An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Northern Zhou Dynasty 北周 (557-581)

Sep 17, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The Northern Zhou dynasty Beizhou 北周 (557-581) ruled over one of the successor states of the Northern Wei empire 北魏 (386-534). It belongs to the so-called Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581) and was founded by Yuwen Jue 宇文覺, son of the powerful general Yuwen Tai 宇文泰 (507-556), who dominated the court of the Western Wei dynasty 西魏 (535-556).

After Yuwen Tai's death, Yuwen Jue took over the post of the Counsellor-in-chief (da zhouzai 大冢宰) and adopted the title of Duke of Zhou 周公, in remembrance of the ancient Duke Dan of Zhou 周公旦 as a symbol for a wise regent for a young emperor. In 557 he deposed the emperor and usurped the throne as emperor of the Zhou dynasty. Historians later called his dynasty the "Northern Zhou". The capital was Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi).

The Northern Zhou empire covered the modern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu, and a series of military campaigns led to the conquest of Sichuan, Yunnan and the Northern Qi empire 北齊 (550-577).

Yuwen Tai (posthumous title Emperor Xiaomin 北周孝閔帝, r. 557) only ruled for a few months and was assassinated by Yuwen Hu 宇文護 (513-572), who enthroned Jue's brother Yuwen Yu 宇文毓 (Emperor Ming 北周明帝, r. 557-560). A few years later, Yuwen Hu poisoned the new emperor and replaced him by the third brother, Yuwen Yong 宇文邕 (Emperor Wu 北周武帝, r. 560-578). After long years of dominance, the powerful Yuwen Hu was finally erased by the emperor in 572. Emperor Wu carried out a series of structural and legislative reforms that strengthened his empire and eventually allowed him to conquer the whole north and southwest of China.

The designation officers of the garrison militia (fubing 府兵) was changed from "warrior" (junshi 軍士) to "court official" (shiguan 侍官) in order to express their direct subordination to the emperor and not any more to a local potentate. The whole system of the garrison militia was centralized, and in the capital a central military agency was set up, the imperial bodyguard (suwei 宿衛), and all six military "pillars of state" (zhuguo 柱國, a term for certain generals) and twelve generals-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) had to take residence in the capital. They were only given a command when military campaigns were undertaken and thus totally deprived of any military power in peacetime. The common soldiers were not any more to be solely recruited from among the Taɣ​bač tribes, but also from among the Chinese peasant population. This measure contributed to the dissolution of the ethnic division between the ruling Taɣ​bač people and the subject people of Chinese.

Emperor Wu reformed the equal-field-system (juntianfa 均田法) that had been introduced during the Northern Wei period. Married males were given 140 mu 畝 (see weights and measures) of arable land, unmarried men 100 mu. All persons between the age of 18 and 64 sui were tax-liable and had to deliver a fixed amount of cloth and of grain, unmarried males had to deliver half of this amount. People under the age of 59 sui had to deliver unpaid corvée labour that could be dispensed in case of bad harvest.

The government launched several large hydraulic projects (Yellow River at Puzhou 蒲州, Longshou Canal 龍首渠 at Tongzhou 同州) and had the amount of arable land widened. Emperor Wu liberated the war captives from Jiangling that had been enslaved after the Western Wei's victory over the Liang empire 梁 (502-557) in the south. The emperor paid attention to a restriction of government expenditure and stopped the expensive construction of palace buildings.

The actively reigning emperor prohibited the two religions of Buddhism and Daoism, ordered the destruction of their writings and had monks and nuns return to a laymen's life (huansu 還俗). This measure was to increase the amount of "productive", i. e. tax-liable, popuation and to raise the government income. Land owned by Buddhist and Daoist monasteries was confiscated and redistributed, buildings and bronze statues were also confiscated.

Concerning the structure of the central government, Emperor Wu followed the politics of Yuwen Tai from the 530es who had followed the proposals of Su Chuo 蘇綽 (498-546) and Lu Bian 盧辯 (d. 557) to reinstate the Six Offices (liuguan 六官) that are described in the Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮.

The better economical conditions and the higher military potential of the central government allowed the Northern Zhou state to conquer the neighbouring state of Northern Qi. In 565 Emperor Wu defeated the army of the Last Emperor of Northern Qi at Jinzhou 晉州 (modern Linfen 臨汾, Shanxi). The victor pursued the enemy to Jinyang 晉陽 and then to his capital Ye 鄴 (near modern Anyang 安陽, Henan) and occupied the rest of northern China. Emperor Wu expanded the politics of his own empire to the newly conquered territory and liberated all enslaved war prisoners. They were, nevertheless, allowed to stay with their former lords as private soldiers (buqu 部曲) or maidens (kenü 客女). Miscellaneous households (zahu 雜戶, households without proper definition of profession) were dissolved.

As a consequence of the unification of northern China, the legal code Xingshu yaozhi 刑書要制 was promulgated throughout the empire, including the new territories in the east. At the same time, coins, weights and measures were unified in the Northern Zhou empire.

After the death of Emperor Wu, his son Yuwen Yun 宇文贇 (Emperor Xuandi 北周宣帝, r. 578-579) mounted the throne. He died after a short reign "from overindulgence in pleasures", as historians say. His son, the young Yuwen Chan 宇文闡 (Emperor Jing 北周靜帝, r. 579-581), was controlled by a relative of his mother, Yang Jian 楊堅 (541-604), who acted as regent (fuzheng 輔政). Yang Jian lifted the ban on Buddhism and Daoism. In 581 he forced the emperor to abdicate and proclaimed his own dynasty, the Sui 隋 (581-618), that would eventually reunify China.

The official dynastic history of the Northern Zhou is the Zhoushu 周書 written by Linghu Defen 令狐德芬 (583-666). Its history is also included in the official dynastic history Beishi 北史 that was compiled by Li Yanshou 李延壽 (mid-7th cent.).

Table 1. Rulers of the Northern Zhou Dynasty 北周 (557-581)
Capital: Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 長安, Shaanxi)
dynastic title {temple name} personal name reign-periods
Beizhou Xiaomindi 北周孝閔帝 (r. 557) Yuwen Jue 宇文覺
Beizhou Mingdi 北周明帝 {Shizong 世宗} (r. 557-560) Yuwen Yu 宇文毓 Wucheng 武成 (559-560)
Beizhou Wudi 北周武帝 {Gaozu 高祖} (r. 560-578) Yuwen Yong 宇文邕 Baoding 保定 (561-565)
Tianhe 天和 (566-571)
Jiande 建德 (572-577)
Xuanzheng 宣政 (578)
Beizhou Xuandi 北周宣帝 (r. 578-579) Yuwen Yun 宇文贇 Dacheng 大成 (579)
Beizhou Jingdi 北周靜帝 (r. 579-581) Yuwen Chan 宇文闡 (or Yan 衍) Daxiang 大象 (579-580)
Dading 大定 (581)
581 Northern Zhou replaced by Sui 隋.
Lu Kaiwan 盧開萬 (1992). "Beizhou 北周", 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, 44-45.
Zhao Kaiqiu 趙凱球 (1992). "Beizhou liuguan 北周六官", 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, 45-46.
Zhongguo lishi da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《中國歷史大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (2000). Zhongguo lishi da cidian 中國歷史大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 3328.