Skip to content

Traditional History of China (Unfinished)

November 15, 2014

(This is intended as a brief introduction for my own use. I have learned traditional Chinese history over many decades and remember many names and dates, but I need a simple source for proper spelling, dates which I have not memorized or forgotten and tones for many Mandarin words. Wikipedia is my main source for what I do not personally remember, but I feel good, since I just sent them a fairly generous contribution. 2014-10-31) [[Unfinished because the Word program became polluted, making it very difficult to edit. Copying it over did not help. I see that the superscript tones have become ordinary numbers on the main line. Too bad!]]

Traditional Chinese history usually begins with the Three Kings and the Five Emperors. Early writers tried to treat them as real people but they appear to be completely mythological figures to any modern reader. There is considerable variation in their names and even the order of their reigns. I will follow the Grand Historian, Si1ma3 Qian1 司馬遷 (ca. 140 to 86 BCE) whom I greatly admire, and thus use:
Fu2 Xi1 伏羲
Nu3wa1 女媧
Shen2nong4 神農
for the Three Kings and
Yellow Emperor, Huang2 Di4 黃帝
Zhuan1xu1 顓頊
Emperor Di4 Ku4 帝嚳
Emperor Di4 Yao2 帝堯
Shun4 舜;
for the Five Emperors. They were all supposed to have lived incredibly long lives. The best known is Huang2 Di4, who is said to have ruled from 2697 to 2597 BCE and to have originated much of Chinese culture.

The history of the Xia Dynasty, Xia4 Chao2 夏朝 is a little closer to reality but since it predates writing, precision is not to be expected. Various attempts to supply dates for this dynasty give conflicting results but I will use 1994 to 1766 BCE. It was founded by Yu the Great, Da4 Yu3 大禹. He is traditionally considered to be a direct descendant of the Yellow Emperor born in Si4chuan1 Sheng3 四川省 but moving as a child into the Yellow River (Huang4 He2 黃河) Valley. He expanded on his father Gun’s 鯀 work and actually learned how to control floods. This led Shun4, the last of the Five Emperors, to pass the throne to Yu3. The archaeologically well known Er4li3tou2 二里頭文化Bronze Age Culture may well represent the Xia4 Dynasty, but the absence of writing makes any exact correspondence speculative.

The literary history of these early dynasties is extensive. After about 1920 all this history began to be viewed with great skepticism. This skepticism extended to the Shang Dynasty, Shang1 Chao2商朝 (1766 to 1027 BCE) with its capitol at Yin1殷, near modern An1yang2 安陽. Modern archaeology has discovered the remains of this capitol and the tombs of many of the traditional rulers of the Shang and revealed the enormous wealth of even unknown minor figures from the period. Magnificent bronze grave goods are often inscribed. The Oracle Bones, jia3gu3 甲骨 , are mostly turtle shells used in divination. They are inscribed with the question asked, the answer given by the diviner and most wonderfully with the actual outcome. In 1899 Wang2 Yi4rong2 王懿榮 first recognized the nature of these artifact which date from the time of Wu3 Ding1武丁 to Di4 Xin1帝辛, representing the last 230 years of the Shang Dynasty. This is the earliest known Chinese writing.

The Zhou Dynasty Zhou1 Chao2 周朝 (1046 to 256 BCE) originated west of Yin1. Chinese mythology makes the founder of the dynasty, Qi, a miraculously conceived son of one of Emperor Ku’s concubines. For generations the clan members were officials under the Shang. But in 1046 King Wu of Zhou led an army of 45,000 men and 300 chariots across the Yellow River to defeat Emperor King Zhou of the Shang at the battle of Mu4ye3 牧野. In 1043 Wu died and his young son, the Duke of Zhou became Emperor. He invoked the idea of the Mandate of Heaven to justify his reign. Emperors enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven as long as they ruled justly and conditions were good. Another ruler could assume the Mandate when he could rule much better. This idea has remained central in Chinese political history ever since this time.

The Zhou Dynasty gradually began to rule over much more extensive territories from its capitol at Hao. In 771 a family dispute resulted in the sack of Hao. Members of the family were sent to distant centers as administrators. Over time the loyalty of their descendants, who were routinely appointed as successors, had lapsed. The Spring and Autumn Chronicles (possibly written by Confucius) detail the gradual disintegration of central authority from 722 to 481 in all but a ceremonial role. Hundreds of petty states took over. Confucius 孔夫子(supposedly a direct descendant of the Duke of Zhou, 551 to 479 BCE) lived in one of these states and idealized the earlier more centralized government.

By 481 these petty states had united into seven. The Warring States Period (481 to 221 BCE) saw the brutal consolidation by conquest by King of Qin. Qin Shi Huang Di (259 to 210 BCE), the First Emperor of China is one of the most important individuals in human history. He set up a system of government over the most populous nation on earth which has survived for well over two millennia. In 11 years he transformed Chinese culture and civilization to an amazing degree.

Xia Dynasty About 1994 BCE – 1766 BCE

Shang Dynasty 1766 BCE – 1027 BCE

Zhou Dynasty 1122 BCE – 256 BCE

Qin Dynasty 221 BCE – 206 BCE

We have mentioned many emperors already so why is this man called the Fist Emperor? He exercised much greater power and authority than any other historical emperor and by the time he had completed his conquests he ruled over much of modern China, more than any other previous emperor. The first emperor of each succeeding dynasty unified China (east and west or north and south) much the way Qin Shi Huang Di did. Mao Zedong was the last person to accomplish this.

After the Qin Dynasty Traditional Chinese History is replaced by modern history. Thus I will just list an outline of the most important subsequent dynasties. A government that has ruled for decades or centuries does not collapse in a single year nor does a new ruling house take over a vast country in such a brief period, but I will use the traditional years for the beginning and end of dynasties.

Early Han Dynast Han4 Chao2 漢朝(206 BCE – 9 CE)

Xin Dynasty Xin1 Chao2 (Interregnum) X 新朝(9 – 24 CE)

Later Han Dynasty Han4 Chao2 漢朝(25 – 220 CE)

Three Kingdoms San1 Guo2 – Period of Disunion 220 CE – 280 CE

Sui Dynasty Sui2 Chao2 隋朝 (589 – 618 CE)

Tang Dynasty Tang2 Chao2 唐朝 (618 – 907 CE)

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Wu3 五代 Shih2 Guo2 十國
(907 – 960/979 CE)

Sung Dynasty Sung4 Chao2 宋朝(969 – 1279 CE)

Great Yuan Dynasty Yuan2, Da4 Yuan2 大元 (1279 – 1368 CE)

Great Ming Dynasty Da4 Ming2 Chao2 大明朝(1368 – 1644 CE)

Manchu or Great Qing Dynasty Da4 Qing1 Chao2 大清朝(1644 – 1912 CE)

Nationalist Government Chung1gwo2 Min2gwo2 zeng4fu3 中華民國國民政府 (1912 – 1949 CE)

Communist Government (1949 CE – ?)


From → Home

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: