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Chinese History - 220-581 AD - Six Dynasties

China History Map - 6 DynastiesThe collapse of the Han Dynasty signaled the beginning of what some historians refer to as China's "Dark Ages." This was a time of almost constant warfare and intrigue. But it also was a time when one dynasty, tucked away in the southern corner of China, gave rise to great artistic achievement.

Initially the country divided into thirds. The age of civil wars and disunity began with the era of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu, which had overlapping reigns during the period A.D. 220-80). In later times, fiction and drama greatly romanticized the reputed chivalry of this period. The kingdom of Wei occupied the north and northwest along the Yellow River basin. Wu was in the southeast along the Yangtze and Shu settled along the Szechwan basin in the southwest. With its capital in Loyang, Wei had the benefits of holding the imperial seals, most of the country's wealth, and thirty million of its people. Using these advantages, Wei conquered the kingdom of Shu and Wu.

That there were many exceptions to the rule of general depravity, which the external fortunes of the Empire tend to emphasize, is evident from some of the stories told of individuals in this period. For example, there is the tale of the minister who committed suicide by starving himself rather than break the oath of allegiance he had sworn to the preceding dynasty. There is also the story of a young man who gave himself up to be executed in the room of his father, a magistrate who had been condemned on account of certain crimes which had been committed within his jurisdiction. The dynasty went down to defeat like the rest, and we have the spectacle presented to us of the defeated monarch mounting a white horse, after the capture of his capital, and riding forth to give himself up to a cruel death at the hands of the victor.

Literature during these wild and turbulent centuries was not without its great names. These appear chiefly under the category of poetry, but the poets of the time were in many respects all too like the time itself. In the earlier part of the epoch there were the "Seven Scholars of the Chien An," to whom must be added a bard who was also a Minister and a rather important figure in the history of his age. On one occasion he is said to have condemned himself to death for having permitted his horse to ride into a field of grain, but he satisfied his sense of justice, with but little inconvenience to himself, by having his hair cut off instead of his head. In the 3rd Century AD another bibulous and epicurean circle known as the "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove." One of these desired always to be accompanied by a servant with a bottle of wine and followed by another servant with a spade to bury him where he fell.

During this period the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal tribesmen in the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the first century AD) in both north and south China. Despite the political disunity of the times, there were notable technological advances. The invention of gunpowder (at that time for use only in fireworks) and the wheelbarrow is believed to date from the sixth or seventh century. Advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography are also noted by historians.

Throughout this period there were attacks on Buddhism, but, though weak measures of regulation were taken, the attackers lacked real con?dence in the Confucian formulas they affirmed, and thus offered no signi?cant checks on the steady infiltration of Buddhism into court and culture. Under all the short-lived southern dynasties, a series of fervently Buddhist emperors sponsored and promoted the growth of the alien religion. The performance of spectacular acts of penance, the building of splendid temples, the support of thousands of clergy — all motivated by belief in their efficacy as means to salvation — characterized several reigns.

The burden of lavish temple building weighed heavily upon the common people. When an emperor of the Liu Sung [not Southern Ch‘i] attempted in AD 471 to outdo a predecessor in the building of lofty and richly ornamented pagodas, a bold official rermonstrated with him: “Your Majesty’s building of this temple is entirely financed with money which the common people got by selling their sons and putting their daughters in bond servitude. If the Buddha knew of this, he would be grieved and distressed. Your crime is higher than the pagoda. What religious merit does this have?" The Emperor repented and caused the monastery to be pulled down.

Finally in 581 a native Chinese named Yang Chien assassinated the ruling family of the northern dynasty. Within eight years he conquered the south. He called his dynasty the Sui, and by 589 Yang had reunited China.

Chin. AD 280-383

In the midst of this conquest Wei itself had been toppled by forces within its own court and renamed itself Chin. Outwardly it appeared that by 280 Chin had reunited China, but its influence waned beyond its capital. Chin suffered terrible raids by an amalgam of Huns, Mongols, Turks, and Tibetans in northern China. Under such pressure Chin collapsed, and China split north and south. By 383 the north had fragmented into a collection of small states called by historians the Sixteen Kingdoms. From these political shards emerged the Turkish-Mongol state of Toba. By 440 Toba ruled the whole of northern China. But over the next fifty years the Toba spent its foreign blood and collective wealth in constant warfare. The Chinese gentry under its rule, however, had retained its wealth and character and now gained such influence that by 490 non-Chinese tongues were forbidden in public, the court adopted Chinese dress to accompany their Chinese customs, and Confucianism became the court's official ideology.

Eastern Chin. AD 317-419

Farther south was the Eastern Chin Dynasty. Founded by a Chinese prince amid the ruin that became the Three Kingdoms, Eastern Chin was the guardian of Chinese civilization and attained ".the highest refinement of culture in the Far East." according to historian Rayne Kruger. Nestled in the Yangtze Valley, the kingdom was rich in merchant trade, and it built magnificent water-cooled state buildings flanked by exquisite landscapes. Fields were covered with rice and fruit orchards. Culture too was cultivated as carefully, from calligraphy to landscape portraiture, to salon conversation.

Western Tsin. AD 265-428

The Western Tsin dynasty includes fifteen Emperors, some of whom were respectable, and one of them, Wu Ti (a very common appellation signifying Conqueror), a ruler of promise. He reigned from AD 265 to 290 and is said to have received an embassy from Theodosius, brother of the Roman Emperor Heraclius. However, after he had established himself upon the throne, Wu Ti became careless and luxurious, and is described as spending much of his time with troups of women in the palace gardens riding on little cars drawn by sheep. The times were evidently very unsettled, and at one time there were as many as eighteen little sovereigns disputing among themselves for the high prize of imperial dignity. The annalist writes hopelessly that " children of concubines, priests, old women and nurses administered the government." It was under these conditions that an attempt was made to establish a new religion, the cult of the Void and Nothingness, a species of Stoicism designed, so it is said, to strengthen the soul for the bearing of adversity, and to promote contempt for the honor and possessions of the world.

Northern Sung. AD 420-479

The Sung of the North contributed nine Emperors, of whom the first, Lvw Yu, was another ex-seller of straw sandals. The dynasty must not be confounded with the great Sung dynasty of later times. There was nothing great about this particular line and all that need here be said is that these nine Emperors enjoyed but a barren honor, compassed as they were with trouble, rebellion and fear of assassination.

Nan-Ch'i / Southern Ch'i (479-502)

The Southern Ch'i dynasty supplanted Liu Sung in the Yangtze State in AD 479. During the Southern Ch'i, of six emperors only one ruled longer than two years and four died violently. The Ch'i dynasty includes the reigns of five [six?, seven?]sovereigns who altogether retained their small semblance of power for just twenty-three years. References are made to the passage through Paekche of Japanese envoys to the Southern Ch‘i in the late ?fth century.

Of one of the Emperors the following story is told: He was very fond of the chase and, riding one day through a fine field of wheat, he expressed his pleasure at the sight. Thereupon, one of his friends replied, "You are right, but do you know the pains it has cost? If you reflected that this field is watered by the sweat of the people, I am very sure that you would not be so heedless in passing through with your hunting parties." The king at once saw the force of the reproof and forthwith abandoned the pleasures of the chase for the more human asceticisms of Buddhism. Another Emperor of the same line is said to have been so studious that he was never seen without a book in his hand, even when engaged in hunting. Perhaps it was this ill-timed devotion to learning which contributed to the downfall of the dynasty.

Hsiao Tao-ch'eng [429—482] was a native of Kiangsu, and a reputed descendant of Hsiao Ho. He rose by military service to high rank under the Sung dynasty, and was one of the four Regents appointed by the Emperor Ming Ti. After deposing the last two sovereigns of that dynasty, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the Southern Ch'i dynasty in 479. He ruled well for three years, and boasted that if he could have the empire for ten years, he would make gold and clay of the same value.

Hsiao Tue [AD 440-493] was the son of Hsiao Tao-ch'eog, whom he succeeded in 482 as second Emperor of the Southern Ch'i dynasty. A good ruler, under whom the people were at peace, he was nevertheless extravagant and fond of pleasure. Under his reign the term of three years' service for provincial officials was instituted.

In the year 484 an Imperial prince of the Southern Ch'i dynasty became an ardent supporter of Buddhism, and surrounded himself with priests in great numbers. A learned official endeavoured to persuade him that the whole scheme of Buddhism was a sham. He argued that Buddha having died, his spirit could no longer be in existence, spirit being to the body what sharpness is to a knife ; when the knife goes, its sharpness goes with it. Another official told his wife, who was a firm believer, that he was going to write an essay proving that there was no such being as Buddha. " If there is no such being as Buddha," rejoined the lady, tartly, " why write an essay about him ? Hsiao Chao-wen, who died in AD 494, was the brother of Hsiao Chao-yeh, whom he succeeded in 494 as fourth Emperor of the Southern Ch'i dynasty, being placed on the the throne by Hsiao Luan. At the expiration of three months Luan deposed him, and soon afterwards he was put to death. Hsiao Chao-wen, who died in AD 494, was the brother of Hiiao Chao-yeh, whom he succeeded in 494 as fourth Emperor of the Southern Ch'i dynasty, being placed on the the throne by Hsiao Luan. At the expiration of three months Luan deposed him, and soon afterwards he was put to death.

Hsiao Luan [AD 459-498] was a nephew of Hsiao Tao-ch'eng. He deposed Hsiao Chao-wen and Hsiao Chao-yeh, and succeeded the former in 494 as fifth Emperor of the Southern Ch'i dynasty. He made his way to power by the slaughter of eleven princes, but ruled with great conscientiousness. His reign was marked by a war with Wei in 495, and the rebellion of Wang Ching-tse in 496. Hsiao Pao-chiian [AD 484-502] was the son of Hsiao Luan, whom he succeeded in 498 as sixth sovereign of the Southern Ch'i dynasty. A worthless debauchee who relied solely on eunuchs, he was deposed by his brother, Hsiao Paojung, and slain by his people when Hsiao Yen approached Nanking. His concubine P'an Fei led him to expend vast sums; and his minions, whom he used to call "Demon So-and-so", induced him to waste further amounts in the construction of new palaces.

Hsiao Pao-jung [AD 485-502], was the eighth son of Hsiao Luan, and brother of Hsiao Pao-chiian whom he succeeded in 501 as seventh and last Emperor of the Southern Ch'i dynasty. The last of this line had a concubine who is said to be responsible for the atrocity of foot binding. "Every footstep makes a lily grow," exclaimed the fond husband as he gazed adoringly upon the diminutive feet of P'an Fei.

Hsiao Pao-jung was the nominal head of the rebellion against his predecessor, but was really a mere puppet in the hands of Hsiao Yen, to whom he resigned the throne in 502. In AD 502 the Yangtze State dynasty changed from Southern Ch'i to Southern Liang. Nobles, landlords, officials, became increasingly corrupt and oppressive, and the Liang faced popular rebellions in 504, 511, 516.

Liang Dynasty. AD 502-557

The founder of this line of short-lived fame, a line which includes the stories of but four Emperors, believed that all the misfortunes of the realm were due to the spread of foreign religions, such as Taoism and Buddhism, and to the neglect of the precepts of Confucius. To redress the balance he established schools and colleges everywhere at which lectures might be delivered on the life and teachings of China's sage, and reverence paid to his name. Before the end of his reign, however, the king underwent a complete change of heart and became so entirely devoted to Buddhism that, after twenty-six years of rule, he resigned the throne to become a monk. The change was due, it is said, to the great development at this particular time of intercourse with India. Many vessels plied between the coasts of China and the ports of India and Ceylon; ambassadors arrived frequently from the various kings of Hindustan, and wandering monks visited the Western kingdoms bringing back pictures, images and books of devotion. It was this king who, perhaps for the first time in history, abolished the penalty of capital punishment. Historians differ as to the effect produced by this unusual leniency.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:04 ZULU