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China > Culture and festivals > The Dynastic Age (part 1)

History : The Dynastic Age (part 1) 


 Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 BC) 


The Three Dynasties (2100-221 BC) is a term used to describe the supposed first three Chinese dynasties, the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou. While much during this time still remains unclear, when Yu, Tamer of Floods, died and handed power over to his son, Qi, the Xia dynasty was born, marking the beginnings of the Chinese as a unified people. The Xia represents the transition from primitive to civilized society, a shift based on the right to ownership, with the family unit at its core and the tradition of dynastic succession.


Shang Dynasty (1600-1122 BC) 


The Shang dynasty followed the Xia and, although literacy was very limited, the first records of Chinese characters come from this time, marked onto oracle bones. This was China’s Bronze Age and many of the fine pieces you see in museums today were forged during the Shang and subsequent Zhou. Archeological finds indicate that the Shang practiced ancestor worship, a belief which continues in the 21st century AD. 


Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC) 


The Zhou dynasty saw the country divided into many states, each of which was controlled by a family relative. The Zhou also introduced the concept of Divine Mandate (or the Mandate of Heaven), which allowed for the succession of one ruler or dynasty over another, if it was ordained by heaven. The Zhou dynasty is divided into two periods, the Western Zhou which ran from 1122 to 771 BC, and the Eastern Zhou, between 771 and 221 BC.


Toward the close of the Eastern Zhou, the increasing population and the breakdown of relations between the dynastic states led to factional conflicts in a time which became known as the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). This part of history was very fractured and uncertain, but from it emerged stabilizing elements that remain to this day, namely the thoughts and theories of wandering scholars like Confucius and Lao Zi, the creator of Taoism. 


Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) 


Throughout the Warring States Period, the state of Qin had been gradually acquiring more territory and power, and in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang brought the Qin Dynasty to power. Though cruel and very short-lived, the Qin is perceived as “China’s first dynasty” and has had a lasting impact, most obviously in the country’s name, China (in pinyin q is pronounced as ch, thus Qin is spoken as Chin).


Terracotta Army

Qin Shi Huang rejected traditional Confucian values and set about unifying and expanding China, making his mark with a number of grand schemes, most famously the completion of the earliest version of the Great Wall. He also implemented a system of currency and writing. Ultimately, though, Qin Shi Huang’s reign was ruthless and unpopular, forcing farmers to leave the land to work on his great projects and, when he died in 210 BC, his heirs were incapable of holding the empire together.


But the 1974 discovery of his secret legacy, the Terracotta Warriors that guard his tomb near Xi’an, has ensured that Qin Shi Huang and the glory of the Qin will never be forgotten.

Terracotta Warriors 


Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD)


The fact that the dominant ethnic group and the country’s language still bear the name Han in the 21st century gives some insight into the power and legacy of the Han dynasty. Liu Bang (subsequently known as Gaozu, or High Ancestor), a warlord of peasant origins, was the first of 27 Lius to rule in the Han line. He established his grand capital near modern Xi’an but, for the latter half of the Han dynasty (referred to as the Eastern Han), Luoyang became the emperor’s seat.


Though Liu Bang had little time for Confucian ideals, it was during the Han dynasty that written exams on Confucian lore were introduced as necessary qualifications for official postings. To limit the power of the aristocracy, regional control was put in the hands of these officials who could be transferred or replaced as required. And to appease the peasantry, land taxation was reduced from the high levels it had reached under the Qin. 


 During the Han, substantial advances were made in agriculture, paper and textiles. This was a time of expansion which called for a strong army and led to improvements in warfare. At its peak the Han dynasty stretched as far south as Vietnam and saw the trickle of trade routes to the West develop into the Silk Road. However, all this war was expensive and when Wu Di, the Martial Emperor, died in 87 BC, although China was larger than ever, the coffers were nearly empty.


Revolt. The peasants, who had been taxed more heavily as his reign progressed, were ready to revolt and this situation allowed the throne to be temporarily usurped by the nobly born Wang Mang. In 9 AD he declared himself the first emperor of the Xin dynasty (New dynasty) and set about land reforms, but in 23 AD the Han reasserted its rule from its new capital, Luoyang in Shandong province.


However, the Han’s heyday had passed and as its power diluted the dynasty slipped into turmoil before expiring in 220 AD. Knowledge of Chinese history up to this point is greatly aided by the extensive historical record writing of Sima Qian, one of China’s greatest historians. 


Three Kingdoms Period (220-581 AD) 


The demise of the Han left a fragmented China wrought with complex power struggles that would last almost four centuries. China was divided into three kingdoms: the northern Wei, ruled by Cao Pei, son of Han poet and general, Cao Cao; the southern Wu; and, in the southwest, the Shu.


The trials of the time were subsequently recorded in the Ming dynasty work Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Also known as the Period of Division, this was a violent, unsettled time but one that saw the re-emergence of the aristocracy and a range of new influences reach China.


China’s first alien dynasty came into being when Liu Yuan, king of the nomadic northern Xiongnu tribe, captured Luoyang and declared the restoration of the Han dynasty. Buddhism began to take hold, particularly in the north, but, like almost everything else, was quickly sinicized.


Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) 


The Three Kingdoms Period was a dark and confused time, but its patronage of the arts laid a rich platform for the Sui and Tang to build on. The 400-year struggle for power ended when General Yang Jian of the Wei kingdom managed to unify the northern states and conquer the southern states, founding the short-lived Sui dynasty.


Its brevity did not stop the Sui from forming lasting legacies, and the second emperor, Yang Di, ordered the construction of the 1,000-mile Grand Canal, linking the Yangzi rice bowl to the imperial capital in the north.


But thousands died in grand projects and military expansion into Korea and it was the suffering inflicted by the regime that led to its demise. Yang Di was assassinated and a military revolt was led by none other than his cousin, General Li Yuan. 


The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) 


Despite the consolidation of the Sui, the re-unification of north and south was by no means inevitable. China’s reconsolidation and the resultant advances in agriculture, the arts and trade grounded the concept of a united kingdom as an ideal and marked the Tang as China’s most glorious dynasty.


Territorial expansion also played a key part in the Tang’s success (and ultimately, its failure). At its greatest, Chinese influence expanded from Korea to Persia. The name of the imperial capital, Chang’an (modern day Xi’an), means eternal peace and its million-strong population relished in the prosperity and new influences that this peace afforded. 


Arts & Religion under the Tang. After the previous fractious periods of division, the calm and prosperity of a unified China provided a springboard for the arts, particularly painting, poetry and pottery. Two of China’s most famous poets to this day, Li Bai and Du Fu, wrote during the Tang and the world’s first printed book was published in 868.


Pottery began to take on more color and glaze, and the tri-color techniques refined in the Tang are still in use today.Trade was fundamental to both economic success and the resultant thriving religious and artistic scene. The Silk Road and the maritime ports of Guangzhou and Yangzhou brought, not only foreign goods, but outside ideas to the country.


A tolerant attitude to foreigners allowed for a more cosmopolitan China; other religions such as Islam and Nestorianism established themselves, but neither prospered like Buddhism. As imperial patronage of Buddhism increased, it was represented in cave art, which reached its peak in the Tang, although much was later destroyed in periods of religious repression.


Notable Buddhist cave art from the Tang remains today at Dunhuang in Gansu, Longmen Grottoes in Shandong province and at Dazu in Szechuan. 


Wu Zetian

China’s first empress. Thirty years into the dynasty, a power struggle for the throne led to the naming of Taizong’s (624-49) ninth son as Emperor Gaozong in 649. Only 20 years old when he came to the throne and plagued by ill health, Gaozong’s power was soon controlled by his consort and former concubine, Wu Zetian, who had managed to oust the empress and take her place. When Gaozong died, she continued to rule for their weak son.


A shrewd and manipulative woman, Wu finally usurped the throne in 698 AD, proclaiming the foundation of the Zhou dynasty in 698 AD, and giving China its first empress.  Her relationship with Buddhism (and with Buddhist priests) has been questioned, but the royal carvings she commissioned at Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang are a testament to her short rule, which ended with her abdication in 705. 

  Wu Zetian

In 712, Xuanzong ascended to the throne and, although he is remembered as one of the Tang’s greatest emperors and his reign began gloriously, as it progressed, power was eroded. There was a military defeat by the Arabs in 751, invasions from Tibet and finally a revolt led by the Turkish general An Lushan. Although the rebellion was crushed, the power of the state was considerably weakened and Xuanzong’s rule ended in 756.


Close of the Tang. After Xuanzong, imperial control was further diluted by internal power struggles and several emperors were poisoned by court eunuchs. Eunuchs continued to exert influence over court proceedings and a string of weak emperors allowed them to chip away at the imperial power base. It became clear that the dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven and, in 907, the last of the Tang emperors abdicated.


See also:  

The Dynastic Age (part 2) 


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China travel guide homepage 

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China history : a reference guide
China history : the dynastic age, part 2 (960 -1911) - Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty, and Qing Dynasty
China history : the revolutionary years (1911 - 1976) - Dr. Sun Yatsen, Yuan Shikai, Chiang Kaishek, and Mao Zedong
China history : the reform era (1976 - present) - Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao

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China History (2100BC - 960 AD) : Xia Dynasty, Shang Dynasty, Zhou Dynasty, Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, Three Kingdoms, Sui Dynasty, Tang Dynasty