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 most long-lived empires. Over thousands of years, various ruling dynasties rose and fell.

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

Single dynastic families often remained in power for hundreds of years, until they were replaced by another powerful family group. The throne was passed from father to son.

Myth or Reality?

The Xia dynasty was the first of many ancient Chinese ruling families. It stayed in power from around 2070 until 1600 B.C.E.

Or did it? Many historians are unsure the Xia dynasty ever really existed. They believe the Xia dynasty is only a legend.

Tradition has it that the first Xia king was a man named Yu. He is said to have repaired the damage caused by a major flood, and for this reason, the gods awarded him the Mandate of Heaven, or the right to rule. This right was passed down through his family line.

The Xia dynasty is said to have been overthrown in 1600 B.C.E. by the first Shang leader. Of course, the Xia dynasty might not have existed, so if it did not, the Shang dynasty was really the first of China's dynasties.

China's "Golden Age"

The Shang rulers stayed in power for about 600 years. China's writing system was invented during this period of rule. Many later historians viewed the Shang Dynasty as a "Golden Age."

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

The Zhou dynasty was the longest of ancient China's dynasties. It lasted from 1046 B.C.E. to 256 B.C.E. Some of ancient China's most important writers and philosophers lived during this period, including Confucius and the first Taoist thinkers.

The years from 476 B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E. are known as the "Warring States Period." During this time, the seven regions controlled by the Zhou began fighting among each other. The Qin armies finally won this struggle in 256 B.C.E. They then overthrew the Zhou leaders.

"China" and the Thousands of Warriors

The Qin dynasty only lasted 15 years (221 to 206 B.C.E.). However, it was an important time in Chinese history. It was a period of unification. Various territories surrounding 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 what would become the Great Wall of China. Qin Shin Huang died in 210 B.C.E. Almost 8,000 statues of warriors were buried along with him.

Qin Shin Huang was followed by his son, Qin Er Shi. Qin Er Shi's reign lasted for only three years before he was overthrown in 206 B.C.E. The leader of the rebels, Liu Bang, became the first emperor of the Han dynasty.

The Han dynasty, which lasted from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., marked another Golden Age of China. During this time, Confucianism became the official state religion, and the Silk Road was established. The Silk Road was a trade route connecting Asia to Europe.

In 220 C.E., the last Han emperor was overthrown. Han rule was followed by a period known as the Three Kingdoms.

Three Kingdoms and an Empress

During the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 280 C.E.), China was divided into three states: Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Dong Wu. Between 386 and 581 C.E., the region further broke apart into the northern and southern territories.

In the year 581 C.E., the Sui dynasty arose. While it was short-lived, the Sui dynasty managed to reunite the northern and southern territories. However, in 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 of the dynasties. Its members included China's only female ruler, Empress Wu Zetian (625–705 C.E.). She ruled the Chinese empire for about 20 years.

The Mongol Takeover

The Tang dynasty was followed by a period of constant warring. 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. when it was defeated by the Mongols. The Mongols then ruled China as the Yuan dynasty from 1279 until 1368 C.E.

The Yuan dynasty was overthrown in 1368 C.E. by the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. The Ming emperors expanded the Great Wall of China in an effort to keep invaders out. Nonetheless, invading Manchu forces eventually ended the Ming dynasty in 1644 C.E.

The Last Emperors

The Manchu invaders established the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911 C.E. During this time, China came into increasing conflict with other countries. 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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