The Five Dynasties

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An introduction to the chaotic period of five dynasties and ten principalities throuh which China suffered between 907-960. Was this period really the Dark Ages?

The period between the fall of the Tang Dynasty (907) and the formation of the Song Dynasty (960) is remembered as one of the Dark Ages of Chinese history. Historians of the period regularly begin their accounts with “Alas!” Then they recount the murders, mayhem and lack of respect for Confucian proprieties that took place.

In the northern half of China, the eponymous five dynasties followed each other with almost indecent haste. There was the Later Liang (907-23), the Later Tang (923-35), the Later Jin (936-947), the Later Han (947-951) and finally the Later Zhou (951-960). In every case, the founder of each of these little dynasties was a military usurper who seized control by force of arms. The founding emperor was then either murdered by a son or succeeded by a son who was then deposed by another military usurper, sooner or later. Only the Later Tang extended to a third emperor. In this time of uproar, Chinese thinkers thought to see the disdain of Heaven and possibly even the end of the world.

The southern half of China was a little more stable, as it passed through a period known as the ‘Ten Principalities.’ None of these principalities was large enough to do much more than protect themselves against foreign incursions but their relative stability did allow some cultural institutions to continue. Sichuan, for example, was quite well protected by its mountains and its principal city of Chengdu became something of a haven for Tang Dynasty poets, thinkers and writers. The Chinese cultural tradition continued in the South, although without much vigour or impulse for change.

However, things were not always as black as they were painted at the time. For example, the disintegration of the Chinese Empire had begun long before the last emperor of the Tang Dynasty and each of the Five Dynasties (Wu-tai) cherished the dream of re-establishing China as it once had been. Further, the limited resources of each state meant that more people were drawn from the middle and working classes to fulfill state roles. This increased social mobility and meant that there was more chance for talent to rise to the top, irrespective of the birth status. Social mobility is always a good thing and Chinese leaders often used institutions such as the imperial examination system to promote it and avoid aristocrats jamming up important state positions. These processes also brought about new thinking in administration of land and in gaining revenue and, although there were many false starts, there were also several innovations in improving management of the land and its resources. Few Dark Ages are really as Dark as they are painted to be.