Imperial China's Dynasties

Imperial China's Dynasties

From the mythic origins of the Chinese dynasties to the eventual fall of the last imperial house, Chinese emperors have long fought to maintain control over one of the most enduring empires on Earth. The rise and fall of various imperial families oversaw waves of innovation and cultural advancement.


3 - 12


Anthropology, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History


Terracotta Warriors

Qin Shin Huang unified China, becoming the nation's first emperor. He was buried with almost 8,000 life-size statues known of as the terracotta warrior army.

Photograph by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images
Qin Shin Huang unified China, becoming the nation's first emperor. He was buried with almost 8,000 life-size statues known of as the terracotta warrior army.
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Myth or reality?

Chinese archaeologists recently unearthed what may be evidence supporting the existence of one of the Chinese empire’s 4,000-year-old creation myths. The Xia dynasty was the first of many ancient Chinese ruling houses, thought to exist from around 2070 B.C.E. until 1600 B.C.E. Yet the actual existence of this dynasty and culture has been debated. Many researchers have seen the Xia dynasty as a semi-mythical period of rule, invented by the later Zhou dynasty to justify their overthrow of the Shang dynasty, who allegedly overthrew the Xia dynasty. The first Xia king, Yu, is said to have repaired the damage caused by a major flood, and this is how he achieved the Mandate of Heaven (divine right to rule). While this was commonly dismissed as a creation myth, excavations by University of Peking archaeologists have found evidence of large-scale floods from around the Xia time period, thus possibly confirming part of the Xia dynastic story. The Xia dynasty brought about what would become the foundation of Chinese rule, namely that of familial succession, with sons following fathers to the throne.

The Xia dynasty was overthrown in 1600 B.C.E. by the first Shang leader. Given that the existence of the Xia dynasty is debated, the Shang dynasty is sometimes seen as the first of the China’s dynasties. The Shang rulers maintained control for around 600 years, and during this period of cultural and economic stability, Chinese culture and innovations flourished. This period saw the invention of writing, and many later historians viewed it as a “Golden Age.” In 1046 B.C.E., the Shang king was overthrown by the Zhou king, ending the Shang dynasty.

The longest of the ancient China’s dynasties was the Zhou dynasty, which ruled from 1046 B.C.E. to 256 B.C.E. The Zhou period is divided into two eras: Western Zhou (1046–771 B.C.E.), with the capital at Haojing, and Eastern Zhou (770–256 B.C.E.), where the capital was moved to Luoyang due to conflict. The Zhou dynasty saw a flourishing of some of ancient China’s most influential writers and philosophers, such as Mozi, Confucius, and the first writings about Taoism. However, this stability would not last, and the period from 476 to 221 B.C.E. was known as the “Warring States Period” where the seven regions controlled by the Shang began serious infighting. Ultimately, the Qin armies would emerge victorious in 256 B.C.E., overthrowing the Shang leaders.

“China” and the Terracotta Warriors

The Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.E.) and the first Qin leader, Qin Shin Huang, mark the first use of the term “emperor” regarding the dynastic leader. While this imperial reign lasted for only two emperors and 15 years, it began some of the most influential programs across the ancient world. The Qin empire marked a period of Chinese unification, where surrounding territories were brought under the rule of the emperor. Qin Shin Huang embarked on an authoritarian government augmented with significant infrastructural development, and began work on what would become the Great Wall of China. Qin Shin Huang died in 210 B.C.E. and was buried in a mausoleum with a massive terracotta warrior army consisting of almost 8,000 statues to serve the emperor in death. The Qin dynasty is also thought to be the origin of the European name for China. Qin Shin Huang was succeeded by his son, Qin Er Shi, whose reign lasted for only three years before he was unseated in 206 B.C.E. due to his unpopularity. The leader of the rebels, Liu Bang, became the first emperor of the Han dynasty.

The Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) marked another Golden Age of China. During this time, the Silk Road (a trade route from Asia to the Mediterranean and East Africa) became established by Han emperors and trade flourished. The historian Sima Qian wrote extensively during this period, and Confucianism became the official state religion. In 220 C.E., the last Han emperor was deposed, which ushered in a period known as the Three Kingdoms.

The next 300 years between 220–589 C.E. saw no major dynastic houses establish themselves over China. The Three Kingdoms was a period between 220–280 C.E. where the region was divided between the rulers of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Dong Wu. The region further fractured into the Northern and Southern territories between 386 and 581 C.E.

In 581 C.E., the short-lived Sui dynasty emerged to unify the Northern and Southern territories before being overthrown by the Tang dynasty in 618 C.E. The Tang dynasty enjoyed significant stability and is often described as the greatest of the dynasties. Beginning in 690 C.E., China’s only empress regent, Wu Zetian, reigned for 15 years, instituting many reforms before being forced to abdicate in 705 C.E.

Mongol Takeover

A period of warring followed the Tang dynasty, and in 960 C.E., the Song dynasty came to power. During the Song dynasty, the first paper money in the world was issued. The Song dynasty lasted until 1279 C.E. when it was defeated by the Mongols under the leadership of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. The conquest of China by the Mongols marked the greatest reach of the Mongol Horde, who then ruled China as the Yuan dynasty from 1279 C.E. until 1368 C.E. During the Mongol rule of China, Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, visited and wrote extensively about his travels along the Silk Road.

The Yuan dynasty was deposed in 1368 C.E. by the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who set up a stable, yet autocratic, state. The Ming emperors oversaw extensive building and repair along the Great Wall of China in an effort to preserve their crumbling borders. The invading forces of the Manchu people from the northern border eventually ended the Ming dynasty in 1644 C.E. and ushered in the Qing dynasty.

The Last Emperors

The Qing dynasty marks the last of the Chinese emperors, ruling from 1644 C.E. to 1911/12 C.E. The Qing were Manchu people rather than Han Chinese. The Manchu are a nomadic ethnic minority with their own language and customs coming from what is now northeastern China. During the Qing period, Chinese territory reached its greatest extent. While the Qing empire was relatively stable, the 19th and 20th centuries brought China into increasing conflict with Western powers, and in 1911 C.E., the last of the Chinese emperors, Puyi, abdicated in favor of a republican government.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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