Episode 20: The Age of Disunity
Foundations of Eastern Civilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
According to Benjamin, the last decades of the Han Dynasty were characterized by corruption and infighting between the three groups of competing elites: the emperor’s eunuchs, the hereditary nobility and the Confucian bureaucrats. Simultaneously there was also substantial peasant unrest, most notably the Yellow Turban Rebellion (184-205 AD). Ultimately the empire was overrun by militarized nomads, just as Rome was.
After the last Han emperor was deposed in 220 AD, power fell into the hands of regional governments and warlords. Cao Cao, one of the most powerful, is best known for settling landless peasants on state forms. After employing Xiongu horse archers as mercenaries, he also resettled them in Shanxi province in northern China.
Several warlords attempted to reunify China, only to be thwarted by their rivals. In 220 AD Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi unsuccessfully attempted to reunify China as the Wei Dynasty.
Significant historical periods include
- 230 – 280 AD – Three Kingdoms period, with the rival Wei kingdom in the North, Shu kingdom in the West and Wu kingdom in the East.
- 265 AD – the Jin Dynasty captures the Wei kingdom, ruling until 420 AD. They very briefly rule the other two kingdoms as well, but the fleeting Jin Empire collapses due to a conflict with their own civil service.
- 281 – 305 AD – brutal civil war involving all of China.
- 311 AD – Xiongnu nomads take advantage of continuing civil unrest, to sack the former capitol of the Eastern Han Dynasty at Luoyang. In 316, they sacked Changan.
- 304 – 437 AD – era of the 16 kingdoms, characterized by o one of continual war with Xiongu nomads.
- 420 – 589 AD – Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, featuring significant in southern China, previously isolated from the major dynasties.
- 439 – 534 AD – Shaanxi settlers from Manchuria adopt Han culture and re-established the Wei Dynasty in northern China.
- 581 AD – militarily superior Sui Dynasty finally reunifies China. The first Sui emperor Wendi, also China’s first Buddhist emperor,* eliminates many of the cruel punishments enacted under the Legalist dynasties.** His son Yangdi builds the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze River.
*Buddhism first reached China during the first century AD. During the Age of Disunity, many Chinese Buddhists temples and monasteries and made pilgrimages to India. Chinese Buddhists periodically experienced vicious attacks by Confucian elites. The celibacy practiced by Buddhist monks was viewed as “unfilial” (under Confucianism, one has a duty to parents and ancestors to produce an heir).
**Legalism was a school of political philosophy that competed with Confucianism and Daoism during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). See China: Ancient Civlization Born in Isolation
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