Southern Dynasties Period Begins in China

Liu Yu usurped the throne and established the Liu-Song Dynasty, the first of a series of dynasties known as the Southern Dynasties. Though politically unstable, these dynasties maintained traditional Chinese culture.

Summary of Event

After the breakup of the Western Jin Dynasty (Chin; 265-316 c.e.), which was a brief period of stability and prosperity, China was plunged into more than one hundred years of turmoil, political division, and weak governments. Waves of nonnative tribes invaded the north, and China was divided between north and south. The north was ruled by a series of barbarian, non-Chinese dynasties. Liu Yu
Xiao Daocheng
Xiao Yan
Chen Baxian

During the chaos and invasions that occurred in the north, millions of Chinese, including the wealthy and high-ranking, fled south of the Yangtze River. At Jiankang (Chien-k’ang), now Nanjing (Nanking), local leaders set up a surviving Jin prince on the throne at the head of a court of the exiled aristocrats and great landlords from the north. This was the Eastern Jin Dynasty (Chin; 317-420).

An insurrection led by Sun En that threatened the capital was crushed in 402 c.e.; but the instability brought power to the generals in charge of repressing it. One general, Huan Xuan (Huan Hsüan), seized power in 420 c.e. However, in the same year, Liu Yu, a general from a humble family who had won great popularity for his victories in the north, seized power, proclaimed himself Emperor Wu (Wudi; Wu-ti), and founded the Liu-Song Dynasty (Liu-Sung; 420-479), the first of the Southern Dynasties.

These Southern Dynasties were founded by generals or warlords who could maintain rule only for a generation or two. Lacking political skill, the rulers were unable to create long-lasting imperial institutions and consolidate power; these short-lived dynasties were constantly subject to feuds and civil unrest and were soon overrun.

Because of the general instability and weakness of the central governments, the countryside was ruled by aristocratic, landowning families. Using the Nine Rank System for selecting high government officials, these families managed to limit possession of powerful bureaucratic positions to their own family members and maintain their exemption from taxes. At court, they were often forceful enough to frustrate the emperor’s wishes in appointments or promotions.

By the time Liu Yu came to power, the northern immigrants had been merged into the southern population. After fending off several attacks, the Song enjoyed a period of peace and developed relations with Central Asia and Japan. However, attacks from the north weakened the dynasty, which was split by conflicts. General Xiao Daocheng, who suppressed one of the rebellious princes, finally seized power and established the Southern Qi Dynasty (Ch’i; 479-502). This dynasty was especially unstable, broken by conflict within the imperial family and between the aristocrats and military men.

Nonetheless, during this short-lived dynasty, trade was greatly expanded on the Yangtze River and into southern China, and the power of the aristocracy was limited and the central government was strengthened by the promotion of commoners to positions of authority. However, the suppression and massacres of the nobles bred discontent, and Xiao Yan, a cousin of the emperor who ruled in one of the distant courts, marched on the capital and forced himself on the throne, even though he was not the legitimate successor. He secured his rule by murdering all the surviving Qi Liu family.

Xiao Yan, known as Emperor Wu, or Liang Wudi (Wu-ti), established the Liang Dynasty (502-557 c.e.). His rule was longer and more stable than that of any other southern ruler, lasting from 502 to 550. The chaos of the north, along with his lack of interest in military conquest, gave the south a brief rest from constant warfare. He converted to Buddhism and is known as its great protector. Three times he expressed a desire to retire to a monastery. However, he also established institutes for the study of Confucian ethics for those entering government. He was a scholar, poet, and patron of literature, and under him, Chinese civilization flourished. Expansion of the economy continued, especially because of the increased commerce with Southeast Asia, the South Seas, and the Indian Ocean.

Meddling by the Liang in affairs of the north led to invasion by a non-Chinese northern general, Hou Jing (503-552), who besieged the capital in 548 and, after five months, overran and devastated it in 549. During the siege, many of the aristocratic families starved to death in their mansions. Emperor Wu died shortly afterward, and his heirs fought Hou Jing for the throne. During his uprising, the Western Wei attacked the Liang, seized Sichuan (Szechwan), and advanced as far as the middle Yangtze, where they installed a puppet ruler. From this time in the south, there was a Northern (or Later) Liang regime (555-587), subservient to the north. During the warfare between Hou Jing and the Wudi heirs, Liang general Chen Baxian seized power, assumed the throne, and founded the Chen Dynasty (Ch’en; 557-589), the last of the Southern Dynasties.

Most of the aristocracy of the south had been eliminated by the time of the Chen Dynasty, and power moved back to the local landlords, weakening the central government, which was corrupt and inefficient. Weak and disorganized, the south was threatened by attacks from the west and north. A victory in retaking Shouyang (modern Shouxian) gained nothing. The dynasty was easily overrun in 589 by a swift invasion by the Sui Dynasty (581-618) from the north, which finally reunited China.


The Southern Dynasties marked a period of transformation of Chinese society and an increase in the economic and political power of the south. Although politically unstable, the Southern Dynasties continued the brilliance of Chinese culture in art, literature, philosophy, and religion. The aristocratic families saw themselves as the embodiment of Chinese civilization and tried to foster its great cultural achievements. The life of the upper classes became more cultivated and refined. During the Southern Dynasties, the native people in the south were brought into the mainstream of Chinese civilization, and Buddhism was integrated into Chinese culture. The south became the economic center of China. The immigrants from the north developed the technological and economic potential of southern China and provided manpower for the thinly populated area. The population is estimated to have increased fivefold from 280 to 464 c.e. The southern capital, Jiankang, became one of the world’s greatest cities and a center of waterborne trade.

The wealth of the great ruling families was based on their large estates and improvements in agriculture. Agriculture was extended by bringing marshlands into cultivation, and feudal economic patterns became established in the countryside. Large portions of the previously landowning peasant population were transformed into tenant farmers on large estates; they lost their freedom and could be sold or transferred at will by their landlords.

Trade routes were expanded southward, and along these routes, Buddhism entered China. In the south, Buddhism remained apart from the centers of political power and developed monastic and philosophic traditions that provided an alternative to traditional, mainstream Confucianism.

Further Reading

  • Chinese Academy of Social Science. “Feudal Society.” In Vol. 1 of Information China: The Comprehensive and Authoritative Reference Source of New China. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, 1989. A positive and nationalistic account of the period’s accomplishments.
  • Ebrey, Patricia B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Brief account of the period, but good maps, illustrations, coverage of the arts and culture of the period, and further readings.
  • Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Translated by J. R. Foster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Extended account of the history of the period, along with full treatment of culture and civilization.
  • Hook, Brian, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Brief chronological entries with numerous maps, charts, illustrations, and tables.
  • Huang, Ray. China: A Macro History. Armonk, N.Y.: East Gate, 1988. Good overview of history of the period with attempts at historical explanation of events.
  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Thumbnail sketches of all the emperors.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. Prehistory to c. 1800. Vol. 1 in A History of China. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996. A good general history.
  • Schirokaur, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Textbook that gives good historical survey, as well as treatment of arts, society, science, religion, and technology.