“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 4)

Partition and Conflict: The Period of Division

This is a short chapter, just 18 pages, and probably I should’ve read it right after the last one & done a post about the two together. But then again, it covers another 400 years from about 200AD through to about 600AD. And about half a thousand different names and kingdoms (some exaggeration for effect here 😉 ). So it was a bit confusing.

Orientation dates: Diocletian became Emperor of Rome in 284AD. Constantine became Emperor in 306AD, and called the Council of Nicea in 325AD. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410AD. The Anglo-Saxons migrate into (or invade) Britain over the period between 400AD and 600AD. The Merovingians ruled Francia from 481AD through to 687AD. Muhammed was born around 570AD and Islam was founded in 610AD.

So this 400 year period is actually the equivalent of one of the Ancient Egyptian Intermediate Periods – the country is divided, and ruled over by different kings or emperors in different bits. But there is still a high degree of cultural continuity within the area as a whole and across the time period. I admit I was a bit surprised by the length of this period between unified Chinas – I’d somehow assumed that once it was unified back in 221BC the core pretty much stayed that way except for brief periods thereafter.

I found the writing for this section quite confusing, and even as I’m flicking back over it to write this post I’m sometimes struggling to figure out quite who did what when & what the country afterwards (or before) was called.

The Three Kingdoms

The beginning of the end for the Han was in 189AD when a civil war broke out that would eventually lead to the division of the Empire into three parts (the “Three Kingdoms”). A general called Dong Zhuo entered the capital city, Luoyang, and took charge of the two sons of the recently deceased Emperor. Instead of supporting the new Emperor (the elder son) he replaced him with the younger son who “ruled” for 30 years under the thumb of Dong Zhou and later Cao Cao & his offspring. This line eventually took the title Emperor around 220AD. The kingdom they ruled over was in the north of China and called Wei.

In the south of China there ended up two kingdoms – which I think derive from the “loyal rebels” who originally supported the new Emperor of the Han Dynasty back in 189AD. But I’m not quite sure. In the south east was the kingdom of Wu, ruled over by Shu Quan & descendants (who didn’t claim to be Emperors until 229AD). And in the south west (including modern Sichuan) was the kingdom of Shu Han ruled over by Liu Bei and descendants (Emperors shortly after 220AD) – these guys claimed descent from the Former Han so I think were trying to set themselves up as more legitimate than the others.

This period of Chinese history is apparently often represented in art and storytelling – particularly famous is “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which is a novel by Luo Guanzhong, written around the 14th Century. The book also makes the point that the period in question was culturally rich and splendid, including a poet (Cao Zhi, son of Cao Cao) who is still recognised as one of China’s greatest poets.

The Two Jin Dynasties

Next there was a brief period of unity before it all dissolved into chaos again. Sima Yi murdered Cao Shuang in 249AD and took over the kingdom of Wei. His grandson succeeded in conquering Shu Han in 266AD and set himself up as the Emperor of a new Dynasty – the Jin. He conquered the Wu in 280AD and all looked set for a newly unified China to continue in serenity.

Unfortunately his son & heir was mentally incompetant (that’s exactly what the book said – no details as to what they meant though) and when he came to the throne in 290AD the whole thing started to collapse. Infighting between consort families eventually lead to the War of the Eight Princes and the Jin Dynasty lost control of the north of China in 316AD. That’s the end of the Western Jin.

The Eastern Jin keep control of the south of China for another hundred years. It didn’t sound like it was a particularly peaceful or settled period – lots of refugees from the north causing friction with local warlords. And eventually the Jin ruler actually hands over power to the start of the Liu Song Dynasty out of a feeling that the Mandate of Heaven has passed from the Jin.

As an aside – I’m wondering if the naming of Dynasties as Western then Eastern is linked in Chinese somehow to Former/Later or Early/Late. Linguistically I mean. This particular pair seem to have no connection to a west->east movement of power (unlike, say, the Zhou much earlier whose capital did shift over time).

Chicken Headed Ewers
This is the time of the chicken headed ewers!

The Sixteen Kingdoms

While the Eastern Jin were ruling the south the north was split into several different kingdoms which rose & fell during the 4th & 5th Centuries. To add to any confusion one might have about this period of Chinese history they have also mostly taken names from earlier Chinese kingdoms of the Warring States period – like Zhao or Qin. A way of legitimising themselves, perhaps? Which might be particularly important for these kingdoms because they were mostly ruled by members of the Five Barbarian Peoples – who were descended from the peoples to the north of China.

These peoples were not actually barbarians, the word is just the epithet used by the Chinese to describe the non-Chinese (and therefore perceived as uncivilised) that neighboured them. And despite this period sometimes being called “The Barbarian Invasions” they mostly didn’t invade either. They’d often been co-inhabiting the northern region of the empire alongside the “native” Chinese, and becoming assimilated into their culture. The exception is one of the last of the groups to appear on the scene – these are the Särbi, and they were nomadic herders who are the ancestors of the Mongols. A branch of these (the Tagbatch) would eventually re-unite northern China around the end of the 4th Century.

The Southern and Northern Dynasties

We’re now entering the last hundred years of this period between unified Chinas. In the south between 420AD & 581AD there are a series of short-lived dynasties starting with the Liu Song who were handed power by the last of the Jin. Each seems to come to power in a military coup then not long out-last their founder. In the north the Tagbatch rule the whole area for quite some time first from a northern city called Pingcheng, then moving south. Then a civil war breaks out around 525AD – this war destroys the capital city Luoyang. Eventually the Sui dynasty rise up from the Wei valley area and re-unite northern China before setting their sights on the conquest of the south.

Again the book makes the point that despite the political turmoil this is a time of growth and cultural achievement. New maritime traderoutes between the Eastern Jin in the south of China & Japan, South-East Asia and India lead to great economic growth and the rise of what might be called the middle class (my phrasing, not the book’s) – wealthy merchants and tradespeople, who didn’t have the political power or social status of the aristocrats but certainly were a large part of keeping the country solvent. Poetry became cemented as one of the central parts of Chinese culture during this time – this is when it became expected that an upper class gentleman would be able to write poetry as a matter of course. Mentioned in passing a couple of times was that Buddhism and Daoism started to spread to a degree to rival Confucianism, I’d’ve liked more discussion of this but perhaps it will be revisited later in the book.

Tangents to follow up on: The various peoples to the north of China who form the Sixteen Kingdoms, what their history is before & after this time.

Whew. I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about what was covered so briskly in the book. But on the plus side, I think I’ve got it put into some order in my head now, which is after all the purpose of writing an essay about it 🙂