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Beijing History

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Ancient Chinese History Timeline

Chinese history from 5,000BC to the Twentieth Century

5,000BC Human settlement at Banpo in Shanxi. The Chinese dragon appears for the first time on pottery, archaeologists have also found jade artefacts dating from this period.

2100-1600BC Evidence of metalwork under the semi-mythical Xia dynasty. The Xia are mentioned by early Chinese historians, but left no written records. Recent archaeological finds tend to support the accounts of early historians. It’s around this time that the Chinese first domesticated the silkworm.

1600-1100BC The Xia are overthrown by the Shang dynasty. Archaeological evidence suggests a thriving material culture with jade, silk, metalwork, cowrie shells used as money, and ancestor worship (already a distinctly Chinese culture). The first evidence of the Chinese written language dates from this time in the form of inscriptions on tortoise shell and bone. The shells were then heated and the way they crack was used to predict the future.

1100-771BC The Shang are overthrown by the Zhou. The Zhou begin a long tradition of Chinese history by bad-mouthing the preceding dynasty, accusing the last Shang king of sexual debauchery and cruelty. Upon defeat, the Shang king burns himself to death. The Zhou introduce the concept of the Mandate of Heaven – rule by divine right.

771BC – 221BC The Zhou collapse, unable to quell rebellious tribespeople beyond their borders or ambitious nobility within. The following Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period see various small states fight for power – half a millennium of war. Of course, not everyone was at war all the time and there were periods of relative stability. These periods saw the emergence of new technologies and influential Chinese thinkers, among them Confucius, Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism) and Sun Tzu (Author of “The Art Of War”).

221BC – 207BC The country is finally united under the Qin dynasty. The first Qin Emperor Qin Shihuang, builds the terracotta army to guard his tomb. His descendants lacked his military prowess and his Empire did not long survive him.

206BC – 220AD The Han Dynasty, widely respected by Chinese for a (relatively) compromised based style of government, is founded. The Silk Road spreads Chinese technology and culture abroad and vice versa. Buddhism rises and Confucian ethics are embedded in the written law.

220 – 280AD The Three Kingdoms Period, immortalised in the classic novel “Romance Of The Three Kingdoms”, follows the collapse of the Han. None of the three contending kingdoms lasts more than 60 years.

280 – 589AD The Disunity. Although briefly united by the Jin, China soon splits once again. Various short lived dynasties control the North and the South.

581 – 618AD Yang Jian, raised by a Buddhist nun, unites the country once again, founding the Sui Dynasty and making himself Emperor Wen Di. Wendi’s descendants get bogged down in Korean wars and squander his legacy. The second emperor of the Sui Dynasty, Yangdi, establishes himself an almost unparalleled reputation for cruelty by pushing through the construction of the Grand Canal, costing the lives of half the five million-strong workforce. He built himself a fleet of pleasure boats which, according to Tang dynasty chroniclers, took 80,000 men to pull.

618 – 907AD Acknowledged as a high point of Chinese literature and art, the Tang dynasty saw China control lands from Vietnam to Iran. In spite of a Tang ban on foreign travel the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang (Tripitaka) sets off to India, a trip later immortalised (and somewhat embroidered) in the classic novel “Journey To The West”. Christianity makes its first appearance in China and Zen Buddhism (called Chan Buddhism in China) is developed through combination of Taoist and Buddhist philosophies.

907 – 960AD After the fall of the Tang dynasty five dynasties squabble for power, none ever able to stamp their authority over the rest of the country.

960 – 1271AD The Song Dynasty comes to power, as much through diplomacy as sheer force (a rather unusual event in Chinese history!) but are soon pushed south of the Yangtze River by the Jin. The Song Dynasty was a time of great economic and cultural progress which saw the invention of moveable print, gunpowder and the compass.

1271 – 1368AD Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes sweep across Eurasia, but it’s not until the time of Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, that the invasion of China is completed and the Yuan Dynasty is established. Marco Polo visits China and the Forbidden City is built (the first of several incarnations). The Mongols follow the pattern of foreign invaders before and after them, becoming too Chinese for the relatives they’ve left behind, but remaining too Mongol to be accepted by the Chinese.

1368 – 1644AD Bandit leader and former monk Zhu Yuanzhang seizes the throne and founds the Ming dynasty. The Ming vastly expand the Great Wall and despatch the Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He overseas with a fleet of 300 junks. He reaches the horn of Africa and possibly South America. The dynasty ends when rebel forces break through the Beijing city walls and the Emperor hangs himself from a tree in Jingshan Park.

1644 – 1912AD The Qing Dynasty is established by the northern Manchu tribe. All the Han Chinese are made to wear the queue (pigtail). The successive rule of three of the greatest Chinese Emperors, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong sees 1700s China re-establish prestige not seen since the Tang Dynasty.

1839 – 62 The Opium Wars whereby China attempted to prevent the British selling opium to their citizens. China loses and is forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain. Other humiliating treaties see China slowly carved up by foreign powers.

1851 – 64 Hong Xiuquan, who claims to be a younger brother of Jesus, leads an army in the Taiping uprising. Their eventual defeat leaves much of central China devastated.

1890s At a time when China desperately needs refrorm the government of Empress Dowager offers conservatism and corruption. The Boxer Rebellion, with the stated aim of ‘overthrowing the Qing and destroying foreigners’ claims that its followers are bulletproof.

1899 The Boxers are defeated by the Qing, but Cixi decides they might be useful to her, and sets them the task of killing all the foreigners in China.

1900 An international force arrives in Beijing and routs the Boxers who have besieged the foreign legation. Cixi and the Emperor escape on a cart disguised as peasants.

1912 The Qing dynasty never recovers from the humiliations of 1900, and finally goes the way of every preceding dynasty in 1912. There follows about four decades of disunity and war, ending only with the Commmunist victory in 1949.

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