How many emperors did China have

The Chinese dynasties at a glance

China is one of the oldest advanced cultures in the world. Numerous Neolithic cultures have already been documented for the fifth to second millennium BC. The early royal families Xia, Shang and Zhou were finally reigned by the emperors for over 2,000 years. The origin of the Chinese dynasties can be traced back to the year 221 BC. To date.

During the time of the empire, peaceful times alternated with incursions by nomadic peoples such as the Mongols and the great empire was split up again and again. We take a look at the Chinese dynasties in this article. What is it that characterizes them? What achievements and inventions have been made?

The Qin Dynasty 秦朝 (221 BC - 206 BC)

The first dynasty of the Chinese Empire is the Qin Dynasty. The state of Qin, one of seven rival states during the Warring States Period (475 BC - 221 BC), had succeeded in defeating all other states and uniting the empire for the first time. This unification of the empire is one of the most important events in Chinese history. One of the greatest achievements of the Qin is the standardization of measurements, units of weight and the currency as well as the unification of the Chinese script. All of this can be traced back to the first emperor of China who founded the Qin dynasty - Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi 秦始皇 帝 ("First Supreme God Emperor of Qin").

However, it has become more popular for other reasons. The first emperor of China started the construction of the legendary Great Wall of China to protect the empire against the Xiongnu, the nomadic tribes from the north. He also had a large network of canals built, which ensured the transport of goods by water from northern to southern China. Thus he laid the foundation for a powerful empire of gigantic proportions.

After his death, Qin Shi Huangdi was buried in a 56 square kilometer tomb under the protection of an entire army. We are talking about around 8,000 life-size stone soldiers - the so-called Terracotta Army. The first emperor of China, like many other emperors of the Chinese dynasties after him, was obsessed with the dream of immortality. For this reason he has taken all conceivable measures for his life after earthly death to demonstrate his claim to power beyond his death.

The Han Dynasty 漢朝 (206 BC - 220 AD)

The founder of the Han Empire was Emperor Han Gaozu 漢 高祖, who came from a peasant family as one of two emperors. During the Han Dynasty, the empire was centralized and divided into provinces. In addition, the outdated feudal system was completely abolished and a modern bureaucratic apparatus emerged. Confucianism, which was to shape the structure of society in China for centuries, also became a state philosophy for the first time during the late Han dynasty.

But the economy and culture also experienced a great boom during the Han period. The legendary Silk Road was the first to trade silk, lacquer, spices, tea and other goods. In addition, Buddhism came to China via the Silk Road during the late Han Dynasty. A sea route was also established via Guangzhou, which led from the south via the northern part of Vietnam to Persia. Numerous inventions were also made during this period, the most important of which is that of paper around AD 105. The inventor is Cai Lun 蔡倫, an official at the Han imperial court.

The dynasty also gave the so-called Han Chinese their name. In addition to the numerous ethnic minorities, the Han Chinese are considered to be the “true ancestors” of China.

The Sui Dynasty 隋朝 (581 – 618)

It was the first emperor of the Sui dynasty, Emperor Wendi 文帝, who reunited China after more than 200 years of fragmentation. An important innovation during the Sui Dynasty was the system of the Chinese civil servant examination. The offices at the imperial court were originally reserved for a group of aristocrats, but since 606 everyone has been allowed to take the official examination regardless of social status. Of course, hardly anyone from the lower class could finance such extensive school education, which was essential for passing the exam.

The construction of the Imperial Canal, in which Emperor Yangdi 煬 帝, the last emperor of the Sui, was mainly involved, is also considered to be significant. The 1,800-kilometer canal ran from Beijing to Hangzhou and is the longest man-made waterway in the world. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014.

The Tang Dynasty 唐朝 (618 – 907)

The Tang Dynasty is often described as the "Golden Age" of the Chinese dynasties. This government phase is undisputed in its importance for art and culture. She produced some of the most famous poets in Chinese history. Particularly noteworthy are Li Bai 李白 and Du Fu 杜甫, who both held offices at the imperial court. Her works are of great importance to Chinese history.

Under the Tang, the expansion of China reached enormous proportions. The capital of the empire was Chang’an 长安, today's Xi’an 西安. With around a million inhabitants, it was the largest city in the world in its time. Craftsmen, merchants and traders from abroad flocked to the capital to participate in the flourishing life. They brought artistic, technical and religious innovations to the country. The export industry also flourished. Huge shipments have already been transported abroad by sea. The most important inventions of the Tang include printing, porcelain, gunpowder, matches and the newspaper.

The enormous expansion of the empire did the Tang in 755 in the An-Lushan rebellion, because they were no longer able to control the borders. A long period of uprisings followed, which eventually led to the end of the Tang and the next change within the Chinese dynasties.

The Song Dynasty 宋朝 (960 – 1279)

Among the songs, after 53 years of internal struggles, there was again a reunification of north and south China. The Song period was a cultural heyday in which numerous inventions were made. For example, large iron foundries were set up and paper money was invented. One of the most important innovations was also the wet rice cultivation, which delivers very high yields. As a result, economic activities shifted to the south. Many large port cities emerged, the population grew and trade flourished.

During the Song Dynasty, Buddhism and Daoism lost their importance. In its place came Neo-Confucianism. This is characterized by hierarchies and puts the patriarchal order of society in the foreground. The custom of tying the feet also dates from this time. Young girls' feet were tied so that the foot remained small. The so-called lotus feet corresponded to the ideal of beauty of a woman's foot at the time, but severely restricted women when walking.

The descent of the Song dynasty began very early. After the north was weakened by the Mongols and the followers of the Song dynasty fled to Hangzhou, the Song were able to stay in the south for about 150 years. However, the Song dynasty ended with the Mongols conquering Hangzhou in 1279.

The Yuan Dynasty 元朝 (1260 – 1368)

The time of the Yuan Dynasty is determined by the Mongolian rule under its founder Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan was the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty and a grandson of Genghis Khan, the first great barge of the Mongols. He had a new capital built on the site of today's Beijing, called Dadu der ("Great Capital"). The commercial traveler Marco Polo is said to have reached Dadu via the Silk Road in 1275. According to his own travel reports, he stayed at the court of Kublai Khan for an extended period and became a close confidante of the Khan.

The yuan's policy of discrimination, which introduced a four-tier class system with the Chinese ranked lower, resulted in repeated riots. During this time, the national consciousness of the Han Chinese from northern China was shaped significantly.

The Ming Dynasty 明朝 (1368 – 1644)

With the majority of the population dissatisfied with the rule of the Mongols, the Red Turban Movement, a group of insurgent peasants, ended the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. This is how the Ming Dynasty began.

Under the Ming, there was again a period of cultural prosperity, especially in terms of art, literature and handicrafts. Chinese porcelain art reached its first peak at this time. The famous blue and white porcelain was very popular not only in China, but also at the European royal courts.

In 1421 today's Beijing 北京 ("Northern Capital") became the capital of the empire for the first time under this name. The third Ming emperor, Yongle 永乐, completed the construction of the Forbidden City a year earlier. From the Forbidden City, the Chinese dynasties ruled the country until the end of the Qing.

The Qing Dynasty 清朝 (1644 – 1911)

At the end of the Ming Dynasty, there were major peasant revolts in China, which were ultimately suppressed with the help of the Manchu. This led to the overthrow of the Ming and the Manchu founded the last of the Chinese dynasties in 1644 under Nurhaci's leadership.

The heyday of the Qing Dynasty took place under the emperors Kangxi 康熙 and Qianlong 乾隆. Both advanced art and science to a particular degree. Emperor Qianlong is considered to be the greatest art collector in human history. He himself was also a great calligrapher and poet and is said to have written over 42,000 poems that he had spread throughout the empire. The famous Peking Opera was also made famous by Emperor Qianlong, who had various operas performed on his 80th birthday, from which the Peking Opera developed.

The end of the Chinese dynasties

While the empire reached the greatest territorial expansion in its entire history in 1759, internal weaknesses favored the advance of foreign powers from 1800 onwards. At the beginning of the 20th century, the time of the Chinese dynasties came to an end after more than 2,000 years of history.

For you writes: Anna Sellmann

Sinologist M.A. | Blog Editor | Employee at the Museum for East Asian Art Cologne | Lecturer in Chinese