Southern And Northern Dynasties

The Southern And Northern Dynasties (Chinese: 南北朝; pinyin: Nánběicháo) was a period in the history of China that lasted from 420 to 589 AD. Though an age of civil war and political chaos, it was also a time of flourishing arts and culture, advancement in technology, and the spreading of Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism. The period saw large-scale migration of Han Chinese people to the lands south of the Yangtze River.

During this period the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal people in the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the 1st century AD) in both north and south China, along with Daoism gaining influence from the outline of Buddhist scriptures (with two essential Daoist canons written during this period). Although multiple story towers such as guard towers and residential apartments existed in previous periods, during this period the distinct Chinese pagoda tower (for storing Buddhist scriptures) evolved from the stupa, the latter originating from Buddhist traditions of protecting sutras in ancient India.

There were notable technological advances during this period. With the invention of the stirrup during the earlier western jin dynasty , heavy cavalry became standard in combat. Advances in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and cartography are also noted by historians. The famous Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi (429–500 AD) belonged to this age, an intellectual and social product of the elite culture shaped and developed in southern China during this period of time.


After the collapse of a united China under the han dynasty in 220 AD due in large part to the Yellow Turban and Five Pecks of Rice rebellions, China eventually coalesced into the three kingdoms. Of these three kingdoms, cao wei was the strongest followed by Eastern Wu and Shu Han, but they were initially in a relatively stable formation.

After a 249 AD coup by Sima Yi, the Sima family essentially controlled cao wei and soon conquered Shu Han. Following a failed coup by the ruling Cao family against the Sima family, the final Cao ruler abdicated. Sima Yan then founded the jin dynasty and in 280 AD conquered Eastern Wu, ending the three kingdoms and uniting China again.

The jin dynasty was severely weakened after the War of the Eight Princes from 291 to 306 AD. During the reigns of Emperor Huai of Jin and Emperor Min of Jin, the country was put into grave danger with the uprising of the northern non-Han barbarians collectively known as Wu Hu. Invading barbarian armies almost destroyed the dynasty in the Disaster of Yongjia, which was the 311 AD sack of Luoyang . Chang'an met a similar fate in the year 316 AD. However, a scion of the royal house, the Prince of Langya (Sima Rui), fled south of the Huai River to salvage what was left in order to sustain the empire.

Cementing their power in the south, the Jin established modern-day Nanjing (then called Jianye and renamed Jiankang) as their new capital, renaming the dynasty as the eastern jin dynasty (317–420 AD) since the new capital was located southeast of Luoyang. In the north, the barbarians established numerous kingdoms, leading to the period being known as the sixteen kingdoms. Eventually, the northern wei conquered the rest of the northern states in 386 AD.

Although the Chinese of the eastern jin dynasty (and successive southern dynasties) were well-defended from the northern barbarians by placement of naval fleets along the Yangtze River, there were still various problems faced with building and maintaining military strength. The designation of specific households for military service in the Tuntian system eventually led to a falling out in their social status, causing widespread desertion of troops on many occasions.

Faced with shortage of troop numbers, Jin generals were often sent on campaigns to capture non-Chinese tribesman in the south in order to draft them into the military. The eastern jin dynasty fell not because of external invasion, though, but because the general Liu Yu seized the throne from Emperor Gong of Jin, becoming Emperor Wu of Liu Song (reigned 420–422 AD), starting the Southern And Northern Dynasties period.

The Southern Dynasties

The Jin were supplanted by the Liu Song (420–479 AD), the Southern Qi (479–502 AD), the liang dynasty (502–557 AD), and then the chen dynasty (557–589 AD). Because all of these dynasties had their capital at Jiankang (with the exception of Liang after they moved their capital), they are sometimes grouped together with Eastern Wu and eastern jin dynasty as the Six Dynasties.

The rulers of these short-lived dynasties were generals who seized and then held power for several decades, but were unable to securely pass power of rule onto their heirs to continue their dynasty successfully. Emperor Wu of Liang (502–549 AD), however, was the most notable ruler of his age, being a patron of the arts and of Buddhism. Under the later waning leadership of the chen dynasty, the southern Chinese were unable to resist the military power amassed in the north by Yang Jian, who declared himself Emperor Wen of Sui and invaded the south to reunify China.

Liu Song (420–479 AD)

Liu Song founder Liu Yu was originally a leader of the Army of the Northern Garrison (北府军) that notably won the Battle of Fei River in 383 AD. In 404 AD, he helped suppress Huan Xuan's rebellion, leading to his dominance over the eastern jin dynasty court. In order to gain popularity to take the throne, Liu Yu undertook two northern expeditions against the sixteen kingdoms, capturing Shandong , Henan , and briefly Guanzhong by 416 AD.

He gave up Guanzhong to try to take the throne. Because he believed in a prophecy saying there would be one more emperor after Emperor An of Jin, he deposed Emperor An, and soon afterwards Emperor An's replacement, Emperor Gong of Jin in 420 AD, ending the eastern jin dynasty. Even after crowning himself Emperor Wu of Liu Song, he remained diligently frugal. However, he did not care for education and trusted unsavory people. He felt that the nobility (世族) had too much power, so he tended to appoint the lower classes (寒族) to government positions and gave military power to imperial kinsmen.

Ironically, because the imperial kinsmen stabilized their military power and wished to gain political power, Emperor Wu was afraid they would have thoughts of usurping the throne. Thus, he frequently killed his kinsmen.

After the death of Emperor Wu, his son Emperor Shao of Liu Song ruled briefly before being judged incompetent and killed by government officials led by Xu Xianzhi, replacing him with Emperor Wen of Liu Song, another son of Emperor Wu. Those government officials were soon killed by Emperor Wen. Emperor Wen's reign was a period of relative political stability because of his frugality and good government; the period was called the Yuanjia administration (元嘉之治). In 430 AD, Emperor Wen started a number of northern expeditions against northern wei.

These were ineffective because of insufficient preparations and excessive micromanagement of his generals, decreasing weakening the dynasty. Because of his jealousy of Tan Daoji, a noted leader of the Army of the Northern Garrison, he deprived himself of a formidable general to the great delight of the northern wei. Thus, they were unable to capitalize when northern wei suffered the Wuqi Incident. Starting in 445 AD, northern wei, taking advantage of Liu Song's weakness, made major incursions in the lands between the Yellow and Huai River (modern Shandong , Hebei , and Henan ) and devastating six provinces. Emperor Wen lamented that if Tan were still alive, he would have prevented northern wei advances. From then on, Liu Song was in a weakened state.

Emperor Wen was assassinated by Crown Prince Shao and the second prince Jun in 453 after planning to punish them for consorting with witchcraft. However, they were both defeated by the third prince Jun (spelled with a different character than the aforementioned Jun), who become Emperor Xiaowu of Liu Song. Emperor Xiaowu proved to be licentious and cruel, supposedly committing incest with the daughters of an uncle who had helped him gain the throne; his rivals also claimed he had incest with his mother. This led to two rebellions by the imperial clan, one of which saw him slaughter the inhabitants of Guangling. The following ballad gives an idea of those times:

遥望建康城, Looking toward Jiankang city

小江逆流萦, the little river flows against the current

前见子杀父, in front, one sees sons killing fathers

后见弟杀兄。 and behind, one sees younger brothers killing older brothers

Emperor Xiaowu died naturally in 464 AD and was succeeded by his son, who became Emperor Qianfei of Liu Song. Emperor Qianfei proved to be similar to his father, engaging in both kin slaughter and incest. In a scandalous move, because his sister complained about how it was unfair that men were allowed 10,000 concubines, he gave her 30 handsome young men as lovers. His uncle Liu Yu, the Prince of Xiangdong, whom he called the "Prince of Pigs" for his obesity, eventually assassinated him and became Emperor Ming of Liu Song. Emperor Ming began his reign by killing all the descendants of Emperor Xiaowu, and his suspicious nature resulted in the loss of the provinces north of the Huai River, which were only briefly regained in the other Southern Dynasties.

Emperor Ming's young son became Emperor Houfei of Liu Song. The political situation was volatile. The general Xiao Daocheng slowly gained power and eventually deposed Emperor Houfei in favor of his brother who became Emperor Shun of Liu Song. After defeating his rival general Shen Youzhi, Xiao forced Emperor Shun to yield to throne and crowned himself as Emperor Gao of Southern Qi, ending the liu song dynasty.

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