THREE KINGDOMS (A.D. 220-280), SIX DYNASTIES (A.D. 220 -589) AND JIN DYNASTY (A.D. 265 – 420)


The four centuries after Han dynasty collapsed (the 3rd to 7th centuries) were characterized by disunity and bloodshed and warlord rule. During this time, China was split into areas ruled by the Mongols and other tribes from the north as well as by Chinese, competing warlords fought over territory and the masses found religion in the form of Taoism and Buddhism in what was later called the "Chinese Age of Faith." China was not united again until the Sui Dynasty in A.D. 589. During the Age of Faith, Taoism flourished, Confusion became a philosophy of the wealthy and Buddhism took root among the masses. Taoists and Buddhists fought over souls for salvation. Many Buddhist converts were formerly Taoists. 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. 220-800). In later times, fiction and drama greatly romanticized the reputed chivalry of this period. Unity was restored briefly in the early years of the Jin dynasty (A.D. 265-420), but the Jin could not long contain the invasions of the nomadic peoples. In A.D. 317 the Jin court was forced to flee from Luoyang and reestablished itself at Nanjing to the south. The transfer of the capital coincided with China's political fragmentation into a succession of dynasties that was to last from A.D. 304 to 589. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

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 A.D.) 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. *

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Once before during the period of the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), China had been divided into a number of states, but at least in theory they had been subject to the Zhou dynasty, and none of the Warring States Period had made the claim to be the legitimate ruler of all China. In this period of the "first division" several states claimed to be legitimate rulers, and later Chinese historians tried to decide which of these had "more right" to this claim. At the outset (220-280) there were three kingdoms (Wei, Wu, Shu); then came an unstable reunion during twenty-seven years (280-307) under the rule of the Western Chin. This was followed by a still sharper division between north and south: while a wave of non-Chinese nomad dynasties poured over the north, in the south one Chinese clique after another seized power, so that dynasty followed dynasty until finally, in 580, a united China came again into existence, adopting the culture of the north and the traditions of the gentry. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In some ways, the period from 220 to 580 can be compared with the period of the coincidentally synchronous breakdown of the Roman Empire: in both cases there was no great increase in population, although in China perhaps no over-all decrease in population as in the Roman Empire; decrease occurred, however, in the population of the great Chinese cities, especially of the capital; furthermore we witness, in both empires, a disorganization of the monetary system, i.e. in China the reversal to a predominance of natural economy after some 400 years of money economy. Yet, this period cannot be simply dismissed as a transition period, as was usually done by the older European works on China. The social order of the gentry, whose birth and development inside China we followed, had for the first time to defend itself against views and systems entirely opposed to it; for the Turkish and Mongol peoples who ruled northern China brought with them their traditions of a feudal nobility with privileges of birth and all that they implied. Thus this period, socially regarded, is especially that of the struggle between the Chinese gentry and the northern nobility, the gentry being excluded at first as a direct political factor in the northern and more important part of China. In the south the gentry continued in the old style with a constant struggle between cliques, the only difference being that the class assumed a sort of "colonial" character through the formation of gigantic estates and through association with the merchant class.

Trends, Influences and Pressures During the Early Six Dynasties Era

Warlords in AD 208

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “After the fall of the Han Dynasty (220 A.D.), the supremacy of its central ideology, state Confucianism, came into question. The period of over 350 years which followed the fall of the Han was one of political division and instability, marked by frequent wars and economic hardship. This period, known as the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 A.D.), is China’s closest parallel to Europe’s Dark Ages. For most of the period, North China was under the rule of nomadic tribes which had invaded China from the northern steppe, while South China was ruled by weak Chinese governments, staffed by an elite more interested in personal cultivation than in administration. Shang c. 1700 – 1045 B.C. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The structure of power during the Six Dynasties era was a product of developments during the late Han. With no single central government able to exert control over all of China, power tended to be dispersed among the great clans that had arisen after the Wang Mang interregnum, and gained increasing power as the Han declined. The lack of central authority also made China more vulnerable to incursions by nomadic tribes from outside the Chinese state. This was particularly true in the North /+/

“Although the Xiongnu, who had so threatened the early Han, no longer existed as a tribal confederacy, there were other strong groups that flourished on the northern steppe. Ultimately, a number of kingdoms established in North China during the era of disunity were ruled by tribal invaders who exercised relatively strong control in their regions, while dynasties of the South had Chinese rulers, whose power was limited by the competition of the great clans descended from the later Han. While this division was not absolute, it contributed to a gradual deepening of cultural differences between northern and southern Chinese.” /+/

Turkic and Mongol Influences in 4th Century China

Ping-Ti Ho, the late Chinese-American historian at Columbia University, wrote: “After the To-pa Hsien-pei [a Turkic-Mongol group] founded the Northern Wei dynasty in 386 and reunified all North China thirty years later, peace in general prevailed. The various non-Chinese ethnic groups, which had been uprooted from tribal living within and without the Chin empire since the beginning of the fourth century, were now scattered far and wide and mingled daily with the Chinese population. The continual deportation cumulatively involving a million Chinese peasants and craftsmen to the Northern Wei metropolitan area of Northern Shansi took place simultaneously with efforts to relocate large numbers of Hsien-pei soldiers for settled village farming. Forces of acculturation went on apace throughout the empire, while the cream of the Hsien-pei tribal army was stationed in the six northern headquarters, keeping constant vigilance against the fierce marauding Jou-jan nomads. [Source: Excerpted from Ping-Ti Ho, “In Defense of Sinicization: A Rebuttal of Evelyn Rawski’s “Reenvisioning the Qing,” ” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 123-155 ==] “Contrary to the necessarily gradual process of acculturation at the bottom of the social scale, the ethnic aristocracy was susceptible to Chinese cultural influence rather early. A classic example is Chin Mi-ti (d. 86 B.C.), a captured heir-apparent to a Hsiung-nu Shan-yii (great khan), whose political and personal conduct was so profoundly influenced by Confucian moral precepts that he won contemporary recognition as a paragon of virtue; his descendants chose to die as Han loyalists rather than to serve the usurper Wang Mang [Han-shu, ch. 68}. Since such non-Chinese ethnic groups as the Huns, the Ti, and Ch’iang had been permitted to continue their tribal mode of living inside China since the first century B.C., it is to be expected that in the course of time their great and lesser chiefs knew the Han Chinese language. But I am surprised to learn that practically all of the leaders of various major non Chinese ethnic groups of the early fourth-century were not only well-versed in Chinese classics and history, but also took Chin Mi-ti as their role model. In spite of their inevitable involvement in the scramble for power which led to the rise and fall of a number of non-Chinese dominated regional states, their full acceptance of Confucian morals, norms, and of the Chinese imperial system as the only political orthodoxy indicates a considerably higher degree of sinicization than is usually expected of the “barbarians” [Chin-shu, ch. 101-3, passim}. ==

“Although the dynasty-founding To-pa group was less sinicized than the two other Hsien-pei subnations, they also had to follow the logic of the time: to shift a largely nomadic economy to the Chinese type of sedentary agriculture and to adopt by increasing measure the Chinese imperial system and bureaucracy for better management of the majority Chinese subjects. Besides, culturally and institutionally sinicization would serve as a common denominator with which to homogenize the polyethnic subject population. For all these reasons, the Hsiao-wen emperor from 494 onwards embarked upon a policy of systematic sinicization, which consisted of such measures as the moving of the capital from northern Shansi to Loyang, which was the heart of the agricultural zone, the prohibition of Hsien-pei language, the use of Chinese as the lingua franca, the change of polysyllabic Hsien-pei surnames into monosyllabic Chinese ones, the abandonment of Hsien-pei costumes for Chinese-style attires, and the full-scale adoption of Chinese rituals and legal code. By forcing the Hsien-pei aristocracy to take up permanent residence in the new metropolitan Loyang area and by encouraging their intermarriage with Chinese noble houses, he succeeded in forging a close bond between the biethnic ruling class. All these were parts of longrange planning for a military conquest of the southern Chinese dynasty-the only way to gain legitimacy to supreme rulership of the entire China world. ==

“Emperor Hsiao-wen did not live to see the realization of his ultimate goal. On the contrary, full-scale sinicization in the Loyang area made the Northern Wei court, aristocracy, and officialdom increasingly extravagant and effete. The subsequent negligence and degradation of the Hsien-pei rank and file at the six northern garrison headquarters precipitated a strong nativist revolt that lasted ten years and finally brought down the Northern Wei dynasty in 534. North China was politically divided into an eastern and a western state until the former was annexed by the latter in 577. ==

“Initially, both the eastern and western states had to vie with each other in attracting the broken-up units of the northern garrison forces. While the east ~remained strongly nativist and prejudiced against the majority Chinese population, the west carried out a policy of appeasing the nativist sentiments of the traditional Hsien-pei elements, on the one hand, and of generating a sense of Hsien-pei-Chinese solidarity, on the other. At the bottom, the “privilege” of military service was extended to propertied Chinese farmers, the backbone of the newly ‘created Chinese fu-ping army, so as to broaden the social and ethnic base of armed forces. At the top, the policy of power-sharing and intermarriage between the Hsien-pei and Chinese aristocracy was so successful that it was precisely this so-called Kuan-Lung (Shensi-Kansu) bloc that finally reunified all China and founded the Sui-T’ang multiethnic empires. ==

Weird, Cruel Leaders During the Six Dynasties Period

King Fu Sheng (ruled A.D. 335–357) — an emperor of the Di-led Former Qin dynasty of China — made it a crime to say ‘without’. Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: Legend has it that that King Fu Sheng’s eye was pecked out when he tried to steal an eagle’s eggs. That might be a myth, but the man was definitely blind in one eye, and he was a bit sensitive about it. He was so paranoid that he believed anyone who said the words “missing,” “lacking,” “less,” or “without” must be mocking him—so he made it a crime. Anyone who uttered one of those words in his presence was sentenced to death. “Murder was how Fu Sheng solved most of his problems. His astrologers advised him that if he didn’t change his ways, his reign would be short, but he didn’t really listen. Before his two years as king were up, he’d executed his wife, her father, and her uncle, and he was working his way through his own family. “When his cousins found out he was planning on taking them on next, they attacked his castle, pulled him out of his room, and had him dragged to death by a horse. For all of his efforts to stop people from making fun of him, Fu Sheng went down in history as the “One-Eyed Tyrant.” [Source: Mark Oliver. Listverse, January 12, 2017]

Emperor Houfei (ruled A.D. 463 – 477) — the latter deposed Emperor of Liu Song — used his general’s belly for target practice. Oliver wrote: Emperor Houfei was nine years old when he ascended to the throne. Nine, as the Chinese learned, is a bit too young to be given absolute power over an empire—and Emperor Houfei went mad with power in the way only a child could. He managed to survive for five years before people finally got fed up and killed him. The beginning of the end came when he saw his general, Xiao Daocheng, sleeping naked. Houfei was captivated by the round bulge of Xiao’s massive belly, and he had a stroke of inspiration. He pinned a target to the general’s gut and used it as target practice. He would have used real arrows, but his attendant managed to convince him to use blunted ones. If he kept his general alive, his attendant told him, he could shoot arrows at his belly every day. Xiao got his revenge. He sent a man into Houfei’s room while he was sleeping to cut off his head. Xiao then took over the empire himself.

Emperor Wenxuan of (Northern) Qi (ruled A.D. 526–559) walked around naked wearing makeup. Oliver wrote: Wenxuan’s reign started off well, but as time went on, he started devoting less and less time to managing the state and more and more time to getting blindingly drunk. It didn’t take long before he was nearly perpetually drunk, and he completely lost control. He had a bad habit of taking all of his clothes off, putting makeup on his face, and wandering into his noble’s bedrooms. He’d even wander around naked in the winter. “His worst habit, though, was getting drunk and killing people. One time, he stopped a woman on the street and asked, “What is the Son of Heaven like?” When she answered, “He is so crazy that he really cannot be considered a Son of Heaven,” he beheaded her. “This wasn’t an isolated event. He drunkenly killed people so often that whenever he got drunk, his minister would bring him a condemned prisoner to murder so that he could get it out of his system before he took it out on the innocent.

Three Kingdoms (A.D. 200-280)

When the last emperor of the Han period abdicate in favour of Ts'ao P'ei and the Wei dynasty began, China was in no way a unified realm. Almost immediately, in 221, two other army commanders, who had long been independent, declared themselves emperors.

The Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220–65) launched a four-century period of warfare among relatively states and invasions by the Mongol-like Xiongnu. After the Han period ended in A.D. 220, the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu) contended for power while the Xiongnu, and other nomadic tribes raided northern China from the north and west. In this tumultuous era, China developed rapidly culturally. Buddhism, which had earlier entered from India, and Taoism, a homegrown cult, grew and challenged Confucianism. Indian advances in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and architecture made their way to China. Art, particularly figure painting and decoration of Buddhist grottoes, flourished in places like Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu) had overlapping reigns during the period A.D. 220-80. Three Kingdoms (220–265) rulers: 1) WEI: Wendi (220–226); Mingdi (227–239); Shaodi (240–253); Gao Gui Xiang Gong (254–260); Yuandi (260–264). 2) WU: Wudi (222–252); Feidi (252–258); Jingdi (258–264); Modi (264–280). 3) SHU HAN: Xuande (221–223); Hou Zhu (23–263); [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Emperor Chao Lieh (Liu Pei, A.D. 211-223) had a reputation for cruelty. Once the keeper of the crown placed his coat on the Emperor Chao to keep him warm after he fell asleep in a drunken stupor. When the Emperor awoke he decreed that the crown keeper had overstepped his authority and had him executed.

China at the Time of the Three Kingdoms Period

Three Kingdoms

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “To throw light on the scale of events, we need to have figures of population. There are no figures for the years around A.D. 220, and we must make do with those of 140; but in order to show the relative strength of the three states it is the ratio between the figures that matters. In 140 the regions which later belonged to Wei had roughly 29,000,000 inhabitants; those later belonging to Wu had 11,700,000; those which belonged later to Shu had a bare 7,500,000. (The figures take no account of the primitive native population, which was not yet included in the taxation lists.) The Xiongnu formed only a small part of the population, as there were only the nineteen tribes which had abandoned one of the parts, already reduced, of the Xiongnu empire. The whole Xiongnu empire may never have counted more than some 3,000,000. At the time when the population of what became the Wei territory totalled 29,000,000 the capital with its immediate environment had over a million inhabitants. The figure is exclusive of most of the officials and soldiers, as these were taxable in their homes and so were counted there. It is clear that this was a disproportionate concentration round the capital. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“It was at this time that both South and North China felt the influence of Buddhism, which until A.D. 220 had no more real effect on China than had, for instance, the penetration of European civilization between 1580 and 1842. Buddhism offered new notions, new ideals, foreign science, and many other elements of culture, with which the old Chinese philosophy and science had to contend. At the same time there came with Buddhism the first direct knowledge of the great civilized countries west of China. Until then China had regarded herself as the only existing civilized country, and all other countries had been regarded as barbaric, for a civilized country was then taken to mean a country with urban industrial crafts and agriculture. In our present period, however, China's relations with the Middle East and with southern Asia were so close that the existence of civilized countries outside China had to be admitted. Consequently, when alien dynasties ruled in northern China and a new high civilization came into existence there, it was impossible to speak of its rulers as barbarians any longer. Even the theory that the Chinese emperor was the Son of Heaven and enthroned at the centre of the world was no longer tenable. Thus a vast widening of China's intellectual horizon took place.

“Economically, our present period witnessed an adjustment in South China between the Chinese way of life, which had penetrated from the north, and that of the natives of the south. Large groups of Chinese had to turn over from wheat culture in dry fields to rice culture in wet fields, and from field culture to market gardening. In North China the conflict went on between Chinese agriculture and the cattle breeding of Central Asia. Was the will of the ruler to prevail and North China to become a country of pasturage, or was the country to keep to the agrarian tradition of the people under this rule? The Turkish and Mongol conquerors had recently given up their old supplementary agriculture and had turned into pure nomads, obtaining the agricultural produce they needed by raiding or trade. The conquerors of North China were now faced with a different question: if they were to remain nomads, they must either drive the peasants into the south, or make them into slave herdsmen, or exterminate them. There was one more possibility: they might install themselves as a ruling upper class, as nobles over the subjugated native peasants. The same question was faced much later by the Mongols, and at first they answered it differently from the peoples of our present period. Only by attention to this problem shall we be in a position to explain why the rule of the Turkish peoples did not last, why these peoples were gradually absorbed and disappeared.


Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: In the south-west of China, in the present province of Sichuan, the Shu dynasty was founded in this way, and in the south-east, in the region of the present Nanking, the Wu dynasty. The situation of the southern kingdom of Shu (221-263) corresponded more or less to that of the Chungking regime in the Second World War. West of it the high Tibetan mountains towered up; there was very little reason to fear any major attack from that direction. In the north and east the realm was also protected by difficult mountain country. The south lay relatively open, but at that time there were few Chinese living there, but only natives with a relatively low civilization. The kingdom could only be seriously attacked from two corners—through the north-west, where there was a negotiable plateau, between the Qin-ling mountains in the north and the Tibetan mountains in the west, a plateau inhabited by fairly highly developed Tibetan tribes; and secondly through the south-east corner, where it would be possible to penetrate up the Yangtze. There was in fact incessant fighting at both these dangerous corners. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Economically, Shu was not in a bad position. The country had long been part of the Chinese wheat lands, and had a fairly large Chinese peasant population in the well irrigated plain of Ch'engtu. There was also a wealthy merchant class, supplying grain to the surrounding mountain peoples and buying medicaments and other profitable Tibetan products. And there were trade routes from here through the present province of Yunnan to India.

“Shu's difficulty was that its population was not large enough to be able to stand against the northern State of Wei; moreover, it was difficult to carry out an offensive from Shu, though the country could defend itself well. The first attempt to find a remedy was a campaign against the native tribes of the present Yunnan. The purpose of this was to secure manpower for the army and also slaves for sale; for the south-west had for centuries been a main source for traffic in slaves. Finally it was hoped to gain control over the trade to India. All these things were intended to strengthen Shu internally, but in spite of certain military successes they produced no practical result, as the Chinese were unable in the long run to endure the climate or to hold out against the guerrilla tactics of the natives. Shu tried to buy the assistance of the Tibetans and with their aid to carry out a decisive attack on Wei, whose dynastic legitimacy was not recognized by Shu. The ruler of Shu claimed to be a member of the imperial family of the deposed Han dynasty, and therefore to be the rightful, legitimate ruler over China. His descent, however, was a little doubtful, and in any case it depended on a link far back in the past. Against this the Wei of the north declared that the last ruler of the Han dynasty had handed over to them with all due form the seals of the state and therewith the imperial prerogative. The controversy was of no great practical importance, but it played a big part in the Chinese Confucianist school until the twelfth century, and contributed largely to a revision of the old conceptions of legitimacy.

“The political plans of Shu were well considered and far-seeing. They were evolved by the premier, a man from Shandong named Chu-ko Liang; for the ruler died in 226 and his successor was still a child. But Chu-ko Liang lived only for a further eight years, and after his death in 234 the decline of Shu began. Its political leaders no longer had a sense of what was possible. Thus Wei inflicted several defeats on Shu, and finally subjugated it in 263.


Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The situation of the state of Wu was much less favourable than that of Shu, though this second southern kingdom lasted from 221 to 280. Its country consisted of marshy, water-logged plains, or mountains with narrow valleys. Here Tai peoples had long cultivated their rice, while in the mountains Yao tribes lived by hunting and by simple agriculture. Peasants immigrating from the north found that their wheat and pulse did not thrive here, and slowly they had to gain familiarity with rice cultivation. They were also compelled to give up their sheep and cattle and in their place to breed pigs and water buffaloes, as was done by the former inhabitants of the country. The lower class of the population was mainly non-Chinese; above it was an upper class of Chinese, at first relatively small, consisting of officials, soldiers, and merchants in a few towns and administrative centres. The country was poor, and its only important economic asset was the trade in metals, timber, and other southern products; soon there came also a growing overseas trade with India and the Middle East, bringing revenues to the state in so far as the goods were re-exported from Wu to the north. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Wu never attempted to conquer the whole of China, but endeavoured to consolidate its own difficult territory with a view to building up a state on a firm foundation. In general, Wu played mainly a passive part in the incessant struggles between the three kingdoms, though it was active in diplomacy. The Wu kingdom entered into relations with a man who in 232 had gained control of the present South Manchuria and shortly afterwards assumed the title of king. This new ruler of "Yen", as he called his kingdom, had determined to attack the Wei dynasty, and hoped, by putting pressure on it in association with Wu, to overrun Wei from north and south. Wei answered this plan very effectively by recourse to diplomacy and it began by making Wu believe that Wu had reason to fear an attack from its western neighbor Shu. A mission was also dispatched from Wei to negotiate with Japan. Japan was then emerging from its stone age and introducing metals; there were countless small principalities and states, of which the state of Yamato, then ruled by a queen, was the most powerful. Yamato had certain interests in Korea, where it already ruled a small coastal strip in the east. Wei offered Yamato the prospect of gaining the whole of Korea if it would turn against the state of Yen in South Manchuria. Wu, too, had turned to Japan, but the negotiations came to nothing, since Wu, as an ally of Yen, had nothing to offer. The queen of Yamato accordingly sent a mission to Wei; she had already decided in favour of that state. Thus Wei was able to embark on war against Yen, which it annihilated in 237. This wrecked Wu's diplomatic projects, and no more was heard of any ambitious plans of the kingdom of Wu.

“The two southern states had a common characteristic: both were condottiere states, not built up from their own population but conquered by generals from the north and ruled for a time by those generals and their northern troops. Natives gradually entered these northern armies and reduced their percentage of northerners, but a gulf remained between the native population, including its gentry, and the alien military rulers. This reduced the striking power of the southern states.

“On the other hand, this period had its positive element. For the first time there was an emperor in south China, with all the organization that implied. A capital full of officials, eunuchs, and all the satellites of an imperial court provided incentives to economic advance, because it represented a huge market. The peasants around it were able to increase their sales and grew prosperous. The increased demand resulted in an increase of tillage and a thriving trade. Soon the transport problem had to be faced, as had happened long ago in the north, and new means of transport, especially ships, were provided, and new trade routes opened which were to last far longer than the three kingdoms; on the other hand, the costs of transport involved fresh taxation burdens for the population. The skilled staff needed for the business of administration came into the new capital from the surrounding districts, for the conquerors and new rulers of the territory of the two southern dynasties had brought with them from the north only uneducated soldiers and almost equally uneducated officers. The influx of scholars and administrators into the chief cities produced cultural and economic centres in the south, a circumstance of great importance to China's later development.


When the last emperor of the Han period had to abdicate in favour of Ts'ao P'ei, the Wei dynasty began. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The situation in the north, in the state of Wei (220-265) was anything but rosy. Wei ruled what at that time were the most important and richest regions of China, the plain of Shaanxi in the west and the great plain east of Loyang, the two most thickly populated areas of China. But the events at the end of the Han period had inflicted great economic injury on the country. The southern and south-western parts of the Han empire had been lost, and though parts of Central Asia still gave allegiance to Wei, these, as in the past, were economically more of a burden than an asset, because they called for incessant expenditure. At least the trade caravans were able to travel undisturbed from and to China through Turkestan. Moreover, the Wei kingdom, although much smaller than the empire of the Han, maintained a completely staffed court at great expense, because the rulers, claiming to rule the whole of China, felt bound to display more magnificence than the rulers of the southern dynasties. They had also to reward the nineteen tribes of the Xiongnu in the north for their military aid, not only with cessions of land but with payments of money. Finally, they would not disarm but maintained great armies for the continual fighting against the southern states. The Wei dynasty did not succeed, however, in closely subordinating the various army commanders to the central government. Thus the commanders, in collusion with groups of the gentry, were able to enrich themselves and to secure regional power. The inadequate strength of the central government of Wei was further undermined by the rivalries among the dominant gentry. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The imperial family (Ts'ao Pei, who reigned from 220 to 226, had taken as emperor the name of Wen-di) was descended from one of the groups of great landowners that had formed in the Eastern Han period. The nucleus of that group was a family named Ts'ui, of which there is mention from the Han period onward and which maintained its power down to the tenth century; but it remained in the background and at first held entirely aloof from direct intervention in high policy. Another family belonging to this group was the Hsia-hou family which was closely united to the family of Wen-di by adoption; and very soon there was also the Ssu-ma family. Quite naturally Wen-di, as soon as he came into power, made provision for the members of these powerful families, for only thanks to their support had he been able to ascend the throne and to maintain his hold on the throne. Thus we find many members of the Hsia-hou and Ssu-ma families in government positions. The Ssu-ma family especially showed great activity, and at the end of Wen-di's reign their power had so grown that a certain Ssu-ma I was in control of the government, while the new emperor Ming Ti (227-233) was completely powerless. This virtually sealed the fate of the Wei dynasty, so far as the dynastic family was concerned. The next emperor was installed and deposed by the Ssu-ma family; dissensions arose within the ruling family, leading to members of the family assassinating one another. In 264 a member of the Ssu-ma family declared himself king; when he died and was succeeded by his son Ssu-ma Yen, the latter, in 265, staged a formal act of renunciation of the throne of the Wei dynasty and made himself the first ruler of the new Chin dynasty. There is nothing to gain by detailing all the intrigues that led up to this event: they all took place in the immediate environment of the court and in no way affected the people, except that every item of expenditure, including all the bribery, had to come out of the taxes paid by the people.

“With such a situation at court, with the bad economic situation in the country, and with the continual fighting against the two southern states, there could be no question of any far-reaching foreign policy. Parts of eastern Turkestan still showed some measure of allegiance to Wei, but only because at the time it had no stronger opponent. The Xiongnu beyond the frontier were suffering from a period of depression which was at the same time a period of reconstruction. They were beginning slowly to form together with Mongol elements a new unit, the Juan-juan, but at this time were still politically inactive. The nineteen tribes within north China held more and more closely together as militarily organized nomads, but did not yet represent a military power and remained loyal to the Wei. The only important element of trouble seems to have been furnished by the Xianbei (Hsien-pi) tribes, who had joined with Wu-huan tribes and apparently also with vestiges of the Xiongnu in eastern Mongolia, and who made numerous raids over the frontier into the Wei empire. The state of Yen, in southern Manchuria, had already been destroyed by Wei in 238 thanks to Wei's good relations with Japan. Loose diplomatic relations were maintained with Japan in the period that followed; in that period many elements of Chinese civilization found their way into Japan and there, together with settlers from many parts of China, helped to transform the culture of ancient Japan.

Wei Temple of Heaven

In 2021, Archaeology magazine reported: For thousands of years, Chinese emperors ensured good harvests for their people by practicing a state religion centered on the worship of a supreme God of Heaven. Archaeologists have identified many imperial temples associated with this tradition, but, until recently, where the emperors of the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386–535) conducted rituals was unknown. Originally nomadic tribal leaders, the Northern Wei emperors came to rule much of northern China. Now, a team led by archaeologist Wenping Zhang of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region’s Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology has unearthed a temple complex where they believe four Northern Wei emperors made regular offerings to the God of Heaven in the late fifth century A.D. [Source: Ling Xin, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2021]

“Located in the Yin mountain range north of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia’s capital city, the temple site was first discovered in the 1980s, but its significance was overlooked. “It was assumed to be either a temporary imperial palace or a beacon tower that was part of the Great Wall,” says Zhang. While reviewing aerial photos of the site taken during winter, Zhang noticed that its circular shape, which was outlined by the snow, bore a striking resemblance to that of the thirteenth-century Temple of Heaven in Beijing. While Zhang’s excavation shows that Northern Wei emperors adopted many of the trappings of Chinese religious tradition, faunal remains unearthed at the site indicate that Northern Wei rituals also involved sacrificing sheep and horses, a common nomadic practice.

JIN DYNASTY (A.D. 265 – 420)

Unity was restored briefly in the early years of the Jin (Chin) dynasty (A.D. 265-420), but the Jin could not long contain the invasions of the nomadic peoples. In A.D. 317 the Jin court was forced to flee from Luoyang and reestablished itself at Nanjing to the south. The transfer of the capital coincided with China's political fragmentation into a succession of dynasties that was to last from A.D. 304 to 589.

From the A.D. 4th century on, a series of northern dynasties was set up by the invaders, while several southern dynasties succeeded one another in the Yangtze Valley, with their capital at Nanjing (Nanking). Buddhism flourished during this period, and the arts and sciences were developed. Feudalism partly revived under the Jin Tsin dynasty with the decay of central authority. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Jin Dynasty is often broken down into two phases—the Western (Xi) Jin (A.D. 265-317) and the Eastern (Dong) Jin (A.D. 317 - 420). The Dong Jin is considered one of the Six Dynasties. Western Jin Dynasty (265–317) Rulers: Wudi (265–289); Huidi (290–306); Huaidi (307–312); Mindi (313–316). Eastern Jin was comprised of Sixteen Kingdoms

Rise of the Jin Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The change of dynasty in the state of Wei did not bring any turn in China's internal history. Sima Yin, who as emperor was called Wu Di (265-289), had come to the throne with the aid of his clique and his extraordinarily large and widely ramified family. To these he had to give offices as reward. There began at court once more the same spectacle as in the past, except that princes of the new imperial family now played a greater part than under the Wei dynasty, whose ruling house had consisted of a small family. It was now customary, in spite of the abolition of the feudal system, for the imperial princes to receive large regions to administer, the fiscal revenues of which represented their income. The princes were not, however, to exercise full authority in the style of the former feudal lords: their courts were full of imperial control officials. In the event of war it was their duty to come forward, like other governors, with an army in support of the central government. The various Jin princes succeeded, however, in making other governors, beyond the frontiers of their regions, dependent on them. Also, they collected armies of their own independently of the central government and used those armies to pursue personal policies. The members of the families allied with the ruling house, for their part, did all they could to extend their own power. Thus the first ruler of the dynasty was tossed to and fro between the conflicting interests and was himself powerless. But though intrigue was piled on intrigue, the ruler who, of course, himself had come to the head of the state by means of intrigues, was more watchful than the rulers of the Wei dynasty had been, and by shrewd counter-measures he repeatedly succeeded in playing off one party against another, so that the dynasty remained in power. Numerous widespread and furious risings nevertheless took place, usually led by princes. Thus during this period the history of the dynasty was of an extraordinarily dismal character. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In spite of this, the Jin troops succeeded in overthrowing the second southern state, that of Wu (A.D. 280), and in so restoring the unity of the empire, the Shu realm having been already conquered by the Wei. After the destruction of Wu there remained no external enemy that represented a potential danger, so that a general disarmament was decreed (280) in order to restore a healthy economic and financial situation. This disarmament applied, of course, to the troops directly under the orders of the dynasty, namely the troops of the court and the capital and the imperial troops in the provinces. Disarmament could not, however, be carried out in the princes' regions, as the princes declared that they needed personal guards. The dismissal of the troops was accompanied by a decree ordering the surrender of arms. It may be assumed that the government proposed to mint money with the metal of the weapons surrendered, for coin (the old coin of the Wei dynasty) had become very scarce; as we indicated previously, money had largely been replaced by goods so that, for instance, grain and silks were used for the payment of salaries. China, from c. 200 A.D. on until the eighth century, remained in a period of such partial "natural economy".

“Naturally the decree for the surrender of weapons remained a dead-letter. The discharged soldiers kept their weapons at first and then preferred to sell them. A large part of them was acquired by the Xiongnu and the Xianbei in the north of China; apparently they usually gave up land in return. In this way many Chinese soldiers, though not all by any means, went as peasants to the regions in the north of China and beyond the frontier. They were glad to do so, for the Xiongnu and the Xianbei had not the efficient administration and rigid tax collection of the Chinese; and above all, they had no great landowners who could have organized the collection of taxes. For their part, the Xiongnu and the Xianbei had no reason to regret this immigration of peasants, who could provide them with the farm produce they needed. And at the same time they were receiving from them large quantities of the most modern weapons.

“This ineffective disarmament was undoubtedly the most pregnant event of the period of the western Jin dynasty. The measure was intended to save the cost of maintaining the soldiers and to bring them back to the land as peasants (and taxpayers); but the discharged men were not given land by the government. The disarmament achieved nothing, not even the desired increase in the money in circulation; what did happen was that the central government lost all practical power, while the military strength both of the dangerous princes within the country and also of the frontier people was increased. The results of these mistaken measures became evident at once and compelled the government to arm anew.

Frontier Peoples — Toba, Tibetans, Xianbei and Xiongnu — During the Jin Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Four groups of frontier peoples drew more or less advantage from the demobilization law—the people of the Toba, the Tibetans, and the Xianbei in the north, and the nineteen tribes of the Xiongnu within the frontiers of the empire. In the course of time all sorts of complicated relations developed among those ascending peoples as well as between them and the Chinese. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The Tibetans fell apart into two sub-groups, the Qiang and the Ti. Both names appeared repeatedly as political conceptions, but the Tibetans, like all other state-forming groups of peoples, sheltered in their realms countless alien elements. In the course of the third and second centuries B.C. the group of the Ti, mainly living in the territory of the present Sichuan, had mixed extensively with remains of the Yue-chih; the others, the Qiang, were northern Tibetans or so-called Tanguts; that is to say, they contained Turkish and Mongol elements. In A.D. 296 there began a great rising of the Ti, whose leader Ch'i Wan-nien took on the title emperor. The Qiang rose with them, but it was not until later, from 312, that they pursued an independent policy. The Ti State, however, though it had a second emperor, very soon lost importance, so that we shall be occupied solely with the Qiang.

“As the tribal structure of Tibetan groups was always weak and as leadership developed among them only in times of war, their states always show a military rather than a tribal structure, and the continuation of these states depended strongly upon the personal qualities of their leaders. Incidentally, Tibetans fundamentally were sheep-breeders and not horse-breeders and, therefore, they always showed inclination to incorporate infantry into their armies. Thus, Tibetan states differed strongly from the aristocratically organized "Turkish" states as well as from the tribal, non-aristocratic "Mongol" states of that period.

“The Xianbei, according to our present knowledge, were under "Mongol" leadership, i.e. we believe that the language of the leading group belonged to the family of Mongolian languages and that their culture belonged to the type described above as "Northern culture". They had, in addition, a strong admixture of Hunnic tribes. Throughout the period during which they played a part in history, they never succeeded in forming any great political unit, in strong contrast to the Huns, who excelled in state formation. The separate groups of the Xianbei pursued a policy of their own; very frequently Xianbei fought each other, and they never submitted to a common leadership. Thus their history is entirely that of small groups. As early as the Wei period there had been small-scale conflicts with the Xianbei tribes, and at times the tribes had some success. The campaigns of the Xianbei against North China now increased, and in the course of them the various tribes formed firmer groupings, among which the Mu-jung tribes played a leading part. In 281, the year after the demobilization law, this group marched south into China, and occupied the region round Peking. After fierce fighting, in which the Mu-jung section suffered heavy losses, a treaty was signed in 289, under which the Mu-jung tribe of the Xianbei recognized Chinese overlordship. The Mu-jung were driven to this step mainly because they had been continually attacked from southern Manchuria by another Xianbei tribe, the Yu-wen, the tribe most closely related to them. The Mu-jung made use of the period of their so-called subjection to organize their community in North China.

“South of the Toba were the nineteen tribes of the Xiongnu or Huns, as we are now calling them. Their leader in A.D. 287, Liu Yuan, was one of the principal personages of this period. His name is purely Chinese, but he was descended from the Hun shan-yu, from the family and line of Mao Tun. His membership of that long-famous noble line and old ruling family of Huns gave him a prestige which he increased by his great organizing ability.


Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Toba (T'o-pa) formed a small group in the north of the present province of Shanxi, north of the city of Tat'ungfu, and they were about to develop their small state. They were primarily of Turkish origin, but had absorbed many tribes of the older Xiongnu and the Xianbei. In considering the ethnical relationships of all these northern peoples we must rid ourselves of our present-day notions of national unity. Among the Toba there were many Turkish tribes, but also Mongols, and probably a Tungus tribe, as well as perhaps others whom we cannot yet analyse. These tribes may even have spoken different languages, much as later not only Mongol but also Turkish was spoken in the Mongol empire. The political units they formed were tribal unions, not national states. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Such a union or federation can be conceived of, structurally, as a cone. At the top point of the cone there was the person of the ruler of the federation. He was a member of the leading family or clan of the leading tribe (the two top layers of the cone). If we speak of the Toba as of Turkish stock, we mean that according to our present knowledge, this leading tribe (a) spoke a language belonging to the Turkish language family and (b) exhibited a pattern of culture which belonged to the type called above in Chapter One as "North-western Culture". The next layer of the cone represented the "inner circle of tribes", i.e. such tribes as had joined with the leading tribe at an early moment. The leading family of the leading tribe often took their wives from the leading families of the "inner tribes", and these leaders served as advisors and councillors to the leader of the federation. The next lower layer consisted of the "outer tribes", i.e. tribes which had joined the federation only later, often under strong pressure; their number was always much larger than the number of the "inner tribes", but their political influence was much weaker. Every layer below that of the "outer tribes" was regarded as inferior and more or less "unfree". There was many a tribe which, as a tribe, had to serve a free tribe; and there were others who, as tribes, had to serve the whole federation. In addition, there were individuals who had quit or had been forced to quit their tribe or their home and had joined the federation leader as his personal "bondsmen"; further, there were individual slaves and, finally, there were the large masses of agriculturists who had been conquered by the federation. When such a federation was dissolved, by defeat or inner dissent, individual tribes or groups of tribes could join a new federation or could resume independent life.

“Typically, such federations exhibited two tendencies. In the case of the Xiongnu we indicated already previously that the leader of the federation repeatedly attempted to build up a kind of bureaucratic system, using his bondsmen as a nucleus. A second tendency was to replace the original tribal leaders by members of the family of the federation leader. If this initial step, usually first taken when "outer tribes" were incorporated, was successful, a reorganization was attempted: instead of using tribal units in war, military units on the basis of "Groups of Hundred", "Groups of Thousand", etc., were created and the original tribes were dissolved into military regiments. In the course of time, and especially at the time of the dissolution of a federation, these military units had gained social coherence and appeared to be tribes again; we are probably correct in assuming that all "tribes" which we find from this time on were already "secondary" tribes of this type. A secondary tribe often took its name from its leader, but it could also revive an earlier "primary tribe" name.

“The Toba represented a good example for this "cone" structure of pastoral society. Also the Xiongnu of this time seem to have had a similar structure. Incidentally, we will from now on call the Xiongnu "Huns" because Chinese sources begin to call them "Hu", a term which also had a more general meaning (all non-Chinese in the north and west of China) as well as a more special meaning (non-Chinese in Central Asia and India).

Migration of Chinese During the Jin Period

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The struggles during the Jin Dynasty raged round the capital, for each of the princes wanted to secure full power and to become emperor. Thus the border regions remained relatively undisturbed. Their population suffered much less from the warfare than the unfortunate people in the neighborhood of the central government. For this reason there took place a mass migration of Chinese from the centre of the empire to its periphery. This process, together with the shifting of the frontier peoples, is one of the most important events of that epoch. A great number of Chinese migrated especially into the present province of Gansu, where a governor who had originally been sent there to fight the Xianbei had created a sort of paradise by his good administration and maintenance of peace. The territory ruled by this Chinese, first as governor and then in increasing independence, was surrounded by Xianbei, Tibetans, and other peoples, but thanks to the great immigration of Chinese and to its situation on the main caravan route to Turkestan, it was able to hold its own, to expand, and to become prosperous. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Other groups of Chinese peasants migrated southward into the territories of the former state of Wu. A Chinese prince of the house of the Jin was ruling there, in the present Nanking. His purpose was to organize that territory, and then to intervene in the struggles of the other princes. We shall meet him again at the beginning of the Hun rule over North China in 317, as founder and emperor of the first south Chinese dynasty, which was at once involved in the usual internal and external struggles. For the moment, however, the southern region was relatively at peace, and was accordingly attracting settlers.

“Finally, many Chinese migrated northward, into the territories of the frontier peoples, not only of the Xianbei but especially of the Huns. These alien peoples, although in the official Chinese view they were still barbarians, at least maintained peace in the territories they ruled, and they left in peace the peasants and craftsmen who came to them, even while their own armies were involved in fighting inside China. Not only peasants and craftsmen came to the north but more and more educated persons. Members of families of the gentry that had suffered from the fighting, people who had lost their influence in China, were welcomed by the Huns and appointed teachers and political advisers of the Hun nobility.

Small States During the Eastern Jin Dynasty

The Eastern (Dong) Jin (A.D. 317 - 420) was comprised of Sixteen Kingdoms and is considered one of the Six Dynasties. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: These states may be divided from the economic point of view into two groups—trading states and warrior states; sociologically they also fall into two groups, tribal states and military states. The small states in the west, in Gansu (the Later Liang and the Western, Northern, and Southern Liang), were trading states: they lived on the earnings of transit trade with Turkestan. The eastern states were warrior states, in which an army commander ruled by means of an armed group of non-Chinese and exploited an agricultural population. It is only logical that such states should be short-lived, as in fact they all were. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Sociologically regarded, during this period only the Southern and Northern Liang were still tribal states. In addition to these came the young Toba realm, which began in 385 but of which mention has not yet been made. The basis of that state was the tribe, not the family or the individual; after its political disintegration the separate tribes remained in existence. The other states of the east, however, were military states, made up of individuals with no tribal allegiance but subject to a military commandant. But where there is no tribal association, after the political downfall of a state founded by ethnical groups, those groups sooner or later disappear as such. We see this in the years immediately following Fu Chien's collapse: the Tibetan ethnical group to which he himself belonged disappeared entirely from the historical scene. The two Tibetan groups that outlasted him, also forming military states and not tribal states, similarly came to an end shortly afterwards for all time. The Xianbei groups in the various fragments of the empire, with the exception of the petty states in Gansu, also continued, only as tribal fragments led by a few old ruling families. They, too, after brief and undistinguished military rule, came to an end; they disappeared so completely that thereafter we no longer find the term Xianbei in history. Not that they had been exterminated. When the social structure and its corresponding economic form fall to pieces, there remain only two alternatives for its individuals. Either they must go over to a new form, which in China could only mean that they became Chinese; many Xianbei in this way became Chinese in the decades following 384. Or, they could retain their old way of living in association with another stock of similar formation; this, too, happened in many cases. Both these courses, however, meant the end of the Xianbei as an independent ethnical unit. We must keep this process and its reasons in view if we are to understand how a great people can disappear once and for all.

“The Huns, too, so powerful in the past, were suddenly scarcely to be found any longer. Among the many petty states there were many Xianbei kingdoms, but only a single, quite small Hun state, that of the Northern Liang. The disappearance of the Huns was, however, only apparent; at this time they remained in the Ordos region and in Shanxi as separate nomad tribes with no integrating political organization; their time had still to come.

Spread of Buddhism in the Six Dynasties Period

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “It will be remembered that Buddhism came to China overland and by sea in the Han epoch. The missionary monks who came from abroad with the foreign merchants found little approval among the Chinese gentry. They were regarded as second-rate persons belonging, according to Chinese notions, to an inferior social class. Thus the monks had to turn to the middle and lower classes in China. Among these they found widespread acceptance, not of their profound philosophic ideas, but of their doctrine of the after life. This doctrine was in a certain sense revolutionary: it declared that all the high officials and superiors who treated the people so unjustly and who so exploited them, would in their next reincarnation be born in poor circumstances or into inferior rank and would have to suffer punishment for all their ill deeds. The poor who had to suffer undeserved evils would be born in their next life into high rank and would have a good time. This doctrine brought a ray of light, a promise, to the country people who had suffered so much since the Eastern Han period of the second century A.D. Their situation remained unaltered down to the fourth century; and under their alien rulers the Chinese country population became Buddhist. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The merchants made use of the Buddhist monasteries as banks and warehouses. Thus they, too, were well inclined towards Buddhism and gave money and land for its temples. The temples were able to settle peasants on this land as their tenants. In those times a temple was a more reliable landlord than an individual alien, and the poorer peasants readily became temple tenants; this increased their inclination towards Buddhism.

“Buddhism, quite apart from the special case of "Khotan Buddhism" (described below), underwent extensive modification on its way across Central Asia. Its main Indian form (Hinayana) was a purely individualistic religion of salvation without a God—related in this respect to genuine Taoism—and based on a concept of two classes of people: the monks who could achieve salvation and, secondly, the masses who fed the monks but could not achieve salvation. This religion did not gain a footing in China; only traces of it can be found in some Buddhistic sects in China. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, developed into a true popular religion of salvation. It did not interfere with the indigenous deities and did not discountenance life in human society; it did not recommend Nirvana at once, but placed before it a here-after with all the joys worth striving for. In this form Buddhism was certain of success in Asia. On its way from India to China it divided into countless separate streams, each characterized by a particular book. Every nuance, from profound philosophical treatises to the most superficial little tracts written for the simplest of souls, and even a good deal of Turkestan shamanism and Tibetan belief in magic, found their way into Buddhist writings, so that some Buddhist monks practiced Central Asian Shamanism.

“In spite of Buddhism, the old religion of the peasants retained its vitality. Local diviners, Chinese shamans (wu), sorcerers, continued their practices, although from now on they sometimes used Buddhist phraseology. Often, this popular religion is called "Taoism ", because a systematization of the popular pantheon was attempted, and Lao Tzu and other Taoists played a role in this pantheon. Philosophic Taoism continued in this time, aside from the church-Taoism of Chang Ling and, naturally, all kinds of contacts between these three currents occurred. The Chinese state cult, the cult of Heaven saturated with Confucianism, was another living form of religion. The alien rulers, in turn, had brought their own mixture of worship of Heaven and shamanism. Their worship of Heaven was their official "representative" religion; their shamanism the private religion of the individual in his daily life. The alien rulers, accordingly, showed interest in the Chinese shamans as well as in the shamanistic aspects of Mahayana Buddhism. Not infrequently competitions were arranged by the rulers between priests of the different religious systems, and the rulers often competed for the possession of monks who were particularly skilled in magic or soothsaying.

Yencheng, on the Yellow Sea in n northeastern Jiangsu province, was a center of Buddhism in the A.D. 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th centuries with the kingdom there reaching its peak during Eastern Wei and Northern Qi (A.D. 550-577) Dynasties, when the commission of statues and art works was a common practice among wealthy families. There were some attacks on the religion. During an anti-Buddhist campaign launched in A.D. 446 monks were killed, sculptures were destroyed. In A.D. 574, monks were ordered to abandon their temples, in A.D. 841 during the Tang Dynasty, emperor Wuzong ordered the destruction of numerous Buddhist temples. [Source: Larry Hilgers, Archaeology, September 2012]

Khotan Buddhism and the Spread of Buddhism to Tibetans and Mongol-Like Tribes

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Indian, Sogdian, and Turkestani monks were readily allowed to settle by the alien rulers of China, who had no national prejudice against other aliens. The monks were educated men and brought some useful knowledge from abroad. Educated Chinese were scarcely to be found, for the gentry retired to their estates, which they protected as well as they could from their alien ruler. So long as the gentry had no prospect of regaining control of the threads of political life that extended throughout China, they were not prepared to provide a class of officials and scholars for the anti-Confucian foreigners, who showed interest only in fighting and trading. Thus educated persons were needed at the courts of the alien rulers, and Buddhists were therefore engaged. These foreign Buddhists had all the important Buddhist writings translated into Chinese, and so made use of their influence at court for religious propaganda. This does not mean that every text was translated from Indian languages; especially in the later period many works appeared which came not from India but from Sogdia or Turkestan, or had even been written in China by Sogdians or other natives of Turkestan, and were then translated into Chinese. In Turkestan, Khotan in particular became a centre of Buddhist culture. Buddhism was influenced by vestiges of indigenous cults, so that Khotan developed a special religious atmosphere of its own; deities were honoured there (for instance, the king of Heaven of the northerners) to whom little regard was paid elsewhere. This "Khotan Buddhism" had special influence on the Buddhist Turkish peoples. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Big translation bureaux were set up for the preparation of these translations into Chinese, in which many copyists simultaneously took down from dictation a translation made by a "master" with the aid of a few native helpers. The translations were not literal, but were paraphrases, most of them greatly reduced in length, glosses were introduced when the translator thought fit for political or doctrinal reasons, or when he thought that in this way he could better adapt the texts to Chinese feeling.

The Toba, together with many Chinese living in the Toba empire, were all captured by Buddhism, and especially by its shamanist element. One element in their preference of Buddhism was certainly the fact that Buddhism accepted all foreigners alike—both the Toba and the Chinese were "foreign" converts to an essentially Indian religion; whereas the Confucianist Chinese always made the non-Chinese feel that in spite of all their attempts they were still "barbarians" and that only real Chinese could be real Confucianists. Secondly, it can be assumed that the Toba rulers by fostering Buddhism intended to break the power of the Chinese gentry. A few centuries later, Buddhism was accepted by the Tibetan kings to break the power of the native nobility.

“Throughout the early period of Buddhism in the Far East, the question had been discussed what should be the relations between the Buddhist monks and the emperor, whether they were subject to him or not. This was connected, of course, with the fact that to the early fourth century the Buddhist monks were foreigners who, in the view prevalent in the Far East, owed only a limited allegiance to the ruler of the land. The Buddhist monks at the Toba court now submitted to the emperor, regarding him as a reincarnation of Buddha. Thus the emperor became protector of Buddhism and a sort of god. This combination was a good substitute for the old Chinese theory that the emperor was the Son of Heaven; it increased the prestige and the splendour of the dynasty. At the same time the old shamanism was legitimized under a Buddhist reinterpretation. Thus Buddhism became a sort of official religion. The emperor appointed a Buddhist monk as head of the Buddhist state church, and through this "Pope" he conveyed endowments on a large scale to the church. T'an-yao, head of the state church since 460, induced the state to attach state slaves, i.e. enslaved family members of criminals, and their families to state temples. They were supposed to work on temple land and to produce for the upkeep of the temples and monasteries. Thus, the institution of "temple slaves" was created, an institution which existed in South Asia and Burma for a long time, and which greatly strengthened the economic position of Buddhism.

“Like all Turkish peoples, the Toba possessed a myth according to which their ancestors came into the world from a sacred grotto. The Buddhists took advantage of this conception to construct, with money from the emperor, the vast and famous cave-temple of Yun-kang, in northern Shanxi. If we come from the bare plains into the green river valley, we may see to this day hundreds of caves cut out of the steep cliffs of the river bank. Here monks lived in their cells, worshipping the deities of whom they had thousands of busts and reliefs sculptured in stone, some of more than life-size, some diminutive. The majestic impression made today by the figures does not correspond to their original effect, for they were covered with a layer of coloured stucco.

“We know only few names of the artists and craftsmen who made these objects. Probably some at least were foreigners from Turkestan, for in spite of the predominantly Chinese character of these sculptures, some of them are reminiscent of works in Turkestan and even in the Near East. In the past the influences of the Near East on the Far East—influences traced back in the last resort to Greece—were greatly exaggerated; it was believed that Greek art, carried through Alexander's campaign as far as the present Afghanistan, degenerated there in the hands of Indian imitators (the so-called Gandhara art) and ultimately passed on in more and more distorted forms through Turkestan to China. Actually, however, some eight hundred years lay between Alexander's campaign and the Toba period sculptures at Yun-kang and, owing to the different cultural development, the contents of the Greek and the Toba-period art were entirely different. We may say, therefore, that suggestions came from the centre of the Greco-Bactrian culture (in the present Afghanistan) and were worked out by the Toba artists; old forms were filled with a new content, and the elements in the reliefs of Yun-kang that seem to us to be non-Chinese were the result of this synthesis of Western inspiration and Turkish initiative. It is interesting to observe that all steppe rulers showed special interest in sculpture and, as a rule, in architecture; after the Toba period, sculpture flourished in China in the Tang period, the period of strong cultural influence from Turkish peoples, and there was a further advance of sculpture and of the cave-dwellers' worship in the period of the "Five Dynasties" (906-960; three of these dynasties were Turkish) and in the Mongol period.

Buddhism and Taosim in the Six Dynasties Period

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Another factor in this division concerned the nature of intellectual traditions and state ideologies. Non-Chinese royal houses in the North, who had little understanding of the Chinese tradition, were far more subject to being influenced by non-Chinese systems of thought, particularly Buddhism, which, during the Six Dynasties period, became the most dynamic intellectual force in China. Although Buddhism was influential in both North and South, some Northern states adopted it as official religious doctrine, while in the south, Buddhism traditions were less associated with the state, and more closely related to the intellectual interests of the elite. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Buddhism’s rise did not become dramatic immediately after the fall of the Han, although the misadventures of the late Han and the aftermath of the unseemly battles between Confucians and eunuchs had seriously undermined the influence of Confucian traditions. During the early years of the Six Dynasties period, cynicism about Confucian ideas led many members of the educated class to turn increasingly to Daoist books. At the same time, the uncertainties of official life led some of the best of these men to withdraw from politics and concentrate on the cultivation of refined tastes and lofty ideas, which they shared only with like-minded circles of intimates. /+/

“These Daoistically inclined cliques produced some of the most individualistic literature ever written in China. Freed from the constraints of Confucianism and its belief in the social nature of man, these Neo-Daoists came to value spontaneity and eccentricity to a degree that Confucianism could not tolerate. Often living apart from society, these men concentrated on the skills of poetry, music, and painting, and particularly celebrated the effects of wine in enhancing positions at court cultivated a separate sphere of unrestrained aesthetic abandon. /+/

“As in the Dark Ages of Europe, during which Christianity grew to become the dominant theme of European culture, the Six Dynasties Period saw the sudden flourishing of a religious movement: Buddhism, which swept into China from India and transformed both popular and elite views of the world. From the sixth century through the eighth century, Buddhism was unquestionably the dominant philosophy and religion of China. But its popularity was initially made possible only because of the affinities which intellectually prominent Neo-Daoists felt for the new religion, which in superficial ways resembled Daoism. /+/

“Neo-Daoism was also instrumental in re-introducing the human arts into the Confucian ideal of the gentleman, or “literatus.” When Confucianism came once again to the forefront after 589, the year in which the short-lived Sui Dynasty reunited China, it incorporated into its ideal persona much of the devotion to spontaneous poetry, painting, music—and occasionally wine—that the Neo-Daoists had stressed. /+/

“The most famous Neo-Daoists were the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” a group of eccentric geniuses who, in popular imagination at least, formed the most brilliant circle of literati” and represented “the unorthodox tone of Neo-Daoist society during the period of disunity.” Among the three most well-known ones were: Ruan Ji (210-263),Xi Kang (223-262), who was executed as a threat to public morality, and Liu Ling (d. after 265).

Clashes Between Buddhists and Between Buddhists and Taoists

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “But not all Buddhists joined the "Church", just as not all Taoists had joined the Church of Chang Ling's Taoism. Some Buddhists remained in the small towns and villages and suffered oppression from the central Church. These village Buddhist monks soon became instigators of a considerable series of attempts at revolution. Their Buddhism was of the so-called "Maitreya school", which promised the appearance on earth of a new Buddha who would do away with all suffering and introduce a Golden Age. The Chinese peasantry, exploited by the gentry, came to the support of these monks whose Messianism gave the poor a hope in this world. The nomad tribes also, abandoned by their nobles in the capital and wandering in poverty with their now worthless herds, joined these monks. We know of many revolts of Hun and Toba tribes in this period, revolts that had a religious appearance but in reality were simply the result of the extreme impoverishment of these remaining tribes.

“In addition to these conflicts between state and popular Buddhism, clashes between Buddhists and representatives of organized Taoism occurred. Such fights, however, reflected more the power struggle between cliques than between religious groups. The most famous incident was the action against the Buddhists in 446 which brought destruction to many temples and monasteries and death to many monks. Here, a mighty Chinese gentry faction under the leadership of the Ts'ui family had united with the Taoist leader K'ou Ch'ien-chih against another faction under the leadership of the crown prince.

“With the growing influence of the Chinese gentry, however, Confucianism gained ground again, until with the transfer of the capital to Loyang it gained a complete victory, taking the place of Buddhism and becoming once more as in the past the official religion of the state. This process shows us once more how closely the social order of the gentry was associated with Confucianism.

Southern Dynasties Map of Nanjing

Northern and Southern Dynasties (386–589)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The period between 386 and 581 A.D. in Chinese history is conventionally called the Northern and Southern Dynasties, when North China—under the control of the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei tribe (a proto-Mongol people)—was politically separated from, yet culturally connected with, the Chinese dynasties established in Jiankang (Nanking). The Northern Wei rulers were ardent supporters of Buddhism, a foreign religion utilized as a theocratic power for ideological and social control of the predominantly Chinese population. In the south, meanwhile, Confucian intellectuals engaged themselves in Neo-Daoist debates on metaphysical subjects, and learned monks studied and propagated Buddhist ideas that were in some ways compatible with Daoist philosophy. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The Buddhist rock-cut caves at the site of Yungang, constructed under the Northern Wei imperial sponsorship near Datong in present-day Shanxi Province, were decorated with sculptural images made after Indian models. The earlier archaic style began to change as a result of increasing diplomatic contacts between North and South China, particularly after a series of reform policies implemented by Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471–99). Marked by the adoption of Chinese language, costume, and political institutions, the Northern Wei reform contributed greatly to an artistic and cultural amalgamation in sixth-century China, which was also manifested in painting, calligraphy, the funerary and decorative arts, and the style of the cave-temples at Longmen in Henan Province."^/

“The end of the Northern and Southern Dynasties also saw the beginning of a large influx of foreign immigrants, most of whom were traders or Buddhist missionaries from Central Asia. Some settled in China and held official posts; they adopted the Chinese way of life, but maintained their own social customs and practiced native religions. By the time China was united again under the Sui (581–618), the country had already experienced decades of relative political stability and social mobility, and its continuous receptiveness to outside influences prepared the way for the advent of the most glorious and prosperous epoch in its history—the Tang dynasty (618–906). \^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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