Chinese Historical Periodization

“Chinese Historical Periodization: Although there are indications of an ancient dynasty called the Hsia, the first indisputably historical Chinese dynasty was the Shang (or Yin) and dates back not earlier than 1766 BC, Centering on the Yellow River, with its capital at An-Yang, it saw the emergence of civilization in China, including the formation of cities, the use of writing, and fairly complex social organization. Of particular interest are the Shang dynasty bronzes and oracle bones, inscribed with an advanced form of writing, unearthed in excavations in the late 1920s.

The Shang was followed by the Chou dynasty (1027-256 BC). Basically a feudal society, the Chou was the age of the philosophers: Confucius, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Mencius (372-289 BC). It was a period of great intellectual ferment, and later Confucians would look back to the early part of this dynasty as the Golden Age of Chinese civilization. The royal house of Chou was destroyed and china unified for the first time in 221 BC. Ch’in Shih-huang, the first emperor of the Ch’in dynasty (221-206 BC), standardized weights and measures and the writing system, imposed Draconian legal codes, and completed the Great Wall. The Ch’in emperor also commissioned armies of terracotta soldiers who accompany him in his tomb; these figures have recently been unearthed in northwest China. The short-lived Ch’in was followed by the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), which witnessed great developments in science, literature, and the arts. Confucianism was systematized and established as the dominant ethical and political philosophy. Records of the Historian (Shih chi) was composed during this period.

The fall of the Han gave way to an extended period of political disunity. During the Three Kingdoms period (220-280) China broke up into three mutually hostile kingdoms: Wei, Shu Han, and Wu. The period is the subject of many legends and literary works, the most significant being the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This fragmentation continued into the Chin (265-316) and Six Dynasties (222-589) periods until China was finally reunited under the Sui (589-618) and the T’ang dynasty (618-907).

The T’ang period is generally considered to be the golden age of Chinese civilization. It saw the vast expansion of the empire, the rise of Buddhism, especially Ch’an Buddhism, and many new developments in literature, science, and the arts. There was much contact with the outside world, and there was a passion for foreign things and ideas. Islam, the Christianity of the Nestorians, and the teachings of Zoroaster were introduced at this time. Poetry reached heights unequaled in later centuries. The An Lu-Shan Rebellion drove the imperial court out of North China temporarily and marked the beginning of the decline of the empire. The Buddhist persecutions of 875 also had a great effect on the development of Buddhism in China. Japan was influenced by all aspects of the T’ang dynasty culture.

The Sung dynasty (920-1279) was a period of cultural growth during which great urban centers first developed. The philosopher Chu His (1130-1200) established a revitalized Confucianism. In 1126, the northern territories were lost to the Jurched Chin and the capital was forced to move south. The Sung is particularly famous for its fine porcelains and monochrome landscape paintings, as well as its literature, especially that of Su Tung-P’o (1037-1101).

The Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) was established by the successors of Genghis Khan, who integrated the conquered China into the Mongol empire. There was large-scale contact among the peoples of China, Central Asia, and Europe. Marco Polo’s visit (1275-92) was made during this dynasty. The Mongols despised traditional Chinese thought and institutions and caused serious dislocations for the scholar-official class, which turned its creative energies to drama and literature.

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) followed, famous for its naval expeditions to Arabia and Africa, its enormous volume and variety of printed works, and for Ming porcelain. A second nonnative dynasty, the Ch’ing (1644-1911), was established by the Manchus, who quickly adopted traditional Chinese institutions and values. The K’ang-his period (1661-1772) was one of China’s most powerful and glorious periods. During this time, China began to have extensive contact with Europe. By the end of the Ch’ing, however, the weight of internal corruption and encroachment by Western colonial powers combined to cause the dynasty to collapse. In 1912 it was replaced by the Chinese Republic, which lasted until 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established under the leadership of Mao Tse-Tung.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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