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The Long Period of Division in Chinese history

This article covers The Long Period of Division in Chinese history.

Period of division and invasion in China, 220 to 589 CE

In the later 2nd century CE, the Han empire began to experience decline. The government increasingly served the interests of the great landowners, and for the majority of the population standards of government fell. Complex and costly operations which had to be undertaken on a regular basis, such as maintaining the large-scale irrigation systems on which much agriculture depended, or providing the frontier garrisons with supplies and troops, began to fail. With dykes in disrepair, flooding occurred more often; with troops not arriving to keep frontier garrisons up to strength, defense fell increasingly into the hands of “loyal” tribesmen from across the border.

After 180 CE a succession of child emperors sat on the Han throne. This allowed violent factionalism to go unchecked at court. Stable government was utterly undermined, the administration became increasingly corrupt and oppressive, and the rich landowners prospered at the expense of the poor rural population. Unsurprisingly peasant unrest grew, culminating in the huge uprising of the “Yellow Turbans”. This almost toppled the Han regime, but, thanks to the efforts of three generals, each commanding forces in one of three sections of the empire, the rebellion was defeated.

The Fall of the Han Dynasty

The Han dynasty did not long survive, however. It was apparent to all that power now lay, not with the emperor and his court, but with the three victorious generals, who had effectively divided the empire between themselves. When one of them removed the last Han emperor (a child) from his throne and proclaimed himself king, the other two followed suit. The Han empire was gone.

The Three Kingdoms

The three kingdoms which had divided the old Han empire amongst themselves struggled for supremacy, until one of them, Wei, had conquered the other two to reunite China under its rule. The Wei dynasty itself did not enjoy the fruits of this process: it was overthrown by a general who founded the Jin dynasty.

The Jin dynasty, although theoretically ruling the whole of China, was in fact unable to wrest effective control from the leading landowning families. Although the Jin regime did achieve some resettlement of peasants on land laid waste by the wars, the landowners maintained their dominance of the bureaucracy and court.

Barbarian invasions of the north

The Jin court was wracked by violent faction-fighting between groups of landowning families, and it lost effective control of the state. In the late 3rd century and early 4th century, several nomadic groups from the beyond China’s borders took advantage of this situation by moving into Chinese territory. They sacked many cities, including, in 311, the Jin capital, Louyang. The Jin emperors were forced to retreat to southern China, where they made their capital in Nanjing and continued to rule a rump of the empire.

China now became divided into two parts. In the north, the barbarian invaders established several kingdoms, while in the south the Chinese Jin dynasty continued to rule.

Northern China

In the north, the northern barbarians faced a major dilemma in struggling to establish stable kingdoms. To retain their ethnic and cultural identity, as well as to keep their military edge, they needed to maintain their tribal way of life. But to administer and tax the subject populations, they needed the cooperation of Chinese administrators. Given the laters’ education and organization, these bureaucrats, although not members of the ruling race, tended successfully to increase their influence with the rulers at the expense of the barbarian tribal aristocracies.

There was an almost irresistible tendency for these barbarian regimes to become more and more “Sinified” (i.e. more Chinese in culture and way of life). Many tribal aristocrats in turn reacted violently against this process, and carried out coups against emperors whom they deemed favored the Chinese too much. This meant that these northern kingdoms were usually unstable; the royal courts were often violently faction-ridden, and the kingdoms themselves tended to split apart or fall to stronger neighbors.

The Northern Wei

In the north, the barbarian tribal aristocracies and the Chinese landowning class gradually merged to form one ruling class which embodied the characteristics of both – imbued with a warlike spirit yet educated along Confucian lines. This process reached maturity under the Northern Wei state.  The leading families of this state were drawn from both “barbarian” and Chinese backgrounds, and intermarried freely amongst themselves, merging to form a single aristocracy. They became ever more Chinese in their ways, and more and more of them took up an official career in the bureaucracy, filling the highest offices of state.

As a result, the Northern Wei state was much more stable than previous “barbarian” states had been, and succeeded in conquering all the other northern states in the early 5th century. It endured for almost 150 years.

This enabled the Northern Wei government to carry out some much-needed reforms, which were to help lay the foundations for the reunification of China under the Sui and Tang empires.

A major administrative reform cut the regional governors down to size. These had become a source of repeated instability in the northern kingdoms. The Northern Wei therefore greatly multiplied their numbers, so that each governor was now only responsible for a small area, and so posed no threat to the central government.

The dynasty also brought about a major land redistribution in favor of ordinary peasants. The government declared that all land belonged to the state, and should only be let out for one life time only – it could not be inherited. Each family was then allocated land according to the size of the family members, including dependents, slaves and animals.

This was known as the “equal-fields” system, but it was hardly that. The households of families who had been great landowners obviously had many more dependents, slaves and animals than those of serfs; they were therefore allotted much more land. Moreover officials were soon being granted inheritable estates (often the very estates they had owned previously, though perhaps in a smaller form) of varying sizes, according to rank. Nevertheless the system ensured that every family, however humble, received enough land on which to sustain itself. It turned them from serfs, bound to their landowners, to free citizen farmers. The land was theoretically reallocated on a yearly basis, and in many cases probably was, which would have ensured that the system was indeed as fair as it could be.

The reform had three major effects so far as the state was concerned. First, it weakened the power of the landowning elite. Second, the corollary of this was that it raised the condition of the peasantry, thus creating a more stable base to society. And third, it brought the mass of the people, the peasantry, back under the control of the state, rather than of the great landowners. They could now be taxed, conscripted and recruited for military service directly by state officials.

Linked to this great reform, in military matters the dynasty re-instituted the old Han militia system. This enabled the regime to reduce the size and importance of the tribal army which had brought them to power and which was typical of the ones previous “barbarian” states of northern China had used. This army was always a source of danger as a potential power base for rebellious tribal nobles.

Southern China

The Jin dynasty succeeded in turning back a powerful invasion from the north in 383, and even regained some territory in the west. On the whole, however, it was a faction-ridden and unstable regime, dominated by a small group of wealthy landowners. It was too weak to mount a full-scale reconquest of the north. The court was also weak in relation to the provincial governors, who were now very powerful within their own areas, and effectively beyond the control of the central government. This was all the more so as they had gained the powers to appoint subordinate officials to posts within their province, which increased their authority.

The barbarian invasions of the north set in motion a mass flight of peasants southward. These fleeing peasants often behaved in the same towards southern communities as had the barbarian nomads had to their own towns and villages. This forced many southern communities to turn to the local landowners for protection; these recruited mercenary bands to defend their local patches against incursions. This development strengthening their dominance of local society.

Hitherto, the southern provinces had been comparatively under-populated; it was from this period that their population levels began to rise sharply. Through the private initiative of many landowners much new land was claimed for agriculture by draining marshes, terracing hillsides and clearing forests, and then settling tenant farmers on the new lands.

The Jin dynasty was overthrown in 420, and four weak dynasties followed in quick succession. Nevertheless, the economy of southern China continued to expand, with increased agricultural production, a rising population and reviving trade.

Reunification of China

The Northern Wei kingdom of northern China split into two rival states in 534. One of them, the Northern Zhou, had conquered the other by 577, and began the conquest of the south.

In 581, however, a Northern Zhou general, Yang Jian, seized power and founded the Sui dynasty. He completed the conquest of the south, and so reunified China.

This man is known to Chinese history as the emperor Wendi. For his capital he chose the city of Chang’an, which he renamed Daxing.

Trends in government and administration in the period of division

Despite the sacking of cities and the widespread destruction by the non-Chinese “barbarians” in the 4th century, ordered government did not altogether disappear in the north. Though badly disrupted, the Chinese bureaucratic system continued to function in many places. Indeed, as barbarian tribes moved in, the local Chinese looked to their officials for leadership and protection, while the barbarians needed the co-operation of the same officials if they were to exercise proper control over the native population.

Nevertheless major changes occurred in organization of the government structures of the different states, and the recruitment of men to an official career. In the immediate post-Han period these strengthened the hold of the aristocracy over government, but towards the end of the centuries of division they began to weaken the dominance of this class.

Provincial administration

One administrative innovation occurred at the very end of the Han, and would continue in practice after the fall of the dynasty up until the 5th century. This was that regional governors, already powerful under the later Han, acquired military powers in the chaos which brought about the end of the dynasty. This was hardly avoidable. The great campaigns between the contenting dynasts were accompanied at a local level by endemic disorder, particularly large-scale brigandage. Senior provincial officials needed all the powers they could get to deal with this, and so gained the authority to maintain their own provincial forces.

This trend was strengthened under the non-Chinese kingdoms of northern China. With instability at court, the provincial governors became more and more powerful. At some point they acquired the right to appoint their own subordinates. This gave them huge powers of patronage within their territories.

Governorships were usually held by senior aristocrats and even royal princes. These posts often provided the power base from which bids for the throne would be launched.

This situation could not last if the states were to gain in stability and strength, and the Northern Wei’s policy of greatly increasing their number of provinces, and thus diminishing the size of each of them, effectively removed the threat from this quarter. Henceforth in China’s imperial history these officials were known as “prefects”, and formed the second tier of provincial government, above the county magistrates.

Recruitment to the civil service

At the very end of the Han period, a change to recruitment methods for officials strengthened  the hold of the wealthy landowning class on senior posts in the bureaucracy, to the point where its members practically monopolized them. Local worthies were tasked with rating every eligible man in their area (i.e. those with the requisite education) on a grade one to nine depending on their suitability for official appointment. These worthies, being usually great landowners themselves or closely connected to them, naturally gave the highest rankings to men of this class. These chosen ones would then naturally obtain the highest posts.

This arrangement was continued by the kingdoms which succeeded the Han empire, and by the barbarian kingdoms of northern China. Later, as we saw above, in the  barbarian-ruled kingdoms the provincial governors gained the authority to appoint their own subordinates. Since the governors were almost always aristocrats or princes of the royal family, they naturally tended to favor men of their own class when it came to exercising this valuable patronage.

Social trends

The later Han dynasty owed its throne to the support of this new landed elite. As a result, government policies now favored this group. Landed estates grew unchecked and many peasants lost their land to become tenant farmers or serfs.

The rich, in short, got richer, and the poor poorer. This process was aided by the fact that provincial officials tasked with recommending candidates for “fast-track” promotion tended to recommend men of this group. High posts at court and in the bureaucracy increasingly went to members of this narrow elite, and they ensured that the interests of the great landowners were well served.

At the same time, the wealthy landowning class strengthened its hold on senior posts in the bureaucracy, to the point where its members practically monopolized them. In a change to recruitment methods for officials, made in the last years of the Han, local worthies were tasked with rating every eligible man in their area (i.e. those with the requisite education) on a grade one to nine depending on their suitability for official appointment. These worthies, being usually great landowners themselves or closely connected to them, naturally gave the highest rankings to men of this class. These chosen ones would then naturally obtain the highest posts.

The struggle between the “Three Kingdoms” has been highly romanticized in the literature of China, and of Korea and Japan, as a time of chivalry and adventure. In reality it was terrible period for the Chinese population. Millions perished as a result of the widespread and brutal warfare, and millions more lost their livelihoods and homes.

The final decades of the Han empire and the period of the “Three Kingdoms” were characterized by a high level of chaos, especially in the north. In this situation, the wealthy landowners made even more gains than they had done previously. Many peasants were killed in the wars or fled the fighting for the south, never to return. Many more placed themselves and their farms under the protection of the local landowners, many of whom had fortified their residences against the prevailing disorders of the time and hired armed followers. Trade suffered badly, towns and cities shrank in wealth and importance, and large estates turned into defended, self-sufficient economic units in order to survive.

A parallel development was taking place in southern China. Here, a huge flow of refugees from the north caused disorder to spread to the south, leading to the rise of great fortified estates – and the spread of serfdom – here as well.

Gradually, however, the condition of the peasantry began to improve. The “equal-fields” system introduced by the kingdom of the Northern Wei (534-586 CE) was a major land redistribution measure which favored the peasants (see above). Although it be no means abolished the aristocratic estates, the measure significantly reduced the power of the landowning families in northern China over the peasantry.

Trade and industry

There can be no doubt that agriculture and, even more, trade, took a massive hit in the chaos of the post-Han years. Urban growth was checked – and went into reverse in northern China. In the 5th and 6th centuries, however, the return of more stable conditions allowed the economy to grow again.


Sometime during the Later Han, the technology of paper making was developed in China. This occurred at the imperial court, and solved a major problem which the bureaucracy had suffered from. Previously, bamboo strips, sewn together and rolled into scrolls, had been used for documents, but these were heavy to carry and awkward to make. Silk was sometimes used for important documents but was far too expensive for everyday use. Paper was cheap and simple to manufacture, and easy to carry around. Soon its use had spread throughout China.

A by-product of the spread of Daoism was an upsurge in what could be called the “proto-sciences”. The search for immortality, a central concern of Daoist devotees, stimulated the study of medicine and alchemy. In later centuries this would lead to major scientific and technological breakthroughs, such as the compass and gunpowder.

The stirrup

The Jin are credited with an innovation of world history significance. At any rate, the first record of this invention is in a stone carving from Jin times.

Having to deal closely with horse-riding steppe nomads, often on a hostile basis, the Jin equipped their cavalry with metal stirrups. It is possible that they were copying an innovation already used by the steppe nomads; or they may have come up with the innovation themselves, to enable their horsemen to match the nomads’ cavalry techniques on a more equal footing.

In any case, the stirrup soon caught on, and within a century was being used throughout China. Further afield it did not very long for stirrups to cross central Europe and appear in the west. Many scholars think that the stirrup would be key to the rise of the knight as the dominant figure in medieval European warfare.

Religion and thought

Confucianism remained the official ideology of the Han empire. However Buddhism came to China (in its Mahayana form, which would ever after be the most popular form of Buddhism in China) from central Asia in the 1st century CE, brought by Indian traders and monks.

In late Han times, Buddhism was practiced by only small communities of foreign traders and monks. Only gradually did some native Chinese convert. The alien religion was treated with hostility by most educated Chinese, not only as it was a foreign import but also because some Buddhist doctrines were opposed to Confucian teachings. Notably, Buddhism preaches renunciation of worldly things, including family ties; Confucianism on the other hand holds that the family is of paramount importance.

Nevertheless, during this period Buddhist scriptures began to be translated into Chinese. At this time, this work was carried out by foreign monks and missionaries rather than by Chinese Buddhists.

The upheavals of the period, and the widespread suffering that these caused, led many Chinese in all ranks of society to search for a deeper meaning beyond the life of the here and now. Confucianism focussed mainly on how to live a good life within the world of men, and offered no deep hope for the afterlife. Buddhism, with its message of eternal salvation, began to spread through all ranks of Chinese society.

The troubles of the times weakened the hold of Confucianism. It remained the official cult in all the Chinese states, and therefore the focus of the officials’ educational curriculum, thus moulding the outlook of the elite. However, in the 3rd century, some writers set out to harmonize Daoism with Confucian teaching. For example they interpreted the Daoist concept of non-action to mean taking no inappropriate action. “Clarifications” such as this made it possible for people to follow Daoism whilst pursuing an official career, and so made it much more popular with many educated people.

The search for meaning beyond this troubled life also encouraged Daoism to spread amongst the common people. It began to become an organized religion, with its own temples and priesthood.

The spread of Buddhism continued at an increasing rate, in both north and south. The non-Chinese conquerors, who had no prior devotion to Confucianism, were especially open to conversion to the alien religion, but Chinese adopted Buddhism too at an increasing rate. This was all the more true as the divide between Chinese and non-Chinese began to blur. Buddhist monasteries and temples proliferated, and many Chinese began were becoming monks – a remarkable thing for Chinese, with their devotion to family ties, to do.

The spread of Buddhism caused a widespread hunger for accurate translations of Buddhist texts. The Northern Wei established government translation bureaus, originally staffed by foreigners, to translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. One of the most famous Buddhist monks of the time, Faxian (337-c.422), even visited India in his desire to obtain accurate texts, spending 16 years in doing so. When he came back he spent the rest of his life translating what he had acquired; but he also wrote an account of his travels, which offers a highly valuable glimpse of Indian society and religion at this time.

As it spread in China, Buddhism gradually altered, particularly as it came under influence from Daoism. The outstanding example of this at this time was the rise of the Pure Land sect, which may have had its roots in India or central Asia but soon acquired distinctly Chinese characteristics, with meditation techniques imported from Daoism. Sometime in this period, probably i  the early 5th century, a Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma arrived in China, perhaps from central Asia, perhaps from India, and stressed the importance of deep meditation. His mission would become the inspiration for the later rise of Chan Buddhism.

The rise of Buddhism in China of course aroused the hostility of Confucianist officials, who at times were able to cause trouble for the Buddhists. While some emperors were devout Buddhists, others were anything but. This was especially true of the Northern Wei, who championed Buddhism at times and at other times persecuted it.

In south China at the time of Jin empire, the spread of Buddhism was equally apparent; many educated people who had been attracted to Daoism, with its rejection of worldly values, were ready converts to Buddhism.

The rise of a mixed barbarian-Chinese ruling class in northern China helped the spread of Buddhism in the topmost ranks of society, and under the Northern Wei state Buddhism became almost an official religion. Confucianism retained its hold on the education of future officials, however.

In the south, too, Buddhism has now spread throughout all ranks of society.

Further Study

Civilization of Ancient China

The evolution of state institutions in Ancient China

The economy of Ancient China

Society in Ancient China

Thought and culture in Ancient China

Individual dynasties:

Shang Dynasty China

Zhou Dynasty China

Qin Dynasty China

Han Dynasty China

To view maps charting the rise and fall of Ancient Chinese dynasties, go to our TimeMap of World History pages on Ancient China.