Shang Dynasty 1650 - 1027 BCE
The Shang Dynasty is considered to be the earliest
dynasty in China. Little
is known about the Shang, other than their major
contribution to Chinese
culture, a system of writing.
The Chinese system of writing includes tens of
thousands of characters, and is very difficult to learn.
This resulted in on a very privileged few ever
learning to read and write in ancient Chinese society.
The ancient Chinese system of writing used
or drawings of objects, and
ideographs, or drawings that expressed a thought
or idea. Examples
of this type of writing can be found on oracle bones.
Oracle bones are pieces of bone of turtle
shell used by Shang priests to tell the future.
They would write a question addressed to either
one of the gods, or an ancestor on the bone, then heat
it until it cracked.
They believed that by studying the pattern of
cracks, one could learn the answer to the question.
Oracle bones are the oldest example of Chinese
Zhou Dynasty 1027-256 BCE
The Zhou overthrew the Shang and setup their own
dynasty in 1027 BCE.
They explained their actions by claiming the Mandate
of Heaven, or
divine right of rule. The Mandate of Heaven was later used to explain the
dynasty would remain in power only as long as it was
When a dynasty went into decline, and began to
abuse its power, it was said to lose the Mandate of
Heaven, or the favor of the gods.
A strong leader would usually emerge to claim the
Mandate, and establish a new dynasty.
The dynastic cycle would then begin again.
Under the Zhou, the Chinese discovered how to make
silk from the cocoons of
silkworms. Silk would become China’s most valuable export, eventually
linking them with most of the world through
artisans also excelled in book making.
The first books were made by binding together
long, thin strips of wood or bamboo.
scholars would then carefully paint
characters on with brush and ink.
Early book include the I Ching, a
book for diviners, or fortune tellers, and the Book
of Songs, which includes a poetry describing a
variety of Chinese life.
Han Dynasty 206 BCE – 220 CE
China enjoyed a true
golden age under the Han.
Many cultural and intellectual achievements came as a
result of the strong leadership of the Emperor Wudi.
Under Wudi, China strengthened both its government and
economy, setting the conditions for the golden
age. This included a period of expansion that saw
the opening of the
Silk Road as a major trade
route. Trade along the Silk Road brought China in
contact with other
civilizations, and introduced new
products such as cucumbers and grapes.
Under the Hans,
Confucianism became the
official belief system of China. They also setup a
Civil Service Exam based on Confucianism.
This exam was required to enter service in the
government. The Confucian system of government was
used in China for most of the last 2000 years.
Han scientists wrote textbooks on subjects ranging
chemistry. They were advanced
which enabled them to create more accurate clocks.
Han scientist also invented the process to make paper
from wood pulp; they invented the rudder for use
on ships, and created other such useful devices as the
fishing reel and the wheelbarrow.
Han physicians developed
alleviate pain and to treat various illnesses.
They also made use of certain plants as herbal remedies.
They were able to diagnose and successfully treat
various illnesses with these techniques.
Han artists and
architects are noted for their
detailed carvings in jade, wood, or ivory, and the
building of elaborate temples. The also refined
the process of silk making, which set the standard in
China for centuries.
Tang Dynasty 618 – 907
After a period of
civil war and decline in China, the
Tang reestablished a unified government.
emperors expanded their influence into
Central and Southeast Asia, demanding tribute from such
places as Korea and Vietnam.
They redistributed land to the peasants and
reintroduced the use of Confucian scholars in running
the government. Tang
emperors also established a law code, and
renovated the canal system to encourage trade and
communication inside of China.
Under the Tang, a
strict social structure was
system consisted of
three main social classes, which included the
peasantry, and the
Each class had its own rights and duties, and
social mobility was possible from one class to another.
Tang scientists invented
gunpowder in the 9th
Century by combining saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal.
They began using block printing in the 8th
printing is a system of printing where characters are
carved onto a wooden block.
The block is then inked and pressed onto a sheet
of paper. Other
inventions include mechanical clocks that kept
very accurate time.
Tang physicians developed a small pox
in the 10th century. However, the widespread
use of this vaccine did not occur in China until the 16th
idea eventually spread west, and was introduced in
Europe in the 1600’s.
Song Dynasty 960 – 1279
After the decline of the Tang Dynasty, China
experienced a short period of general chaos, with no
strong, central government. In 960 CE, the first Song Emperor reunited most of China.
Empire under the Song was smaller
than the Empire of the Tang, but Chinese culture was
still dominate in most of eastern Asia.
Under the Song, China began rice cultivation.
China was able to plant two rice crops a year,
giving them an abundance of food.
The result of this was the ability to pursue
other interests, such as art and literature.
The Song also maintained extensive trade with the
India, Persia, and the Middle East.
Song artisans were known for their fine
and the use of calligraphy, a form
of fine handwriting.
Along with the Tang, they are known for stunning landscape
paintings. Architects designed the pagoda,
which is a multistoried building with the corners of the
roof curved up that were used as temples.
Under the Song, the Chinese invented
spread to Korea and Japan, and may have also been spread
to Europe by Mongol armies.
The use of movable type allowed for faster
printing, and the widespread diffusion of ideas. Other inventions include the spinning wheel, which is
a machine used to make thread.
Ming Dynasty 1368 ACE – 1644
After almost one hundred years of foreign rule by the
Mongols, the Ming seized power and setup their
own dynasty in 1368 CE.
The Ming restored Confucian government and
traditions to China.
They experienced an economic revival due to great
achievements in agricultural production through better
farming methods. During the 1500’s, new crops brought
over from the Americas, such as corn and sweet
potatoes helped to increase food production.
This resulted in over 100 million people
in China during this time.
Ming industry thrived producing large amounts of porcelain,
paper, and tools.
The canal system was renovated to increase trade
and communication within China.
New methods of printing led to an abundance of
books, and an increase in the literacy rate.
Under the Ming, some artisans produced prized blue
and white porcelain vases, while
others began a revival of landscape painting.
Confucian poetry also experienced a revival, and
the first detective stories began to circulate
among the Chinese people.
Chinese artists also excelled in opera and drama.
Voyages of Zheng He 1405 – 1433
Zheng He was a Chinese explorer that sailed along the
coasts of S.E. Asia, India, and East Africa during the
The Chinese established trade in these areas and spread
their culture to the west. However, after Zheng He’s death in 1433, the Ming Emperor
ordered all voyages stopped and trade with the outside
world cut off. This
was done to keep China free from foreign influence.
However, this action limited China’s
development and made them an easy target for the more
advanced Europeans in the coming years.