Confusion, reunification and golden age

Wei Wendi

Chen Hou Zhu

Sui Wendi

Tang Gaozu

Three Kingdoms : Centuries of rule by warlords began in this period, a time of history greatly romanticesed for its reputed chivalry.  Despite the political unrest, major advances were made in the fields of medicine, astronomy and cartography, and gunpowder was invented for use in fireworks.
Wei : 220 - 265
Shu Han : 221 - 263
Wu : 229 - 280

Art in the Three Kingdoms:  It was during this time that the first artists appear whose names we still know today. One of the earliest Chinese artists whose name we know is Ku K'ai-chih, who lived in the 300's AD (when Constantine was first building Constantinople in West Asia). Ku K'ai-chih is reputed to have been a great portrait artist, but none of his works have survived.
Chinese artists continued to be inspired by Buddhist themes. Beginning in the 400's AD, they began to paint the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang. The earliest paintings in these caves were simple pictures of Buddha and his boddhisatvas and were greatly influenced by Indian and Roman paintings although there Chinese elements can be seen as well.

Jin Dynasty : 265 - 420

Western Jin : 265 - 316 and Eastern Jin : 317 - 420

The Jin Dynasty was founded by the Sima family, the descendants of the great historian Sima Qian. The first of the two periods, the Western Jin Dynasty ( 265-316), was founded by Emperor Wu and provided a brief period of unity after conquering the Kingdom of Wu in AD 280, but this unity could not be sustained. The Jin could not contain the uprising of nomadic peoples after the devastating War of the Eight Princes. Remaining members of  the Jin court fled from the north to the south and reestablished the Jin court under the Prince of Longya at Jiankang, near modern-day Nanjing. Prominent local families of Zhu, Gan, Lu, Gu and Zhou supported the proclamation of Prince of Longya as Emperor Yuan of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) when the news of the fall of Chang'an reached the south.
Militaristic authorities and crises plagued the Eastern Jin court throughout its 104 years of existence. It survived the rebellions of Wang Dun and Su Jun. Huan Wen died in 373 before making himself emperor. Battle of Fei turned out to be a victory of Jin under a short-lived cooperation of Huan Chong, brother of Huan Wen and the Prime Minister (or Imperial Secretariat) Xie An. Huan Xuan, son of Huan Wen, usurped and changed the name of the dynasty to Chu. He was toppled by Liu Yu, who ordered the hanging of the reinstated but retarded Emperor An. The last emperor and brother of Emperor An, Emperor Gong, was installed in 419. The abdication of Emperor Gong in 420 in favor of Liu Yu, then Emperor Wu, ushered in the Song Dynasty and the Southern Dynasties.
Meanwhile North China was ruled by the Sixteen Kingdoms, many of which were founded by the Wu Hu, the non-Han Chinese ethnicities. The conquest of the Northern Liang by the Northern Wei Dynasty in 439 ushered in the Northern Dynasties.

Southern and Northern Dynasty :
Southern Dynasty : 420 - 588
Northern Dynasty : 386 - 588

The Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) followed the Sixteen Kingdoms and preceded Sui Dynasty in China.  It was an age of civil wars and disunity. Despite the political disunity of the times, however, there were notable technological advances. The invention of gunpowder (at that time only for use in fireworks) and the wheelbarrow are believed to date from  this time, and advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography were recorded.
During this period, many northern Chinese moved southward and Buddhism continued to spread and attract devotees. The south and north developed into a relatively stable equilibrium, due to geographical differences. The flat steppes of the north were useful for cavalry, while the river lands of the south were valued for naval warfare. A strong navy on the Yangtze River could protect the south from the north, since cavalry was useless in the river areas.  Likewise, logistics difficulties for the horse-poor south made it difficult to maintain a successful northern campaign. Depending on the relative strengths of the states, the Huai River area and the Sichuan basin were the primary areas of significant territorial changes. This barrier was only overcome by the first emperor of the Sui Dynasty, who built a large invading navy in the Sichuan basin.

Sui Dynasty : 581 - 617

Under the Sui Dynasty (589 AD - 618 AD), China was reunited. Wen Ti (also identified as Yang Chien by other sources), the first Sui emperor, was a general  (or military servant, depending on the source) who usurped the throne of the non-Chinese Northern Chou in 581. In the next eight years, Wen Ti successfully reconquered the Chinese territory and re-established the centralized administrative system of the Han and reinstated the competitive tests that were once taken to measure a bureaucrat's competency.
Wen Ti made himself popular by trying to make the government better than it was during the Three Kingdoms; he ordered that poor people in the countryside should pay less taxes which always meets with great public approval. He conducted the first census in order to determine how much taxes that province should pay and he ordered that every man should get a plot of land to farm. When the man turned 60 and was too old to farm, he would stop paying taxes and give back some of the land, and pass on the rest to his sons.

Wen Ti died while he was still fairly young and may have been killed by his son, Yang Ti, who wanted to be the emperor himself. Yang Ti did become the next Sui emperor. and set out to make a name for himself by undertaking a variety of ambitious projects like repairing the Great Wall at great cost to human life.   His greatest achievement was to construct a canal system to carry water throughout China, which later became the Grand Canal connecting the Yellow River with the Huai and Yangtze Rivers which made travel easier from northern to southern China and back again.

His greatest error, however, was to attack Korea in the hopes of taking it over. He invaded with an army of over a million men, but even with that impressive number behind him was defeated and turned away. The army generals were angry and humiliated and subsequently killed Yang Ti, bringing the Sui Dynasty to an end.
In addition to the re-establishment of the government, there was a re-establishment of religion and their roles. Even though Confucianism was officially endorsed, Taoism and Buddhism were acknowledged in formulating a new ideology for the empire. Buddhism continued to flourish.

Art in the Sui Dynasty: Chinese artists had learned a lot about Indian and West Asian sculptural styles but now begain to transform what they had learned and mix it with Chinese styles to create a new, unified, uniquely Chinese style in sculpture. And they used the same style all over China, as if to emphasize that all of China was again under one Emperor.

In painting, too, artists developed a more unified system of painting and were especially interested in how to show that one thing was nearer than another, or farther away but larger.

Pottery styles also developed. For the first time, we see recognizable beginnings of the great Chinese porcelain industry of the future (that we call "china"!).

T'ang Dynasty : 618 - 907
This period of history heralds China’s Golden Age. The T’ang Empire is famous for the arts, chiefly literature, dancing, music and fine arts, and it was a time of prosperity and experimentation and fun. Tea drinking became hugely popular and painting on scrolls became fashionable.

The Tang dynasty was a dynasty that was characterized by such strength and brilliance that it is unprecedented by any other. The civil service examination was so refined that the test's basic form was still in use in the 20th century. The role of the imperial and local government was amplified so that it centralized administration and enacted an elaborate code of administrative and penal laws. The dynasty was vast, stretching from Korea and southern Manchuria to Northern Vietnam. In the west, the Tang influence was felt as far away as present-day Afghanistan.
Yang Ti, the last ruler of the Sui Dynasty, was killed in 618 AD by his generals, who blamed him for the disastrous defeat of the Chinese army in Korea. One of the generals, Li Shih-min, took over ruling the empire, putting his father, Li Yuan, on the throne as emperor. By 626, Li Shih-min made his father abdicate and took the throne himself, taking the new name T'ai Tsung. He made his capital at Chang'an, which became one of the biggest cities in the world at the time.

T'ai Tsung had a long reign and was a strong emperor. The Tang's strength came from continuing the Han Dynasty way of choosing governors and judges by merit, and the Sui Dynasty system of providing equal land allotments to the male population and collecting taxes, which was the Tang's greatest source of income. In addition to that, periodic military service from all males provided the military force.  Under his rule, trade and cities began to become more important to China. This system worked for a while, but when the population increased, the land allotments decreased in size. The government's income did not change, but the peasants' did. This caused many to flee; leaving the government with less money and fewer men in military service.

The early Tang monarchs were generally good rulers. But, one emperor, Hsuan Tsung, fell in love and forgot his royal duties, allowing the woman who stole his heart to place her friends and family in government positions. One such man installed as a general, An Li-shan, quarreled with the woman's brother, which led to war. Fighting continued for eight years, and was only stopped when alliances were made with the Central Asian tribes. The central government was never the same after this rebellion. The Tang could no longer control the generals along the border. These generals withheld tax money and eventually created kingdoms from the land they were to protect.
During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism declined, and Confucianism became more popular. Even though Buddhism was at its peak during the early Tang dynasty, many of the Tang officials were of the Confucian discipline and regarded Buddhism as a disruptive force in China. So, in 845, the Tang emperor started a full-scale persecution of Buddhists. More than 4600 monasteries and 40,000 temples and shrines were destroyed. Other religious groups were also brought under government control.

Art in the Tang Dynasty:  Sculpture, which had really taken off in the Sui Dynasty, reached its apex under the T'ang Dynasty. Sculptors emphasized graceful lines, sharp, clear forms, and realistic body proportions.

In painting, the theme shifted from mainly pictures of the Buddha to scenes from history and scenes of everyday life at the court and people were depicted as real and solid. Nature was an increasingly important theme for these painters. In the 700's AD, the painter Han Kan was famous for his paintings of horses, for instance, and many other artists also chose to paint animals.
Other artists were more interested in landscape painting, which is called shanshui (mountain-water) painting in Chinese.  They used brushes and bright green and blue paint to give their impression of high rocky mountains and cliffs, rivers, rocks, and trees, rather than to try to portray it with ultra realism. The works were not very detailed, and in fact, were judged better for having fewer lines if equally successful.
Many famous artists lived during the T'ang Dynasty - Yen Li-pen, Wu Tao-tzu, Wang Wei, and Tung Yuan for instance - but none of their paintings survived. We do have some later copies of their paintings.

During the Tang dynasty, many great poets also emerged. Li, Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chu-i and prose master Han Yu appeared when the political decline had begun. The printing of books and sharing of ideas promoted cultural unity.

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