China in Division
The Sixteen Kingdoms (North China, 304–439)
In the early fourth century, centralized imperial government disintegrated almost completely in north China. For over a hundred years, the ancient Chinese cultural heartland in the north was shredded between what are conventionally known as the Sixteen Kingdoms. More precisely, historians actually recognize twenty-one distinct regimes in north China between the years 304 and 439 (not to mention other independent local communities that never aspired to become states). Despite the conventional English label “Sixteen Kingdoms,” moreover, these regimes were also often really empires, in the sense of being relatively large, multiethnic, military-conquest states ruled by men claiming the Chinese title “emperor” (huangdi). An alternate title, “heavenly king” (tianwang), was, however, invoked with unusual frequency during this period, possibly as a result of cultural influences coming from the steppe. As it happens, most of these Sixteen Kingdoms had rulers with non-Chinese ethnic identities.
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 Eastern Jin capital was the city that is today called Nanjing (English: Nanking). This became the nucleus for a series of five (Eastern Jin, Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen) culturally and economically flourishing, but politically and militarily weak, Southern dynasties. Including the earlier third-century southern state of Three Kingdoms Wu, these Southern dynasties are sometimes also referred to as the Six Dynasties. Those people who remained in the north, meanwhile, huddled behind thousands of improvised local fortifications.
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 livestock 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.