Shang Dynasty (1523 – 1028 BC)

The earliest know historical dynasty in Bronze Age China was the Shang.

The Shang were ruled by a powerful king who was also a religious leader. They worshipped natural phenomena, such as rivers, mountains and points of the compass. Sacrifices of animals and, sometimes, human prisoners of war were made to these gods for rain and good harvests This was done with considerable ceremony, including divination with the aid of bones or tortoise shells.

Chou Dynasty (1028 – 476 BC)

The Chou developed in parallel with the Shang to whom they paid tribute throughout the Shang Dynasty. Gradually, the military power of the Cho overtook that of the Shang until, during the reign of Di Yi, they attacked and destroyed the Shang kingdom. The Chou assimilated the art and culture of their predecessors.

The Chou Dynasty is divided into two periods:
• The Western Chou 1026 – 770 B.C. and
• The Spring and Autumn Period 770 – 476 B.C.

However, the Eastern Chou Dynasty, which succeeded the western Chou in part of China continued from 770 B.C. until 221 B.C.

Warring States Period (475 – 221 DC)

With the decline of the Shang, China broke up into a number of rival states. Despite the violence of this this period, it was a time of great advances. The old form of society based on slavery was replaced by a feudal organisation and two of China’s great religions, Confucianism and Taoism, were established. (China’s third great religion, Buddhism, was also established in India during this period but did not reach China until much later.)

Ch’in Dynasty (221 – 206 BC)

All of China was united for the first time by the Emperor Shih Huang Ti, ruler of the state of Ch’in (hence China) in 221 B.C. His reign was notable for the building of the Great Wall, the destruction of all historical books and the burying alive of thousands of Confucian scholars.

In 1974, Shih Huang Ti’s tomb was found in Shansi. Excavation has revealed more than 6,000 life-size terracotta figures of warriors and horses.

Han Dynasty (207 BC – 220 AD)

On the death of the Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, the people of Chin revolted and the Han Dynasty was founded. This Dynasty was characterised by a powerful centralised government and a struggle between Confucianism and Taoism (which the Confucians eventually won). Confucian legends and Taoist folklore provide most of the subject matter of Han art.

The Han Dynasty is divided into two periods: Western Han from 206 B.C. to 24 A.D. and Eastern Han from 24 to 220 A.D.

In many ways, the Han Dynasty is comparable to the contemporary Roman Empire.

The Three Kingdoms, Jin and Northern & Southern Dynasties

During the last hundred years of the Han Dynasty, China was splintered by strife which lead to the formation of separate states and short-lived dynasties.

The Han dynasty was followed by the Three Kingdoms: the Wei (220 – 280), the Shu (221 – 263) and the Wu (222 -280).

These were followed by the Jin (265 – 420).

Towards the end of the Jin Dynasty, China was divided in separate states in the north and south. The Northern Dynasties were the Northern Wei (386 – 534), the Eastern Wei (534 – 550), the Western Wei (535 – 557), the Northern Chi (550 – 577) and the Northern Chou (557 – 581). The Southern Dynasties were the Song (420 – 479), the Chi (479 – 502), the Liang (502 – 557) and the Chen (557 – 589).

During this period, many people eagerly adopted the alternative lifestyle offered by Indian Buddhist missionaries.

Most of the surviving Buddhist art of this time comes from the north which was ruled by barbarian peoples who had adopted Chinese culture. The native Chine dynasties in the south were more influence by Taoist nature cults which is reflected in a new appreciation of landscape in painting and poetry.

Sui Dynasty (581 – 618 AD)

In 581, Yang Jian united China and proclaimed himself Emperor Wendi of the Sui Dynasty. Emperor Wendi constructed the Grand Canal linking the China’s two great rivers, the Yangtse and the Yellow River. This facilitated trade between the north and south and spurred cultural and economic development.

During the sixth century a new form of Buddhism, the Paradise Sects, which promised rebirth in a paradise rich in material pleasures, became popular. This resulted in a greater materialism in art and the gradual transformation of the Buddha into a gentle and humane saviour.

Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 AD)

The Tang Dynasty was a period of power and splendour. The Tang rulers allowed craftsmen to pay a tax from their earnings rather than work as peasant labourers. This created the first middle-class society.

The Five Dynasties (906 – 960 AD)

Late in the Tang Dynasty, local viceroys expanded their power, increased their armies and proclaimed themselves emperor or king. The north of China was ruled by five successive Dynasties. In the south, there were ten rival kingdoms.

Sung Dynasty (980 – 1279)

In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin led a military coup which overthrew the last of the Five Dynasties. In 979, his younger brother, Zhao Guangyi defeated the last of his rivals and established the rule of the Sung Dynasty throughout China. The first part of the Sung Dynasty, until 1126, was called the Northern Sung because of the location of the capital at Kaifeng.

In 1127, as a result of pressure from Tartars and Mongols in the west and north, the capital of China was moved to Hangchow in the south. Orthodox Buddhism lost ground to Zen Buddhism, which repudiates texts and rituals and emphasise meditation and personal enlightenment.

Late in the Southern Sung Dynasty, Dutch traders reached China and brought porcelain back to Europe where it was traded on an equal weight basis for gold.

Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368)

In 1279, the Sung Dynasty fell to the Mongols under Kublai Khan who established the Yuan Dynasty. Popular uprisings against Mongol rule occurred almost continually throughout the Dynasty. Many scholars and artists chose exile rather than serve the barbarian rulers. These artists no longer painted idyllic landscapes but formidable environments of massive tortured forms.

Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)

In 1368, a popular uprising drove out the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty. Like other dynasties, the Ming is broken up into its various reign periods. (The names of the periods are not the names of the Emperors but names given to the period of the Emperor’s reign. Sometimes on Emperor’s reign is divided into more than one period.)

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor decreed that peasants could legally own any waste land which they reclaimed. Within ten years, newly reclaimed land accounted for half the farmland in China.

Policies such as these helped the economy recover. Wholesale and retail trade developed. The iron steel, textile, ceramics, ship building and construction industries all expanded rapidly.

The reign periods of the Ming Dynasty were:

• Hongwu 1368-1398
• Jianwen 1399 – 1402
• Yongle 1403 – 1424
• Hongx1 1425
• Xuande 1426 -1435
• Zhangtong 1436 -1449
• Jingtai 1450 – 1456
• Tianshun 1457 – 1464
• Chenghua 1465 – 1487
• Hongzhi 1488 – 1505
• Zhengde 1506 – 1521
• Jiajing 1522 – 1566
• Longqing 1567 – 1572
• Wanli 1573 – 1620
• Taichang 1620
• Tianqi 1621 – 1627
• Chongzhen 1628 – 1644

Ch’ing Dynasty (1644 – 1912}

Internal decay of the Ming bureaucracy permitted another group of northern invaders, the Manchu, to overrun the country, establishing the Ch’ing Dynasty.

The reign periods of the Ch’ing Dynasty were:

• Shunzhi 1644 – 1661
• Kangxi 1662 – 1722
• Yongzheng 1722 – 1735
• Qianlong 1736 – 1795
• Jiaqing 1796 – 1820
• Daoguang 1821 – 1850
• Xianfeng 1851 – 1861
• Tangzhi 1862 – 1874
• Guangzu 1875 – 1908
• Xuantong 1909 – 1912.

Republic (1912 – 1949)


People’s Republic (1949 – present)


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