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The Southern and Northern Dynasties

The Southern Dynasties

Though often troubled by bitter struggles between locals and northern refugees, commoners, and aristocrats, the Southern Dynasties were an age of wealth: the real wealth of extraordinary commercial growth in south China, and the cultural wealth of China's first great epoch of poetry writing.

Seeking peace, hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees fled south to escape the turmoil set off on the Central Plain by the Rebellion of the Eight Princes and the rising of the Sixteen Kingdoms. Among the refugees was a branch of the Jin dynasty, who went on to establish the Eastern Jin (317-420) at Jiankang (modern Nanjing) along the Yangtze River.

The Struggle for Power

Resentment grew among the locals as the favoured northern aristocrats seized lands to build up their new estates.

This led in 399 to a rebellion, staged with the support of local gentry, which signalled the end of the Eastern Jin. Although the rebellion was put down, one of the generals involved became the power behind the throne, and in the year 420 took the throne himself as emperor of the Liu-Song dynasty (420-479).

A local man of humble origin, the general put an end to privileged treatment of the northern refugees. His heirs maintained stability for a generation or more. But with increasing pressure from the Northern Wei and growing resistance from large landholders, peace could not last.

In 479 another general staged a military coup, and established the Southern Qi dynasty (479-502). Yet another general, 20 years later, established the Southern Liang dynasty (502-557).

The Golden Age of the Southern Dynasties

The long reign of Liang's founder, Emperor Wu, would be the golden age of the Southern Dynasties. Seeking to build and maintain harmony, the emperor drew more and more commoners into his government. Great shows were made of patronizing Buddhism at this time.

In 548 a rebel general from the Eastern Wei, Hou Jing, who had defected to Liang, staged yet another revolt. The great city of Jiankang (Nanjing) was taken and the 85 year old Liang monarch died soon after. Hou Jing was eventually killed by Liang forces. Once again power fell to one of the "loyalist" generals, who established his own dynasty, the Chen (557-589), last of the Southern dynasties.

By now the state was much reduced, with large parts having been seized by the northern powers. Conquest of the south by the Sui, a generation later cannot have come as a great surprise.

Stone carving of the Southern Dynasties, outskirts of Nanjing city

Stone carving of the Southern Dynasties, outskirts of Nanjing city

Economic Development

The development in the fifth and sixth centuries of maritime trade routes connecting China with Japan, Southeast Asia, and India, together with the vast networks of navigable rivers in central and southern China, set the stage for dramatic economic development.

As a city of almost one million people, Jiankang was 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. Jiankang filled its treasury with sales taxes and tolls.

Nevertheless, government control in the south was generally looser than in the north. The inhabitants of Luoyang or Chang'an were subject to strict curfews. These did not exist in Jiankang, upon whose streets wealthy commodity traders rubbed shoulders with peddlers selling snacks or knick-knacks.

Thieves and robbers abounded as well. Above them, of course, were the privileged aristocrats and imperial princes. Although the groups lived off salaries and endowments, and looked down upon the shopkeepers, they too become engaged in the southern commercial revolution. A brother of Liang's Emperor Wu, in fact, was said to have operated dozens of pawnshops in Jiankang. Those who failed to repay would lose the shops or houses they had put up as collateral.


During the period of the Southern dynasties, poetry emerged as a central cultural phenomenon, a role it would continue to play throughout the spread of Chinese history. While some fine verse had been written during the Han, it was for the most part the work of a selected few.

In the third century, poetic composition became much more widespread, as we see with the late Han warlord Cao Cao, and his sons, Cao Pei (who established the Cao Wei dynasty 220-265) and Cao Zhi. By the fifth and sixth centuries, under the Southern dynasties, it was expected that the upper class gentleman could and would write verse.

One of the most famous poets of this period was Xie Lingyun, scion of a prestigious aristocratic family, who is known particularly for his landscape poetry about mountains and streams, a trend which also mirrored developments in painting in China at this time.

Though not of such eminent birth, Xie's contemporary Tao Qian has come to be even more esteemed in the Chinese tradition, with his poetry of "fields and streams," in which he celebrated the life of the simple farmer.

Thematically, the two poets both expressed a deep wish to get away from the fetters of state control. Tao expressed this in his famous "Peach Blossom Spring" essay, a utopian tale of the discovery of a people in an inaccessible valley who had not even known of the Han, much less the minor dynasties that followed; Xie for his part fled to the mountains to escape the service expected of him at Jiankang, and was eventually sentenced to death in exile.

The Northern Dynasties

The rise of the Northern Wei in the late fourth century is an important event in Chinese history. A century of fragmentation in northern China would be brought to an end by Wei's highly effective armies. Wei helped build the foundation for eventual re-unification of all Chinese lands by the Sui (581-618) and the Tang (618-907) dynasties with their reforms of local administration, taxation, and land allocation.

Conquest of the North

In 386, having escaped Former Qin control, the northern lord Daowudi of the Tabgatch (reigned 386-409 and known as "the Emperor who makes a way of war") established the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535) in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Eleven years later he led his cavalry south to defeat the Later Yan and occupy the lands north of the Yellow River. With his capital at Pingcheng (modern Datong, Shanxi), Daowudi broke up and reorganized the nomadic tribes to provide manpower for his armies.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese craftsmen and peasants were also forced to move north into the Pingcheng area to feed and supply the court and its armies. Daowudi's successor, Taiwudi (reigned 423-452), brought an end to the last of the Sixteen Kingdoms by conquering the regimes in Manchuria, the Wei River valley, and the Gansu corridor who had been holding out until this time.

With the north united, Wei's interests turned toward the Southern Dynasties (though Wei never conquered the south). At the same time, the Tabgatch nobility had lost control of the steppe, and were increasingly plagued by raiding from the new steppe confederation of the grasslands, known as the Rouran.

Remaking the Monarchy

Located in the far north, Pingcheng was a frontier centre in many ways. Although Tabgatch lords showed interest in the culture and books of the Chinese and established an Imperial University at

Pingcheng (with Masters of the Five Confucian Classics), the capital was essentially a base for non-Chinese armies. Chinese envoys from the Southern Dynasties described what seemed to them to be bizarre rituals, in which horses were sacrificed while mounted drummers and horn-players galloped around the altar.

Pingcheng was also on the edge geographically. High, dry, and in the winter extremely cold, the Pingcheng region could only support a limited population. As the population grew over time, famines broke out.

At the same time, control over the conquered territories of the Central Plain was still limited, local administration being in the hands of Chinese landholders who understandably sent as little as they could to the foreign lords at Pingcheng.

Reforms were needed, and these began in earnest during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen (reigned 471-499). Of the practical reforms, by far the most important was the Equal-Fields system. Under this bold new assertion of direct state control of the economy's base, arable land was divided, allocated to every farm family, and taxed on the basis of censuses.

An innovation of the Tabgatch, unprecedented in Chinese history, this was intended to break the power of local Chinese landholders and strengthen the central state. The system was continued during the later Northern Dynasties, providing the foundation for strong regimes into the early Tang period.

A New Cultural Identity

Cultural reforms were also put in place seeking to merge the Chinese and the non-Chinese populations of the empire. It was now prohibited to wear Xianbi (Inner Mongolian people of the grassland) clothes at court, or to speak the Xianbi tongue. Intermarriage between Chinese and non-Chinese aristocratic clans was actively encouraged.

In the midst of this, in 494, Emperor Xiaowen announced his decision to move his capital to Luoyang, deep in the Chinese heartland. For 40 years the city he built there thrived, with a population of more than half a million, magnificent Buddhist pagodas that reached up to the sky and the great Longmen Buddhist cave temples. These temples or grottoes contain many carved figures, steles, and examples of various calligraphic styles.

Alienation of the Armies and Northern Wei's Successors

In the move to Luoyang, Xiaowen brought with him almost all of the Xianbi aristocracy and a part of its army.

However, most of the troops stayed in the far north, where their situation rapidly deteriorated. Increasingly neglected by the court, these men served in a string of garrisons set up to guard against incursions by the Rouran steppe confederation.

In 523, under pressure from the Rouran, the troops abandoned the garrisons and fled into the interior, setting off a civil war that lasted for decades and led to the destruction and abandonment of Luoyang in the 530s. Out of these civil wars emerged two distinct new regimes, founded by warlords from the garrisons.

In the east, controlling the great Central Plain was the Eastern Wei (534-550), with a Wei puppet leader, which soon gave way to the Northern Qj. (550-577). In the Wei River valley to the west was the Western Wei (535-557), from which developed first the Northern Zhou (557 -581), then the Sui. The Sui dynasty unified all the Chinese lands, and from the Sui in turn came the great Tang Empire.

Gilded silver pot, Northern Zhou (557-581),  37.5cm high, unearthed at Guyuan, Ningxia, with  the relief of men and women of northern tribes

Gilded silver pot, Northern Zhou (557-581),37.5cm high, unearthed at Guyuan, Ningxia, with the relief of men and women of northern tribes

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