The complete Chinese history: A timeline of major events

Illustration by Derek Zheng for SupChina

This week’s column — which will be the last one in our Kuora series — comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on January 10, 2016. It’s a fitting end, considering all the subjects Kaiser has written about over the past.

What should a major event chronological list be like for a beginner to learn Chinese history?


If I were to put together such a list for a beginner — and by “beginner” I’m assuming, say, a relatively bright undergraduate — it would include the following:

  • The land and the people
    • China’s geography and climate and their impact on Chinese civilization
    • The major river systems of China
  • Mythohistory: the legendary sage kings and their probable historical counterparts
  • The Xia dynasty
  • Beginnings of a Chinese state: The Shang dynasty
    • Shamanic religion: Scapulimancy and bronze vessels
    • Early Chinese cosmological concepts
  • The Zhou conquest of Shang
    • The great Zhou kings, Wu and Wen
    • The idealization of Zhou feudalism in later Confucian thought
  • The Crisis of 771 BC and the Eastern Zhou
  • The Spring & Autumn Period and early Chinese philosophical traditions
    • Confucianism
    • Taoism
  • Warfare in the Spring & Autumn Period
  • The Warring States Period
    • The major Warring States (Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, and Qin)
    • The Hundred Schools of Thought
      • Mencius
      • Han Fei
      • Xunzi
      • Mozi
  • The Rise of the Qin State
  • The Unification of China under Qin
    • The creation of the first modern state
    • The rapid collapse of Qin
  • The Chu-Han Contention

12 awesome Chinese emperors who changed history

  • The Western Han Dynasty
    • Liu Bang
    • Han Wudi
    • The Xiongnu, and the constant struggle between steppe and sown
    • Confucianism as official state doctrine
    • Sima Qian and Chinese historiography
    • Early Han contacts with the West
  • The decline of the Western Han: Great families, eunuchs
  • The Wang Mang interregnum
  • The Restoration of Han
  • Religious Daoism
  • The collapse of state power in Eastern Han
  • The wars of the Three Kingdoms
    • The Battle of Red Cliff
    • The end of Shu Han
    • The triumph of Wei
  • The Six Dynasties and Sixteen Kingdoms
    • The southern dynasties
    • The northern “barbarian” kingdoms
  • The spread of Buddhism in China
  • The Turco-Sinitic aristocracy of North China in Sui and Tang
  • Reunification under Sui
  • The Tang Dynasty
    • Li Yuan and Li Shimin
  • Wu Zetian (Empress Wu)
  • Tang at its cosmopolitan zenith (Tang Minghuang)
    • The arts in Tang: Poetry, pottery, exoticism
    • Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in Tang China
  • The Battle of Talas
  • Yang Guifei and An Lushan
  • The An-Shi Rebellion
  • The restoration of Tang
  • Han Yu and post-An Lushan nativism
  • The Huang Chao Rebellion
  • The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
  • The rise of the Khitan
  • The Northern Song Dynasty
    • The triumph of civilian over military aristocracy
    • The maturation of the Confucian civil service
  • The Naito Hypothesis: China’s early modern transition, Tang-Song
  • Song Neo-Confucianism (Zhu Xi)
  • The Rise of the Jurchen
  • The Jin dynasty of North China
  • The Wang Anshi Reforms
  • The Conservative Opposition
  • Yue Fei and Song Resistance
  • The Mongol Conquest
  • Kubilai Khan and the Mongol Yuan dynasty
  • Zhu Yuanzhang and the founding of the Ming
  • The Rise of Zhu Di (the Yongle Emperor)
  • The voyages of Zheng He
  • Ming isolationism
  • Wang Yangming and late Neo-Confucianism
  • The Bao-Jia system in Ming
  • “Dwarf bandits” and the late Ming
  • The Rise of the Manchus
  • Nurhachi, Hong Taiji, and Abahai
  • Li Zicheng and the Fall of the Ming
  • The Kangxi Emperor
  • Pacifying China in early Qing (Revolt of the Three Feudatories)
  • The Yongzheng Emperor
  • The Qianlong Emperor

Kuora: China’s dramatic fall from grace and its long road back to respectability

  • The Qing conquests
  • The Macartney Mission
  • Lin Zexu and the First Opium War

Kuora: The Opium Wars and China’s Century of National Humiliation

Kuora: All the times the Chinese Communist Party nearly died

  • Land Reform, the Marriage Law
  • The Korean War
  • The High Tide of Collectivization
  • The Hundred Flowers Movement/The Anti-Rightist Campaign
  • The Sino-Soviet Split
  • The Great Leap Forward
  • Mao in Retreat: the Liu Shaoqi/Deng Xiaoping interregnum
  • The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
  • The purge of Lin Biao
  • The Rise and Fall of the Gang of Four
  • The Nixon/Kissinger Opening
  • The Tangshan Earthquake
  • The Death of Mao
  • Deng Xiaoping’s return

Kuora: Celebrating Deng Xiaoping, who saved contemporary China

  • The Democracy Wall Movement
  • Reform and Opening begins: The Household Responsibility System
  • Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and liberal reform
  • The Tiananmen crisis of 1989

Kuora: The unlikely confluence of events that led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests

Kuora: How many Chinese know about the ‘June Fourth Incident’? More than you think

  • Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour”
  • The Hong Kong Handover 1997
  • WTO accession, 2001
  • Jiang Zemin and the heyday of Chinese capitalism
  • Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao
  • The Internet revolution
  • Pivot Point 2008
  • The Urumqi incident 2009
  • The Rise of Xi Jinping
  • The Bo Xilai Affair, 2012
  • The Xi Jinping Anti-Corruption Drive

Did I leave out any important topics in this imaginary syllabus? Let us know.


Kuora was a weekly column. We hope you enjoyed it. Here are a few of our favorites:

Kuora: The bias inherent in American media portrayals of China

Kuora: Why does the Chinese Communist Party believe it is essential to China?

Why do Chinese people like their government?

And here was the very first:

Kuora: The contradictory truths of continuity and change