Emperor Shizong

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Chinese call the period from 906 to 960 the "period of the Five Dynasties" (Wu Tai). This is not quite accurate. It is true that there were five dynasties in rapid succession in North China; but at the same time there were ten other dynasties in South China. The ten southern dynasties, however, are regarded as not legitimate. The south was much better off with its illegitimate dynasties than the north with the legitimate ones. The dynasties in the south (we may dispense with giving their names) were the realms of some of the military governors so often mentioned above. These governors had already become independent at the end of the Tang epoch; they declared themselves kings or emperors and ruled particular provinces in the south, the chief of which covered the territory of the present provinces of Sichuan, Guangdong and Zhejiang. In these territories there was comparative peace and economic prosperity, since they were able to control their own affairs and were no longer dependent on a corrupt central government. They also made great cultural progress, and they did not lose their importance later when they were annexed in the period of the Song dynasty. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“As an example of these states one may mention the small state of Chu in the present province of Hunan. Here, Ma Yin, a former carpenter (died 931), had made himself a king. He controlled some of the main trade routes, set up a clean administration, bought up all merchandise which the merchants brought, but allowed them to export only local products, mainly tea, iron and lead. This regulation gave him a personal income of several millions every year, and in addition fostered the exploitation of the natural resources of this hitherto retarded area.

Also it is important to remember, the rebellion of Huang Chao in the 870s in fact meant the end of the Tang dynasty and the division of China into a number of independent states. Only for reasons of convenience we keep the traditional division into dynasties and have our new period begin with the official end of the Tang dynasty in 906.

Dynasty One: Later Liang: Rulers: Taizu (907–910); Modi (911–923)
Dynasty Two: Later Tang: Rulers: Zhuangzong (923–926); Mingzong (926–934); Feidi (934–935).
Dynasty Three: Later Jin: Rulers: Gaozu (936–944); Chudi (944–947).
Dynasty Four: Later Han: Rulers: Gaozu (947–948); Yindi (948–951).
Dynasty Five: Later Zhou: Rulers: Taizu (951–954); : Rulers: Shizong (954–960).
Liao Dynasty (907–1125) [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Five Dynasties and the Rise of Nomad Empire

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “During the decades following the fall of the Tang, control of China was deeply fragmented. In North China, five successive ruling houses, which were little more than warlord military powers, controlled most of the Yellow River valley region, while in the South, a different array of ten states existed during the period (which is therefore sometimes called the period of “five dynasties and ten kingdoms”). Of the five dynasties in the North, three were controlled by non-Chinese rulers, leaders of different Turkic tribal groups that had harried the northwest regions of China during the Tang, and that benefited from the fall of that dynasty. The strength of the Tang had been such that it had reestablished the great territorial reach of the Han government, an empire stretching north and west in the face of the vibrant tribal cultures of the northern steppe. The disintegration of the Tang made way for these nomadic peoples to coalesce in political alliances that rivaled Chinese states in effective strength. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“During the Five Dynasties era, with no central political force in China to hinder the growth of these configurations at the edge of “Han Chinese” territories, the stage was set for nomadic groups to flourish politically to a degree that had not been seen since the time of the Xiongnu threats to the early Han Dynasty state. Under these circumstances, the first of a series of great nomad empires emerged. This was the empire of the Liao, a dynastic house ruled by leading clans of a tribe knows as the Khitans (Qidan in Chinese). For the next several centuries, the Liao and sophisticated successor states – the Jin state of the Jurchens of Manchuria and the great Mongol empire – pressed China from the north and west with such ferocity that no Chinese government could approach the strength and extent of the Tang. /+/

“Towards the close of the Five Dynasties, the Khitan tribes became so powerful that they wrested from Chinese control significant areas south of the old Great Wall line – including the territory of present-day Beijing. When China was at last reunified in 960 under the Song Dynasty, the pressure of the Liao presence confined the new government to an area substantially smaller than that of the Tang. In the twelfth century, the Khitans were overthrown by a fresh expansion from the north: the Jurchen empire, led by a people from eastern Manchuria. The Jurchens established their own dynasty, the Jin, which was so powerful that it overran the northern half of China proper, including the Yellow River Valley, forcing the Song to cede its entire northern region. A century and a half later, the Jurchens were in turn routed by the explosive expansion of the Mongol empire, which extinguished the Song and founded, in China, the Yuan Dynasty. /+/

“Although the Mongol empire withdrew from China after only about one hundred years, and a Han Chinese period of rule – the Ming Dynasty – ensued, China was once more conquered by a nomadic: the Manchus (ethnically identical with the Jurchens), who ruled China from 1644 until the twentieth century. /+/

“Thus the latter phases of traditional China’s political history are dominated by the presence of strong non-Chinese governments, either bordering China and hemming it in to the north and west, or ruling China directly as occupiers. In terms of the history of the Song, during the earlier phase, known as the Northern Song, the pressure of the Khitan Liao state on the northern steppe restricted the geographical scale of the dynasty’s reach. During the latter phase, the even stronger pressure of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in the north split China Proper in two, with the Song government, known as the Southern Song, in a position closer to a government in exile from its cultural homeland than that of an imperial state.’ /+/

Five Dynasties, Ten Kingdoms, AD 923

Political Dynamics Between North and South During the Five Dynasties

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: ““The southern states were a factor not to be ignored in the calculations of the northern dynasties. Although the southern kingdoms were involved in a confusion of mutual hostilities, any one of them might come to the fore as the ally of Turks or other northern powers. The capital of the first of the five northern dynasties (once more a Liang dynasty, but not to be confused with the Liang dynasty of the south in the sixth century) was, moreover, quite close to the territories of the southern dynasties, close to the site of the present K'ai-feng, in the fertile plain of eastern China with its good means of transport. Militarily the town could not be held, for its one and only defence was the Yellow River. The founder of this Later Liang dynasty, Chu Ch'uan-chung (906), was himself an eastern Chinese and, as will be remembered, a past supporter of the revolutionary Huang Chao, but he had then gone over to the Tang and had gained high military rank. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“His northern frontier remained still more insecure than the southern, for Chu Ch'uan-chung did not succeed in destroying the Turkish general Li K'o-yung; on the contrary, the latter continually widened the range of his power. Fortunately he, too, had an enemy at his back—the Khitan (or Khitan), whose ruler had made himself emperor in 916, and so staked a claim to reign over all China. The first Khitan emperor held a middle course between Chu and Li, and so was able to establish and expand his empire in peace. The striking power of his empire, which from 937 onward was officially called the Liao empire, grew steadily, because the old tribal league of the Khitan was transformed into a centrally commanded military organization.

“To these dangers from abroad threatening the Later Liang state internal troubles were added. Chu Ch'uan-chung's dynasty was one of the three Chinese dynasties that have ever come to power through a popular rising. He himself was of peasant origin, and so were a large part of his subordinates and helpers. Many of them had originally been independent peasant leaders; others had been under Huang Chao. All of them were opposed to the gentry, and the great slaughter of the gentry of the capital, shortly before the beginning of Chu's rule, had been welcomed by Chu and his followers. The gentry therefore would not co-operate with Chu and preferred to join the Turk Li K'o-yung. But Chu could not confidently rely on his old comrades. They were jealous of his success in gaining the place they all coveted, and were ready to join in any independent enterprise as opportunity offered. All of them, moreover, as soon as they were given any administrative post, busied themselves with the acquisition of money and wealth as quickly as possible. These abuses not only ate into the revenues of the state but actually produced a common front between the peasantry and the remnants of the gentry against the upstarts.

Fighting During the Five Dynasties Period

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: ““In 917, after Li K'o-yung's death, the Sha-t'o Turks beat off an attack from the Khitan, and so were safe for a time from the northern menace. They then marched against the Liang state, where a crisis had been produced in 912 after the murder of Chu Ch'uan-chung by one of his sons. The Liang generals saw no reason why they should fight for the dynasty, and all of them went over to the enemy. Thus the "Later Tang dynasty" (923-936) came into power in North China, under the son of Li K'o-yung.

“The dominant element at this time was quite clearly the Chinese gentry, especially in western and central China. The Sha-t'o themselves must have been extraordinarily few in number, probably little more than 100,000 men. Most of them, moreover, were politically passive, being simple soldiers. Only the ruling family and its following played any active part, together with a few families related to it by marriage. The whole state was regarded by the Sha-t'o rulers as a sort of family enterprise, members of the family being placed in the most important positions. As there were not enough of them, they adopted into the family large numbers of aliens of all nationalities. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Military posts were given to faithful members of Li K'o-yung's or his successor's bodyguard, and also to domestic servants and other clients of the family. Thus, while in the Later Liang state elements from the peasantry had risen in the world, some of these neo-gentry reaching the top of the social pyramid in the centuries that followed, in the Sha-t'o state some of its warriors, drawn from the most various peoples, entered the gentry class through their personal relations with the ruler. But in spite of all this the bulk of the officials came once more from the Chinese. These educated Chinese not only succeeded in winning over the rulers themselves to the Chinese cultural ideal, but persuaded them to adopt laws that substantially restricted the privileges of the Sha-t'o and brought advantages only to the Chinese gentry. Consequently all the Chinese historians are enthusiastic about the "Later Tang", and especially about the emperor Ming Ti, who reigned from 927 onward, after the assassination of his predecessor. They also abused the Liang because they were against the gentry.

Later Tang Replaced by Later Chin Dynasty and Challenged by Khitan

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: ““In 936 the Later Tang dynasty gave place to the Later Chin dynasty (936-946), but this involved no change in the structure of the empire. The change of dynasty meant no more than that instead of the son following the father the son-in-law had ascended the throne. It was of more importance that the son-in-law, the Sha-t'o Turk Shih Ching-Tang, succeeded in doing this by allying himself with the Khitan and ceding to them some of the northern provinces. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The youthful successor, however, of the first ruler of this dynasty was soon made to realize that the Khitan regarded the founding of his dynasty as no more than a transition stage on the way to their annexation of the whole of North China. The old Sha-t'o nobles, who had not been sinified in the slightest, suggested a preventive war; the actual court group, strongly sinified, hesitated, but ultimately were unable to avoid war. The war was very quickly decided by several governors in eastern China going over to the Khitan, who had promised them the imperial title. In the course of 946-7 the Khitan occupied the capital and almost the whole of the country. In 947 the Khitan ruler proclaimed himself emperor of the Khitan and the Chinese.

“The Chinese gentry seem to have accepted this situation because a Khitan emperor was just as acceptable to them as a Sha-t'o emperor; but the Sha-t'o were not prepared to submit to the Khitan regime, because under it they would have lost their position of privilege. At the head of this opposition group stood the Sha-t'o general Liu Chih-yuan, who founded the "Eastern Han dynasty" (947-950). He was able to hold out against the Khitan only because in 947 the Khitan emperor died and his son had to leave China and retreat to the north; fighting had broken out between the empress dowager, who had some Chinese support, and the young heir to the throne. The new Turkish dynasty, however, was unable to withstand the internal Chinese resistance. Its founder died in 948, and his son, owing to his youth, was entirely in the hands of a court clique. In his effort to free himself from the tutelage of this group he made a miscalculation, for the men on whom he thought he could depend were largely supporters of the clique. So he lost his throne and his life, and a Chinese general, Kuo Wei, took his place, founding the "Later Zhou dynasty" (951-959).

Later Zhou

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: ““A feature of importance was that in the years of the short-lived "Eastern Han dynasty" a tendency showed itself among the Chinese military leaders to work with the states in the south. The increase in the political influence of the south was due to its economic advance while the north was reduced to economic chaos by the continual heavy fighting, and by the complete irresponsibility of the Sha-t'o ruler in financial matters: several times in this period the whole of the money in the state treasury was handed out to soldiers to prevent them from going over to some enemy or other. On the other hand, there was a tendency in the south for the many neighboring states to amalgamate, and as this process took place close to the frontier of North China the northern states could not passively look on. During the "Eastern Han" period there were wars and risings, which continued in the time of the "Later Zhou". [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“On the whole, the few years of the rule of the second emperor of the "Later Zhou" (954-958) form a bright spot in those dismal fifty-five years. Sociologically regarded, that dynasty formed merely a transition stage on the way to the Song dynasty that now followed: the Chinese gentry ruled under the leadership of an upstart who had risen from the ranks, and they ruled in accordance with the old principles of gentry rule. The Sha-t'o, who had formed the three preceding dynasties, had been so reduced that they were now a tiny minority and no longer counted. This minority had only been able to maintain its position through the special social conditions created by the "Later Liang" dynasty: the Liang, who had come from the lower classes of the population, had driven the gentry into the arms of the Sha-t'o Turks. As soon as the upstarts, in so far as they had not fallen again or been exterminated, had more or less assimilated themselves to the old gentry, and on the other hand the leaders of the Sha-t'o had become numerically too weak, there was a possibility of resuming the old form of rule.

“There had been certain changes in this period. The north-west of China, the region of the old capital Ch'ang-an, had been so ruined by the fighting that had gone on mainly there and farther north, that it was eliminated as a centre of power for a hundred years to come; it had been largely depopulated. The north was under the rule of the Khitan: its trade, which in the past had been with the Huang-ho basin, was now perforce diverted to Peking, which soon became the main centre of the power of the Khitan. The south, particularly the lower Yangtze region and the province of Sichuan, had made economic progress, at least in comparison with the north; consequently it had gained in political importance.

Persecution of Buddhism During the Five Dynasties Period

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: ““One other event of this time has to be mentioned: the great persecution of Buddhism in 955, but not only because 30,336 temples and monasteries were secularized and only some 2,700 with 61,200 monks were left. Although the immediate reason for this action seems to have been that too many men entered the monasteries in order to avoid being taken as soldiers, the effect of the law of 955 was that from now on the Buddhists were put under regulations which clarified once and for ever their position within the framework of a society which had as its aim to define clearly the status of each individual within each social class. Private persons were no more allowed to erect temples and monasteries. The number of temples per district was legally fixed. A person could become monk only if the head of the family gave its permission. He had to be over fifteen years of age and had to know by heart at least one hundred pages of texts. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The state took over the control of the ordinations which could be performed only after a successful examination. Each year a list of all monks had to be submitted to the government in two copies. Monks had to carry six identification cards with them, one of which was the ordination diploma for which a fee had to be paid to the government (already since 755). The diploma was, in the eleventh century, issued by the Bureau of Sacrifices, but the money was collected by the Ministry of Agriculture. It can be regarded as a payment in lieu of land tax. The price was in the eleventh century 130 strings, which represented the value of a small farm or the value of some 17,000 litres of grain. The price of the diploma went up to 220 strings in 1101, and the then government sold 30,000 diplomas per year in order to get still more cash. But as diplomas could be traded, a black market developed, on which they were sold for as little as twenty strings.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons Grand Canal:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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