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Chinese History Digest

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Presenting a concise illustrated History of the Middle Kingdom

The Six Dynasties (AD 220 – 589)

The Three Kingdoms (AD 220 – 280)

Cao Pi, the Emperor of Wei (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)
Cao Pi, the Emperor of Wei (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)

The Han dynasty was brought to an end in 220 AD, when the warlord Cao Pi forced the Han emperor Xian to abdicate and afterwards founded the state of Wei with himself as emperor. The following 2 years saw the founding of the states of Wu and Shu Han (also referred to as kingdoms, even though the rulers ruled as emperors). These 3 states or kingdoms competed for supremacy in the ensuing years. That's why the period from 220 AD to 280 AD is now referred to as the period of the Three Kingdoms.

Liu Bei, the Emperor of Shu Han (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)
Liu Bei, the Emperor of Shu Han (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)

However, Liu Bei (162 AD - 223 AD) - the self-proclaimed emperor of Shu Han in the southwest of China (nowadays Sichuan province) - saw his state as a continuation of the Han dynasty, since he descended from the same Liu family that had ruled this dynasty.

Sun Quan, the Emperor of Wu (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)
Sun Quan, the Emperor of Wu (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)

In China's north, Cao Pi (r. 220 AD - 226 AD) ruled as the emperor of the state of Wei. His father Cao Cao (155 AD - 220 AD), the adopted son of a eunuch, had won the territory in the north of China through military means. The third ruler in the southeast of China was Sun Quan (182 AD - 252 AD), who ruled the state of Wu.

Map of the Three Kingdoms Wei, Wu and Shu Han
Map of the Three Kingdoms Wei, Wu and Shu Han (Click on the image to see it larger)
the warlord Cao Cao, father of Cao Pi
the warlord Cao Cao (Cao Pi's father)
General Zhuge Liang
General Zhuge Liang

It was a period dominated by cunning military leaders (instead of emperors, philosophers or scholars), who often tried to outwit their enemies instead of using blunt military force. Cao Cao - whose military exploits took place just before the fall of the Han dynasty - and the general Zhuge Liang (181 AD - 234 AD) are nowadays considered to have been the best military strategists of this period.

Many stories and poems about these military exploits and deceptions (straw boats borrow arrows, Zhuge Liang playing chess on the city wall in view of the approaching enemy army) were written down and they became the plot of plays and operas. That's why the Three Kingdom period is nowadays seen by the Chinese as a period of great adventure and romance. Some of these adventurous and romantic stories were immortalized in the classic Chinese novel "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms".

The prevalence of and reverence for military leaders in these 3 kingdoms ensured continuing warfare between them. Despite all this continuing military conflict, all 3 kingdoms were relatively stable politically and regarding their Confucian system of administration that relied heavily upon the established conventions of the Han dynasty.

Portrait of the statesman Sima Zhao (seated) from a Qing Dynasty edition of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Portrait of the statesman Sima Zhao (seated) from a Qing Dynasty edition of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Cao Huan, the last emperor of the kingdom of Wei
Cao Huan, the last emperor of the kingdom of Wei

In 263 AD, the kingdom of Shu Han was incorporated through conquest into the state of Wei, that was effectively already ruled then by the regent Sima Zhao with its nominal emperor Cao Huan as a figurehead leader.

Two years later in 265 AD, Sima Yan (Sima Zhao's son) forced the abdication of the reigning puppet ruler Cao Huan.

Jin Dynasty (AD 265 – 420)

That event marks the beginning of the Jin dynasty, which managed to briefly unify China once more in 280 AD, when its last rival - the kingdom of Wu - surrendered. Even though the Jin dynasty continued in some form until 420 AD, its period of national unity and stability was very short. That was due to the instability that resulted from both the internal power struggle that followed Sima Yan's death (who had reined as emperor Wu of the Jin dynasty) and the effects of a period of great migration of peoples from the Northwest.

Sima Yan, the Emperor Wu of the Jin dynasty (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)
Sima Yan, the Emperor Wu of the Jin dynasty (Tang dynasty painting by Yan Liben)

The nomadic Xiongnu people (who would eventually be known as the Huns) had already during the Han dynasty been an occasional source of conflict in the northwest of China.

During periods of a weak empire, they had launched raids into Han controlled territory, whereas they were content with trading goods when the Han empire was stronger. The Xiongnu people were part of an alliance of 'barbaric' people from the northwest who shattered the unity and stability of the Jin dynasty which culminated in the fall of the Jin capital Luoyang in 311 AD and of its secondary capital Chang'an in 316 AD.

Map of the Jin dynasty state in 280 AD
Map of the Jin dynasty state in 280 AD (Click on the image to see it larger)
Liu Yu alias Emperor Wu, the founder of the Liu Song dynasty
Liu Yu alias Emperor Wu, the founder of the Liu Song dynasty

After these crushing defeats, the remaining Jin loyalists (henceforth known as the Eastern Jin) tried to regroup and regain their strength after their retreat to the south of China. Their military expeditions that were meant to regain the lost territory in the north failed mostly at first and the Jin had to contend with a resurging Qin state in the north.

Later on, their military campaigns to regain territory in the north became more and more successful under the leadership of their able general Liu Yu. Liu Yu's success on the battlefield eventually allowed him to usurp the throne for himself in 420 AD.

Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420 – 589)

That usurpation ended the Jin dynasty and started the Liu Song Dynasty (AD 420-479), the first of 4 short-lived dynasties that controlled the unified southern part of China in succession.

The Xiongnu people and other affiliated tribes had begun to exert pressure on the Jin state during the early 4th century, because they had been displaced from their own native areas by successive migratory waves of Central Asian people (speaking a language related to old Turkic). After displacing the Xiongnu people, these militant proto-Turkish tribes moved further towards the agricultural heartland in the northern plains of China and established themselves as military overlords of this area and its still predominantly Chinese population.

Map of the Southern and Northern Dynasties in 440 AD
Map of the Southern and Northern Dynasties in 440 AD (Click on the image to see it larger)

The historically most significant of these different Turkic tribes - a tribe known as the Tuoba Turks - founded the Tuoba Wei dynasty (386 AD - 534 AD) in the north of China. It is also known as the Northern Wei dynasty. By 439 AD, the Northern Wei dynasty had reunified the northern part of China as well, just like Liu Yu's military exploits in the south had reunified the south of China. The Northern Wei's initial capital had been established in Datong (in northern Shanxi province), but its capital was later moved further south to the old imperial capital of Luoyang.

large Buddha statue at the Yungang Grottoes near Datong

Yungang Grottoes

The Buddhist cave complex of the Yungang Grottoes that was constructed during the Northern Wei dynasty is located about 16 km west of Datong (Shanxi province).

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The Tuoba Turks had already been Buddhists for much longer than Buddhism had existed in China. They saw their faith as much more central to their lives than the Chinese. To show their devotion and earn merit for the afterlife, they built two great Buddhist cave temples near Datong and Luoyang. The Longmen Grottoes (Longmen = Dragon Gate) near Luoyang and the Yungang Grottoes (Yungang = Cloud Harbour) near Datong, that were built during the Tuoba Wei dynasty, now count among the major tourist attractions in the country.

stairs leading up to the Fengxian Temple at the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang

Longmen Grottoes

Most of the Buddhist caves of the Longmen Grottoes along the Yi River south of Luoyang were constructed during the time of the Tang dynasty.

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The Turkic overlords, who came to China from arid lands where food was scarce, were more than content with having found an area of agricultural abundance and sought to consolidate their position in society (where they were largely outnumbered by the Chinese) through intermarriage with the native Chinese population. The intermingling of the Turkish and Chinese elite levels of society (landowners, scholars, military leaders etc.) and the resulting family relationships created a Sino - Turkic elite.

5th century Buddhist stele
5th century Buddhist stele (Click on the image to see it larger)

Furthermore, the Turks were quick to adopt Chinese as the official language of government as well as adopting certain local administrative methods. Some Turkic leaders even started to wear Chinese-style clothing. In subsequent generations, the Chinese language established itself as the language of daily life and more and more Turkic families began to adopt Chinese family names for themselves, while simultaneously retaining some of their old cultural traditions.

View of the Yungang Grottoes near Datong
View of the Yungang Grottoes near Datong

This process of assimilation was in no way limited to the Turks adopting Chinese ways though. The Chinese also incorporated some elements of Turkish culture such as certain foods and cooking methods, Turkish vocabulary and so on into their own culture.

View of the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang
View of the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang

The Turks that controlled the north of China never ventured as far south as the Yangtze River, being content with controlling the northern areas. The southern areas (known as the Southern Dynasties) still remained distinctly Chinese and absorbed waves of (mostly affluent) refugees from the Turkic - controlled Northern areas. These newcomers from the north, though ethnically Chinese, still distinguished themselves culturally from most of their new southern neighbours.

Preface to the poems composed at the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi
Preface to the poems composed at the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi

That realization among the cultured southern elite triggered a period of introspection, where "Chineseness" was newly defined. The educated elite began to kind of compete among themselves to show how sophisticated and how pure Chinese they were. Chinese calligraphy reached new heights of popularity among the educated class during this time.

Whereas Chinese writing had been purely functional (and standardized due to former emperor Qin Shi Huang's efforts) until then, it now gained an aesthetic quality mixed with a quality of moral righteousness. "Good" writing became a gentlemanly quality. The writing of poetry and prose proliferated during the Southern dynasties with increasingly elaborate styles of composition. The sophisticated prose written during this time in the South was often very flowery and contained quotations from and veiled references to earlier classic texts that only the culturally "pure Chinese" elite of the South was meant and able to understand.

part of the Ode of the River Goddess painting by Gu Kaizhi
part of the "Ode of the River Goddess" painting by Gu Kaizhi, on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei (Click on the image to see it larger)

A group of educated gentlemen organized the now famous "Orchid Pavilion Gathering" along a natural spring (near the city of Shaoxing, Zhejiang province) where they drank wine (a lot of it!) and watched the moon rise while writing poetry. Wang Xizhi, a poet and author who was a participant at this gathering, later wrote the preface for this collection of poetry. The therein described lifestyle came to represent the ideal life of an educated gentleman and Wang Xizhi's aesthetic penmanship came to represent the perfect style of gentlemanly calligraphy.

Goose Pond stone stele at the Goose Pond Pavilion inside the Orchid Pavilion Garden near Shaoxing

Orchid Pavilion (Lanting)

The Orchid Pavilion Garden to the southwest of Shaoxing is where the famous Orchid Pavilion Gathering of 42 literati gentlemen took place in 353 AD.

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Japanese scroll painting of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering by Yamamoto Jakurin
Japanese scroll painting of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering by Yamamoto Jakurin (Click on the image to see it larger)
painting of the calligrapher Wang Xizhi
painting of the calligrapher Wang Xizhi

Chinese paintings also made the leap from practical craft (at tombs or as decoration of palaces) to artistry during the Southern dynasties. Just like Wang Xizhi came to be the role model for the perfect style of calligraphy, the artistic paintings of a gentleman named Gu Kaizhi came to represent the highest quality of Chinese paintings.

On the religious front in the Southern dynasties, distinctly Chinese schools of Buddhism such as the Tiantai school and the Chan school (nowadays known in the West as the Zen school of Buddhism) emerged during this period.

the painter Gu Kaizhi
the painter Gu Kaizhi

By the latter part of the 6th century, the culture in the northern and southern dynasties had approximated mostly through the process of assimilation that the Turkic people underwent in the North.

But even in the southern areas, people had begun to get used to the presence of Buddhism and to their blended sino-turkic neighbours in the North. The upper classes of society still had a vision of a unified China.

Chinese History Digest's summary of China's history continues in the next section with the reunification of the country during the Sui dynasty.