State or societal collapses are often described as featuring rapid reductions in socioeconomic complexity, population loss or displacement, and/or political discontinuity, with climate thought to contribute mainly by disrupting a society's agroecological base. Here we use a state-of-the-art multi-ice-core reconstruction of explosive volcanism, representing the dominant global external driver of severe short-term climatic change, to reveal a systematic association between eruptions and dynastic collapse across two millennia of Chinese history. We next employ a 1,062-year reconstruction of Chinese warfare as a proxy for political and socioeconomic stress to reveal the dynamic role of volcanic climatic shocks in collapse. We find that smaller shocks may act as the ultimate cause of collapse at times of high pre-existing stress, whereas larger shocks may act with greater independence as proximate causes without substantial observed pre-existing stress. We further show that post-collapse warfare tends to diminish rapidly, such that collapse itself may act as an evolved adaptation tied to the influential "mandate of heaven" concept in which successive dynasties could claim legitimacy as divinely sanctioned mandate holders, facilitating a more rapid restoration of social order.