Humanities 210 MIC/WIC- Cora Agatucci
Cultures & Literatures of Asia

China Timelines Introduction

Asian Timelines Table of Contents Literary & Cultural History
Learn more about selected Chinese topics by clicking the links embedded in these timelines.
And if you find inaccuracies, bugs, or other relevant websites, please let me know:
The timeline pages are under construction and probably always will be...

These China Timelines are chronologically organized in the the traditional way of dividing Chinese history--in terms of dynasties. "The use of this system is so widespread that it is the usual way to refer to the Chinese past (people refer to 'Tang poetry' or 'Ming vases' for instance.) But," as Paul Halsall (CUNY-Brooklyn) points out, "this system of periodization presents several problems:

"1. Dynastic chronology seems to suggest that there were changes in Chinese life at times when change was not evident on a widespread basis;
"2. Paradoxically dynastic chronology suggests a degree of continuity that was not present either. Thus common statements that the 'fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911' represented the end of over 2000 years of imperial rule is severely misleading. Although at all times China had a socially stratified society and, compared to the rest of world, large state formations, the nature of these social stratifications and states underwent fundamental changes. Furthermore, within the time periods dominated by a particular dynasty quite dramatic changes took place.
"3. Finally, the system, which stresses the history of the political elite, overlooks the importance of economic and agricultural life "--as well as many other aspects of China's great diversity.

For some alternative ways to organize Chinese history, see Paul Halsall's A Brief Chinese Chronology.

See also "Introduction: Approaches to Understanding China's History," from John King Fairbank's China: A New History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1992): 1-26. Below are excerpts from the major approaches:

  1. "Geography: The Contrast of North and South": "The dry wheat-millet area of North China and the moist rice-growing areas of the South divide roughly halfway between the Yellow (Huang) River and the Yangzi River on the thirty-third parallel (map 3). Rainfall, soil, temperature, and human usage create striking contrasts between these two economic regions" (5). "The American people, in spite of their farming background, have no appreciation of the population density that subtly conditions every act and thought of a Chinese farmer" (4); "…China must feed about 23 per cent of the world’s population from about 7 percent of the world’ arable land" (5). Studying different parts of China in terms of their geographical "macroregions," rather than in terms of political units like provinces, yields a more accurate picture of diverse economic realities shaping Chinese history and culture (11).
  2. "Humankind in Nature": "In spite of the immensity and variety of the Chinese [geographical and economic] scene, this subcontinent has remained a single political unit, where Europe has not, for it is held together by a way of life and a system of government much more deeply rooted than our own [in the West], and stretching further back uninterruptedly into the past" (14)…."nourished, conditioned, and limited by the good earth and the use of it" (14). "Deforestation, erosion, and floods have constantly been met by human efforts at water control….This land that modern China has inherited is used almost entirely to produce food for human consumption" (15), largely through back-breaking labor of the peasantry in China’s great flood plains. [China cannot afford to raise cattle for food, for pasture land for animals takes up too much space that needs to be used to raise crops to feed its enormous population (15)]. China’s "unfavorable population-land balance" and their ways of adapting to the physical environment have ""influenced their culture in many ways" (16). The Chinese "were forced to accept natural calamity in the form of drought, flood, pestilence, and famine," creating a "different relation of human beings to nature" than was and is true in the West (16, 17).
  3. China (17) West (17)
    Subordination/absorption of the individual (in)to the world of nature and the social collectivity. Group dominates the individual in collective and family life Humankind at center of the Western stage

    Rest of nature is neutral backdrop or adversary

    Modern individualist, whether seafarer, pioneer, or city entrepreneur

    Relatively impersonal religions like Buddhism Western religions like Christianity are anthropomorphic
    Song era landscapes feature crags and rivers which dwarf their human figures Italian Renaissance paintings foreground human figures, with nature an afterthought
  4. "The Village: Family and Lineage": Approached through anthropology, one needs to study village and family environments to understand China of the past and of today (17). The Chinese remain mostly farmers tilling the soil and living in villages, eking out a bare existence without the luxury of space, with little meat in the diet, and human labor, rather than machines, used for most purposes (17-18). Chinese farming people have maintained a highly civilized life despite poor living conditions because of their social institutions and behavior patterns, among "the oldest and most persistent social phenomena in the world. China has been the stronghold of the family system, and has derived both strength and inertia from it" (18). The Chinese family is the "state in miniature….filial piety and obedience inculcated in family life were the training ground for loyalty to the ruler and obedience to the constituted authority in the state" (18). The father is the "supreme autocrat" in the Chinese family, "with control over the use of all family property and income and a decisive voice in arranging the marriages of children. The mixed love, fear, and awe of children for their father was strengthened by the great respect paid to old age. An old man’s loss of vigor was more than offset by his growth in wisdom" (18).
  5. "The domination of age over youth within the old-style family was matched by the domination of male over female" (18). Even today, female babies are more likely to suffer infanticide than male babies; brides left their own families to become daughters-in-law under the control of husbands’ families; second wives and concubines were readily brought into the household especially if the first wife did not bear a male heir (18-19). Chinese women had no economic independence, farm women were almost universally illiterate, and had few or no property rights (19). "The inferior social status of women was merely one manifestation of the hierarchic nature of China’s entire social code and cosmology. Ancient China had viewed the world as the product of two interacting complementary elements, yin [all things female, dark, weak, and passive] and yang [all things male, bright, strong, and active]" (19). Both yin and yang were necessary, but things yin was by nature passive toward things yang. From this ideological foundation, "an endless succession of Chinese male moralists worked out the behavior pattern of obedience and passivity that was expected of women….Forceful women, whom China has never lacked, usually controlled their families by indirection…" (19).

    "Status within the family was codified in the famous ‘three bonds’ emphasized by Chinese philosophers: the bond of loyalty on the part of subject to ruler (minister to prince), of filial obedience on the part of son to father (children to parents), and of chastity on the part of wives but not of husbands….two of the three relationships…within the family, and all…between superior and subordinate" (19). A father must control disruptive growth of individuality and independence in his son, and "[s]trong bonds of intimacy between mother and son or son and wife threatened the vertical lines of loyalty and respect that maintained the family and the father’s authority" (19).

    Old China was also bonded by "the common experience of a highly educated local elite, who were committed from childhood to studying and following the classical texts and teachings," and whose training emphasized above all obedience (20). "The traditional family system was highly successful at preparing the Chinese to accept similar patterns of status in …the official hierarchy of the government….One advantage of a system of status is that a man knows automatically where he stands in his family or society," providing "security in the knowledge that if he does his prescribed part, he may expect reciprocal action from others in the system" (20).

    "Within the extended family, every child from birth was involved in a highly ordered system of kinship relations with elder brothers, sisters, maternal elder brothers’ wives and other kinds of aunts, cousins, grandparents, and in-laws too numerous for a Westerner to keep track of. These relationships were not only more clearly named and differentiated than in the West but also carried with them more compelling rights and duties dependent upon status" (20). "The Chinese kinship system in both the North and the South is patrilineal, the family headship passing in the male line from father to eldest son. Thus the men stay in the family, while the women marry into other family households," marriages were carefully arranged and subordinated to family life, and wives entered the husband’s father’s household to assume responsibilities for its maintenance (21). Family property, however, did not pass from father to eldest son {primogeniture}; equal division of land among sons "allowed the eldest son to retain only certain ceremonial duties, to acknowledge his position, and sometimes an extra share of the property" (21). The birth of many sons, thus, meant parceling up family land, and over time weakened the continuity of family land holdings and contributed to family impoverishment. Thus, "[c]ontrary to a common myth, a large family with several children has not been the norm among Chinese peasants. The scarcity of land, as well as disease and famine, set a limit to the number of people likely to survive in each family unit" (21). Only the wealthy elite could afford the ideal luxury of supporting a "large joint family of several married sons with many children all within one compound" (21).

  6. "Inner Asia and China: The Steppe and the Sown": Important contrasts exist between the "pastoral nomadism of the plateaus of Inner Asia"—with sparse population, seasonal migrations of camps and flocks, dependency on horses and sheep for mobility and livelihood, and development of warrior skills derived from hunting and horsemanship—"and the settled villages based on the intensive agriculture of China" (23-24). "Until recently the nomadic and seminomadic peoples to the north and west of China were a continuing factor in Chinese military and political life" (25). "Herein lies one source of China’s ‘culturalism’—that is, the devotion of the Chinese people to their way of life, an across-the-board sentiment as strong as the political nationalism of recent centuries in Europe….Chinese culturalism arose from the difference in culture between China and the Inner Asian ‘barbarians.’ Because the Inner Asian invaders became more powerful as warriors, the Chinese found their refuge in social institutions and feelings of cultural and aesthetic superiority—something that alien conquest could not take away" (25). Thus, Fairbank concludes, we need to "broaden our sights" and understand that "the Inner Asian peoples"—who have "repeatedly invaded the Chinese state and society and become integral components of them"--have been a critical part of the history of the Chinese people" (25).

See also Historical setting of China

China Timelines Introduction 
URL of this webpage:
China Timeline 1:  Early China (to 3rd c. BCE)
China Timeline 2:  Qin & Han Dynasties & "Time of Troubles"  (3rd c. BCE - CE 7th c.)
China Timeline 3: Tang, Song, Yuan & Ming Dynasties (7th - 17th c.)
China Timeline 4: Qing Dynasty & Clashes with the West (1644-1911)
China Timeline 5: Republican & Communist China (20th c.) & China Timelines Sources

Asian Timelines: India China Japan
  were first prepared by Cora Agatucci, in 1998. 
They are slowly being updated in Winter 2001.  Please bear with me.
Other Online HUM 210 Course Resources:
HUM 210 Syllabus Course Plan Assignments Student Writing 
Asian Film Asian Links: India China Japan

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If you're interested in other world literatures and cultures, visit these course websites:
Hum 211 - Culture and Literature of Africa 
Eng 109 - Western World Literatures (late 18th-late 20th centuries)