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In much the same way as English speakers say “The Renaissance” or “The Middle Ages” to denote an era and the events associated with it, Chinese people use the names of dynasties to comprehend the history of their country. We’ve all heard terms like The Ming Dynasty or The Tang Dynasty – usually with respect to exquisite vases and plates – but probably like me in not knowing the time periods they referred to. I adapted this next table from the one Michael Tsin created for Columbia University. This categorization takes some time to get used to but is the standard frame of reference. Given the times and distances involved, it’s no surprise this way of organizing history has little to do with the Western one.

People’s_Republic of China1949~presentEconomic emergence. Communist government. Catastrophes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Republic Period1912~1949Weak central government following the collapse of dynastic system in 1911-12. Western influence during the New Culture Movement. Nationalist attempts to control the entire country thwarted by domestic revolts and Japanese occupation (1937-45).
Qing Dynasty 1644~1912Continued economic development led to prosperity and large population increase. Addition of new territories causes political strain.
Ming Dynasty 1368~1644Foundations of the political culture. An inward-looking state with an emphasis on agrarian base. Growing commercial sector coupled with important changes in the economy and social relations in the latter part of the dynasty. Flowering of arts.
Blue-Ground Gardenia pattern dish, Ming Dynasty
Yuan Dynasty 1279~1368Founded the Mongols as part of their conquest of much of the then-known world. Rich culture of drama.
Northern_Song Dynasty
Southern Song Dynasty
Economic growth and social change; maritime trade; urban expansion and technological innovation. Rise of political and social order based on Neo-Confucianism.
Tang Dynasty618~906Cosmopolitan time of cultural flowering. The height of Buddhist influence until its repression around 845. Active territorial expansion until defeat by the Arabs at Talas in 751. 
Polychrome limestone figures of Bodhisattvas, Tang Dynasty
Sui Dynasty581~618China reunified.
Six Dynasties Period220~589Empire fragmented with north dominated by invaders from the bordering steppes and south ruled by successive “Chinese” dynasties. Spread of Buddhism.
Eastern/Later Han Dynasty
Modified and consolidated the foundation of the imperial order. Confucianism established as orthodoxy and open civil service examinations introduced.
Qin Dynasty221~206_BCE
Unitary state with centralized administration and standardized writing script, weights and measures. Known for its harsh rule.
Eastern Zhou Dynasty
Western Zhou Dynasty
771-256 BCE
The Zhou royal house’s hierarchical political and social system based on ancestral cults. The time of Confucius 551-479 BCE.
Bronze object (The Guo Ji Shi Zi Zu Hu) Late Western Zhou dynasty, late 9th or 8th century BC 
Shang Dynasty1600~1050 BCE
Xia_(Sia)_Dynasty2100~1600 BCEThe first dynasty in traditional Chinese historiography. According to tradition, the Xia dynasty was established by the legendary Yu the Great, after Shun, the last of the Five Emperors (a group of mythological rules in ancient northern China circa 3162 BCE to 2070 BCE.)
Neolithic Cultures


Cities in China are grouped into tiers that give a rough indication of their size and level of development. It’s not an official classification or even a uniform one. Four of the six largest cities are self-governing municipalities and not part of any province. The information is mostly from here and the population data is for 2020/2021 (W) for China and from here for the last column for well-known cities of comparable size. Population statistics from even two different sources are notoriously variable and I present them only as approximations.

Tier One CitiesShanghai (Municipality)上海N/A27,795,702Delhi
Beijing (Municipality)北京N/A21,893,095Dhaka

The four Tier 1 cities are usually the only ones persons outside of China have heard of. They’re all huge with populations of 15 to 25 million.

Tier Two CitiesChongqing (Municipality)重庆N/A16,382,000
Tianjin (Municipality)天津N/A13,866,009Rio de Janeiro
Xi’an西安Shaanxi8,989,000Ho Chi Min City
Dongguan东莞Guangdong8,342,500New York City
Wuxi无锡Jiangsu3,256,000Kuwait City

The Tier 2 Cities are also known as New Tier 1 Cities and generally have populations of between 5 and 15 million. They range from the comfortable to the huge. Nanjing was the former capital where 300,000 were killed in the Japanese army Nanjing Massacre of December 12, 1936. Wuhan we know as the city where the coronavirus was first identified. Chongqing was the seat of the Chinese government during the Japanese occupation. Tianjin is the former German concession and has many solid Germanic buildings. Xi’an is an ancient several-times capital of China, best known worldwide for the Terracotta Army. The province of Sichuan has a particularly rich food culture now gaining in popularity around the world.

Tier Three CitiesQuanzhou泉州Fujian8,782,285
Taiyuan太原Shanxi4,529,141St. Petersburg
Nanning南宁Guangxi3,837,978Los Angeles
Taizhou台州Zhejiang1,607,108San Antonoio
Jinhua金华Zhejiang1,463,990San Jose

Tier 3 Cities have populations between 1.5 and 9 million but the average is probably about 3 or 4 mil. There are also 90 Tier 4 cities spread across 20 provinces and another 123 Tier 5 cities in 23 different provinces. Some classifications also identify Tier 6 cities. The tier classification is basically an indicator of level of development and doesn’t necessarily correspond with population. For example, an underground metro network is usually an indicator of a Tier 2 city. Of the Tier 3 cities, Wenzhou (pop. 3.6 mil.) is the 34th largest city in China and where I live and work. Nantong (pop. 2.3 mil.) is the 44th largest city in China and the subject of next week’s post.


There’s always much to say about the large cities because they’ve developed through some fortuitous combination of geography and history that made them nodes of transportation and trade that, over time, have left them with an abundance of the history and artifacts of development. Such cities probably couldn’t have been anything else but large cities. Nantong has always prospered because of its proximity to Shanghai but has stayed small at 2.6 mil. and distinct, separated as it is by the Yangtze River that passes between them vast and profound like an ocean.


  • Great *wall* summary. I always think when I see people on the street, multiple by 4 for the China simulation. When you see your neighbor on the other side of the fence, think of a quad, that you need to say good morning to 4x. Also, isn’t there a 1990s “Cha-Ching Dynasty” (cash register sound), for Communist controlled hyper-Capitalism? Just a little levity in these trying times.
    Peace and Good Will to All.