Around 2100 BC distinct societies mainly based on agriculture emerge around Huanghe, the Yellow River. Tribal villages normally dug into the ground characterize this Xia Dynasty (2100-1500 BC) era. Knowledge of bronze making can be traced.
The Shang Tribe (1500-1050 BC) gradually takes power by conquering adjacent villages. The weapon "industry" produces bows and arrows, axes and spears. Silk weaving is improved and bronze is used for beautifully crafted cups, beakers and wine bottles. The first written characters evolve.
Nomadic tribes from the west conquer the Shang territories and establish the (Western) Zhou Dynasty (1050-771 BC). Central power moves south to Fengjing (near Xi'an) and "China" is expanded south to the Yangtze river. In this very prosperous period for China, society becomes feudal, layered into a ruling class governing farmers, craftsmen and -at the bottom- merchants. Traders have remained at the bottom of society ever since contributing to a development very different from that of e.g. Europe.
The Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771-256 BC) moves its capital 350 km east to Luoyang marking the start of the Spring and Autumn (771-476 BC) period, characterized by a reinforcement of regional identities. Philosophy flourishes with eg. Confucius (551-479 BC). Land ownership goes from ruler to farmers who in turn pay taxes. Farming is improved with canals, fertilization and irrigation.
The Zhou Dynasty eventually breaks up into individual "states" warring each other for territory. This period is referred to as the Warring States (475-221 BC). Zhou's central power weakens and the former fiefs see a chance for liberation. Philosophy is nourished by the troubled times. In the end the State of Qin conquers all the other States and establishes China's first imperial dynasty.
The short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) is the first to unite China under one emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Xianyang (near Xi'an) regains its status as capital and China is expanded south to Guangzhou. Unification of written language, measurements, wheel base, coins etc. ensures that China forever will remain unified. New roads and canals leave a much-improved infrastructure but art and literature suffer. China's name (Qin=China), the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army all stem from this period. The harsh government soon leads to rebellion.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC -220 AD) expands trade via The Silk Road to Europe. The emperor and central government is large and powerful offering China's first "golden age".
The next 400 years see China's "Dark Ages". The empire is split into Three Kingdoms under Tibetan, Turkish and Mongolian rule.
Of the three, the Jin Dynasty (265-420) with its capital in Luoyang proves the more significant with Buddhism expanding rapidly. Tea drinking becomes popular for the first time.
Although brief in time the Sui Dynasty (589-618) reunites China under one rule and witnesses the building of The Great Canal bringing rice all the way from Hangzhou to the capital of Chang'an.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) sees China's second golden age. Power is again centralized in Chang'an under a strong emperor and a professional administration -a system that remains in place till 1911. Printing is invented and literature becomes popular. Buddhism is at its peak until 843 when emperor Wu Zong closes 40,000 temples, forces monks to take regular work and confiscates their land.
The Tang Dynasty falls apart in 907 and is replaced by the Liao Dynasty of Northern China with Yanjing (today's Beijing) as capital. In 937 Kaifeng becomes the capital under the Wei Dynasty. This period is referred to as The Five Dynasties.
Starting with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) China's last four dynasties almost span the entire 20th century. The "Five Dynasties and ten kingdoms" era which succeeded the Song leave a much reduced China and eventually the Ruzhen people overrun China's capital Kaifeng and establish a new southern (Song) dynasty with Hangzhou as capital. Agriculture (cotton and rice) is further improved and China becomes a major exporter of fine porcelain. Culturally China again excels: The theatre becomes popular, printing skills are refined and the art of traditional Chinese landscape painting emerges.
But the southern Song Dynasty faces an unstoppable enemy. Djengis Khan (1167-1227) gathers the many northern tribes under his Mongolian rule and conquers Korea, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and southern Russia. Kublai Khan, Djengis Khan's grandson, takes power in 1260 and establishes his capital in Khanbalik also named Dadu ("The Great Capital") -today's Beijing. By 1279 he conquers the rest of the Song empire and establishes the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) becoming emperor of the largest expanse of land in world history. The Great Canal is linked to the Yellow River and extended to Khanbalik so that rice from Southern China can be barged directly into the capital. Culture continues to prosper and religion is tolerated. Mass-produced art is exported in large quantities and trade via ocean and by caravan flourishes. Marco Polo becomes advisor to the Great Khan.
The constant rift between the Chinese and their Mongolian rulers as well as the growing bureaucracy eventually lead to revolts all over China. Attempts at restoring central authority fail and natural disasters complete the breakdown of central administration. Time is ripe for passing the "Mantle of Heaven" to the last (Han-) Chinese dynasty.
Zhu Yuanzhang, a farmer and leader of a popular uprising, conquers Nanjing in 1356 and in 1368 also Beijing ("The Northern Capital"). Pronouncing himself emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) he moves the capital to Nanjing ("The Southern Capital"). Confucian ministers put an end to Chinese expansionary visions and the nation turns inwards, isolates itself and revels in its past history. The Great Wall is repaired and fortified and numerous other fortifications and buildings are built in China's main cities, including The Forbidden City in Beiping now being made capital and renamed Beijing. Religion still prospers but spiritually the dynasty adds little. The Ming Dynasty is the essence of what we today typify as a Chinese "dynasty"
In 1644, taking advantage of an internal uprising, Manchurians seize power of all China ruling the last dynasty under the name of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). For the next two centuries China is at peace. Export, art and agriculture blossom but the ruling class isolates itself from its own people and the world. Mistakenly trusting that the "new" Western powers need Chinese tea, porcelain and silk more than territorial- or political influence, Qing is ill-prepared for Britain's answer to its growing silver deficit with China: refined opium. The last 100 years of China's dynasties are bloody seeing the "Opium Wars", "The Taiping Rebellion" and the "Boxer Rebellion", all fought against China by the European colonial powers.
In 1908, the 3-year old Puyi becomes the last Chinese emperor. He remains in power until China is pronounced a republic on December 29, 1911.