The history of China dates back millennia and features a wide array of dynastic rulers that lasted for various amounts of time. A “dynasty” refers to a succession of rulers from the same familial clan. China’s history notoriously alternates between period of unity, with those of discord. Here are the 13 primary Chinese dynasties in order beginning around 2070 BCE that lasted until the 20th century.
The Xia Dynasty was the was first recorded dynasty. The details of its origins are still murky, as until recent time historians thought it was just part of the many legends of the pre-writing age.
The Shang Dynasty ruled next and was the first to develop a complex system of writing. Known for their bronze technology and walled cities, the Shang lasted even longer than its predecessor.
The last of the “ancient” dynasties were the Zhou, who also had the lengthiest dynasty in Chinese history. The Zhou was characterized by the feudal-like system it employed and the notoriously turbulent times of the “Spring and Autumn” period, followed by the Warring States period. Of note, Confucius lived during the Zhou dynasty.1
Following the longest dynasty came the shortest: the Qin Dynasty. Lasting only 15 years the Qin imposed a centralized government that included many public works projects as well as standardizing the writing script. The centralized bureaucratic administration was one of the first of its kind and developed far in advance of any western nations.2
Built to protect the tomb of the Qin emperor, archaeologists consider the life size terracotta army as one of the great wonders of the ancient world.
The Han Dynasty was one of the most important. It was a period of peace and stability within China and featured by economic prosperity and military conquest. Use of the Silk Road for trade became common and the discovery of paper for use in writing occurred in this time period.
The List of Chinese Dynasties in Order
Following the Han was a 369 year period of disunity called the Six Dynasties. China was fractured and engulfed in war and political instability. Despite this, Buddhism spread further at the expense of Confucianism.
The short lived Sui Dynasty (~38 years) played an essential role in reuniting China. During the reign of the Sui the emperors ordered the construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and expanded the Great Wall.
The Tang Dynasty was perhaps the Golden Age of Chinese history. It featured peace and prosperity as well as numerous cultural and technological advances. The capital city was a great metropolis that featured diplomats from around the world.
The Five Dynasties period was another short period that resulted in a fragmented China. Five weak dynasties ruled the north, while 10 kingdoms ruled the south.
The Song Dynasty finally reunited China and brought on another very important period. There were drastic economic and social changes with the development of a merchant class, transportation networks, paper money and landownership was granted to the peasant class.3
Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) conquered the Song in 1279 who went on to found the Yuan Dynasty. For a militaristic society, it is somewhat surprising that the arts flourished in this time period. Marco Polo stayed at Chinese court during this time period.
The Ming Dynasty eventually overthrew the Yuan in 1368. The Ming emperors moved the capital city to Beijing and built the legendary Forbidden City. The famous naval expeditions of Zheng He also took place during this time.
The last of the Chinese Dynasties was the Qing Dynasty. At one point it was one of the largest empires in the world. By the 19th century economic hardships led to the causes of the Taiping Rebellion and intervention from European powers severely weakened the rulers. In 1912 the last Qing emperor abdicated bringing an end to the dynasties of China.
1) Juliano, Annette L. “THE WARRING STATES PERIOD—THE STATE OF QIN, YAN, CHU, AND PAZYRYK: A HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE.” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 10, no. 4, 1991, pp. 25–29. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23203292.
2) Kiser, Edgar, and Yong Cai. “War and Bureaucratization in Qin China: Exploring an Anomalous Case.” American Sociological Review, vol. 68, no. 4, 2003, pp. 511–39. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1519737.
3) Hargett, James M. “Two Recently Published Histories on the Song Dynasty (960—1279).” China Review International, vol. 16, no. 3, 2009, pp. 293–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23733356.