Lecture Ten

Northern and Southern Dynasties

Scope: At the beginning of the 4th century C.E., great migrations were triggered in Central Asia by forces not yet fully understood. In China, this resulted in the influx of several waves of proto-Turkic invaders, who overran large tracts of northwest and northern China in the course of the next century and a half. They brought with them a more militant form of Buddhism and established conquest states in the very heartland of China’s ancient culture. Over time, they intermarried with local Chinese and were culturally transformed by interaction with China, while also reshaping Chinese society in the north. Meanwhile south of the Yangzi River valley, a series of dynasties ruled over the remnants of the Han and Three Kingdoms states, preserving a “purer” form of Chinese culture in the face of the “barbarian” invasions of the north and the streams of refugees fleeing south.


I. Around the beginning of the 4th century C.E., something triggered major population shifts in Central Asia.

A. It is not clear what caused these movements, but their effects were felt from East Asia to Europe.

1. At the western end of the Eurasian landmass, these movements led to the so-called barbarian invasions that resulted in the fall of Rome.

2. In China, proto-Turkic-speaking peoples moved into northwestern China, displacing earlier non-Chinese peoples, such as the Xiongnu, who in turn, moved in a large arc westward across Siberia and into Eastern Europe, to enter Western history as the Huns.

B. The new arrivals in China overran much of the old heartland of Chinese civilization in what is now Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Henan provinces.

C. They established themselves as overlords and set up new states with themselves as the ruling elite and the Chinese farmers as their subjects.

II. The Northern Dynasties were strongly Buddhist and developed a distinct culture blending Chinese and Central Asian elements.

A. Over the next three centuries, China was basically divided between areas north of the Yangzi River and those south of it, with non-Chinese dynasties in the north and Chinese dynasties ruling in the south.

1. The main state in the north was the Wei dynasty, founded by the Toba Turks.

2. The Wei first had its capital near the modern city of Datong in northern Shanxi.

3. At the end of the 5lh century, the Wei capital moved south to the old Man city of Luoyang, near the Yellow River in Henan.

4. Near each of these cities, the Wei built large cave-temple complexes, with massive Buddhist sculptures, to display their power and demonstrate their patronage to Buddhism.

A. As time went by, the Turkic-speaking elite began to intermarry with the

Chinese population, and a process of cultural convergence took place.

1. The leading Chinese families were eager to marry into the conquering elite to protect their interests and secure their land holdings.

2. The process of intermarriage led to the growth of a population of blended ancestry, which came to provide a large proportion of military and civil officials.

3. As these blended families became more important in the northern regimes, cultural differences between the invaders and the Chinese began to diminish.

4. Turkic groups began to speak Chinese, which was used in government documents, and even adopted Chinese names for themselves.

5. Chinese elite families adopted some Turkic cultural practices, as well.

6. By the 6th century, the northern states came to resemble classic Chinese dynasties in many ways, but with a Sino-Turkic elite as rulers.

III. In the south meanwhile, a series of smaller dynasties sought to maintain a “pure” Chinese culture.

A. Many of these dynasties were based in Nanjing.

1. Southern states had to absorb many refugees from the north, often from the northern elite, who brought their households with them.

2. The threat from non-Chinese invaders and the presence of refugee outsiders led to a sense of cultural insecurity in the south.

3. As a result, southern culture sought to be “pure” and to show off its superiority to the “barbarian” influences in the north.

4. This led to a great age in prose writing and the development of calligraphy as an art form.

5. Wang Xizhi became the first great calligrapher, and his style became a model for later eras.

6. Around the same time, Gu Kaizhi became the first painter in Chinese history whose name as an artist has come down to us.

B. Southern Dynasties also patronized Buddhism and adapted it to Chinese usage.

1. Monasteries grew in many cities across the south.

2. Many Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese.

3. New schools of Buddhism, adapting the teachings to Chinese culture, began to develop, such as Tiantai and Chan, later known as Zen in Japan.

C. Throughout the period of division, the dream of a unified empire remained alive.

1. The fragmentation of China after the Han roughly paralleled the collapse of Rome.

2. Later states preserved the cultural and political ideals of the Hanera, and the goal of reunification was quite persistent, if elusive.

3. By the later 6th century, however, conditions developed that set the stage for a new period of imperial unity.

4. Population movements ceased in the north, and a process of cultural convergence had diminished the distance between northern and southern regimes.

5. The shared presence of Buddhism also contributed to the potential for reunification.

6. By the 580s, a new strongman in the north began to restore imperial unity; we will follow that story in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Scott Pearce, Audrey Shapiro, and Patricia Ebrey, eds., Culture and Power in the Reconstitution of the Chinese Realm, 200-600.

Supplemental Reading:

Albert Dien, ed., State and Society in Early Medieval China.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why was the image of a unified empire so enduring?

2. Why would elite Chinese families in the north have wished to intermarry with the “barbarian” invaders?

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