The Era of Division (220—589)

When the last Han emperor was killed in 220, there were three powerful warlord families who each hoped to restore order quickly and establish a new and long-lived empire in its place. In the north, the Cao family of Han officials steadily gained power for themselves, and in 220 they proclaimed a new dynasty, the Wei. In the southwest (today’s Sichuan) Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Han ruling family, proclaimed the Shu Han dynasty (Shu being the name then for that region), which he saw as the rightful successor to the great Han; and in the lower Yangzi River valley Sun Quan, another powerful general, proclaimed the Wu dynasty.

These three rivals were later immortalized in one of China’s greatest novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which weaves together many historical tales and popular stories to portray the third century ce as a time of great military heroism and bravery, as well as treachery and betrayal. All Chinese in modern times, from primary school children to illiterate peasants and artisans, are familiar with the great heroes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There is a subtle irony in this novel as well, for it shows that the virtuous do not always win power over their rivals, and it suggests that the Mandate of Heaven will likely go to the cleverest general with the strongest battalions rather than the wisest or most moral leader. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms may be the second most important book, after the Analects of Confucius, for an understanding of Chinese culture.

Despite the bravery, strength, and treachery of the warlords of the Three Kingdoms era, none of them came close to conquering all of the former Han dynastic territories. Instead they only managed to destroy the old Han order. In 263 the Wei forces defeated the Shu Han in the southwest, but only two years later a former Wei general removed the Wei emperor and proclaimed the Jin dynasty. In 280, the Jin defeated the Wu state in the Yangzi valley of central China, thus briefly unifying the empire under central control. But the Jin was itself short-lived, as mounted Xiongnu tribesmen, with improved efficiency through the recent invention of the stirrup, laid waste to the Jin capital, Luoyang, in 311. For more than a century thereafter, north China was torn by incessant warfare among competing groups, including many non-Chinese nomadic tribesmen who originally came from areas north and west of China proper.

The earlier distinction between Han Chinese and non-Han “barbarians” broke down entirely during this period of rapid change. Some nomadic groups had lived within the Great Wall for decades, and the roles they played, whether as allies or opponents of the Han dynasty, were of ever-increasing importance in the political control and organization of the Yellow River valley. Many of these groups learned the Chinese language, intermarried with Chinese, and adopted Chinese modes of dress and diet, while remaining self-consciously loyal to some of their own tribal ways. The very definition of “Chinese” greatly expanded during this era to incorporate many non-Han peoples as well as their material cultures and social customs. In the process, many Han Chinese also embraced in varying degrees formerly “barbarian” ways, including their tastes in food, fashions, music, and art. Far from differentiating Han from non-Han cultures, the term “barbarian” came to be applied by many different groups to their rivals. North and south evolved in different ways, but both could now claim to be “civilized Chinese,” and both could aspire to recapture the old Han ideal of one all-encompassing centralized empire.

To flee the bloodshed and chaos in north China following the Han dynasty collapse, more than two million people, including many of the north’s wealthiest families, fled to the Yangzi River valley, where they attempted, with little success, to set up an effective central government with a military strong enough to reunify the country. In both the north and the south, society became increasingly stratified as wealthy families organized their own private armies for protection, and landless peasants fled to these wealthy estates to work as serfs and indentured servants in return for food and protection against marauding armies. A succession of weak dynasties were established at Jiankang (what is today Nanjing) on the Yangzi River, but no political ruler was able to establish a secure tax base with a stable and strong central government.

During the Han period, perhaps only 10 percent of the population lived as far south as the Yangzi River valley. After the Han, large-scale migration to the south would transform the Yangzi valley into China’s most prosperous region. The wealthy families who fled southward beginning around 200 took with them thousands of farm laborers and mobilized them to drain swamps and build level paddy fields surrounded by earthen dikes. This made possible the flooding and draining of rice fields with precision, which allowed the south, with more abundant rainfall and the many streams and tributaries of the Yangzi River, to become China’s richest rice-producing region. The many rivers and tributaries in central and south China made transportation more efficient and long-distance trade more feasible than in the north.

In addition, wealthy families in the Yangzi Valley, sometimes with government subsidies, could afford the long-term investment required for mulberry trees, necessary for the production of silk. Silk worms are so tiny at hatching that there are 700,000 in a pound. In five weeks, these worms will eat twelve tons of mulberry leaves and will themselves grow to a combined weight of five tons. Each worm, about four or five inches long at maturity, then spins a cocoon of a silk thread about one mile in length and as fine as a spider’s web. The production of silk is incredibly labor intensive, as each cocoon must be carefully softened in scalding water and unwound onto a spool. Several of these fine threads are spun together to make a strong silk thread, which is only then ready to weave into cloth. The five tons of silk cocoons will, after painstaking processing, produce only about 150 pounds of finished silk cloth.

In this era of political division and internal weakness, long-distance trade flourished as never before, and silk was a major driving force in this development. Merchants brought gold, silver, and luxury goods— such as textiles from Persia and pearls, ivory, incense, and coral from South and Southeast Asia—to trade for the coveted Chinese silks, as well as bronze objects and lacquerware. Guangzhou on the far southeast coast became a thriving center of international trade, and by the early sixth century, the capital of the Southern Liang dynasty, Jiankang, on the Yangzi River in central China, was the largest and most luxurious city in the world, with a population of one million.

In contrast to northern cities, which were divided by the government into discrete rectangular administrative units to confine markets to particular areas, Jiankang had markets scattered throughout the city so that commerce permeated urban life. The Yangzi and its many tributaries afforded the economical movement of goods to and from the southwestern interior and in the other direction, to the eastern coast. Consequently, Jiankang was a major center of trading networks that extended westward as far as Sichuan and Tibet and eastward down the southeast China coast to Southeast and South Asia. From there, with the help of Indian and Muslim traders, Chinese goods found their way westward as far as Syria and Rome. As a result of all these profound economic changes, the reconstructed empire that ended the era of division in 589 was a far more prosperous country with a far more developed economy than anything that existed in Han times.

During the era of division, China was also greatly transformed in terms of art, culture, and religion. When the Han dynasty collapsed, so did the faith that many scholars and officials had had in the Confucian doctrines that justified and rationalized the Han order. As Confucianism appeared incapable of sustaining order, many people naturally began to turn to other philosophies and religions.

By the end of the Han, Daoism had been transformed in some areas into a mass religion, largely made up of peasants led by faith healers who promised that the destruction of the Han dynasty would usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity under Daoist leadership. One such Daoist visionary, the leader of the Yellow Turban rebellion, inspired 360,000 of his followers to rise up against the Han in 184, but this movement was quickly wiped out by Han forces. Another Daoist sect, the Celestial Masters, flourished for almost a century in southwest China and avoided suppression by dispersing into remote areas, retreating from political and military battles, and concentrating on their religious practices of warding off demons and illnesses. The Celestial Masters sect has survived as a major branch of the Daoist religion down to the present day. It maintains a popular following, especially in Taiwan, and practices rituals for burial and for the living to facilitate cosmic harmony, purification, and healing.

In intellectual circles, many scholars and officials began to question the state-sponsored Confucian doctrines of the Han and to explore anew the old Daoist teachings of the Daodejing and the Book of Zhuangzi. These thinkers did not necessarily abandon the ideals of Confucius, but they often pointed out how frequently rulers in the post-Han world paid lip service to Confucian ideals while practicing ruthless and immoral policies.

In the third century ce, the most famous intellectual critics of the age came to be known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Named after the meeting place where they supposedly gathered to drink wine, play music, and write poetry, they also argued about abstract nonpolitical issues such as the nature of reality, or being and nonbeing, in a form of dialogue called “pure talk.” Although there is no hard evidence that these men actually knew each other in their lifetimes, stories of their meetings spread far and wide and helped to define a new ideal of cultivated literati (or scholar-artists) who sought fulfillment not in political engagement but in the private pursuits of pleasure and the arts.

One of the Seven Sages was Ji Kang, a brilliant poet, lute player, and alchemist who experimented with the transformation of metals in search of drugs to promote long life. Ji Kang attacked official life as both boring and immoral. He said he preferred to avoid the hypocrisies of the court and to enjoy instead the freedoms of private life and the beauties of nature far from the pressures of high politics. When a friend of his accepted an official position and wrote to Ji Kang to suggest that he might do likewise, he replied with a blistering attack on officialdom. He concluded his letter: “All I want now is to remain in my old hut, bring up my children and grandchildren, take a stroll from time to time with old friends, drink a glass of wine, and play a melody on my lute. That is the sum of my ambition.” His letter found its way into the hands of the Duke of Jin, who had hired Ji Kang’s friend, and the duke was so offended by its implicit attack on official circles that he sentenced Ji Kang to death in 262. Three thousand of his students and followers signed a petition to the duke asking him to pardon Ji Kang, but to no avail. From prison Ji Kang wrote of his desire to survive but also made clear his contempt for his persecutors. On his way to the gallows, he watched the lengthening shadows of the sun and played a mournful tune on his lute.

Another leader of this group was Ji Kang’s good friend Ruan Ji, who wrote haunting poems that extolled the beauties of nature, called for naturalness and spontaneity over sterile rituals, and satirized the immoral behavior of many Confucian scholars in his own time. When he was chastised by someone for walking in public with his own sister-in-law (because men and women were not to be seen together in public even if they were closely related), he replied, “Surely you don’t mean to suggest that the rules of [Confucian] propriety apply to me!” Another of the Seven Sages, Liu Ling, once appeared stark naked at the door of his home to greet some visitors. Seeing the shocked look on their faces, he explained, “Heaven and earth are my dwelling and this room is my pants. Who asked you gentlemen to come inside my pants? And where’s the harm anyway?”

In such a dangerous age, when rulers fought constant wars and frequently executed officials and citizens even for minor offenses, many began to question the Confucian principle that a good man’s first duty was to serve the state. The trends of nonconformity, withdrawal from government service, and new interest in the values of the early Daoist philosophers and the later Daoist religious movements all helped provide fertile soil for the rise of Buddhism in China. The arrival of Buddhism was easily the most momentous of all the changes during the long period of division.

Compared with most world religions, the original teachings of the Buddha are unique in that he performed no miracles, believed in no supernatural god or creator, and depended on no deity or divine revelations as the basis of his teachings. He simply claimed to have insight into the nature of the human condition and ways to improve it. Born an Indian prince—Siddhartha of the Gautama clan—the Buddha lived, interestingly enough, at about the same time as Confucius. India was already an old civilization with a very rich tradition of Hindu scriptures and teachings about the need to transcend or move beyond the physical world to the world of pure spirit. Raised in luxury and married to a beautiful princess who had borne him a son, Siddhartha turned his back on all that at age twenty-nine, when he vowed to embark on a religious search for enlightenment; in particular, he wished to solve the riddle of human suffering. He studied with a variety of Hindu teachers and sages for a period of six years. At age thirty-five, while meditating under a Bo tree in the northern Indian state of Bihar, he had a sense of great awakening (Buddha means “awakened one”) and felt that he finally understood the causes and the cure for human suffering. In his first sermon after this, he summarized his new insights, which have come to be known in Buddhism as the Four Noble Truths. The first is that dukkha—a Sanskrit term meaning suffering, pain, imperfection, or anguish—is unavoidable in human life. The second is that dukkha has an identifiable cause: human desire or craving. We desire to escape pain and never to be separated from our loved ones, but pain in life and separation through death are unavoidable. The third noble truth is that we can end our suffering if we understand and accept our own impermanence and eliminate our many desires for life to be different from the way it is. The forth noble truth is that the way to achieve this acceptance and this end of suffering is to follow a moral, compassionate life of spiritual discipline, meditation, and concentration.

In addition to these teachings, Buddhists shared the common Indian assumptions of the time: that all human beings are spirits reborn again and again into a succession of physical bodies, working toward enlightenment over a period of many lifetimes. Rebirth is governed by laws of karma, whereby every act has consequences equal to the act. Good actions have good consequences in this life or the next incarnation, and bad actions likewise have bad consequences.

The Buddha’s teachings were sufficiently general and varied that different people emphasized different aspects of his thought, and by the time Buddhist missionaries carried their religion to China, it was a very complex religion with many different schools and branches. In Theravada Buddhism, which thrived in India and spread especially in Southeast Asia, the Buddhist path of self-discipline was seen as so strict and difficult that only monks and nuns could hope to reach enlightenment. In Tantric Buddhism, which developed particularly in Tibet, the emphasis was on elaborate prayers and rituals to ward off evil spirits. In Mahayana Buddhism, which became most popular in China, laypeople could also hope for enlightenment, in part through faith in the power of the Buddha and his many bodhisattva disciples. (A bodhisattva is one who has attained sufficient spiritual insight to reach nirvana, but who remains in the world to help relieve the suffering of others.) Despite the nontheistic teachings of the Buddha, some schools of Buddhism developed an array of deities that people could appeal to for protection and assistance in this life or the next.

There were many obstacles to the growth of Buddhism in China. Chinese thought centered very much on this world and on family obligations, whereas Indian philosophy was very abstractly metaphysical, seeing multiple worlds beyond the concrete physical world. The languages of the Buddhist texts, Sanskrit and Pali, were completely unrelated to Chinese, making translation of basic Buddhist concepts quite difficult. The most serious contradiction between Buddhist practice and Chinese values was that the highest level of religious devotion in Buddhism was to shave one’s head and become a monk or a nun. This was seen as a serious violation of Confucian filial piety, because one’s first filial obligation was to have children, who in turn would worship one’s parents’ spirits after one’s own death.

Buddhist missionaries and early Chinese converts used the ideas of reincarnation and the laws of karma to justify monastic life as a performance of filial piety: by becoming a monk or a nun, one could win merits for one’s ancestors in the afterlife and thereby contribute toward one’s parents’ rebirth at a higher level of spiritual development or at a higher socioeconomic level. Similarly, by contributing money for the construction of Buddhist temples, monasteries, or works of art, one could earn karmic merits for oneself and one’s family members both in this life and the next.

Despite the many obstacles to the spread of Buddhism in China, many other factors made China ripe for the transplanting and growth of this Indian religion. The translation itself of Indian terms into Chinese made many Buddhist concepts seem familiar to the Chinese. The Buddhist terms for teaching (dharma), enlightenment (bodhi), and yoga were all translated into Chinese as dao, the way, making these concepts seem almost Chinese. The highly abstract Indian term nirvana was rendered into Chinese as the familiar negative term wu, as in wuwei, or nonaction, meaning emptiness. The Indian term for morality, sila, was rendered in Chinese as xiaoxun, or filial piety, making Indian morality appear to be very Chinese and very compatible with Confucianism.

Many Chinese after the fall of the Han were in search of some alternative to Confucianism, and Buddhism met a number of different needs in the traumatized society of the time. Some of the eccentric followers of Daoism after the fall of the Han had emphasized the need for emotional detachment in order to deal with the profound uncertainties of the age. To many Chinese, Buddhism seemed to be a variation on this Daoist theme of having few desires and finding contentment in small pleasures. As some intellectuals turned against Confucian doctrines and undertook abstract debates on the nature of being and nonbeing, they were strongly attracted to the rich intellectual tradition of metaphysical speculation in Indian Buddhism. And some missionaries and early Chinese Buddhist converts were very adept at presenting Buddhism in terms familiar to Confucians and Daoists alike.

The greatest translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese was Kumarajiva (344-413), a half-Indian monk who lived in the oasis town of Kucha in what is today Xinjiang Province. Kumarajiva’s Indian father had come to Central Asia to study Buddhism, and when Kumarajiva was seven, his mother, a native Kuchean princess, decided she wanted to become a nun. When her husband objected, she refused to eat; after six days he relented, and she and her son entered the Buddhist clergy. The young Kumarajiva was brilliant at languages, and he and his mother traveled to Kashmir, where he studied with one of the great Buddhist teachers. Later, back in Central Asia, he studied both Theravada and Mahayana doctrines and became convinced of the superiority of the Mahayana teachings. When a Chinese warlord in the region captured him and held him captive for a number of years to prevent his spreading his doctrines more widely, he quickly became fluent in Chinese. In 401, a regional Chinese ruler heard of his brilliance, defeated the general who had held Kumarajiva captive, brought him to the city of Chang’an, and set him to work supervising as many as a thousand monks in translating the major Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. The results were spectacularly successful. From 402 until his death in 413, Kumarajiva oversaw the accurate translation of more Buddhist scriptures into Chinese than any other translator ever.

Buddhist followers and Buddhist institutions seemed well designed to meet a variety of social and political needs in China. In south China, where civil wars were frequent and banditry was widespread in the countryside, walled Buddhist monasteries offered protection and the promise of food and safety to otherwise destitute people. Buddhists built inns along roadways offering meals and lodging to travelers. They also opened pawnshops where poor people could deposit items of value in order to secure loans that were often essential to keep families fed or secure seed for a spring planting in hard times.

In north China, important political factors contributed to the rise of Buddhism. The Chinese saw the invading nomadic tribes who competed for the control of the Yellow River valley as uncivilized and uncultured. These invaders were drawn to Buddhism precisely because it was not Chinese and offered them a “high culture” and sophisticated religion of their own. In the early fourth century, a tribe called the Tuoba—part of the Xianbei, a larger group of nomads—occupied parts of northwest China. They began to learn Chinese, to intermarry with Chinese, to use Chinese advisors, and to implement Chinese-style political organization. In 386, they proclaimed the Northern Wei dynasty in the Chinese style. Establishing a permanent capital at Pingcheng (in today’s northern Shanxi Province), the Wei rulers adopted a Chinese-style law code and began taxing Chinese peasants under their control. By 430, the Northern Wei was the largest and strongest government in China, extending over the entire drainage area of the Yellow River.

From 425 to 494, the Northern Wei emperors and their court (with private backing from officials, monks and nuns, and private families as well) sponsored the carving of thousands of Buddhist statues in a group of sandstone cliffs and caves at a place called Yungang (near their capital of Pingcheng and close to today’s Datong in Shanxi). These caves contain five massive sculptures of the Buddha (from twenty-six to sixty feet high) that may have been modeled on the first five emperors of the Northern Wei dynasty. Much of the work was completed in a few years of very hectic activity, from 483 to 490, perhaps at the suggestion of a monk as to how the court could express its repentance of an earlier attempt to suppress Buddhist practices. In this short span of time, the walls of fifty-three main caves were filled with more than 50,000 carvings. This was a massive undertaking that employed hundreds of skilled craftsmen, who worked as slaves of the state. A donor’s list found at Yungang is inscribed with the names of 120 donors.

In 494, the Northern Wei rulers moved their capital southward to Luoyang, which they rebuilt into a flourishing city on the ruins of the former Eastern Han capital. At a place called Longmen, ten miles outside of Luoyang, they commissioned artists to carve out another monumental set of caves with fine limestone walls. Subsequent rulers of the Tang dynasty continued to sponsor the creation of Buddhist sculptures at Longmen for about four hundred years.

This large Buddha from the Northern Wei dynasty (460-493 ce), in Cave number 20 at Yungang, near modern Datong (Shanxi Province), is now exposed to the elements because of the collapse of the cave.

This large Buddha from the Northern Wei dynasty (460-493 ce), in Cave number 20 at Yungang, near modern Datong (Shanxi Province), is now exposed to the elements because of the collapse of the cave. The formerly nomadic Tuoba Wei rulers of the Northern Wei sponsored the creation of thousands of elaborately carved Buddhist figures at Yungang to demonstrate their religious devotion and cultural sophistication. Photo by Paul Ropp

In addition to these caves associated with emperors and would-be emperors, numerous other Buddhist works of art were created during the period of division that have survived to the present day. In the far northwestern village of Dunhuang (in today’s Gansu Province) archaeologists in the twentieth century discovered another set of caves adorned with Buddhist carvings sponsored by a large monastery there, along with a whole library of Buddhist scriptures produced over several centuries starting in the fourth century ce.About eight hundred miles to the west of Dunhuang, near Kucha, where Kumarajiva lived as a child, another group of caves at the small town of Kizil shows the popularity of Buddhism in Central Asia (near today’s Kyrgyzstan) starting in the fourth century ce. These caves are notable for the vivid multicolored paintings, in Indian style, that adorn their walls. One of the paintings at Kizil illustrates the close connection between merchants and the spread of Buddhism in China, as it shows the Buddha lighting the way for a traveling merchant. Interregional trade was essential to the rise of Buddhism in China, for merchants often brought missionaries along with them on their travels and paid their expenses so they could devote their time and attention to spreading word of the religion.

Despite all of this growing interest in Buddhism, Confucian doctrines did not die out or lose their appeal for those who still dreamed of reuniting the north and the south of China into one large empire. The same Northern Wei rulers who sponsored the creation of Buddhist art works at Yungang and Longmen also devoted time and attention to promoting Confucian social and political values and to building a strong centralized bureaucratic state with a stable tax base. In 465, Empress Dowager Feng rose to a powerful position upon the death of the emperor, her husband. She dominated the new emperor, her young son, and after his death in 476 controlled the Northern Wei court as the regent for her young step-grandson. Until her death in 490, she controlled the court, and she undertook a sweeping set of reforms that transformed the semitribal organization of the Xianbei court into a fullblown Chinese-style bureaucratic government. She promoted more Chinese officials into influential governmental positions, and she increased the building of Buddhist monasteries.

These massive guardians from the central Fengxian Temple at the Longmen Buddhist grottoes near today’s Luoyang protect the nearby image of a sitting female Buddha said to be modeled on Tang Empress Wu.

These massive guardians from the central Fengxian Temple at the Longmen Buddhist grottoes near today’s Luoyang protect the nearby image of a sitting female Buddha said to be modeled on Tang Empress Wu. After the Northern Wei rulers moved their capital to Luoyang in 493 ce, they sponsored more carvings of Buddhist statues in these cliffs at Longmen, and the carving continued through the Tang era for the next 400 years, culminating in these naturalistic and graceful sculptures. Photo by Paul Ropp

The most far-reaching of Feng’s reforms was the institution of the “equal-field system.” Under this system, all land belonged to the state, but the state in turn assigned every family twenty mu (a mu is one-third acre) of land permanently for the cultivation of mulberry and other trees. In addition, every family was given lifetime control over forty mu of farm land for every able-bodied man in the family (including slaves) and thirty mu for every ox the family possessed. Only officials’ families could own more land than these standard allotments. In exchange for these generous allotments of land, every family was obliged to pay annual taxes on the land they farmed. This system was designed to ensure that all available land was occupied by taxpaying farmers and that no one could accumulate unlimited land holdings without being taxed. It remained a viable taxation system into the eighth century.

Empress Dowager Feng’s step-grandson, the Xiaowen Emperor, continued her policies, and when he moved the Northern Wei capital in 494 from Pingcheng to Luoyang, he began a further series of reforms to continue the process of promoting Chinese cultural and political values. The ruling family took a Chinese surname, Yuan, and the emperor had the early Confucian text The Classic of Filial Piety translated into the language of the Xianbei. A major motivation behind the Xiaowen Emperor’s various reforms was to curb the power of the military establishment in the Northern Wei system, and this alarmed several generals so much that they rose in rebellion against him in 496. He managed to suppress the rebellion, but he died in 499, and the Northern Wei quickly declined in a spiral of plots and power struggles between Xian-bei generals, Chinese officials, and child emperors and their regents at the court. In 524 Xianbei troops rebelled against Luoyang, and those sent to suppress the rebellion turned against each other. Luoyang was sacked, and the Northern Wei collapsed in 534. Several generals proclaimed short-lived “dynasties,” including the Northern Qi dynasty (552-77) and the Northern Zhou dynasty (557-81). In 581, a Xianbei general with a Chinese name, Yang Jian, usurped power from the Zhou and declared his own dynasty, the Sui. Taking the Chinese reign title of Sui Wendi (the cultured emperor), he was in a very few years able to send his armies successfully into south China and to reunify the north and south in 589 for the first time in three and a half centuries.

The long period of disunion from 220 to 589 was a time of extraordinary political change that witnessed the ethnic and cultural hybridization of Han Chinese and non-Han nomadic peoples and institutions in north China, and the full incorporation of the Yangzi River valley under Han Chinese control for the first time in the south. During this time, Daoism flourished as a philosophy and religion. Buddhism became the dominant religion in north and south China alike and in turn gave rise to the first sophisticated development of Chinese sculpture and the creation of the magnificent Buddhist caves of Yungang, Longmen, and Dunhuang. According to historical records from the time, by the late fifth century there were nearly 6,500 Buddhist temples and more than 77,000 monks and nuns in north China. And in the early sixth century, there were reported to be more than 2,800 Buddhist temples and more than 83,000 monks and nuns in the south.

In the same years, the literati developed a new ideal of the artist-recluse who is free from the obligations and headaches of officialdom. Poets broke away from the early Confucian idea that poetry’s main purpose was the teaching of moral lessons and instead began to emphasize the overriding importance of spontaneity, creativity, and the expression of authentic emotion in poetry. These new artistic ideals helped inspire creative new developments in poetry, painting, and calligraphy. It is no coincidence that writers of this time created the first Chinese literary anthologies based on the idea of literature as artistic creation and not simply moralistic preaching. Fiction writing also developed new approaches as Buddhist missionaries discovered that suspenseful stories were more successful than moralistic instructions in spreading their message.

All these changes meant that China in 589 was a very different civilization from what it had been in the Han dynasty. China was now a much wealthier, more urbanized, and more commercialized country than in Han times. As a result of the growing prosperity, international trade, and cultural creativity of the three and a half centuries following the fall of the Han, the succeeding Sui-Tang period was to be one of the most vibrant and rich cultural eras in all of Chinese history.

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