"China is history" --Frank Capra, The Battle of China (1944)
Next came the Xia. Unfortunately, I also know very little about the Xia Dynasty (blame it on my American education), let's advance straight to the Shang Dynasty. Now, I know something about this from reading a very ancient and incomprehensible Chinese history book called Shi Ji (according to Google, this translates into Records of the Grand Historian, which sounds awfully pretentious and horribly long, so I will continue to call it Shi Ji), which was written by Sima Qian, an important Chinese historian. The penultimate Shang Emperor had two sons (maybe more, but these two were the important ones). One of them was called Wei Ziqi, who was elder but was unfortunately born of a concubine, so he was technically ineligible to succeed his father. Why?
I will explain this.
To Succeed at Succeeding: All About the Chinese Succession
There were also periods of extreme decentralization where many states fought each other for power. Nowadays, these periods are known by names such as "Warring States Period," "Three Kingdoms Period," and "Five Kingdoms and Ten States Period." Pretty obvious as to what the state of China (no pun intended) during those years were like. I will discuss these periods more in depth when we get to them.
Internal dynastic struggles were another mainstay of the succession problems. Emperors tended to face one of two problems: no sons, or too many sons. Some lucky ones had the perfect number of sons, but those were few and far in between, and besides, the combination of ambitious courtiers, ambitious generals, and ambitious eunuchs ensured that even then there would be little peace.
If the emperor had too many sons, the taizi, or crown prince, was supposed to inherit. Sadly (for the crown princes), this was not always the case, because he wasn't always chosen for his brains. Instead, the two criteria tended to be di and zhang. Di refers to the status of his mother; a son born of the first wife is born of di, a son born of a concubine or a lesser wife is born of shu. Technically, sons born of shu aren't supposed to be the main heir. The other criterium, zhang refers to the order of birth. This is sort of like primogeniture, except with polygamy, which, of course, complicates the whole thing.
Back to the Shang
Big mistake. This brother is known as King Zhou of Shang, and he is now infamous for being one of the worst and emperors in Chinese history. In fact, there is a whole fantasy story (known as Feng Shen Yan Yi, or Investiture of the Gods) that details his fall, which was supposedly engineered by Chinese deities. King Zhou's favorite concubine, Da Ji, is also pretty infamous, and has the added insult of being called the reason for King Zhou's downward spiral into corruption. According to legend and Investiture of the Gods, Da Ji wasn't even human; she was an evil, nine-tailed fox sprite sent to seduce King Zhou to the dark side. She was also cruel and bloodthirsty and made King Zhou kill his other concubines, thereby upsetting all of his lords, many of whom were related to those concubines.
Fun Fact: the Zhou Dynasty was the longest of the Chinese dynasties, lasting a whole eight hundred years. Putting it in context, if Columbus established a dynasty when he "discovered" the Americas, and it still ruled today--that is how long the Zhou Dynasty lasted.
Another story: King You of the Western Zhou had a beautiful concubine named Bao Shi. To make her smile, he lit the fires that signaled to his vassal lords that he was in danger, and whenever they would rush over to help him, she would laugh at them. After doing this several times to amuse her, King You's vassals got tired of being made fools of…and unfortunately for King You, one day, when he really was being attacked, he tried to light the fires and no one came to his rescue...
After the Zhou, there was a brief period of decentralization and division in China known as the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. This was ended by the man who united China: Qin Shi Huang, of Terracotta Army fame, who was the first ruler of the Qin Dynasty. He not only united China geographically, but he also unified the language system, the money, the measurement system, and all those other systems necessary to create a real, unified county.
There is a famous story in China (recorded in, you guessed it, Shi Ji) called "Jing Ke attacks King of Qin." Jing Ke pretended to be a diplomat (or actually I think he really was one, just one with an ulterior motive in mind) and he was presenting a scroll with a map of his master's lands to Qin Shi Huang as a gesture of allegiance. However, while presenting it, he pulled out a dagger that he had hid inside the scroll and attempted to kill Qin Shi Huang to prevent him from taking over Jing Ke's homeland. Qin Shi Huang dodged it, and Jing Ke died instead. Like everything else in Chinese history, this has been dramatized by modern Chinese writers and filmmakers. There was a funny parody of this on the Chinese New Year's Show that can be found here.
Sadly for Qin Shi Huang, his dynasty didn't last long. See, his son wasn't exactly cut out for emperor-ship, so when Qin Shi Huang died, well, you know. Someone else took over.
This led to another brief period of anarchy before the Han Dynasty took over…