Early Medieval China and the Makings of Chinese Civilisation

Northern and Southern Dynasties by 560

China’s history ‘between the empires’, the Han and Tang dynasties, was a formative period for Chinese culture civilisation.

The dearth of close studies of the crucial period of Chinese history from the end of the Han (220 AD) to the rise of the Sui dynasty (589 AD) has been recently arrighted by the new work of Mark Edward Lewis entitled China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. Several themes of Chinese history can be discerned – early medieval China was in no way just a ‘dark age’ comparable to the contemparaneous period in Europe, but rather a dynamic era of change. The traditional capital-centred Han-style imperial order broke down before provincial warlords, while China was swamped by invading barbarians and new peoples.

Political Change: The Northern and Southern Dynasties

A defining aspect of the nearly four centuries of dynastic discontinuity was the slow emergence of ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ centres of power. Chiefly, the regions north and south of the Yangzi river,the central conduit running through China. Yet for nearly a century after the official end of the Han this geographical division was not immediately made clear. Cao Cao and his son Cao Pi founded the Wei dynasty in the north, overthrowing the last Han emperor in 220. Two other major kingdoms also rose at this time, the kingdoms of Shu-Han, and Wu. Thus began, until the invasions of the Xiongnu, the so-called ‘Three Kingdoms’ period, as dramatised in the ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’.

The Wei dynasty was to suffer an internal revolution, and was supplanted by the Sima family in 249, who established the Jin dynasty 265. Newly invigorated the Jin was to achieve a temporary unification of the former Han territories, defeating the last kingdom of the Wu in 280. Unity and wholeness, however, was to be but shortlived.

In the early 4th century Xiongnu barbarians from across the former frontier (roughly modern Mongolia) invaded the north, sacking the old Han capitals of Luoyang and Changan (modern Xi’an) in 311 and 316 respectively. The Jin dynasty, in a retreat reminiscent of the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, fled south of the Yangzi, to re-establish themselves as the so-called Eastern Jin.

Here began the ‘northern and southern dynasties’, and the ethnically ‘Chinese’ dynasty would rule until 420 AD, when it was supplanted by the Liu Song; but after this time, until the re-union under the Sui, the story of southern China would be as that of the north – division and disunity reigned as competing dynasties – the Liang, Southern Qi, Chen – sought dominance.

In the north, the movement and introduction of foreign peoples saw the emergence of ‘Sinicising’ dynasties – barbarian dynasties, such as the northern Qin, Liang, and Yan, who originated as non-Chinese (at least non-Han peoples; there was as yet no notion of ‘Chinese’) peoples. There were periodic unifications, under Fu Jian in 381, although the most dominant regime was to be that of the Tuoba Northern Wei dynasty, coming to prominence in the 5th century.

Ruling until the early 6th century, it was to unite northern China for at least a century, with its emperors, notably Emperor Xiaowen, who sought to sinicise the Tuoba, un-Han Chinese stratum that had comprised much of the northern Chinese peoples hitherto. Nonetheless the Northern Wei, too, was not destined to unite China, breaking into different Wei dynasties, succeeded by the ephemeral Northern Qi and Zhou dynasties. Out of such chaos was to emerge Yang Guang, who would unite the north, and then finally successfully re-qoncuer China south of the Yangzi, establishing the Sui dynasty in 589 AD.

Society and Culture: The rise of powerful magnates

China’s disunity, and the lack of a cohesive solution to it for several centuries, was the emergence of prominent landed families. Lewis in his work speaks at length on such a new elite, which had been given time under the Han to slowly flourish, and under the Three Kingdoms force a tripartite division of the old Han empire. Even the overthrow of the Cao Wei dynasty in 249 was by the SIma family., while the Jin dynasty itself succumbed to Liu Song, who established a Song dynasty in the south. In the later centuries progress towards unity was hindered by challenges from powerful families, who staged such rebellions as the Hou Jing rebellion in the south in the 6th century.

More significantly the landed power-base, more prominent in Chinese society south of the Yangzi, came to develop characters of their own. Northern families, originating in barbarian, foreign families, came to be more uncouth and unrefined than the genteel families of the south. In the south, it was said by Yan Zhitui (a 6th century scholar) ‘even those who are poor devote themselves to their outer appearences’; people were more sophisticated of speech, as opposed to the straight-talking, and perceptibly uncultivated, northerners. Moreover the north seems to have laid greater emphasis on kinship, and the south on the closer, nuclear, unit, not heeding the significance shared surnames – as demonstrated by the civil war between the cousins Wang Dao and Wang Dun.

In comparison to the west, it is remarkable that one only sees a largely north-south divide, and none of the multifarious divergences in culture, language, and political independence that was occurring at the same time in western Europe.

Religions New and Old: Buddhism, Daoism and traditional Chinese beliefs

Lastly, Lewis’ book seems to contain another theme, in the religious continuity of east Asia established firmly in China’s medieval era. This was the age of the flourishment of Buddhism. which had only found its way to China in the 2nd century AD, while Daoism and traditional Chinese cosmological thought was renewed and reinterpreted.

Buddhism saw its great age of translation, with such classics as the Lotus Sutra being translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. Buddhist art, too, flourished, with the Longmen caves being established under the Northern Wei. The emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, too, notoriously ended his reign by taking up the monk’s habit. There were periods of persecution in the 5th century, most famously the controversy over whether monks should pay the same obeisance to the emperor – finely rebutted by the leading light Hui-yuan – although Buddhism at this time was largely unabetted in its growth.

Daoism, too, and native Chinese god figures, such as the Great Mother of the West, as well as the Daosit pursuit of immortality – sought in strange rituals and the eating of certain vegetables, continued to find interest in this medieval era. The Buddhist concepts (under the so-called Pure-land school) of Amitabha, the saviour-Buddha, and of immortality, also found resonance in Daoist thought, as evinced in the syncretism in funerary art. Moreover, such modern Chinese festivals as the Ghost festival of the seventh month found their foundation in the medieval period.

The Foundations of Chinese culture and society

Overall, there is reason to glean from Lewis’ study of medieval China that it was a memorable period of growth and consolidation. The political instability it experienced was ultimately to be a means of establishing the imperial concept of rulership. The resulting Sui dynasty managed to re-harness the former imperial territory of the Han dynasty, despite 350 years of disunity. Unlike Western Europe at the same time, the partitioning of the existing imperial power did not prove fatal. Moreover disunity seems to have entrenched Chinese culture, without its falling victim to foreign peoples, such as the Tuoba who ruled the north for many years. The co-existence of the new movement, Buddhism, and native Daoist beliefs, would also help solidify native Chinese rituals and worldviews. Much of what one understands of Chinese Buddhist architecture and custom derive from this medieval period, a time of the consolidation of Chinese civilisation.

Thus the medieval era of China may be seen also as a period of consolidation, despite political disunity, which was fundamental for the survival and continuity of Chinese culture as we understand it today.


  1. Lewis, M.E. China Between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties Harvard University Press 2009