The Later Tang

In 690, Empress Wu Zetian briefly put an end to the Tang Dynasty and established her own short-lived Zhou Dynasty (690-705). However, after just 15 years, Emperor Zhongzong was able to overthrow her and re-establish the Tang Dynasty. The imperial officials breathed a sigh of relief, believing that their lady troubles were finally over. How wrong they were! Although Wu Zetian was the only woman in Chinese history to ever openly rule China, plenty of women after her would continue to exert control over the throne. This included Emperor Zhongzong’s wife, Empress Wei, whose regime of corruption crippled the imperial court.

When Zhongzong finally died in 710, it was even rumoured that she had poisoned him! Yet, in a bizarre twist of fate, her attempts to establish herself as ruler were thwarted by Empress Wu Zetian’s formidable daughter, Princess Taiping. After all, the ambitious apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Thanks to her help, Li Longji was able to restore his father, Emperor Ruizong, to the throne. However, just two years later, Ruizong yielded the throne to Li, who became the venerable Emperor Xuanzong.

The territory of Tang Dynasty during Xuanzong’s reign

Xuanzong’s 44-year reign would later come to be recognised as the apex of the Tang Dynasty, which was no mean feat when you consider that the Tang lasted for nearly 300 years! During his reign, the tax system was reorganised, the canal network was restored to its former glory, and cultural integration between the north and the south was expedited. Xuanzong was celebrated as a progressive and benevolent ruler, who ushered in an era of wealth and prosperity.

However, his authority was frequently challenged by a formidable foreign enemy. From 714 onwards, the Tibetans continually invaded China’s northwest, and Xuanzong was forced to establish a number of strategic military provinces along the northern borders. Each of these garrisons was under the command of an appointed military governor, who controlled large stretches of territory and enormous numbers of troops.

Xuanzong’s reliance on his advisers and military governors would prove to be both his strength and his weakness. From 737 onwards, he rested almost all of his confidence in his long-serving chancellor Li Linfu and, as time went on, he withdrew from political affairs to enjoy the pleasures of the palace. In 745, he became deeply infatuated with a concubine named Yang Guifei and, thanks to her influence, her brother Yang Guozhong rose to become Li’s major political rival. On Li’s death in 752, Yang dominated the imperial court unchallenged, although he lacked Li’s political ability and experience.

Meanwhile, during the 740s, a general of Göktürk[1] and Sogdian origin named An Lushan became military governor of three northeastern garrisons. He had risen to power largely thanks to the patronage of Li Linfu and, when Li passed away, he became the staunch rival of Yang Guozhong. As Yang developed a stranglehold on the imperial court, An continued to build up his military forces. During the 750s, a number of martial defeats against foreign invaders meant that the Tang Empire was severely weakened.

The An Lushan Rebellion

Taking full advantage of the unstable political climate, An Lushan launched a vicious rebellion in 755. By 757, he had captured the imperial capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) and Xuanzong was forced to flee. Not long thereafter, the crown prince usurped the throne as Emperor Suzong. Although An Lushan was murdered by one of his men in that same year, the brutal An Lushan Rebellion lasted for another 6 years! It was perpetuated first by An’s son, then by his trusted general Shi Siming, and finally by Shi’s son, Shi Chaoyi. Talk about a family affair!

Yang Guifei
Yang Guifei

When the rebellion was finally quashed in 763, the empire was practically in ruins. Yet, rather than punish the generals responsible for the rebellion, many of them were appointed as imperial governors instead. In this case, the punishment certainly didn’t fit the crime! The province of Hebei was divided up into four new provinces, which were each surrendered to these military governors or jiedushi, while Shandong province was settled by An Lushan’s former garrison troops.

Unsurprisingly, the central government held little influence within these provinces. The jiedushi wielded such political power that they were able to maintain their own armies, collect their own taxes, and choose their own heirs. These were privileges normally reserved only for the Emperor himself! By this point, the Tang Dynasty was firmly in decline.

Even in provinces that weren’t ruled by jiedushi, there were serious problems with provincial separatism. In northern China, many of the provinces were administered by military governments due to the constant threat of foreign invasions on the northern borders. In the south of China, high-ranking officials who had lost favour with the imperial court were frequently appointed as civil governors. In both instances, these provincial governments exercised a great deal of autonomy throughout the reigns of Emperor Suzong and his heir, Emperor Daizong.

Fortunately, Daizong was succeeded by Emperor Dezong, who proved to be a resilient and intelligent ruler. However, Dezong’s attempts to openly challenge the jiedushi ended in abject failure. From 781 to 786, a wave of revolts broke out throughout the northeast and caused widespread destruction on a similar scale to the An Lushan Rebellion. It only ended when the rebels fell out amongst themselves and had to disband, resulting in the situation essentially returning to what it had been before the rebellion! Thereafter, Dezong was far more cautious when it came to the jiedushi, although his reign was marked by steady progression in other areas of governance. In particular, his tax system remained the basis for the tax structure right up until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

On Dezong’s death in 805, the throne briefly passed to the ineffective Emperor Shunzong before he was replaced with Emperor Xianzong. Like Dezong, Xianzong proved to be a firm and efficient ruler. Thanks to a colossal palace army, he was able to crush a number of rebellions throughout the country and was eventually able to restore authority to the central government. That being said, a large part of Xianzong’s success had been thanks to the work of the palace eunuchs. During his reign, their role became increasingly more important not just as sources of information, but also as active political agents that were able to intervene in official affairs.

While Xianzong concentrated his efforts on his political enemies, he never suspected that it would be his allies who would prove to be his undoing. In 820, he was murdered by his eunuch attendants and replaced with his son, Emperor Muzong. From then onwards, the palace eunuchs exerted considerable influence over the country’s governance and civil unrest spread rapidly throughout the country.

The Fall of the Tang Dynasty

By the time Emperor Xizong took the throne in 873, the empire was on the brink of collapse. Severe droughts prompted a wave of peasant uprisings, the most serious of which was led by a man named Huang Chao. In 880, his forces marched north and took control of both Luoyang and Chang’an. While he was eventually forced to abandon Chang’an in 883, his rebellion left the Tang court virtually powerless. Bandit gangs wreaked havoc on the Chinese countryside, and the imperial court was besieged by powerful military leaders.

One of these was Zhu Wen, a salt smuggler who had served under Huang Chao but had betrayed him by allying with the Tang. In 907, he deposed the reigning Emperor Ai and took the throne for himself, establishing the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923). However, the Tang only controlled a small portion of China’s territory at the time, so Zhu Wen had plenty of other warlords to contend with. With the country thus fractured into a number of independent kingdoms, the Tang Dynasty officially ended and an era of great instability known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960) was ushered in.

[1] Göktürks: A now extinct nomadic group of people, sometimes known as the Türks or the Ashina/Açina Turks, who were of Turkic descent and came from medieval Inner Asia.

The Wu Zhou Dynasty

Empress Wu Zetian is popular in movies
Empress Wu Zetian is popular in movies


In 690, Empress Wu Zetian declared that the Tang Dynasty had officially ended and established her own Zhou Dynasty in its stead. It is often referred to by historians as the Second Zhou Dynasty to prevent confusion with the earlier Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 BC), although it is regarded more as an interruption of the Tang rather than as a dynasty in its own right. Thus Empress Wu became the only female sovereign to ever openly rule over China in its history. So forget Girl Power, it’s all about Wu Power!

Empress Wu began her political career as the concubine of Emperor Taizong but, through her cunning and sometimes rather ruthless tactics, eventually managed to usurp the throne after the death of her husband, Emperor Gaozong. Although she has been painted in an unfavourable light by many historians, it is often forgotten that her self-proclaimed Zhou Dynasty was nothing less than a success. She managed to maintain the prosperity of the preceding Tang Dynasty and even improved on areas where her male predecessors had failed.

During her reign, Empress Wu successfully pushed the Chinese Empire deeper into Central Asia and completed the conquest of the upper Korean Peninsula. She effectively expanded the reaches of the empire much further than it had ever been before.

The result of the imperial examination was announced publicly
The result of the imperial examination was announced publicly

In 683, she increased the importance of the imperial examination as a method for selecting officials and allowed newer members of the gentry to take it, when previously they had been disqualified due to their low class background or family name. This increased the opportunity for people in the north China plain to become government officials, whereas previously these positions usually fell to the northwestern aristocracy. In this respect she was responsible for huge social change, as she repressed the ruling aristocracy and elevated members of less wealthy or highborn families. Thus she created a new reformed upper-class directly beneath her that was fiercely loyal to her.

In a further effort to improve life for the lower classes, she changed the taxation system so that it was based on individual wealth rather than a fixed per capita levy, which reduced the amount of tax that poorer families had to pay. She also utilised the preceding Sui Dynasty’s Juntian or “Equal-Field” System to ensure fair land allocation to farmers. These edicts were known as her “Acts of Grace”, as they helped elevate members of the lower classes who previously had no hope of improving their situation. In short, she may have been a curse to the aristocracy, but she was nothing short of a blessing to the common people!

When it came to religion, she made Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching[1] required reading for all Imperial University students and elevated the status of Buddhism to be above that of Taoism, making it effectively the national religion. To this end, she patronised the construction of several Buddhist statues and grottoes.

She fostered a creative atmosphere at court and encouraged mid-level officials such as Yuan Wanqing, Fan Lübing, and Miao Chuke to cultivate their literary talents. She would frequently commission them to write works on her behalf and was even known to write herself, although most of her works were of a political nature. There are forty-six of her poems collected in the Quantangshi (Collected Tang Poems) and sixty-one of her essays in the Quantangwen (Collected Tang Essays).

Her support for the literary arts led to the final development of what was known as the “new style” of poetry or “jintishi” by the poets Song Zhiwen and Shen Quanqi, which consisted of a more regulated verse than previous styles of poetry. She also took great pains to improve the situation for women in ancient China and commissioned a work known as the Collection of Biographies of Famous Women, which was designed to raise the status of women in society as a whole.

Wu Zetian made a gravestone with no word for herself.
Wu Zetian made a gravestone with no word for herself.

Wu Zetian fortuitously took over at a time when the people were reasonably contented, the administration was run well, and the economy was on the rise. This meant that living standards were gradually improving for everyone, even the lower classes. She succeeded in maintaining the prosperity enjoyed during the Tang Dynasty and thus was perceived, at least by the masses, to be a successful and benevolent Emperor.

However, after the year 700, she became entangled in a number of romantic affairs with sycophantic officials and began losing her grip on political matters. Her inability to quash a number of foreign invasions meant that the empire was being progressively weakened. In 705, she was finally forced to abdicate in favour of Emperor Zhongzong, who re-established the Tang Dynasty.


[1] Tao Te Ching: A classical Chinese text written by philosopher and scholar Lao Tzu. It is widely regarded as the fundamental text for the Chinese religion Taoism.

The Early Tang

Children’s book --"The Early Tang"
Children’s book –“The Heroes of Sui and Tang Dynasties”

By the time Li Yuan forced the reigning Emperor Gong of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) to abdicate, the Sui Empire had already been divided up amongst a host of violent warlords. Although he proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty, Li Yuan had a long way to go before he could call himself Emperor of a unified China! Li Mi ruled the area surrounding Luoyang, Dou Jiande controlled the northeast, Xue Ju dominated the northwest, Wang Shichong and the Sui remnants had overtaken Luoyang, and Yuwen Huaji led the remaining Sui armies. With these five formidable enemies to contend with, Emperor Gaozu set out on a military campaign that would last six long years.

Unfortunately, when he finally did unite China under his rule, the empire was on the verge of bankruptcy! Thus his first act as Emperor was to implement an administration that was small, simple, and cheap. He modelled this administration on that of the Sui Dynasty, and even went so far as to fill the highest governmental ranks with former Sui officials. Like the Sui, he also exerted significant control over provincial appointments and would frequently amalgamate prefectures or counties, so as to reduce their number. This helped to centralise his authority, as power was evenly distributed amongst his officials and therefore none of them could amass enough influence to challenge him.

Although he is rarely cited for special praise, Gaozu was the one who laid down the foundation for future Tang rulers. The institutions that he established in the 7th century would survive well into the mid-8th century, which was considered the apex of the Tang Dynasty. By centralising imperial rule, standardising the administration, and keeping it cost effective, Emperor Gaozu set up a model that would provide lasting success for his descendants.

Yet, as he grew older, he had a whole new problem to contend with; sibling rivalry! His sons Crown Prince Jiancheng and Li Shimin were embroiled in a bitter debate over who should succeed him. While it seemed as though Jiancheng was going to come out on top, Li Shimin took matters into his own hands by staging a military coup and killing Jiancheng, along with another of his brothers. In 626, he forced his father to abdicate and took the throne as Emperor Taizong.

In spite of his arguably immoral rise to power, Taizong proved to be a worthy and venerable ruler. He developed and refined many of the policies that his father had laid down, as well as making several notable innovations himself. By establishing tax relief in places stricken by natural disasters and relief granaries to provide citizens with food in case of a famine, he helped ensure that the poorer rural communities were able to prosper. His reign was marked by frugality in government and fortune for the common people.

Princess Wencheng and King Songtsän Gampo
Princess Wencheng and King Songtsän Gampo

In fact, Taizong wasn’t just a hit with his own people; he also implemented a hugely successful foreign policy! During his reign, he extended China’s western borders even farther than the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) did during its peak. Trade along the Silk Road between China, Central Asia, and the West flourished, and the imperial court received foreign ambassadors from as far as Persia and the Byzantine Empire. Foreign relations were improved through marital alliances, for example that of Princess Wencheng, a member of the royal family who was married to King Songtsän Gampo of the Tibetan Empire and who furthered the dissemination of Han Chinese culture in Tibet. The imperial capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) was bustling with foreign merchants, foreign monks, and a variety of non-Chinese peoples, who accelerated the pace of cultural exchange in northern China.

Tragically, as Taizong grew older, his grip on the imperial court gradually weakened. During the 640s, a bitter struggle broke out over who should succeed him, with factions of officials each supporting different candidates. In the end, it was Taizong’s son Li Zhi who was chosen, in spite of his generally weak character. In 649, he took the throne as Emperor Gaozong.

Ladies in the Tang Dynasty
Ladies in the Tang Dynasty

Yet it seemed that Gaozong was doomed to have power slip through his frail fingers. He had become enchanted by one of his father’s concubines, Wu Meiniang, and swiftly re-instated her as his own consort in the palace. Little did he know that she would turn out to be his undoing. After a series of complex schemes, Wu Zhao managed to have the reigning empress deposed and was appointed in her place as Empress Wu Zetian. While Gaozong faded into obscurity, Wu Zetian rose to become one of the most remarkable women in Chinese history.

Her ruthless political strategies were legendary and, when Gaozong suffered a debilitating stroke in 660, she took charge of the imperial administration. Emperor Zhongzong succeeded Gaozong on his death in 683, but the real power remained with Empress Dowager Wu. In less than a year, she had deposed Zhongzong and replaced him with the far more pliable Emperor Ruizong. By employing an army of agents and informers in the royal court, Empress Dowager Wu inspired fear in the hearts of the Tang ruling class. After putting down a serious rebellion in 684, no one dared to challenge her.


The Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty 01


In his final years as ruler, Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) became increasingly despotic and detached from the suffering of his people. He commissioned great construction projects that crippled the country’s finances, masterminded disastrous war campaigns that resulted in the death of thousands, and oppressed his citizens to the point of rebellion. When widespread revolts broke out throughout the country, he was forced to retreat to the southern capital of Jiangdu (present-day Yangzhou) in 616.

Meanwhile, the rebel warlord Li Mi ruled the area surrounding Luoyang, Dou Jiande controlled the northeast, and Xue Ju dominated the northwest. Only Li Yuan, who reigned over Shanxi province, stood by the Sui Dynasty’s side. Just two years later, in light of the grief and devastation that he had caused, Emperor Yang was murdered by his advisors at the imperial palace. The throne was ripe for usurpation. Seizing his opportunity, Li Yuan briefly enthroned a Sui prince as Emperor Gong before forcing him to abdicate and claiming the throne for himself. He thereby proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty
From the movie of “The Emperor Taizong”

But it wasn’t time to celebrate just yet! Emperor Gaozu was one of many contenders trying to grasp control of the Sui Empire. From the outset, he had five principle opponents to defeat: the rebel warlords Xue Ju, Li Mi, and Dou Jiande; Wang Shichong and the Sui remnants at Luoyang; and Yuwen Huaji, who led the remaining Sui southern armies. It wasn’t until 624, after six long years of fighting, that Emperor Gaozu was finally able to vanquish his rivals and unite China under his rule. Yet these efforts certainly weren’t in vain, as he had just ushered in a golden age in Chinese history.

As well as adopting the innovations of the preceding Sui Dynasty, such as the Confucian Examination System and the Three Departments and Six Ministries System, the Tang Dynasty also developed many famous advancements of their own. Under their firm leadership, the population boomed, trade on the Silk Road blossomed, foreign religions such as Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity thrived, and cultural exchange was at an all-time high.

The Tang Dynasty 02The advent of wood-block printing meant that literary works could be produced and disseminated with greater ease, while eminent poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu came to the fore. During this time, the legendary Buddhist monk Xuanzang made his fabled journey to the west, where he travelled to India and returned with invaluable scrolls of Buddhist texts. Among these manuscripts, a copy that was made of the Diamond Sutra would later come to be recognised as the oldest surviving complete printed book. In short, many would look back on the Tang Dynasty as the pinnacle of ancient Chinese culture and civilization.

However, it would be unwise to think that one family could effectively rule a country as large as China for nearly 300 years. The Li clan may have traced their origins back to the great Taoist philosopher Laozi, but not all of them were quite as sagacious! While some Tang emperors like Taizong and Xuanzong would be celebrated for their great leadership, others like Gaozong and Zhongzong would fall victim to court intrigues, wily eunuchs, and the domineering influence of cunning concubines. In fact, the Tang was the only time in Chinese history when a woman, rather than manipulating the emperor from behind the scenes, would instead take the throne for herself!

From the reign of Empress Wu Zetian through to the tragic An Lushan Rebellion, the Tang Dynasty was riddled with more court drama than a soap opera! At its apex during the 8th century, it boasted a population of over 50 million citizens, expanded its influence across Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, and represented a cultural mecca along the ancient Silk Road. Yet this glory came at a great cost and the less well-equipped Tang emperors simply were not able to carry such a heavy burden on their shoulders. When the Tang Dynasty finally collapsed, it heralded in another chaotic and fractured era known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960). It seemed that, like so many others, this golden age in Chinese history was doomed to begin and end in bloody warfare.


Political Reforms of the Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty may have been short-lived, but it was arguably one of the most important political periods in Chinese history. The reforms that were made under the Sui emperors would provide a model for almost all future dynasties, right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). They helped reduce economic inequality, improved the country’s productivity, brought the country’s population back up from an all-time low, promoted education, streamlined several governmental processes, and revolutionised the way officials were selected. Not too bad when you consider they were only in power for 37 years!

When Emperor Wen first took power, he struggled with the chaos and devastation that had been caused by the previous Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–581). The most worrying thing of all was that he had no solid estimate for how many citizens he ruled over, since the Northern Zhou hadn’t carried out a census in several years. During the 580s, he commissioned a new census, which carefully recorded the age, status, and landed possessions of all the members of each household in his empire.

Based on the information gathered, Wen employed what came to be known as the Juntian or Equal Field System and the Zutiao or Tax Moderation System. The former ensured that all citizens were allocated an area of land depending on their status and family situation, while the latter meant that taxes were levied in grain and silk at a uniform rate. The taxable age was also raised and the annual period of conscripted labour for all taxpayers was reduced. If only the taxman was so forgiving nowadays!

To complement these tax reforms, Emperor Wen decided to restructure the way his territory was partitioned. Before he took power, the administrative system was in disarray due to excessive subdivision. Territories had been split into innumerable local districts, some of which were almost entirely controlled by rich aristocratic families, and appointments to positions of political power were invariably bestowed on members of these influential families.

A man in Sui Dynasty
A man in the Sui Dynasty

He simplified this structure by reducing the number of counties in each prefecture and by creating one uniform administrative unit for rural areas, known as townships. Positions of political power were no longer given to wealthy aristocrats, but were reserved for scholars who had gained their official position by taking examinations and who could earn promotions over time. These two simple changes helped to homogenize both the land administration and the civil service.

Another brainchild of Emperor Wen was the New Code, which was later revised by his ministers under the name the Kaihuang Code. It was a penal code that was designed to be simple, fair, and lenient, although application of the laws was quite strict. Unfortunately no remnants of the Kaihuang Code have survived, but it became the basis for the Tang Code, which is considered one of the most influential bodies of law in the history of East Asia.

In order to take full advantage of the aforementioned reforms, the political system had to be completely reorganised. The Three Departments and Six Ministries system was something that had been developed during the later Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), but wasn’t officially implemented until the Sui Dynasty. Under this system, the division of labour in the imperial court was far more detailed and allowed the Emperor to distribute responsibility amongst his officials without ever giving one individual too much power.

Unsurprisingly, the imperial court was separated into three departments and six ministries. It may not have had the most imaginative name, but it definitely worked! The three departments were known as the Central Secretariat, the Chancellery, and the Department of State Affairs, while the six ministries were entitled the Ministry of Personnel, the Ministry of Revenue, the Ministry of Rites, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Works.

The Central Secretariat was a policy-forming agency, meaning it was mainly charged with proposing, drafting, and issuing imperial decrees. The Chancellery was responsible for advising the Emperor and the Central Secretariat, reviewing imperial edicts and commands, and potentially disputing or banning imperial orders as it saw fit. The Department of State Affairs was arguably the most influential of the three and held the most executive power, since it controlled the six ministries. Its primary purpose was to execute orders that had been written by the Central Secretariat, checked by the Chancellery, and approved by the Emperor. These three departments would carry on in some form right up until the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), although their functions would frequently change. After all, variety is the spice of life!

When it came to the six ministries, the Ministry of Personnel was charged with bestowing appointments, merits, promotions, demotions, and honorific titles on government officials. The Ministry of Revenue gathered census data, collected the taxes, and handled the empire’s income. The Ministry of Rites organised state ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices, foreign affairs, and the imperial examinations, as well as dealing with members of the Buddhist and Taoist clergy.

The Ministry of Defence, much like today, was involved in the appointment, promotion, and demotion of military officers, the maintenance of military equipment and weapons, and the arrangement of military strategies during wartime. The Ministry of Justice, also known rather ominously as the Board of Punishments, investigated crimes across the country and oversaw the judicial and penal processes. Finally, the Ministry of Works arranged government construction projects, maintained the roads and canals, gathered natural resources, and hired artisans and labourers for appropriate projects.

By distributing labour in such an efficient way, the Emperor was able to create an administration that worked while still ensuring that he could easily hold on to power, since no government official could ever hope to amass the kind of political influence that he had. Bear in mind that, although the government was separated into these departments and ministries, the Emperor sat firmly at the top of this hierarchy! In fact, this system proved to be so effective that it became the foundation for the Tang Dynasty’s (618-907) government, which in turn helped the Tang hold onto power for so many years. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t able to truly benefit the dynasty that had invented it!


The Sui Dynasty


During the preceding Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589), the north and south of China were fractured by a series of rival dynasties. While the south was ruled by the Chen Dynasty (557–589), the north was split between the Northern Zhou (557–581) and Northern Qi (550–577) dynasties. When the Northern Zhou finally conquered the Northern Qi Dynasty in 577, it seemed that the Chen Dynasty’s fate was sealed. Yet internal conflicts in the imperial court prevented the Northern Zhou from advancing south.

During a political coup in 581, the reigning Emperor Xuan’s father-in-law, Yang Jian, was able to seize power and established the Sui Dynasty (581-618) under the regal name Emperor Wen. From there he turned his gaze south and, thanks to his superlative military strategies, he annexed the Chen Dynasty just eight years later. For the first time in over 300 years, China was firmly and sustainably unified! Like the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), which also united China after a period of great discord, the Sui Dynasty’s short duration belies the great political and cultural impact it had on China.

In just 37 years, the Sui emperors restructured the governmental system, restored order to the country’s farming dynamic, re-established the importance of Confucianism, and constructed several integral edifices. In short, they laid the foundation for the succeeding Tang Dynasty (618-907), which is regarded as a golden era in Chinese history. However, much like the Qin Dynasty, it would be ambitious construction projects and costly wars that would overstretch the empire’s resources, resulting in widespread discontent and eventually full scale rebellions.

The Reign of Emperor Wen

One of Emperor Wen’s first acts as ruler was to fortify the country’s frontiers by making extensive repairs to the Great Wall, as they faced significant threats on all sides. In particular, the formidable Turkic Tujue people to the north controlled large stretches of territory and posed a significant risk to the burgeoning Sui Empire. In this instance, Emperor Wen used his cunning nature to his advantage. At the time, the Tujue Khaganate (552–744) was suffering due to intense disputes between the Western and Eastern Tujue.

Through various diplomatic manoeuvres, Emperor Wen backed the Western Tujue and effectively sped up the separation of the Tujue Empire. The Eastern Tujue overtook the territory along China’s northern frontier, while the Western Tujue controlled a vast area stretching from the Tarim Basin into Central Asia. Throughout his reign, he continued to encourage factional strife amongst the Eastern and Western Tujue. It seemed he really loved stirring the pot!

Yet Emperor Wen’s administrative skills didn’t end there. He was a frugal ruler and accumulated great financial reserves. This allowed him to reduce taxes, re-organise the field allocation system, and establish the Three Departments and Six Ministries system of government. His political reforms were widely celebrated and eventually became the model for numerous succeeding dynasties, right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

The site of imperial examination office in Nanjing
The site of imperial examination office in Nanjing

In an effort to establish a link with the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), which was already regarded as a golden age in Chinese history, he re-instated Confucian court rituals, curried favour with Confucian scholars, and employed several of them as government officials. However, he knew he simply couldn’t ignore a certain foreign religion that had catapulted into popularity during the preceding Northern and Southern Dynasties Period. Thus he converted to Buddhism, encouraged his citizens to follow suit, and even tried to re-invent himself as a Buddhist Saint-King in order to further legitimise his right to rule. In this way, the religion continued to flourish throughout the Sui Dynasty.

The Reign of Emperor Yang

Unfortunately, as with many dynasties, things took a turn for the worse when Emperor Wen passed away in 604. He was succeeded by his son, Emperor Yang, who is regarded by many as an arrogant and depraved megalomaniac. Historical records have been particularly unkind to Emperor Yang, who began his reign in much the same way as his father had done. He revised the law to reduce criminal penalties, restored Confucian education, implemented the Confucian examination system that his father had created, and expanded his empire. Yet his greatest achievement was undoubtedly his efforts spent properly integrating the south into a unified China. He even married a princess from the southern state of Liang. Talk about taking your work home with you, literally!

Where before the imperial court was dominated by northwestern aristocratic families, now southern and northeastern scholars were given a chance to gain high-ranking political positions. However, his educational reforms and clemency towards the southern peoples earned him the scorn of the northern nomads, who gradually stopped supporting him. His decision to move the capital from northwestern Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) to northeastern Luoyang only succeeded in alienating them further.

He expanded this new capital rapidly, adding palaces and a colossal imperial park that required a prodigious amount of labour. Yet his grandiose construction plans didn’t end there. In an attempt to further unify the empire and improve his chances of expanding it, he decided to develop the canal system. In 605, he extended the existing Bian Canal so that it linked Luoyang with the Huai River and thus with the Yangtze River, providing access to the southern capital of Jiangdu (present-day Yangzhou).

the-grand-canalAnother great canal was built linking Luoyang with the region surrounding modern-day Beijing, in preparation for military campaigns on the Korean frontier. By 611, all of the major river systems in northern China were connected, providing a direct route from the Yangtze River Delta to the northern frontier. Masses of forced labourers were made to work on these projects in appalling conditions, which were inordinately costly and caused widespread civil unrest. Although this canal system was to be Emperor Yang’s lasting legacy, it would also serve to be his downfall.

Yang’s aggressive foreign policy eventually led to him conquering the Champa State of central Nam Viet (modern-day Vietnam) and driving the Tuyuhun people out of Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Yet these small victories were undercut by one colossal military failure that effectively crippled the Sui Empire: Emperor Yang’s attempt to take over the Korean Goguryeo Kingdom. After the completion of his canal system, Emperor Yang sent droves of troops and supplies to the Korean frontier. It was estimated that, at one point, this army listed over 3,000 warships, up to 1.15 million infantry, and 50,000 cavalry. In short, Emperor Yang meant business! However, due to severe flooding and poor organisation, all four of his military campaigns ended in disaster. The loss of human life was immeasurable.

Fall of the Sui Empire

Minor revolts began to break out throughout the provinces of Shandong and Hebei, but Emperor Yang’s growing preoccupation with the war against the Goguryeo Kingdom meant he turned a blind eye to the severe internal problems his empire was suffering from. His people were demoralised, his military was crippled, and his economy was in ruins. The rebellions became so severe that in 616 he was forced to retreat to the southern capital of Jiangdu, since much of northern China had been conquered by rebel regimes. The rebel warlord Li Mi ruled the area surrounding Luoyang, while Dou Jiande controlled the northeast, Xue Ju dominated the northwest, and Li Yuan reigned over Shanxi province. However, while Li Mi, Dou Jiande, and Xue Ju fought against the imperial army, Li Yuan sided with the imperial court and declared war on all rebel armies.

Li Yuan proved to be the most martially savvy of them all, inflicting a great defeat on the Eastern Tujue and capturing the city of Chang’an in 617. In 618, Emperor Yang was murdered by his advisors at his palace in Jiangdu. Perhaps he should have learnt something from Julius Caesar! Although a Sui prince was briefly enthroned as Emperor Gong, Li Yuan swiftly deposed him and proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty. Little did he know that he had just laid the foundation for one of the greatest eras in Chinese history.


Cultural Impact of the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period


Yungang Grottoes01
Yungang Grottoes

Like the Jin Dynasty (265-420), the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period was a time of great cultural enlightenment and progression. During this time, China saw a large and steady influx of foreign immigrants from the west, most of whom were tradesmen or Buddhist monks from Central Asia. A number of these monks settled in northern China and Buddhism progressively became one of the most popular religions among imperials of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). Thanks to their patronage and support, the Yungang Grottoes at Datong in Shanxi province, the Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang in Henan province, and the Hanging Temple at Hengshan in Shaanxi province were all constructed.

Along with these advancements in Buddhist art, the religion of Taoism also developed dramatically thanks to outstanding Taoist reformers such as Kou Qianzhi, Lu Jingxiu, and Tao Hongjing. It was Kou Qianzhi who made the most headway of the three, as he simplified several complicated Taoist rites and managed to recruit followers from noble families, which was of landmark significance to the religion.

However, one of the most popular trends in thought was the philosophy of xuanxue or “dark learning”, which was particularly prevalent in the south of China. This complex set of beliefs was based primarily on three Taoist texts: the Zhouyi, the Tao Te Ching, and the Zhuangzi. Followers of xuanxue were preoccupied with ontological and metaphysical problems, but tackled these issues by incorporating ancient Chinese philosophies into their thinking. The idea was founded on the assumption that anything nameable, such as movement, change, and diversity, sprang from and was sustained by one detached principle, which was by definition unlimited, unnameable, unmoving, and unchanging.

It reached such a level of renown that Emperor Wen of the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479) even established a Xuanxue Academy and avidly promoted it as one of the Four Great Subjects of Study, along with Confucianism, literature, and history. Coupled with this was a phenomenon known as qingtan or “pure conversation”, where educated men would meet and talk about philosophical topics all day with no regard for the “mundane” matters of life such as their profession and family. They’d call it “scholarly”; we’d call it shirking responsibility!

With these philosophical advancements came further advances in political thought. Since Confucianism’s unchallenged grip on the country had gradually weakened after the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), exceptional political thinkers like Fan Zhen, Xing Shao, and Fan Xun were able to come to the fore and advocate other, more practical systems of governance and administration. That being said, the bleak and unstable political atmosphere at the time led to much of this philosophy being despondent and dispirited, prompting many scholars and poets to become recluses and mountain hermits. If you can’t hide your head in the sand, apparently a mountain is the next best thing!

Mulan was created during this period

Literature also blossomed in both the Southern and Northern dynasties, although styles in the Southern Dynasties tended to be more flowery and intricate while in the Northern Dynasties they were rougher and more straightforward. Notable writers of the Northern Dynasties included Yu Xin, Xing Fang, Wei Shou, and Wen Zisheng. In the Southern Dynasties, a type of literary style known as pianwen, which dated all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 BC), enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. It was characterised by its metered rhyme, eloquent language, and classical allusions, and was frequently used in official writings of the Southern Dynasties.

Yet perhaps the greatest cultural reform of all came thanks to Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Although he was of dual Tuoba-Chinese heritage, he embarked on a Sinification campaign in which he dictated that all Tuoba tribesmen must abandon their traditional dress and many of their customs in favour of Han Chinese traditions. In this way, diplomatic connections between the Tuoba people of northern China and the Han Chinese people who had settled in southern China were eased. Meanwhile, the large-scale southern migration of Han Chinese immigrants led to the eventual Sinification of south China’s indigenous peoples. It was this cultural exchange and amalgamation between the north and the south that greatly contributed to the Sui Dynasty’s (581-618) successful reunification of the country in 589.


The Northern Dynasties

During the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (304-439), a time when the north of China was ravaged by numerous warring states, the Tuoba clan established the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). Like many rulers of the time, the Tuoba clan were descended from northern nomads who had immigrated to China, specifically the Xianbei people. However, this imposing dynasty didn’t begin its rise to prominence until 439, when Emperor Taiwu annexed all of the northern territories and effectively ended the Sixteen Kingdoms Period. With the north of China united under one ruling family, the Northern Wei had no choice but to turn their gaze south. Yet the Southern Dynasties would prove to be powerful nemeses, and the political stalemate between the North and the South would last for over 100 years. In short, this was a North-South divide to end all North-South divides!

Emperor Taiwu masterminded numerous expeditions against the southern Liu Song Dynasty (420–479) but, because of harassment from the Mongol-led Rouran Khaganate (330–555) in the north, he could not focus all of his efforts on vanquishing his southern rivals. His descendants would try numerous times to succeed where he had failed, but none of them would manage to make any significant territorial gains in the south.

It wasn’t until the ascension of Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471-499) that major changes began to take place in the imperial court. Up until his reign, Han Chinese subjects had been employed as officials, but only Xianbei tribesmen were allowed into positions of higher power. However, Emperor Xiaowen’s loyalties were torn, since his father was of Xianbei descent and his mother was Han Chinese. He was distinctly passionate about his dual Xianbei-Chinese identity and began a Sinification campaign in 493, which dictated that Xianbei nobles had to conform to certain Chinese standards.

These included banning traditional Xianbei dress at court, compulsory learning of the Chinese language for anyone under the age of thirty, applying one-character Chinese surnames to Xianbei families, and the encouragement of Xianbei-Chinese intermarriage. In one final act of severance from his Xianbei heritage, he even changed his own family name to “Yuan”, thus adhering to the Chinese tradition of single character surnames. This growing Chinese influence eventually seeped its way into the upper echelons of the imperial court, where the need for Han Chinese administrative methods and advisors grew.

Emperor Xiaowen also used the foreign religion of Buddhism to legitimise his rule, erecting large statues of Buddha near Pingcheng and declaring that the Northern Wei imperials were the representatives of Buddha. During this time, numerous Buddhist temples were constructed, as well as the magnificent Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang and Yungang Grottoes at Datong. As time went on, Xianbei customs were gradually abandoned.

The Emperor ultimately decided to move the imperial capital from Pingcheng to Luoyang, and roughly 150,000 Xianbei soldiers were forced to move there. However, many military men were left behind in northern garrison towns. Serving in these garrisons had once been a prestigious honour, as defending the empire against the Rouran Khaganate was paramount during the early years of the dynasty. However, after Emperor Xiaowen’s Sinification campaign, these Xianbei warrior families were stripped of their privileges and largely regarded as lower class citizens. As a result, they felt great hostility towards their aristocratic kinsmen.

In 523, they were pushed over the edge by a food shortage and began a fierce rebellion that would last for over a decade! Meanwhile, the empire was under the control of Empress Dowager Hu, who was manipulating her son, Emperor Xiaoming. In 528, when Emperor Xiaoming came of age and began criticising his mother’s handling of the rebellion, she had him poisoned. Not exactly the paragon of motherhood! Ironically, prior to Empress Dowager Hu’s rise to power, all Northern Wei empresses and concubines who gave birth to a boy would be immediately put to death, so as to ensure they would never interfere with their son’s reign. This law was only abolished by Empress Dowager Hu’s husband, Emperor Xuanwu, because of his devout dedication to Buddhism. If it hadn’t been for Emperor Xuanwu’s compassion, perhaps Emperor Xiaoming would have survived into adulthood.

Upon hearing of the Emperor’s death, General Erzhu Rong tricked the Empress Dowager into meeting him on the pretence of choosing the next emperor. On arrival, he butchered an estimated 2,000 city officials and had Empress Dowager Hu, along with her puppet child emperor Yuan Zhao, thrown into the Yellow River. Talk about taking drastic action! Erzhu placed Emperor Xiaozhuang on the throne, but continued to control the empire from behind the scenes. However, Emperor Xiaozhuang was naturally suspicious of Erzhu, since he had already thrown one emperor into a river! In 530, his arranged assassination of Erzhu prompted a civil war between the Erzhu Family and the imperial court. It was the Erzhu clan who came out on top, but numerous others continued to resist their rule.

Included among these rebels was a military general named Gao Huan, who had once been a top lieutenant under the Erzhu clan. Gao Huan was appalled by the Erzhu clan’s brutality, and the Erzhu clan were simultaneously aware that Gao Huan wielded great military power. Gao knew that he must gather his troops before the Erzhu clan made the first move. In 532, he amassed an army and occupied the capital of Luoyang. Confident in his power, he enthroned the puppet ruler Emperor Xiaowu before continuing his military campaigns, but the Emperor soon began plotting against him. When the Emperor’s plans were eventually foiled, he fled west to a region ruled by a formidable warlord named Yuwen Tai.

In 534, Gao Huan moved the imperial capital from Luoyang to the city of Ye or Yecheng and placed Emperor Xiaojing on the throne, thus founding the Eastern Wei Dynasty (534–550). Meanwhile, after having killed Emperor Xiaowu over a dispute, Yuwen Tai re-established the imperial capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) and instated Yuan Baoju as Emperor Wen of the Western Wei Dynasty (535–557). In this way, the Northern Wei Dynasty was severed between two rival claimants.

Although Gao Huan and Yuwen Tai were content to rule vicariously through their puppet emperors, it seemed that their sons were not. In 551, Gao Yang forced Emperor Xiaojing to abdicate and took the throne for himself, founding the Northern Qi Dynasty (551–577). In an almost identical power-play, Yuwen Jue seized power from Emperor Gong of Western Wei and established the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–580). Although Northern Qi was the most powerful of the dynasties at the time, it was swiftly weakened by corrupt officials and a sequence of incompetent rulers. Thanks to the concerted efforts of Emperor Wu, the Northern Zhou Dynasty was finally able to conquer the Northern Qi in 577. Unfortunately, like many victories in this turbulent period, it would be fleeting.

Emperor Xuan, the grandson of Yuwen Tai, proved to be an erratic leader and the Northern Zhou Dynasty deteriorated under his reign. His father-in-law, Yang Jian, took advantage of his death in 580 and seized power, eventually overthrowing the reigning Emperor Jing and establishing himself as Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty (581-618). In a bold and malicious move, he then slaughtered all members of the imperial Yuwen family. Yet cruel though Yang may have been, he did manage to succeed where all of the northern rulers had failed.

Through the use of military power, public morale, and convincing propaganda, he was able to conquer the Chen Dynasty (557–589) in the south and thus successfully re-united China. Though the Sui Dynasty may not have lasted long, they brought into effect a golden age of centralised rule that continued throughout the succeeding Tang Dynasty (618–907).

Southern Dynasties

Brick-carving of Southern Dynasties

Unlike the Northern Dynasties, where the north of China was largely controlled by two rival dynasties ruling concurrently, the Southern Dynasties was made up of four distinct, successive dynasties: the Liu Song Dynasty, the Southern Qi Dynasty, the Liang Dynasty, and the Chen Dynasty. Towards the end of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420), the imperial court was teeming with political corruption and the empire had been crippled by brutal revolts. A rebel named Huan Xuan had captured the imperial capital and dethroned the reigning Emperor An, claiming power for himself. Only one man rose to stop him; a decorated military general named Liu Yu. It was Liu Yu who had earned a victory for the Eastern Jin during the Battle of Fei River in 383, and it was Liu Yu who suppressed Huan Xuan’s rebellion and restored Emperor An to the throne.

Yet Liu’s intentions weren’t as benevolent as they first seemed. In 416, he led a number of expeditions against the Sixteen Kingdoms (303-439), successfully capturing the provinces of Shandong and Henan. He did this not to expand the Eastern Jin Empire, but to prepare a larger empire for himself. In 419, he had Emperor An strangled and placed the pliable Emperor Gong on the throne in his stead. Within one year, he forced Emperor Gong to abdicate and crowned himself Emperor Wu of the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479), the first of the Southern Dynasties.

Emperor Wu was well-known for his frugality and eschewed the extravagance of previous emperors. On his death, he was succeeded by his son Emperor Shao, who was deemed unfit to rule and was assassinated by a band of government officials. They replaced him with another of Emperor Wu’s sons, Emperor Wen, who quickly repaid their kindness by having them all killed. Fool an Emperor once, shame on you; try to fool an Emperor twice, and he’ll have you executed! Like his father, Emperor Wen was characterised by his frugality and adept skills at governing, leading to a period of prosperity and political stability known as the Reign of Yuanjia.

Emperor Wen desperately tried to continue the military campaigns of his father, but unfortunately his talent in government was matched only by his military incompetency. His failure to deal with the threat of the barbarian kingdoms in the north allowed the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535) to complete their domination of northern China in 439. With the northern territories unified under their rule, the Northern Wei became a significant threat to the Liu Song.

coins of Southern DynastiesOut of jealousy, Emperor Wen made the fatal mistake of having his celebrated military general, Tan Daoji, executed and attempted to take his place, drafting his own battle plans and requiring that generals receive direct approval from him regarding any military manoeuvres. It was his overbearingness that led to the decline of the empire, as the Northern Wei army were able to occupy provinces south of the Yellow River and cause the Liu Song irrecoverable economic losses. In 453, he was assassinated by his own son, Liu Shao. This caused an uproar in the imperial court, as Liu Shao had violated one of Confucianism’s fundamental principles: filial piety.

Liu Shao was then overthrown and beheaded by his equally cruel brother, Liu Jun, who named himself Emperor Xiaowu. Throughout his reign, his vicious nature and lustful misdeeds prompted two separate rebellions. It was rumoured that he committed incest with his cousins, sisters, nieces, and even his mother. Talk about keeping it in the family! On his death in 464, there followed a sequence of emperors that only equalled him in viciousness: his son, Emperor Qianfei, who was also fond of incest and familicide; Emperor Qianfei’s uncle, Emperor Ming, who assassinated Emperor Qianfei and executed thousands of his own relatives; and Emperor Ming’s son, Emperor Houfei, who had to be assisted by a military general named Xiao Daocheng because Emperor Ming had killed nearly all of his male relatives. It was a veritable imperial train wreck!

In the end, Xiao Daocheng used the environment of instability to amass power and eventually deposed Emperor Houfei in favour of his brother, Emperor Shun. When Xiao finally defeated his major political rival, General Shen Youzhi, he forced Emperor Shun to abdicate and crowned himself Emperor Gao of the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502). His short reign was marked by its prudence but, after just four years, he died of natural causes and the throne was passed on to Emperor Wu. By reconciling with the Northern Wei, it was Emperor Wu who brought about an era of peace known as the Yongming Administration. Yet, as we’re sure you’ve guessed, peace was not a common occurrence during the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period!

After Emperor Wu passed away, his grandson Xiao Zhaoye ascended to the throne, but was swiftly assassinated by Emperor Wu’s cruel, cunning, and paranoid cousin, Xiao Luan. He took the throne as Emperor Ming and executed all of Emperor Gao’s and Emperor Wu’s descendants, as well as several government officials. On his death, his son, Xiao Baojun, followed suit. As the old saying goes, like father, like son! Baojun’s unpredictable and vicious actions sparked numerous revolts, and he was eventually overthrown by a rebel leader named Xiao Yan. In a bizarre twist of fate, it turned out that Xiao Yan and Xiao Baojun were actually very distant relatives! Yan then enthroned himself as Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (502-557).

Emperor Wu was celebrated as an economical and diligent leader who cared for the common people and bolstered the empire’s military strength. He was a learned man who advocated the importance of cultural exchange and had an obsessive fondness for Buddhism. On three separate occasions, he even tried to renounce his title and become a monk instead! His donations to Buddhist temples, coupled with his enduring adoration for Buddhism, greatly helped bolster the popularity of the religion in the south of China.

Brick-carving of Southern Dynasties 02

Yet every leader must have their tragic flaw. During his later years, Emperor Wu would willingly listen to flattery from treacherous officials. His innocent love of Buddhism was taken advantage of, as nearly half of his subjects fraudulently declared that they were monks simply to exploit laws that exempted them from taxes. He also offered amnesty to generals who had defected from the Northern, Eastern (534–550), and Western Wei (535–557) dynasties, which usually worked to his benefit. However, when he took on the rebel commander Hou Jing of the Eastern Wei, it would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse.

Hou Jing led a series of northern expeditions against rival dynasties, which had initial successes but were eventually defeated. After his failure, rumours abounded that Emperor Wu was planning to give Hou up as a peace offering. Despite the Emperor’s assurances, Hou decided to rebel and besieged the imperial capital of Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing). When Hou finally captured the palace, Emperor Wu tragically starved to death and Hou seized power.

However, Hou only controlled the areas surrounding Jiankang and his political reach was extremely limited. Xiao Yi, a descendent of Emperor Wu, managed to defeat him with the help of his generals Wang Sengbian and Chen Baxian, and re-established the Liang Dynasty as Emperor Yuan. However, when an alliance between the Liang and the Western Wei turned sour, Emperor Yuan was deposed and sadly died.

Meanwhile, the Northern Qi Dynasty (551–577) sent a cousin of Emperor Yuan, Xiao Yuanming, to the Liang court in the hopes of gaining the throne. After some military defeats against the Northern Qi, Wang Sengbian decided to allow the pretender Xiao Yuanming to establish himself as Emperor Min of Liang. Chen Baxian was so enraged by Wang’s actions that, in a shocking move, he killed Wang, deposed Emperor Min, and installed Emperor Yuan’s son Xiao Fangzhi as Emperor Jing. After a brief reign, Chen forced Emperor Jing to abdicate and instated himself as Emperor Wu of the Chen Dynasty (557-589). This was the only dynasty in Chinese history to be named after the ruling family.

Unfortunately, by the time Emperor Wu took power, the empire was exceedingly weak and possessed only a small portion of the territory it once held. Emperor Wu’s successors, Emperor Wen and Emperor Xuan, proved to be capable rulers and gradually expanded this territory through military efforts and good governance. However, events took a turn for the worse when the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–580) conquered Northern Qi in 577. During this time, Emperor Xuan passed away and was replaced by his incompetent and selfish son, Chen Shubao.

After Yang Jian usurped the Northern Zhou throne and established the Sui Dynasty (581-618), he embarked on an invasion of southern China. In 589, after a year-long military campaign, Yang Jian captured the Chen capital of Jiankang and subsequently ended the Chen Dynasty. For the first time in over 300 years, China was formally united under one ruling family. Although the Sui Dynasty would be short-lived, it paved the way for a golden era in Chinese history known as the Tang Dynasty (618–907).



Cultural Impact of Jin Dynasty

the life of Jin dynasty

Although the Jin Dynasty (265-420) was a time of brutal warfare and great political upheaval, the influx of tribal immigrants and the subsequent social change that took place during this dynasty also hugely influenced Chinese culture and art. In particular, the Jin Dynasty and the subsequent Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589) represented a golden age for Buddhism and other belief systems. From the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang to the Maijishan Grottoes near Tianshui, Buddhism flourished not only as a belief system but also as an art form.

This spiritual shift began during the later Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), when Confucianism slowly started to lose its prestige. By the beginning of the 3rd century, as it became more and more evident that the Han Dynasty was on the brink of collapse, scholars became gradually disillusioned with Confucian principles as they had failed to save the dynasty that had advocated them so strongly. This led to many scholars turning their attention to other schools of thought.

Within this intellectual movement, a new trend emerged and appeared to dominate the lives of the educated minority. This complex set of beliefs, known as xuanxue or “dark learning”, was based predominantly on three Taoist texts: the Zhouyi, the Tao Te Ching, and the Zhuangzi. Followers of xuanxue were preoccupied with ontological and metaphysical problems, but tackled these issues by incorporating ancient Chinese philosophies into their thinking. The idea was founded on the assumption that anything nameable, such as movement, change, and diversity, sprang from and was sustained by one detached principle, which was by definition unlimited, unnameable, unmoving, and unchanging.

In spite of its abstract nature, xuanxue became incredibly popular among the cultural circles of medieval China and enjoyed particularly prestige in the city of Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing). Renowned celebrities of the time, such as the poet Ji Kang, counted themselves among its supporters. Kang followed a popular branch of xuanxue known as “zhulin” or “bamboo wood”, which posited that people should work in harmony with the natural world and that the study of strict Confucianism destroyed this harmony. Thus it gradually became apparent that xuanxue represented the polar opposite of traditional Confucianism.

Yet, when it came to xuanxue, Confucius was regarded not simply as a great teacher but also as an enlightened sage. It was posited that Confucius had come to recognise the ultimate reality, but had chosen not to mention it is his teachings because it could not be expressed in words. This concept of Confucius’ “hidden saintliness” and the idea that he had an understanding of the world’s great mysteries would eventually play a huge part in Buddhist philosophy.

TaositSo, while Confucianism appeared to be in a kind of spiritual hibernation, renewed interest was placed on Buddhism and Taoism. During the Han Dynasty, the suppression of various Taoist movements had left the religion fractured and it survived only in the form of small religious communities. Local Taoist masters became formidable social figures, as their charisma and spiritual significance gave them great power over the communities that they served. Thus the religion posed a major threat to the ruling government, as Taoist masters’ could radicalise their followers at a moment’s notice. This is the major reason why, unlike Buddhism, imperial courts rarely patronised Taoist communities, as they were believed to be unpredictable and anarchic.

Not only was it lacking in imperial support, but it seemed Taoism also had a fearsome adversary hot on its heels. Communal Taoist ceremonies, with their deafening music and fanatic fasting, were particularly objectionable to Buddhists because they were considered ecstatic and bordered on orgiastic. Not to mention the fact that they allowed women to take part, something unheard of in both Buddhist and Confucian tradition. The structural and doctrinal similarities between the two religions meant that people often conflated the two, which resulted in Buddhism spreading widely off of the back of Taoism’s popularity. Yet, in spite of these similarities, proponents of Buddhism and Taoism were bitterly opposed to one another.

mogao caves 02However, it was Buddhism that came out on top. From the 4th century onwards, this foreign religion gradually rose to become one of the major faiths in the country. The popularity of xuanxue greatly contributed to this, as the emphasis on complex philosophies and scholarly debate was a common factor between both schools of thought. Another potential reason for the religion’s popularity was the security that it offered. In an era devastated by war and rebellion, adopting the monastic life meant that even peasants could escape heavy taxation, enforced labour, relocation, and military conscription. At that time, pursuing an official career was riddled with corruption and danger, so many members of the gentry also opted to “take the cloth”, so to speak. Buddhist monasteries therefore became a place of equality, where everyone could enjoy a cultured and educated life regardless of their social standing.

During the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (303-439), the tribal warlords who had taken over the north of China were strongly attracted to Buddhism, mainly due to the magical powers associated with Buddhist ritual. They had practical reasons for this preference as well, since Chinese ministers, who had ties to various clan members, were less politically reliable than unattached and unmarried Buddhist masters. These rulers proved to be some of the religion’s greatest patrons. It was thanks to them that the Mogao Caves, the Maijishan Grottoes, the Bingling Temple Grottoes, and many of the grottoes within the Hexi Corridor were constructed and developed.

Lantingji XuAside from this abundance of Buddhist art, arguably the most notable event of the dynasty was the emergence of the calligrapher Wang Xizhi. His Lantingji Xu is considered the most valuable work of Chinese calligraphy, in spite of the fact that the original copy was lost during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Although the Jin Dynasty may have been a time of political insecurity and violent warfare, it was also one characterised by great cultural progression in literature, art, philosophy, and religion. Along with the subsequent Northern and Southern Dynasties Period, it constituted one of the most creative periods in Chinese history. So, when it comes to the age old question: War, what is it good for? The answer is cultural change and artistic innovation, apparently.