Dr Jesse Harrington

Six Dynasties and Fifteen Volumes



A review of The Cambridge History of China, vol. 2: The Six Dynasties, 220–589, ed. by Albert E. Dien and Keith N. Knapp (Cambridge University Press, 2019)


A dominant theme in the traditional imagination of Chinese history has been the durability of the imperial state. The past two millennia of Chinese history have been conveniently periodised by the series of hereditary imperial dynasties whose periods of rule frequently lasted for centuries, the most notable among them being those of the Qin (221–202 BCE), Han (202 BCE–220 CE), Tang (618–906), Song (960–1279), Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1636–1912). In this narrative of relatively infrequent changes in dynastic rule, the Middle Kingdom persisted as a political entity with an impressive continuity, with only comparatively brief interruptions in the long scheme of history. Even in cases where the ruling dynasties were replaced by foreign invasion, as by the Yuan and the Qing, the new elite largely grafted themselves onto the existing administrative and political structures. While underlying economic and social structures changed, the state that sat atop them endured.
            To this impression of overall political stability and continuity, the period which offers perhaps the most striking test is that of the Six Dynasties. Running from 220–589, this complex era remains the longest period of disunity in Chinese history since Emperor Qin unified China in 221 BCE. In the late second-century CE, the Han Empire which had succeeded Qin’s dynasty for some four centuries suffered a series of plague outbreaks, famines, religious uprisings, and civil conflicts. These ultimately fractured the empire into the competing Three Kingdoms of Shu Han, Wei, and Wu, each claiming, without success, to be the legitimate heir to the all-encompassing empire which had preceded it. In retrospect, the ‘decisive stalemate’ of the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208–9, the celebrated military engagement of the Three Kingdoms period, on the lower bank of the Yangzi between present-day Wuhan and Yueyang, had confirmed the post-Han division and effectively precluded any straightforward restoration or reunification.
            The subsequent centuries were ones of political fragmentation in China, experienced through what Helena Motoh once evocatively described as ‘a series of different constellations of power’, with the parallel rule of multiple states in a series of shifting political arrangements, roughly divided between North and South. One lay north of the Yellow River, the other south of the Yangzi, while the area between them formed a zone of continuing military and political competition. This division was also partly cultural. The North came under the control of non-Han peoples. Large population movements occurred from north to south: Han émigrés and refugees from the north came to dominate the southern elites, and Han settlers pushed into southern regions which had not previously been under Han control. Confrontations and conflicts were suffered between the Han and non-Han peoples in both.
            It was a time of warfare, ethnic tensions, and competition between states, in which the accompanying militarisation and restructuring of state and society exacted, at times, a heavy burden of taxation and other costs on ordinary individuals. Yet this same period of fragmentation also set the stage for what Albert Dien and Keith Knapp have called ‘one of the most creative and intellectually productive times in Chinese history’: one in which ‘the heavy hand of a centralized authority gave way to competing rivals’, competition and exchange of literati between states induced an efflorescence of literature, and ‘new patterns of thought and creativity’ emerged. These were the centuries in which Daoism grew from its humble origins in Sichuan into an organised religion which affected every facet of life throughout China; in which Buddhism went from ‘an alien faith practised only by foreigners in urban settings to a universal religion’, to one accepted and practised by every social class, both rural and urban; and in which Chinese society productively opened its doors to foreign architectural, commercial, literary, medical, philosophical, and scientific influences, particularly from Indian civilisation. Foreign contacts were pursued in what is now Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, Chinese knowledge of the western trade routes along the Silk Road and of the southern maritime approaches increased, and a particularly flourishing exchange was established with India.








Illustrations from a 17th century edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the classic fourteenth-century novel which immortalised the period of the Three Kingdoms


The febrile beginnings of this period have been immortalised, and undoubtedly most widely made known to both East Asian and international audiences, through the fourteenth-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This text was based on the third-century Records of the Three Kingdoms, a canonical history which authoritatively spans the years 185 to 280. One of the canonical ‘Four Classic Novels’ of Chinese literature, the Romance is sometimes put on a par with the influence of Macbeth or Hamlet on students of English literature for its own influence on the literature of East Asia. It is very much a ‘great men’ telling of a high military and political drama. Through it, rulers and strategists such as Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Zhuge Liang reached an iconic status. Thus, some seventeen hundred years after the events which the Romance describes, the two sides of the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party were evoking the traditional heroes and villains of the late Han civil war (and in particular those of the kingdoms of Shu and Wei) to tar opponents and assert their own legitimacy.
            Nonetheless, the period which immediately follows the Three Kingdoms – the period covering the latter ‘five’ of the ‘six dynasties’ – has traditionally been one of the least well-studied or widely known. In part, this is because of the undeniable complexity of the period, which defies a simple narrative or easy understanding, and in which even the most appropriate definition and label for the period are disputed. (The complicated term ‘Six Dynasties’ itself is traditionally derived from the sequential list of six dynasties based in Jiankang, as later codified by Tang dynasty scholars, or from the overlapping list of six dynasties considered ‘orthodox’ by Song dynasty scholars, but other dynasties ruled concurrently elsewhere in China.)
            Equally, the narrative of fragmentation, concurrent rule, and constant realignment over nearly four centuries does not easily fit into a straightforward, state-oriented, long historical narrative whose main organising premise has been one of continuity, stability, and unity. The Six Dynasties are sometimes dismissed, unjustifiably, as the ‘Dark Ages’ of Chinese history, comparatively dimmed both by the classical dusk of the Later Han collapse that preceded it and by the medieval dawn of the ‘Golden Age’ Tang dynasty that followed. As Dien and Knapp have rightly observed, ‘periods of disunity in Chinese history do not usually receive the attention that they deserve’.
            It is precisely because of this that Dien and Knapp’s long-awaited second volume to the fifteen-volume The Cambridge History of China, an especially rich addition which covers the period of 220 to 589, is to be so warmly welcomed. Appropriately for the civilisation which it describes, The Cambridge History has likewise displayed an impressive scale and longevity. Conceived in the 1960s as the first full survey of Chinese history in English and covering from the founding of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE until 1982, publication of the series began in 1978. The series now impressively spans some 14,744 pages, collectively spread across fifteen volumes in sixteen books. A companion volume, The Cambridge History of Ancient China, From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, was released in 1999. The publication of each volume has been in order of completion rather than of chronological sequence, but now with the release of the second volume, only one book – the second book of the two-part volume on Sui and Tang China (589–906), of which the first was published long ago in 1979 – awaits publication.
            There are inevitable consequences to such a long-running series. In the half century from its conception to near completion, the series has already outlived its original editors, Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank, by some fifteen and thirty years respectively. When volume 1 was published in 1986, concerning the Qin and Han Empires which preceded the Six Dynasties, the author of the chapter on Chinese philosophy and religion, the great Swiss-French sinologist Paul Demiéville, had already been dead for seven years. Moreover, his chapter, drafted in the early 1970s, had to be accompanied by a postscript by Timothy Barrett surveying developments in the field over the subsequent decade; although, as Barrett then observed, the chapter still held up remarkably well.           
            The road to the completion of the second volume, much as the mountainous road to Shu in the classic Tang poem of Li Bai, has evidently been longer and more arduous. A sign of its decades-long assembly can be observed in the volume’s first two chapters on the kingdoms of Wei and Wu, contributed by the Australian doyen of Three Kingdoms scholarship, Rafe de Crespigny. Specialists in the Three Kingdoms period will be aware that a preliminary version of these chapters was already circulating, in a narrative survey form, in the journal East Asian History as early as 1991. Nonetheless, those same readers will now be especially glad to have his final, reframed version, supplemented by two solid chapters on Shu and Western Jin by J. Michael Farmer and Damien Chaussende.
            That the second volume should have been the longest to await publication has doubtless been due both to the unfilled gullies in the scholarly knowledge of the period and to the want of suitable specialists – the essential planks in the proverbial Shu road – capable of scaling those ravines and carrying the road to completion. In these respects, the timing has been auspicious. As Dien and Knapp note in their introduction, conservative surveys of the number of publications between 1978 and 2008 on the Six Dynasties have estimated well over 650 or 1,724 items. For De Crespigny’s chapters on Wei and Wu, one has only to consider his own indispensable contributions in the intervening decades to Three Kingdoms scholarship, not least his 2007 biographical dictionary of the Later Han and his 2010 biography of the Wei warlord and statesman Cao Cao. New discoveries have also contributed to the flourishing scholarship of the period. Especially notable are the vibrant research into the administrative records from Wu, contained in the third-century bamboo and wooden slips discovered in an old well in 1996; the discovery and excavation of the tomb of Cao Cao in Anyang in 2009; and the expanding knowledge of other sites, tombs, and urban archaeology, more generally.
            Propitiously, the additional time taken to complete the volume has benefitted its overall editorial framing. The most instructive comparison, perhaps, can be drawn with volume 1 of The Cambridge History, published over three decades earlier and concerning the immediately preceding period of 221 BCE–220 CE. Volumes 1 and 2 span approximately four centuries each in a similar length, at 878 and 720 pages of content respectively. The earlier volume comprises some sixteen chapters, whose framing gives pride of focus to political and intellectual subjects. Economic and social history are grouped in two chapters, split chronologically and comprising about a tenth of the book, with five chapters given to various philosophical and religious traditions. The remainder of the volume narrates the political history of the empire, its institutions, government, and foreign relations.
            In volume 2, broken down into some thirty chapters, the vision is simultaneously broader, more focused, and more readily navigable as a comprehensive reference work. The political history of this complex period is ably divided into eleven discrete, chronologically arranged chapters on each dynastic era or polity; society into ten thematic chapters; and culture, religion, and art into another nine. Agriculture, art, foreign relations, local society, music, poetry, prose, the role of women and families, and warfare each receive dedicated chapters, while the economy and material culture receive two chapters each, one for each of the north and south. Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, the ‘Dark Learning’ (the difficult to translate qingtan and xuanxue), and popular religion each receive separate treatment in individual chapters. The history of the Sogdians, the Iranian steppe people who dominated the Silk Road and became integrated into Chinese society and institutions, also receives a chapter. In many respects, this framing of the volume’s chapters reflects the trend toward more focused studies of the period in recent decades, and having them together furnishes the volume with an enviable comprehensiveness.
            Nor, in the first eleven chapters, is any detail of the political drama lost. This feature will be especially welcome for students who have hitherto relied for their standard introduction on Mark Lewis’ China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties (2011), a work which deftly synthesises the cultural, social, and political history of the period, but which does so at the expense of a comparably detailed political narrative. Altogether, Dien and Knapp have struck an admirable balance, one which neither errs too far on the political nor on the social and cultural, but which instead holds both together in a mutually complementary manner. As such, it should inevitably become the first point of reference for the interested scholar or reader on each subject.
            There are important refinements to our understanding of the period as briefly introduced in the preceding volume. For example, where Demiéville once sketched a post-Han decline of Confucianism into irrelevance – a philosophy of rules and order increasingly confronted and discredited by contemporary political disorder – Knapp’s chapter on ‘Confucian learning and influence’ under the Six Dynasties offers another valuable postscript. Building on recent Chinese and Japanese scholarship, Knapp outlines how the period, in fact, witnessed the deepening entrenchment of Confucian tradition in both state and society. Naturally, the maintenance of Confucian court ritual was an indispensable means of asserting legitimate succession, all the more so as dynasties kept changing. Similarly, each new dynasty typically founded an imperial university or taixue in its capital, as a means of attracting and identifying Confucian scholars who could serve it as officials or advisors. Indeed, it was during the Six Dynasties that ‘one of China’s greatest contributions to the world’, the imperial civil service examination, matured; not under the later Sui or Tang, as historians often believe.
            It is true that many of the Six Dynasties universities were short-lived, but this merely meant there was a decentralisation of education: the Confucian classics continued as the unifying canon, while the lack of centralised control allowed for the flourishing of many different types of learning. Scholarship became more critical: no longer accepting any one commentary as authoritative, but instead critically compiling multiple commentaries on individual texts. Private education became ‘so common and influential that, to bolster the reputation of newly established public schools’ which were suffering by the contrast, ‘a northern Qi emperor banned it’.
            Altogether, this volume is a superb achievement. It should be of great interest not only to students of Chinese culture, history, and literature, but to more general readers as well. One may name two other groups which deserve special mention. The first are comparative economists and economic historians. As Richard von Glahn has observed in The Economic History of China from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (2016), little of the comparative scholarship on China’s economic history examines that before the eighteenth century. Moreover, that which does so has frequently tended either toward the questionable assumption of economic inertia imparted by ‘oriental despotism’, or toward that of stadial, linear development, without due attention to the institutional contexts of different times and places. In that regard, Von Glahn’s book has been a welcome and indispensable survey which gives the lie to both assumptions. The chapters in The Cambridge History complement that picture and offer a closer view of important themes at a time in which the institutions of competition and of the state really were changing.
            Special attention should be given to the emergence of the south as the commercial power within China, following the transformative shift from the anti-commercial policy of the Han Empire to the pro-commercial policies of its southern successor states. Other key factors of the period, such as the series of crises in the north and south which stemmed from the failure to maintain a stable coinage, are laid out in a clear and probing narrative. At the same time, those intrigued by James C. Scott’s pioneering The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009) and his provocative Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017) will also find much raw material of interest in The Cambridge History’s chapter on the southern economy: not least in its account of the ordinary Han who fled the taxes and predatory, ‘civilised’ states of their Han rulers to their non-Han, ‘barbarian’ neighbours, outside state control. These themes and others each merit close attention.
            A second group to whom the volume will be of valuable interest are medieval historians, especially those specialising in late antiquity or the ‘global Middle Ages’. In a sense, to speak of ‘early medieval China’ is an anachronism. The traditional idea of there being a medium aevum or ‘middle age’ is Eurocentric in focus and pejorative in origin, traceable ultimately to the Italian humanists and implying a stagnation or regression between the civilisation of Graeco-Roman classical antiquity and its later, supposed renaissance. It runs the risk of applying an artificial teleology, loaded with a polemic of civilisation and collapse, which has been rightly debunked in its European context and may be even less applicable to China. On the other hand, the approach of global history encourages one to compare contemporary civilisations on their own terms, and, as a label of convenience, comparison of the two medieval civilisations may thus be instructive.
            Certainly, there are some attractive parallels in the post-Roman and post-Han worlds which may be illuminating for scholars of both to consider. Both worlds experienced political fragmentation in a broadly contemporary timeframe, and moreover, this fragmentation occurred within the territories of highly advanced and politically centralised empires which had successfully imposed themselves on their respective civilisational zones for several centuries. Both witnessed the rise of a series of successor states that claimed their origins and legitimacy from the empires which had preceded them. Both sets of successor states, accordingly, carefully maintained outward ritual forms as a means of asserting that continuity. Both had to adapt their social and economic structures to support the new necessities – military and otherwise – of changes from above and below.
            Both civilisations were transformed by the rising influence and consolidation of foreign or utopian faiths with a peculiarly ascetic, interior, and metaphysical focus – whether Buddhism, Christianity, or Daoism – until those faiths became permanent and all-encompassing. The description of Chinese Buddhist monasteries, contrasting their character at the beginnings of the period with that which they displayed at its end, could as easily be applied to the first Christian churches and monasteries in the west. Initially these ‘were mostly ordinary homes that had been donated by devotees, no different in structure and appearance than any other grand house’; by the end of the period, they had come to feature a distinctive architecture, ‘a thriving and diverse monastic economy’, and the expectation that they would ‘enforce rigid standards for what had become a widely recognised, distinctive vocation.’ The period’s anachronistic legend of Emperor Ming of Han bringing the first Buddhist monks and scriptures to China by imperial decree, after dreaming of a golden, flying deity – designed to give the faith its retrospective official sanction – has its obvious parallel in the contemporary Roman legend of the Emperor Constantine’s vision of the cross before the Milvian Bridge, or in the medieval legend of Augustus’ vision of the birth of Christ. The introduction of practices taken for granted in later Chinese and European religious devotion – including ‘pilgrimage, the venerations of icons and relics, the recitation of lengthy scriptures’ – also took place in the period. At the same time, despite outbreaks of mutual persecution between the old and new faiths, none of the new, ultimately victorious faiths fully displaced the Graeco-Roman or Confucian systems which preceded them; instead, Graeco-Roman and Confucian literature and philosophy were respectively integrated, refined, and honoured within the new dispensations as the ‘classics’, indispensable to those new religions as the foundations of learning and ritual. Conversely, it was the introduction of those new faiths which helped hold civilisation together in the wake of political collapse. Readers of Peter Brown’s seminal ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’ (1971) and of the Latin church father Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of the two cities will additionally be interested to draw comparisons with the post-Han east: with Confucian sages such as Huangfu Mi, Fu Xuan, and Yan Zhitui, with the political pessimism of practitioners of qingtan or ‘pure discourse’, and with the unprecedented ontological discussions of sage-hood pursued by adherents of xuanxue or ‘dark learning’.
            In the end, both civilisations subsequently saw their respective ‘medieval’ periods, rightly or wrongly, as a time of cultural and political break from the established pattern, putatively restored in Europe with the renaissances of the ninth, twelfth, or fourteenth centuries, and in China by the seventh-century Tang and tenth-century Song dynasties. Perhaps most importantly, both medieval periods were times in which the formative and later decisive national myths of later history were established. In the west, men later looked to Charlemagne, so much so that the annual prize for European unification is named after him, while the monastic saints Benedict and Columbanus have been hailed as the fathers and spiritual patrons of Europe. In China, the early medieval heroes of the Romance have been endlessly valorised since the fourteenth century and have remained a cultural and political touchstone.
            The period of third- to sixth-century China is thus a crucially important, if understudied, one. It is important because it simultaneously broke the pattern of political unity within the Chinese civilisational state while setting the path for the restoration of that same unity. It has been understudied because, for the same reason, it has often been seen as the historical exception rather than the norm. Fragmentation and decentralisation did not destroy Chinese civilisation, however, any more than they were once wrongly thought to have destroyed civilisation in post-Roman Europe. Rather, they laid the foundations for that civilisation’s renewal.