Ancient China

Emperor Yang of Sui
Emperor Yang of Sui

The earliest known written records of Chinese history date back to 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty. Ancient historical texts such as the Records of the Great Historian (c. 100 BC) and the Bamboo Annals (296 BC) describe a Xia dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BC) before the Shang, but no writing is known from the period, and the Shang's writings do not indicate the existence of the Xia dynasty.Documents dating from the 16th century BC onwards that demonstrate that the country is one of the oldest civilizations in the world with continuous existence. Scholars understand that Chinese civilization arose in city-states in the Yellow River valley. The year 221 BC is often referred to as the time when China was unified in the form of a great kingdom or empire, although there were several states and dynasties before that. Successive dynasties developed systems of bureaucratic control that would allow the Chinese emperor to administer the vast territory that would come to be known as China.

The foundation of what is now called Chinese civilization is marked by the imposition of a common writing system, created by the Qin dynasty in the 3rd century BC, and by the development of a state ideology based on Confucianism, in the 2nd century BC Politically, China alternated periods of unity and fragmentation, sometimes being conquered by external powers, some of which ended up being assimilated by the Chinese population. Cultural and political influences from different parts of Asia, and later some from Europe carried by successive waves of immigrants, merged to create the image of current Chinese culture.

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Xia dynasty (夏)

Xia settlements on c. XX BC
Xia settlements on c. XX BC

The Xia dynasty is something mythical. Chinese tradition says that humans have their origin in the parasites of the creator's body, Pangu. Following his death, wise rulers introduced the fundamental inventions and institutions of human society. The first ruler was called Fuxi, who domesticated animals and instituted marriage. Then it was Shennong, who introduced agriculture, medicine and commerce. Later came Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who is credited with inventing writing, pottery and the calendar. Centuries later came Emperor Yao who ruled wisely and introduced flood control. His most notorious feat was his decision not to elect his son as the future emperor, as he did not consider him worthy, but a humble sage named Shun. The reigns of Shun and Yao would later be admired as a golden age. Returning to the topic, Shun in turn appointed his faithful minister Yu as his successor. It is at this point that China's prehistory merges with history. Yu's reign began tradition in 2205 BC, Yu is alleged to have founded the Xia Dynasty, the first of three dynasties in ancient China: Xia, Shang and Zhou.

When archaeological excavations began in the 1920s, the traditional view of the Xia dynasty was challenged and Yu was reduced to a mythical figure. More recently, the Xia dynasty's position has been restored, not as the first in a series of dynasties but as the most powerful of many small states existing along the Yellow River valley, coexisting with the early Shang and Zhou states. The Xia state, which existed approximately between 1900 and 1350 BC, has been identified with the locality of Erlitou, in the province of Henan, where palatial buildings and tombs have been excavated and the oldest known bronze receptacles to date have been found. The family tree of its rulers was kept in the Shiji, the Historical Recordscompiled by Sima Qian, the great Chinese historian, and later proved by inscriptions on oracle bones.

1900 BC was the year of the first cities discovered in China.

Jie, the last king of the dynasty, is said to have been a corrupt king. He was deposed by T'ang, the leader of the people of Shang, located further east.

Shang dynasty

The oldest record of China's past dates from the Shang (or Chang) Dynasty, possibly in the 13th century BC, in the form of divinatory inscriptions on animal bones or carapaces, according to Chinese tradition started in 1766 and ended in 1122 BC

The Shang dynasty had a series of capitals, the most important of which was Zhengzhou, capital during the early and middle period of the dynasty that had a wall about 6.4 kilometers long and 10 meters high that protected a large settlement, and Anyang occupied between 1300 and 1050 BC.

The houses and workshops found there (in Zhengzhou) indicate that Shang society was highly organized and socially stratified. On the outskirts of Anyang, in Xiaotun, evidence has been discovered of what would have been the ceremonial and administrative center of the Shang state in its late phase. In Xibeigang, 3 kilometers to the north, 11 large cruciform tombs were discovered that could belong to the 11 Shang monarchs, who according to existing records would have reigned in Anyang.

Shang rulers

Shang rulers played an important ceremonial role, but they also dealt with the administration of the state and were served by officials with specialized functions. They were supported by various aristocratic clans with which they had kinship or marriage relations. The aristocracy engaged in military arts and fought with horse-drawn chariots. The relationship between the Shang and the clans was personal but formalized through investiture ceremonies, in which the king could request services from the clans, both labor and military. The Shang and their aristocratic supporters carried out aggressive campaigns against their neighbors, taking prisoners and looting. They also expanded thanks to mandates for the creation of new villages and the availability of new areas for agriculture.

Shang relationships with others

The Shang formed relationships with a state called Shu, which perhaps means that a culture developed independently in Sichuan Province.

Shang economy

The economic base of the Shang state was agriculture and its most important crop was millet (or millet). The climate of the northern Chinese plain was then more tropical and wooded, thus requiring a large amount of labor to free it for agriculture. It is often asserted, especially by Marxist historians such as Guo Moruo, that the labor force used was normally slave labor and that Shang society should be regarded as the slave-holding stage of Chinese social evolution. Such an idea has been motivated by evidence of human sacrifices that were part of royal funeral ceremonies, and by certain oracular inscriptions. Not long ago Jun Li suggested that the majority of the population was not made up of slaves, in the sense that they were bought and sold, and that the latter enjoyed individual freedom.

Fragments of oracular bones

Much of the information available from the Shang society has come down to us thanks to inscriptions made on the shoulder blades of cattle, or less regularly, on the shells of turtles. They were said to be "dragon bones" and were ground into powder for medicinal purposes. Over 200,000 oracle bone fragments were discovered in Xiaotun. The oracular bones reveal to us the most varied things about the Shang state. They used 3,000 different graphemes and included a ten-day week and a 60-day cycle.

Shang Chinese metallurgy

The evidence accumulated in recent years supports the theory of the independent discovery of metallurgy in China and the rapid transfer of ceramic techniques to the manufacture of bronze objects. The production and use of bronze was controlled by the king. The amount of objects found demonstrates that the extraction of ore and the manufacture of parts constituted great industries. Early Shang vessels were cast in separate molds and the various parts were later joined. A small-scale industry emerged in Gansu around the year 2000 BC. This method was the basis on which large-scale production of bronze developed.


Shang kings were buried in large cruciform tombs, the excavation of which required the work of hundreds of people. The corpses were placed in wooden coffins surrounded by funerary objects. On the ramps leading to the bottom of the tomb were human and horse corpses.


Thanks to the evidence, one can get an idea of ​​the Shang religion. The Shang people worshiped a number of gods, many of whom were ascendants of royalty. Others were nature spirits, and still others were possibly derived from popular myths or local cults. Ancestor worship was practiced by a large proportion of the population and remained an essential part of religious worship until modern times. A recent study shows that Di collectively meant "gods" and only with the Zhous would the idea of ​​a main god arise. Evidence discovered in the tombs clearly shows that they believed in life after death, and the oracular questions may have been addressed to deceased ancestors. The Shang court may have been frequented by shamans and possibly the king himself was a religious leader, in a similar way to what happened with other ancient civilizations of the same time, such as the Mesopotamian kings and pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. If these views are correct, the character of the Shang religion was very different from the rational approach of the philosophical schools that would become prevalent during the Zhou period.

Chinese historians of later periods became accustomed to the notion that one dynasty succeeded another, but it is known that the political situation in early China was much more complex. Some scholars suggest that the xias and shangs may have been political entities that co-existed, in the same way that the zhous were contemporaries of the shangs.


Soybeans were introduced in 1200 BC.

Zhou dynasty

According to tradition the Zhou dynasty reigned between 1122 and 256 BC. This enormous period is divided into Western Zhou, from 1122 to 771 BC, and Eastern Zhou, the latter being further subdivided into the Spring and Autumn periods, from 771 to 481 BC, and the Warring States, from 481 to 221 BC.

The capital of the Zhou was close to present-day Xi'an. At the height of Zhou power, China reached as far north as Mongolia.

In Chinese historiographical tradition, the Zhou leaders dispelled the Yin (Shang) family and legitimized their rule by invoking the Mandate of Heaven - a notion whereby the king (the "son of heaven") ruled by divine right, but the loss of the throne would indicate that he had lost that right. The Mandate of Heaven established that the Zhou assumed divine ancestry (Tian-Huang-Shangdi) over the divine ancestry of the Shang (Shangdi). The doctrine explained and justified the end of the Xia Dynasty and Shang Dynasty, while supporting the legitimacy of current and future rulers. The Zhou Dynasty was founded by the Ji family and had its capital in the city of Hao (or Haojing, near present-day Xi'an). Possessing the same language and culture similar to that of the Shang, the first Zhou kings, through conquest and colonization,

According to Shujing, the Book of Documents the fall of the Shang was due to the mistakes of their last ruler, Zhou.

As a result of the fall of the Shang, the Mandate of Heaven was withdrawn from them. King Wen came to be considered an exponent of virtue and his son King Wu defeated the Shang in battle at a place called Muye. The documents indicate that the Zhou were part of an alliance of eight nations and they won because the Shang troops revolted because of their leader's cruelty. All this took place around 1045 BC, about 80 years after the customary date considered as the downfall of the Shang.

A little later, possibly in 1043 BC, King Wu died, succeeding his son, a decision different from that adopted in the Shang dynasty, where the succession was made by a brother.

The Zhou have been considered feudal. In Western historiography, the Zhou period is usually described as feudal, as the decentralized Zhou system resembled the medieval European system. However, historians debate about the term feudal, which emerged to refer to a purely and specifically European context. Therefore, the most appropriate term to classify the Zhou political system would be from the Chinese language itself: Fengjian system.. The organization of the territory was based on subordinate states, ruled by men elected by the king, usually trusted advisers and generals, and by their heirs. The states paid tribute to the capital, where the Son of Heaven ruled as absolute monarch. They were also to provide soldiers in time of war. However, this entire organization actually only existed during the Western Zhou Period, after which it lost its relevance with the decline of royal power in the face of ascending states.

Origin and location

Long before the fall of the Shang, the Zhou appeared as a powerful state west of the main center of Shang activity. The origin of the Zhou people is unclear. According to Mencius, a disciple of Confucius, "King Wen was a Western barbarian", the theory that the Zhou were of Turkish origin has gained some support. However, there is no linguistic support that points to a distant origin. A more balanced theory suggests that they originated in the Fen River valley in Shanxi Province, with the Zhou later migrating to the Wei River valley, west of Xi'an, in adjacent Shanxii Province. There, in the vicinity of the Shang state, they came to adopt many aspects of the neighboring culture, a process that allowed them to acquire administrative techniques that made it easier for them to seize power.

Spring and Autumn period

In the 8th century BC, political power became decentralized, during the so-called Spring and Autumn Period, named after the Annals of Spring and Autumn. In that period, local military chiefs employed by the Zhous began to act autonomously and to fight for hegemony. The situation worsened with the invasion of other peoples from the northeast, such as the Qins (or Chins), which forced the Zhous to move their capital to the east, to Luoyang. This marks the second major phase of the Zhou Dynasty: the Eastern Zhous. In each of the hundreds of states that emerged (a few mere villages with a castle), local potentates held most political power and their subservience to the Zhous kings was only nominal. This period was marked by battles and annexations between some 170 small states. The slow progress of the nobility resulted in an increase in literacy; the increase in literacy stimulated freedom of thought and technological advancement. This period saw the rise of influential intellectual and philosophical movements such as Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism, partly as a reaction to the political changes of the time.For comparative purposes this period could be compared with the period of the city-states of Ancient Greece of the same time, due to political decentralization and great development of philosophical schools.

As the era continued, larger and more powerful states annexed or claimed suzerainty over smaller ones. By the 6th century BC, most of the small states had disappeared and only a few large and powerful principalities dominated China. Some southern states, such as Chu and Wu, claimed independence from the Zhou, with their leaders proclaiming themselves kings, which led the Zhou to react by waging wars against some of them (Wu and Yue).

Warring Kingdoms period

After a process of political consolidation, at the end of the 5th century BC, seven prominent states remained. The phase during which these few political entities fought against each other is known as the Warring States Period. During this period, there were seven fighting kingdoms: Qin, Qi, Zhao, Han, Wei, Chu, and Yan. In addition to these seven major states, other smaller states survived into the period. They include: King Zhou's Royal Territory and the states of Yue, Zhongshan, Song, Lu, Zheng, Wey, Teng and Zou and in the extreme southwest, the non-Zhou states of Ba and Shu. The Kingdom of Qin ended up conquering all at the end of the period, leaving China unified under the same government and the same system of writing and weights and measures.

The figure of a Zhou king continued to exist until 256 BC, but only as a nominal head, with no concrete powers. The final phase of this period began during the reign of Ying Zheng, King of Qin. After achieving the unification of the other six states and annexing other territories in present-day Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi in 214 BC, he proclaimed himself the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huangdi).

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Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC)

Historians usually call the period between the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (also called the Chin Dynasty) (3rd century BC) and the end of the Qing Dynasty (in the beginning of the 20th century) Imperial China. In 230 BC, the Qin State initiated the various campaigns that led to the unification of China. The other states formed alliances to try to stop their advance, and in 227 BC there was an assassination attempt on King Ying Zheng. Resistance efforts faltered and in 221 BC King Zheng of the Qin state assumed the title of Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty.Although his reign over a unified China lasted only twelve years, Emperor Qin managed to subjugate much of what constitutes the heart of Han Chinese lands and unite them under a highly centralized government based in Xianyang (present-day Xian). The doctrine of legalism, by which the emperor was guided, emphasized the strict observance of a legal code and the absolute power of the monarch. Such a philosophy, while very effective in expanding the empire by force, proved unserviceable for ruling in peacetime. The qins promoted the brutal silencing of political opposition, the epitome of which was the incident known as the book burning and burial of (alive) scholars.

The Qin Dynasty is famous for having started the Great Wall of China, which was later expanded and improved during the Ming Dynasty. Other contributions of the Qin include the unification of Chinese law, written language and Chinese currency, which were welcomed after the tribulations of the Spring and Autumn periods and the Warring States. Even something as prosaic as the length of wagon axles had to be standardized in order to allow for a viable trading system that spanned the entire empire.

Many authors argue that the reunification of China under a bureaucratic government on that occasion was due to a certain extent to the constant attacks of the northern nomadic tribes directed to plunder the goods of Chinese civilization, which increased considerably from the 3rd century BC.

Exactly because of the form of government instituted by the Qin, extremely centralized in the person of the emperor, things stopped working with the death of Zheng in 210 BC The legitimate successor of the first emperor was assassinated by his younger brother. The Second Emperor, Qin Er Shi, in turn, was assassinated by one of his ministers, Li Si in 208 BC. Li Si was killed in 207 BC, as was the minister and emperor who later took over. The peasant masses and some of the former nobles, faced with this situation, participated in uprisings against the government. Liu Bang (better known as Gaozu), an official of the Empire, overthrew the rule of the Ying family (Qin Dynasty) and declared himself emperor under the Han dynasty in 202 BC.

Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD)

The Han Dynasty emerged in 202 BC, as the first to adopt the philosophy of Confucianism, which became the ideological foundation of all Chinese regimes until the end of Imperial China. The Han dynasty was ruled by the family known as the Liu clan. During this dynastic phase, China made great strides in the arts and sciences. Emperor Wu consolidated and expanded the empire by expelling the Xiongnu (who some identify with the Huns) to the steppes of what is now Inner Mongolia, taking from them the territory corresponding to the present-day provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai. This opened the first trade links between China and the West: the Silk Road.

During the Han dynasty, China officially became a Confucian state and progressed in internal affairs: agriculture, crafts and commerce flourished, and the population reached 55 million. The Han dynasty was also notable for its military prowess. The empire expanded westward to the Tarim Basin (in the modern Autonomous Region of Sinkio), with military expeditions to the west, as well as beyond the Caspian Sea, making possible mercantile traffic through Central Asia, developing trade including with the Romans. The traffic paths came to be known as "the silk road" because the route was used to export Chinese silk. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of northern Korea (Wiman Joseon) (as well as establishing colonies) and northern Vietnam in the late 2nd century CE Borders near peripheral territories were often strained by possible conflicts with other states. To secure peace with non-Chinese powers, the Han court developed "a mutually beneficial tax system". Non-Chinese states were allowed to remain autonomous in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han authority. Tributary ties were confirmed and strengthened.

However, domestically, land acquisitions by elites gradually caused a tax crisis. In AD 9, the usurper Wang Mang founded the short-lived Xin ("new") Dynasty and began a broad program of land and economic reforms. Landowning families never supported the reforms, which favored peasants and the gentry, and the instability caused by their opposition led to chaos and rebellion. This was compounded by the massive flooding of the Yellow River; the accumulation of sludge caused it to split into two channels and displace large numbers of farmers. The usurper Wang Mang was eventually killed in Weiyang Palace by an angry peasant mob in 23 CE.

Emperor Guangwu reinstituted the Han Dynasty, now based in Luoyang, near Xian, with the support of proprietary and merchant families. Some call this period Eastern Han Dynasty. Han power declined amid land acquisitions, invasions, and feuds between consort clans (that is, clans to which the emperor's consort belonged) and eunuchs. Invasions by steppe men, internal revolts by the nobility and the peasant-led Yellow Turban Rebellion that broke out in 184 AD resulted in an era of warlords. In the ensuing chaos, three states sought preeminence during the so-called Three Kingdoms Period.

Three Kingdoms period

By the 2nd century CE, the empire had declined into tributary crises amid elite land acquisitions, invasions by foreign peoples, and disputes between noble clans and eunuchs. The Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in AD 184, ushering in an era of warlords. In the ensuing turmoil, three states tried to gain dominance in the Three Kingdoms period. This time period has been heavily romanticized in works such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

After Cao Cao reunified the north in 208, his son Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian of Han to abdicate, after which he proclaimed himself emperor and inaugurated the Wei dynasty (led by the Cao clan) in 220. Soon, Wei's rivals, Shu (led by the deposed imperial family, the Liu clan) and Wu (led by the Sun clan) proclaimed their independence, bringing China into the Three Kingdoms period (Wei, Shu and Wu). The term "three kingdoms" itself is somewhat meaningless, with each state eventually headed by an Emperor who claimed legitimate succession from the Han Dynasty, not kings. Nevertheless the term has become standard among sinologists and will be used in this article. This period was characterized by a gradual decentralization of the state that had existed during the Qin and Han dynasties, and an increase in the power of the great families.

In 266, the Jin Dynasty (founded by the Sima family) overthrew the Wei Dynasty and then reunited the country in 280, but this union was short-lived.

Jin dynasty

Although the three groups were temporarily unified in 278 by the Jin Dynasty, it was severely weakened by internal conflicts between imperial princes and lost control of northern China after non-Han Chinese settlers rebelled and captured Luoyang and Chang'an. In 317, a Jin prince in Nanjing became emperor and continued the dynasty, now known as the Eastern Jin, which occupied southern China for another century.

Northern China fragmented into a series of independent kingdoms, most of which were founded by rulers of the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di, and Qiang peoples. Non-Han ethnic groups controlled much of the country in the early 4th century. In 303, the Di people revolted, captured Chengdu and established the State of Cheng Han. the xiongnus, led by Liu Yuan, also rebelled and founded the State of Han Zhao. His successor, Liu Cong, captured and executed the last two West Chin emperors. The Sixteen Kingdoms Period saw a plethora of brief non-Chinese dynasties that, from 303, ruled northern China. The ethnic groups present there included the ancestors of the Turks, Mongols and Tibetans. Most of those nomadic peoples, relatively few in number, had already been Chinese long before their rise to power. In fact, some of them, especially the Chiangs and Xiongnus, already inhabited the border regions inside the Great Wall since the end of the Han Dynasty, with the consent of the latter. During the Sixteen Kingdoms period, war ravaged the north and provoked large-scale migrations of Hans to the southern bank of the Yangtze. The collapse of the Western Jin Dynasty and the rise of barbaric regimes in China during this period resembles the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire amid invasions by the Huns and Germanic tribes of Europe, which also took place in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Northern and Southern Dynasties

In the early 5th century China entered a period known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties, in which parallel regimes dominated the northern and southern halves of the country. In the south, the Eastern Jin gave way to the Liu Song Dynasties (Liu family), Southern Qi and Liang (both ruled by the Xiao family) and finally Chen (Chen family). Each of these southern dynasties were led by Han Chinese ruling families and used Jiankang (modern Nanjing) as the capital. They stopped attacks from the north and preserved many aspects of Chinese civilization as the barbaric regimes of the north began to take their toll.

In the north, the last of the Sixteen Kingdoms was extinguished in 439 by the Kingdom of Wei, a kingdom founded by the Xianbei, a nomadic people who unified northern China. The Kingdom of Wei eventually split into Eastern and Western Wei, which then became Northern Qi and Northern Zhou. These regimes were dominated by Xianbei or Han Chinese who had married into Xianbei families. During this period, most Xianbei adopted Han surnames, leading to complete Han assimilation.

Despite the division of the country, Buddhism spread throughout the land. In southern China, fierce debates over whether Buddhism should be allowed were often held by the court and royal nobles. Towards the end of the era, Buddhists and Taoists became much more tolerant of each other.

Sui dynasty: reunification

The Sui Dynasty (Yang family) managed to reunite the country in 581, after nearly four centuries of political fragmentation in which the north and south developed independently. Just as the Qin rulers had unified China after the Warring States Period, the Souths united the country and created several institutions that were eventually adopted by their successors, the Tangs.

Founded by Emperor Wen in 581 in succession to the Northern Zhou, the Sui conquered the Chens in 589 to reunify China, ending three centuries of political division. The Sui pioneered many new institutions, including the Three Departments and Six Ministries government system, public competitions to select civil servants from among commoners, improved army recruitment systems, and adopted a system of equal distribution of land. These policies, which were adopted by later dynasties, brought enormous population growth and accumulated excessive wealth for the state. Standard coinage was applied throughout the unified empire. Buddhism took root as a prominent religion and was officially supported. China was known for its numerous mega-building projects. Intended for grain shipments and troop transport, the Grand Canal of China was built, linking the capitals Daxing (Chang'an) and Luoyang to the southeast region, and in another route, to the northeast border. The Great Wall was also enlarged, while a series of military conquests and diplomatic maneuvers further pacified its borders. However, the massive invasions of the Korean Peninsula during the Goguryeo-Sui War failed disastrously, sparking widespread uprisings that led to the downfall of the dynasty. while a series of military conquests and diplomatic maneuvers further pacified its borders. However, the massive invasions of the Korean Peninsula during the Goguryeo-Sui War failed disastrously, sparking widespread uprisings that led to the downfall of the dynasty. while a series of military conquests and diplomatic maneuvers further pacified its borders. However, the massive invasions of the Korean Peninsula during the Goguryeo-Sui War failed disastrously, sparking widespread uprisings that led to the downfall of the dynasty.

Tang Dynasty: The Return of Prosperity

On June 18, 618, Gaozu seized power and established the Tang Dynasty (Li family). Then began an era of prosperity and innovation in arts and technology. Buddhism, which had gradually taken hold in China from the 1st century onwards, became the predominant religion and was adopted by the imperial family and the people.

The Tangs, like the Hans, kept trade routes to the West and south open; several foreign traders settled in China.

The second emperor, Taizong, is widely regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history, who laid the foundation for the dynasty to flourish for centuries beyond his reign. Combinations of military conquests and diplomatic maneuvers were implemented to eliminate threats from nomadic tribes, extend the frontier, and subject neighboring states to a tax system. Military victories in the Tarim Basin kept the Silk Road open, linking Chang'an with Central Asia and areas further west. In the south, profitable maritime trade routes started from port cities like Guangzhou. There was extensive trade with distant foreign countries, and many foreign traders settled in China, encouraging a cosmopolitan culture. Tang culture and social systems were observed and imitated by neighboring countries, most notably Japan. Internally, the Grand Canal connected the political center of Chang'an with agricultural and economic centers in the eastern and southern parts of the empire.

Underlying the prosperity of the ancient Tang dynasty was a strong centralized bureaucracy with efficient policies. The government was organized as "Three Departments and Six Ministries" to design, review and implement policies separately. These departments were headed by members of the imperial family, as well as academic officials selected by imperial examinations. These practices, which matured in the Tang dynasty, were continued by later dynasties, with some modifications.

Under the "equal field system" all land was owned by the Emperor and granted to people according to the size of the house. Men who were given land were conscripted into military service for a fixed period each year, a military policy known as the "Fubing system". These policies spurred rapid productivity growth and a significant army without much burden on the state treasury. By the middle point of the dynasty, however, standing armies had replaced conscription, and land continually fell into the hands of private landowners.

The dynasty continued to flourish under Empress Wu Zetian, the only reigning empress in Chinese history, and reached its zenith during the long reign of Emperor Xuanzong, who oversaw an empire stretching from the Pacific to the Aral Sea with at least 50 Million people. There were vibrant artistic and cultural creations, including works by the greatest Chinese poets, Li Bai and Du Fu.

From about 860, the Tang Dynasty began to decline, due to a series of internal rebellions and revolts from client states. A warlord, Huang Chao, captured Guangzhou in 879 and executed most of its 200,000 inhabitants. In 880, Luoyang fell into his hands, and in 881, Changan. Emperor Xizong fled to Chengdu and Huang established a government which, although later destroyed by Tang forces , plunged the country into a new period of political chaos.

Most Chinese consider the Tang dynasty (618-907) to be the high point of Medieval China, both politically and culturally. The empire reached its maximum size before the Manchu Qing dynasty, becoming the center of an East Asian world linked by religion, writing, and many economic and political institutions. In addition, Tang writers produce the best poetry in China's great lyrical tradition.

Five dynasties and ten kingdoms

The period between the Tang Dynasty and the Sung Dynasty, characterized by political fragmentation, is called the Period of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms. Lasting just over half a century, between 907 and 960, this historic phase saw China become a plurality of states. Five dynasties (namely, Liang, Tang, Jin, Han and Zhou) quickly succeeded each other in controlling the traditional territorial heartland of the country in the north, while ten more stable regimes occupied portions of southern and western China.

Amid political chaos in the north, the sixteen strategic prefectures (region along today's Great Wall) were ceded to the emerging Liao dynasty, which drastically weakened China's defense against the nomadic empires of the north. To the south, Vietnam gained lasting independence after being a Chinese prefecture for many centuries. With wars gripping northern China, there were mass migrations to the south of the country, which further increased the southward shift of cultural and economic centers in China. The era ended with the coup of Zhao Kuangyin, general of the Zhou, and the establishment of the Song dynasty in 960, which ended up annihilating the remnants of the "Ten Kingdoms" and reuniting China.

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