The Period of Disunion in China was a time from the end of the Han Dynasty to establishing an earlier yet modern version of China. This was a time of great upheaval and chaos, as various warlords and factions fought for control over the country.
However, it was also a pivotal point in Chinese history, and much of what is currently understood as Chinese culture emerged during this period. In addition, influential ideals laid the groundwork for future economic and political progress. This article will examine what happened during this tumultuous period in Chinese history.
The Period of Disunion: Between Dynasties
The disunion period in China was a time of great upheaval, and chaos occurred during what historians call “The Golden Age” of Chinese dynasties. This period lasted for more than 300 years, and it had a profound impact on the country. Many factors led to the disunion, including political instability, economic problems, and social unrest.
Historical sources mention that the Period of Disunion began shortly after the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and proceeded for the next four hundred years or so when the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) began.
The Chinese population endured a time of great turmoil as various warlords and factions fought for control over the country; due to this constant fighting, there wasn’t a centralized government, leaving the factions to rule as they saw fit. There were three main periods of disunion: the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), the Jin dynasty period (280-420), and the Southern and Northern dynasties period (420-589). Let’s take a closer look at these periods.
A Deeper Look at The Period of Disunion
While this period in history did have its fair share of chaos, it was also a time when many Chinese philosophies and schools of thought emerged. As a result, ideas flourished, and art, literature, and philosophy reached new heights where historians could compare them to the European Renaissance.
When the Han Dynasty ended in 220, the Three Kingdoms of Wu, Wei, and Shu took over for over half a century. In 280, the Jin Dynasty had its time, but the rule was unstable and didn’t last nearly as long, nomadic groups from the North continuously invaded China during the Jin Dynasty.
Eventually, the Jin Dynasty crumbled in 316, and for about a century, the North was ruled by several different tribal groups until the Wei Dynasty brought everything back under control. While the Wei Dynasty had more power and got the country under control, although China would essentially split into the North and South. China would further be divided into states throughout the North and the South, and this arrangement would not change for the next 250 years.
During this time, the Han dynasty’s strong Confucian influence led to Daoism, encouraging believers to follow nature instead of challenging it. Many intellectuals in the south accepted these ideas to get away from the upheaval of the time.
As a result of years of religious transformation of beliefs and customs, Buddhism grew in strength and influence during this period. In addition, the Northern Wei rulers used Buddhism to better control a sizeable Chinese population. The first Buddhist temple was built in Nanjing during the third century, and there were nearly five hundred temples by the sixth century.
Buddhist priests who were divination experts became advisors to these territories’ leaders. By 440, the Northern Wei Dynasty had unified northern China under one Xianbei family, creating the Northern Wei Kingdom.
In 446, Emperor Taiwu tried to eradicate all traces of Buddhism thoroughly; any Buddhist temples, scriptures, and art were to be destroyed, and all monks executed. Fortunately, at least some portion of those Buddhists evaded capture and punishment. Emperor Taiwu died in 452; his successor, Emperor Xiaowen, launched a restoration of Buddhism and ended the suppression.
Buddhism’s development is partly due to the popularity of Buddhist caves built in places like Dunhuang, Longmen, Yungang, and Xiangtangshan. Buddhist sculptures adorned the cave walls. In addition, monolithic sandstone and limestone sculptures were carved from quarried sandstone and limestone, erected on temple altars, and placed in temple courtyards. It’s no surprise then that Buddhist art became a significant elemevnt of Chinese painting.
In these tumultuous years, new aesthetic theories were born. First, painters and writers began to consider the nature and spirit of artistic creation and expression, eventually forming figure and landscape paintings. Next, individual creators started to gain notice, such as Gu Kaizhi. Finally, calligraphy reached its zenith and is valued as the senior visual art form in China because of the beauty created by brush writing.
During the Tang dynasty, China was receptive to diverse influences; many of Northern China’s provinces were governed by foreign royal families. Foreign merchants, diplomats, and Buddhist missionaries flooded into China along the Silk Road. Some moved to China, where they maintained their native traditions and religions. Cultural interactions between China and the West and political calm at the end of the period paved the way for the transfer of power from Li Yuan to the Tang Dynasty.
What is Buddhism, and Why Did it Spread Rapidly During the Period of Disunion?
Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions, with over 520 million followers. It was founded in India in the 500s BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, a wealthy prince who gave up his life of luxury to seek Enlightenment. He achieved Enlightenment after years of asceticism and teaching, and Buddhism quickly spread throughout Asia.
Buddhists believe that human life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth, but if one could achieve Enlightenment, they would escape the endless cycles forever.
Gautama was the first person to reach this state of Enlightenment, and many believe him to be the Buddha. Despite being revered in this way, Buddhists do not believe in any kind of god, but there are supernatural beings who can help or hinder believers while they are on the path to Enlightenment.
Buddhists learn about the Four Noble Truths; The Four Noble Truths are that life is Suffering, Origin of Suffering, Cessation of Suffering, and Path to the Cessation of Suffering.
- Suffering – teaches that everyone in life is suffering in their own way
- Origin of Suffering – teaches that the root of all suffering comes from desire
- Cessation of Suffering – says that it’s possible to stop suffering and achieve Enlightenment
- Path to the Cessation of Suffering – talks about the Middle Way, which are the steps that lead to Enlightenment
According to Buddhists, existence is cyclical and made up of many cycles. The wheel of rebirth, for instance, depicts how people are reborn into different bodies depending on how they lived their lives in previous lives. To put it another way, a person’s “karma” is how their good or bad conduct in their earlier lives may influence them in the future.
If you want to take it a step further, there are two primary groups of Buddhism known Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is most common in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, China, and Tibet. Mahayana Buddhism focuses on the role of bodhisattvas or beings that achieve Enlightenment and then return to teach humans the ways.
Theravada Buddhism is common in Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia. This type of Buddhism focuses on a monastic lifestyle and dedicated meditation; members of this type of Buddhism believe that a life devoted to Theravada Buddhism is the way to Enlightenment.
During the Period of Disunion, many people suffered, forcing some to turn to religion for answers, which is one of the reasons why Buddhism spread so rapidly. In a time when there was no central government, people were looking for something to believe in and something that could provide them with guidance. Buddhism did just that, and as a result, it became one of the most popular religions worldwide.
What was the Silk Road, and How Did It Impact China?
The Silk Road is a trade route network connecting China to the Mediterranean Sea. Merchants used it to transport goods such as silk, porcelain, jade, and spices.
The Silk Road also served as a conduit for the spread of ideas, religions, and technologies. The Silk Road consisted of a vast network of strategically positioned trading posts, markets, and thoroughfares designed to simplify the transportation, trade, distribution, and storage of items.
The so-called Silk Road trade route included fruits, vegetables, livestock, grain, leather and hides, tools, religious items such as icons and images, artwork, precious stones, metals, language, culture, religion, philosophy, and science. For example, the Chinese invented paper and gunpowder during the Han Dynasty, which had significant cultural and historical effects on the West. They were also among the most-traded items between Asia and Europe.
The Silk Road began in the first century BCE and saw continued use until the 14th century CE. It was not a single road but a network of land and sea routes connecting China to Central Asia, India, the Middle East, and Europe. The most well-known section of the Silk Road is the portion that traversed Central Asia’s deserts. Unfortunately, this section was also the most dangerous, as merchants had to contend with bandits, harsh weather conditions, and challenging terrain.
The trade route significantly impacted China’s economic, social, and cultural development. For instance, it facilitated the flow of goods and ideas between China and the outside world. China’s interaction with the outside world increased substantially during the Tang (618-960 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties when the Silk Road was at its peak.
The impact of the Silk Road on China was far-reaching. It not only helped to shape China’s economy and society but also had a hand in its cultural development. The Silk Road was also influential in spreading Buddhism to China and helped introduce new technologies into the country.
The Northern and Southern Dynasties
As we mentioned, the Wei Dynasty created the North and South divisions of China, and both divisions would have different characteristics from the other.
The Southern Dynasty
The Southern Dynasty’s aristocracy was strong and hereditary, carving out a place for itself in government occupations. The Wei had implemented a civil service system based on nine ranks, which evaluated a person’s character and ability. Unfortunately, this method didn’t work. The candidate’s family’s social standing determined his position.
Nobles married only among themselves, and they kept track of the most illustrious families. The powers that be provided the aristocracy with government salaries, tax exemptions, and exemption from labor service. Families of this rank were outstanding in intellectual, literary, and witty conversation. Many noble families excelled at landscape painting, poetry creation, and brilliant banter.
Many Chinese took refuge in the south during this period, and the economy of the Southern Dynasty was far more flourishing than that of the Northern. In addition, the south was a great agricultural region because of its temperate climate and plentiful water supply. As a result, many immigrants thrived in the area when they acquired the property for farming.
The Northern Dynasty
In the north, no state established by the migratory people survived for long, except for the Xianbei. The Northern Wei Dynasty was founded by the Xianbei tribe (386-534 AD). One of the Xianbei emperors adopted China’s more advanced culture as a model and implemented reforms to strengthen his empire.
The Xianbei ruler employed Chinese officials, adopted Chinese court customs and attire, and made Chinese the official language. A new system of land allocation to farmers boosted agricultural output. The capital was relocated from the northern border to Luoyang from the former Jin capital.
However, the reform encountered resistance from the Xianbei nobles, who rebelled in 524 AD and sparked a decade of continuous war. Afterward, a civil war raged among the numerous factions throughout Northern China for the next 50 years.
Even though the Period of Disunion was a time of constant warfare and chaos, it was also a time of significant technological and cultural advancement. The Southern portion of China gave rise to meaningful advances in poetry, painting, and calligraphy.
At the same time, the Northern Wei Dynasty saw the start of Buddhism, which would begin to take hold in China, becoming the dominant religion. The melding of Northern and Southern Chinese beliefs and customs led to a more diverse and robust China that would eventually become one nation again.