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China: Six Dynasties (AD 386-589)

In the disorder which followed the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), China was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms, and was subdivided further over the following centuries. The country began a long period of disunity, social change and intellectual activity. The period between AD 221 and 280 is known as the Three Kingdoms, and that between AD 386 and 589 is referrred to as the Northern and Southern Dynasties or the Six Dynasties.

Northern China was ruled by a succession of sixteen ruling houses, the most significant of which is known as the Northern Wei dynasty (AD 386-535). After about a century of peace, rebellions split the territory and a number of short, ineffective dynasties ensued.

Six dynasties ruled successively in the south of China: the Western Jin (AD 265-316), followed by the Eastern Jin (317-420), the Song (420-79), the Southern Qi (479-502), the Liang (502-57) and the Chen (557-89). All made their capital at Jiankang (present-day Nanjing), which continued as a cultural and political centre, visited by merchants and Buddhist missionaries from Southeast Asia and India, making it one of the world's great cities. As southern China was safe from the devastation of foreign invasions from the north, the economic and cultural centre of China gradually shifted from the north-west to the south-east.

Buddhism, which had been introduced from the Indian subcontinent, began to be accepted as the dominant religion around the fourth century. Indian Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese by Fa Xian, the first important Chinese pilgrim. He had travelled in Central Asia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India, returning to China with many sacred texts. He also brought back knowledge of Indian history and geography.

Literature, philosophy, painting, calligraphy and art theory flourished simultaneously in many areas, as it often did in Chinese history during periods of disunity when several political centres co-existed. China was re-united under the Sui dynasty by the Northern Zhou general Yang Jian in 589, as he swept into Jiankang having established his stronghold position in the north.

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