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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: December 2011

4 - The Six Dynasties


The Six Dynasties period, running from the fall of the Han dynasty to rise of the Sui (589–618) and Tang dynasties (618–907), was marked by political division within the territory of the former Han empire. It has also been called the “Wei-Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties period,” in recognition of the separate governments in northern and southern China, or even simply the “Period of Disunion” or “Period of Division.” Both traditional and contemporary Chinese historians portray this period of division as an anomalous and unnatural detour from China’s fundamental geopolitical unity rather than a centuries-long struggle to establish the Qin-Han political unity as a Chinese cultural norm. The Six Dynasties was particularly colored by the extensive involvement of non-Chinese forces from the northern steppes in the military, politics, and culture of the formerly Han empire’s territories, mostly in north China. At various times during this period, non-Chinese ruled and immigrated into north China. Society and culture were the product of centuries of cultural intermixing between Chinese and various steppe practices. This was true of martial arts as well.

Steppe influence grew markedly in China in the later part of the Han dynasty. Tribal leaders and their cohorts of cavalrymen were regularly recruited as a group into Han armies to fight other steppe groups. Over time, steppe leaders and their forces were drawn into regional power struggles within the Han dynasty as well. Tribal leaders then shifted from working as mercenary commanders to having direct participation in the struggle for power. Steppe martial arts and fighting techniques responded to the preexisting Chinese martial arts, and Chinese martial arts responded to steppe martial arts as the respective sides interacted. This was not a simple matter of Chinese armies learning how to fight steppe armies, or steppe armies learning how to fight Chinese armies. In many battles, armies combined steppe cavalrymen with Chinese infantry, and they might fight similarly mixed opponents.