China in Division
& the Arrival of Buddhism


The Sixteen Kingdoms
North China, 304-439

Trade and commerce ground to a virtual halt in the north during this period. No new coins were issued in north China for almost two hundred years. Much farmland was given over to pasture (or stood vacant), and a ranching or herding economy spread deeply into north China. The raising of livestoock was a fundamental part of the lifestyle of the non-Chinese peoples (generically referred to in the Chinese sources as Hu, and divided into five major different population groups) who now came to dominate the northern landscape politically and militarily. (HEA, 61)
At the same time, political legitimacy still tended to be most convincingly defined in Chinese terms. Several of the armed bands that arose in the early 300s, whether they were ethnic Chinese or not, did so in the name of saving the throne — that is, at least nominally rallying to the defense of the legitimate but beleaguered Jin Dynasty. ... Despite the multiethnic and multilingual character of the era, and the fact that identifiably non-Chinese people were frequently the political and military rulers, Chinese remained (with minor exceptions) almost the only written language. Even a particularly barbarous Jie tribal ruler of northeast China in the mid-fourth century, Shi Hu (295-349), felt compelled to dispatch a scholar to copy the stone inscriptions of the Confucian Classics in the former imperial capital at Luoyang. Although the fourth-century Sixteen Kingdoms often had at their core a non-Chinese tribe, with conscious bonds of tribal solidarity, and administered their Chinese and north-Chinese populations separately, by the late fourth century some of those ethnic divisions were already beginning to be erased. (HEA, 62-3)

The Southern Dynasties
South China, 317-589

While north China plunged into chaos during the fourth century, perhaps an eighth of the entire northern Chinese population may have fled to the relative shelter and stability of the south. Many of these refugees settled in the general region of the lower Yangzi River valley, where members of the Western Jin imperial family reestablished a court in exile, known to history as the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420). ... The amazing cultural splendor of the Southern dynasties owed much to the fact that scholarship and literary ability had become essential requirements for high social status and office holding since the late Han Dynasty. After the fall of the Han, and with the weakening of imperial government, the focus of learning and education shifted to individual private families. Literary cultivation became one of the most important criteria that separated the Great Families, who were the dominant figures throughout the age of division, from ordinary commoners. (HEA, 60-5)
One sixth-century Buddhist author even marveled at how the Central Plain in the north had once been “China” but had since become “barbarian waste,” while the south had once been “barbaric” yet had now become a “Chinese” land. (HEA, 66)
The possession of some thirty thousand rolls [of books] helped one early sixth-century prince to compile an influential literary anthology, the Selections of Refined Literature (Wen xuan), which “became the text from which most educated men obtained their literary education” for centuries thereafter and which was also widely read by early Korean and Japanese elites. (HEA, 65)
The Eastern Jin Dynasty produced an astonishing cultural efflorescence in the arts. ... In a much celebrated story, Wang Xizhi once, in 353, hosted an elegant literary gathering at an orchid pavilion in Zhejiang, during which wine cups were floated down a gently winding stream. When the cup touched the bank, each of forty-one guests in succession had to compose a poem or be forced to drink a penalty. The preface to the record of this gathering that Wang Xizhi brushed was so treasured for its calligraphy that a later emperor (Tang Taizong, 600-649) supposedly took the original copy of it with him to his grave. (HEA, 64)

Northern Wei
North China, 386-534

Until the mid-fifth century, Northern Wei emperors ruled north China essentially as Xianbei-style overlords, did not apparently envision themselves as sole legitimate successors to the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, and did not display much evidence of any driving ambition to conquer the still independent Southern dynasties and reunify China. A majority of high-ranking Northern Wei officials, moreover, were still identifiably non-Chinese. Eventually, however, in 494, Northern Wei actually did relocate its capital farther south to the hallowed early Chinese imperial site at Luoyang. Even before then, led first by a powerful empress dowager [Feng] and then by Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471-500), the court began promulgating measures to convert Northern Wei into more of a Chinese-style regime. These included the construction of a Confucian temple with seasonal sacrifices to the spirit of Confucius, the adoption of Chinese names (for example, the non-Chinese imperial surname Tuoba was changed to the Chinese name Yuan), and mandatory court use of the Chinese language. The underlying motive for these actions was probably less due to any obvious superiority or attractiveness of Chinese culture than it was to lay the groundwork for a Northern Wei conquest of the south and reunification of China. (HEA, 69)
If China was extraordinarily open to outside influences during this Age of Division, and if some of those influences emanated from surprisingly distant sources, on the other hand, this was also the time when certain key cultural features that make East Asia East Asian were planted. A relatively common elite culture spread throughout East Asia in this period, extending to modern China, Korea, Japan, and northern Vietnam. The various local East Asian elites of the period in some ways had more in common with each other than with the peasants in their own nearby villages. One of the key features of this new East Asian cultural community — and one that simultaneously also linked it to a much larger world — was Buddhism. (HEA, 72)

The Historical Buddha
& the Foundation of Buddhism

Buddhism was the world’s first great missionary religion. During precisely those same centuries when China was most divided politically, a vast swath of the planet, including much of South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, and portions of Southeast Asia, came to be united by a shared religious faith in Buddhism. Buddhism had originated, of course, in South Asia. The historical Buddha (the “Enlightened One”), Siddhartha Gautama, who is also called the “Sage of the Sakya tribe” (Sakyamuni), was born in the vicinity of present-day Nepal around the sixth century BCE. His breakthrough realization is said to have been that, although the realm of material existence continues endlessly (the cycle of birth and death and rebirth that the Indians called samsara), nothing within it is permanent, and it is devoid of any higher purpose. ... After you die, there is no permanent personal identity that is passed on to future incarnations. ... Existence is therefore ultimately empty, and meaningless, and the truly enlightened goal can only be to escape this endless cycle of misery. (HEA, 72)
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life involves “suffering or unsatisfactoriness”

2. Suffering/unsatisfactoriness is ultimately due to attachment and desire

3. Suffering/unsatisfactoriness can only be stopped by the cessation of attachment and desire

4. There is an “Eightfold Path” that leads to the cessation of suffering/unsatisfactoriness