Northern and Southern Dynasties (386 – 589)
The Northern and Southern Dynasties period (386 – 589) was a time of division in Chinese history, during which the Yellow River watershed of China first experienced a period of cultural transformation under the rule of a minority group.
After the fall of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 – 420), four regimes – the Song, the Qi, the Liang, and the Chen appeared one after the other in south China. In north China the Northern Wei, the Eastern Wei, the Western Wei, the Northern Qi, and the Northern Zhou regimes also emerged at the same time. In Chinese history, the northern and southern regimes together are known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties. This period of time began in 386 and ended in 589, during which time China experienced 203 years of division and wars.
The Southern Dynasties
In 420, General Liu Yu deposed the emperor of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, made himself emperor, and made Song the state title. Learning a lesson from the destruction of the Eastern Jin, Liu Yu refused to give important positions to noble families. Because he himself was from a poor family, he favored those of similar background to his and gave military power to his sons. As a result, the Song didn’t repeat the mistake of the Eastern Jin. Unexpectedly, there was fighting and killing among the sons.
In 422, Liu Yu died, and Emperor Wendi inherited the throne ruling for 30 years. Song experienced a prosperous period of time under the reign of Emperor Wendi, during which time the economy and culture both developed. Although there were wars against the Northern Wei in north China, each side achieved victories and suffered defeats, balancing power between the north and south. In 454, Wendi died, and Emperor Wudi took over the throne followed by Emperor Mingdi. They were both tyrants who killed their brothers and distrusted their ministers and generals. During their rule state politics fell into disorder. In 479, Minister Xiao Daocheng seized the chance to destroy the Song Dynasty and established the Qi Dynasty.
Only existing for 23 years, the Qi Dynasty was the shortest dynasty among the
four regimes of the Southern Dynasties. Because of Xiao Daocheng and his son’s sensible and stable policies, a period of steady development ensued during their rule. However, afterwards, their successors repeated the mistakes of the Song Dynasty. They killed their brothers, uncles and nephews, and nearly all the ministers. In 501, Minister Xiao Yan revolted, overthrew the Qi Dynasty, and founded the Liang Dynasty.
After overthrowing the Qi Dynasty, Xiao Yan established the Liang Dynasty and ruled for 48 years. During his rule, the Northern Wei Dynasty in north China declined, so it was a good opportunity for south China to challenge them. Being fatuous and incapable, Xiao Yan allowed his ministers to exploit the people and ignored the advice of loyal ministers. In 548, General Hou Jing of the Eastern Wei, who had surrendered to the Liang dynasty, mutinied. He colluded with Xiao Zhengde, a son of Xiao Yan, to attack the Liang State. The next year, Hou Jing captured the capital city of the Liang Dynasty, and discovered that Xiao Yan had already starved to death. Then Hou Jing killed the successor-Xiao Gang–and the Liang was at the edge of collapse. In 557, Chen Baxian, who grew up during the punitive wars against Hou Jing, cut the throat of the last Liang emperor and established the Cheng Dynasty.
Through years of war, the economy of southern China had been destroyed badly, so the Chen Dynasty was destined to exist for only a short period of time. Chen Baxian and his successors Emperors Wendi and Wudi had destroyed their enemies and defeated the army of Northern Qi in Jiankang ( Nanjing today), which consolidated the rule of the Chen Dynasty to some extent. However, the Chen Dynasty’s reign was limited south of the Yangtze River and to the east of Yichang City and the central government was weak. In 583, north China was unified by the Sui Dynasty (581 – 618), and the unification of the whole of China was expected at any hour. In 589, Yang Jian, Emperor Wendi of the Sui Dynasty destroyed the Chen Dynasty and ended nearly 300-years of division in China.
The Northern Dynasties
Toward the end of The Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarian Peoples period, the Tuoba Xianbei people, a primitive minority nomadic group, gradually grew
powerful. They occupied central China and established the Northern Wei Dynasty. Later, they destroyed all the independent regimes in north China, and unified the region. As the most influential dynasty among the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the Northern Wei ruled north China for over 100 years, with 12 emperors from nine generations.
By the end of the fifth century, Xianbei assimilation into the Han Chinese culture had accelerated in the Northern Wei Dynasty. In 493, Emperor Xiaowen moved the capital from Pingcheng (Datong City in Shanxi Province today) to Luoyang City, and changed their family name from Tuba to Yuan at the same time. He forbade the use of the Xianbei language and the wearing of Xianbei clothing. Emperor Xiaowen attempted to assimilate with the Han people by limiting Xianbei culture. Through a series of reformations, the Han people’s advanced culture and political system was fully integrated into the Xianbei government of the Northern Wei, and north China entered into a new period of cultural fusion.
However, after Emperor Xiaowen’s death, his successors gradually abolished his Han-Chinese assimilation policy because of the opposition of some reactionary nobles and Xianbei army men. The restoration of the Xianbei people’s privilege aroused new social frictions, and the Northern Wei began to fall into disunity and war. Later, the powerful officials Gao Huan and Yuwen Tai divided the territory of the Northern Wei into two parts – east and west. Eastern Wei (534 – 550) under Gao Huan lasted 16 years with Yecheng (Handan city in Hebei Province today) as the capital. Western Wei (535 – 556) established by Yuwen Tai experienced a history of 22 years with Chang’an (Xian today) as the capital. Eastern and Western Wei were then conquered by the Northern Qi (550 – 577) and the Northern Zhou (557 – 581). In 577, the Northern Zhou destroyed the Northern Qi, and north China was reunified. In 581, Yang Jian, a relative of the Northern Zhou empress, dethroned Emperor Jingdi and made himself emperor. He changed the state title to Sui, and named himself Wendi. Then, Yang Jian destroyed the Chen Dynasty in southern China and reunified all of China.
Religion, Culture and Science
During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Buddhism, an emerging religion from India, was introduced into China. At that time, almost all the Xianbei people believed in Buddhism, especially in the Bodhisattva. People believed they could free their soul from suffering only if they prayed for help from the Bodhisattva. Because of the popularity of Buddhism, Buddhist statues, murals and grottoes were built on an unprecedented scale. The Mogao Caves, the Yungang Grottoes, the Longmen Grottoes, and the Maijishan Grottoes were all masterpieces of that time.
With Wang Xizhi and Xie He as the most famous, calligraphers and painters flourished in large numbers at that time. The noted works Classics on Waters and Qiminyaoshu were produced during this time.
In science, Zu Chongzhi was the first person in the world to work out the value of π (the ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle) to be between 3.1415926 and 3.1415927. In addition, Doctor Tao Hongjing wrote Zhouhou Fang which had a great influence on the development of traditional Chinese medicine.
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