The four centuries of Han Dynasty empire, Western and Eastern, had ended — the Eastern Han having ended in the year 220. As empire it had consisted of numerous ethnicities. But "Han Chinese" would into modern times be a label that was to represented one ethnicity.
The year 220 is also described as the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period. Each of the "three kingdoms" was headed by an "emperor" who claimed to be the legitimate successor within the Han dynasty. And hard times were on the way: the kingdoms could not live side by side without making war. (Surprise!) The Three Kingdoms period has been described as one of the bloodiest in Chinese history. And there was bloodletting not only from army meeting army. There was more of the monarchical succession killings (the kind of which Shakespeare would write about), the politics of murder that would cease to exist when authoritarian monarchies were replaced by representative governments, especially mature democracies.
By 263, war had reduced the three kingdoms to two. By 280 there was only one. China was united again, but imperial successions put politics on another course of decline. The founder of the ruling Jin dynasty died in 290. Power went to his mentally impaired son, Emperor Hui, and nobles fought each other for actual power. The Jin dynasty endured inner-family killing. Emperor Hui was poisoned in the year 307.
North of China Xiongnu tribal leaders were watching. In 308 these leaders met. They united and in 311 sent an army against China's capital, Luoyang – an army supported by rebellious Chinese. Luoyang was sacked. The reigning emperor was carried off and forced to become a cupbearer, until he was executed. In 316, Xiongnu cavalry overran the great city of Chang'an. There, another Jin family member, recently proclaimed emperor, met the same fate as his predecessor.
Jin family sought refuge south of the Yangzi River. At what today is Nanjing, another member of that family was declared emperor — Emperor Yuan. Millions of Chinese joined the Jin family in migrating south, including a lot of gentry. Most Confucian scholars joined them. Southerners refused to cooperate with Emperor Yuan's government, but Yuan was patient. His regime avoided interfering with the privileges of the south's elite families, and eventually he won their cooperation.
Yuan's regime benefited from the wealth, experience and technical skills of the refugees. It set up administrative provinces. Prosperity arose. For wealthy aristocrats an easy life emerged. Gentlemen remained elegantly inactive, and a new era in art, literature, and philosophy arose.
By now Buddhism had arrived in China, carried by India merchants across the trade route through Central Asia. Of Buddhism two branches, the Mahayana and Hinayana, the Mahayana with its salvation and helpful gods dominated. Buddhism's moral teachings attracted some who had been Confucians, and, the north of the Yangzi, Xiongnu conquerors were attracted. There, Buddhist monasteries became economically powerful, with hereditary serfs.
Buddhists in China had no religious council or papacy. Each Buddhist master could interpret writings as he wished, and this facilitated doctrinal fragmentation. With this the Pure Land movement would emerge in China — a precursor to Zen Buddhism. The Pure Land was where the great spirit Amitabha and other immortals dwelled in eternal bliss, where rivers were pure and scented. Pure Land Buddhism claimed that no bookish intellectuality was needed, that one could escape the torments of life and prove one's devotion by chanting Amitabha's name sincerely.)
North of the Yangzi, the Xiongnu conquerors had been adopting Chinese ways, and a ruling Xiongnu dynasty, the Wei (386-535), became involved in a hostility between Buddhists and Taoists. The Wei dynasty turned its rule into a Taoist theocracy. The Taoist organized against Buddhism, accusing it of being an alien creed. The Xiongnu ruler, Daiwu, decreed that all Buddhist monks were to be put to death and all Buddhist images and books destroyed, but the decree was ignored. Instead, a few monks were forced to return to family life and some monasteries destroyed.
In the South, politics by murder remained. A successful general, Liu Yu, won the title Prince of Song. He had the emperor, An, murdered and made himself regent to the new emperor, Gong (who was in his early thirties). In 421 he had Emperor Gong asphyxiated with a blanket. This ended the Jin dynasty. Liu Yu made himself emperor: Emperor Wu. The dynasty he began was called the Liu-Song, and there would be more internal power conflicts and more politics by murder.
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.