Brief history of China summarized
A brief tour of the extensive history of China, in a summarized way.
China in ancient times
After 10,000 BC people in China lived by hunting and gathering plants. Then, around 5,000 BC, the Chinese started farming. From about 5,000 BC, rice was grown in southern China and millet in the north.
In 5,000 BC dogs and pigs were domesticated. In 3,000 BC sheep and (in the south) cattle were domesticated. Horses were finally introduced to China between 3,000 and 2,300 BC.
Meanwhile, by 5,000 BC, Chinese farmers had learned to make pottery. They also made lacquer (a kind of varnish made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree).
Early Chinese farmers also made baskets and weaved cloth (before sheep were domesticated, hemp was woven). The Chinese also made ritual objects from jade, such as knives, axes, and rings. The wheel was invented in China around 2,500 BC.
A more advanced society in China
By 2,000 BC the Chinese had learned to make bronze. They probably started by making copper in pottery kilns and then experimented with adding tin, thus creating bronze. At first, bronze was only used for weapons. (It was probably too expensive for other things).
War was becoming more common in China. Earth walls, which were rammed until hard, surrounded some settlements. Warfare probably became more common because these early societies were getting richer.
As wealth grew, so did the temptation to attack their neighbors and steal their goods. By 2000 BC there was also a widening gulf between the classes. People were buried with their possessions and some people were buried with much more than others.
In 2000 BC human sacrifice was practiced in China. The bodies of the victims were buried under the foundations of the buildings. In 2,000 BC divination was carried out by heating bones until they cracked and then interpreting the cracks. Meanwhile, between 2,000 and 1,750 BC, the semi-legendary Xia ruled parts of China.
The Shang dynasty in China
The Shang were polytheistic (they worshiped many gods). The most important god was called Di. Also, during the Shang dynasty in China the practice of ancestor worship began.
Ancestor worship is the belief that the dead can intervene in the affairs of the living. Offerings were made to them to keep them happy. Ancestor worship became a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years.
Silk was probably first made in China during the Shang era. It was built in 1300 BC During the Shang era bronze was more widely used. Previously it was only used to make weapons. After 1700 BC bronze vessels were made. However, tools such as sickles, plows and shovels were usually made of wood and stone.
The Shang built the first royal cities in China. Zhengzhou’s first capital had walls over 6 kilometers long. (Later the capital was moved to Anyang). The Shang also built palaces and temples.
During the Shang era slavery was common in China. Prisoners of war became slaves. Human sacrifice was still practiced. When a Shang emperor died, his servants and slaves committed suicide or were killed to accompany him to the afterlife.
Due to the need to capture slaves, warfare was common in China. After 1200 BC chariots pulled by 2 or 4 horses were used in Chinese warfare.
However, the Shang were overthrown by their neighbors the Zhou around 1022 BC Thus began the Zhou dynasty.
The Zhou dynasty in China
The dynasty ruled China from about C. 1022 BC to 221 BC The first part of the Zhou era from 1022 BC to 771 BC is called the Western Zhou (because the rulers had their capital in western China). The second part of the era, from 770 to 476 BC, is called Spring and Autumn. The last part of the era from 476 to 221 BC is called the period of the warring states.
In ancient China, because transportation and communications were very slow, it was difficult for a ruler to control a wide area. The Zhou kings solved this problem by creating a feudal state. They gave land to their followers. In return, the followers provided chariots and soldiers in times of war.
Soon the positions of the followers became hereditary. Below them were officials who worked as generals and administrators. At the bottom of society were the peasants who provided the food supply.
The peasants had to spend part of their time working on the Lord’s land. Normally the land was divided into 9 sections. Individual families worked eight sections. Everyone had to work in the ninth section, but the crops went to the Lord.
After 600 BC coins were used in China and some peasants paid their Lord’s taxes instead of working on their land. Under the Shang there were many slaves in China, but under the Zhou there were few.
There were some major technological changes during the Zhou period. The most important was the invention of iron. It was used for weapons from the year 650 BC Towards the year 500 BC, iron was used for all kinds of tools. By 400 BC, Chinese farmers were using ox-drawn iron plows.
Around 300 BC the Chinese invented the horse collar. Previously, horses were attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse couldn’t pull a heavy load because the leash would tighten around its neck! The horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads.
During the Zhou dynasty the Chinese invented kites. Tea was first mentioned in China during the Zhou dynasty (although it may have been drunk much earlier). The umbrella was invented in China in the 4th century AD. Covered in oiled paper, it protected the user from both sun and rain.
The war also changed in China. Before the war was dominated by chariots. However, after 600 BC, cavalry began to replace chariots. Also, the rulers began to raise large infantry armies. Peasants were recruited to provide them.
Around 500 BC a general named Sunzi wrote a book called the Art of War, which was the world’s first military manual. Around 400 BC the crossbow was invented in China.
Although warfare was frequent during the Zhou era, trade flourished and Chinese cities grew. In addition, agriculture was greatly improved thanks to iron tools and irrigation, which became more and more common. As a result of more efficient agriculture, China’s population grew rapidly in the Zhou period.
During the Zhou era, parts of the Great Wall of China were built. At first there was not a single wall, but different states built their own walls to keep the barbarians out. They later joined. In the year 486 BC the excavation works of the Grand Canal began. At first only one section was built, but the canal was enlarged by later dynasties.
Human sacrifice ended during the Zhou era but divination continued. At that time the Chinese concept of Heaven arose. The sky was a kind of universal force. Heaven chose the emperor to rule but he was a moral force.
If the king or emperor were evil, Heaven would send natural disasters as a warning. If the emperor did not heed the warnings, heaven would withdraw the mandate from him. The social and political order would collapse and there would be a revolution. Heaven would choose another to rule.
During the Zhou period in China there was a class of officials who advised kings and rulers on the proper way to behave and also how to perform rituals.
The most important of these was Kong-Fuzi (known in the West as Confucius). During his lifetime, the old feudal social and political order was crumbling. Dismayed by this state of affairs, Confucius attempted to restore the ancient principles.
Confucius taught that everyone must accept their role in life and their duties towards others. The rulers had the duty to be benevolent, while the subjects had to be respectful and obedient. Children should honor their parents and everyone should honor their ancestors. Confucius also believed that rulers should set a good example for his people.
Above all, Confucius taught consideration for others. At the heart of his teaching was the word “ren,” which is usually translated as kindness or benevolence. Confucius said, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” Confucius also taught the importance of courtesy and moderation in all things.
Confucius also taught that women should submit to their father when young, to their husband when married, and to their son when widowed. The women of China were taught values such as humility, submission, and industry.
Confucius never wrote any books, but after his death his followers collected his sayings and wrote them all down. In the centuries after his death, his philosophy became dominant in China and profoundly influenced his culture for more than 2,000 years.
One of Confucius’s disciples was Mengzi (372-289 BC), known in the west as Mencius. He underscored the goodness of human nature. He also emphasized the duty of rulers to look after the welfare of their subjects. Mencius was opposed by Xuni (298-238 BC). He believed that human nature tended to be evil and needed to be controlled.
Not everyone agreed with Kong-Fuzi that rulers should lead by example. The legalists believed that the rulers should be on strike. The ruler’s word must be law. Jurists believed that rulers should be fair, but firm and unwavering.
One of the Chinese states, Qin, followed the legalistic teaching. Qin rulers at first shared power with hereditary nobles, but changed the system so that parts of their kingdom were ruled by officials appointed by the ruler.
They also organized the families into groups of 5 or 10 people. Members of each group took responsibility for each other’s behavior. Legalists believed that since people are naturally bad, punishments must be severe.
You have to make people afraid of breaking the law. They also mistrusted merchants and believed that only people who owned or worked the land were trustworthy.
Taoism began in China during the Zhou era. Taoists believe in the Tao, which means the way. The Tao is an indescribable force behind nature and all living things.
Taoists believe in wuwei or non-action, which means following the natural flow or shape of things, like a stick carried into a stream. Taoism also teaches humility and compassion. Taoists worship many different gods.
ancient chinese beliefs
The Zhou period is sometimes called China’s formative period because much of Chinese philosophy was developed at that time. The Chinese form of divination called I Ching was probably developed during the early part of the Zhou era.
The idea of Yin and Yang also appeared during the Zhou dynasty. The ancient Chinese believed that all matter is made of two opposite and complementary principles. Yin is feminine, soft, gentle, dark, receptive, supple, and moist.
Yang is masculine, bright, hard, hot, active, dry, and aggressive. Everything is a mixture of these two opposites. The ancient Chinese also believed that there were 5 elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. During the Zhou period, the Chinese art of acupuncture was invented.
The end of the Zhou dynasty
In 771 a western town, the Rong invaded and the Zhou moved their capital to Luoyang. Afterwards, the power of the Zhou kings declined. The state of Zhou was divided into separate states (although it was still nominally a single state with a Zhou king at its head).
The nobles under King Zhou became independent rulers. The different states went to war and the stronger ones conquered the weaker ones until only a few remained. Finally one state, the Qin, conquered its rivals and its ruler became the emperor of China. Thus began the Qin dynasty.
The Qin dynasty in China
The first emperor of Qin was determined to unite China. He called himself Qin Shi Huangdi and insisted on being called the Emperor of China. He introduced standard weights and measures and even insisted that shafts should have a standard width.
There were, at the time, some local variations in the Chinese script. The emperor insisted that all educated people must use a standard version. Some Chinese scholars opposed the emperor and quoted ancient books to do so. Qin Shi Huangdi burned many of the books in China to stop them.
He ordered all books to be burned, except those dealing with useful subjects such as divination, medicine, and agriculture. Scholars who opposed him were branded and sent to work as laborers on the Great Wall.
However, the emperor also buried 460 scholars alive. (Being sent to work on the Great Wall was often a death sentence, as many men died of exhaustion and exposure.)
The Qin emperors also continued their legalistic policies. They banned private ownership of weapons and ordered many aristocratic families to move to the capital Xianyang (where they could be easily controlled). China was divided into 34 areas called commanderies.
A civil governor governed each one, but there was also a general in charge of the soldiers of the region. (The emperors of Qin wanted to keep civil and military power in separate hands! All officers were appointed by the emperor and were responsible to him.
The Qin emperors also built roads and irrigation canals. Parts of the Great Wall of China already existed, but the First Qin Emperor joined them together. Ordinary people were forced to work on their projects.
Qin rule was harsh and cruel punishments were common. When Qin Shi Huangdi died, he was buried in a tomb with more than 7,000 terracotta warriors. This ‘army’ was discovered in 1974.
Not surprisingly, the cruel punishments introduced by the Qin emperors, along with heavy taxes and forced labor, caused much resentment. A rebellion led by two peasants, Chen Sheng and Wu Yang, broke out in northern China. Later, a second rebellion began further south, led by Xiang Yu.
The northern rebellion was defeated, but the southern one was successful. The last emperor of Qin was executed. However, Xiang Yu fell out with his lieutenant Liu Bang. A civil war began which ended when Xiang Yu was assassinated and Liu Bang became the first Han emperor.
The Han dynasty in China
The Zhou dynasty was China’s formative period when its philosophies emerged. During the Han dynasty, Chinese civilization crystallized. During this era China was a brilliant civilization. Han’s inventions include the watermill and the chain pump (this pump was worked with the feet and helped irrigate the rice fields).
The first Han emperor was named Gaozi. He was more humane than the Qin emperors and abolished many of the savage punishments from him. He kept some of the legalistic policies of his predecessors, but also adopted some Confucian policies.
His successors came to increasingly favor Confucianism. In 165 BC the emperor decreed that anyone wishing to become an official must take an exam, which would test their knowledge of Confucian teaching.
In 124 BC another emperor founded an imperial academy where candidates studied the Confucian classics (The Book of Changes, The Book of Rites, The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, and the Spring and Autumn Annals). If they passed their exams, they were given civil servant positions. China came to be ruled by an official trained in Confucian thought.
Like the Qin emperors, the Han emperors mistrusted merchants and taxed them heavily. In 119 BC the emperor made the manufacture of salt, iron and alcohol state monopolies (before they were the most profitable industries).
Under the Han regime, agriculture continued to improve, in part due to the increased number of irrigation systems, in part due to the increasing use of buffalo to pull plows, and in part due to crop rotation that was introduced to China around the year 100 a. by JC
China’s population continued to grow and a census in AD 2 showed it to be 57 million. During the Han era, large quantities of silk were exported to the west. It passed through many hands into the Roman Empire. In exchange, traders brought gemstones, glass, and vines to China. The ship’s rudder was invented in China in the 1st century AD.
Around 100 AD a man named Cai Lun invented paper (previously people had written on silk or bamboo). Meanwhile, Buddhism first came to China in the 1st century AD, but it took a long time for it to be accepted.
During the Han era Feng Shui was developed. The elements of the art existed before then, but it was during this period that Feng Shui became a cohesive philosophy.
The fall of the Han dynasty
After 168 AD the Han dynasty declined. The internal struggle weakened her. (When an emperor died, there was usually a fight to see who would replace him.) The dynasty was also undermined by natural disasters and popular discontent. Two rebellions began in AD 84, the Yellow Turbans rebellion and the Five Peaks of Grain rebellion.
Both were crushed, but the generals sent to defeat them began to act independently of the emperor. They began to fight among themselves. In 189, a general captured the capital Luoyang and killed 2,000 eunuchs.
After that, the emperor became a puppet ruler. The generals had the real power. However, the last Han emperor was eliminated in AD 220. Afterwards, China was divided into three parts, each ruled by a general.
The era of division in China
After the fall of the Han dynasty, China was divided into three kingdoms. The Wei kingdom in the north, the Shu kingdom in the west, and the Wu kingdom in the south. In 263 AD the Wei kingdom conquered the Shu kingdom. In 280 the kingdom of Wul was also conquered and China was briefly reunited. However, the peace was short-lived.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD a people called the Xiongnu raided northern China. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries the Chinese emperors allowed them to settle within the borders of China, hoping that they might be assimilated. The emperors employed the Xiongnu as soldiers.
However, in 304 the Xiongnu turned against their masters. They took the city of Luoyang in 311 and then took Changan in 316. They eventually invaded northern China. The north of the country then divided into rival kingdoms, all with non-Chinese rulers. This period is called the 16 kingdoms.
Many Chinese fled from the north to the south of the country. However, Chinese civilization did not disappear from the north. The Xiongnu were only a small minority of the population. Most of the people were Chinese and they carried on as they had for centuries. In the south, the Chinese emperors continued to rule, but were unable to capture the north.
Then, in the late 4th century, the Torba, a central Asian Turkic people, began to take over northern China. By the year 386 they had conquered everything. The Torba then adopted the Chinese way of life. They adopted Chinese dress and Chinese writing, and many of them married Chinese.
Their rulers learned to speak Chinese. Little by little, the people were assimilated. However, a civil war broke out in northern China in 524. After a decade of fighting, the north was divided into two parts, east and west. They met in the year 577. In that year the Chinese invented matches. Then, in 581, a general took the throne and quickly conquered the south.
In 589 the short-lived Sui dynasty began. There were only two Sui emperors, Wendi and Yang. The 2 Sui emperors tried to invade Korea 4 times. Every time they failed. They also undertook expensive public works, such as rebuilding cities and widening China’s Grand Canal.
The Grand Canal was widened in 605-609 using forced labor to connect North and South China. After Yang’s death, China again divided into warring states.
Changes in Chinese society
The disorder in China and the weakness of the emperors meant that the aristocracy gained more wealth and power. At the same time, many of the peasants were reduced to serfdom. (The serfs were halfway between the slaves and the free men). They were often forced to turn to the lords for protection, and the price was servitude.
During the division era, Buddhism grew in China and many temples and monasteries were built. The Chinese upper class became more sympathetic to Buddhism, and the rulers of northern China made it their official religion.
Taoism also developed during this period. Many Taoist scriptures were written at that time. In 618, after several years of warfare, the different parts of China were reunited by the Tang dynasty.
The Tang dynasty in China
The Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907, was one of the greatest eras in China. During this period China was probably the most advanced civilization in the world. Under the Tang emperors the arts flourished. Chinese poetry and lacquerware flourished. Perhaps the greatest poet was Li-Bo (701-762).
The Tang emperors extended their rule over Central Asia, and foreign influences seeped into China. In addition to the Buddhists, there were Muslims in the capital, Chang’an. There were also Christians.
Trade and commerce also flourished under the Tang. Gunpowder was probably invented in China around AD 900. It was originally used for rockets, grenades, and bombs that were placed against the wooden gates of enemy cities.
Woodblock printing was also invented in China during the Tang era. The first printed book is the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868 AD
Although the first emperor of Tang, Gaozu (618-626) was enthroned in 618, it took another 6 years of fighting before he brought all of China under his control. When he did, China entered a period of peace and stability.
One of the most notable emperors of the Tang was Empress Wu, the only woman to rule China. She was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong (643-683) (In those days the emperor had one wife, the empress, but he had many concubines. An emperor had 6,000 of them!).
Wu is said to have murdered his own daughter and then accused the Empress Regnant of being the murderer. Wu then replaced her as empress. In 660 the emperor suffered a stroke. After that Wu effectively ruled China.
When Gaozong died in 683, his son Zhongzong succeeded him, but not for long. Wu forced Zhongzong to abdicate in favor of another son, who was actually his puppet. In 690 Wu removed the puppet rulers and took the throne herself. She ruled China until 705. Then, when she was very old, she was forced to abdicate. Wu was a very powerful woman and she was completely ruthless.
However, beginning in the mid-8th century, the Tang dynasty declined. In 751 the Chinese were defeated by the Arabs at the Battle of the Talas River. Later, China lost control of Central Asia. Then, in 755, a general named An Lushan led a rebellion.
It was the beginning of a civil war that lasted 8 years. The civil war only ended with the help of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people. The fighting caused great destruction in China. The Tang dynasty never recovered.
By the 9th century, Buddhism had become very influential in China. However, monks were exempt from paying taxes and Emperor Wuzong (840-846) resented this. There was also a shortage of copper in China to make coins. Buddhist monks were blamed because they used a lot of copper to make bronze statues, bells, and bells.
In 845 Wuzong ordered monasteries to hand over their land and property such as iron and bronze tools. All monks under the age of 40 were ordered to return to civilian life. Many temples were destroyed. The order was rescinded in 846, but it was a severe blow to Buddhism in China.
Then, in the year 874, another rebellion began. The rebels captured Guangzhou (Canton) and massacred foreigners. They captured the capital, Changdan, in the year 880. However, the emperor was not completely defeated. He asked the Turks for help.
The emperor recaptured the capital in 884. However, the power of the Tang emperors was failing. The last Tang emperor was deposed in 907. The Tang was replaced by the Song dynasty.
The Song dynasty in China
After 907 China was divided into separate states once again. Northern China was ruled by five short-lived dynasties. The Northeast was an independent kingdom ruled by the Qidan Liao dynasty. The south was divided into 10 kingdoms.
In 960 Taizu became Emperor of the North. He managed to persuade all but two of the southern states to submit to him. His son Taizong captured the remaining 2 and by 979 China was re-united (except the northeast which remained independent).
During the Song era, China’s economy boomed. A new form of early maturing rice from Vietnam improved agriculture. Irrigation was also expanded. The result was a population boom. Meanwhile, trade and commerce prospered and the towns and cities grew much larger.
Industries such as iron, pottery, silk, lacquer, and papermaking flourished. China was probably the richest country in the world. Foreign trade also grew. The compass had been used for divination for centuries, but by the 12th century it was being used to navigate ships.
However, Song China was surrounded by powerful enemies. The result was suspicion and rejection of everything foreign. Buddhism declined in popularity because it was a foreign religion. Under Song, Confucianism experienced a revival.
Educated people saw it as a way to strengthen Chinese culture. Scholars wrote commentaries on the Confucian classics and a new philosophy called Neo-Confucianism was elaborated that dominated China for centuries.
The Song emperors created a powerful bureaucracy to rule China. The public administration was greatly expanded. In China, there are public schools where men can study for the civil service exams.
Under the Song of Songs the number of schools increased considerably. China came to be ruled by an elite of academic officials.
Northeast China remained independent. It was ruled by the Qidan Liao dynasty. They also ruled over a people called the Jurchen. However, in 1114 the Jurchen turned against their masters and by 1125 they had captured the entire northeast. They attacked the rest of China. In 1127 they captured the capital, Kaifeng. The Jurchen invaded all of northern China, but were unable to capture the south.
In 1141 the Chinese emperor made a treaty with them by which they stayed with the north and he with the south. For this reason, the Song dynasty is divided into two periods, the Northern Song period before China split into two, and the Southern Song period after.
However, the Chinese soon absorbed the Jurchen. They kept the civil service entrance exams and appointed Chinese men as civil servants. The Jurchen also began to wear Chinese costumes and speak the Chinese language.
After 1191 the Jurchen were allowed to intermarry with the Chinese and many of them did so. In 1206 the south of China invaded the north. However, the native Chinese to the north had become accustomed to Jurchen rule and did not rebel. The invasion was defeated.
The Yuan dynasty in China
However, by the early 13th century there was a new threat: the Mongols. Under their leader, Genghis Khan, they attacked northern China in 1213-14. In 1215 they sacked and burned Beijing. They then turned their attention to the west.
After Genghis Khan’s death in 1226 the Mongols invaded northern China and by 1234 they had conquered all of it. In the south, however, the Song emperors managed to hold off the Mongols for a few decades.
In 1264 Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, made Beijing his winter capital (the summer capital was in Mongolia). In 1272 he began to call himself Yuan or great founder. Thus began the Yuan dynasty. Kublai invaded southern China in 1268 and conquered it in a campaign that lasted 9 years.
In 1275 the Mongols captured the strategically vital city of Xian Yang. That turned out to be a turning point. The old Song dynasty finally came to an end in 1279 when the Mongols won a naval battle.
However, Kublai realized that it would be more profitable to rule and tax China than to plunder it. He also realized that in order to rule he would have to win over the Chinese. (According to legend, an adviser told him that China can be conquered on horseback, but China cannot be ruled on horseback.) Kublai recruited Chinese officials to help him rule (although the higher-ranking officials were all Mongols).
However, the Mongols were never absorbed by the Chinese, unlike earlier invaders. They did not accept Chinese customs. The Chinese are still second-class citizens. Society was divided into 4 classes. The Mongols were on top, and then below them were other non-Chinese people.
Below them were the Northern Chinese (who were more accustomed to foreign rule) than the Southern Chinese at the bottom. The Mongols also extended the Grand Canal to their winter capital at Peking.
The period of the Mongol or yuan ruler was not a happy period for China. China’s population fell significantly and the country became less prosperous. In the 1350s rebellions broke out in China and the Yuan government began to collapse. In 1368 the last Yuan emperor fled to Mongolia and the Yuan dynasty was replaced by the Ming dynasty.
The Ming dynasty in China
The first Ming Emperor Hongwu captured Beijing in 1368, but moved the capital to Nanjing. He spent some time before he ruled all of China. It was not until 1387 that he ruled the entire country.
A later emperor, Yang Lo, decided to move the capital back to Beijing. Between 1406 and 1421 he built the great palace called the Forbidden City. Outside was the Imperial City, built for officers. Outside was the outer city for the common people.
Under the Ming emperors, China became prosperous and powerful again. (Despite the inevitable famines, which did occur from time to time.) In the 16th century, new crops were introduced from the Americas, such as sweet potatoes, corn, and peanuts. These new foods were very useful because they would grow where other crops would not. The Ming also rebuilt the Great Wall.
During his reign, industry and commerce flourished in China. Large quantities of cotton were spun and a large quantity of porcelain was made. At the beginning of the 15th century, the emperor sent ships on 6 expeditions.
They sailed as far as India, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa. One of them brought back the first giraffe ever seen in China. However, the Ming emperors became increasingly introverted and tried to isolate China from the outside world (perhaps the period of Mongol rule increased their mistrust of foreigners and t