by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon

Chinese history is normally described in relation to Dynasties. The first historical emperor of China was Qinshi Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor of the Qin clan. His tomb has become the famous archeological site at Xian, best known for its hundreds of terra cotta guards and horses. Before him, there were diverse tribes forming confederations, depicted as the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties. Dating of the Xia and Shang Dynasties are based on archeological finds; dating of the Zhou Dynasty is influenced by historical records that are imprecise. Before that time, one encounters stories of a mythical period, projecting back to 5,000 years before the present, which gives the commonly-cited figure for the age of many Chinese cultural activities, including the frequently recited statement: "Chinese medicine has a 5,000-year history."

Beginning with the Qin Dynasty, the common characteristic of Chinese rule is that there was one primary leader of China, the head of the Dynasty. Each leader was succeeded by another, usually by birthright, until an opposing group took power (at times, two or more Dynasties coexisted in different parts of China). It was common for a Chinese Dynasty to follow a basic pattern: begin with a very powerful leader taking over a weakened country; develop over several generations to a highly successful and vital civilization; and then degrade to the point that an opponent could take over. Some historical periods were highly unstable, in which there was frequent or nearly continuous upheaval. Thus, before the Tang Dynasty, there was the Six Dynasties period, followed by the short-lived Sui Dynasty (all together 7 Dynasties in 140 years). For those who are interested in China, the famous Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing Dynasties particularly stand out; each of these lasted for about 300 years and ruled a vast territory.

In Chinese historical documents, it is common to identify a person's life and accomplishments by the Dynasty in which he (or she) lived, and, frequently, according to the Emperor who lived at that time. For precision, a person's birth date, date of a publication or accomplishment, or date of death might be given as the "16th year of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty," thus allowing modern historians to translate to a specific year of the calendar. Major historical developments are described in relation to the Dynastic period in which they took place. In the medical field, it is common to refer to medical works that arose during the Han, Song, Ming, or Qing Dynasties; one particularly productive period is known as the Jin-Yuan; referring to the Southern Song (corresponding to Jin) and Mongolian (Yuan) Dynastic periods.

While the Chinese people, as well as scholars who specialize in Chinese history, are well aware of these Dynasties by name and when they occurred, those who have a more cursory interest in things Chinese may not gain much insight by typical references to "the Warring States period," or the Manchu Dynasty (the Qing Dynasty). In order to assist readers in understanding the timeline of Chinese history, the following table (on two pages) is offered. It should be understood that there are some disagreements among scholars about the dates involved, particularly before about 300 A.D. In the table, some alternative dates are presented in brackets. Often times, the transition would not be a clean one; an emperor of one Dynasty might retreat to a different part of China and continue on for some years; or, a new Dynasty might begin in a remote part of China and then take over the capitol. The question arises: what date is chosen to define when the Dynasty starts and ends? There can also be slight discrepancies in the year assigned due to uncertainties in the historical records; these usually involve only a year or two of difference from the years cited here.

To help further elucidate the nature of a Dynasty, details of the Qing Dynasty, China's last, are presented in a separate table, showing each of the Emperors, and depicting some events that took place during their reign that influenced the future development of China. Several books about individual Chinese Emperors and the events taking place during their rule are available. Examples are: The First Emperor of China (1), A Year of No Significance (2; about the Wangli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty), and Emperor of China (3; about the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty).

Table 1: Chinese Dynasties.

Designation of Dynasty, Subdivisions, and Years Years of Dynastic Period
Mythical Rulers
    Fu Xi (Tai Hao): 2953 B.C.
    Shen Nong (Yan Di): 2838 B.C.
    Five Emperors*
        1. You Xiong (Huang Di): 2698-2599 B.C.
        2. Jin Tian (Shao Han): 2598-2515 B.C.
        3. Gao Yang (Zhuan Xu): 2514-2437 B.C.
        4. Gao Xin (Di Ku): 2436-2367 B.C.
        5. Gao Xin (Di Zhi): 2366-2357 B.C.
2953-2357 B.C.
    Tao Tang (Yao): 2357-2258 B.C.
    You Yu (Shun): 2255-2205 B.C.
2357-2205 B.C.
Xia Dynasty
    Dating estimates from archeological sites
2205-1766 [1806] B.C.
[~2000-1500 B.C.]
[~2100-1600 B.C.]
Shang Dynasty
    Dating estimates from archeological sites
1766-1121 B.C.
[1700-1027 B.C.]
[1600-1066 B.C.]
Zhou Dynasty
    Kingdom of Zhou (Eastern Zhou): 1121 [1027/1134]-770 B.C.
    Chun Qiu (Period of the Annals; Spring and Autumn): 770-464 [476] B.C.
    Zhan Guo (Warring States): 464 [475]-221 B.C.
1121-255 B.C.
[1066-221 B.C.]
[770-221 B.C.]
Qin Dynasty
    Qin Shi Huang Di [first emperor]: 221-210 B.C.
221-206 B.C.
Han Dynasty**
    Western Han: 206 B.C.-25 A.D. [9 A.D.]
    Eastern Han: 25 A.D.-220 A.D.
206 B.C.-220 A.D.
Three Kingdoms
    Wei (North): 220-265 A.D.
    Shu (West): 221-265 A.D.
    Wu (South): 222 [229]-280 A.D.
220-280 A.D.
Jin Dynasty
    Western Jin: 265-317 A.D.
    Eastern Jin: 317-420 A.D.
265-420 A.D.
Song Dynasty 420-479 A.D.
Six Dynasties
    1. Qi Dynasty: 479-502 A.D.
    2. Liang Dynasty: 502-557 A.D.
    3. Chen Dynasty: 557-589 A.D.
    4. Wei Dynasty: 386-557 [533] A.D.
            Northern Wei Dynasty: 386-535 A.D.
            Western Wei Dynasty: 535-557 A.D.
            Eastern Wei Dynasty: 534-550 A.D.
    5. Northern Qi Dynasty: 550-589 [577] A.D.
    6. Northern Zhou Dynasty: 557-589 A.D.
479-589 A.D.
Sui Dynasty 589 [581]-618 A.D.
Tang Dynasty 618-907 A.D.
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms ***
    1. Later Liang: 907-923 A.D.
    2. Later Tang: 923-936 A.D.
    3. Later Jin: 936-947 A.D.
    4. Later Han: 947-951 A.D.
    5. Later Zhou: 951-960 A.D.
907-960 A.D.
Song Dynasty
    Northern Song: 960-1127 A.D.
    Southern Song: 1127-1280 A.D. (Jin)
960-1280 A.D.
Yuan Dynasty (Mongol) 1280-1368 A.D.
Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 A.D.
Qing Dynasty (Manchu) 1644-1911 A.D.

*  Historians have not agreed on who were the Five Kings, as the literature is ambiguous and conflicting. The basic list is Huang Di, Shao Hao, Zhuan Xu, Di Yao [or Di Ku], and Di Shun [or Di Zhi].

**  The transition between the Western (or former) and Eastern (or later) Han Dynasties is marked by the rule of the Xin king Wang Mang, from 9 A.D. [6 A.D.] to 23 A.D. and the usurper Xuan for one or two more years; they are often subsumed under the Western Han period. At the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Emperor Liu Shan ruled in exile from 224-263 A.D.

***   The Ten Kingdoms were the Wu, Nan Tang (Southern Tang), Wu Yue, Chu, Min, Nan Han (Southern Han), Qian Shu (Former Shu), Hou Shu (Later Shu), Jing Nan (Southern Jing), and Bei Han (Northern Han). There were also two Dynasties that overlapped with this period and the Song Dynasty as follows: Liao 916-1125 A.D.; Western Xia 1038 [1032]-1227 A.D.

After the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China was founded by Sun Yatsen; the Republic of China continues today on Taiwan. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded by Mao Zedong; the communist PRC is the current governmental structure for all of China except Taiwan.

Table 2: Emperors of the Qing Dynasty.

Emperors* Events
Qing Shi Zu
(Sun Zhi)
Shi Zu occupied Beijing; Li Zi Cheng defeated (1644). Zheng Cheng Gong took over Taiwan (1661).
Qing Sheng Zu
(Kang Xi)
England began trading with China (1680). Taiwan captured (1683). Boundary between Russia and China is delineated (1689). Mongolia incorportated into Qing's territory (1697). Tibet's rebellion suppressed (1720).
Qing Shi Zong
(Yong Zheng)
Sunu tried to crown Emperor Kang Xi's eighth son Yun Yi to be Emperor, but failed. Qing Hai captured (1723). Christianity banned in China (1723). Emperor issues first anti-opium edict.
Qing Gao Zong
(Qian Long)
Conquered Turkestan (1755). Initiated the Closed Door Policy. Tea trade with Europe established (1760 - 1770). Vietnam conquered by China (1787).
Qing Ren Zong
(Jia Qing)
Christian literature banned (1805). Opium trade, forced by Britain, starts to expand rapidly (1820).
Qing Xuan Zong
(Dao Guan)
Opium War: Britain captured Zhou Shan and attacked Ning Po (1840). War ended with the signing of Nanjing Treaty that opened up five trading ports and ceded Hong Kong to England (1842).
Qing Wen Zong
(Xian Feng)
Hong Xiu Quan led the Taiping Rebellion (1851). Joint forces of England and France attacked China over banning of opium (1857) and occupied Beijing; Summer Palace looted. China signed Beijing treaty with England, France, and Russia to end the war by paying indemnity and giving up more land (1860).
Qing Mu Zong
(Tong Zhi)
When Xiang Feng died Tong Zhi was only 6 years old. Empress Dowager Cixi (Tong Zhi's mother) ruled China behind the scenes until Tong Zhi was 17. Taiping troops defeated in Shanghai (1862). Japan occupied Taiwan (1874).
Qing De Zong
(Guan Xu)
Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China (1875-1908). Civil war in Korea: China sent troops to help and sparked the Sino-Japanese war (1894) that ended with China giving Taiwan to Japan (1895). England took Kowloon; America forced China to open its door (1899). Boxer Rebellion sparked the mass invasion by eight countries including England, America, Germany, France, and Russia (1900).
Qing Xuan Tong Di
Japan conquered Korea (1910). Rebellion started in Wu Chang (1911), leading to overthrow of last Chinese Dynasty, "ruled" by a young child, Pu Yi.

*    The Emperors name is given first, followed by the name for the Emperor's reign. Hence, Qing Shi Zu is the name of the Sun Zhi Emperor; Qing Sheng Zu is the name of the Kang Xi Emperor.


  1. Guisso RWL, Pagani C, and Miller D, The First Emperor of China, 1989 Sidgwick and Jackson, London.
  2. Huang R, 1587 A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline, 1981 Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
  3. Spence JD, Emperor of China: Self Portrait of Kang-Hsi, 1974 Vintage Books, New York.

Figure 1: The First Emperor of China: Qinshi (221-210 B.C.).

Figure 2: Hongwu, Founder of the Ming Dynasty (1369-1398 A.D.).

Figure 3: Wanli, 14th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1573-1619 A.D.).

Figure 4: Kangxi, 2nd Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1662-1722 A.D.).