Key events: Another interesting and turbulent period of Chinese history. Period of Northern and Southern dynasties was time of separation on two or more centers of power distributed in north and south of China. During some period there were only two states and during some more of them. Despite their rivalry relations and a lot of wars philosophy, religion and arts bloomed during this period.

Northern Wei and Liu Song in 475, source-

Northern Dynasties

Northern, Eastern and Western Wei:  It was founded by Xianbei Turkic tribe and heir leader Tuoba Gui ( Emperor Daowu). By end of 4th century Northern Wei defeated Jin state and northern non-Chinese tribes and strengthened its position in the north of China. During 5th century Northern Wei fought constantly against Northern Liang dynasty and Southern Liu Song dynasty. It took many territories of both states. Most successful emperor was Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei. His mother was Han Chinese and he was supporting Sinicization in his tribe. They accepted Chinese culture as dominant one and allowed building of Taoist and Buddhist temples across all their regions. He accepted system of governance which was used in China and done big economic and institutional reforms that were very successful.  Chinese language became official and was compulsory for learning in state service and also intermarriages between Han and Xianbei was supported greatly. In order to increase Chinese influence he moved capital from Pingcheng( todays Taiyuan) to Luoyang in 493. There were some elite members who didn’t want to move to Luoyang and didn’t want too much Chinese influence and were allowed to stay in Pingcheng. Emperor Xiaowen launched wars against Southern Qi but unsuccessfully. Sinicization mostly occurred in aristocratic circles but among peasants and military there was hostility towards Sinicization despite of economic and military success. Aim of Sinicization was getting legitimacy to conquer all of China.  In 523 many rebellions against sinicization started and it led to 10 years civil war in Northern Wei.  At the same time destabilization of throne started as Emperor Xiaoming started to oppose policies of his mother Dowager Hu who was governing instead of him. She wanted to keep her influence and poisoned her son. General Erzhu a supporter of Emperor Xiaoming when he heard about poisoning stormed Luoyang and have chosen another emperor by old Xianbei tradition.  Empress Hu and her followers were slaughtered. Emperor Xiaozhuang a chosen one by General Erzhu was puppet of that general who was most powerful in Northern Wei. Emperor didn’t want to be his puppet anymore and started rebellion against him. It resulted in killing of General Erhzu in 530 but already in 531 Emperor Xiaozhuang was overthrown by followers of general Erzhu. An Erzhus supporter General Gao Huan appointed new emperor as his puppet. After that emperor with help of general Husi Chun set a plot against Gao Huan but he defeated them. Emperor and Husi Chun moved away from Luoyang to the west on territory of powerful warlord Yu Wentai. They settled up there a new basis of power. On another hand General Gao Huan ordered setting new capital in Ye where more than 2mln people from Luoyang migrated. This resulted in split on Eastern and Western Wei in 535.

Western and Eastern Wei were rivals fighting for the dominance during their short existence. Both of them were governed by generals while emperors were their puppets.  Eastern Wei declared Changan to be their new capital.  There were numerous wars between both states but internal conflicts too. Eastern Wei was more Sinicized and successful in economic, social and military affairs.  It ceased to exist in 550 when Gao Yang( son of Gao Huan)  killed Emperor Xiaojing and declared Northern Qi Empire and became Emperor Wenxuan. Western Wei was existing a bit longer but because of internal struggles ceased to exist when in 558 General Yu Wenjue( son of Yu Wentai) expelled Emperor Gong and declared himself an Emperor of Northern Zhou.  He became Emperor Xiaomin,

Northern Qi and Northern Zhou: Inherited system of governance of Wei.  Emperor Wenxuan defeated Huns, Rouran, Qidan ( Khitan) and Kumoxi people. In northern Qi Emperor Wenxuan started to return Xianbei traditions and was massacring ethnic Han people. Civil war started. Emperor Gao Wei killed many of his loyal generals what caused further chaos in Northern Qi and at the end Northern Zhou conquered Northern Qi in 577. There were a series of puppet emperors and family wars between nobility and among generals what resulted in fall of Northern Zhou too.Yang Jian an Han official in Xianbei dominant Northern Zhou government killed his brothers and was becoming more and more influential. He abolished anti Han laws that were imposed by Northern Zhou. At the end he usurped the throne and declared himself as Emperor Wen of Sui in 581 what resulted in ending of Northern Zhou. Emperor Wen of Sui considered that he should conquer all of the China and focused on storming Chen dynasty of south.

Southern dynasties

Liu Song dynasty: Liu Song empire as other southern dynasties was ethnic Han empire. It was strongest Southern dynasty that conquered all territories southern from Yellow river. In Jiangkang in 420 Liu Yu declared himself as Emperor Wu and formed Empire Liu Song what led to end of Eastern Jin. Emperor Wu and his successors didn’t have much success in governing since they didn’t pay attention on education and many uneducated officials led the country ineffectively. Rebellions and unsuccessful wars with Northern Wei were common for Liu Song Empire. Successors of Emperor Wu were too much busy with internal struggles rather than with organizing state properly. Despite prosperity all Emperor Wens invasions on Northern Wei ended in defeat. But Northern Wei successfully launched offensive on Souther Liu Song and captured its territories on Yangtze river in 445.  At the end Emperor Wen was murdered by his crown prince Liu Shao and Liu Shao was killed by Wens son who became Emperor Xiaowu.  Emperor Xiaowu was very cruel and oppressed people. He massacred many rebels in Guangling who rose against his power. After death of Xiaowu his son Emperor Qianfei was murdered by Liu Yu who became Emperor Ming of Liu Song. His son was overthrown by another aristocrat from their clan who declared himself of Emperor Gao of new southern Qi dynasty in 479.

Southern Qi dynasty: Was a short lasting state. It had shorter period of stability and cultural prosperity during Emperor Wu who signed peace treaty with Northern Wei. After he died new struggle for throne came that resulted in end of Southern Qi in 502.

Liang dynasty: Was also not very long lasting southern state. Most notable emperor was Emperor Wu of Liang. During his rule Taoists and Buddhists were exempted from taxes so many people have chosen to become monks.  Emperor Wu was financially supporting Buddhist and Taoist temples and even himself wanted to become Buddhist monk but was rejected by abbot with advise that he should serve people. In 516 Liang defeated Northern Wei severely at Shouyang. During separation of Northern Wei on Western and Eastern Wei Emperor Wu provided shelter to Hou Jing a general from East Wei. He used Hou Jing as marionette to fight Wei states. At the end Hou Jing captured Jiangkang and expelled Emperor Wu when he heard that emperor wants to extradite him back to Wei.  Emperor Wus son became emperor puppet of Hou Jing. But Emperor Wu’s son killed Hou Jing with help of some generals. Later Liang state went into series of internal clashes and intrigues over throne in which Chen Baxian overthrew Emperor Jin and declared himself as Emperor Wu of new Chen dynasty  in 557.

Division of China in 560

Chen Dynasty: Was last remaining southern dynasty from Northern and Southern Dynasties Period. When Emperor Wu died Emperor Wen succeeded him.On some territories emerged short lasting Kingdom of Lianghu( todays Hunan and Hubei) which fought against Southern Chen alongside Northern Qi and Northern Zhou.  3 armies tried to capture Jiangkang but were defeated. Soon Lianghu Kingdom was dissolved. Emperor Wu of Chen had very peaceful policy towards local lords in order to gain their loyalty.  He tried hard to conduct economic reforms which partially restored prosperity. When he died Emperor Xu became new emperor of Chen. He aligned with Northern Zhou in war against Northern Qi and returned some territories in area of Huai river. With dissolution of Northern Qi Northern Zhou turned against Southern Chen but was defeated. Soon Northern Zhou disappeared and was replaced by Sui dynasty. Last Emperor of Chen was Emperor Houzhu who was careless about state affairs and spent time enjoying with concubines or in gardens. Sui armies were advancing towards Jiangkang capturing Chen territories and burning farmlands but Emperor Houzhu didn’t care. At the end in 589 Sui troops captured Jiangkang and it was end of Chen dynasty. With fall of Chen Sui dynasty remained only strong enough force that unified China. So end of North and Southern dynasties and victory of Sui symbolized reunification of China.

Culture and Society:

This quite long separation of Chinese regions and people on northern and southern states and influence left significant trace in diversity of northern and southern China. It was a beginning of kind of diversity that was further developed. Long periods of time northern and whole China were ruled by northern ethnicities such as firstly Xianbei than Khitans and Jurchens, Mongols and Manchus. There were also long periods of majority Han population governing over these ethnicities but they left significant trace on Chinese culture. Non-Han ethnicities usually governed with using ancient Chinese governing principles and Confucian ideas but also adopted some of their ideas. They also imported some of their customs and traditional clothing and cuisine. It cannot be considered as an occupation but rather cultural hegemony at some periods but also quite harmonized coexistence since oppression on ethnical basis was rare. Altought clear border between northern and southern cultural boundary is unclear it is said that it is somewhere in Hubei and Hunan. However differences in dialects, customs, cuisine and beliefs isn’t strictly defined by north-south boundaries as China is much more diverse and mixed up that there can be differences even within borders of one province.

When it comes to Northern areas during Northern and Southern dynasties during Northern Wei there was significant Sinicization as it was mentioned. Chinese language was accepted in state institutions and Chinese clothing in official institutions was adopted.  Except sinicization and accepting of Chinese culture and norms some Xianbei rules and customs were introduced too. They introduced back slavery in China which was absent for long time already. Also they banned salaries to officials but they were provided by necessities such as food and clothes from people over who they governed. Also all mad were obliged to hold a hair in single braid. When it comes to imperial family there was introduced short lasting rule in north that mothers of crown princes( when they were chosen) had to commit suicide and they were given to care to nurse empresses.

In Southern dynasties there were not big changes in state apparatus since they followed older Chinese traditions.

Both in the south and north arts were developing widely. For example poetry was very widespread.  Yan Yanzhi, Xie Lingyun  and Bao Zhao were most famous poets of that time who belonged to Southern Liu Song dynasty. Most famous poets from the north were Yu Xin and Wei Shou. Also Chinese scholars met the Sanskrit writing system during that time and started learning it and translating Buddhist scripts from it. Sculpture making was very popular as well as painting and calligraphy. More and more styles of painting and calligraphy developed. Xie He painter of Southern Liu Song set up 6 methods in painting and using rhythmic in painting.  Especially in religious purpose Buddhist and Taoist scriptures were written in calligraphic style.  Music was also spreading widely. In Northern dynasties painting was less popular but stone carving was widely spreading. Various carvings, grottoes and painted sculptures. In the north decorating mausoleums of dead emperors was common and they were decorated with stone sculptures of people and animals.

Astronomy was developing and physics. Zu Chongzhi from Southern Liu Song calculated pi to 7 decimals.

Distinct type of Chinese pagoda appears in architecture that differs from original Buddhist one. They started to be important part of the new temples that were widely built.

When it comes to philosophy and religion situation is following. Confucianism had unchallenged position in the government and was main guiding principle for regulating state affairs and organizing social life from institutions to family. There were many Confucian scholars who promoted teaching of Confucius and educated future rulers and future scholars on Confucian principles. Even in the Xianbei states Confucian doctrine was adopted for practical purposes.

When it comes to Taoism it experienced significant development.  In 424 Kou Qianzhi on territory of Northern Wei formed Northern Celestial Masters sect that controlled some territory until 450.  After that they withdrew to Louguan. In Louguan they formed Taoist temples where they preserved scriptures and conducted rituals. Kou Qianzhi wrote a book known as New Code which described how to conduct all activities such as rituals, meditative exercises, healing practices, funerals, community services and other issues. In this sect sexual practices were banned also and members of sect were not obliged to pay taxes like some sects used to do. Also vegetarian diet was introduced in this sect what is seen as influence of Buddhism as well as rejection of sexual practices. Also within this sect was first Taoist sect that banned inheriting from father to son of status of Celestial Master. Instead of that new Celestial Master was supposed to be most devoted man of the virtue chosen by council.

Louguan Temple that Belonged to Northern Celestial Masters

In Jiankang was formed Southern Celestial Masters sect that was not related to northern one. It also practiced retreats to nature but was more linked to local villages and towns providing services and wasnt  celibative.  Tao Hongjing wrote commentaries on apocalyptic writtings and denied them but spoke about universal salvation. At beginning of 400ies first Taoist Canon appeared known as Daozang which contained precepts, chants, rituals, values and relations, practices and talisman making guides, histories, drawings, biographies and alchemic practices, There were defined 3 main categories of mastery activities in Taoism: 1) Text of Supreme Purity- it is concerned with meditation and considered as highest phase of Taoist mastery, 2) Text of Sacred Treasure- concerned mostly with rituals and considered as middle phase of mastery, 3) Text of Three Sovereigns- focused on exorcism and is a beginning phase of Taoist mastery.

When it comes to Buddhism it also experienced blooming during this period. In 5th or 6th century Bodhidharma monk from India came to China. He brought new version of Buddhism which became most dominant Buddhist school in China. He founded Shaolin temple in todays Henan province. Bodhidharma  gathered monks and started new teaching. It was mostly focused on practicing mindfulness- meditation. From Sanskrit word dhyana which means meditation Chinese name of this school became Chan. So Chan Buddhism was born. Its main teachings are mindfulness- which means focusing on present moment dwelling in thoughts and not too much being concern about past or future or going with a flow. To stay calm and avoid stress Chan emphasizes on focusing on breath that circulates energy through your body. Another important point of Chan is ethic which emphasizes on behaving like Buddha and not doing harm, being kind and doing good. Chan values life but also sometimes speaks ironically about life and emptiness that is supposed to be achieved by clearing thoughts and staying calm. Chan doesn’t value scriptures too much but meditation as a mean to enlighten yourself and find out your own true nature and cultivate your spirit. During this period as in future development of Chan Taoist scholars had big influence not only in translating scriptures but also in influencing its teaching. Chan is often considered as teaching that highly borrowed Taoist teaching and is often called Chinese Buddhism too. It highly focuses on meditation and focusing on breath what Taoism promotes too. Chan Buddhism considers Buddha not only as a person but as a virtue and way that has to be achieved what is equivalent to Dao( path) in Taoist teaching. Unlike other Buddhist teachings Chan doesn’t see only emptiness but sees duality as static and dynamic, absolute and relative or empty and full. From this is visible that this idea comes from Taoist yin yang. Chan emphasizes on absoluteness of nature but also a interdependence of all things in nature like Taoism. Not only Taoism started to influence Buddhism during this time but Buddhism influenced Taoism. Buddhist influence in Taoism is visible in reincarnation and karma which were never analyzed before by Taoist scholars. Bodhidharma also created Shaolin Kung Fu which started to develop during this time and in future. About Kung Fu will be in article about Chinese Martial Arts.


Bodhidharma is considered as first patriarch of Chan. Second one was Huike who was first Chinese patriarch of Chan. Legend says that he cut his hand and gave it to Bodhidharma as proof of sincerity which wasn’t demanded by Bodhidharma. Third one also lived during Northern and Southern Dynasties who was known as Sengcan. Other 3  patriarch which are part of first 6 patriarchs contributed to further development of Chan.

Chan Buddhism started to develop further on new schools what will be mentioned later.  Chan became most dominant school of Buddhism during centuries and is today too. Chan Buddhism was spread to Japan( known as Zen), Korea( known as Seon) and Vietnam( known as Tien).

During Northern and Southern dynasties Buddhism contributed to development of arts. Buddhism was gaining popularity among wealthy people and they decided to invest in that. Most famous contribution to Buddhism in this period are Mogao Caves known as known as Thousand Buddha Caves. Caves were decorated with murals, grottoes and sculptures. They housed Buddhist hermits who came there to retreat and practice meditation. They are located near Dunghuang in todays Gansu province and within complex almost 500 temples were built later. Other famous Buddhist sites became Yungang Grottoes( Datong, Shanxi province), Majishan grottoes( Tianjishui, Gansu) and Longmen Grottoes( Luoyang, Henan).

Mogao caves



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