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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The Chinese empire was one of history's longest. It lasted for thousands of years. During this time, many ruling dynasties rose and fell.

A dynasty is a family group. It passes down the right to rule through its family line. The period during which a particular family ruled is also called a dynasty.

Single families often remained in power for hundreds of years. The throne was passed from father to son.

Fact or Fiction?

According to Chinese legend, a man named Yu helped China recover from a major flood. For this reason, the gods awarded him the right to rule. This right was known as the Mandate of Heaven. It was passed down through Yu's family line. He was the first ruler of the Xia dynasty.

The Xia dynasty ruled from 2070 to 1600 B.C.E. The dynasty fell after the first Shang king seized power. Then the Shang dynasty began.

How much truth is there to this story? Not much, many historians believe. Many say the Xia dynasty never existed. They believe the Shang dynasty was really China's first dynasty.

The Shang dynasty lasted for about 600 years. It was called a "Golden Age." Many new things took place. China's writing system was invented during this period.

In 1046 B.C.E., the Shang king was overthrown by the first Zhou king. The Shang dynasty then came to an end.

The Time of Confucius

The Zhou dynasty was the longest of China's dynasties. It lasted from 1046 to 256 B.C.E. Some of China's most important writers lived during this period. The most famous was Confucius. His writing is still read today.

The years from 476 to 221 B.C.E. are called the "Warring States Period." The Zhou controlled seven regions. During this period, these regions began fighting each other. The Qin armies won this struggle in 256 B.C.E. They then kicked out the Zhou leaders

The Qin and Odd Warrior Statues

The Qin dynasty only lasted 15 years from 221 to 206 B.C.E. However, it was an important time in Chinese history. It was a period of coming together. Lands around China were brought under Chinese rule.

The first Qin leader was Qin Shin Huang. (He is also sometimes called Shi Huangdi or Qin Shi Huang). He began work on the Great Wall of China. Qin Shin Huang died in 210 B.C. Almost 8,000 statues of warriors were buried along with him.

Qin Shin Huang was followed by his son, Qin Er Shi. He was overthrown in 206 B.C.E. Liu Bang was the leader of the rebels. He became the first emperor of the Han dynasty.

Hans Ride the Silk Road

The Han dynasty, which was from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., was another Golden Age. During this time, the Silk Road was established. The Silk Road was a trade route. It connected Asia to Europe and Africa.

In 220 C.E., the last Han emperor was removed. Han rule was followed by the Three Kingdoms period from 220 to 280 C.E. During these years, China was divided into three states: Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Dong Wu. Each state had its own ruler.

Between the years 386 and 581 C.E., China broke apart even more. It was divided into the northern and southern territories.

The Greatest Dynasty's Empress

In 581 C.E., the Sui dynasty arose. The Sui dynasty did not last long. Yet, it managed to reunite the northern and southern territories. However, in the year 618 C.E., the Sui were overthrown by the Tang.

The Tang dynasty, which ran from 618 to 906 C.E., is often called the greatest dynasty. Its members included China's only woman ruler. Her name was Empress Wu Zetian. She ruled the Chinese empire for about 20 years.

The Mongols Take Over

The Tang dynasty was followed by a period of constant wars. In the year 960 C.E., the Song dynasty came to power. During this period, the world's first paper money was issued.

The Song dynasty lasted until 1279 C.E. In that year, it fell to the Mongols. The Mongols then ruled China as the Yuan dynasty from 1279 to 1368 C.E.

The Yuan dynasty ended in 1368 C.E. It was taken over by the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. He established the Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644 C.E.

The Ming emperors made the Great Wall of China even bigger. They hoped it would keep out invaders. Manchu forces still broke through. They ended the Ming dynasty in 1644 C.E.

The Last Emperors

The Manchu invaders established the Qing dynasty. It ruled from 1644 to 1911 C.E.

In 1911 C.E., the last of the Chinese emperors, Puyi, stepped down. China then became a republic.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
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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