The Sixteen Kingdoms Period


During a vicious civil war known as the War of the Eight Princes (301-305), the central government of the Jin Dynasty (265-420) was severely weakened and several chieftains from the northern tribes decided to seize this ample opportunity. They began a brutal rebellion known as the Wu Hu Uprising or the Uprising of the Five Barbarians (304-316), which decimated the Jin’s military forces and resulted in the imperial court losing control of northern China. Several Wu Hu warlords decided to establish their own dynasties during this time, including a powerful Xiongnu chieftain named Liu Yuan who founded the Former Zhao Dynasty (304–329). With no army to protect it, the imperial capital of Luoyang was left wide open and Liu Yuan’s son, Liu Cong, led his formidable army into the city in 311.

The reigning Emperor Huai was executed and, in a futile attempt to keep the dynasty alive, Sima Ye was enthroned as Emperor Min at the secondary capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an). Yet the Liu clan were merciless. Liu Cong’s uncle, Liu Yao, stormed Chang’an in 216 and forced Emperor Min to surrender, bringing an end to the Western Jin Dynasty (265–316). While Sima Rui established the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420) from the safety of his southern capital in Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing), the north of China was under the sway of vicious Wu Hu warlords.

The term Wu Hu or “Five Barbarians” refers to several distinctly different ethnic groups that lived in China’s northern territories, the most prominent of which were the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di, and Qiang. While the Xiongnu, Xianbei, and Jie people had once been pastoral nomads who hailed from the north, the Di and Qiang tribes were farmers and herders who had emigrated from the west. From the late Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) onwards, they had settled in the north of China and had become increasingly Sinicized, meaning they were hardly the “savages” that many historians make them out to be. They had rebelled largely due to the increasing levels of discrimination that they faced from the oppressive Jin regime.

Like the Five Barbarians, the Sixteen Kingdoms is also something of a misnomer, as there were actually more than sixteen official kingdoms during this period and many of them never ran concurrently. The term was coined by the 6th century historian Cui Hong in his work The Spring and Autumn Annals of the Sixteen Kingdoms and refers to the following dynasties: the five Liangs (Former, Later, Northern, Southern, and Western); the four Yans (Former, Later, Northern, and Southern); the three Qins (Former, Later, and Western); the two Zhaos (Former and Later); the Cheng Han; and the Xia. Cui chose not to include several lesser kingdoms such as the Ran Wei, Zhai Wei, and Western Yan, as well as the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535) because it eventually went on to unify northern China. Although several of these kingdoms were coexistent, many of them succeeded or subsumed one another.

Most of these northern states were founded by ethnic minority peoples and, as such, they faced a peculiar dilemma. Having come from a tribal institution that was not adapted to ruling a large agricultural society, they did not have the experience or the means within their own culture to effectively govern such a vast population. In order to combat this deficit, they had to make use of the traditional Chinese government structure, but this brought with it new dilemmas.

While the rulers themselves were of varying ethnicities, the wealthy nobility were invariably Han Chinese. In order for the foreign rulers to have any legitimacy with these powerful landowners, they had to conform to the complex rules of Chinese etiquette, heed the advice of Chinese scholars, and express themselves in terms of Chinese culture. How would they preserve their own cultural identity while also appeasing the Chinese aristocracy? It was a tension that very few of these short-lived kingdoms would survive. Rulers would either lose their cultural identity altogether and estrange themselves from their own people, or offend the Chinese nobles and lose invaluable support.

Fierce competition from the outside and internal political instability meant that these kingdoms ended as swiftly and violently as they began. This led to the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (303-439) becoming well-known as one of the most chaotic eras in Chinese history. Before the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Former Qin Dynasty (351–394) was the only one to successfully reunite the northern territories in 376. However, after a crushing defeat against the Eastern Jin Dynasty during the Battle of Fei River in 383, this dynasty eventually collapsed and caused even greater political fragmentation. After all, the higher you climb, the harder you fall!

It is therefore particularly significant that the Northern Wei Dynasty was the only one of these kingdoms to successfully unify northern China for a substantial period of time. The rulers of the Northern Wei, who were from the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei people, were profoundly Sinicized and even forbade the use of the Tuoba language, traditional dress, customs, and surnames during the late 5th century. It was this suppression of their unique cultural heritage that allowed them to effectively rule for such a long time, but at what cost? They may have attained great power, but they had alienated themselves from their own people. When they finally united northern China in 439, the Northern Wei ended the Sixteen Kingdoms Period and ushered in yet another tempestuous epoch in Chinese history known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589).

Although the Sixteen Kingdoms Period was one of great turbulence, it also represented the blossoming of Buddhist art and architecture. For example, the Former Qin Dynasty was responsible for the first grottoes that were carved in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang; work on the Maijishan Grottoes near Tianshui began during the Later Qin Dynasty (384–417); the Bingling Temple Grottoes outside of Lanzhou were masterminded under the Western Qin Dynasty (385–431); and many of the grottoes found in the Hexi Corridor were the work of the Northern Liang Dynasty (397–460). With all of the fierce battles taking place around them, you could almost say that these grottoes were the real art of war!

The Eastern Jin Dynasty


东晋In a brutal rebellion known as the Wu Hu Uprising (304-316), the Jin Dynasty (265-420) was overrun by the northern tribal peoples and the north of China was lost. In 311, the imperial capital of Luoyang was captured and the reigning Emperor Huai was executed. In a desperate attempt to keep power, Sima Ye was enthroned as Emperor Min at the secondary capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) but to no avail; rebel forces stormed Chang’an in 316 and forced him to surrender. In short, this was one very unlucky decade for the Sima family! They lost their stranglehold on the north of China and the Western Jin Dynasty (265–316) officially collapsed. The invasion of nomads in the north prompted droves of people to emigrate south of the Yangtze River, and it seems this was where the salvation of the Jin Dynasty lay.

Upon hearing about the fall of Chang’an, Sima Rui founded the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420) with the southern city of Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing) as his capital and named himself Emperor Yuan of Jin. While the north of China was plunged into an unstable age known as the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (303-439), it seemed that things were finally looking up for the south. The influx of immigrants fleeing the northern nomads helped greatly, as they boosted the economy and development of southern China.

However, there was one major problem with this arrangement: the Eastern Jin Emperors had extremely limited power. They depended almost entirely on the support of local and refugee aristocratic families, who possessed significant military forces. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees, and nor do armies! Noble families that had emigrated from the central plains had the most power, but aboriginal southern clans presented a particular threat as their political desires were frequently at odds with those of the imperial court and the northern nobility. Like the Western Jin Dynasty, the central government was plagued by corruption, political intrigue, brutal rebellions, and petty rivalries between factions.

东晋顾恺之仕女图Since the regime’s ultimate aim was to eventually recapture the lost northern territories, its success hinged on its military generals, who proved to be both its salvation and its undoing. An astute strategist named Huan Wen, for example, was responsible for resisting several northern attacks before reclaiming Sichuan province in 347. However, his new found political power also allowed him to depose the reigning emperor and enthrone a puppet ruler from the Sima family in his stead! Fortunately this unstable arrangement was fleeting, as the puppet ruler died not long thereafter and chose not to leave the throne to Huan Wen. Huan Wen intended to grab power for himself but, in a twist of fate, he died the following year.

By 376, the empire faced increasing danger from the Former Qin Dynasty[1] (351–394), which had successfully reunited the northern territories and represented a substantial military threat. In 383, this formidable force sent 300,000 troops to invade Jin’s territory, while the Jin could only muster up 80,000 soldiers to protect themselves. Severely outnumbered, it seemed the dynasty was doomed to fail. However, Fu Jian, the ruler of the Former Qin Dynasty, had foolishly entrusted a captive Jin general to persuade the Eastern Jin Dynasty to surrender.

When this general arrived back in Jin territory, he immediately told the leading Jin general all of the military information he had garnered while being held hostage in Former Qin territory. The Jin army used this information to their advantage and, thanks to a number of well-planned strategies, they were able to rout the Former Qin army in a crushing defeat during the epic Battle of Fei River. The Former Qin were so devastated by this battle that they eventually collapsed, and Chancellor Xie An was able to reclaim much of their territory north of the Huai River. This was a prosperous time for the Eastern Jin Dynasty, but not one that it would enjoy for long.

In 385, Emperor Xiaowu gave significant imperial power to his brother Sima Daozi and his nephew Sima Yuanxian. This proved to be a misguided move, as both relatives exploited the people and grossly misruled the country. While Emperor Xiaowu escaped the repercussions of his actions, he unwittingly passed them on to his unfortunate successor Emperor An! Disgruntled landowners began revolting against the government and, in 398, a rebellious branch of the army led by Sun En conquered the area surrounding the imperial capital. This greatly restricted the power of the central government and, from then on, the dynasty was in decline.

Huan Xuan, son of Huan Wen, seized this opportunity by capturing the capital and dethroning Emperor An, declaring himself emperor instead. Like fighting fire with fire, the only way to defeat these rebels was with an even larger band of rebels! In 406, another rebel army led by Liu Yu defeated Huan Xuan and reinstated Emperor An. Although it seemed as though the regime had resumed as normal, Liu Yu held all of the power and was secretly plotting to usurp the throne. He was a brilliant strategist and, from 415 through till 417, he launched a series of military expeditions that successfully expanded the Jin territory to the northwest, allowing the dynasty to regain control of Central Asian trade routes.

In 419, he wielded such political power that he was able to have Emperor An strangled and placed the pliable Sima Dewen or Emperor Gong on the throne in his stead. With a large empire thus established and with the weakened court ripe for military coup, in 420 he forced Emperor Gong to abdicate and established the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479), officially ending the Eastern Jin Dynasty. This was the first of the Southern Dynasties and marked the beginning of yet another turbulent era in Chinese history known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589). Under Liu Yu’s rule, southern China would enter a golden age that was, like so many others, tragically short-lived.

[1] Former Qin Dynasty: This is not to be confused with the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). It was named the “Former Qin” because it initially ruled an area known as the State of Qin and it came before the Later Qin Dynasty (384-417).

The Western Jin Dynasty

Western Jin Dynasty

 (265–316 AD)

When a powerful military general named Sima Yan overthrew the Wei Dynasty (220-265) and established his own Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD), he had grand dreams of a China united under his rule. When he eventually conquered the Kingdom of Wu (222–280) and put an end to the bloody Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), it seemed his dreams were finally coming true. The country was whole once again, the citizens were at peace, and, under the regal name Emperor Wu of Jin, Sima Yan ruled with a skilful hand. But, like all good things, it seems it was doomed to come to an end.

With the country properly united for the first time in 60 years, Emperor Wu was able to resume contact with the oasis kingdoms of Central Asia. Although Confucianism saw a marked decline in popularity, as scholars felt that its principles had largely failed to keep the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) afloat, Buddhism propagated from the West and flourished throughout the country. Superlative works of Buddhist art were created throughout the entirety of the Jin Dynasty, although not necessarily under the patronage of Jin rulers.

Emperor Wu strongly believed that previous dynasties had collapsed due to lack of support for the royal family, so he bestowed the title of imperial prince on several of his close relatives. This gave them some control over the provinces that they governed and helped to consolidate his family’s power. With his bloodline so deeply entrenched in the empire, Emperor Wu felt that usurpation was an impossibility. As the old saying goes, these proved to be famous last words! Although he ensured that his family controlled the larger roles in government, his decision overlooked the fact that many corrupt officials still operated at lower levels. Like many emperors before him, Emperor Wu was far too concerned with lusting after women and enjoying the opulence of upper class life to notice the major problems that were developing in his empire.

Meanwhile, in a crisis worthy of the modern age, China was struggling with a serious immigration problem. Tribal people from the north, known collectively as the Wu Hu or “Five Barbarians”, were migrating south and settling in northern Jin territory. Each group was vastly distinct in terms of culture and customs, meaning that tensions quickly arose between them and the native Han Chinese population. The Wu Hu people faced increasing levels of discrimination and were rarely promoted into higher level occupations. Their dissatisfaction with the oppressive regime, coupled with the distribution of power among the Sima family, was what set the scene for the Jin Dynasty’s eventual downfall.

When Emperor Wu tragically died in 290, he was succeeded by his son Sima Zhong or Emperor Hui, who was largely described by historians as incompetent and may have been developmentally disabled. One such story of Emperor Hui’s tragic ineptitude, which has become famous throughout modern China, came about when an official approached him to address the issue of poverty. The official pleaded with the Emperor and told him that his citizens didn’t have any rice to eat. The Emperor responded with the question: “So, why don’t they eat meat?”. This simple yet poignant exchange clearly demonstrates the sheer ignorance with which Emperor Hui governed the country.

The Warrior of the Western Jin DynastyMany of the imperial princes decided to exploit his ascension by trying to seize the throne for themselves, and this resulted in a bitter civil war known as the War of the Eight Princes (301-305). Contrary to what the name suggests, this was not one long, continuous war but was in fact a series of short, intense conflicts that were equally damaging to both sides. Essentially it was like a sequence of unending family feuds! What began as a minor skirmish in the imperial capital of Luoyang, escalated into full-scale chaos as each new prince entered the fray. By the time it had finished, the central government had been severely fractured and the empire was virtually crippled.

With the empire thus weakened, several chieftains from the various Wu Hu tribes decided to rebel. This brutal period in history was known as the Wu Hu Uprising or, rather more aggressively, the Uprising of the Five Barbarians (304-316). During the ensuing warfare, the Jin army lost over 100,000 troops and were unable to maintain control of northern China. With their military forces practically obliterated, the imperial capital was left wide open.

In 304, a warlord of Xiongnu descent named Liu Yuan openly revolted against the Jin Dynasty and in 311 his powerful army sacked the imperial capital of Luoyang, killing over 30,000 people. Liu Yuan promptly stormed the palace and executed the reigning Emperor Huai, Emperor Hui’s great-granduncle. In a futile attempt to keep the dynasty alive, the imperial court enthroned Sima Ye as Emperor Min at the secondary capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), but this last act of desperation would prove to be in vain. Chang’an was captured in 316 and Emperor Min was forced to surrender before later being executed.

Yet it seemed that all was not lost. Although the north of China had been tragically overrun by the Wu Hu, several members of the Jin court managed to flee south. In 317, after finding out about the fall of Chang’an, Sima Rui was declared Emperor Yuan of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420) and the capital was set in the southern city of Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing). While the south would enjoy a period of relative stability, the north of China was plunged into an unstable age known as the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (303-439), where the northern territories were separated and frequently appropriated by a series of barbarian states. Forget about the North-South divide, this was a national divide of epic proportions!



The Jin Dynasty

Jin Dynasty

(265-420 AD)

Not to be confused with the Jurchen[1]-led Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), the original Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) was founded when Sima Yan, a powerful military general from the Wei Dynasty (220-265), forced the reigning Emperor Cao Huan to abdicate and took the throne for himself. After a successful military campaign against the Kingdom of Wu (222–280), Sima Yan finally managed to reunite the country for the first time in 60 years and was enthroned as Emperor Wu of Jin. It seemed that, after an era of horrific political instability known as the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), the citizens of China would finally have some peace. Or would they?

Under Emperor Wu’s steady and educated hand, the country enjoyed great prosperity, and art, philosophy, and architecture began to flourish once again. However, not long after its establishment, the Jin Dynasty faced insurmountable social problems, including a mass migration of northern tribes into their territory. These tribal people were known collectively as the Wu Hu or “Five Barbarians”, although they were each distinct in terms of culture and customs. Tensions began to rise as these vastly different ethnicities came head-to-head with the Han Chinese population and new immigrants faced increasing levels of discrimination. Yet it seemed that these diverse ethnic groups weren’t the only ones struggling to get along.

Archaeological site of Jin DynastyEmperor Wu believed that previous dynasties had failed largely due to a lack of support for the royal family, so he appointed many of his close relatives to act as imperial princes and let them rule over individual provinces in order to consolidate his family’s power. This move, though seemingly wise, would prove to be his dynasty’s downfall. When Emperor Wu tragically passed away in 290, he was succeeded by his ineffectual and incompetent son Sima Zhong or Emperor Hui. Several of the imperial princes saw this as an ideal opportunity to seize the throne for themselves, and so began the devastating War of the Eight Princes (301-305). Thousands were slaughtered, millions were displaced, imperial authority was divided, and the empire was severely weakened by this brutal civil war. In short, there was nothing princely about it!

With the imperial government thus crippled, several rebellious chieftains from the northern tribes began to run riot throughout the country. This set the scene for the vicious Wu Hu Uprising (304-316), during which the Jin Dynasty lost an army of over 100,000 troops and were eventually forced to relinquish control of northern China. The imperial capital of Luoyang fell in 311 and the reigning Emperor Huai was subsequently executed. His successor, Emperor Min, similarly surrendered and was executed when the alternate capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) fell in 316. Yet, rather than wallow in defeat, the Sima family saw this as an opportunity.

The year 316 may have marked the end of what historians call the Western Jin Dynasty (265–316), but not the dynasty as a whole. When news of Emperor Min’s death reached the south, Sima Rui was declared Emperor of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420) and set his capital at Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing). After all, in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity! The imperial court, however, was largely under the sway of wealthy aristocratic families and influential military men, whose patronage and expertise they desperately depended on. This allowed generals like Wang Dun, Huan Wen, and Liu Yu to amass power during their expeditions to try and recapture northern China.

porcelain of Jin DynastyAlthough the Eastern Jin Dynasty was able to fend off several opponents, including the powerful Former Qin Dynasty (351–394) during the Battle of Fei River and a military coup started by Huan Wen’s son Huan Xuan, Liu Yu’s successful rise to prominence made him impossible to defeat. He soon usurped the throne and established the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479) in the south of China. Meanwhile, the north of China was embroiled in an unstable age known as the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (303-439). It was so-called quite simply because the territory in northern China was divided between a series of 16 separate kingdoms, some of them running concurrently and some of them succeeding one another. It was a time of great chaos, where citizens were never quite sure which nation they actually belonged to!

While the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the south was eventually conquered by the Liu Song Dynasty, the northern territories were finally united by the Tuoba clan of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535) in 439. This marked the official end of both the Jin Dynasty and the Sixteen Kingdoms Period, as the country was plunged into yet another fractured epoch known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589). So if you’re having a bad day just remember, the people of China were having an equally bad few hundreds of years! That being said, Buddhist art propagated and thrived during both of these war-torn eras, proving that beauty really can rise up out of ashes.



[1] The Jurchens: The Jurchens or Jurcheds were a Tungusic people, an ethnic group that has been acknowledged as distinct from Turkic and Mongolian people. During the 12th century, they took control of northern China and established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). By the 17th century, they were known as the Manchu people.

The Kingdom of Wu


Towards the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), several cunning warlords began amassing power in the hopes of seizing the throne. The imperial chancellor Cao Cao managed to gain control of northern China and became the de facto head of the imperial court, in spite of the fact that he didn’t belong to the ruling Liu family. He coerced the reigning Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) into granting several favours to his supporters, which included awarding a man named Sun Ce governance over a southeastern region known as Wu. This seems like an insignificant act, but it may very well have proven to be Cao Cao’s downfall.

Although Sun Ce was assassinated in 200, he was succeeded by his astute younger brother Sun Quan, who was an accomplished military general. In 208, when Cao Cao attempted to expand his territory to the south, Sun Quan used his vast strategic knowledge to stop him by forming an alliance with General Liu Bei and defeating him at the Battle of the Red Cliffs. Yet it seems Sun Quan was just as ruthless as Cao Cao! In 219, he ordered his general Lü Meng to invade Liu Bei’s territory in Jing Province (modern-day Hunan and Hubei provinces) and thus severed their alliance. He may have extended his empire, but he had lost a valuable friend.

Meanwhile, undeterred by his father’s failure, Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi succeeded him in 220 and subsequently forced Emperor Xian to abdicate, claiming the throne for himself and establishing the Wei Dynasty (220-265). However, Cao Cao’s failure at the Battle of the Red Cliffs was hugely significant, as it meant that the Wei Dynasty only controlled northern China and left large parts of the country ungoverned. This allowed Liu Bei, who believed himself to be of imperial descent, to take control of southwest China and found the Shu-Han Dynasty (221–263).

Eager to jump on the imperial gravy train, Sun Quan formed the Kingdom of Wu (222–280), although at first he only asserted that he was the King of Wu. In amongst all of these declarations of power, it’s pleasant to see at least a little modesty! Yet it wasn’t long before royal temptation crept its way into Sun Quan’s heart. In 229, he finally decided that being King simply wasn’t enough and declared that he was the true Emperor. His dynasty is sometimes referred to as “Eastern Wu” rather than the Kingdom of Wu, in order to distinguish it from other kingdoms with similar names.

Although Sun Quan had certainly burned all of his bridges with Liu Bei, he was eventually approached by Liu Bei’s successor Liu Shan and this parley resulted in the reaffirmation of their alliance, which encouraged Sun Quan to pursue an offensive against the powerful Wei Dynasty. After a collection of successful military campaigns, he also managed to conquer the rebellious southern Shanyue peoples and 40,000 of them were drafted into his army. From then on, Sun Quan’s lengthy 30-year reign was marked by stability and peace. He engaged Wei in a number of wars, including the battles of Ruxu (222–223), Shiting (228), and Hefei (234), but tragically none of them resulted in any significant territorial gain.

Unfortunately it seems Sun Quan’s children would turn out to be far less benevolent. Sometimes the apple really does fall far from the tree! Long before Sun Quan had passed away, a vicious succession struggle broke out between his sons. In 242, Sun He was instated as crown prince but became embroiled in a malicious rivalry with his brother Sun Ba. This small disagreement soon evolved into a full scale conflict, with imperial officials each backing either Sun He or Sun Ba. Like a true disciplinarian, Sun Quan deposed Sun He and even forced Sun Ba to commit suicide. Talk about tiger parenting! His youngest son, Sun Liang, was then appointed crown prince and succeeded his father on his death in 252. But it seems luck was not in the cards for Sun Liang.

In 253, his distant relative Sun Jun staged a coup and effectively claimed power over the state of Wu. Although Sun Liang continued to act as its figurehead, control of imperial matters fell first to Sun Jun and then to his cousin Sun Chen on his death. It seemed like things were only going from bad to worse for Sun Liang! Yet the old adage “after bad luck comes good fortune” doesn’t always follow. In 258, Sun Liang was deposed by Sun Chen and replaced with Sun Xiu. In repayment for this kindness, Sun Xiu would later kill Sun Chen during a coup. Evidently one good turn doesn’t always deserve another! These constant internal clashes continued to cripple the imperial court and, in 263, they lost a great ally when the state of Shu was annexed by the Wei Dynasty.

Just one year later, Sun Xiu died of illness and the throne was passed on to Sun Hao. At first, this appeared to be a turning point for the kingdom as Sun Hao reduced taxes and gave relief to the poor. However, this once compassionate emperor soon became self-obsessed and cruel, killing off anyone who opposed him. His tyranny became legendary and it was only due to the diligent efforts of officials like Lu Kai and Lu Kang that the kingdom managed to remain afloat.

Meanwhile, it seemed the Wei Dynasty wasn’t fairing much better. In 265, a Wei general named Sima Yan overthrew the reigning Cao Huan and replaced the Wei Dynasty with the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Sima Yan was a brilliant tactician and, in 275, he sent forces to attack the state of Wu from six different directions. You could almost say that Wu was being smacked six ways from Sunday! Wu forces suffered a succession of brutal defeats and, in 280, Sun Hao was forced to surrender to the Jin Dynasty. This officially signified the end of the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD).

The Kingdom of Wu may have only lasted for 62 years, but it marked the crucial point when Chinese civilization reached the southern regions. From 229 to 252, droves of northern migrants settled in the area and brought with them advanced technologies, which helped improve agriculture, irrigation, and river transportation in the region. The construction of vital transportation links such as the Jiangnan and Zhedong canals meant that Wu became a bustling transport hub, expanding its trade routes into Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and even the Middle East! In short, southern China was transformed from what was considered a barbaric jungle into one of the commercial, cultural, and political centres of the country.



The Kingdome of Shu-Han


During the final 50 years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), political corruption plagued the imperial palace and it became evident that this once illustrious empire was about to collapse. Seeing the opportunity to seize control, several formidable warlords began amassing power outside of imperial authority. While all other opponents threatened to snatch the throne from the reigning Liu family, who had governed the country under the Han Dynasty for over 400 years, one lone man desperately tried to defend it. Move over Rocky, it’s time for a real underdog story!

Liu Bei, who claimed descent from one of the early Han emperors, was born into poverty but had risen to prominence thanks to sponsorship from a wealthy patron. By distinguishing himself in battle during the great Yellow Turban Rebellion, he went on to become one of the principal Han military generals and governed an area in modern-day Sichuan province known as Shu. So, when a cunning imperial chancellor named Cao Cao took control of northern China and attempted to expand his territory further south, it was Liu Bei that prevented him by defeating him at the epic Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208, along with the help of a warlord named Sun Quan. This was a crucial moment in Chinese history since, if Cao Cao had succeeded, he may have gone on to conquer the entire country. When it came to these three powerful warlords, there was no such thing as small victories!

Unfortunately Liu Bei’s triumph may have prevented Cao Cao from advancing any further, but it did not relinquish his stranglehold on the imperial court. So, when Cao Cao died in 220 and was succeeded by his son Cao Pi, the threat of the Cao Family still loomed large over the country. Within the very same year of his father’s death, Cao Pi forced the reigning Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) to abdicate and declared himself Emperor, establishing the Wei Dynasty (220-265).

Outraged by such a brazen act and desperate to carry on his family’s legacy, Liu Bei also declared himself Emperor and founded the Shu-Han Dynasty (221–263), which he regarded as a continuation of the Han Dynasty even though he only controlled the state of Shu. Not to be left out, his once ally Sun Quan took control of south-east China and formed the Kingdom of Wu (222–280). It seemed that not a year went by without someone claiming to be the rightful Emperor! With the country thus separated, the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) officially began.

Liu Bei’s honest and commendable attempts to maintain the reputation of his family are highly celebrated and romanticised in the classical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, in which he is heralded as one of China’s great heroes. Yet, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions! Liu Bei may not have been hellish, but the dynasty that he founded never expanded much beyond Sichuan province and lasted for only 42 years. In his short three-year reign, Liu Bei launched an unsuccessful campaign in 222 to take back Jing province (modern-day Hunan and Hubei provinces) from the Kingdom of Wu and suffered such a crushing defeat that he barely survived the battle, dying from illness just a year later. Hardly the greatest show of heroism!

He was succeeded by his 16-year-old son Liu Shan, who was aided by the regents Zhuge Liang and Li Yan. The Liu family may have had the impressive pedigree, but it was Zhuge Liang who proved to be the real hero of the Shu-Han Dynasty. At the time, Shu was the smallest and weakest of the Three Kingdoms, meaning it was greatly limited in terms of resources and manpower. Luckily Zhuge Liang was an excellent strategist and, from 224 to 225, he launched a series of southward campaigns that successfully annexed the southern territories up to the Dianchi Lake in Yunnan province. In a bold move, he even parleyed for peace with the Kingdom of Wu and managed to reaffirm their alliance.

With the backing of Wu, Zhuge Liang finally had the confidence to pursue an aggressive foreign policy against the Wei Dynasty. From 228 to 234, he masterminded five military campaigns against Wei, which were all aimed at capturing the city of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an). Tragically these efforts were to no avail and, during a long stalemate in the final campaign, Zhuge Liang passed away. This proved to be a devastating blow for the Shu-Han Dynasty; one that it would never fully recover from. The Shu general Jiang Wei became something of a spiritual successor to Zhuge and, from 247 to 262, launched several attacks on Wei, but all of them failed to make any significant territorial gain.

Meanwhile, political corruption began to overcome the Shu court and eventually caused major fractures in the government. In 263, the Wei Dynasty commenced a three-pronged attack on the weakened Shu army. Jiang Wei desperately tried to defend against it, but he was outmanoeuvred by the cunning Wei general Deng Ai. In the winter of that same year, Deng Ai marched his troops into the Shu capital of Chengdu and Liu Shan was forced to surrender.

While Liu Shan was given the honorary title of “Duke of Anle” and was allowed to live out the rest of his days peacefully in Luoyang, the Shu-Han Dynasty came to a bitter end. Yet this short-lived dynasty did leave behind a few remnants of its past glory. Many of its irrigation and road-building projects, such as the Zipingpu Dam near Chengdu, greatly boosted the economy of southwest China and are still in use today. So it seems the Shu court was damned by war, but immortalised thanks to dams!


The Kingdom of Wei


As the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) began to collapse and rebellions ravaged the country, an imperial chancellor and military general named Cao Cao grasped the opportunity and took control of northern China. In 208 AD, he attempted to expand his empire further south but was foiled by an alliance between two warlords named Liu Bei and Sun Quan, who defeated him at the legendary Battle of the Red Cliffs. As living proof that ruthlessness is so often the path to success, Cao Cao was promoted by the reigning Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) to the status of vassal king in 216 and granted autonomy over his northern territory, which was renamed “Wei”.

In 220, he died with an illustrious legacy behind him as an excellent strategist, gifted official, and the venerable title of King of Wei. In the classical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, he is portrayed as the archetypal cunning and unscrupulous villain and has since become one of the most popular figures in Chinese folklore, although modern historians tend to look back on him far more kindly as a skilful tactician. But it seems his son, Cao Pi, was not content with just his father’s legacy and title.

In the very same year that Cao Cao died, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate and took the throne, declaring himself Emperor and founding the Wei Dynasty (220-265). In order to distinguish it from other kingdoms with similar names, historians often refer to it as the Cao-Wei Dynasty, further immortalising the family’s name. Yet, in spite of his great power and inimitable intellect, Cao Cao had failed to unite the kingdoms of the Chinese empire and had left large parts of China ungoverned. This left a window of opportunity wide open for several other formidable warlords and, in 221, Liu Bei took control of a south-westerly region known as Shu, establishing the Shu-Han Dynasty (221–263). The very next year, Sun Quan conquered China’s southeast and founded the Kingdom of Wu (222–280). This meant that, unlike previous ruling dynasties, the Wei Dynasty only controlled northern China. And, in spite of several tactical military campaigns, it would seem that all of Cao Pi’s attempts to conquer the south would tragically go south!

On his death in 226, he had only ruled for a meagre six years and passed the throne on to his son Cao Rui, who was aided by the regents Chen Qun, Cao Zhen, Cao Xiu, and Sima Yi. From the 220s through to the 230s, the Wei Dynasty engaged in several vicious battles with the Kingdom of Wu, the most notable being the battles of Dongkou (222-223), Jiangling (223), and Shiting (228). Unfortunately these skirmishes usually resulted in a stalemate and rarely represented any real gain for either kingdom. In fact, although both Cao Pi and Cao Rui managed to repel several invasions throughout their reigns, their desperate attempts to conquer the rival states of Shu and Wu were to no avail. Evidently the phrase “like father, like son” applies to failure as well as success!

Over the course of time, the other regents passed away, leaving behind only the wily and influential Sima Yi. In 238, at the age of just 35, Cao Rui passed away and left the throne to his adopted son Cao Fang, who was only 7 years old at the time. Cao Shuang and Sima Yi were appointed as regents, although Cao Shuang held the most influence in the imperial court. It was at this point that tensions began to arise between the Cao and Sima families. The Sima clan were a great landowning family and Cao Shuang already regarded them as a significant threat to the realm, so he would often place his own supporters in posts of importance and exclude Sima Yi. Sima Yi’s previous military victories also made him a particular danger, since he had proven himself to be an accomplished politician and military strategist. Like the Capulets and the Montagues, these two mighty families just couldn’t find a way to get along!

In 249, Sima Yi finally managed to outmanoeuvre Cao Shuang when the latter decided to make an excursion to the Gaoping Tombs. Seizing his chance, Sima Yi masterminded an epic coup and took control of the imperial capital of Luoyang. From then on, although the Cao Family continued to act as puppet rulers, it was the Sima Family that was truly in control. However, it would take two more generations before the Sima clan would take over completely. While Sima Yi’s son, Sima Zhao, was content to allow the Cao men to function as figurehead emperors, his grandson Sima Yan was far more ambitious. In 263, the Wei army managed to successfully conquer the Shu-Han Dynasty and, just two years later, Sima Yan forced the reigning Cao Huan to abdicate. In an action that spookily echoed Cao Pi’s rise to power, he seized the throne for himself and established the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Talk about history repeating itself!

Although the Wei Dynasty only lasted for less than 50 years, it had some effect on Chinese culture and the organisation of future dynasties. For example, it was the Wei minister Chen Qun who developed the nine-rank system for the nomination of civil servants, which was used by later dynasties until it was replaced by the imperial examination system in the Sui Dynasty (581-618). This system dictated that government authorities must select candidates and categorise them into a series of nine grades depending on their abilities. Theoretically, it was meant to help only the most talented of scholars to gain official positions, but in practice it tended to be abused by the rich families to promote their relatives. It seems that, even 1,500 years ago, money still did all of the talking!


Cultural Impact of the Han Dynasty


Unlike the preceding Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), which is well-known for the burning of the books and burying of the scholars incident, the Han Dynasty emperors encouraged scholarship and were compulsive record keepers. Even though the dynasty began over 2,000 years ago, its culture and history have been incredibly well-documented. It was during this time that famous literary works such as Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145–86 BC) were written, and the imperial library boasted an impressive collection of literary texts. A growing civilization meant that the vocabulary of the Chinese language had to adapt to the people’s needs. The first Chinese dictionary indicates that by 121 AD over 9,000 characters were already in use!

史记The emperors had a particular fondness for works associated with Confucius, and Emperor Wu (r. 140–87 BC) even went so far as to establish the Imperial University in 124 BC, which was dedicated solely to the study of Confucian philosophies. This set the standard for the Classical education that would come to be expected of officials, scholars, and noblemen from the Han Dynasty right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, this Han Dynasty Confucianism was not based on the original ideology of Confucius himself, but was in fact the creation of a scholar named Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC). He advocated the ethical Confucian ideals of ritual, filial piety, and maintaining a harmonious relationship with the five phases and yin-yang cosmologies. His teachings justified the existence of the imperial government as part of the natural order of the universe, so it’s no wonder the Emperor chose to endorse him!

As well as placing far more emphasis on academic pursuits, the Han emperors were also far more involved with religion. According to Chinese philosophy, not only was the Emperor the centre of the physical universe, but it was also his responsibility to appease the gods. If the Emperor didn’t conform to particular rituals, ethics, and morals, then this could potentially disrupt the cosmic balance and cause catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, and pestilence. With the entire physical wellbeing of the country at stake, job responsibilities don’t get much greater than that! Securing the blessings of the deities was one of the Emperor’s solemn duties and, from the time of Emperor Wu onwards, rulers began playing a much more active role in worship and sacrificial rituals. However, as foreign travellers started entering China via the Silk Road, so too did their diverse spiritual beliefs. Sometime during the 1st century BC, Buddhism appeared in the country and, by the 2nd century AD, the Chinese religion of Taoism had begun to take shape.

Han papermaking processYet spiritual enlightenment wasn’t the only thing on the Han emperors’ minds; science and technology also saw rapid advancement during their reign. This included the development of a standard papermaking process, the world’s first use of negative numbers in mathematics, and the invention of the mouldboard iron plough, the armillary sphere[1], and the world’s first seismometer. In light of the technological, cultural, scientific, and spiritual developments that were achieved during this time, it’s easy to see why the Han Dynasty is still regarded as a golden age in Chinese history.




[1] The Armillary Sphere: An invention of astronomer Zhang Heng (78-139 AD) of the Han Dynasty, the armillary sphere was a three-dimensional tool used in astronomy to record the movements of celestial bodies. Zhang was also responsible for inventing the world’s first seismometer in 132 AD.

Political Reforms of the Han Dynasty

The Han government was structured in a very particular way so as to centralise imperial power. The Emperor was at the very top of this hierarchy, ranking as the supreme lawgiver, commander of the military, and sole designator of top official posts. Bear in mind he was considered the Son of Heaven, so ignoring his wishes meant potentially angering the gods! Beneath him was a system of officials who were designed to advise him and keep tabs on the far reaching corners of his empire. Directly below the Emperor were the Three Councillors of State: the Chancellor/Minister over the Masses, whose chief responsibility was to draft the government budget, manage the land and population censuses, lead court conferences, and nominate scholars for official positions; the Imperial Counsellor/Excellency of Works, whose duty it was to conduct disciplinary procedures with other officials and oversee public works projects; and the Grand Commandment/Grand Marshal, who commanded the military.

The Han Great Wall in Dunhuang, Gansu

Ranked just below this Trio of Terror were the Nine Ministers, who each controlled a specialised ministry. For example, the Minister of Ceremonies was charged with the organisation of religious rituals and the maintenance of temples, while the Minister of the Household was responsible for palace security and the Minister of Finance acted as the palace’s treasurer. Men who wished to become officials had to pass a series of examinations which, at the time, were not standardised. If they passed, they would have to endure a clerical internship spent serving other officials before potentially rising up through the 12 ranks of the Han court. This meant that most government officials were employed based on their personal merit and not on their family background. All in all, it was a well-thought out system that allowed the Emperor to keep informed on all aspects of his empire while simultaneously hindering any individual other than the Emperor from amassing too much power.

In a similar way, the empire itself was divided into political units according to size, beginning from largest to smallest with provinces, commanderies, counties, and finally districts. This was a system copied from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and it made ruling such a vast territory far easier, as each region could be run by a group of officials. They would collect taxes, settle disputes, supervise the people, and recruit new clerks, all on behalf of the Emperor! The only exception to this rule was the Ten Kingdoms, which were large semi-autonomous fiefdoms that were ruled by the Emperor’s male relatives. Their government was structured much like that of the Emperor, although the ruling princes were stripped of these privileges in 145 BC.

Aside from this governmental and territorial structure, the Han Dynasty lasted for so long that its political system had to adapt and evolve with the tides of time. For example, during his reign Emperor Wu took private industries such as salt, iron, and liquor production and nationalised them to fund his many military campaigns. This didn’t last long, however, as the government’s monopoly on salt and iron was relinquished during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD) and the one on liquor lasted for only 3 years before his people made their dissatisfaction known. Evidently you can take away a man’s seasonings and metals, but you better not take his booze! Although many political reforms such as these appeared to be short-lived, the hierarchical structure of the government was so effective that it enabled the Han emperors to rule the country efficiently for over 400 years.

The Three Kingdoms Period

(220-280 AD)

During the latter 50 years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), political corruption, schismatic warlords, and violent rebellions ran rife. Wealthy families who had been forced to help the Emperor suppress the revolts secretly decided not to disband their military forces, and instead began amassing power outside of imperial authority. This set the scene for a sequence of epic clashes that would become legendary in Chinese history and would lead to the fractured Three Kingdoms Period.

In the ensuing chaos, three formidable warlords emerged: Cao Cao, an imposing military general and Chancellor of the Han Dynasty; Liu Bei, a descendant of the imperial Liu family who was born into poverty but rose to prominence thanks to sponsorship; and Sun Quan, the son of a Han Dynasty general. Cao Cao was an excellent strategist and managed to gain control of northern China, but was foiled in his attempts to expand his territory during the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208 AD, when Liu Bei and Sun Quan formed an alliance to defeat him. Nonetheless, Cao Cao maintained his stranglehold on northern China and was promoted to the status of vassal king in 216, earning the title “King of Wei”. Yet, while Cao Cao just couldn’t wait to be king, it seemed that his son had his eyes on a much bigger prize!

caocao in beijing operaWhen Cao Cao died in 220, his son Cao Pi took his place and, in the very same year, forced the reigning Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) to abdicate. He swiftly declared himself Emperor and founded the Kingdom of Wei (220-265). Talk about burning ambition! However, Cao Cao’s failure to unite the kingdoms of the Chinese empire meant that large parts of China were left ungoverned. In 221, Liu Bei took control of a south-westerly region known as Shu, which covers much of modern-day Sichuan province, and established the Kingdom of Shu-Han (221–263). Similarly, Sun Quan conquered much of China’s south-eastern territory and founded the Kingdom of Wu (222–280). In this way, the Han Dynasty officially ended and the country was left fissured, in a state historians now refer to as the Three Kingdoms Period.

Although the Kingdomd of Wei was politically the strongest and controlled the most territory, it was constantly vying for dominance with the other two kingdoms. Military campaigns during this period were of such importance that, alongside the rulers of the three warring dynasties, great strategists such as Zhuge Liang and Lu Xun would emerge and achieve an almost mythical status in the Chinese canon. Whether it was Liu Bei trying to take back the province of Jingzhou from the Kingdom of Wu, Cao Pi attempting to extend his territory further south, or the shocking overthrow of the Wei Dynasty by the Sun Family, this period in history was marked by vicious and tactical warfare. In fact, the country was so marred by violence that its population dropped from a healthy 56 million during the Han Dynasty to a staggering 16 million by the time the Jin Dynasty (265-420) reunified the country in 280.

If the historical records are accurate, this would make the Three Kingdoms Period the second deadliest era of warfare in world history, rivalled only by the Second World War! That being said, these historical censuses only account for the living population at the time and don’t give specifics about the death toll. Though warfare was undoubtedly the predominant cause, the famine and disease that resulted from the destabilisation of the government were certainly contributing factors. Regardless of how it happened, it would take until the Sui Dynasty (581-618) for the population to finally recover from such hardship.

the three kindom novelThe Three Kingdoms Period was so etched into the minds of the people that it spawned several great works of literature. After all, tragedy is one of the most popular literary genres! The most notable of these are a historical text known as Records of the Three Kingdoms by Chen Shou of the Three Kingdoms Period and the classical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Guanzhong drew heavily from Shou’s historical account but largely romanticised and dramatized the affairs of the past, turning historic events into the stuff of legends. His work is now acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature and has resulted in the Three Kingdoms Period becoming one of the most well-known epochs in Chinese history, in spite of the fact that it was also one of the shortest. Since then, it has been immortalised in opera, film, television, and even went on to inspire a popular video game series known as Dynasty Warriors. Evidently it is true what they say: live fast and die young!

And, just as it had started, this historical era went out with a bang! From 263 to 264, the Wei Dynasty launched a series of military campaigns that were finally successful in conquering the Shu-Han Dynasty. Yet with great power comes the possibility of even greater betrayals! The Sima Family had long been a substantial influence on the Wei Dynasty but, in 265, a Wei general named Sima Yan decided to usurp the throne and establish the Jin Dynasty. In 280, he was finally able to overcome the Kingdom of Wu and thus reunited the country. For a few years, at least!