China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties

China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties

China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties

China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties


After the collapse of the Han dynasty in the third century CE, China divided along a north-south line. Mark Lewis traces the changes that both underlay and resulted from this split in a period that saw the geographic redefinition of China, more engagement with the outside world, significant changes to family life, developments in the literary and social arenas, and the introduction of new religions.

The Yangzi River valley arose as the rice-producing center of the country. Literature moved beyond the court and capital to depict local culture, and newly emerging social spaces included the garden, temple, salon, and country villa. The growth of self-defined genteel families expanded the notion of the elite, moving it away from the traditional great Han families identified mostly by material wealth. Trailing the rebel movements that toppled the Han, the new faiths of Daoism and Buddhism altered every aspect of life, including the state, kinship structures, and the economy.

By the time China was reunited by the Sui dynasty in 589 ce, the elite had been drawn into the state order, and imperial power had assumed a more transcendent nature. The Chinese were incorporated into a new world system in which they exchanged goods and ideas with states that shared a common Buddhist religion. The centuries between the Han and the Tang thus had a profound and permanent impact on the Chinese world.


Native accounts of Chinese history prefer to focus on times of unity and military power, and as a consequence they slight the four centuries after the Han state collapsed at the hands of religious rebels and regional warlords. the relegation of this period to secondary status is reflected in the absence of any conventionally agreed upon name. Following the traditional practice of periodization by dynasties, modern Chinese scholars call this the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties. Western scholars have suggested alternatives such as the Age of Disunion or the Early Medieval period—but the former assumes that Chinese unity under a single regime was the normal state of affairs, which it was not, and the latter imposes a Western template on Chinese history.

While acknowledging its limits, I have adopted a modified Chinese name—the Northern and Southern Dynasties—for two reasons. First, this designation simplifies the native terminology by recognizing that the political world during these four centuries was defined by a split between the drainage basins of China's two major rivers. During the so-called Wei period—better known as the Three Kingdoms—China was divided between one state that ruled the Yellow River valley in the North and two that partitioned the Yangzi valley in the south. the subsequent Jin period united China for only three decades, followed by a century of renewed division between the Yellow River and the Yangzi.

But a second and more important reason for preferring the rubric of “north and south” is that major changes associated with this geographical division in many ways define the historical significance of this period. the southward migration of a large percentage of the Han population . . .

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