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Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties


 
Duration: 220~589

Course of History

The Wei, Jin, and Southern & Northern Dynasties were a period of long-standing disunion and hostility between various rivaling regimes within China. Altogether over thirty regimes claimed the founding of a certain “empire”, and one dynasty succeeded another based on various regions of China.

In 220 CE, Emperor Xiandi, the last Eastern Han emperor, was forced to relinquish the throne to Cao Pi, son of the powerful Prince of Wei, Cao Cao. This marked the formal demise of the Han Dynasty as well as the beginning the Wei Dynasty. However, what Cao Pi had under his control was not the territory of China proper in its entirety, but only the northern part. In the south, another two rival regimes were established under the names of Shu and Wu, respectively. This is popularly called the Three Kingdoms Period in Chinese history.

The Three Kingdoms Period went on for six decades only. The Simas usurped the throne from the Caos and proclaimed the Jin Empire which quickly annexed the other two regimes in the south, restoring China to unified imperial rule in 280. This did not last long, however. As power struggles within the royal family plunged the Jin Empire into civil war (War of the Eight Princes (290~306)), non-Han ethnic groups took advantage of the disunity and rebelled. The Jin capital fell in 316, with the Jin emperor captured. From this point on, north China witnessed the founding of around a score regimes based on five non-Han ethnic groups. These regimes were involved in constant, devastating wars, as one defeated, annexed or replaced another, until being reunified under the Northern Wei Dynasty in 439. The period is collectively called the Sixteen Kingdoms (317~430).
 
Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Political chaos and civil characterized much of the history of Wei, Jin, and Southern & Northern Dynasties, the longest period of disunion in China.


South China was relatively more peaceful. Following the fall of Jin capital, the northern aristocracy fled south of the Yangtze River, with whose support the Simas reestablished the Jin Dynasty (known in historiography as Eastern Jin) in 318, relocating the capital to Nanjing. Balance of power was maintained between rivaling noble clans within the Eastern Jin, while campaigns aimed at recovering the lost territory in north China or the northern regimes’ attempts to conquer the south were constantly fought. In 420, the Eastern Jin throne was usurped by general Liu Yu, who proclaimed the Song Dynasty (known as Liu-Song in historiography so as to tell it from the Song Dynasty (960~1279)). Therewith began the period of Southern & Northern Dynasties (420~589).

South China hosted four consecutive dynasties in the period of Southern & Northern Dynasties: Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen, which, plus the Eastern Wu (one of the three regimes in the Three Kingdoms Period) and Eastern Jin, are also collectively known as the Six Dynasties, as all of them set Nanjing as the imperial capital.

In north China, the Northern Wei was to split into two competing regimes in 534: the Western Wei and Eastern Wei, which were soon to be taken over by their respective powerful prime ministers and evolved into Northern Zhou and Northern Qi respectively. Northern Zhou emerged stronger through wars, and annexed the Northern Qi by 577. North China was thus reunified. However, Yang Jian, prime minister of the Northern Zhou, soon usurped the throne, and proclaimed the Sui Empire in 581.

The Chen in the south was the last to fall, as the Sui launched the southern expedition in 589, which soon crashed the Chen forces and brought the entire south China under Sui rule. This marked the end of centuries-long state of division in China.
 

 
 

The Wei, Jin, and Southern & Northern Dynasties were no doubt an age riddled with civil wars and political chaos. However, it was a fairly impressive period in Chinese history and culture.
 
 
Development of South China

The history of Wei, Jin, and Southern & Northern Dynasties saw great development of south China, especially since the Eastern Jin. Previously, though part of the Chinese empire, it was inhabited by small and isolated communities of Chinese. Population accounted for merely one-tenth of China’s total. Constant warfare in north China prompted millions of northerners, including many aristocratic clans, to migrate south turning south China from a mere “colony” into a vibrant, economically and culturally thriving area.
 
Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Nanjing, seat to royal residences and imperial governments of six dynasties that ruled south China.


Ethnic Fusion

The period saw the accelerated pace of fusion between Han Chinese and other ethnic groups. The Western Jin fell to invasions by the Xiongnu. And since then, north China saw the establishment of around a score regimes based on five ethnic minority groups: Xiongnu, Jie, Di, Qiang, and Xianbei. The Xianbei people were to unite north China under the Northern Wei Dynasty. Migrations and settlements by these ethnic groups to inland China facilitated their cultural exchange and intermarriage with the Han Chinese. Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei went so far as to promote a grand national scheme of sinicization by decreeing the adoption of Han lifestyles. The Emperor himself took the lead in changing the surname of the royal family from “Tuoba” to “Yuan”. By ethnic origin, the royal houses of both the Sui and the Tang Dynasties which later succeeded this period were of Xianbei (or half-Xianbei) pedigree.
 
Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei Dynasty promoted sinicization of ethnic Xianbei people in north China. He tood the lead by changing the surname of the royal house from ”Tuoba" into a Han Chinese surname "元yuan".



Cultural Development

Chinese arts and sciences reached new heights during this period. Because part of the intelligentsia who found themselves bored with the political arena (given the backdrop of political chaos and uncertainty) opted to become detached artists, connoisseurs, and theorists of literature and the arts. Literature and arts became detached from other utilitarian functions and became a self-conscious and independent concern, mostly prominently in landscape poetry and paintings. The literati did not only compose poetry, prose, paintings, etc, but also developed a sophisticated system of aesthetic rhetoric and criteria to evaluate the works of literature and arts.
 
Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern DynastiesWei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Landscape painting by Gu Kaizhi (348~409), who initiated the tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

Poet Xie Lingyun, representative of early Chinese landscape poetry, was to be greatly admired by Li Bai (often hailed the top Tang poet).

Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern DynastiesWei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Lan Ting Ji Xu (Preface to Orchid Pavilion Anthology), the best work of Chinese calligraphy, by Wang Xizhi (known as Sage of Calligraphy).

Mathematician Zu Chongzhi calculated the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter as somewhere between 3.1415926 and 3.1415927.

 
Buddhism gained increasing popularity during this period. Large quantities of Buddhist sutra texts were translated by monks. The spread of this imported religion was championed by the emperors. Emperor Wu of Liang went so far as to forsake himself to Buddhist monasteries until being called back to the throne upon a ransom. The Buddhist monasteries and temples became rich landholders of the time.
 
 
Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern DynastiesWei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Yungang Grotto, a World Heritage site in China. Most of the Buddhist statues were carved between 453 and 494.

Jiming Temple in Nanjing, first built during the Western Jin Dynasty.

 

Mingshi Elite Fashions & Styles - An Interesting Contribution to Chinese Culture
Literally, a mingshi (名士) means a much celebrated elite intellectual. There were mingshi in every Chinese dynasty. Yet, it is most immediately associated with the Wei, Jin, and Southern & Northern Dynasties. As an interesting, impressive contribution to Chinese elite culture, it had a big role to play in shaping the spiritual world of Chinese literati. Later Chinese intellectuals would constantly refer with admiration and respect to the fashions, styles, speeches and behaviours of certain mingshi of this period.
 
Representative Mingshi of the Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties Period
 
Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Ruan Ji (210~263)
Known for his freewheeling, natural disposition in contempt of conventions; would once pay homage to a deceased girl that he had merely heard of as talented and beautiful but never seen. To avoid a marriage alliance with the Simas who usurped the throne, he feigned drunkenness for months.

Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Liu Ling
So much given to drinking that he is often seen roaming about on a deer-pulled cart taking along his wine pot, followed by a servant boy carrying a spade who was told to just bury him on the spot in case he happened to die on the road. He once stripped himself off while drinking in the office, and argued, “the house is my trousers; so why have you broken into my trousers?”

Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Xie An (320~385)
Impressive with his charismatic personality, graceful and ethereal elegance. He led a reclusive life for 40 years before joining politics and becoming prime minister, and was to stay composed upon the news of the great military victory at the Battle of Feishui.

Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Wang Xizhi (321~379)
Author of the top work of Chinese calligraphy Preface to Orchid Pavilion Anthology. Dubbed the “Sage of Calligraphy”, and known for his free, smooth, elegant style, and admirable aesthetic taste, of calligraphy. Fond of goose.

Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties

Tao Yuanming (c. 365~427)
Of a humbler origin compared with most other mingshi, he is the best-known recluse poet in ancient China, initiated the Chinese pastoral, idyllic poetry tradition. Fond of chrysanthemum.

 
Mingshi are part of those who can be fashionably dubbed “cool” today. Though with variable detailed personality traits, the mingshi generally shared certain characteristic features in common. They were supposed to be well-versed and eloquent on the then popular, yet somewhat mysterious, philosophical topics (mainly Neo-Taoism). A quick-witted remark or two would distinguish the speaker immediately at the salon. Behind the mingshi culture was a spirit of individuality. A mingshi would speak or behave in deviational, outstanding manners that upset social conventions (mainly etiquettes and Confucian ritualism), but reflected depth of thinking, elegance, individuality, self-assertion, wisdom and knowledge, etc. He tended to indulge in wine, game, fashion, and purposefully designed behaviours. A book compiled in early Southern Dynasty, Shi Shuo Xin Yu (世说新语, New Accounts of Tales of the World), records a collection of the dialogues and anecdotes circulating around a dozen of these mingshi, giving an impression of the life and thought of the upper class elites.
 
 
 


 

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