Eastern Jin Dynasty

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 10, 2021

By the fourth century AD, China was in turmoil. The largest armies were those of the emerging frontier kingdoms of the north. However, it was forced from the interior, beginning with the widespread Daoist millenarian rebellions of the late second century AD, which brought down the Han Dynasty. The demise of the Han Dynasty led to the rise of a series of short-lived, volatile Chinese warlord regimes. The tale of self-destruction is epitomized by the last of these, the Western Jin, whose princes in 291 turned on each other in a fierce and protracted civil war called the "Rebellion of the Eight Princes:' Finally, into the vacuum stepped a Xiongnu prince, who in 311 seized Luoyang. A branch of the Jin ruling house now fled south to the Yangtze region, where adopting the name "Eastern Jin" re-established itself as the first of a series of native dynasties that would rule southern China until 589. The Eastern Jin Dynasty primarily subjugated the region south of the Yangtze River, whereas Northern China was taken up by other cultural groups.

The Eastern Jin Dynasty was established in 317AD and ended in 420AD. In the year prior to the establishment of Eastern Jin, the last monarch of Western Jin, Emperor Min had been captured by the Huns, and as a result, some former Western Jin ministers formulated plans to resume the dynasty in southern China. The new dynasty was founded by Sima Yi, a member of the Jin family.  Sima Yi was a Wei State minister during the Three Kingdoms Period and he was a talented military mediator throughout the wars in opposition to the Shu and Wu State. Depending on the support of northern and southern landlords, he was able to establish the Eastern Jin regime in southern China and proclaim himself emperor (known in history as Emperor Yuan Di) at today's Nanjing; Sima Yi would be the first of 11 emperors of that dynasty.

Internal Politics

Eastern Jin was full of internal conflicts. Because of cultural differences, the immigrant northern landlords and the resident southern landlords rarely saw eye to eye other and they often took opposing political sides. Power was concentrated in the hands of noble families from the central plains, and although numerous attempts were made to ease the tension between the two political factions, the efforts were in vain. Later, the southern clans launched rebellion after rebellion which greatly weakened the rule of the court. During the latter stages of Emperor Yuan's reign, many chancellors in the Eastern Jin Court coveted the throne and started rebellions. However, at this time the court was able to successfully suppress the revolts.

In 383AD, the ruler of the former Qin in the north launched an attack on Eastern Jin and the two fought at Feishui. Although on this occasion the Eastern Jin army defeated the former Qin troops, the victory could not save Eastern Jin from a lethal combination of internal conflicts and ambitious nobles.

In 385, the weak Emperor Xiao Wudi delegated his power to his ruthless brother and nephew, and they embarked on a rule rife with corruption and the exploitation of the people. In 398, rebellions again broke out and one well-organized army even managed to occupy the western area of the capital city Nanjing, severely restricting the authority of the court. This began the dynasty’s slide into oblivion.

During the reign of Emperor Andi (296-418AD) a branch of the army rebelled and launched an attack on the declining regime. This was the opportunity for Huan Xuan, one of the leaders of the noble rebellions, to capture Nanking, dethrone Emperor Andi, and proclaimed himself emperor. Soon, he too was overthrown by another rebellious army led by Liu Yu. The latter then installed on the throne an easily controlled Jin clansman, Sima Dewen,  as Emperor Gong (418-420AD). However, the Eastern Jin Dynasty had been restored in name only, and the real power was held by Liu Yu who was plotting to end the charade and usurp the throne for himself. He did so in 420AD when he dethroned Emperor Gong and established the Kingdom of Song, thus ending the short and turbulent Eastern Jin Dynasty.

Cultural And Economic Developments

Although Eastern Jin occupied a small territory, it achieved many great cultural successes. During this period Buddhism was introduced to China, and the Xuan Xue School and Taoism also enjoyed a great influence. In the north, Chinese culture no longer attracted the automatic commitment of the non-Chinese rulers. In the south, however, intellectual pursuits were better appreciated. At the same time, literature, painting, poetry, and calligraphy also reached a high level of development. Poetry emerged as a central cultural phenomenon, a role it would continue to play throughout Chinese history. Wang Xizhi (c.303-c.361 AD) was born in today's Shandong Province. Wang Xizhi was a great calligrapher of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, and was known to later generations as the ‘Saint of Calligraphy’.

In general, the South Chinese economy progressed more compared to that of North China during the Jin Dynasty. Because of the endless fighting in northern North China, many people evacuated to the south part of the Yangtze River in search of a more peaceful life. The migration of large populations strengthened the workforce in southern China, increasing output and allowing for the exchange of ideas between people of different cultural backgrounds.

Throughout the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the economy was expanding and the capital city Nanjing became the leading business city south of the Yangtze River. It became the hub of a vast international trade network. Many of the inhabitants made their living as merchants and traders, as markets were abundant in the city. Simultaneously, citizens from the north contributed to the improvement of the craft industry. Nanking filled its treasury with sales taxes and tolls. Nevertheless, government control in the south was generally laxer than in the north. The inhabitants of Luoyang and Chang’an were subject to strict curfews. There were no such curfews in Nanjing, upon whose streets wealthy commodity traders rubbed shoulders with peddlers selling their wares. Thieves and robbers also abounded. Above them, all were the privileged aristocrats and imperial princes. Although they lived off salaries and endowments they too became engaged in the southern Chinese commercial development.

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