Qin Dynasty Warring States Period Spring and Autumn Western Zhou dynasty and earlier history Han dynasty Period of Disunity Sui dynasty Tang dynasty Five dynasties and ten kingdoms  Song dynasty Yuan / Mongol dynasty Ming dynasty Qing Dynasty Republic of China Peoples Republic of China

The early history of China up to 770BCE

Zhou dynasty

China is immensely and justifiably proud of its long history. A continuous Chinese culture has been in existence since earliest times; it is the only civilization that can make such a claim. Many European archaeologists have sought to trace early Chinese civilization back to a common origin with that of the Babylonians and Egyptians. Their search has failed and so Chinese culture is believed to have sprung up entirely independently close to the Yellow River.

Emperor Yao
Emperor Yao


Archeological discoveries (e.g. early human finds at Yuanmou in Yunnan) take the story back as far as 1.7 million years. The uncovering of Peking WG Man (Homo erectus) at Zhoukoudian near Beijing affirms human habitation 0.5 million years ago. When it was found in 1920s this was taken as the early progenitor of all the Chinese people; however, further studies have shown that like all other modern humans they are descended from Homo sapiens in Africa. Finds at Banpo village near Xian have identified a Yangshao culture at 4,500BCE which was followed by the 3,000BCE Longshan culture . The Yangshao villages used stone tools and fished with bone hooks along the Yellow river valley. They left behind distinctive pottery, using, for some of it, a potter's wheel. The weaving of cloth had also started. The upper reaches of the Yellow River, fed by melting ice, are less prone to flooding than downstream. Here the Yellow River provides a dependable source of water to irrigate the fertile loess soil which is easy to work with antler and stone tools; and so the location was ideal for early agriculture. As in the Nile river valley, reliable annual crops led humans to settle and form fixed communities rather than live as wandering bands of hunter-gatherers. The whole country at this time was dominated by vast forests with elephants; tigers and rhinoceroses roaming the woods. By 5,500 years ago the Hongshan culture in Liaoning had already begun to produce fine ornaments made from jade.

In other areas of China, other cultures developed independently with very different traditions. For example the Sanxingdui culture (2800-800BCE) in Sichuan produced distinctive bronze heads. Cultivation of rice began as early as 7,000 years ago in the lower Yangzi River valley quite separate to the north.

Late Neolithic China
Extent of Neolithic finds in China with the location of the major settlement sites.


2718BCE Yellow Emperor born
2696BCE Yellow Emperor became ruler
2598BCE Yellow Emperor no longer ruler
2333BCE Emperor Yao born
2294BCE Emperor Shun born
2123BCE Emperor Yu the Great born
1600BCE Shang dynasty began
1046BCE Shang dynasty ended

Legendary era to 2100BCE

During this time period the Chinese system of writing evolved from a few simple pictorial characters to the rich script of the Qin Dynasty. Although accurately kept historical records push back China's documented past a long way, there is a point when fact and legend inter-mingle. In the case of Britain the 'legendary' era survives as recently as King Arthur in the 5th century CE, whereas in China you need to go back a further 2,500 years to the time of the Yellow Emperor c. 3000BCE , the founding father of China. There is a traditional continuous line of all the Kings and Emperors of China going all the way back to him. For more on the deities and legendary rulers of china please see our section on the Three Soverigns and Five Sage Emperors. Northern China produced pottery; silk and worked with jade (for the manufacture of weapons and ceremonial vessels). However, it is inaccurate to consider China as a unified 'empire' or 'nation' at this stage, there were a number of independent kingdoms with little interaction between them; the traditional historical record gives a false sense of unity. China had range of distinct cultures and languages within its modern boundaries at this time.

Ningxia, rock art, neolithic, archaeology
Ancient rock art of the Helan Mountains on the border of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Of Neolithic age this carving probably represents a sun god.

Xia Dynasty 2100-1600BCE

Yu the Great's reign, which marked the start of the Xia dynasty, began the recorded history of China. Yu's first task was to repair the kingdom after a great flood, which some have connected this with the Biblical flood of Noah. He is most remembered for his work on flood prevention along the Yellow River. Archeological research has found a number of autonomous communities each developing their own culture and traditions along the Yellow; Wei and Yangzi valleys, rather than a unified nation state. However some of the individual historical events (for example floods and battles) recorded in the ancient texts have been confirmed by archeology.

At this early stage, long before iron and bronze were available, civilization revolved around simple agriculture close to the Yellow and Wei Rivers (in modern day Shanxi, Henan provinces). Yu the Great, the founder of the dynasty, is the main legendary figure from this period. He is believed to have divided the country into nine regions (and hence a name for China ‘nine regions’ ( jiǔ zhōu), and more importantly built flood defenses on the Yellow River. Rather than just building banks and levees he chose to build canals and sluices to redirect the water. Handicrafts such as silk weaving grew in importance. The first cities with tamped earth walls were built. One fragment of a suì or farmer's calendar has been dated to this period. During the Xia dynasty the Chinese script was further refined and used extensively for record keeping. A lack of archeological dating evidence has made the confirmation of details of the Xia dynasty very difficult. Discoveries in 2016 at Lajia have given a tantalizing suggestion of a great flood at this time. All this was occurring at the same time as the Middle Kingdom of Egyptian pharaohs (c. 2000 to 1700BCE)

Shang Dynasty 1600-1100BCE

The tyrannical rule of the Emperor Jie of the Xia dynasty led to revolt and overthrow by Cheng Tang of Shang to found the Shang dynasty. Widespread developments began in economic, political and cultural spheres. The first walled cities were built at this time on a standard grid pattern layout. The capital was first Bo (near modern day Shangqiu) and then Yin (near modern day Anyang) both in Henan province. These cities seemed to have been mainly administrative and ritual centers; they also offered markets to the majority of people who were still engaged in agriculture. Shang China had a feudal economy where the landowners exercised absolute control over everyone in their fiefdom. The nobles lived a life of luxury while everyone else scratched a meager existence. Rule was passed solely through the male line, setting a precedent for subsequent dynasties. Warfare was revolutionized by the import of domesticated horses, making chariots the feared instrument of conquest. Although Shang rule was limited to the Yellow River valley its influence spread to the Yangzi river and along the south-eastern coast as far as Guangdong.

Shang dynasty, tomb, Lady Hao, Henan
Tomb of Lady Fu Hao, Yinxu, Henan, China. Available under a Creative Commons License

Development of the Chinese script continued, writing has survived on oracle bones and bronze vessels. About 1,000 characters of the 5,000 characters used in Shang times are still recognizably similar to those of today. The Chinese calendar system of leap months and ten day weeks was developed. In metalwork, they developed the ability to cast elaborate, massive bronze vessels which was unrivaled in the world at the time. Around 12,000 bronze vessels have survived to the present day. The tomb of Lady Hao , the only intact Shang tomb to survive to modern times shows the sophistication of the culture with a diverse range of ornate objects. Buried with their rulers were their many attendants.

Silk production grew in sophistication, although its fragility has meant that, although tools used to make it have survived, no fabric from this distant time remains. China's civilization expanded down the Yellow River to Anhui; Hunan; Shanxi; Hebei and Shandong. Growth was promoted by introducing water engineering for irrigation and flood control.

The great Han dynasty historian Sima Qian wrote an amazingly detailed history of this period. As with the Xia dynasty the end of the Shang came with the tyrannical and vicious rule of a ruler, in this case King Zhou (aka Zhou Xin). He led a profligate and debauched life and is noted for filling a lake with wine and devising cruel tortures for entertainment.

General Nao Chi
General Nao Chi, Zhou dynasty

Western Zhou Dynasty 1100-770BCE

Zhou dynasty, bronze, dish
Ancient Chinese bronze ware. This morning dish 37 cm in diameter has austere and graceful modeling with inscribed clear Chinese characters, is of Western Zhou date

King Wu of Shaanxi, occupying the Wei valley, overthrew the Shang and established the Zhou dynasty moving the center of Chinese culture further east. They were probably outsiders of mixed barbarian (from Gansu province) and Chinese origin. They split the land into 71 fiefdoms for princes and dukes. However it is likely that at this early time each walled town was fairly autonomous with its own ruler.

The Zhou dynasty introduced many innovations that have endured for thousands of years. The first three Zhou rulers are remembered for their exemplary leadership and remain admired for their military prowess, cultivation of the arts and unselfish rule. The early part of Zhou rule was regarded as a ‘Golden Age’ throughout much of Chinese history. The post of Emperor had the title ‘Son of Heaven’ ( tiān zǐ) and held the key responsibility of maintaining the rituals needed by the heavenly deities. The concept that the emperor ruled with the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ was important as it permitted rebellion when it was judged by the people that misrule or natural disasters signaled Heaven's displeasure and the loss of the Emperor's right to rule. A successful revolt against Zhou Li Wang in 841BCE attested to this principle. The Mandate is still considered powerful even into modern times; the devastating Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 was shortly followed by the death of Chairman Mao. Like the Pope in medieval Europe the emperor was considered the primary link to the gods of heaven and Shangdi in particular. During this early period it was common for human sacrifices to take place after troubling events that were considered signs of heavenly displeasure such as natural disasters. Sacrifices also took place on the death of the emperor; with many high officials buried with him; however this practice slowly fizzled out during the dynasty.

China (Zhongguo - which can be transliterated as the central country) became a meaningful concept at this time. Even though people lived in isolated small communities there was already a feeling of cultural unity with a shared civilization. The world was envisaged as a series of three concentric squares with the Chinese capital at its center, with the level of barbarity increasing the further out you traveled. It is from this viewpoint that the name for the nation 'Central' or 'Middle' Kingdom originated. Kings of 'tribes' to the south accepted a limited degree of fealty to the Zhou rulers. However most of the cultural activity happened in northern China around the Yellow River with its capital at Luoyang. The nation was surrounded by wasteland, deserts, limitless oceans and barbarians launching frequent raids on the settlements. China began to see herself as the cultural and geographical center of the World. This China-centered view persisted for three thousands years - into the Qing dynasty. In the Zhou dynasty the first walls were built to defend China's northern border; these were later to be joined together in the Great Wall. It is only in the later stages of the Western Zhou that historical records become more consistent and reliable and no longer just tales of the actions of the Emperors. The great capital city of Zhou was at Hao south-west of modern day Xi'an. After over 300 years, the Western Zhou dynasty was in turn overthrown by the Quanrong nomadic tribes and disaffected fiefs. The capital city was sacked and destroyed. The son of the defeated emperor set up the new capital further east at Luoyang. This was the start of the Eastern Zhou which is traditionally divided into two periods :Spring and Autumn and Warring States.

Mandate of Heaven

Emperor Yongle, Ming dynasty
Emperor Yongle (Chengzu) of the Ming Dynasty, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 220 x 150 cm. Located at the National Palace Museum, Taibei. This picture shows him seated on the Dragon Throne. Image available under a Creative Commons license .

The Mandate of Heaven tiān mìng is an important concept running through all Chinese history. The Emperor of China only ruled as long as he had the support of heaven (the realm of the gods). The Mandate of Heaven (another translation is ‘god's will’ or transliterating ‘heaven fate’) was a guiding principle as far back as the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The Emperor was known as ‘Son of Heaven tiān zǐ, the sole human link between Earth and the controlling Heavens above. As the sole such intermediary on the world he outranked all other rulers and this lead to clashes with European rulers who considered themselves his equal. It is in the Book of Documents ( Zhōu shū, 康诰 Kāng gào chapter) that is made clear that from the Zhou dynasty onwards the Mandate of Heaven was never permanently held by right. In the early dynasties the possession of nine bronze tripods ( dǐng) was an integral part of the right to rule. Each tripod was said to be inscribed with the map of one of the nine provinces that made up the country.

The sign that the mandate had been lost would be made evident by all kinds of calamities including natural ones: earthquakes; storms; floods; famine and plague. Other signs could be a more personal evidence from the emperor's behavior: cruelty; corruption; military defeat and incompetence. These were all interpreted as signs of the displeasure of the gods. To rise in rebellion when these signs occurred was considered justified. A new dynasty would claim their successful seizure of the Imperial throne was a proof of their mandate, because the success of the rebellion was seen as heaven's approval of the transfer of their allegiance. A Chinese word for ‘revolution’ means literally removal of order (mandate) gé mìng. The eventual fall of a dynasty when the mandate was lost was considered a natural part of the dynastic cycle repeated throughout history.

Divine Rights of Kings

The alternative guiding philosophy of the Legalists and kings in medieval Europe was by divine right. The right to govern was by birthright and could not be challenged; so rebellion could never be justified. The Mandate can therefore be seen as the pinnacle of Confucian philosophy. The ultimate responsibility is the Emperor's duty towards heaven from which all other duties flow. The mandate implies the ruler is the most virtuous person, and will lose the mandate should his virtue weaken. Symbolically this duty included the proper rites at the Temple of Heaven at the start of each year. The emperor would kowtow at the temple to show his subservience to heaven. When China was ruled by foreign people (e.g. Mongols and Manchus) the new rulers needed to prove that they now had the Mandate, and they did this by performing the appropriate ancient rites. If the Empire is rocked by natural disasters or revolts the appropriate response was for the Emperor to admit to his failings and adopt a new reign name, effectively restarting his reign from scratch.

The ‘Mandate of Heaven’ philosophy is still evident today. The Communist government of China will be tolerated as long as it serves the people with increased prosperity, should this falter then revolt will inevitably follow as a natural consequence, loyalty to a regime/dynasty is never permanent. Chairman Mao himself is famous for the maxim ‘to rebel is justified zào fǎn yǒu lǐ’.