An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581)

Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534)

Western Wei 西魏 (535-556) and Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581)

Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550) and Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577)

The Northern Dynasties Beichao 北朝 (386-581) is a series of dynasties that ruled over northern China, while the south was ruled by the so-called Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589). Both groups of dynasties are called the Southern and Northern Dynasties Nanbeichao 南北朝 (300~600). The period of the Northern Dynasties begins either with the foundation of the non-Chinese Northern Wei dynasty in 386, or in 439, the year of the reunification of northern China by the Northern Wei, and ends with the foundation of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) that eventually reunited the whole of China. The 5th and 6th century is therefore called the era of the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600). Except those of the Northern Qi dynasty 北齊 (550-577), all rulers of the Northern Dynasties belonged to the people of the Taɣ​bač 拓跋, a tribe of the steppe federation of the Xianbei 鮮卑. Their dynasties were the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534), Western Wei 西魏 (535-556) and Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550), and the Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581).

In the early 3rd century CE northern China was brought into turmoil by the uprisings of various Non-Chinese peoples that lived scattered among the Chinese population. Besides the rebellions of the Xiongnu 匈奴, Xianbei, Di 氐, Qiang 羌 and Jie 羯, the central government of the Chinese Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) was critically weakened by power struggles among the nobles. In 317 the court of the Jin empire had to flee to the south, where the Eastern Jin dynasty 東晉 (317-420) was established. In the coming one hundred years northern China was ruled by the so-called Sixteen Barbarian States 十六國 (300~430). The last of these states were weeped away by the troops of the Northern Wei empire that reunited northern China. The boundaries of the Northern Wei reached from the city states of the Tarim Basin (see Silk Road) to the Yellow Sea and from the northern steppe to the River Huai 淮河 and the border with the Southern Dynasties. In the southwest, the Northern Wei empire also included parts of modern Sichuan.

In 534 internal struggles among the imperial house of the Northern Wei led to the division into the Eastern and Western Wei empires. The real strongmen behind the two emperors were the Chinese Gao Huan 高歡 and the Xianbei noble Yuwen Tai 宇文泰. Both soon founded their own empires, Northern Qi and Northern Zhou. In 577 Northern Qi was conquered by Northern Zhou, and for a few years northern China was again reunited before general Yang Jian 楊堅 founded the Sui dynasty in 581 that reunited the whole of China.

The social conditions of northern China under the Northern Dynasties were quite complex because of the different concepts Chinese and Non-Chinese communities posed upon their populations. The uncertain conditions of life had since the 3rd century CE contributed to the development of a situation in which nobles or landowners were the patrons of dependend peasants, servants, slaves and private armies. These were able to display a certain independance from the central government and continuously challenged its authority. In both types of socities, Chinese and Non-Chinese, a model of a master-and-servant or patron-and-client society prevailed. In the Non-Chinese communities, the status of servants was more that of a slave, according to the customs of the steppe peoples. Yet both models posed upon the state the problem of taxing a sufficient number of households. Both tenant farmers as dependents of a landowner as well as slaves as "private asset" of a Xianbei noble did not have to pay taxes, a situation that substantially contributed to the narrow tax yields of the Northern Dynasties' treasuries.

All dynasties tried to establish an administrative structure modeled after the previous Chinese governments, yet all of them retained sufficient room for the nobility of the steppe peoples that provided them sufficient independancy from the central government. Chinese and Non-Chinese customs mutually influenced and brought to light new developments in politics, economy and culture. The Northern Wei introduced the equal-field system (juntianzhi 均田制) that promised each peasant an equal share of land, according to the ancient Chinese model of the well-field system (jingtianzhi 井田制). The military was, according to the idea of the steppe peoples, organised as garrison militia (fubing 府兵), an inheritable system in which military households (yinghu 營戶) were professionals for generations.

The general view towards culture was also influenced by the steppe and influenced the cultural products of the north to such an extent that cultural objects of the Northern Dynasties can be called crude or at least austere and simple in comparison to those of the south. The literary production of the north was therefore also far less than that of the Southern Dynasties. Religion on the other side played an important role in the life in China's north, and the rulers of the Northern Wei were great patrons of Buddhism. Under their patronage, the Buddhist caves of Yungang 雲岡 and Longmen 龍門 were created.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political, social and economic history of the Northern Dynasties, their geography, and provides a list of all rulers. It also includes information on the history of literature and the development of religions.

Huang Huixian 黃惠賢 (1992). "Beichao 北朝", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 25-26.