What Were the Dynasties of Ancient China?

China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and has been around for thousands of years. It has also seen quite a few rulers come and go. The rulers of ancient China formed dynasties. A dynasty is a succession of rulers that follow similar ideals and government organizations. Whenever a new dynasty came into power, major changes followed. Here are all the dynasties of ancient China.

Xia Dynasty (2070 – 1600 B.C.E.)

The Yellow River in China with rock formations in background
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Although people had inhabited the area now known as China for over 10,000 years, the first organized ruler of China was Huang-ti. The Xia Dynasty’s greatest accomplishment was controlling the flooding of the Yellow River to bring irrigation to the valley. The final ruler of the Xia Dynasty, Jie, supposedly fell in love with an evil woman and became a tyrant. His subjects rose up and overthrew him under the leadership of Zi Lu, the founder of the Shang Dynasty.

Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C.E.)

The Shang Dynasty took place during the Bronze Age, which left behind countless intricate bronze artifacts such as weaponry, armor, tools, and jewelry. The Shang Dynasty is also responsible for creating a writing system, founding early mathematics, domesticating horses, and inventing the chariot for faster transportation.

Zhou Dynasty (1046  – 256 B.C.E.)

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The Zhou Dynasty was the longest dynasty in Chinese history. It’s believed that the Zhou Dynasty and Shang Dynasty coexisted for a while before the Shang Dynasty was overthrown. Since the Zhou Dynasty ruled for so long, many advancements were made during this time:

  • China moved into the Iron Age and started using the metal to make stronger agricultural tools and weapons such as crossbows.
  • Large-scale irrigation projects were designed to increase the crop yield potential of the area.
  • Roads and trade routes were established.
  • Coinage was used for the first time.
  • The writing system of the Shang Dynasty was enhanced.
  • Chopsticks were invented.
  • Confucianism and Taoism were developed.

Qin Dynasty (221  – 207 B.C.E.)

While it might not be the longest-running dynasty in history, the Qin Dynasty was definitely one of the most influential. At the time, there were several independent feudal states scattered throughout China. Ying Zheng rose to the throne of the state of Qin and proceeded to conquer all the surrounding regions and unify them in order to establish one massive empire.

The new emperor instituted standardized writing and units of measurement, built highways, and began building the Great Wall of China. Because of his accomplishments that unified the area, China is named after the Qin Dynasty (The letter q is pronounced “ch” in Chinese). Unfortunately, the emperor was extremely authoritative with his rule and levied high taxes on the people. In 210 B.C.E., a rebellion erupted and the emperor was killed. He was buried in a massive 20-square-mile tomb with thousands of terra cotta soldiers.

Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 8 C.E.)

Paintbrush resting on a piece of paper with Chinese writing
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The Han Dynasty is responsible for documenting much of ancient Chinese history that we know today. One of the most important achievements during this time period is the invention of paper. After the Qin Dynasty implemented a standardized writing system, the Han used it. Sima Qian is considered the very first historian. Around 100 B.C.E., he wrote a detailed history of China called the Shiji. In it, he recorded the past histories of all the dynasties that stretched back thousands of years. It’s still considered one of the most important historical records of all time. During the Han Dynasty, music, poetry, sculpture, and art flourished. Much of the traditional Chinese culture that you'll find today is reminiscent of the Han Dynasty.

Xin Dynasty (8  – 23 C.E.)

The Xin Dynasty was a short-lived dynasty following the usurpation of power from the ruling Han family. During this time, China was divided into western and eastern regions called the Xi Han and Dong Han respectively.

After 23 C.E., China fell into further chaos and was separated even more. The Three Kingdoms period lasted until about 200 – 280 C.E. and the Six Dynasties period lasted between 222 – 589 C.E. During this time, there were many wars between the different rulers.

Sui (581  – 618 C.E.)

The Four Gates Pagoda from the Sui Dynasty and made of stone
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After centuries of battles and wars, the Sui Dynasty managed to reunite China into one cohesive unit. Although Sui rulers didn't have much time to make many advancements, this dynasty paved the way for the great Tang Dynasty.

While Sui rulers were building massive palaces and starting huge projects, the general population was nearing famine. The rebellions started around 613 C.E. and lasted until the assassination of the emperor in 617. This led to the rise of the Tang Dynasty.

Tang (618  – 907)

The Tang Dynasty, much like the Han, was a time of art and literature. The first book was printed, poetry reached new heights, and the very first Chinese opera was performed. In addition to advancements in art and culture, Tang scientists invented mechanical clocks, gunpowder, and a smallpox vaccine.

Under Tang rule, China grew to be the largest and strongest empire in the world at the time. Its territory covered most of modern-day China, Vietnam, and parts of Central Asia. The Tang Dynasty is also considered the high point of civilization in China and was the beginning of Imperial China.

Other Dynasties

The Pavilion of Absolute Perfection in the Nan Lian Garden, Hong Kong
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The Tang Dynasty brought China out of ancient times and into the Imperial Age. Other dynasties leading up to the modern era include:

  • Song (960 – 1279)
  • Yuan (1271 – 1568)
  • Ming (1568 – 1644)
  • Qing (1641 – 1911)

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