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China History

Forbidden CitySpectacular scenery of the Forbidden City

China is one of the world's four ancient civilizations; here we give a concise overview of more than 5000 years of Chinese history, including the Great Wall and the four great inventions of ancient China. Do you know what they are?

The written history of China can be said to date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), over 3,000 years ago. The first dynasty was founded in the 21st century B.C., and China was first unified in 221 B.C.

Imperial Era

First Dynasties

The founding of China's first dynastyXia Dynasty in the 21st century B.C. marked a change from a primitive society to a slave society. Slave society developed further during the Shang (16th-11th century B.C.) and the Western Zhou (11th century-770 B.C.) Dynasties.

This era was followed by the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 B.C.), and the transition from the slave society to feudal society.

The First Emperor

The Great WallYing Zheng, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty and the people began to construct the Great Wall

In 221 B.C., Ying Zheng, a man of great talent and bold vision, ended the rivalry among the independent principalities in the Warring States Period.

He established the first centralized, unified, multi-ethnic state in Chinese history, under the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). He called himself Shi Huang Di (the First Emperor), also known as Qin Shi Huang, or First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

During his reign, Qin Shi Huang standardized the script, currencies, and weights and measures, established the system of prefectures and counties, and began the construction of the world-renowned Great Wall . He also built a large palace, a mausoleum (the Terracotta Army), and temporary regal lodges in Xi’anyang, Lishan, and other places.

At the end of the Qin Dynasty, Liu Bang, a peasant leader, overthrew the Qin regime in cooperation with Xi’ang Yu, an aristocratic general. A few years later, Liu Bang defeated Xi’ang Yu and established the strong Han Dynasty in 206 B.C.

Han Dynasty

The Silk RoadThe Silk Road, an important trade road, was formed in Han Dynasty

During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), agriculture, handicrafts, and commerce were well developed. During the reign of Emperor Wudi (Liu Che, 140-87 B.C.), the Han regime reached the period of its greatest prosperity. The multi-ethnic country became more united during the Han regime, which existed in total 426 years.

The emperor conquered the Xiongnu nomads, sent Zhang Qian as an envoy to the Western Regions (Central Asia), and in the process pioneered the route known as the "Silk Road" from the Han capital Chang' an through Xinjiang to Europe.

One of the Four Beauties of Ancient China, Wang Zhaojun, was married as a ‘political bride’ to chieftain of the Xiongnu in 33 B.C. Her life and influence created a famous inspiring story about marriage between the Han and the Xiongnu. (See Former Residence of Wang Zhaojun in Yichang, the starting point of the upstream Yangtze Cruise)

Middle Dynasties

Han Dynasty was followed by the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265) of Wei, Shu, and Wu. It was followed by the Jin (265-420), the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), and the Sui Dynasty (581-618).

A jade item displayed at Beijing Forbidden City MuseumView more photos

In 618, Li Yuan founded the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Later, Li Shimin (r. 626-649), son of Li Yuan, ascended the throne as Emperor Taizong, considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history.

After the Tang Dynasty, came the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960).

Song and Yuan Dynasties

Kublai KhanKublai Khan, the first man made Beijing the capital

In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin of the Later Zhou Dynasty rose in mutiny, and founded the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

In 1206 Genghis Khan unified all the tribes in Mongolia and founded the Mongol Khanate. In 1271, his grandson, Kublai Khan, conquered the Central Plain, founded the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and made Dadu (today's Beijing) the capital.

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, handicraft industry and domestic and foreign trade boomed. Many merchants and travelers came from abroad. Marco Polo  from Venice traveled extensively in China, later describing the country's prosperity in his book ‘Travels’.

The "four great inventions" of the Chinese people in ancient times, paper making, printing, the compass and gunpowder, were further developed in the Song and Yuan dynasties, and introduced to foreign countries.

Ming and Qing Dynasties

The Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City is the imperial palace of Ming and Qing Dynasty.

In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Nanjing, and reigned as Emperor Taizu. When his son, and successor, Zhu Di, ascended the throne, he started to build the palace, temples, city walls, and moat in Beijing. In 1421, he officially made Beijing his capital.

In the late Ming Dynasty, the Manchus in northeast China grew in strength. Under the leadership of Nurhachi, the Manchus invaded the Central Plain for three generations in succession, and finally founded the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911).

The two most famous emperors of the Qing Dynasty were Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1772) and Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-1796). The Kangxi and Qianlong reign periods were known as the "times of prosperity".

China was reduced to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country since the first Opium War in 1840. The Revolution of 1911, led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, ended the rule of the Qing Dynasty.

Modern Era

The Revolution of 1911 is of great significance in modern Chinese history: the monarchical system was discarded with the founding of the provisional government of the Republic of China.

The victory was soon compromised by concessions on the part of the Chinese bourgeoisie, and the country entered a period dominated by the Northern Warlords, headed by Yuan Shikai.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China has entered a new Communist era of stability, with the Reform and Opening Up policies of 1978, bringing in China’s phenomenal economic growth.

China Highlights' culture tours offer travelers a great opportunity to dig deeper into Chinese history, or we can help you customize a tour according to your interests.

List of Chinese Dynasties and Modern Governments

Dynasties Period Capital Founder Historical Relics
Prehistoric Times 1.7 million years - the 21st century BC


Xia Dynasty 2070–1600 BC Xia County in Shanxi Province Yu Bronzeware
Shang Dynasty 1600–1046 BC Xiangqiu in Henan Province Tang Bronzeware
Zhou Dynasty Western Zhou 1046–771 BC Xi'an King Wu of Zhou
Eastern Zhou Spring and Autumn Period 770–476 BC
King Ping of Zhou Philosophical and Religious Literature
Warring States Period 475–221 BC Philosophical and Religious Literature
Qin Dynasty 221–206 BC Xi'an Qinshihuang Terracotta Army, the Great Wall
Han Dynasty Western Han 206 BC–AD 9 Xi'an Emperor Liubang The Silk Road
Xin Dynasty 9–23
Esatern Han 25–220 Luoyang
Three Kingdoms Wei 220-265 Luoyang Cao Pi
Suhan 221-263 Chengdu Liu Bei
Wu 222-280 Nanjing Sun Quan
Jin Dynasty Western Jin 265–317 Luoyang Simayan Tomb fresco
Eastern Jin 317–420 Nanjing Simarui
Southern and Northern Dynasties 420–589

Sacred Grottos
Sui Dynasty 581–618 Xi'an Yangjian The Grand Canal
Tang Dynasty 618–907 Xi'an Liyuan Literature
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 907–960 Kaifeng

Song Dynasty Northern Song 960–1127 Kaifeng Zhao Kuangyin
Southern Song 1127–1279 Lin'an in Zhejiang Zhao Gou
Liao Dynasty 916–1125 Liaoning Yelü Abaoji
Dali Kingdom 937–1254 Dali
Dali Ancient Town
Western Xia Dynasty 1032-1227 Yinchuan
Rock Carvings
Jin Dynasty 1115–1234 Beijing Aguda
Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368 Beijing Genghis Khan Novels
Ming Dynasty 1368–1644 Beijing Hongwu Emperor The Great Wall, the Forbidden City
Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 Beijing Nurhaci Summer-palace, the Forbidden City
Republic of China 1911-1949 Nanjing

People's Republic of China From 1949 Beijing Chairman Mao

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