Chinese written history can be dated back to about 3600 years ago, but the evidence of human settlement in China goes back much further than this. Evidence - such as Peking Man,Yuanmou Man, and Lantian Man - has been found placing homo erectus in China around 1,000,000 to 500 000 years ago during the Paleolithic period. These peoples were able to use fire and creative stone tools to help them gather food, hunt, and begin to shape the world around them. It was not until the Neolithic period around 10,000 years ago that people began to create more sophisticated tools and engage in pottery and weaving, leaving behind recognisable remains of individual cultures across the country. One of the most famous of these groups was the Banpo culture, at its height around 5000 years ago and part of the wider Yangshao culture, which cultivated the Yellow River Valley.


China’s prehistory is dotted with legends and tales of tribal warfare. In this murky, little understood period, one figure emerges above all, Huangdi, the ‘Yellow Emperor’ and the legendary father of the Chinese people.  He came to power as the most important tribal leader among the many clans living around the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.

It was not until 2100BC and the rise of the Xia Dynasty, generally thought of as the first dynasty, that written records began to be used, finally giving us a clearer picture of history. The Shang Dynasty that followed was a period of peace that led to many economic and cultural developments. The Shang Dynasty was the height of the Bronze Age, and many beautiful and sophisticated pieces have been found which date back to this period. The subsequent Zhou Dynasty continued this trend.  Indeed, this period is often considered to have been the height of classical Chinese history, when there were considerable changes in politics, law, culture, agriculture, trade, and economics. The 825 years of the Zhou Dynasty are generally broken up into four different periods: the Western Zhou, Eastern Zhou, the Spring and Autumn Period, and lastly the Warring States Period, a tumultuous time of warfare. Some important aspects of Chinese culture today found their beginnings in this period: The founder of Taoism, Laozi, is said to have lived during the Warring States Period, a rough contemporary of an even more famous symbol of Chinese culture, Confucius. Confucius, or Master Kong, developed a sophisticated philosophical system encouraging morality and justice and shaping education for centuries to come.

The chaos of the Warring States Period was brought to an end with a man called Ying Zeng, better known to history as Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Qin is credited with creating the first united Chinese state and although his dynasty only lasted 15 years, it took in vast expanses of territory and also standardised systems of weights, measures, currency, and language. Despite his great achievements, Qin himself was despised as a tyrant. His people suffered under encroachments upon their intellectual freedom, under taxes, and under the crippling obligations of monumental public works.

The Qin Dynasty was overthrown by peasant revolts and as the dust settled, new rulers took their places. The Western Han Dynasty was established by one of the leaders of the revolts and so, the dynasties continued. The Western Han Dynasty turned into the Eastern Han Dynasty, which then dissipated into the Three Kingdoms Period, another time of powerful states at war with each other for pre-eminence. 

The rise and fall of dynasties continued over the years. In 618AD the Tang Dynasty came to power, beginning a period of Chinese history which many have hailed as one of the most prosperous: there was a good system of trade with foreign countries which led to cultural exchange; poetry reached levels of great sophistication and beauty; and Buddhism enjoyed unprecedented and still unequalled influence. However, the Tang Dynasty gradually withdrew from the stage and rebellion returned the country to chaos. 

Stability came again with the establishment of the Song Dynasty, which also saw the institution of the civil service examinations that were to become so important to the structure of Chinese bureaucracy and education for the rest of its history.

In the late 12th century the Mongols began to flex their muscles. Genghis Khan took the capital Beijing in 1215 and his grandson eventually ruled China as emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.  However, rebellion brought it to an end and in 1368 the Ming Dynasty was established. It was a powerful and long-lived regime, the symbols of which we can often still see today: for example, the Forbidden City was established during this period. China had many dealings with the outside world during this time: Zheng He was commissioned to make his famous voyages in the South Pacific, missionaries began to arrive in China, and the Portuguese brought links to the Americas. However, despite this vibrancy, internal struggles and a series of natural disasters weakened the Ming Dynasty so that the Manchu people could step in and take the reins of power. This new dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, would prove to be the last.

In the Qing Dynasty a series of wars left the state severely weakened. Events such as the Taiping War, the Opium War, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Boxer Rebellion undermined the regime. Reformers campaigned for change and one in particular, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, advocated the complete termination of the monarchy. But the end of the Qing Dynasty came from the grassroots level. Provinces rebelled against the regime and declared themselves in favour of a republic. This republic lasted around 40 years, with its early years a dark time of power struggles between warlords. It saw the rise of two important political parties, the Kuomintang (Nationalist) party established by revolutionary reformer Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and the Communist Party of China. Although these parties co-operated briefly at times to fight internal and external aggressors, their differences led to the civil war of 1946, which the Communist Party won.

On the 1st October 1949, Mao Zedong declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China. In the following years, the party began a program of reform to revolutionise the country’s agriculture, industry and commerce – the infamous Great Leap Forward – which resulted in famine and the break down of social structures. Although the reform was a failure, Mao embarked on yet another in 1966, the Cultural Revolution, a program of ideological transformation. This saw the rise of the Red Guards, young people in the grips of ideological fervour who terrorised the population with violence. In the early 1970s, the US and China began to renew diplomatic ties as it was in the foreign policy interests of both countries to do so. In 1972, US President Richard Nixon visited China and the country slowly began to open up to the West once more.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping eventually came to power and set about reforming China. The economic reforms he instituted saw the development of the Special Economic Zones, opening up further possibilties for China in its financial dealings with the West, but it also led to opportunities for ordinary people to open businesses and sell their crops at market. From these changes, China has boomed. It is now one of the most powerful countries economically and, in addition, it is pouring money into technoloical and scientific advancement. As it has throughout its hisory, it faces problems regarding its territory and the issue of unity: Taiwan continues to assert its independence and the disputed territory of Tibet has become an international cause for concern. Nevertheless, there is a rising sense of nationalism and pride in the country, particularly since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which brought the world’s attention to the ancient ‘Middle Kingdom’.


Writer:  Leah O'Hearn