Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, China entered into a period of social and political chaos.

Summary of Event

In 907, the Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty;fall of (T’ang; 618-907) fell as a result of a series of uprisings that were caused by high taxes that had forced peasants off their lands and had also led to widespread poverty and starvation. The first and most important of these rebellions was led by Huang Chao Huang Chao , a Chinese intellectual who was enraged because he had failed to pass a series of civil service examinations that would have placed him at the highest levels of power in the Tang bureaucracy. [kw]Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960)
[kw]Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, Period of (907-960)
[kw]Ten Kingdoms, Period of Five Dynasties and (907-960)
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (China)
China;907-960: Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms[1110]
Government and politics;907-960: Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms[1110]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;907-960: Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms[1110]
Huang Chao
Zhu Wen
Li Cunxu
Shi Jingtang
Liu Zhiyuan
Guo Wei
Zhao Kuangyin

Huang Chao’s forces targeted two important groups for extermination during the uprising. The first was the old imperial bureaucracy that had rejected his application for service. Huang Chao’s purge of this important organization was so extensive that the Tang civil service literally disappeared, creating widespread social and political chaos. His forces also targeted the landed aristocracy in the provinces. Over centuries of Tang rule, these powerful members of the nobility had provided the majority of candidates for the Tang bureaucracy. These families were also the champions of the Tang Empire in the provinces, and their loyalty served the Tang government in these important areas. In time, the rebel forces were defeated and the surviving members of the Tang Dynasty attempted to restore order by claiming the mandate of heaven (heavenly authorization of rule), but by this time, the political situation had become too unstable and China slipped into a time of great political chaos known as the Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.

The southern part of China had divided into ten kingdoms: Wu Wu Dynasty , Min Min Dynasty , Chu Chu Dynasty (Ch’u), Former Shu Former Shu Dynasty (also Qian Shu), Nanping Nanping Dynasty (Nanp’ing; also Jingnan), Southern Tang Southern Tang Dynasty (T’ang), Later Shu Later Shu Dynasty , Wu-Yue Wu-Yue Dynasty[Wu Yue Dynasty] , Southern Han Southern Han Dynasty , and Northern Han Northern Han Dynasty . In northern China, especially in the area bordering the Yellow River Valley, five separate dynasties unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of the region. China suffered under a series of corrupt officials who used their positions of power to enrich themselves at the expense of civil society. This governmental abuse caused the destruction of the agricultural infrastructure, which in turn led to widespread peasant rebellions.

This series of uprisings brought on new attempts to unify the nation and to centralize the Chinese government. The first attempt to reestablish central authority was made by Zhu Wen Zhu Wen , who established one of the most important dynasties of the period, the Later Liang Dynasty Later Liang Dynasty (907-923). Zhu Wen had been a highly successful army officer during Huang Chao’s rebellion, and once in power, he initiated a series of actions to reestablish a well-functioning civil bureaucracy. He began by replacing any official who had any ties to the old Tang Dynasty. He filled these positions with men who had distinguished themselves in recent military service. The long-term impact of this move was to link loyal service in the army to future opportunity in the central bureaucracy.

Zhu Wen also created two powerful ministries to oversee the day-to-day operations of the central government. The Ministry of Civil Office regulated and controlled public works and services and made sure they were done in a professional and timely manner. The recruiting and training of the Imperial Army was regulated by the Ministry of War, which also controlled all the strategic, tactical, and logistical decisions made by the general staff. Finally, Zhu Wen created a new financial department that reformed both tax collection and the distribution of government funds. After he reformed the imperial bureaucracy and armed forces, he moved to establish control over the rebellious provinces. He began by entering into a number of military alliances through a series of marriages between his daughters and the sons of the more important provisional governors. These marriages Marriage as a political tool;China created an important connection between the central government and the provincial nobility; however, the ties were not strong enough to assure Zhu Wen of the complete loyalty of the provincial governors.

In reaction to this strategic reality, the emperor sent his most talented generals to occupy and fortify the borderlands between the central government and the provinces, and he gave these commanders both civil and military power. Zhu Wen’s actions set off a series of rebellions because the provincial governors believed the emperor was attempting to undermine their political status. In spite of the deep animosity on the part of the governors, Zhu Wen’s forces were successful in defeating the provincial armies because their generals were unable to mount a unified attack against the emperor’s forces.

The emperor’s success was cut short when he was assassinated by one of his sons, who was executed in turn by another son. This began a period of political chaos in which one dynasty rapidly followed another in northern China. Later Liang general Li Cunxu Li Cunxu (Later Liang general) , with the assistance of his father, Li Keyong, overthrew the Later Liang and founded the Later Tang Dynasty Later Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 923-935). Then a Later Tang general, Shi Jingtang Shi Jingtang , with the help of the Khitans Khitans , founded the Later Jin Dynasty Later Jin Dynasty (936-947). The Khitans later withdrew their support, and the Later Jin was followed by the creation of the Later Han Dynasty Later Han Dynasty (947-951) by Liu Zhiyuan Liu Zhiyuan , a general of the Later Jin, who pushed back the Khitans. The fifth dynasty, the Later Zhou Later Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 951-960), was founded by Guo Wei Guo Wei , another general. The new emperor established an elite corps of highly trained soldiers known as the emperor’s army. The most accomplished served as his personal bodyguards, protecting him from the culture of assassination that had plagued and undermined the central government for decades.

Throughout Chinese history, periods of great chaos have also created conditions that have stimulated cultural advances. The Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms generated important attempts at economic and political reform. Political philosophers, as well as government bureaucrats, took action to deal with the plight of the peasants who had suffered from the effects of constant warfare. They initiated land redistribution and significant tax reform to alleviate the widespread suffering of the displaced peasants. They also took steps to control political corruption. A series of strict laws and harsh punishments were instituted by many regional kingdoms in an attempt to reform their local bureaucrats.

China also experienced a neo-Confucian revival that coincided with a growing nationwide rejection of Buddhism. A number of prominent philosophers began to publish scholarly works calling for a return to traditional Confucian Confucianism;Chinese revival of ideals. China’s publishing industry was inundated with orders for copies of Confucius’s Lunyu (late sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861) to meet the needs of students studying at a growing number of Confucian academies. At the same time, most of the regional governments were rejecting applications for military deferments from men applying to become Buddhist monks. These actions sent an important signal that the Buddhist Buddhism;China tradition was losing its power and prestige throughout the Chinese culture.

Confucianism in turn received a serious challenge from another ancient Chinese belief system, Daoism Daoism , which was its intellectual antithesis. Daoists believed that any attempt to systematize human action conflicted with the natural laws of the universe and, thus, was doomed to failure. Philosophers of the Daoist school stated that humanity should strive to become one with nature and to adopt its rhythms and patterns. This neo-Daoist movement was also the intellectual foundation of a new school of art known as Wadai painting. Practitioners of this art form held the Daoist belief that mountains were the most sacred places on earth. Artists of the Wadai school created ink landscape paintings using these natural cathedrals as the focus of their work. These intellectual and artistic movements reflected a culturewide attempt to find a “Chinese” solution to the problems facing China at this time.

In 951, the Later Zhou Dynasty came to power in northern China, and under the leadership of Zhao Kuangyin Zhao Kuangyin it set into motion a series of reforms that redistributed land to the peasants, controlled excessive taxation, and removed corrupt officials from positions of power. These measures reinvigorated the economy and allowed the dynasty to create a strong military establishment. The new emperor was able to reunify China; this set the stage for the start of China’s next “golden age” under the leadership of the Song Dynasty Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279).


The Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms refocused Chinese culture on the importance of political and social stability. China’s leadership looked to the nation’s neo-Confucian academia to find a solution to the country’s problems. These scholars created a bureaucratic model based on the traditional Confucian belief that through proper study and training, a class of superior men could be created that would develop an environment of peace and prosperity. This neo-Confucian system would eventually become the basis of the Song bureaucracy, and its overwhelming success would form the foundation of China’s next “golden age.”

The Confucian rejection of military culture, as well as the violent experience of the Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, would lead the Song to place antimilitary civilian bureaucrats in charge of the nation’s armed forces. This decision would weaken Song security and would eventually allow nomadic tribes to conquer China.

Further Reading

  • Bol, Peter. This Culture of Ours: Intellectual Transitions in Tang and Sung China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1912. An excellent overview of Chinese intellectual history from the Tang through Song Dynasties. Index and bibliography.
  • Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The best single-volume account of Chinese cultural history. Maps, index, and bibliography.
  • Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900. New York: Routledge Press, 2002. An excellent overview of medieval Chinese military history. Maps, index, and bibliography.
  • Graff, David A., and Robin Higham. A Military History of China. Cambridge, England: Westview Press, 2002. An excellent survey of Chinese military history. Maps, index, and bibliography.