Five Dynasties of China

Five Dynasties of China
Five Dynasties of China

The great Tang (T’ang) dynasty, founded in 618, was wrecked by the Huang Zhao (Huang Ch’ao) Rebellion that lasted between 875 and 884. It was put down only with the help of regional warlords and Turkic allies (the Turks who lived to the north of China were called Shatou), who retained power. In 907 a Shatou chief slaughtered the last Tang emperor and most members of the Tang imperial family and proclaimed himself emperor of the Later Liang dynasty.

Thus began the Five Dynasties Era, 907–960. It was also called the Five Dynasties and Ten States Era, because none of the Five Dynasties controlled lands beyond the Yellow River plains of northern China whereas central and southern China were ruled by 10 regional states, each occupying about one province in that region. Later historians did not give any of the Ten States the status of a legitimate “dynasty” which succeeded one another throughout Chinese history. The Five Dynasties were
  1. Later Liang (16 years, 907–923, three rulers)
  2. Later Tang (T’ang) (13 years, 923–936, four rulers)
  3. Later Jin (Chin) (10 years, 936–946, two rulers)
  4. Later Han (three years, 947–950, two rulers)
  5. Later Zhou (Chou) (nine years, 951–960, three rulers)

The first and last of the five were ruled by Han Chinese families; the remaining three were headed by men of Turkic tribes, but who were largely Sinicized. For example the Later Tang rulers had served the Tang dynasty as provincial governors and had been bestowed with the Tang imperial surname Li.

All five dynasties were founded by military adventurers, and within each dynasty, family members or rivals assassinated many rulers. The wars and rebellions that ended the Tang dynasty had so devastated Chang’an (Ch’ang-an) that it would never be China’s capital again.

The center of political power would shift eastward from Shaanxi (Shensi) province, which was the cradle of Chinese civilization, to Henan (Honan) province, where both Luoyang (Loyang) and Kaifeng (K’ai-feng) (then called Bian or Pien) were located. Both cities were capital of some of the dynasties during this era, Luoyang because of its historic importance.

Kaifeng is east of Luoyang, also on the southern side of the Yellow River, and was easily accessible by roads and the Grand Canal. It would remain the capital under the Song (Sung) dynasty, between 960 and 1126. However Kaifeng was without natural bulwarks and was thus vulnerable to attacks. Chang’an became the capital of the impoverished Shaanxi province and its name was changed to Xi’an (Sian).

The wars and invasions that so disrupted northern China in the ninth and 10 centuries also greatly diminished the long-entrenched leadership of the “eminent clans” that had dominated political and social life since the Han dynasty, because so many other members were killed in the conflicts. This would result in a profound social change and in the creation of a more egalitarian society.

Imperial palace Kaifeng China
Imperial palace Kaifeng China

Another factor contributing to growing egalitarianism is the invention of printing. Block printing to produce books began in the seventh century (paper was invented in China in the first century). It was during the Five Dynasties, between 932 and 953, that the first complete printed edition of the 11 Confucian Classics (plus two supplementary works) totaling 130 volumes was produced, under government sponsorship of four dynasties.

Luoyang, Kaifeng, and several cities in the south became centers of a vibrant printing industry. Cheaper printed books, as opposed to the expensive hand copied ones, increased literacy and enabled sons of middle-class families to compete in the state exams. This fact also contributed to the breaking of the lock on power by the “eminent clans.”

In contrast to the turmoil North China suffered from the late Tang through the Five Dynasties, southern China was relatively peaceful and continued to prosper. Many great poets and painters of the era came from southern China. This was a trend that would continue during the next 1,000 years.

During the Han and Tang dynasties the frontier that had threatened China’s security had been Central Asia, which included ancient lands called Sogdiana, Bactria, Transoxannia, and Ferghana in ancient Western texts (modern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan, and part of Kazakhistan) to the Caspian Sea.

The threat had shifted by the ninth century to a region called “Inner Asia” that extended from the Pacific Ocean westward for 3,000 miles to the Pamir Mountains and from the Great Wall of China northward for 1,000 miles to Siberia in present day Russia; it included modern Mongolia, Chinese Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang (Sinkiang), Tibet, and Russia east of the Pamir Mountains.

In the 10th century two states dominated by pastoral nomads ringed northern China. They were the Khitan state called Liao rooted in the northeast, and the Tangut state called Xixia (Hsi Hsia) rooted in the northwest. The founder of the Later Jin (Chin) dynasty ceded 16 prefectures in northeastern China, including the area around modern Beijing, to the Khitan Liao.

This session bequeathed serious consequences to the Song dynasty; seeking to regain this historically Chinese land the second Song emperor would go to war with the Liao, with disastrous results. Another legacy of the Five Dynasties to the Song was the pivotal role of the army in the founding of each dynasty, since the Song too was founded as a result of a coup d’etat, and seeking to end the cycle, Song Taizu (T’ai-tsu) would reorganize his army and put it under civilian control. The result was no more coups d’etat, but also an incompetent Song army.