Southern and Northern Dynasties

General Introduction to Southern and Northern Dynasties

Southern and Northern Dynasties After the decline of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 - 420), the regime and territory of China could not avoid a fate of being split. Started from 420 and ended in 589, the Northern and Southern Dynasties were a period when the whole nation was divided into the Northern Dynasties (386 - 581) and the Southern Dynasties (420 - 589).


During this period the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal tribesmen in the south. Many northern Chinese also immigrated to the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the first century AD) in both north and south China, along with Daoism gaining influence from the outline of Buddhist scriptures (with two essential Daoist canons written during this period). Although multiple story towers such as guard towers and residential apartments existed in previous periods of China , during this period the distinct Chinese pagoda tower (for storing Buddhist scriptures) evolved from the stupa, the latter originating from Buddhist traditions of protecting sutras in ancient India.


The Southern Dynasties

Although powerful in the conquest of the Wu Kingdom in 280 AD, the Jin Dynasty was severely weakened after the War of the Eight Princes from 291 to 306 AD. During the reigns of Emperor Huai of Jin and Emperor Min of Jin, the country was put into grave danger with the uprising of the Wu Hu. The sieges and ultimate sacking of Luoyang in the year 311 and Chang'an in the year 316 by invading barbarian armies almost destroyed the dynasty. However, a scion of the royal house, the Prince of Langya, fled south to salvage what was left in order to sustain the empire. Cementing their power in the south, the Jin established modern-day Nanjing (then called Jiankang) as their new capital, renaming the dynasty as the Eastern Jin (317–420 AD) since the new capital was located southeast of Luoyang.


The Northern Dynasties

In the first half of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD), the Xianbei steppe tribesmen who dominated northern China kept a policy of strict social distinction between them and their Chinese subjects. Chinese were drafted into the bureaucracy, employed as officials to collect taxes, etc. However, the Chinese were kept out of many higher positions of power. They also represented the minority of the populace where centers of power were located, such as the first Northern Wei capital at Pingcheng in modern-day northern Shanxi province.


Widespread social and cultural transformation in northern China came with Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei (reigned 471–499 AD), whose father was a Xianbei, but whose mother was Chinese. Although of the Tuoba Clan from the Xianbei tribe, Emperor Xiaowen asserted his dual Xianbei-Chinese identity, renaming his own clan after the Chinese Yuan . In the year 493 Emperor Xiaowen instituted a new sinification program that had the Xianbei elites conform to many Chinese standards. These social reforms included donning Chinese clothing (banning Xianbei clothing at court), learning the Chinese language (if under the age of thirty), applied one-character Chinese surnames to Xianbei families, and encouraged the clans of high-ranking Xianbei and Chinese families to intermarry.


Emperor Xiaowen also moved the capital city from Pingcheng to one of China's old imperial sites, Luoyang, which had been the capital during the earlier Eastern Han and Western Jin dynasties. The new capital at Luoyang was revived and transformed, with roughly 150,000 Xianbei and other northern warriors moved from north to south to fill new ranks for the capital by the year 495. Within a couple decades, the population rose to about half a million residents, and was famed for being home to over a thousand Buddhist temples. Defectors from the south, such as Wang Su of the prestigious Langye Wang family, were largely accommodated and felt at home with the establishment of their own Wu quarter in Luoyang (this quarter of the city home to over three thousand families). They were even served tea (by this time gaining popularity in southern China) at court instead of yogurt drinks commonly found in the north.


Northern Wei Buddha Maitreya gilt-bronze figurine, 443 AD. In the year 523, Prince Dongyang of the Northern Wei was sent to Dunhuang to serve as its governor for a term of fifteen years. With the religious force of Buddhism gaining mainstream acceptance in Chinese society, Prince Dongyang and local wealthy families set out to establish a monumental project in honor of Buddhism, carving and decorating Cave 285 of the Mogao Caves with beautiful statues and murals. This promotion of the arts would continue on for centuries at Dunhuang, and is now one of China's greatest tourist attractions.