By the time the Han dynasty collapsed in 220 AD, many of the cultural and social features that continue to define China into the modern era were already firmly established. A common writing system united the people of China despite a myriad of regional dialects, a system of imperial Confucianism codified the relationship of every member of society to every other member of society, and the necessity of first winning and then maintaining the Mandate of Heaven had been impressed upon all of China's would-be rulers as well as their occasionally malcontented subjects. These features would prove important in maintaining the cultural continuity of Chinese civilization in the coming centuries. In Europe, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD destroyed the unity of Europe as warlords and petty nobility carved out their own autonomous domains. Although many leaders from Charlemagne to Napoleon to Hitler all tried to reconstitute a pan-European empire, none ever succeeded in the long term. By contrast, although China was occasionally divided between rival dynasties and conquerors, the Chinese state always had a way of putting itself back into one unified whole thanks partially to the cultural foundation that had been built over the course of its early history. In the Middle Ages, China's stability would be challenged by invasion, rebellion, and cultural transformation, but the same period also saw golden ages of art and science.
The collapse of the Han dynasty plunged China into disunity and conflict. While a multitude of local rulers tried to enforce claims to authority, the major contenders were the Han successor states of Wei, Shu, and Wu. The rulers of each of these so-called "Three Kingdoms" all claimed that they were the rightful rulers of all China and were locked in a bitter struggle for supremacy. The progressions of events and internecine conflict of the Three Kingdoms Period is extremely complicated and served as the backdrop for Luo Guanzhong's 14th century epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the great classics of Chinese literature. Although Luo took significant liberties with the historical record, his work dramatized and popularized the story of this fascinating era of Chinese history. Today, the names of key figures of the age such as Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Sun Quan, Zhuge Liang, and Guan Yu are familiar to all Chinese and to anybody who has ever played the Dynasty Warriors video game franchise. Eventually, after years of bloodshed that left China significantly depopulated, a successor state of Wei called the Jin overwhelmed the states of Shu and Wu. Unfortunately for the long suffering people, however, the victory of the Jin did not usher in an era of prosperous unity. Instead, it was merely the opening act in a long, drawn out drama of division and political turmoil.
The Six Dynasties period refers to a the succession of Chinese and non-Chinese political entities that controlled various parts of China between the 3rd and 6th century AD. Technically, this era also includes the Three Kingdoms period, but due to its importance in Chinese history and culture, it is often treated as a separate era of Chinese history. The Six Dynasties area saw several important developments that would be important in later periods. First, this is around the time that Buddhism first arrived in China from India. While initially practiced by a small proportion of Chinese, Buddhist religious and political influence would grow markedly over the following centuries. Second, repeated barbarian (i.e. non-Chinese) invasions into China prompted a large exodus of aristocrats from the north to the south, more firmly establishing Chinese influence and political power in that region. Third, the aforementioned northern barbarians came to China to stay, establishing their own kingdoms and slowly adopting Chinese customs and political organization. This process of Sinicization would be one embarked upon by many later non-Chinese conquerors. Finally, Chinese poetry began to gain momentum as a respected form of art and one which would reach its apex in subsequent dynasties. Politically speaking, there was a great deal of conflict which various regional powers rising, conquering, and falling within the space of a few generations. This state of constant political turnover would be the norm until the rise of the Sui dynasty in 581.
Despite lasting less than 40 years, the Sui dynasty was important insofar as it set the stage for one of China's great golden ages. Emperor Wen of Sui's big achievement was brining all of China back under Chinese and subjugating all rival Chinese polities, thereby ending more than three centuries of disunity. The Sui also completed the Grand Canal, one of the most important building projects in Chinese history. The Grand Canal formed a north-south waterway linking the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, significantly easing commerce and travel between northern and southern China.
Ask any Chinese person what dynasty they would most like to go back in time to visit and they usually emphatically answer "The Tang!" This is because the Tang era is regarded by most historians and regular observers as one of the high points of Chinese civilization. The history of the Tang dynasty begins with the rebellion of the Li family against the ruling Sui dynasty. Though the Sui had successfully reunited China, their extensive military campaigns had been extremely costly. The ruling emperor finally bit off more than he could chew when he launched a military campaign against the kingdom of Goguryeo in modern day Korea. The failure of this expedition prompted Li Yuan to rise up in revolt, deposing the Sui dynasty and proclaiming himself Emperor Gaozu of Tang. The next two centuries saw an unprecedented flowering of art, culture, trade, and good governance. The Tang capital Chang'an (modern day Xi'an) was the far eastern terminus of the Silk Road and was one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Merchants and wanderers from as far away as India, Persia, and Europe came visited or resided in Chang'an, doing business and introducing new concepts in philosophy and theology. Religious pluralism thrived with Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and even members of the newly established Muslim religion living and trading side by side. In particular, Buddhism began to make serious inroads into Chinese society during the Tang era, with Buddhist monasteries and clergymen wielding considerable power over spiritual and temporal affairs. The Tang emperors alternately embraced Buddhism or persecuted its practitioners depending on their personal attitude toward the faith, but from the Tang period onward, Buddhism was in China to stay. This era of commerce, pluralism, and good governance led to a creative explosion. Landscape paintings, glazed pottery, dramatic performances, and especially poetry reached new heights of refinement during the Tang. In fact, the influence of Tang poets like Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi and many others on Chinese culture was so strong that even today most educated Chinese can recite several dozen of their poems from memory, nearly 1500 years after their composition. Unfortunately, however, all good things must come to an end. By the 700s AD, palace intrigue and inattentive government had led to instability in the realm. Sensing an opportunity, the Sogdian general An Lushan launched a rebellion against the Tang state, capturing large portions of northern China and convincing many disaffected officials to join his insurrection. The An Lushan rebellion took seven years for the emperor's army to quell, and while the treacherous general was ultimately defeated, the conflict had devastated the countryside and fatally weakened the dynasty. The Tang military was less able to defend itself against itself against rival powers like the Uighurs and Tibetans who carved away chunks of Chinese territory and a lack of oversight from the capital meant that regional warlords were left largely to their own devices. The final century of the Tang dynasty saw frequent power grabs and rebellions until the imperial throne became little more than a puppet to be controlled by ambitious usurpers. The final emperor of the Tang dynasty died in 907 marking an end to one of China's most illustrious golden ages.
In a pattern that should now be familiar, the collapse of the Tang led to a splintering of power into the hands of different regional potentates. This 50 year period was known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period which gives you a sense of the complexity of the political landscape at that time. However, as is so often the case with Chinese history, the 10th century also saw the rise of one powerful family that would unite all of China and found a dynasty in its own name. The Song dynasty began when Zhao Kuangyin, an ambitious general, overthrew his master and reconquered China under his banner and established a capital at modern Kaifeng. If the Tang was considered a golden age of art and culture, the Song dynasty is remembered as a period of scientific and technological achievement. Under the patronage of the emperors, Song scholars and polymaths invented the magnetic compass needle, the hydraulic clock, moveable type, and perfected the formula for gunpowder. The learned classes also made huge strides forward in the fields of cartography, navigation, zoology, botany, and astronomy. The Song state also introduced civil reforms such as the nationwide introduction of paper currency and increased emphasis on meritocratic government via the civil service examination. By all accounts, Song dynasty China had a thriving civic and intellectual scene that would have been the envy of the world. Beginning in the 1100s, tribes from the northern borderlands became a major security issue for the Song. Despite some early success in quelling and pacifying the tribesmen, the Song military ultimately proved no match for the vigorous warriors of the steppe and an army of Jurchens swept across North China and captured the capital of Kaifeng as well as the emperor himself. This terrifying and humiliating defeat prompted the remained of the Song court to remove south of the Yangtze river and reestablish a capital at modern Hangzhou. This marks the beginning of the so-called Southern Song dynasty. Though the Jurchens now controlled most of northern China, the Song staunchly defended their southern territory through deft strategy and technological superiority. In one particularly notable episode, the Song navy defeated a much larger Jurchen fleet by deploying paddle-driven warships armed with grenade-launching catapults. Following their relocation to the South, the Song enjoyed another century and a half of relative prosperity until a far more sinister threat began to advance from the North, laying waste to everything in its path…..