unifying China under its first emperor, Shi Huangdi (Shih Huang-ti). The Qin is the start of the imperial period, which ended fairly recently, in 1912.

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Han Dynasty

Display of Figure of a Squatting Drummer. Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220) Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Paul Gill

The Han Dynasty was divided into two periods, the earlier, Western Han Dynasty, from 206 BCE - CE 8/9, and the later, Eastern Han Dynasty, from 25-220. It was founded by Liu Bang (Emperor Gao) who moderated the excesses of the Qin. Gao maintained the centralized government and started an enduring bureaucracy based on intellect rather than aristocratic birth.

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Six Dynasties

A Chinese limestone chimera statue from the Six Dynasties period on display at a museum.

PericlesofAthens / GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The turbulent 6 dynasties period of ancient China ran from the end of the Han dynasty in CE 220 to the conquest of southern China by the Sui in 589. The 6 dynasties who held power during the three and a half centuries were:

  • Wu (222–280)
  • Dong (Eastern) Jin (317–420)
  • Liu-Song (420–479)
  • Nan (Southern) Qi (479–502)
  • Nan Liang (502–557)
  • Nan Chen (557–589).
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Sui Dynasty

Sui Dynasty Guardian Figures

Forever Wiser / CC

The Sui Dynasty was a short-lived dynasty running from A.D. 581 to 618 that had its capital at Daxing, which is now Xi'an.

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Tang (T'ang) Dynasty

Bactrian Camel and Driver from the Tang Dynasty on display at Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Paul Gill

The Tang Dynasty, following the Sui and preceding the Song Dynasty, was a golden age that lasted from CE 618–907 and is considered the high point in Chinese civilization.

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5 Dynasties

An Ancient Well of Five Dynasties
An Ancient Well of Five Dynasties at the Xuan Miao Temple in Suzhou, discovered in 1999 during renovation.

Gisling /  CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The 5 Dynasties that followed the Tang were extremely brief; they included:

  • Later Liang Dynasty (907-923)
  • Later Tang Dynasty (923-936)
  • Later Jin Dynasty (936-947)
  • Later Han Dynasty (947-951 or 982)
  • Later Zhou Dynasty (951-960)
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Song Dynasty etc.

Qing Dynasty Blue Ceramics on display at a museum.

rosemanios / Flickr / CC

The turmoil of the 5 Dynasties period ended with the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The remaining dynasties of the imperial period which lead to the modern era include: