The history of China spans several millennia across a wide geographical area. Each region now considered part of the Chinese world has experienced periods of unity, fracture, prosperity, and hardship. Classical Chinese civilization first emerged in the Yellow River valley, which along with the Yangtze and Pearl River basins now constitute the geographic core of China and have for the majority of its imperial history. China maintains a rich diversity of ethnic and linguistic people groups. The traditional lens for viewing Chinese history is the dynastic cycle: imperial dynasties rise and fall, and are ascribed certain achievements. Throughout pervades the narrative that Chinese civilization can be traced as an unbroken thread many thousands of years into the past, making it one of the cradles of civilization. At various times, states representative of a dominant Chinese culture have directly controlled areas stretching as far west as the Tian Shan, the Tarim Basin, and the Himalayas, as far north as the Sayan Mountains, and as far south as the delta of the Red River.
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The Neolithic period saw increasingly non-parochial societies begin to emerge along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. For example, the Erlitou culture existed throughout the central plains of China during the era traditionally attributed to the Xia dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE) by Chinese historiographers in foundational works like the Records of the Grand Historian—a text written around 1700 years after the date assigned to the fall of the Xia. The earliest surviving written Chinese dates to roughly 1250 BCE, consisting of divinations inscribed on oracle bones. Chinese bronze inscriptions, ritual texts dedicated to deceased ancestors, form another large corpus of early Chinese writing. The earliest strata of received literature in Chinese include poetry, divination, and records of official speeches. China is believed to be one of a very few loci of independent invention of writing, and the earliest surviving records display an already-mature written language. The culture remembered by the earliest extant literature is that of the decentralized Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE), during which bureaucratization increased, chariot-based warfare was superseded by infantry, the earliest classical texts took shape, the Mandate of Heaven was introduced, and philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism were first articulated.
China was first united under a single imperial state under Qin Shi Huang in 221 BCE. Orthography, weights, measures, and law were all standardized. Shortly thereafter, China entered its classical age with the Han dynasty (206 BCE – CE 220), marking a critical period, a term for the Chinese language is still "Han language", and the dominant Chinese ethnic group is known as Han Chinese. The Chinese empire reached some of its farthest geographical extents during this period. Confucianism was officially adopted and its core texts were edited into their received forms. Wealthy landholding families independent of the ancient aristocracy began to wield significant power. Han technology can be considered on par with that of the contemporaneous Roman Empire: mass production of paper aided the proliferation of written documents, and the written dialect of this period was imitated for millennia afterwards. China also became known internationally for its sericulture. The Han imperial order finally collapsed in the late 2nd century, and China would not see a comparable level of political stability for another 400 years. During this period, Buddhism began to have a significant impact on Chinese culture. Calligraphy, art, historiography, and storytelling flourished. Wealthy families gained even more power compared to the central government. The Yangtze River valley was incorporated into the dominant cultural sphere.
The realm saw a period of unity with the Sui dynasty unifying the realm in the late 6th century, soon giving way to the long-lived Tang dynasty (608–907), regarded as another Chinese golden age. The Tang dynasty saw flourishing developments in science, technology, poetry, economics, and geographical influence. China's first officially recognized empress, Wu Zetian, reigned during the dynasty's first century. Buddhism was officially adopted by Tang emperors, while orthodox Confucianism was articulated by scholars. Thus, "Tang people" is the other common demonym for the Han ethnic group. After the Tang's decline led to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the Song dynasty (960–1279) saw the maximal extent of imperial Chinese cosmopolitan development. Mechanical printing was introduced, and many of the earliest surviving witnesses of certain texts are wood-block prints from this era. Song scientific advancement led the world, and the imperial examination system gave ideological structure to the political bureaucracy. Confucianism and Taoism were fully knit together in Neo-Confucianism. Over the course of the 13th century, the Mongol Empire conquered all of China, culminating in the Mongol Yuan dynasty founded in 1271. Contact with Europe began to increase during this time, symbolized by the reports of Marco Polo. Achievements under the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368–1644) include global exploration, fine porcelain, and many extant public works projects, such as those restoring the Grand Canal and Great Wall. Three of the four Classic Chinese Novels were written during the Ming.
The Qing dynasty that succeeded the Ming placed ethnic Manchu officials in important offices, while also becoming sinicized. The Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–1796) commissioned a complete encyclopaedia of imperial libraries, totaling nearly a billion words. Imperial China reached its greatest territorial extent of during the Qing, but China came into increasing conflict with European powers, culminating in the Opium Wars and subsequent unequal treaties. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution, led by Sun Yat-sen and others, created the modern Republic of China. From 1927, a costly civil war between the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communist Party raged, and the industrialized Empire of Japan also invaded the divided country. After the Communist victory, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, with the nationalists retreating to Taiwan. Today, both governments still claim to be the legitimate government of China. The PRC has slowly accumulated the majority of diplomatic recognition over the 20th century, and Taiwan's status remains a perennial issue. From 1966 to 1976, the Cultural Revolution helped consolidate Mao's power approaching the end of his life. After his death, the government began economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping. As a result, China became the world's fastest-growing major economy. China had been the most populous nation in the world for decades, until it was surpassed by India in 2023.
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