The first Chinese dynasty that left historical records, the loosely feudal Shang, settled along the Yellow River in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century BCE. The oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty represents the oldest form of Chinese writing yet found, and is a direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters. The Shang were conquered by the Zhou, who ruled between the 12th and 5th centuries BCE, until its centralized authority was slowly eroded by feudal warlords. Many independent states eventually emerged from the weakened Zhou state and continually waged war with each other in the 300-year Spring and Autumn Period, only occasionally deferring to the Zhou king. By the time of the Warring States period of the 5th–3rd centuries BCE, there were seven powerful sovereign states in what is now China, each with its own king, ministry and army.
The Warring States period ended in 221 BCE, after the state of Qin conquered the other six kingdoms and established the first unified Chinese state. Qin Shi Huang, the emperor of Qin, proclaimed himself the “First Emperor” (始皇帝) and imposed reforms throughout China, notably the forced standardization of the Chinese language, measurements, length of cart axles, and currency. The Qin Dynasty lasted only fifteen years, falling soon after Qin Shi Huang’s death, as its harsh legalist and authoritarian policies led to widespread rebellion.
The subsequent Han Dynasty ruled China between 206 BCE and 220 CE, and created a lasting Han cultural identity among its populace that has endured to the present day. The Han Dynasty expanded the empire’s territory considerably with military campaigns reaching Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and Central Asia, and also helped establish the Silk Road in Central Asia. Han China gradually became the largest economy of the ancient world. The Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism, a philosophy developed in the Spring and Autumn period, as its official state ideology. Despite the Han’s official abandonment of Legalism, the official ideology of the Qin, Legalist institutions and policies remained and formed the basis of the Han government.
After the collapse of Han, a period of disunion known as the period of the Three Kingdoms followed. In 581 CE, China was reunited under the Sui. However, the Sui Dynasty declined following its defeat in the Goguryeo–Sui War (598–614).
Under the succeeding Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese technology and culture entered a golden age. The Tang Empire was at its height of power until the middle of the 8th century, when the An Shi Rebellion destroyed the prosperity of the empire. The Song Dynasty was the first government in world history to issue paper money and the first Chinese polity to establish a permanent standing navy. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, the population of China doubled in size to around 100 million people, mostly due to the expansion of rice cultivation in central and southern China, and the production of abundant food surpluses. The Song Dynasty also saw a flourishing of philosophy and the arts, as landscape art and portrait painting were brought to new levels of maturity and complexity, and social elites gathered to view art, share their own and trade precious artworks. The Song Dynasty saw a revival of Confucianism, in response to the growth of Buddhism during the Tang.
In the 13th century, China was gradually conquered by the Mongol empire. In 1271, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty; the Yuan conquered the last remnant of the Song Dynasty in 1279. Before the Mongol invasion, Song China reportedly had approximately 120 million citizens; the 1300 census which followed the invasion reported roughly 60 million people. A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 and founded the Ming Dynasty. Under the Ming Dynasty, China enjoyed another golden age, developing one of the strongest navies in the world and a rich and prosperous economy amid a flourishing of art and culture. It was during this period that Zheng He led explorations throughout the world, reaching as far as Africa. In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, China’s capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. During the Ming Dynasty, philosophers such as Wang Yangming further critiqued and expanded Neo-Confucianism with concepts of individualism and innate morality.
In 1644, Beijing was captured by a coalition of rebel forces led by Li Zicheng, a minor Ming official who led the peasant revolt. The last Ming Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide when the city fell. The Manchu Qing Dynasty then allied with Ming Dynasty general Wu Sangui and overthrew Li’s short-lived Shun Dynasty, and subsequently seized control of Beijing, which became the new capital of the Qing Dynasty.
The Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 until 1912, was the last imperial dynasty of China. In the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty experienced Western imperialism following two Opium Wars (1839–42 and 1856–60) with Britain. China was forced to sign unequal treaties, pay compensation, allow extraterritoriality for foreign nationals, and cede Hong Kong to the British. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894−95) resulted in Qing China’s loss of influence in the Korean Peninsula, as well as the cession of Taiwan to Japan.
The Qing dynasty also began experiencing internal unrest in which millions of people died. In the 1850s and 1860s, the failed Taiping Rebellion ravaged southern China. Other major rebellions included the Punti–Hakka Clan Wars (1855–67), the Nien Rebellion (1851–68), the Miao Rebellion (1854–73), the Panthay Rebellion (1856–73) and the Dungan revolt (1862–77).
In the 19th century, the great Chinese Diaspora began. Emigration rates were strengthened by conflicts and catastrophes such as the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–1879, which claimed between 9 and 13 million lives in northern China. In 1898, the Guangxu Emperor drafted a reform plan to establish a modern constitutional monarchy, but he was overthrown by the Empress Dowager Cixi in a coup d’état. The ill-fated anti-Western Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901 further weakened the Qing Dynasty. The Xinhai Revolution of 1911–12 brought an end to the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China.
On 1 January 1912, the Republic of China was established, and Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (the KMT or Nationalist Party) was proclaimed provisional president. However, the presidency was later given to Yuan Shikai, a former Qing general, who in 1915 proclaimed himself Emperor of China. In the face of popular condemnation and opposition from his own Beiyang Army, he was forced to abdicate and reestablish the republic.
After Yuan Shikai’s death in 1916, China was politically fragmented. Its Beijing-based government was internationally recognized but virtually powerless; regional warlords controlled most of its territory. In the late 1920s, the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek, was able to reunify the country under its own control with a series of deft military and political maneuverings, known collectively as the Northern Expedition. The Kuomintang moved the nation’s capital to Nanjing and implemented “political tutelage”, an intermediate stage of political development outlined in Sun Yat-sen’s San-min program for transforming China into a modern democratic state. The political division in China made it difficult for Chiang to battle the Communists, against whom the Kuomintang had been warring since 1927 in the Chinese Civil War. This war continued successfully for the Kuomintang, especially after the Communists retreated in the Long March, until Japanese aggression and the 1936 Xi’an Incident forced Chiang to confront Imperial Japan.
The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), a theater of World War II, forced an uneasy alliance between the Kuomintang and the Communists. Japanese forces committed numerous war atrocities against the civilian population; in all, as many as 20 million Chinese civilians died. An estimated 200,000 Chinese were massacred in the city of Nanjing alone during the Japanese occupation. Japan unconditionally surrendered to China in 1945. Taiwan, including the Pescadores, was put under the administrative control of the Republic of China, which immediately claimed sovereignty. China emerged victorious but war-ravaged and financially drained. The continued distrust between the Kuomintang and the Communists led to the resumption of civil war. In 1947, constitutional rule was established, but because of the ongoing unrest many provisions of the ROC constitution were never implemented in mainland China.