China by Dynasty

China’s boundaries have expanded and contracted over time. The six maps show China at selected periods in history. Click on each map heading to see the extent of China’s borders during that period.

Battle of Mu Ye, 1046 BCE

Battle of Mu Ye

The Battle of Mu Ye took place in 1046 BCE in central Henan. It was fought between the Shang and the Zhou, a frontier people from the valleys to the west of the Shang area.

King Wu of Zhou, one the great early Zhou kings, led the Zhou army to a ford of the Yellow River where he met with 800 local leaders. He crossed the river and approached the Shang capital, but then turned back, influenced by signs from heaven. Two years later, he set out again. The Zhou forces and their allies - 45,000 troops and 300 chariots it was said - marched through flat terrain to Mu Ye, where the Shang army assembled to face the Zhou. The Book of Songs, one of China's first books, said:

"The troops of Shang,
Were collected like a forest,
And marshalled in the wilderness of Mu."

But the Zhou army quickly defeated the Shang forces, and Di Xin the last emperor of the Shang committed suicide.

A bronze was discovered in 1976 in Shaanxi province, which had an inscription on it about the battle of Mu Ye. The inscription is the earliest of the Zhou period, and confirmed that the account given in historical texts was true.

Beijing, 'Southern Capital' of the Khitan Liao


Beijing was one of the five capitals of the Khitans, a semi-nomadic people, who set up the Liao dynasty. The Khitan Liao emperors ruled much of north China for over two hundred years. Beijing was their 'Southern Capital'. The city had an enclosed imperial area and a palace, and ward divisions, which had been established during the earlier Tang period. The major markets were in the northern part of town. The Khitans spoke a Mongolian language. In some Liao cities, the Liao people lived in tents inside the walls. Khitan women went hunting, could divorce their husbands, and could hold government and military posts. The Khitan Liao were often in conflict with Song China. Some relics of the Liao capital can still be seen in today's Beijing, including include San Miao Road which is one of the oldest streets in the city, the Niujie mosque, founded in 996, and Tianning Temple, built in the 1100s.

Beijing and the Forbidden City

Beijing and the Forbidden City

Beijing is the capital of China, with a population today of over 20 million people. The name 'Beijing' means 'Northern Capital'.

In Confucius's time, Beijing had been capital of the state of Yan. When China was conquered by the Mongols in the late 1200s, Beijing became the capital of the whole of China for the first time. Ming Emperor Yongle, who took the throne in 1402, decided to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Building the city took nearly twenty years, with materials brought from all over China. The new palace compound, where the Emperor lived with his family and official business was carried out, was called the Forbidden City. There were hundreds of rooms, including palaces, ceremonial halls, secretarial offices, kitchens, barracks, servants' quarters and storehouses. The Forbidden City lay at the heart of a walled government district called the Imperial City, which included lakes and gardens and a zoo with tiger enclosure and a leopard house. The new palace was inaugurated on New Year's Day 1421.

To bring rice to Beijing from the south, the Grand Canal was dredged and new locks built.

Most ordinary inhabitants of Beijing lived in courtyard houses along small winding alleys, some of which still survive today, and which since the Mongol days have been known by the Mongol term 'hutong'.

Beijing has been the capital of China almost without break ever since Yongle's reign. The Forbidden City is the world's largest palace complex.

Chang'an, Tang China's cosmopolitan capital


Chang'an was the capital of Tang China. Today is it known as Xi'an. The area had been the homeland of the Zhou warriors who conquered China's Bronze Age Shang dynasty, and the First Emperor of Qin had built his capital here, as did the rulers of the Han, Sui and Tang dynasties. Chang'an was regarded by the people of Tang China as the centre of the world. A cosmopolitan city in which Turkic peoples, Tibetans, Persians, Syrians, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Jewish and Arabic people could be found, it had Zoroastrian temples, Christian churches, Islamic mosques, as well as Buddhist and Daoist monasteries and other Chinese temples. The Tang law code controlled traffic in the city. Anyone caught speeding – riders or coachmen who galloped their horses or raced their carriages down a street into a crowd of people - was punished by fifty blows, and if they killed someone, they could be executed. If the coachman had a good excuse, such as urgently calling a doctor, or delivering an imperial decree, might be spared from punishment.

Changchun, formerly capital of puppet state Manchukuo


Changchun, a city in northeast China, was the capital of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo from 1932 to 1945.

Before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Changchun was a small town on the grasslands at the Manchurian frontier, with various handicraft industries including felt-making and an indigo dye works.

Changchun was transformed by the coming of the railways. The Russians built a settlement at Changchun in 1898, a simple town for the railway laborers, with a few commercial buildings, a workers' club and a chapel. In 1906, Japan built a new commercial settlement at Changchun, constructing impressive public buildings, including a railway station, a fine post office, the grand Yamato Hotel, and the railway administration building, which had flush toilets and steam heating. Manchuria was the world's leading producer of soybeans in the 1920s and 1930s, and Changchun became a major centre of the trade.

In 1932, Changchun went through another transformation when it became capital of Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo. The city was transformed into a modern capital, with wide boulevards, a government ministry district, smart residential suburbs, an airfield, and a golf driving range. Visitors to Changchun can still visit the Manchukuo Imperial Palace, where the puppet emperor's study and bedroom and temple, as well as his wife's and concubine's rooms have been recreated.

Erlitou, capital of China's first dynasty, the semi-mythical Xia


Erlitou is an archaeological site in Henan province. The finds at the site date between 2000 BCE and 1600 BCE, a period when China's first states were developing. Discoveries from the Erlitou site have convinced some archaeologists that it was the capital of China's first dynasty, the semi-mythical Xia. Two large rammed-earth platforms have been found, which were probably palaces - grand buildings consisting of large halls with verandas and a roofed corridor around the whole complex - as well as bronze workshops, several hundred graves, and numerous objects made of bronze, pottery, jade, stone, bone and lacquer.

Fengyang, Huai River Plain, birthplace of the Ming founder

Fengyang, Huai River Plain

Fengyang is a county in the Huai River Plain, famous for being the place where the first emperor of the Ming was born. The region was one of the poorest areas of China. When the first emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was a boy, the area was ravaged by drought, famine and plague. Zhu's family were very poor peasants. Zhu's parents died, and he became a beggar monk. Uprisings broke out, led by poor farming people who bound their heads with red cloth headbands - hence their name 'the Red Turbans' - and began killing officials and pillaging towns. Zhu joined a rebel army, and in an astonishing rise to power, over the course of a few years defeated all rivals and set up his new dynasty, the Ming.

After he became emperor, he ordered that his old home town should be rebuilt into a second capital city, and thousands of families were supposed to move there. But the plan was abandoned. Throughout the Ming and the Qing dynasty that followed it, Zhu Yuanzhang's home region remained a poor place. People said that because one person from there, Zhu Yuanzhang, had risen from beggar to emperor, he had taken all the good fengshui - good fortune - and there was nothing left for anyone else.

Fuzhou, base of Qing China's southern fleet


Fuzhou, a port city on China's south coast, was a major shipbuilding and engineering centre during China's Self Strengthening movement in the late 1800s.

In 1842, Fuzhou was opened to foreign trade, according to the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing. Fuzhou Dockyard was established in 1866, with French support, as part of China's Self-Strengthening movement which aimed to revitalise China through learning from the west. The dockyard's first ship, a steam-powered warship with six guns, was launched in 1869, and named the 'Wannian Qing' or 'Ten-Thousand-Year Qing Dynasty'. An academy was also set up to train naval officers and engineers. Courses on shipbuilding were given by French instructors, and navigation was taught by English experts. A five-year programme included internships in French shipyards and at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, England. By 1884, China's Fuzhou-based Southern Fleet was one of four fleets in China, which altogether had 50 modern warships.

The Southern Fleet was almost entirely destroyed by French forces in 1884 during the Sino-French War. After China's 1911 Revolution, the Fuzhou Academy became a Naval Engineering Institute.

The Grand Canal, world's longest manmade waterway

Grand Canal

The Grand Canal, built under the Sui Dynasty, is over 1000 miles long and is the world's longest man-made waterway. Canals had been dug in China since the days of the First Emperor of Qin, but the Sui Grand Canal was on a much grander scale than anything previously built. It first linked Luoyang on the Yellow River to Yangzhou on the Yangtze River, and then was extended south to Hangzhou, and north toward Beijing. The canal connected north and south China, making it possible to bring supplies from the south to support the army and the government in the north, integrating China's key economic areas for the first time in history. The millions of labourers who carried baskets of soil and chiselled through rock to build the canal endured much suffering, and many died at their work. Discontent at the human and economic costs contributed to the collapse of the Sui dynasty. But the canal contributed enormously to the prosperity of the Tang dynasty that followed.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall protected China's northern frontier. The Chinese had built defensive walls from as early as the Zhou period. The First Emperor of Qin connected existing walls to create an extensive defensive barrier.

After the Tumu Crisis in 1449, the Ming decided to strengthen the wall system along the northern borders. Wall-building efforts were spurred after another serious Mongol raid in 1550, when the invaders even reached the outskirts of Beijing. The walls, which had formerly been made of pounded earth, began to be faced with stone and brick. Building continued to the end of the Ming, by which time the Great Wall was thousands of miles long with nearly 25,000 watchtowers. After the Ming fell to the Manchus in the mid 1600s, the wall ceased to have any purpose, and began to crumble. The Great Wall today is around 13,000 miles long.

The Great Wall of China - early fortifications

Great Wall of China - Early Fortifications

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications built to protect China against raids and invasions by nomadic peoples of the steppes. Several walls were built as early as the seventh century BCE and were later joined together and strengthened in 220–206 BCE by Shihuangdi, the Qin emperor. The human cost of the construction is unknown, but it has been estimated by some authors that hundreds of thousands, if not up to a million, workers died building the Qin wall. Little of that wall remains, but since then the Great Wall has been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced through the dynasties. The majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty. The Ming fortifications are over 5000 miles in length.

Guangzhou, international port city


Guangzhou is a major city in south China with a population of over 13 million people.

During the Tang period, Guangzhou was a busy international port, with Arab, Indian and Persian communities, Buddhist monasteries and an Islamic mosque. Tang Guangzhou was a port of call for overseas merchants coming across the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, who traded stoneware, ceramics, spices, as well as silk, gold and silver wares, glass and precious stones. The Tang government appointed a maritime trade commissioner, in charge of management of ships, storage facilities, levying customs and receiving foreign envoys. A posting to serve as a government official here was known to be a good way to get rich quickly. The surrounding area was also known for exotica such as delicious lychee fruits, peacocks, betel nuts, coconuts, as well as deadly mists that gathered in the mountains, and devastating typhoons. At the end of the Tang period in the late 800s, Guangzhou was looted during a major uprising, and the account of an Arab traveller records that thousands of people were massacred. Chinese sources say pirates had also raided and looted the warehouses of foreign merchants in Guangzhou a couple of years previously.

Guangzhou (Canton)

Guangzhou (Canton)

Guangzhou is a port city in south China. Located on the Pearl River close to Hong Kong and Macao, the city is sometimes known in English as Canton. Guangzhou became a major international port during the Tang period, with Arab, Indian and Persian communities, Buddhist monasteries and an Islamic mosque, which is still there today. In the Qing period, China's last dynasty, under the 'Canton System', Guangzhou became the only place at which westerners were allowed to trade. The foreigners in Guangzhou lived and worked in a row of houses known as the 'Thirteen Factories', on the banks of the Pearl River.

Women were not allowed to come to the city. In 1829, a British woman made the journey to Guangzhou despite the ban, and the following year, 20-year-old American Harriet Low and her aunt Abigail Low also travelled there, wearing 'velvet caps and cloaks' to disguise themselves, becoming the first two American women in China. Abigail's husband was a Massachusetts businessman working for US trading firm Russell & Company. Harriet described her journey in a diary. She said the Chinese, 'kindled up fires in an instant to behold our faces and we had quite a rabble round us... though they were perfectly civil and made no noise, but only showed a little curiosity…'

After the Opium Wars, the foreigners in Guangzhou moved to an island in the city called Shamian, or Shameen, where trading companies from Britain, the United States and other countries built western-style mansions, which are still there today.

Hangzhou, capital of the Southern Song


Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province, and is famous for its beautiful West Lake. The city rose to prominence during the Song dynasty when it became capital of the Southern Song dynasty.

After the fall of the original Song capital in Kaifeng in 1127, Chinese loyalists re-grouped in the south, and established a court at Hangzhou. Hangzhou at first struggled to accommodate 500,000 migrants from the north. But within a few years, new housing was built, and Hangzhou flourished. The loss of the north was a huge blow, but after they moved to Hangzhou, the Song Chinese were able to use the extensive waterways of the south, and enjoyed great prosperity as China's commercial revolution continued. Hangzhou was the capital of Song China for over 150 years. The city was besieged and captured by the advancing Mongol armies of Khubilai Khan in 1276, three years before the final collapse of the Song empire. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo wrote about Hangzhou in the late thirteenth century, saying that that the city was "greater than any in the world".

Hemudu, Neolithic settlement


Hemudu is a famous archaeological site close to the modern day city of Shanghai. It was one of several Neolithic cultures that emerged in China around 5000 BCE. Hemudu is a very well preserved settlement, at the marshy edge of a former lake. At the Hemudu site, researchers found wooden houses on stilts, rice and vegetable remains, and many bone objects, including even musical flutes. The pots found at the site were decorated with birds, petals and leaves, and pigs. Another famous neolithic site is at Banpo, in northwest China.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong, a former British colony, is now a Special Administrative Region of China.

Britain took possession of Hong Kong island during the First Opium War, and it was ceded to Britain in perpetuity in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. Home to a just a few thousand fishing and farming people at the time, Hong Kong island was described by the British foreign secretary at the time as "a barren island with hardly a house upon it". The British constructed buildings, roads and other infrastructure, and trading houses including Dent and Co, Jardine Matheson and others established operations. Over the decades, thousands of Chinese migrants settled in the colony, fleeing upheavals in China, such as Taiping Rebellion.

The British extended their territory to include Kowloon in 1860, and in 1898 leased extensive rural areas known as the New Territories for 99 years. Trade expanded, and by 1900 Hong Kong was established as a major international entrepot.

Occupied by Japan during World War II, in the 1950s Hong Kong enjoyed an economic revival based on light industries such as textiles.

In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China, and became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic, maintaining a separate political and economic system under the principle of "one country, two systems". In 2014, pro-democracy demonstrators occupied the city centre for weeks, in protest at the Chinese government's decision to limit voters' choices in the 2017 Hong Kong leadership election.

Jao Modo, site of a major battle between China and the Zunghar Mongols

Jao Modo, Mongolia

Jao Modo is the site of a major battle fought in 1696 between the Zunghar Mongols and Qing China.

In the late 1600s, the Zunghar Mongols had been united by a young leader called Galdan, a "rough, crafty man who liked fighting", one Chinese account said. Emperor Kangxi wanted to destroy this dangerous enemy, leading the army himself. Kangxi's first campaign against Galdan, in 1690, was inconclusive, and in 1696 the emperor of China set out for a second time into the desert. The Qing army marched north, with six thousand carts to carry grain to the frontier. Soldiers built roads of willow sticks and mud to cross giant sand dunes. The emperor urged his army on, taking regular sightings of the pole star, praying to the spirits of wind and rain, paying attention to the terrain, the grass, the desert sand and stones.

The Qing army crossed the Tula river, and then the Kerulen, pursuing Galdan north, running low on grain and fodder for their animals. Kangxi told his son in a letter that he was "in a landscape with no good places for thousands of miles". Finally the two armies met at a place called Jao Modo. Both sides were at the extreme limit of their supply lines. The Qing occupied the hills, and fired their great cannon, and advanced behind a wooden barricade. Galdan was unable to control his troops, who broke ranks and fled. Galdan's wife Anu tried to save her husband's life in a counter attack but she was killed. Galdan escaped with only about 40 men. The following year, abandoned by his army, Galdan was reported to have died.

Jingdezhen, famous porcelain-making center


Jingdezhen is a famous porcelain manufacturing area in southeast China. As early as the sixth century CE, the town was producing ceramics for the imperial court. During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, traders brought cobalt to Jingdezhen from Persia, and Jingdezhen ceramicists began using the cobalt to create the blue and white porcelain that became popular worldwide. Jingdezhen became a busy commercial place, noisy, strewn with pottery garbage, and smoky from the wood fired kilns. The first Ming emperor set up an imperial manufactory in Jingdezhen, and the town produced vast quantities of ceramics for the court and the government. Luxury ceramics from Jingdezhen were purchased by elite Chinese, as well as foreign consumers from Japan, Korea, and Europe.

Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song


Kaifeng is a city near the Yellow River in north China. A commercial centre on the Grand Canal, Kaifeng was chosen by the Song founding emperor Taizu as capital of his new dynasty. The emperor ordered the city to be rebuilt and enlarged, and by 1100 Kaifeng's population grew to over one million, making it the largest city in the world at the time. Along the River During the Qingming Festival, one of the best-loved works of art in China, depicts everyday life in Kaifeng during the Song dynasty. The scroll shows taverns, wine shops, grain stores, shops selling cookware, bows and arrows, lanterns, medicine and musical instruments, and people from all walks of life - boatmen loading cargoes, storytellers, peddlers, jugglers, beggars, monks, fortune tellers, cooks, metalworkers, and scholars.

Kaifeng was vulnerable to flooding due to its location close to the Yellow River, and has several times over history been devastated by floods.

Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Kashgar, Xinjiang

Kashgar is an oasis city in China's Xinjiang province, with a population today of around 350,000 people. On the Silk Road between China, Central Asia and Europe, the city has been a centre of trade and cultural exchange for over two thousand years.

Kashgar - along with the rest of what is today Xinjiang province - became part of the Chinese empire as a consequence of Qing China's conflicts with the Zunghar Mongols. In the early 1700s, the Zunghar Mongols had conquered Kashgar, along with other oasis cities, and set up puppet rulers. They extracted huge wealth from Kashgar, thousands of ounces of silver, and large amounts of grain. By the mid 1700s, however, the Zunghars were weakening. Qing armies defeated the Zunghar Mongols in 1755, and took control of Kashgar, as well as other oasis cities, extending their rule into Muslim Central Asia in a series of campaigns during the 1750s.

Kun Iam Temple, Macao, where the first US-China trade treaty was signed

Kun Iam Temple, Macao

The Kun Iam Temple is one of Macao's most popular places of worship, and it is the site where the first Sino-US trade treaty, the Treaty of Wanghia, was signed in 1844, in the aftermath of the First Opium War.

The representative of Qing China was a bannerman of the Imperial Clan called Qiying. He came to Macao and took up lodgings in the Kun Iam Temple, where the negotiations were held. The US representative was Caleb Cushing, a congressman from Massachusetts. The signing ceremony took place in a room at the back of the Kun Iam temple, after which Qiying invited the Americans to enjoy 'fruits and tea', which turned out to be fine banquet laid out in a larger room of the temple, including a pudding that Qiying had invented himself.

The Kun Iam Temple was founded in the 1500s, and is devoted to Kun Iam or Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. Cushing had wished to negotiate in Beijing but the Chinese wanted to keep foreigners away from the capital. The Treaty of Wanghia followed the same lines as the British Treaty of Nanjing.

Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa is a city of over 400,000 people, and the traditional, spiritual and political centre of the Tibetan world. The city contains the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and the Norbulingka, which are UNESCO world heritage sites.

Tibet became part of the expanding Qing Chinese empire in the context of the complex politics of Mongol and Tibetan peoples and China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tibet was invaded by the Zunghar Mongols in 1717. Concerned at the Mongol advances, Emperor Kangxi sent two Qing armies to Lhasa. One Qing army approached from the north through Koko Nor, and the other from the east through Sichuan. The Qing armies conquered the Zunghars, and in 1720 entered Lhasa. They installed a new Dalai Lama who was loyal to the Qing. This began the Chinese military intervention in the politics of Tibet.

Longmen Grottoes, Buddhist pilgrimage site with superb rock carvings

Longmen Grottoes

The Longmen Grottoes are caves and niches carved into cliffs near the city of Luoyang, in Henan province. There are more than 2,000 caves and niches which contain over 100,000 Buddhist statues. The statues were carved by followers of Buddhism between around 500 CE and 750 CE.

After the spread of Buddhism in China, pilgrimages became an important part of religious practice. People would visit Buddhist sites and contribute money to have inscriptions, niches and statues made. At the Longmen Grottoes, the donors included members of the imperial family such as Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu, as well as court officials, aristocrats, nuns and monks, artisans, lay societies, and members of commercial guilds. The largest statue is nearly 60 ft high, and was built for Empress Wu. Legend says that the face of the statue was carved to look like her face. There was originally an enormous roof above the statue.

After the sack of Luoyang during the An Lushan Rebellion, the carving activity here declined. Longmen is one of several important Buddhist cave sculpture sites in China.

Macao, a European settlement in Ming China


Macao is a city in south China, and is a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.

A remote, tiny rocky promontory at the mouth of the Pearl River, Macao did not develop as a major settlement until the Portuguese arrived in the mid 1500s, and were allowed to settle. By 1562 there were around 800 Portuguese living at Macao. They built churches, squares, warehouses, and government offices. Catholic missionaries used Macao as a base for their work in China. Dutch traders, who were expanding their international trading activities, attacked Macao in 1622. The Portuguese defended the city stoutly, and the Dutch retreated.

Macao was returned to China in 1999.

Moon Harbour, Fujian, smugglers' port

Moon Harbour, Fujian

Moon Harbour - Yuegang in Chinese - was a prosperous smugglers' port during the Ming dynasty.

Although the Ming government forbade all foreign trade outside three designated ports, Chinese sailors and merchants up and down the coast continued to trade with Japanese and other foreigners. Originally the main smugglers' haven had been closer to modern Shanghai, but the government smashed it in 1548, and the survivors moved south to Moon Harbour in Fujian Province. Moon Harbour became a prosperous illegal port. Through the 1550s, ships from all over south and southeast Asia called there, trading silk, copper, porcelains, painted fans, pearls and handicrafts, silver, spices, Japanese swords and guns. Although the pirates are known as 'Japanese', they included a mix of Japanese, Portuguese and South East Asians as well as many Chinese. In 1567, the government decided to partly lift the ban and made Moon Harbour an official port.

Mountain Resort at Jehol, the emperors' northern summer palace

Mountain Resort at Jehol

Jehol is the site of the Mountain Resort, or northern summer palace of the Qing emperors, which lies 100 miles northeast of Beijing in the modern city of Chengde.

The huge site, built between 1703 and 1780, includes a main palace complex, the largest classical gardens in China, and a series of monasteries in Tibetan Buddhist style. The Kangxi Emperor first established an imperial residence here, near the Manchu imperial hunting grounds. The complex incorporated Han Chinese, Manchu, Tibetan and Mongolian influences, reinforcing the idea of the unity of the Qing dynasty as a multi-ethnic empire. Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong often spent several months of each summer at Jehol, handling government affairs and receiving leaders of ethnic minority peoples and diplomatic envoys from foreign countries. Emperor Qianlong met Britain's Macartney Embassy at the palace complex in 1793.

Jehol was called Rehe in Chinese, which means 'warm river', because there was a hot spring at the site.

Nanjing, capital of early Ming China


Nanjing is a city of over six million people in Jiangsu Province. It has a strategic location on south bank of the Yangtze River, one of China's longest rivers and main transportation routes. Nanjing became the capital of one of the famous 'Three Kingdoms' after the fall of the Han dynasty in about 200 CE, and a several short-lived southern dynasties were subsequently based there. As waves of northerners migrated south, the population grew, and industries such as papermaking, copper making, porcelain and silk manufacturing developed. In the late 1300s, Hongwu, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, chose Nanjing to be his capital, and built the huge walls that still stand today.

China's capital was later moved to Beijing, but Nanjing retained important financial functions throughout the Ming. The 'Yellow Register' census records for the entire Chinese population were stored in Nanjing, on three islands in a lake. Finance ministry staff lived at the archives on the islands, along with doctors, cooks, and the boatmen who ferried the documents across the lake. Archive staff applied pepper and mineral powders to try and stop insects damaging the documents, and fire and candlelight were strictly forbidden. The kitchens were located on a special small island reached by a bridge. Each time the national census was carried out, thirty rooms had to be added to the archives to accommodate the new records. The documents were used for calculating tax and managing state finances. In the turmoil that brought down the Ming dynasty in 1644-1645, the archive was destroyed.



Nanjing is the capital of China's Jiangsu Province. During the last 150 years, Nanjing has been the scene of several momentous events in China's history. The city was the capital of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which fought to conquer the Qing empire. Thousands died in Nanjing when in 1864 the city was finally retaken by Qing troops. There are few traces of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing today, but in Tangzijie street, visitors can still visit the residence of a Taiping prince, which is decorated with Taiping wall paintings, and see a recreation of the Taiping leader's golden throne room at the Presidential Palace.

In 1928, Chiang Kai-shek made Nanjing the capital of Nationalist China, choosing Nanjing instead of Beijing in line with Sun Yat-sen's original plan to reduce the power of northern general Yuan Shikai. To make Nanjing a modern city, the Nationalists built wide boulevards and grand public buildings. Chiang Kai-shek built a huge memorial to Sun Yat-sen, dedicating a whole mountainside outside the city for his tomb.

In 1937, Nanjing was conquered by Japan during Japan's full-scale invasion of China. Nanjing's people suffered appallingly at the hands of the Japanese soldiers.

Qianling Mausoleum, Tang imperial tombs

Qianling Mausoleum

The Qianling Mausoleum is a Tang dynasty tomb site near Xi'an. Various members of the Tang imperial family are buried here, including Tang Emperor Gaozong and his wife, who became Empress Wu, China's only female emperor.

Leading into the mausoleum is a processional path lined with statues of horses, lions and ostriches, as well as officials and 61 foreign envoys, which represent the diplomats who were present at Emperor Gaozong's funeral. There are two tablets, one of which is inscribed with the achievements of Emperor Gaozong. The other tablet is blank. It is thought that it was put up by Empress Wu, and would eventually bear a description of her achievements. It was never inscribed.

Inside the tombs that have been excavated, there are colourful murals, showing scenes of life in the Tang imperial palace - ladies-in-waiting, people on horseback playing polo, Tang officials greeting foreign envoys, and palace women enjoying the gardens.

Qingdao, former German colonial city, famous for Tsingtao beer


Qingdao is a former German colonial city in north China, famous worldwide today for Tsingtao Beer.

During the 'scramble for concessions' in China in the late 1800s, Germany seized a fishing village called Qingdao on north China's Shandong peninsula, and leased the surrounding territory to form a German protectorate called Jiaozhou. The Germans demolished the village and also a recently built Chinese army barracks at Qingdao. They laid out a new city, with segregated areas for Europeans and Chinese. Houses, hotels and official buildings were constructed in German style. Qingdao became the principal German naval base in the Pacific. The Germans set up schools and a German-Chinese university, as well as a brewery, which today is still famous for its Tsingtao Beer - 'Tsingtao' being an old way of writing 'Qingdao'. The city was seized by Japan in 1914 during the First World War. When the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 confirmed Japan's occupation, the famous 'May Fourth' demonstrations took place in Beijing. Visitors to Qingdao today can still see the old city's German municipal buildings, and stroll along leafy streets lined with European-style villas.

Quanzhou, Song China's busiest international port


Quanzhou is a port city on the south China coast.

One of the greatest cities of the Southern Song, Quanzhou was the most important port in Song China's flourishing overseas trade. Cut off from easy access to Central Asia because of the presence of rival states, the Song developed vast maritime trade routes that stretched as far as the western Indian Ocean. Quanzhou overtook Guangzhou to become China's busiest port, as overseas demand for ceramics, tea and silk expanded. Through the wharves of Quanzhou passed all the foreign luxuries that the people of Song China enjoyed - spices, incense, cotton, rhino horn, ivory, pearls, silver and gold. The account of a customs superintendent at Quanzhou, notes that pearls were imported from the Persian Gulf, ivory from Aden, myrrh from Somalia, pepper from Java and Sumatra, and cotton from India.

Qufu, hometown of Confucius


Qufu is a city in southwestern Shandong province. Qufu was the capital of Lu, one of several states which the early Zhou kings set up in eastern China in order to exert their power in the region. It is best known as the hometown of Confucius. Over time, the feudal bonds between regional states like Lu and the Zhou court weakened. By the time Confucius lived here around 500 BCE during the Spring and Autumns period, Lu was one of many states competing for power across China.

Sanxingdui, site of a Bronze Age civilisation


At a village called Sanxingdui in southwest China, archaeologists in the 1980s uncovered the ruins of a city, with sacrificial pits which contained extraordinary bronze objects made at the same time as the Shang bronzes. The Sanxingdui finds were a sensation, because the site is far away from the Shang area in the Yellow River Valley, and because the objects were equally sophisticated, and in a very different style. They included standing figurines of people, and human heads with huge eyes and ears, as well as a bronze tree four meters high.



Shanghai is a city of 24 million people at the mouth of China's Yangtze River.

A busy port, from the late 1200s Shanghai became a county town. By the early 1800s, Shanghai had a population of about 250,000, with city walls, wharves, warehouses, guildhalls, academies, government offices, temples and gardens, some of which have been restored and can be visited today, such as the Huxinting teahouse, which is known to foreigners as the 'Willow Patterned Teahouse'.

After the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, Shanghai was opened up to foreigners, as a 'Treaty Port'. The city was divided into different sectors, including the International Settlement along the waterfront, and the French Concession to the west, which were effective colonies within the city. The most powerful banks and trading houses of East Asia constructed grandiose buildings in foreign style along Shanghai's famous 'Bund', or waterfront. Visitors today can still stroll along the Bund to take in the city's famous colonial heritage, as well as the spectacular new district of Pudong on the other side of the river, built since 1993 on former farmland.

Shangjing, Jurchen Jin capital, in modern Harbin


Shangjing, a site near Harbin in far northeast China, was one of the five capitals of the Jurchen Jin dynasty. The Jurchens were originally horse breeders and hunters, who developed agriculture, crafts and commerce, and became a strong power in the 1100s, threatening Song China. The Jurchens had several capitals across north China. Shangjing, which is in modern Manchuria, was the first Jin capital, built in the early 1100s. The ruins of the city are near modern Harbin. After the Jin conquered Kaifeng, the defeated Song emperor and his father were forced to march to Shangjing, where they were made to venerate the Jin ancestors at the Jin ancestral shrine.

An excavation at the site of Shangjing in 2014 uncovered a city wall with watchtowers and corner towers, and several city gates. The archaeologists found jars and urns, as well as kettles, knives, scissors, locks, nails, arrowheads, armour and chariot implements. There were also bone hair-pins, hooks, awls and rings, and crossbows, stone missiles, grinding tools, copper coins, bracelets and chains.

Shangqiu, first capital of the Bronze Age Shang dynasty


Shangqiu is a small city in Henan province, in China's Yellow River Valley. It is thought that the first Shang capital was located here. The Shang dynasty ruled in the Yellow River Valley from about 1600 BCE to 1046 BCE. Shang people developed oracle bone writing and sophisticated bronze technology. The Shang are said to have had five successive capitals. In the 1930s, scholars used texts written on the oracle bones painstakingly to map out the journeys of the Shang kings, and saw that the kings often returned to a place near Shangqiu. Other researchers found rammed-earth city walls there, ten meters below the ground, and believe that these are the ruins of a once magnificent city, the first city established by the early Shang lords, and a site which was important to them as their ancestral home. Large Shang sites have been found at Zhengzhou, and at Anyang, from where the Shang ruled for nearly three hundred years.

Shaoshan, birthplace of Mao Zedong


Shaoshan is a village in Hunan province, in central China, and was the birthplace of Mao Zedong.

Shaoshan is in the Xiang River valley, about 80 miles southwest of Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. Dominated by rice farmers, the region was known for its nativist culture, and had been the center of anti-foreign movements in the late 1800s. Mao was the son of a middling peasant, who owned a few acres of land. Mao went to the village primary school, and then to a new-style modern school in a local town, that emphasised Western learning. Now a major tourist site, Shaoshan is visited by three million people every year. Mao's house is surrounded by rice paddies and lotus ponds.

Shenzhen, China's first 'Special Economic Zone'


Shenzhen is a city in south China, which in 1980 became China's first Special Economic Zone.

Before 1980, Shenzhen was a market town of some 30,000 people, located in the Pearl River Delta adjacent to Hong Kong. In 1980, Shenzhen was designated China's first Special Economic Zone, under Deng Xiaoping's policy of reform and opening up. The aim was to attract investment from overseas, and to develop the production of export commodities and build up advanced technological capabilities. Shenzhen grew to become a major metropolis with a population of 10 million today.

The Silk Road

Silk Road

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that were central to cultural interaction between China and Europe. After Chinese diplomat Zhang Qian journeyed west in 138 BCE, a variety of land routes opened up, linking Han China to Central Asia, India, the Arab regions and Europe. Chinese products such as silk, lacquerware, porcelain, ironware and tea were introduced to the West and glass, gems, grapes, walnuts, sesame, garlic and cucumbers from the West became commonplace in China. The Silk Road also facilitated cultural exchange, so that Chinese technologies spread to the West, while Buddhism, and Christianity were brought into China.

Suzhou, city of wealth, beauty - and silk


Suzhou is a city in the Lower Yangtze Valley, which is known for high culture and elegance. The traditional gardens of Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Suzhou's economic growth began in the middle of the Tang period, as communications improved and rice-growing developed, helped by better tools and techniques. Suzhou became famous for its plentiful rice harvests. The Lower Yangtze region, with Suzhou at its heart, became the richest part of the empire. After the fall of the Tang, many refugees came to south China from the north, and the population of Suzhou grew. From the Southern Song on, Suzhou became famous for its silk. Government silk workshops were set up in Suzhou. Its warm and humid climate was ideal for rearing silkworms and making silk, and the new population explosion during the Southern Song provided the huge labour force required.



Taipei is the political, economic and cultural center of Taiwan, and one of the major centers of the Chinese-speaking world.

From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire. The island flourished economically under Japanese colonial rule. After Japan's surrender in 1945, Taiwan returned to Chinese rule, and was governed by the Nationalists. In 1947, the Nationalist government killed perhaps 10,000 local people following an uprising. China's Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan in 1949, following his defeat by China's communists in the civil war. The Nationalists continued to call their regime the Republic of China, and declared their intention to reconquer mainland China. The United States gave military support to Chiang Kai-shek, and provided foreign investment. Taiwan's economy grew, and democratic reforms were gradually introduced.



Taiwan is an island off the south China coast, which in 1683 was brought under the rule of Qing China.

Most of the indigenous communities of Taiwan are part of the Austronesian peoples, who are found across a range of places from Madagascar to Polynesia. European traders arrived in the seas around Taiwan in the 1500s, and in the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company established a trading port in the south of the island. The Dutch were driven out in 1662 by a Chinese pirate trader and Ming loyalist called Zheng Chenggong, known in the west as Koxinga, whose family created a successful regime on the island, their wealth based on salt, sugar, shipbuilding and rice. Thousands of Han Chinese moved in, including soldiers and settlers.

Qing Emperor Kangxi appointed veteran admiral Shi Lang to lead an expeditionary force to Taiwan. In July 1683, after a fierce sea battle, Shi Lang's 300-400 junks landed on the island. He treated the people of the island well, inviting any man who wished to surrender to join his own forces with full pay. Representatives of the indigenous communities were presented with silver medals of office, and robes, hats and boots, as well as gifts of tobacco and cloth.

Talas River, site of battle between Arab and Tang Chinese armies

Talas River (Kyrgyzstan)

The Battle of Talas was fought in 751 between the soldiers of Tang China and the Arab forces of the Abbasid Caliphate. It was the first and last time that Arab and Chinese armies met.

By the mid 700s, expansionist Tang China controlled the Silk Road, projecting its power deep into Central Asia. But the Arabs had been advancing eastwards, and after Tang troops conquered Tashkent (now in Uzbekistan), an Arab army marched to confront the Chinese. The two armies fought for five days in a stalemate until finally Turkic auxiliaries who had been fighting with the Tang army, changed sides. Now outnumbered, the Tang generals held a desperate council of war, and decided to attempt a retreat along a narrow track through the White Stone Mountains. But their enemies blocked the track, forcing the Chinese to hack their way through. Several thousand of the Chinese soldiers were captured. Some of the Chinese taken captive were craftsmen, and they introduced papermaking to the Arab world, technology which the Chinese had invented but which was unknown elsewhere. Papermaking then spread also into Europe, replacing papyrus and parchment that had previously been used.

The defeat at Talas halted the westward expansion of China, and it determined the boundaries of Muslim and Chinese influence in Central Asia.

Thistle Mountain, where the Taiping Rebellion began

Thistle Mountain

Thistle Mountain is a rugged area of eastern Guangxi. In the Qing dynasty, the isolated hamlets of Thistle Mountain were home to poor farming people, miners, and charcoal burning families, including ethnic groups such as the Yao people, as well as Hakka communities, a minority Han people. Thistle Mountain was far from the main centres of imperial government. There had been major rebellions here during the Ming dynasty, and for generations the region had been a natural shelter for those who lived beyond the law.

In the mid 1800s, Hong Xiuquan, founder of the Taiping 'god worshippers', came to Thistle Mountain on foot with a couple of companions, and began to preach his version of Christianity. Amongst the poor people of the villages of Thistle Mountain, Hong and his companions began to build up their following. As the numbers of Taiping 'God Worshippers' grew, the Qing authorities became alarmed. They sent in troops to try and seize the movement's leaders, but Taiping forces smashed the government troops. In 1851, Hong assembled the God Worshippers, declared himself Heavenly King of the Taiping Kingdom of Great Peace, and set off from Thistle Mountain with his army, heading for the heartlands of central China. The great Taiping Rebellion had begun.

Tumu, site of a disastrous defeat of China by the Mongols


Tumu was a courier station about 80 miles west of Beijing. It was the site of one of the greatest military fiascos of the Ming.

After the Mongol Yuan dynasty collapsed, the Mongols retreated into the steppe, but they continued to be a major threat to China. The Mongols carried out a major attack in 1449, and the Ming emperor, a young man of 22, rashly decided to mount a large offensive against them, and lead it himself. He marched northwest at the head of 50,000 troops. However, when the emperor and his army reached the border areas near Datong, the garrison commanders there said that marching into the steppe to engage the Mongols would be too dangerous. The emperor decided to declare victory in any case, and he turned back towards Beijing. When the Chinese were encamped near a courier station called Tumu, the Mongols attacked, annihilated the Chinese troops, and captured the emperor. After this disastrous event, known as the Tumu Crisis, the Chinese decided to strengthen the Great Wall and switch from offensive to defensive strategy against the Mongols. The Mongols wanted access to Chinese goods, but China was unwilling to negotiate trade and tribute relations with peoples who did not demonstrate good and submissive behaviour.

Turfan, an oasis city on the Silk Road


Turfan is an oasis city on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. It lies below sea level, and suffers from intense summer heat - China's own Death Valley! Several times in history, the city has changed place, and the ruins of two former sites lie nearby, including a site called Gaochang, where the remains of old walls still stand, along with a ruined palace. Han China had established a garrison here, but after Han power declined, the area was dominated by the Turks. The Chinese monk Xuanzang passed through in 629 on his way to India, and was warmly welcomed. In the mid 600s, Tang China took control of Gaochang, and it became an important stop on the Silk Routes linking China to the west. The city was a multi-ethnic community with a majority Chinese population, as well as a substantial minority of Iranians, and smaller numbers of other peoples including Indians.

In the 700s, the Tang dynasty was weakened by the An Lushan Rebellion, and pulled back its soldiers from these western outposts. The Turfan area was then controlled by Tibet - at the time a great power - and later by the Uighurs.

Wuhan, where the 1911 Revolution broke out


Wuhan is an industrial port on the Yangtze River, and is the place where China's 1911 Revolution broke out.

By the early 1900s, Wuhan had five foreign concession areas, established by Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Japan. The Yangtze River waterfront was lined with fine colonial buildings, of which many still survive today. A railroad link to Beijing completed in 1906 made the city a major hub for Yangtze Delta trade with northern China. There were daily passenger sailings to Shanghai, and an ocean steamer service sailed from Wuhan direct to Europe during the summer and autumn months.

Since at least 1904, radical groups had been active in Wuhan, when Chinese students who had lived in Japan had set up revolutionary cells in the city. Wuhan had a large industrial population, as well as modern schools, and army units. The revolutionaries aimed to infiltrate the army units and work with local secret societies. They set up literary or fraternal societies to provide a front for their activity, and by 1911, they had attracted over 5000 soldiers, about a third of the total force. On October 9th 1911, a group of revolutionaries was making bombs at their meeting house in the Russian concession area. When someone dropped a lit cigarette, an explosion went off by accident. Army soldiers whose names were then revealed staged a mutiny, and within a few months the Qing state had collapsed. The new republic of China had been established, ending 2000 years of China's imperial history.

Fenghao, capital of the Western Zhou, in modern Xi'an


The capital of the Zhou under the early Zhou kings was at Fenghao, in modern Xi'an. The city was established by King Wen, who expanded Zhou territory east in preparation for an assault on the Shang.

Xianyang, capital of the Qin dynasty


Xianyang is a city in northwest China, near modern Xi'an. It was capital of the Qin Dynasty. The construction of Xianyang began in 350 BCE, during the Warring States period under Shang Yang, the minister who laid the foundations for Qin's rise. After Qin Shihuangdi became emperor in 221 BCE, Xianyang was expanded, in a major rebuilding program to mark the creation of the first Chinese empire. He brought to Xianyang 120,000 powerful families of the states he had conquered, and made them live in his new capital. He collected weapons from across the defeated states of the empire, and melted them down to make twelve statues of giants, representing the immortals who approved of the First Emperor's achievements. Nearby, he built his astonishing tomb, now best known for the terracotta army that would surround him in death. The Qin capital was destroyed during the wars after the fall of the Qin empire. As well as the famous tomb and terracotta army, archaeologists have discovered and excavated a large number of Qin sites in Xianyang, including palaces and workshops.

Yan'an, wartime base of the Chinese communists


Yan'an, a town in the bleak dry hills of north China's Shaanxi province, became the center of the Chinese Communist revolution after the Long March, from 1936 to 1945.

A backwater town, Yan'an became the seat of the Chinese communists' Shaanxi-Ningxia-Gansu base area. The communists built caves, roads and workshops, and constructed primitive weapons. Thousands of students, poor peasants and soldiers came to Yan'an, with new recruits billeted eight to a cave. Mao Zedong wrote his most of his famous writings in Yan'an and created his new vision of Chinese society.

Yangzhou, economic hub of Tang China


Yangzhou is a city in Jiangsu province. After the Grand Canal was built by the Sui emperors, Yangzhou's location - at the junction of the Canal and the Yangtze River -meant that it became the economic hub of the Chinese empire. All the goods from south China and from overseas that were being sent north had to pass through Yangzhou - grain, salt, tea, gems, wood, cloth, herbs, copper wares were all transshipped at the city's busy wharves. A substantial population of foreigners became established in the city, especially Arab and Persian merchants. Yangzhou was also a major industrial centre, famous for shipbuilding, as well as for manufacturing mirrors, smart felt hats, sugar from cane, elegant furniture, and fine silk textiles. A Tang poet said that Yangzhou at sunset looked like a fairyland, the market streets and entertainment halls lit with thousands of lamps of crimson gauze.

Yellow River Valley, birthplace of Chinese civilization

Yellow River Valley

The Yellow River is the sixth-longest river in the world. Its basin was the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization. Legends say that China's first dynasty, the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty, ruled the core region of the Yellow River Valley, and the Shang dynasty, which was the first historical Chinese dynasty, also emerged here. However, the Yellow River flooded many times in Chinese history, and changed its course numerous times, causing devastation and sometimes killing millions of people. The river is called the Yellow River because of the muddy yellow water in its lower course.

Yinchuan, capital of the Tangut Western Xia


Yinchuan was the capital of the Tangut Western Xia dynasty. The Tanguts were a Tibeto-Burman people. They had helped the Tang suppress rebellions at the end of the Tang dynasty, when Tang central government was weak. After the fall of the Tang in 907, the Tanguts set up the Western Xia dynasty, with their capital at Yinchuan. They ruled a large area of north western China from there for two hundred years. Keen Buddhists, they created a new script. The Western Xia fought several major wars with Song China, which attempted to destroy it. But it was the Mongols who eventually destroyed the Tanguts, devastating their capital at Yinchuan in 1127 so comprehensively that travellers such as Marco Polo and Rashid al-Din called it 'The Black City' or the 'Dead City'. The Western Xia imperial tombs can still be seen outside Yinchuan, and look like pyramids. The site has nine imperial mausoleums and 250 tombs of nobles. The Mongols renamed the area 'Ningxia', which means 'Pacified Xia'. Ningxia is still the name of the province today.