Nan bei chao â€“ northern and southern dynasties
Time of national strife - The southern dynasties
China was actually divided into one southern and numerous northern empires from 316 C.E., the year the Huns took over Changâ€™an. With the fall of the eastern Jin dynasty in 420, a period of fragmentation into many empires broke out in the south, lasting more than 150 years until 589 C.E. when the short-lived Sui dynasty reunited the empire for a short time. The the time of the northern and southern dynasties (nan-bei-chao), four dynasties rotated through the south, each of which laid claim to the title of emperor and suzerainty: the Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen dynasties. None of these southern empires was successful in reuniting the empire.
The sixteen dynasties in the north
The time while the Jin dynasty in the south was pushed out but maintained itself as the â€œeastern Jin dynastyâ€ is called the time of the sixteen dynasties because in the north of China, no fewer than 16 kingdoms were formed, mostly by â€œbarbarianâ€ peoples. These Hun, Tibetan, or Mongolian â€œdynastiesâ€ were not in the slightest reminiscent of Chinese culture, keeping their own customs, languages, and administrative techniques.
One exception was the Toba, who in 386 founded the Wei dynasty in the north and whose rulers, like their Chinese models, designated themselves emperors; the Toba brought the entire north under their control by 439 C.E., ending the period of the sixteen dynasties. They modeled themselves after the Chinese civil administration, carried out a land reform, and in general became more Chinese-like. The Toba emperor Xiao Wen (reign: 471 â€“ 499) particularly drove such developments: he specified that Chinese be the only recognized official language, the Toba had to take on Chinese names and wear clothes patterned after Chinese style. But the â€œsinologizationâ€ failed at court because of inner resistance, and the Toba realm disintegrated into many smaller empires.
In the course of these rotating dynasties, neither northern tribes nor southern houses of lords was able to gain the upper hand over the other.
Out of one of the empires, the northern Zhou dynasty, grew the Sui dynasty, which though it lasted only a short while was the first since the Hans that was able to unite all of China.
Despite the disintegration of the empire, important technical advances and cultural changes were able to take place. In the time of the northern and southern dynasties, gunpowder was invented. Medicine and astronomy, too, saw advances during this period. Buddhism, which was first mentioned in China in 65 C.E., won large influence in these times. Emperor Wu Di, founder of the Liang dynastyâ€”one of the southern empiresâ€”was a staunch Buddhist and fostered this religion
Foot binding also saw its origins in this epoch. Administratively, the Toba introduced the separation of civil and military organization, for in the Toba empire, civil affairs were managed by Chinese servants, while military affairs were run by Toba.