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The Eastern Wei–Northern Qi was the dominant state in its time, rich in resources, its capital larger than any of its rivals, its cities the centers of thriving commercial activity, and its powerful army composed largely of veteran Xianbei tribesmen who had united the North and who still posed a serious threat to its neighbors. Its conquest by the Northern Zhou armies in 577 has attracted much scholarly attention in an attempt to explain the reasons for its sudden collapse. Such studies have provided detailed analyses of the political and social elements that made up the state, and the internal tensions and conflicts that help explain its ignominious fall. The story of the Northern Qi state makes it one of the more interesting of the Six Dynasties period.
Periods of disunity in Chinese history do not usually receive the attention they deserve, yet it is just in those years of apparent disorder and even chaos that important developments, social, cultural, artistic, and even institutional, often find their earliest expression. The Six Dynasties period (220–589 ce) was just such a time of momentous changes in many aspects of the society. But it is precisely the confusing tumult and disorder of the political events of those four centuries that create the strongest impression. We find this perception mirrored in the reaction of the put-upon Gao Laoshi, the middle-school schoolmaster described by Lu Xun in one of his stories, who was so dejected when he had been assigned to teach a course on the Six Dynasties. All he remembered about the subject was how very confusing it was, a time of much warfare and turmoil; no doubt what would have come to his mind was the common saying wu Hu luan Hua 五胡亂華 “the Five Barbarians brought disorder to China.” He felt that he could do a creditable job with the great Han and Three Kingdoms that came before or the glorious Tang after it, but what could he say about those miserable years in between? The very nomenclature reflects its apparent disjointed nature.
The Western Wei–Northern Zhou was one of the two short-lived states that emerged in the North after the breakup of the Northern Wei, the other being the Eastern Wei–Northern Qi. A small group of Xianbei took command of the western portion of the Northern Wei realm, and under the forceful and innovative leadership of Yuwen Tai and his son Yuwen Yong, important policies were initiated that had significant historical importance. Yuwen Tai’s immediate forebears were Xianbei tribesmen of some standing in the area of Wuchuan, a military colony northeast of the Ordos loop of the Yellow River, where they had settled in the opening years of the fifth century.
The Six Dynasties Period (220–589 CE) is one of the most complex in Chinese history. Written by leading scholars from across the globe, the essays in this volume cover nearly every aspect of the period, including politics, foreign relations, warfare, agriculture, gender, art, philosophy, material culture, local society, and music. While acknowledging the era's political chaos, these essays indicate that this was a transformative period when Chinese culture was significantly changed and enriched by foreign peoples and ideas. It was also a time when history and literature became recognized as independent subjects and religion was transformed by the domestication of Buddhism and the formation of organized Daoism. Many of the trends that shaped the rest of imperial China's history have their origins in this era, such as the commercial vibrancy of southern China, the separation of history and literature from classical studies, and the growing importance of women in politics and religion.