It’s hard to say how old Chinese culture actually is, but it’s one of the oldest that still has a presence in the modern world. Legends claim that the earliest rulers in China were the Xia Dynasty, from 2100 to 1600 B.C., with Yu as the first emperor, but there is little proof that the dynasty actually existed. Below is a timeline of one of the great cradles of civilization.
Shang Dynasty, Confucius
• 1600-1050 B.C.: Shang Dynasty - The earliest ruling dynasty of China to be established in recorded history, the Shang was headed by a tribal chief named Tan. The Shang era is marked by intellectual advances in astronomy and math.
• 551–479 B.C.: Confucius - The teacher, politician and philosopher was raised in poverty by his mother. He entered politics in 501 B.C. as a town governor after gaining attention as a teacher, but in 498 B.C. lived in exile to escape political enemies.
Returning to China around 483 B.C., Confucius devoted most of his time to teaching disciples his ideas (including, “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart,” and “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”) His ideas would become central to Chinese culture over time and endorsed by the government.
• 221-206 B.C.: Qin Dynasty - The Qin Dynasty, from which China derives its name (Qin is pronounced “Chin”), was the first official empire in its history. The Qins standardized regional written scripts into a single national one, establishing an imperial academy to oversee the translated texts.
The Qin Dynasty created the first Asian superhighway, the 500-mile Straight Road, along the Ziwu Mountain range, and began work on the Great Wall by expanding the northern border wall.
Qin Emperor Ying Zheng created an elaborate underground complex at the foot of the Lishan Mountain, famously featuring 13,000 terracotta statues of warriors and horses.
The Silk Road, Paper and Guns
• 125 B.C.: The Silk Road - Following capture and escape during a mission for Emperor Wu, Zhang Qian returned after 13 years with a map of the ground he had covered. Reaching as far as Afghanistan, his maps were accurate and led to the international trade route the Silk Road.
• 105 A.D.: Paper and books - Cai Lun developed paper by pounding together ingredients like bamboo, hemp, bark and others and spreading the pulp flat.
Paper use spread quickly across the empire, with the first Chinese dictionary, compiled by Xu Shen, and the first book of Chinese history, written by Sima Qian soon appearing.
• 850 A.D.: Gunpowder - Alchemists working with saltpeter for medicinal purposes mixed it with charcoal and sulfur. The explosive properties that resulted were used in warfare to propel arrows by the Tang Dynasty, as well as fireworks.
• 868 A.D.: Printing press - The earliest known printed book, The Diamond Sutra, was created during the Tang Dynasty. It was soon followed by calendars and educational material.
• 1260 A.D.: Kublai Khan - The grandson of Genghis conquered the Song Dynasty and established the Yuan Dynasty, unifying China and bringing Mongolia, Siberia and parts of the Middle East and even Europe into the Chinese Empire.
Kublai Khan introduced paper money, met with Marco Polo, brought the first Muslims to the country and attempted to conquer Japan.
• 1557: World trade - The Ming Dynasty expanded China’s maritime trade to export silk and porcelain wares. A European presence was allowed within the empire and Chinese merchants emigrated to locations outside the realm for the first time.
The Opium Wars
• 1840-1842: The First Opium War - Great Britain flooded the country with opium, causing an addiction crisis. The Qing Dynasty banned the drug, and a military confrontation resulted. British forces shut down Chinese ports, and Hong Kong was handed over to them.
• 1851-1864: The Taiping Rebellion - Self-proclaimed prophet Hong Xiuquan revolted against the Qing Dynasty with his Christian cult the God Worshipping Society. Spurred on by visions, Hong rampaged across China, taking Nanjing in 1852, which he governed for 12 years. Hong was found poisoned in 1864. The conflict claimed at least 20 million lives.
• 1856-1860: The Second Opium War - Britain and France demanded that China legalize opium, invading Guangzhou and advancing into Beijing. Desperate to end the conflict, China signed a treaty giving the west more business power and the control of ports.
• 1894-1894: The First Sino Japanese War - The Qing Dynasty clashed with Japan over Korea. China’s regional dominance plummeted after losing and influenced a series of internal clashes over the next 16 years. As part of the defeat agreement, Taiwan was handed over to Japan.
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• 1899: The Boxer Rebellion - Under the rule of Empress Dowager Cixi, the secret society the Harmonious Fist began slaughtering foreigners. Known as the Boxers, they won Empress Dowager’s support when eight European countries sent troops. China lost the conflict, and the West imposed sanctions that permanently weakened Qing rule.
• 1912: The Republic of China - Fueled by western-educated revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen, the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 culminated in the Wuchang Uprising, and 15 provinces declared their independence from the Qing Dynasty. Sun took control in 1912, announcing the republic.
• 1927: Shanghai Massacre - Millions of executions take place when Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek orders the massacre of Communists, which inadvertently causes the creation of the opposing Communist Red Army.
• 1928: Reunification - Elevated to head of the government, Chiang succeeded in reunifying China by seizing areas under the control of warlords.
• 1931: Civil War - Fighting between the Red Army and the Nationalist Party escalates into an 18-year-long conflict.
• 1937-1945: The Second Sino-Japanese War - Tensions started with the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria but exploded in 1937. After the Japanese captured Shanghai and Nanjing, a stalemate ensued until World War II and American support reframed the conflict into a theater in the larger war.
• 1945: Taiwan returns to China - Following Japanese surrender in World War II, Taiwan returned to Chinese control. Tensions mounted between Chinese soldiers and Taiwanese citizens, erupting in violence in 1947, and ending with Chiang sending further troops.
• 1949: People’s Republic of China - After a violent end stage to the civil war, the Communist Party declared the People’s Republic of China. Two months later, two million soldiers followed Chiang Kai-shek into exile to Taiwan where he set up a provisional government claiming to be the legitimate ruling body of China. Communist party chairman Mao Zedong became China’s new leader.
• 1958-1962: The Great Leap Forward - This campaign by Chairman Mao to transform the agricultural base of China’s society into an industrial one imposed a commune system that organized peasants and forbade private farming. The plan failed to produce the necessary yield, and famine followed, leading to 56 million deaths, including 3 million by suicide.
• 1966: The Cultural Revolution - This campaign was initiated by Chairman Mao to erase Capitalist and traditional Chinese influences of the People’s Republic and introduce the philosophy of Maoism to fill the ideological gaps. Schools were closed and Chinese youth directed to take the lead in change, resulting in youth gangs known as the Red Guards attacking undesirable citizens. Chaos led to martial law, Communist Party purges, and 1.5 million deaths.
• 1972: Richard Nixon visits China - The first American president to visit China while serving in office and the first diplomatic meeting between the countries since 1949, Nixon met with Mao and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, discussing multiple topics, including trade and a U.S. troop withdrawal from Taiwan.
• April 5, 1975: Chiang Kai-shek dies - After 26 years steering Taiwan to legitimacy and attempting to take back mainland China, Chiang succumbs to a heart attack.
• September 9, 1976: Mao dies - Mao’s death after several heart attacks effectively ends the Cultural Revolution and brought Deng Xiaoping to power for the next two decades, pushing out Mao’s inner circle known as the Gang of Four. By the end of his reign, Mao would oversee the slaughter of some 40 million people.
• 1989: Tiananmen Square protests - These student-led protests grew from the '89 Democracy Movement demanding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and more. They gained worldwide attention when the government violently cracked down on the protesters and images of tanks rolling into students inspired universal condemnation. At least 300 died in the protests.
• 1993: Three Gorges Project - The construction of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam began. Proposed as early as 1920, the project required flooding 1,500 cities and villages, displacing as many as 1.9 million people and destroying 1,200 archaeological and historical sites. The dam begins operation in 2015.
• July 1, 1997: Hong Kong returns to China - In a midnight ceremony with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in attendance, Hong Kong was given back to China after 156 years. China agreed to preserve the island’s capitalist economy as part of the handover agreement.
• 2010: Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement - China and Taiwan begin officially speaking to each other for the first time, but following the 2016 election of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwanese president, China rescinds these new ties.
Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Patricia Buckley Ebrey.
The Dynasties of China. Bamber Gascoigne.
China Condensed: 5000 Years of History and Culture. Ong Siew Chey.
What's behind the China-Taiwan divide? BBC.
The Story of China. PBS.