Era of Division (China)

Era of division map
Era of division map

The first part of the Era of Division that followed the Han dynasty, between 220 and 280 c.e., is called the Three Kingdoms period. It ended in 280, when the Jin (Ch’in) dynasty, led by the Sima (Ssu-ma) family, reunified China.

But the unity was fragile because the founding ruler divided his realm among his 25 sons on his death, giving each a principality under the nominal control of his principal heir.

The princes and other noblemen soon fell upon one another in civil war, and one of them called on the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) northern nomads for help. The Xiongnu chief claimed descent from a Han princess, called himself Liu Yuan, and named the Shanxi (Shansi) region he controlled the Han but later changed its name to Zhao (Chao).

Liu Yuan’s forces sacked both ancient capitals, Chang’an (Ch’ang-an) and Luoyang (Loyang), burning the imperial library of the Han dynasty. The Jin court fled south in 316 and set up a new capital in Nanjing (Nanking), which had been capital of the Wu state during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

The year 316 marked the division of China into two halves that lasted until 589. It was called the era of the Northern and Southern dynasties. Chinese rule was superseded in northern China, which became the battleground of different nomadic groups, the Xiongnu, the Xianbei (Hsien-pei), both Turkic in ethnicity, and the Toba (T’o-pa), who were ethnically Tungustic.

In 387 the Xiongnu attempted to conquer the south, but the watery southern terrain was unsuited to their cavalry, and they were decisively repulsed at the Battle of Feishui (Fei Shui) in modern Anhui (Anhwei) Province.

chinese army in era of division

As a result, the situation between the north and south was stalemated. In 386 a new nomadic group from the north-east defeated both the Xiongnu and Xianbei and established the Northern Wei dynasty in northern China that lasted until 557.

The Tungustic rulers of the Northern Wei dynasty first established their capital city at Datong (Tatung) in modern Shanxi Province, a logical place for a nomadic dynasty because it was located near the Great Wall of China.

Fierce warriors (the Toba population was estimated to be no more than 200,000 people), with no written language and a primitive culture, the Toba soon embraced Buddhism, ordering the excavation of extensive cave temples outside Datong at a site called Yungang (Yunkang). They also embraced Chinese culture with enthusiasm.

In 494 the Northern Wei moved the capital to Luoyang to be near the heartland of Chinese culture and ordered the excavation of another series of caves devoted to Buddhist worship nearby at a site called Longmen (Lungmen).

At the same time the government also forbade the Toba people to wear their traditional clothing or use their tribal titles, ordering them to adopt Chinese surnames and speak Chinese instead.

Some Toba people revolted against sinicization, which split the dynasty into two short-lived rival kingdoms called the Eastern Wei and Western Wei, which were followed by the Northern Qi (Ch’i) and Northern Zhou (Chou).

None of the dynasties that followed the Northern Wei ruled all of North China. The era of division ended in 581 c.e. when a Northern Zhou general, Yang Jian (Yang Chien), usurped the throne and went on to unify the north and south under his new dynasty, the Sui.

Meanwhile in southern China, from the Yangtze River valley south, five dynasties followed one another. They were the Jin (Chin), 317–419; Liu Song (Sung), 420–477; Qi (Ch’i), 479–501; Liang, 502–556; and Chen (Ch’en), 557–587. Nanjing was capital to all five.

There was large-scale immigration of northerners to southern China during the Era of Division. The refugees who fled the nomads brought the refinements and advanced culture of the north to southern China and absorbed the aboriginal populations into mainstream Chinese culture.

Thus, whereas southern China was a frontier region during the Han and a place of exile for officials and convicts, by the end of the sixth century c.e. it had become developed and economically advanced.

Culturally, the most remarkable change during the Era of Division was the phenomenal growth of Buddhism in China, an Indian religion that first entered China during the beginning of the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 c.e.), brought by missionaries and traders along the Silk Road.

While making inroads, Buddhism had remained an exotic religion of foreigners and some Chinese during the Han dynasty. Confucianism as a state ideology collapsed with the fall of the Han dynasty. The primitive religions of North China’s nomads had little to offer confronted with the appealing theology of Buddhism and its stately rituals and ceremonies.

Thus, a nomadic ruler stated in 335: "We are born out of the marches and though We are unworthy, We have complied with our appointed destiny and govern the Chinese as their prince ... Buddha being a barbarian god is the very one We should worship". The nomads' Chinese subjects also embraced Buddhism for consolation in times of trouble and for its attractive and universalistic teachings.

Adherence to Buddhism made the nomadic rulers less cruel to their Chinese subjects and built bridges between the rulers and ruled. Buddhism also became dominant in southern China because its teachings assuaged the pain of exile for northern refugees and because of its theology, which answered questions that Confucianism and other Chinese schools of thought failed to address.

Similarly the chaos and collapse of Confucianism as state ideology during the Era of Division revived interest in Daoism (Taoism), allowing some disillusioned intellectuals to take refuge in an escapist philosophy.

Seeking longevity and immortality, some learned Daoists delved to learn about the properties of elements and plants and produced a vast pharmacopoeia. Popular Daoism was enriched as a result of borrowing ceremonies and monastic institutions from Buddhism.

The Era of Division was politically a dismally chaotic period in Chinese history. However, intellectually it was not a dark age, principally due to the rapid growth of Buddhism, which contributed enormously to Chinese civilization. The nomads became rapidly sinicized, and intermarriages between northern urban upper-class Chinese and nomads leveled their differences.