I will be teaching middle school World History this year. I surveyed seven different textbooks from different publishers and notice, unlike all other histories of other regions in the world, Chinese history is covered in two different parts of the books, e.g.:

Chapter 22-25: Chinese ancient times to the Han dynasty.

Chapter 26-35: Ancient Greece, Classical Greece, Roman Republic, Roman Empire, various Islamic kingdoms, and various African Empires.

Chapter 36-38: Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

Remaining chapters: Medieval Europe.

Since this split appears in all of the textbooks, there must be some significance for splitting the history there. What is the likely logic behind dividing Chinese history at the Han dynasty?

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    It would be great if you included in your question where your textbooks were published.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 17:25
  • This is a question of, what is "Early China" in historiography? The answers below are neat but they do not explain why, in terms of historiography, "Early China" is an accepted term in historiography, referring to Neolithic China to end of Eastern Han. Li Feng does, in his book "Early China - A Social and Cultural History" (2013). In pages 5-7, "Early China and the Grand Historical Trend".
    – J Asia
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 17:11

3 Answers 3


Because the fall of Han is a traditional demarcation point in Chinese historical periodisation.

The reason is actually less to do with the Han dynasty itself, than it is about what came afterwards. In traditional Chinese historiography, Han is followed by an era known as the "Wei-Jin-Northern and Southern Dynasties period" (魏晋南北朝)(1).

You see, when the Han Empire fell in c. 220, it marked the beginning of extended political divisions and, later, barbarian incursions that wrecked havoc in China. In this sense, it is somewhat analogous to the fall of Rome and the European Dark Ages. Other than a 50 year period under the Western Jin dynasty, China was not unified again until AD 589, 369 years later.

Because this was a period of intense instability and rapid changes, not just politically(2) but also socio-economically and demographically(3), it is usually given a separate treatment as its own topic. By logical necessity, therefore, the fall of Han concludes the pre-Wei/Jin period of classical Chinese history.

Your textbooks either followed longstanding conventions or just arrived at the same conclusion over where to end a chapter. However, it's probably only a coincidence that "all" your textbooks chose to demarcate Chinese history like that. Another fairly common scheme ends classical history at the unification of China under Qin in 221 BC, and then considers the Qin, Han and Wei/Three Kingdoms period together as one unit.

(1) Also known as the Six Dynasties though the two terms are not completely identical - the Six Dynasties refer to the six regimes that established their capital at Jianye (modern Nanjing).

(2) During this period, China was first divided into the Three Kingdoms, and then - following a series of nomad incursions - shattered into the "Sixteen Kingdoms" in the north and a "Southern Dynasty" behind the Yangtze River. The north eventually consollidated into a (Northern) Wei dynasty, only to then splintered into the Eastern and Western Wei. Both states were subsequently supplanted by the Northern Qi and Northern Zhou respectively. The Souithern Dynasty began originally as remnants of the Jin, but after a while was replaced by the Song, then the Qi, then Liang, and finally Chen.

(3) The barbarian migrations led to major demograaphical changes, for example the "Southern Voyage of Clothes and Crowns" (衣冠南渡) - an euphemism for the educated Han literati class of nothern China fleeing across the Yangtze River.

  • Wait, wait, "During this period, China was first divided into the Three Kingdoms, and then - following a series of nomad incursions - " following a series of nomad incursions? Three kingdoms, comprised of 3 dynasties, Cao Wei, Shu Han, Eastern Wu. Then Cao Wei was actually "hijacked" by Sima Yan link [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_Wu_of_Jin ] whose father destroyed Shu Han and Eastern Wu. Under the rule of Sima Yan, Jing dynasty was established even though it only lasted for a short period of time ( 50 years ) but normads? No. I am sorry I DVed.
    – user12387
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 20:08
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    An what on the earth is the "Six dynasties"?. It is referred as "Sixteen Kingdoms" link [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sixteen_Kingdoms ] in English. And you are completely misunderstanding or mixing the Sixteen Kingdoms with Northern And Western Dynasties link [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_and_Southern_dynasties ], which is not correct.
    – user12387
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 20:13
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    @KentaroTomono Notice I wrote "first divided into the Three Kindoms, and then . . . nomadic incursions". Thijs is not saying that the two events occurred simultaneously, but rather that nomdaic incursions came afterwards. I'm of course referring to Uprising of the Five Barbarians that took place during the Jin dynasty following the Three Kingdoms period.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 20:15
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    @KentaroTomono An what on the earth is the "Six dynasties"?. It is referred as "Sixteen Kingdoms The Six Dynasties refer to the Wu, Eastern Jin, Song, Qi, Liang and Chen dynasties in the South. It is wholly separate from the Sixteen Kingdoms, which were in the North. This is spelt out in the WIkipedia articles I linked to. I am afraid you're completely misunderstanding my answer here. Jing dynasty "unified" after the age of the Three Kingdoms first. You need to re-check very carefully. I never said the Sixteen Kingdoms preceded the Jin dynasty. Please re-read my answer more carefully.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 20:16
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    "Wreaked havoc," not "wrecked havoc." Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:14

After conquering other Chinese Kingdoms, the king of Qin proclaimed the Chinese Empire of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC.

The Qin dynasty soon fell, in 206 BC, but the Han Dynasty was founded soon after in 202 BC.

The Western Han Dynasty ruled China from 202 BC to AD 9, and the Eastern Han Dynasty ruled China from AD 23 to AD 220, followed by the Three Kingdoms era.

So the Han Dynasty ruled China since about 19 years after the Qin Dynasty founded the Chinese Empire, and 19 years is a rather short time on the scale of the textbooks you describe.

So it is possible that your textbooks divide Chinese history into two parts, before and after the Qin Dynasty founded the Chinese Empire, but consider the Qin Dynasty to be a brief moment in time before the Han Dynasty began in 202 BC.

Or they may consider the fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty in AD 220 a more important turning point in Chinese History since China was only briefly reunited by the Jin Dynasty for about 20 years in all the centuries until the Sui Dynasty reunited China in 589. The 300 year period after the fall of the Han Dynasty was the longest period of Chinese disunity since the foundation of the Chinese Empire in 221 BC, and probably too complex to cover in the textbooks, so they may have decided to cover ancient Chinese history up to the Han Dynasty, skip over the next three centuries, and then resume with the Sui, Tang, and other more or less "Medieval" important dynasties.

And that might have been mandated by some educational authority where you teach that wants all the schools to teach a standard history.

I note that in the textbook you used as an example, Chinese history from myths and legends to 1912 takes up only 7 chapters in a book that has over 38 chapters.

I'm not Chinese, but i read a lot, so I suspect that when I was a middle school age kid I might have already read as much or more about Chinese history as those 7 chapters in the textbook you cite.

  • Yeah +1. Actually I and you seem to be speaking about almost same thing. The fall of the Hang dynasty created the huge "vacuum" in Chinese history which is too complex for teachers or students to cover.
    – user12387
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 19:57

It is my understanding that the Han Dynasty represents the first unification of China, and that it lasts for a very long time. It is often presented as comparable to the Roman Empire, and I think it is pretty obvious for European history to understand why the Roman Empire is a major breakpoint.

The Han Dynasty was able to unify China, there was some military developments under it, and it was hard-beaten by nomadic people (as Roman Empire), that invades China and change its organisation: this explains why the Han dynasty is a breakpoint in your books.

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    This is factually incorrect, the Qin dynasty unified China before the Han.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 18:49
  • @Semaphore I think totalMongot may be understanding that Qing dynasty link [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qin_dynasty ] unified China just for a short period of time. But I think Qing dynasty is the breakpoint as you say not the Hang dynasty, The fall of Hang dynasty is the second "breakpoint" ( as I answered when it comes to Sui dynasty. )
    – user12387
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 19:10
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    @KentaroTomono Note: the Qin dynasty and the Qing dynasty are two different dynasties from different periods in Chinese history. Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:17
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    @DavidConrad Of course I know. Sometimes it is hard to spell correctly ( like I spelled Hang for Han ). Thank you.
    – user12387
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:32
  • @DavidConrad Like Jin dynasty link [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jin_dynasty_(1115%E2%80%931234) ] and Jin dynasty link [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jin_dynasty_(265%E2%80%93420) ] Both of the name is "Jin" in English, but in Chinese, they are completely different dynasties.
    – user12387
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:37

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