Northern and Southern Dynasties 南北朝 1. The North

The period between 386 and 581 A.D. in Chinese history is conventionally called the Northern and Southern Dynasties. It was an age of great division when North China was—under the control of the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei tribe (a proto-Mongol people)—warred fiercely with the Chinese dynasties established in Jiankang (Nanking) of southern China. 

A war of aesthetics, a side by side comparison of a contemporary northern warrior in armor beside a southern soldier. One could easily distinguish the northern warrior by his round and curvilinear design, by his round pauldrons and his curved helmet- All steppe (and thus foriegn) elements that in the succeeding centuries would influence the armor of the Sui dynasty, and after that- of the Tang dynasty to be implemented across all of China until it became a new default Chinese standard. 

Conversely, for those familiar with Han dynasty armor, the armor of the Southern soldier on the right still bears a strong resemblance to the soldiers of the preceding Han and Jin dynasties. Note his angular leather hat and shield- which were nearly indistinguishable from Han dynasty shields.


Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534)                

Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550)                                                Western Wei 西魏 (535-556) 
Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577)                                                Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581)                   


A Xianbei (Proto- Mongol) Warrior in a riding cloak. Many
Xianbei warriors were depicted with their elaborate cloaks

Of paramount importance distinction is the fact that most of the northern dynasties were ruled by barbarian invaders where they ruled over the native Han populace. Just like the massed Germanic migration into Western Europe, when the Jin dynasty (265–420) was greatly weakened in the 3rd century, a dozen hordes of barbarians conspired against the tottering Jin state and simultaneously spilled into northern China, drove out the Jin until they were completely ejected to the south. 

However, there would be no peace between the various new barbarian masters of northern China. They were all different ethnically, culturally, and linguistically from one another, and immediately, they began fighting and bickering with each other. For Northern China, the 150 years that immediately followed from the fall of Jin until the beginning of the Northern and Southern Dynasties was called the Sixteen Kingdoms. A period of extreme chaos and warfare where several barbarian (and also several native Han) polities emerged, fought, and was destroyed in rapid succession. 


A parallel to the period of great division was Europe immediately following the fall of the Western Roman Empire (which was actually contemporaneous to this period) where in the fall of a centralized Roman polity, military power was diluted to local Germanic barbarian chieftains who all competed with each other while proclaiming themselves to still be Roman governors and allies (Dux.) "Barbarian" Emperors from the steppes would rule northern China during the whole of this era. While the Southern Dynasties resembled that of the Eastern Roman Empire, a unified polity that preserved much of the culture of the old empire and endlessly renewed by ambitious clans rotated into piloting the whole regime. 

Due to fierce competition among the states and internal political instability, the kingdoms of this era were mostly short-lived. Generally speaking, for most of its existence it was like warlord- dominated Afghanistan or Dark Age Europe, a highly Balkanized, highly fluctuating region of constant warfare, where powers could displace and absorb each other in a latteral manner. However, one of them would emerge as a strong enlightened state in the endless chaos.


The Northern Wei, also known as the Tuoba Wei (拓跋魏), or Yuan Wei (元魏), was a dynasty founded by the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei (a proto- Mongolian people,) which ruled northern China from 386 to 534. This Northern Wei Dynasty is particularly noted for unifying northern China in 439,  this was also a period of introduced foreign ideas, such as Buddhism, which became firmly established.

Stretching from the edge of the Tarim Basin in the west to all the way into modern Sichuan in the south west, Northern Wei was the most remarkable of the northern kingdoms as it was able to harmonize the ethnic tensions within its realm and create an effective system of governance and taxation. Its rulers were diligent and its army was both well maintained and staffed by able generals. 

Depiction of a warrior (marked by his large lacquered shield) fighting against rows of northern Chinese cataphracts, where the rider and the horse were completely encased in lamellar armor

Despite of being of foreign descents, they were seen as enlightened, and ideal Chinese rulers by later historians who were able to both excel in academia, administration, and provide equality for many of the ethnic groups that lived under its regime. In fact, the Ballad of Mulan was set during within this kingdom, and have her swearing allegiance to the Wei emperors to defend China and fight against the oncoming hordes of barbarians in the kingdom's north (Ironic in some degrees since the rulers of N. Wei themselves were such barbarians only generations ago.) 


During the Taihe period (477-499) of Emperor Xiaowen, court advisers instituted sweeping reforms and introduced changes that eventually led to the dynasty moving its capital from Datong to Luoyang, in 494. The Tuoba then renamed themselves the Chinese- sounding "Yuan" as a part of systematic Sinicization to integrate themselves a better rulers of their native Han Chinese population. Northern Wei created the earliest forms of the equal field (均田) land system and the Fubing system (府兵) military system, both of which became major institutions under Sui and Tang. Under the fubing system each headquarters (府) commanded about one thousand farmer-soldiers who could be mobilized for war. In peacetime they were self-sustaining on their land allotments, and were obliged to do tours of active duty in the capital.

The Northern Wei rulers were ardent supporters of Buddhism, a foreign religion utilized as a theocratic power for ideological and social control of the predominantly Chinese population. 

In terms of economy, despite the great societal reforms of the Northern Wei, during this era due to the constant fighting and the rapidly shifting diplomacy of the steppe rulers- northern China essentially regressed into many patchworks of local warlord garrisons, the once prosperous economy of the Han dynasty of the past centuries had all but disappeared from the region and much of the region had to resort to a primitive barter system. 

Chanfron and barding (horse armor) of a 4th-7th century Chinese cataphract, 
note the ostentatious plume Jisheng 寄生, lit. "parasite" on the horse's hip. 

Preserved grotto paintings dating from the Northern Wei period.


In 534: Calamity struck the Wei regime when the Xianbei general Yuwen Tai killed the Northern Wei emperor Yuan Xiu, he installed Yuan Baoju as emperor of Western Wei while Yuwen Tai would remain as the virtual ruler. In the easter part of the Wei kingdom, another ambitious local governor would similarly create a puppet emperor to serve his own ambition. 

2 Puppet masters took two puppets from Northern Wei's royal family and ruled through them in what would be known as the Western Wei and Eastern Wei. When the royal descendants of both of those remnant states became tired of ruling through the respective puppet- emperors, they allowed the illusion of "Wei" rule finally drop. Each deposed their own Wei puppet Emperors and founded their own dynasties, the N. Zhou in the west and N. Qi in the east.

In 534 Gao Huan, the potentate of the eastern half of what was Northern Wei territory following the disintegration of the Northern Wei dynasty installed Yuan Shanjian a descendant of the Northern Wei as ruler of Eastern Wei. Yuan Shanjian was a puppet ruler as the real power lay in the hands of Gao Huan. 

Though both of the Wei remnants still called themelves "Wei" they were both controlled by extremely ambitious puppet masters. After nearly 20 years of this long charade. The decendants of both of the puppet masters eventually deposed their respective puppets and created the new dynasties of N. Zhou (NW) and N. Qi (NE) Both would retain their steppe heritage and traditions and tried to fight off the emerging Gokturk Khagnate that displaced the Rourans in China's north.

Western Wei 西魏 (535-556)    BECAME  Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581)
Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550)   BECAME   Northern Qi 北齐 (550-577)

Both would retain their steppe heritage and traditions and tried to fight off the emerging Gokturk Khagnate that displaced the Rourans in China's north.

The fall of the charades: When the masks of the charade were dropped, 
the newly declared Northern Zhou and Northern Qi immediately
pounced against each other with their full strength.


How much damage could one man do in a decade? The roll of dice in monarch, not only one of the fiercest warrior- Kings, but also one of the worst tyrants in Chinese history, combined with the qualities that of Caligula, Commodious, Sardanapulus, and Ivan the Terrible and plunge his own state to become the very emblem of a failed dystopian state.

Noble riders dressed in Xianbei fashion. Though the Gao clan were mostly half Han
they generally preferred the customs and culture of the steppes.

Northern Qi was founded by the young Gao Yang whose father was the puppet master of the Eastern Wei. Gao had a Han Chinese father Gao Huan, and a Xianbei mother. After tiring of ruling through puppets, Gao forceably took the throne from the last puppet emperor of Eastern Wei in 550 and established Northern Qi as his own- styling himself as the new Emperor Wenxuan.
Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550)   BECAME   Northern Qi 北齐 (550-577)

Though Northern Qi began asthe strongest state of the three main Chinese states (the other two being Northern Zhou state and Chen Dynasty) when it was established. It would quickly degenerate into ruin due to legendarily terrible bad management. All of the great fall could be contributed to the hellish rule of Gao Yang- the young Emperor Wenxuan, which was regarded by nearly all of the historians as either the- or if not one of the top 5 worst Chinese Emperors. (Which we will discuss in detail in another independent segment, for it is both long and not for the faint hearted.)

Mural paintings of court life in Xu Xianxiu's Tomb, Northern Qi Dynasty, 571 AD


Wenxuan maybe the single one of the worst Chinese Emperors, but it should be pointed out, that the young Emperor was recorded to genuinely have serious developmental problems even in his youth. For a short version of his life- despite having inherited the most powerful of the 3 Chinese states of the period (N. Qi and N. Zhou, and Chen in the south) during his 1 life time he let all crashed and burned.

Despite being a daring and brave warrior who fought repeatedly on the front lines. Wenxuan was both extremely cruel as well as extremely arbitrary. During one of his campaigns against on of the rival armies he was recorded to have the enemy soldiers cut to pieces. When he was jealous of one of his concubines, because she had relationships with one of his uncles before their betrothal he had her beheaded and then dragged her naked body to the banquet hall where hundreds of ministers watched in stark horror and then proceeded to played with her legs like a guitar.

When he didn't like that Taoism and Buddhism were existing simultaneously with each other in peace (while both were preaching that they were the ultimate truth) after a debate between the reps of the two faiths he had Taoists banned, had its priests forcibly converted to Buddhists, and had many practitioners killed. When his son was still in his early teens, Wenxuan was extremely displeased with the boy and felt he was too...Han (and not like a proud warrior like the Xianbei) in order to toughen the boy ordered the boy to execute a criminal. When the boy refused, and in a move that was reminiscent of Ivan the Terrible, Wenxuan took out his jade handled cane and beat the boy repeatedly so severely that the boy was traumatized for the rest of his life. 

Emperor Wenxuan also became homicidal when he drank, and he always wanted to kill people when he was drunk. Yang Yin, who was prime minister at this point, therefore set up a group of condemned prisoners to be available to the palace guards. He was recorded of having injured his mother- in law in violence, tried to rape women of his own clan, and when she refused him he had her killed, sad to say...the list still goes on. 

When he slowly descended to liver failure due to severe alcoholism, he simply let it got worse and kept on drinking, before he died, he stated to Empress Li, "A person will live and die, and there is nothing to regret, other than that our son Gao Yin is still young, and someone else will take his throne." He stated to his ambitious brother Gao Yan, "Go ahead and take the throne, but do not kill him." However, he did not change the succession order, and after his death, Gao Yin (still young, very insecure, and traumatized by the endless beatings) took the throne as Emperor Fei. The officials tried to mourn at his death, but no one was actually able to shed a tear. All that was great about the N. Qi died within one bad tenure, and the man who set it all on fire died as if it all was joke.  


And like an evil joke, Northern Qi did persist on. Gao Yin (i) the young new Emperor was able to only reign for several months before Gao Yan (a)- Wenxuan's brother made his move against his nephew, and quickly had the teenager killed and declared himself as Emerpr Xiaozhao. Though he thought himself as the secure universal sovereign of the north, he was undone by a rabbit, only months after his own ascension, a rabbit leapt out in front of his horse in a forest, and the spooked horse threw the Emperor to a fatal fall. He survived barely enough to pass the throne to his brother as well. 

Gao Zhan, the new Emperor Wucheng completely neglected state affairs, drinking, feasting, and spent his whole reign listening to advice of astrologers and geomancers. He would build palaces then tear them down on whims, as well as allow his favorites to appoint anyone to position of high power- including their associate and family. By Wucheng's reign, the court had not only degenerated in capability, but was utterly rife with corruption. 

When he died, his incompetent sons were easily defeated by the great Emperor Wu of N. Zhou. In 577, Northern Qi was assaulted by Northern Zhou, its rival with much poorer resources.The Northern Qi, with ineffective leadership, quickly disintegrated within a month. The entire Gao royal clan was forced to collectively commit suicide. N. Qi had came and went like a the cruelest, most nihilistic of jokes, they had failed nearly everything they touched then vanished by the first gust of wind that blew away the illusion of their power. 

A new Three Kingdoms. 572, the last phase of the struggle between the Northern and Southern Dynasties (and before the rise of the Sui Dynasty which would one day unite all of China) The north was simultaneously divided between the mighty Northern Zhou (from where the Sui would one day rise up) that conquered much of the Sichuan and Yunnan region  and the Northern Qi- in the east. In the south, the Chen dynasty served as a defiant bastion against northern advances in the south. When the Sui eventually supplanted N. Zhou and united the north, the Chen submitted to Sui authority and was made into local magnates.


Heavy armor of a warrior of the late Northern and Southern Dynasty
or early Sui Dynasty. By the late 6th century, there were many styles of
heavy as well as elaborate Chinese armors. Pieces of chestplates-
(padding) began to appear on armors, a trend that would persist
well on to the Tang dynasty.

Western Wei 西魏 (535-556)  ➢  BECAME ➢ Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581)

The Northern Zhou followed the Western Wei, and ruled northern China from 557 to 581. It was the last of the Northern Dynasties of China's Northern and Southern dynasties period. Like the preceding Western and Northern Wei dynasties , the Northern Zhou were members of the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei. The Northern Zhou's basis of power was established by Yuwen Tai, who was paramount general of Western Wei, following the split of Northern Wei into Western Wei and Eastern Wei in 535. After Yuwen Tai's death in 556, Yuwen Tai's nephew Yuwen Hu forced Emperor Gong of Western Wei to yield the throne to Yuwen Tai's son Yuwen Jue (Emperor Xiaomin), establishing Northern Zhou. 

The reigns of the first three emperors (Yuwen Tai's sons) – Emperor Xiaomin, Emperor Ming, and Emperor Wu were dominated by Yuwen Hu, as the de facto clan patriarch, by the time of Wu, the third soverign of the N. Zhou, the young Wu was ready for a change and cast off the shackles of the meddling Yuwen Hu.


Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou ((北)周武帝) (543–578), personal name Yuwen Yong (宇文邕) was an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty Northern Zhou. As was the case of the reigns of his brothers Emperor Xiaomin and Emperor Ming, the early part of his reign was dominated by his cousin Yuwen Hu. Emperor Wu was said to be largely a silent emperor early in his reign, giving Yuwen Hu free rein over the government, although he appeared to start cultivating a group of officials who would be loyal to him as the years went by. In fall 563. Northern Zhou entered into an alliance treaty with the Gokturks against Northern Qi, part of which involved a promise that Emperor Wu would marry the daughter of Ashina Qijin, the Gokturk Khaghanate's Mugan Khaghan. 

In winter 563, the joint forces of Northern Zhou and Gokturks launched a two-prong attack on Northern Qi, with the northern prong attacking Northern Qi's secondary capital Jinyang (晉陽, in modern Taiyuan, Shanxi) and the southern prong attacking Pingyang (平陽, in modern Linfen, Shanxi). The northern prong, commanded by the general Yang Zhong (楊忠), put Jinyang under siege, but was soon defeated by the Northern Qi general Duan Shao (段韶) and forced to withdraw. In response, the southern prong, commanded by Daxi Wu (達奚武), also withdrew. 

Still, the attack demonstrated the growing Northern Zhou strength—as previously, in the winter months, Northern Zhou forces would break the ice on the Yellow River to prevent possible Northern Qi attacks, but around this time and thereafter, Northern Qi forces broke the ice on the river to prevent possible Northern Zhou attacks.

In 572, finally tired of Yuwen Hu's meddling in the affairs of N.Zhou, he ambushed Yuwen Hu, killing him and his sons and seized power personally. He thereafter ruled ably and built up the power of his military. In winter 576, Emperor Wu again attacked Northern Qi; this time, changing strategy and attacking Pingyang instead. He was able to capture Pingyang quickly, before Northern Qi troops could arrive. This time, in only a month, was was able to utterly destroy the N. Qi resistance. The whole of N. Qi's Gao clan was forced to commit suicide, and N. Zhou was able to annexed its territory and unite the North. He had done all of this before the age of 35.


However, Emperor Wu's death a year later in 578 doomed the state, as his son Emperor Xuan was an arbitrary and violent ruler whose unorthodox behavior greatly weakened the state. Xuan  After his death in 580, when he was already nominally retired (Taishang Huang), Xuan's father-in-law Yang Jian took power, and in 581 seized the throne from Emperor Xuan's son Emperor Jing, establishing Sui. 

China United Once Again in 589. When the Chen Dynasty of the south surrendered to the Sui forces, China was united for the first time in nearly 300 years since the fall of the Jin.
Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581)  ☠   Usurped By  Sui Dynasty 隋朝 (581–618)

The young Emperor Jing and the imperial Yuwen clan, were subsequently slaughtered by Yang Jian. With Northern Zhou's imperial clan extinguished, the Yang's Sui Dynasty was able to unite all of the Chinese polities for the first time in nearly 300 years since the Jin. The north- then all of China now had one supreme Son of Heaven again. 


In military matters, the northerners often reigned supreme on the battlefield. They were masters of cavalry and fielded some of the heaviest cavalries in the entire orient (save the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo that featured comparable and even heavier cavalry) 

Helmet and horse armor of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (Northern)

"Fish scale" armor, invented during the Han Dynasty and was used during the subsequent Three Kingdoms period, Jin, and the centuries of strife of the 5th and 6th century. Compared with the scale armor of the Dark Ages in Europe, these possessed more flexible pauldrons, Also~ because of the small and intricate overlay of the scales (when compared with the large, finger lengthed scales of the Dark Age armies,) it can well stand jabs and stabs directed from below and protect the wearer's armpits (a common trick when fighting opponents with scale armor is to jab from below where the scales offer no protection) ~ which makes these armor excellent for cavalry. 

The distinctive 寄生 "Jisheng" (Lit. "Parasite")- Large decorative plumes attached to the back
of the horse armor. In a role similar to the Sashimono or Horo of the samurai, they served to
not only marking the rank and station of the armored riders, but also according to some sources
served to deflect projectiles fired from behind the horsemen. They appeared during the late Jin-
Sixteen Kingdoms period preceding the Northern and Southern dynasties and were 
ubiquitously seen in the first half of the 6th century.

Heavy armor of a warrior of the late Northern and Southern Dynasty
or early Sui Dynasty. By the late 6th century, there were many styles of
heavy as well as elaborate Chinese armors. Pieces of chestplates-
(padding) began to appear on armors, a trend that would persist
well on to the Tang dynasty.

Chanfron and barding (horse armor) of a 4th-7th century Chinese cataphract, 
note the ostentatious plume Jisheng 寄生, lit. "parasite" on the horse's hip. 

Thank you to my Patrons who has contributed $10 and above: 
You helped make this happen!
➢ ☯ Stephen D Rynerson
➢ ☯ SRS (Mr. U)


Der said…
Great article as always.

What determines the name of a state or dynasty? Why was Zhou or Wei or Qi or Sui names taken?
Old Beast said…
Usually the name of a Kingdom or a Dynasty is based on (as most Chinese tradition goes) based on an illustrious or mythical historical precedence. For instance, before China was an empire united by the Qin, many of the regions are not only local provinces but feudal states (like in Europe) ruled by a hereditary clan. Though eventually all were united under the Qin, the memory and name of those provinces and regions were never forgotten.

Although most of the Provinces have names like Shanxi (western side of Mountains) Shandong (eastern side of Mountains) Henan (south of the river) Hebei (north of the river) the regional identities and ancient names those places bore never faded. The first batch of names for the kingdoms originated during the Zhou (Spring and Autumn/ Warring State Periods)

The central western Heartland where the Zhou dynasty rose was called Zhou, Shandong Province, where the old Kingdom of Qi sat for nearly a full millennium during the Zhou was called Qi, Wei was a Kingdom in northern Henan, Shu was a barbarian Kingdom in Sichuan Basin during the Zhou, Chu was a giant semi- barbarian Kingdom during in Hunan and Hubei during the Zhou, Wu was a kingdom in eastern part of China in modern Fujian and Zhejian region. Even after the Qin and Han united the realm, most of the provinces are still sometimes referred to by these poetic ancient names.

After the collapse of the Han dynasty- during the 3 Kingdoms period, Cao Cao's kingdom was located in Northern China centered in northern Henan, he would resurrect his Kingdom as Wei. Liu Bei ruled the Sichuan Basin and resurrected the old name of Shu, while Sun Quan was located in Zhejian/ Fujian and called his realm Wu. All based on ancient precedents.

After the 3 Kingdoms period, it went by the same tradition, because the Xianbei Touba concentrated their powers mostly in Northern China and northern Henan, they innoved the legacy of Cao Cao's Wei Kingdom and changed their steppe language to conform to the ancient standard and roles of Chinese Kings.

And when it got split up, the western part centered on where the old Zhou dynasty was so they called themselves Zhou, while their eastern rivals was located in Shandong Province, and thuse styled themselves with the ancient title of Qi.

It's all about continuity and homage. And this trend would continue in all of China's period of divisions.

However by the Song dynasty, the new dynasties have no problems just create new dynasty names out of thin air since the attachment between the nobility and the feifs have been largely separated. Instead of having armies and ministries largely composed of hereditary nobles, they are instead staffed by Mandarin scholar- bureaucrats (and since land is no longer the definition of one's origin, kingdom names and dynasty names could become more abstracted- Ming "Bright" Dynasty, Qing "Clean" Dynasty...
Old Beast said…

A quick look at Wei for example:

The first Wei was a regional power during the Warring State phase of Zhou dynasty, it controlled Central- Northern China. It was the precedent and eventually gave its name to the region.

Though the state was crushed by the Qin, its rulers cast out, its institutions absorbed, it still was remembered by the locals and the name Wei became an unofficial designation of the region. After the collapse of the Han dynasty, Cao Cao resurrected it.

After Cao Wei was destroyed and absorbed by the Jin, and after Jin fell to the barbarians, the barbarian newcomers attempted to resurrect the region as their own, in co-opting native support and ingratiating themselves to Chinese culture by calling it by its old name of "Wei"

After the Ran, a much more formidible and much more powerful clan of nomads called Touba clan of the Xianbei completely dominated the region and formed "Wei" (but its called "Northern Wei" to distinguish it.

Essentially all were called "Wei" but inorder to be distinguished, they are also called by the name of clans that ruled it "Cao Wei" (of Cao Cao) "Ran Wei" (of Ran Min) and "Touba Wei"/ "Northern Wei" (of the Touba clan)
Old Beast said…
There were also quite a number of Shus all located in Sichuan
Old Beast said…
A number of Wu states all located in the Jiangnan Fujian area
Der said…
Great info, thanks for taking the time to educate me!

I understand, ... I do notice that the Song Dynasty was the last to use a 'geographic' dynasty name, that of the ancient State of Song founded by members of the Shang Dynasty, even though their surname was Zhao, the name of the Kingdom of Zhao partitioned from Jin. The southern Chen dynasty conquered by Sui was named after the surname of the petty warlord who founded it I believe.

It was the Mongol's, being totally alien to China who chose the strange sounding dynastic name of Yuan I believe. Personally I prefer the old style names.
kol said…
are you river guard on the Kaiserreich forums if so here's a link to the china rework
kol said…
if you to contribute to it
Jayson Ng said…
Which movie or TV show did the pictures come from?