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READ: Between the Han and the Tang: A Period of Disunion in China

What happens between “golden ages”? Although not considered “golden”, there was still a lot happening in China between the Han and Tang dynasties.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What was Chinese life like immediately following the fall of the Han dynasty?
  2. How was Chinese identity and culture formation impacted by migration of new groups into China?
  3. What made Buddhism appealing to a wide array of people at the time?
  4. What factors contributed to the rise of the Sui Dynasty?
  5. What led to the fall of the Sui, and how did its legacy continue into the Tang Dynasty?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. Based on this article, how would you describe China’s recovery or restructuring following the collapse of the Han Dynasty?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Between the Han and the Tang: A Period of Disunion in China

Detailed, paneled painting of two warriors dueling, each on a black horse.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
What happens between “golden ages”? Although not considered “golden”, there was still a lot happening in China between the Han and Tang dynasties.

After the fall of the Han dynasty

Historians often talk about certain "golden" ages. In China, the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) are certainly candidates for "golden ages." But what about that four-hundred- year interval in between? Even though this wasn't a period of many long-lasting dynasties, the roughly four centuries between the Han and the Tang were still very important in Chinese history. Much of what is currently understood as Chinese culture emerged during this period, and the foundations were created for later economic and political developments.
Map image shows a great number of different territories clustered against each other.
*Visit this link to see a timeline of territorial changes during the Three Kingdoms period. During this period, many different factions controlled China, and these arrangements were very unstable. By Qiushufang, CC BY-SA 4.0. *
Let's pause for a minute. What happened after the fall of the Han? After the last Han emperor was overthrown in 220 CE, the face of China began to transform. For centuries after the fall of the Han, China was ruled by many different factions, largely land-owning warlords, but there wasn't much of a centralized government. Initially, China was split into the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE). This lasted for several decades before it fell apart.
After the Three Kingdoms, the Jin dynasty (265–420) may have lasted for quite a while, but it was not particularly effective in uniting China. After the first couple of decades, the Jin dynasty fragmented and became unstable. Despite this, many artistic and cultural achievements arose during the Jin dynasty, including one of China's earliest legal codes and numerous construction projects, including fortifying the Great Wall
A text that features drawings. One drawing shows three people fighting off a small bear with spears.
The centuries that followed the Han inspired legends of valiant warriors and stories of political intrigue. Despite the grand and exciting stories of this period, life wasn't always easy for the average person. Constant conflict and warfare made life incredibly unpredictable and difficult. Millions lost their lives in war, and the lack of a central government made helping those in poverty and famine difficult. At the same time, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people moved into China. Most of these migrants were nomadic groups from territories in the north and northwest. This shift in population resulted in the decline of some urban centers while other cities prospered. But while the number of people living in China declined slightly during this period, the population remained relatively stable over the centuries.

Becoming Chinese

Population shifts during this time resulted in cultural changes that might surprise you. For instance, what does calligraphy have to do with "barbarian" invaders? Let's start with the barbarians and come back to calligraphy in a minute. As we've seen in many different historical contexts, newcomers were often looked down upon and seen as uncivilized or barbaric. This was certainly the case when masses of people migrated into China from the north and northwest. As these new groups invaded and took power in the north, China seemed to split in half. Some historians even argue that there was a political separation during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589 CE).
Though this was a time of civil unrest, it was also a time of artistic and cultural flourishing. As the composition of society started to change, many people felt it was important to define what it meant to be Chinese. Though people spoke numerous dialects, it became important to have a common language. In the absence of an imperial authority uniting all of China, many traditional Chinese arts from the southern region came to represent "authentic" Chinese culture and society. This was meant to exclude the northern population. Calligraphy, painting, and poetry came to be seen as the pinnacle of Chinese culture. The belief was that refined, "civilized" Chinese people could produce beautiful calligraphy and other fine arts; northern barbarians, on the other hand, could not. These kinds of distinctions didn't just separate Chinese from non-Chinese, but they also split people into different social groups depending on their status and wealth. Only wealthy people had the luxury of spending time on these activities.
Three panels of very ornate calligraphy and paintings.
“Sunny after Snow” by Wang Xizhi. Wang Xizhi was a celebrated calligrapher, poet, and musician during the Jin dynasty. Public domain
Over time, however, some of these divisions were blurred. As populations intermarried, newcomers adopted the Chinese language and more freely exchanged culture. New cultural ideas also unified people across ethnic and economic groups. For instance, Buddhism, which had already existed in China for centuries, began to spread among both the Chinese and the nomadic groups, uniting them both under a common set of beliefs. It appealed to both the rich and the poor, and some dynasties actively supported Buddhism's spread. During this time of instability and conflict, Buddhist teachings about suffering and impermanence resonated with people. Buddhism also influenced art, poetry, and sculpture, and we can see a distinctly Chinese Buddhist style emerging during this period.
A very large and impressive sculpture of the Buddha, seated inside a domed, carved rock.
Yungang Grottoes in Datong, China. These Buddhist sculptures from the fifth and sixth centuries show the unique Chinese Buddhist aesthetic. By Marcin Białek, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Women's roles also changed as northern and southern groups mixed. Buddhism created new possibilities for women in the form of women's monasteries, and the nomadic groups that had moved into China often had less structured gender roles. Also, in times of war, women often had to take on new roles in society. Many of the celebrated Chinese warrior heroines were from this time. From thirteen-year-old master horsewoman and archer Xun Guan to legendary warrior Hua Mulan, women in China were often admired for their contributions outside the home.

A new center

Around the 580s, a nobleman named Yang Jian, later called Wendi, created a new imperial center and founded the Sui Dynasty. The Sui flourished partly because they gained the support of military leaders from the north, which allowed them to reunite many Chinese territories under one leader.
Painting of a woman carrying a spear.
A Qing dynasty painting depicting Hua Mulan. By Taipei, National Palace Museum, public domain.
The Sui consolidated this centralized power by lowering taxes, redistributing land, and making sure there were public storehouses of grain throughout the territories, ensuring that there was a stable supply of food in times of crisis. Under the Sui, a system of examinations for bureaucrats was restored, and the legal and educational systems were reformed. One of the biggest Sui achievements was the creation of a sophisticated canal network that connected many parts of the empire and included expanding and reinforcing the magnificent Grand Canal.
A painting of an Emperor, flanked by two other men. All three men are wearing flowing clothing, and the Emperor is dressed especially ornately.
Emperor Wendi of Sui, who launched the project of the Grand Canal. Painting by Tang dynasty artist Yan Liben (600–673), public domain
Unfortunately, these massive construction projects required a great deal of labor, and hundreds of thousands of peasants were forced to do this back-breaking work. For one project, laborers had to dig up massive trees and transport them many miles away before replanting them in giant mounds made by other laborers. Not surprisingly, these kinds of demands on the people didn't make the Sui leaders very popular. To make matters worse, the Sui initiated numerous unsuccessful war campaigns and didn't maintain the strategic alliances that first helped them unify territory. As power became more concentrated in a central imperial core, social hierarchy and social unrest increased.
Sui rule didn't last very long. The empire began to decline almost as soon as it came together, and by 618, it was in shambles. Even at its height, the Sui didn't control quite as much of China as some of their predecessors or their successors. But the Sui dynasty was significant. In fact, it laid the groundwork for the Tang to emerge and restore imperial order. The bureaucratic examinations and the canal system paved the way for a stronger state and a more prosperous economy. When the Tang dynasty began to rise, it did so from the ashes of the Sui, and it started with one of the Sui's very own officials.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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