7. PROLONGED DISUNITY

Chinese historians regard the disappearance of a unified empire from the fall of the Han in 220 to the rise of the Sui in 581 as a long period of forlorn hope and endless chaos. This is true to a point. One could describe it by saying that it was like the effect of the Thirty Years' War on Germany being amplified and prolonged tenfold. In certain parts of north China, sadly, depopulation did occur. Bronze coins, which had come into existence in the late Zhou and been widely circulated during the Han, totally vanished in some areas during these later centuries. Without a central authority to handle relief, one could imagine the miseries when large-scale natural disasters struck wide areas, for example, the great drought of 309, when the major rivers became fordable, and the epidemic of 369, which exacted heavy tolls along the north bank of the lower Yangtze.

Yet, the label "Dark Age" is hardly adequate. Indeed, although warfare was incessant in these centuries, large-scale engagements and decisive battles did not occur very often. If they had, the reunification would have taken a different course than what actually happened (see Chapter 9). Clearly this was not another Warring States period. After four and a half centuries of imperial rule, China was no longer the same combination of competitive states grown out of feudal matrices. Gentry influence, which had diffused the rural power during the Later

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