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. A dynasty generally is a succession of rulers of the same line or family, although what defines a family may vary from culture to culture.

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.

What is Dynastic China?

People have lived in what is China today for two million years: the earliest human occupation in China is Niwehan, a Homo erectus site in Hebei province in northern China. A long Paleolithic period ended about 10,000 years ago, followed by Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, ending about 2,000 years ago. Dynastic China, which is defined as the period in which powerful families ruled much of China, is traditionally marked as beginning with the Xia dynasty during the Bronze Age. 

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.

Chronology of Dynastic China

The following is a brief chronology of Dynastic China, adapted from Xiaoneng Yang's "New Perspectives on China's Past: Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century" (Yale University Press, 2004).

Bronze Age Dynasties 

  • Xia (2070–1600 BCE)
  • Erlitou (1900–1500 BCE)
  • Shang (1600–1046 BCE)
  • Zhou (1046–256 BCE)

Early Imperial Period 

  • Qin (221–207 BCE)
  • Han (206 BCE–8 CE)
  • Xin (8–23 CE)
  • Three Kingdoms (200–280)
  • Six Dynasties (222–589)
  • Southern and Northern Dynasties (586–589) 

Late Imperial Period

  • Sui (581–618 CE)
  • Tang (618–907)
  • Five Dynasties (907–960)
  • Ten Kingdoms (902–979)
  • Song (960–1279)
  • Yuan (1271–1568)
  • Ming (1568–1644)
  • Qing (1641–1911)
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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 such as 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

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone
Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone. Lowell Georgia / Getty Images

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 is said to have included 31 kings and seven capital cities. Written records from the Shang dynasty include oracle bones, records in early forms of Chinese written in ink on turtle shells and ox bones recovered from archaeological sites. that were kept in early forms of Chinese script on animal shells and bones. Shang dynasty records kept on 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 BCE. It was the longest dynasty in Chinese history. 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 Zhou period is sub-divided into:

  • Western Zhou 1027–771 BCE
  • Eastern Zhou 770–221 BCE
  • 770–476 BCE—Spring and Autumn period
  • 475–221 BCE—Warring States period
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Spring and Autumn and Warring States

The revered sage Confucius, whose philosophy influenced Chinese civilisation for centuries- Wenmiao (Confucius Temple), Nanshi district.
The revered sage Confucius, whose philosophy influenced Chinese civilisation for centuries- Wenmiao (Confucius Temple), Nanshi district. Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet / Getty Images

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 feudal entities. It was during this period that the religious and philosophical movements of 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) when the first emperor Shi Huangdi (Shih Huang-ti), unified China for the first time in history. The Qin emperor is responsible for beginning the Great Wall of China, and his astounding tomb was filled with an army of life-sized terracotta soldiers.

The Qin is the start of the imperial period, which ended fairly recently, in 1912.

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Han Dynasty

Han Dynasty chariot
This Eastern Han horse and chariot figure shows the sophistication of art and technology in China before the dynasty collapsed in 221 CE. DEA / E. LESSING / Getty Images

The Han Dynasty is typically divided into two periods, the earlier, Western Han Dynasty, from 206 BCE–8/9 CE, and the later, Eastern Han Dynasty, from 25–220 CE. 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 220 CE to the conquest of southern China by the Sui in 589. The six 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 581–618 CE that had its capital at Daxing, which is now Xi'an.

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Tang (T'ang) Dynasty

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, located in Xian, China, was built in the year 707 A.D during the Tang Dynasty
The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, located in Xian, China, was built in the year 707 A.D during the Tang Dynasty. Getty Images / Adrienne Bresnahan

The Tang Dynasty, following the Sui and preceding the Song Dynasty, was a golden age that lasted from 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:

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Gill, N.S. "The Dynasties of Ancient China." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). The Dynasties of Ancient China. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Dynasties of Ancient China." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).