In 221 BCE, China, previously divided into warring kingdoms, was united by the king of Qin, who became the First Emperor. He used force to impose the same way of life throughout China, but his rule was so harsh that the Qin Dynasty quickly collapsed after his death in 210 BCE. It was followed by the Han Dynasty, which ruled more leniently and created the First Golden Age of China.
First Emperor (246-221 BCE)
The teenage Ying Zheng comes to the throne of the western kingdom of Qin. Between 230 and 221 BCE, his armies conquer all six rival kingdoms. He takes a new title, Shi Huangdi, or "First Emperor".
Standardization (220 BCE)
The emperor introduces standard weights, measurements, and coins, and a common writing system. His coins are circular with a square hole in the middle, representing a square earth encircled by the dome of the heavens.
Great Wall (215 BCE)
The emperor sends 300,000 soldiers north to build the first Great Wall, protecting China against northern raiders. He also unifies China by knocking down the internal defensive walls that had previously separated the warring states.
Book burning (213 BCE)
In an attempt to suppress free thought, the emperor orders a large-scale burning of books, including the histories of the kingdoms he has conquered and works of Confucian philosophy and poetry. Only texts supporting Legalism are permitted.
Fall of the Qin (210-207 BCE)
The second Qin emperor, Qin Er Shi, is a weak ruler who can’t prevent widespread revolts. After his death in 207 BCE, the dynasty collapses in the face of rebellion. Two former rebel leaders, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, will engage in a war to decide who will rule China.
Han founder (202-195 BCE)
Liu Bang defeats Xiang Yu and establishes the Han Dynasty, ruling as Emperor Gaozu. He builds a new capital at Chang’an and recruits Confucian scholars to serve in his government.
Civil service exams (165 BCE)
Emperor Wen introduces examinations for government appointments. Previously, civil servants have been appointed on recommendations from nobles and senior officials.
Emperor Wudi (141-87 BCE)
Emperor Wudi reigns, and extends Chinese rule into Central Asia, Korea, and modern-day Vietnam. He makes Confucianism the state philosophy, but still imposes Legalist punishments.
Grand historian (85 BCE)
Sima Qian, a Han court official, writes a monumental history of China. To later generations, the book will be known as The Records of the Grand Historian.
Zhang Qian, a Chinese diplomat, travels to Central Asia, returning in 125 BCE. His reports lead to Han expansion in Central Asia. Long distance trade begins between China and the West, along the Silk Road.
Counting China (2 BCE)
A Han census records the population of China as 58 million people.
Paper (105 CE)
A court official named Cai Lun manufactures the first paper, from bark and rags. It is cheaper to write on than bamboo or silk.
Fall of the Han (220 CE)
Han rule collapses as China breaks up into three kingdoms: Shu, Wei, and Wu. The ruler of each kingdom uses the title emperor, claiming to be descended from the Han. It is a time of constant warfare.