When the Han dynasty fell in 220, China entered a long period of warfare, invasion and rivalry between small nations. This era, known as the "Period of Disunity," lasted until the rise of the Sui dynasty in 589. Although the Sui were unable to found a lasting empire, they reunified the country and set the stage for the golden age of imperial China under the Tang.
The Three Kingdoms
For 45 years after the fall of the Han, the territory of their former empire was dominated by three warring kingdoms known as Shu Han, Wu and Wei. The rulers and generals of the three kingdoms fought each other for decades to reunify China and found a new dynasty to replace the Han. Their struggles later became the inspiration for the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," one of the most important works of Chinese literature. Although the Wei kingdom succeeded in defeating its rivals and founding a dynasty called the Western Jin, they were driven south in 317 by invading nomads from the steppes north of China.
Han People and Nomads
The people that overthrew the Western Jin were known as the Xiongnu, but they were not the only nomadic culture to move into northern China during the Period of Disunity. Peoples such as the Qianbei, Qiang, Di and Jie all took over regions of northern China, mingling with the Han Chinese and producing a mixed culture with both Chinese and steppe culture elements. Many of the steppe peoples had converted to Buddhism, and the Chinese began to adopt the religion under their influence.
The Six Dynasties
In southern China, the Jin dynasty continued as the Eastern Jin. The capital of the Eastern Jin was at a city called Jiankang, which is now called Nanjing. The Eastern Jin was only the first of six short-lived dynasties to rule from this southern capital, but despite the relative instability the south was still a much more prosperous and peaceful region in this era than the north. During the Period of Disunity, Jiankang became the center of Chinese literary and artistic life.
Rise of the Sui
The mixed culture of northern China produced generals and warlords who were adept at the cavalry skills of the steppe warriors, yet committed to the traditions of the Chinese culture. One such man was Sui Wendi, a general serving one of the mixed Turkic and Chinese kingdoms of the north. Sui Wendi became a warlord, conquered both north and south with his cavalry soldiers, and declared himself the first emperor of the new Sui dynasty in 589. Although his son was defeated and overthrown by the founders of the Tang, China remained unified for the next several centuries.
- Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images