Six Dynasties Period

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The Six Dynasties Period of Chinese history was a period of disunity following the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220, up until the reunification of China under the Sui Dynasty in 589. During this span of time, a number of states rose and fell, including the Western Jin Dynasty, which briefly united China proper from 280 until 317, but six states of southern China are considered the eponymous "six dynasties" of the period: the Eastern Wu, Eastern Jin, Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang Dynasty, and Chen Dynasty.

This same period saw even greater fragmentation in northern China, where from around 304 until roughly 439, sixteen different polities vied for power and territory. Thirteen were dominated by peoples other than the Han people. Of these, the Northern Wei Dynasty is perhaps the most significant, or at least the most oft-discussed. Ruled by the Tuoba people, it is known for its extensive Sinification, successful implementation of numerous aspects of Chinese political technology, and embrace of Buddhism, becoming one of the first and foremost Chinese polities to do so. Throughout the north, powerful landlords grew wealthier and more powerful, destroying many polities from within. Some of these events are considered under the names of the Rebellion of Eight Princes (291-306), and the Uprising of Five Barbarians (304-316); as "barbarian" or non-Chinese peoples pressed into the Central Plains, Han Chinese polities were forced south.[1]

The chaotic situation brought some philosophers to pursue an avenue now known as xuanxue - dark or mysterious learning. It focused on the concept of nothingness, or non-being (), with some thinkers such as Wang Bi writing of the original nothingness (benwu) from which all emerged, and others simply focusing on meditation in order to reach or achieve nothingness. Religious Daoism emerged in this period as well, growing out of the faith healing practices & beliefs of the Celestial Masters Rebellion of Sichuan province.

While the north dealt with the chaos of many short-lived and competing states, southern China grew more populous and prosperous in this period. Emigration into the southeastern region now known as Fujian province incorporated that area more solidly into the realm of the Han people than ever before; native peoples of that region such as the Min people were either pushed into the mountains, or assimilated into the Han communities. Nanjing, among other locales, grew as market towns, and trade flourished both within the south, and between China and places overseas, via ports such as Guangzhou. Buddhism, which came to northern China via Silk Road overland caravan routes, arrived in southern China by sea, as merchant sailors brought texts, relics, and statuary. Trade across the East China Sea and Indian Ocean brought pearls, gold, silver, coral, ivory, and incense, while internal trade dealt largely in paper, pottery, textiles, lacquerwares, and bronze mirrors.


  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 84-92.
  1. Chia-Ying Yeh, "The Revival and Restoration of Ryukyuan Court Music, Uzagaku: Classification and Performance Techniques, Language Usage, and Transmission," PhD thesis, University of Sheffield (2018), 123-124.