Western Jin Dynasty Falls Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After the fall of the Western Jin Dynasty in 316 c.e., China experienced more than two hundred years of turmoil, political division, and a series of weak, short-lived dynasties.

Summary of Event

Toward the end of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), it was almost overthrown by the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans (184-204). After the defeat of the Yellow Turbans, the generals assigned to put down the rebellion were unwilling to give up their power. They became stronger than the emperor and fought among themselves. In the north, the general Cao Cao (Ts’ao Ts’ao) became a dictator; and in 220 c.e., the last Han emperor gave up power to Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pei (Ts’ao P’ei), who became the first ruler of the Wei Dynasty (220-265) at the old capital of Luoyang (Lo-yang). Two other military leaders proclaimed themselves emperors, one in the west (the Shu Han Dynasty; 221-263) in present-day Sichuan (Szechwan) Province, and one in the south (the kingdom of Wu; 222-280), in the Yangtze River Valley. Sima Yan Liu Yuan

The period of rivalry among these kingdoms is known as the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 c.e.; also sometimes given as 220-265). None of these kingdoms achieved any great political power or centralized bureaucratic government such as had existed in the Qin (Ch’in) and Han Dynasties. This period of battles, alliances, betrayals, and bloody civil warfare has been romanticized as an age of chivalry in Chinese history and fiction. Events from the period are immortalized in a popular novel by Luo Guanzhong (Lo Kuan-chung) called San guo zhi yan yi (fourteenth century c.e.; San Kuo: Or, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925, known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms).

In 263 c.e., the Wei Dynasty, having the largest population and army, conquered Shu Han. Two years later, Sima Yan, the son of the victorious general, defeated the Wei emperor and founded the Jin Dynasty (later called the Western Jin) in 265. After a naval campaign, the Jin crossed the Yangtze River and defeated the southern Wu Dynasty in 280. The Western Jin Dynasty (Chin; 265-316 c.e.) thus temporarily reunited China, and the central goverment sought to rein in the power of the great landowners and restore feudalism to China.

The Western Jin Dynasty was a brief period of calm, order, and prosperity. It seemed the magnificence of the former Han Dynasty might be revived. However, the Western Jin Dynasty was in a weakened condition. The years of warfare had greatly decreased the population. The rulers could not establish a strong, central imperial government that could maintain power for the emperor and prevent feuding and struggles for power from members of the imperial family.

A system of filling government posts on the basis of character and merit according to the Confucian system (the Nine Rank System) declined to one of filling places according to the rank of one’s family. Government therefore became corrupt, and the population suffered from increased taxes and other obligations. Giving out vast holdings of land to the princes only encouraged the princes to form alliances and fight one another for the throne. After Sima Yan’s death in 290 c.e., the empire fell into civil war, the Rebellion of the Eight Princes (291-306).

During the second and third centuries c.e., hundreds of thousands of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), ancestors of the Turks and possibly related to the Huns, and other non-Chinese nomadic peoples had been settling inside China south of the Great Wall, as it was easier to absorb them than defend against them. They were often recruited as soldiers but, in general, were poorly treated by the aristocracy.

With the Western Jin Dynasty descending into internal warfare, the danger of having the Xiongnu tribes within China became apparent. The non-Chinese tribal chiefs saw the opportunity for rebellion, and in 304 c.e., the sinified (Chinese-assimilated) king Liu Yuan (Liu Yüan) declared himself emperor of Han and started the conquest and destruction of the north. The year 304 marks the beginning of a long period of chaos and disorder in northern China. The Xiongnu overran the northern capital Luoyang in 311 and Changan (now Xi’an) in 316. The destruction of these capitals ended Chinese rule in the north for centuries. According to the Chinese annals, only one hundred families were left in Changan.

China became divided along north-south lines. The north was ruled by a series of short-lived, non-Chinese dynasties known as the Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians (304-439). The south was ruled by a series of native Chinese dynasties, also short-lived. In the south, this led to the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) and the period of the Southern Dynasties (420-588). These native Chinese dynasties, along with the earlier Wu Dynasty (222-280), which all had their capital at Jiankang, are sometimes referred to as the Six Dynasties.





During the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians, the Northern China Plain became a battle ground as a multitude of various barbarian warlords invaded and succeeded each other in establishing a variety of overlapping and short-lived non-Chinese dynasties. The exact ethnicity of all these invading tribes is not clear, but they included Turkish, Tibetan, and Mongol tribes. The people in the countryside defended themselves with forts and their own small armies or sought the protection of great local families. The land saw famine, banditry, and collapse of the economy. Millions of northern Chinese, including the wealthy and high ranking, fled south of the Yangtze River. The survival of Chinese civilization in the north seemed in doubt as rulers lost the sense of public service and indulged in extravagant living.

In the north, the first invasion was by the Xiongnu, who founded the Earlier Zhao Dynasty (Chao; 304-320). The second wave of invaders were the Di (Ti) and Qiang (Ch’iang), proto-Tibetan tribes from the west. The Di founded the Earlier Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty in 351 and conquered much of the north. However, when they invaded the south in 383, they were defeated, and more than half the army was slaughtered. The collapse of the Earlier Qin led to the rise of numerous states that fought among themselves for mastery over northern China. The third and longest-lasting invasion was the Turkish or Mongol Toba (T’o-pa) tribe, who destroyed all their rivals and tried to establish control over the peasants; once more the north was unified under the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534).

All these invading tribes faced the same problem, whether to maintain their own tribal customs or adopt Chinese culture (become sinified) in order to rule. Most tribes had been somewhat sinified before their rise to power, so the states they set up were part barbarian, part Chinese. The nomadic rulers set up military aristocracies that formed the core of the military. Because they did not have the experience or institutions to rule large agricultural territories whose population greatly outnumbered their own, they adopted traditional Chinese methods of government. Thus, much of the governing was done by the literate, established Chinese families.

In the south, at Jiankang (Chien-k’ang), now modern Nanjing (Nanking), local leaders set up a surviving Jin prince on the throne at the head of a court of the emigre aristocrats from the north. This first Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) was toppled in 420 by Liu Yu (Liu Yü), one of the generals who founded the Liu-Song Dynasty (Liu-Sung; 420-479), the first of the Southern Dynasties. Founded by generals who were unable to create long-lasting imperial institutions and consolidate power, these dynasties were short-lived.


The Western Jin Dynasty was a brief period of stability and prosperity. Internal squabbling led to the breakup of the Western Jin. After the fall of the Jin, China was plunged into more than two hundred years of turmoil, political division, and weak governments. Waves of nonnative tribes invaded the north, and China was divided along north-south lines. The two regions, greatly different in geography and climate, developed cultural differences and attitudes toward each other, which often survive today. The north was ruled by a series of barbarian, non-Chinese dynasties, while the south was ruled by a series of native Chinese dynasties, also short-lived. The south became the most important location for the preserving of Chinese culture for more than 250 years.

Life for the people was hard during this time. Transportation, communication, and commerce fell apart. Instead of a monetary system, the economy turned to a barter system, which usually means a fall in the standard of living. Social stratification increased, with the populace at the bottom increasingly falling into bondage or servitude. Belief in the Confucian view of order declined, and people of all stations of life took solace in new religions such as Buddhism (introduced by the nomadic invaders) and new Daoist cults, which promised salvation and transcendence from worldly turmoil.

Traditional Chinese civilization survived in the Southern Dynasties, and China was reunified again in 581 with its culture largely intact, though now with the influences of the nomads and Buddhism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ebrey, Patricia B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Presents a brief account of the period but contains good maps, illustrations, coverage of the arts and culture of the period, and further readings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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 a full treatment of its culture and civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hook, Brian, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Chronological entries with numerous maps, charts, illustrations, and tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huang, Ray. China: A Macro History. Armonk, N.Y.: East Gate, 1988. Good overview of the history of the period with attempts to explain the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hucker, Charles O. China’s Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1975. General history of the period interspersed with accounts of society, philosophy, literature, religions, and arts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. As its title suggests, contains a concise summary of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, J. A. G. A History of China: Prehistory to c. 1800. New York: St. Martin’s Period, 1996. A good general history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schirokaur, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Textbook that gives a good historical survey, as well as treatment of arts, society, science, religion, and technology.
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