A Brief and Ultra-Simplified History of China

What follows is an ultra-brief explanation of Chinese history, with a run-down of the dynasties and an outline of the foundation of modern China. This should be enough to help you work out what dates things happened (roughly) and to make some sort of sense of modern Chinese history.

The Dynasties of China

Chinese history is broken up into a series of dynasties for ease of consumption. When sightseeing in China, it is often difficult to remember which dynasty is which. Here’s a quick rundown to help you remember (with a few gaps where no dynasty dominated China):

Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) means 100-400 years ago. This period was marked by colonialism, internal rebellions and the Opium Wars.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) means pretty old, but not that old in the grand scheme of China’s history. Roughly 400-700 years old if you want to be semi-precise. This was the era that the Forbidden City and Great Wall of China were built.

Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) basically means Kublai Khan and the Mongol era. You won’t come across much from this dynasty.

Song Dynasty (970-1279) means around 1000 years old. You might see some nice artwork from this era and a few temples reconstructed in the Song Dynasty style.

Tang Dynasty (618-907): this was a golden age so you’ll find things from this era in just about every museum. Also, Xi’an was the capital during the Tang Dynasty, so it will come up a lot when you visit Xian.

Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) means really old – 2000 years even. You won’t come across too much from this era though, although it was another golden age.

Qin Dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) will only be relevant when you see the Terracotta Warriors. They date from this dynasty.

Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC) was a time of continual warfare between the kingdoms which spawned Sun Tzu’s Art of War and lots of cool stories about warriors.

Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC-476 BC) was an age of thinkers – Confucius and Laozi lived then.

And those are basically the only dynasties and eras you need to know. Anything before the Spring and Autumn Period is probably semi-fictional and anything left out above wasn’t all that important.

The Founding of Modern China

What exactly happened after the last dynasty fell can be a bit confusing as well. Here’s the deal: basically, the republican movement was fragmented. The two key players were the Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the Communists. Although he led the Kuomintang,Dr Sun Yatsen is regarded by all as the father of modern China as he really pushed forward the republican agenda. After his death in 1925 the Kuomintang and Communists fought a bitter civil war. The Communists were finally victorious in 1949 while the remnants of the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan.

Mao Zedong was the dominant figure in the Chinese Communist Party from the founding of the People’s Republic of China until his death in 1976. After his death China began to open up to the outside world again and started on the path towards a market economy.