Chinese Periodization from ~AD 300 to Sui Unification sucks

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Chinese Periodization from ~AD 300 to Sui Unification sucks

Unread postby Jordan » Sat Jun 13, 2020 5:46 pm

I've been mulling over this topic a lot lately. I hate how this period tends to be labeled, and yet I cannot think of any better periodization scheme myself. But I will try to explain my issues with a few common terms that are thrown around.

1.) "Medieval China" or "Early Medieval China." These terms are thrown around pretty often. There was an Early Medieval China Group that published some great scholarly journal articles for awhile. There's also several books that prefer this terminology, such as David Graff's "Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900." David Graff's start point of AD 300 is interesting. I'll come back to that as I myself think it is a useful date to remember rather than merely an arbitrarily convenient round number. However, I don't like the term medieval at all. It's a Western term, not a Chinese one. It's also not even a particularly good Western term even for periodization of European history. To the best of my knowledge it describes some kind of "middle age," in between an ancient era and a slightly more modern one. One problem with it is that it's generalized to the point of being useless. If you were to ask different people when medieval china began and when it ended, you would probably get a ton of different answers. Another problem is that it carries a negative connotation almost by default in English. It's better than calling this China's Dark Age, or something ridiculous, but not by much. There are also some issues with using a European term to describe a period of Chinese history, as if Chinese history follows the same trajectory as the history of Europe (it doesn't).

2.) Sixteen Kingdoms. This tends to be used in connection with a later "Northern and Southern Dynasties" period occurring afterward. I hate this term too. From my understanding, it comes from a historical work called the Spring and Autumn of the Sixteen Kingdoms. My rationale for hating this terminology is that there were more than 16 Kingdoms. Furthermore, I'd argue that the omissions are so extreme that the term is a terrible descriptor. Dai for instance is not considered one of the 16 Kingdoms, even though the Tuoba family which ruled it was connected with Northern Wei. Kind of a big deal imo. It also leaves out Eastern Jin and Liu Song and several other important and less than important polities. Compared to "Medieval China," it's slightly better because at least it's comprehensible to most people which period of time it refers to.

3.) Northern and Southern Dynasties. Commonly thrown around, and very nondistinct and generic. This wasn't the first or last period of Chinese history with a north/south split between competing kingdoms. It also obfuscates how at certain points wars were as frequently waged along a west/east (specifically northwest/northeast) axis as a north/south one.

4.) Wei-Jin Nanbeichao (Northern and Southern Dynasties). Slightly better than the above because it's more distinct in terms of exactly what it's referring to. The Wei-Jin at the front end makes it clear what the start point is. This term is my favorite of the possible periodization schemes, but is problematic as well. It lumps the Three Kingdoms period in with a vastly different time period (from my perspective anyways), treats Wei with primacy and then speaks of everything after Jin as just one gigantic period, which I personally do not think is the case. '

5.) Six Dynasties. This either is Wu, Jin, Song, Qi, Liang, Chen or it's all of the above, but with Wei instead of Wu. If you're referring only to South China, I prefer the former with Wu. But I'm not a huge fan of this term either since it seems to give primacy to the South.

6.) Age of Disunion/Age of Fragmentation, etc. When I was younger, I was greatly enamored of these terms, but in hindsight they are pretty vague and nonspecific. I also read a pretty strong argument against them before which stated that this terminology implies that a strong unified Chinese Empire was the more normal situation, and these terms suggest that China at this time was uniquely fragmented. But in reality, China had plenty of periods of disunity.

Sometimes some of these terms are used concurrently with one another, splitting up the histories of North and South China. In a way, this might be the less anachronistic way to conceptualize this period. There were major regional distinctions that separated the two from each other throughout these several 100s of years, which only grew over time. But maybe for teleological reasons, or maybe because I think those histories are too interconnected, I find it hard to separate the two histories in my mind.

Now to move on to some more generalized issues I have with how these several hundred of years are conceptualized. First, the War of 8 Princes. The chain of events here began with the machinations of Jia Nanfeng against first the Yang consort clan, then Sima Liang, then Sima Wei. However, I would argue that the period after Sima Yan's death but before Jia Nanfeng's death had more continuity with Sima Yan's reign than with the period after Jia Nanfeng's death. The Empire was largely peaceful until Sima Lun's usurpation of power established an all out civil war, which far exceeded the scope of relatively minor coups in the capital against Jia Nanfeng's enemies previously. Therefore I see AD 300 as more of a turning point than the date when Sima Yan died. Another turning point imo was after Sima Yue died, as Sima Yue had managed to repel some armies of Wang Bi, Shi Le, Liu Yuan and others for a time while alive, but his death resulted in the immediate unraveling of Western Jin.

Then there's the division between the "Sixteen Kingdoms" and "Northern and Southern Dynasties." From my perspective, the era typically regarded as the "Sixteen Kingdoms" is better perceived as two different periods split up by Former Qin's conquest of all of the North and then dissolution. This is probably my most controversial opinion, as I feel that the period before Former Qin's dissolution and the period after Former Qin's dissolution are different enough to be usefully conceived of as separate from each other. I've gone back and forth on this a lot, and can easily think of counter-arguments against this schema. For example, you could point out how a lot of the ruling families and kingdoms after Former Qin had continuity with kingdoms that existed before Former Qin conquests (especially Former Yan->Later Yan and Dai->Northern Wei, for instance). You could also point to other specific moments in time that were arguable game changers, such as Huan Wen's conquest of Cheng/Han and his Northern expeditions.

But I would argue that Former Qin's unification of the North and then its collapse resulted in a lot of changes in the next ensuing period, which make it useful as a dividing line.

First, the dissolution of Former Qin shifted momentum from the North to the South for a much more extensive period of time than Huan Wen's conquests. The most notable geographic change in this case is that following the collapse of Former Qin, the Southern dynasties took Sichuan and held it for a much longer time than prior. Huan Wen had taken Sichuan before, but Jin lost it to Former Qin. Once Jin regained it, however, it was subsequently held by all of the Southern dynasties except Chen iirc, a much larger stretch of time. As for when the momentum shifted back from the South to the North, imo this occurred after Hou Jing betrayed Liang.

Second, prior to Former Qin, Liang province had served as the very unlikely and ironically stable bastion of Han Chinese rulers in the North. But after Former Qin's dissolution, Liang province was split up between various different states, most of which were not ruled by Han Chinese rulers anymore.

Third, the period after Former Qin saw the creation of the first dynasty with Qiang rulers in these years, at least to the best of my knowledge. The opportunist Yao family carved their own Later Qin state out of the ashes of Former Qin.

Actually since I mentioned the rise of a Qiang dynasty, let's take stock of the common expression "Five Hu" to describe the non-Chinese people of this time. They are considered to be the Di, Qiang, Xiongnu, Xianbei and Jie. In the period before Former Qin, there were a larger number of Jie, and Shi Le+his heirs are usually believed to have been Jie as far as I know, or at least linked to them in some manner. However, following Ran Min's brief genocides, the Jie were not really as large a force in China afterwards. This is another thing that distinguishes the period before Former Qin as compared to the period afterward.

Additionally, these "five hu" were not the only non-Chinese roaming around at this time. The first major non-Chinese kingdom after AD 300 was actually being formed in Sichuan even as the War of Eight Princes was underway. Li Te had taken with him a large group of refugees of various ethnic groups into the region, including Di. The Li family background is unclear, but Terry Kleeman suggests that the Li family were actually a subgroup of the Ba ethnicity in his book Great Perfection. Although the Ba are not considered one of the five Hu, the Cheng state founded by the Li are considered one of the 16 Kingdoms. However, to the best of my knowledge, the Ba were not as powerful or influential following Cheng/Han conquest by Eastern Jin, and subsequently Sichuan changing hands several times. So this also is a possible distinction between the pre Former Qin conquests and the post Former Qin era. Aside from the Ba, there was also a very shortly-lived state founded by the Dingling peoples called Wei. Outside of these two notable exceptions, I'm unsure if there were other groups aside from the conventionally given "five hu," but ethnicity in this period is vague, confusing and difficult to comprehend at this time. I believe there was one term like "tiefu" or something, as an example, which described someone of mixed Xianbei and Xiongnu heritage. Toward the end, the elite that ruled began to have mixed bloodlines incorporating Xiongnu, Xianbei, Han and sometimes Qiang. There were also different branches within a specific "hu" group, which may have been important distinctions, though I am not an expert on this by any means.

Aside from these distinctions between what I would argue are two different periods, I think there was one other major sea change. After Former Qin, there were a lot more Xianbei dynasties, the Xianbei became the more dominant of the non-Chinese ethnic groups in North China, and many states became "Xianbeinized" in some respect. Before Former Qin, the Xianbei were still pretty strong, especially the Murong, but after Former Qin's dissolution it was even more the case that Xianbei power and culture was ascendant. The two strongest powers were probably the Murong Xianbei rulers of Later Yan and the Tuoba Xianbei successors of Dai, who eventually became Northern Wei and unified Northern China. Although the successor states to Northern Wei, after its breakup, were not ruled by pure Xianbei rulers, they are similarly considered to have been "Xianbeinized."

After Northern Wei's unification of Northern China, I am less certain how to periodize the rest of these years leading up to Sui's unification. The unification of Northern China by Northern Wei was obviously a major shift in the political history of these centuries, as was the decision by the Emperor Xiaowendi to embark upon a major Sinicization of his kingdom. Yet another turning point was when Northern Wei itself collapsed, leading to a bifurcation of the North along a West/East axis. On the other hand, I also think events in the South should be considered too. In my mind, the rebellion of Hou Jing against Liang was also a game changer. Until that time, the Southern states had been fractious, frequently subject to royal family battle royales or powerful generals challenging the center. Nonetheless, they had maintained parity with the North, and had even managed to occasionally make major gains. I feel that Hou Jing's rebellion was especially devastating and permanently shifted the balance of power. I personally think that dynastic shifts were not always that important in the South. A lot of Eastern Jin Emperors were already quite weak, frequently struggling to resist powerful generals of their own kingdom. When Liu Yu finally created his own dynasty, it was after he already largely dominated Eastern Jin politics for quite some time prior, so it wasn't exactly like the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. The Cambridge History did point out something ironic to me, though, which I find amusing. While Western Jin was torn about by familial fratricide, a lot of the civil wars of Eastern Jin tended to be unrelated to royal family pretenders. However, in the subsequent dynasties, it was much more common for huge wars between uncles, nephews, brothers, fathers, sons, etc. to take place. So maybe that was a bit of a shift. Certain individual reigns of Southern monarchs, especially if they were long lasting, were often more significant than dynastic shifts though, at least in my mind.
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