China: 3000 Years of History, 50 Years of Revolution. Robert Louzon 1998

Chapter III: The First Middle Ages (220-588)

The Chinese Han empire has often been compared with the Roman empire. If the facts that both were empires, and that both were nearly contemporaneous and lasted for almost the same length of time are not sufficient to justify us to come to any conclusion as to their basic identity, we must on the other hand note that the situations in which these two regions of Eurasia found themselves after the destruction of their empires were fundamentally similar. Each of them had to pass through a period of ‘Middle Ages’, that is to say, through a period in which their ancient culture and organisation were submerged by the arrival of the barbarian peoples who had destroyed them and were at the same time assimilated by them. Once this assimilation was completed, the ‘Middle Ages’ came to an end.

Just as at this time the pressure of the Romans on the barbarian world beyond the Rhine and Danube had led to a counter-flow of the Germanic peoples towards the Mediterranean, so the pressure undergone by the peoples beyond the Yellow River under the Han dynasty led to the counter-flow of Hunnish peoples as a first stage on to the Yellow River, and as a second stage as far as the Blue River.

The ‘Three Kingdoms’

We have described how, following the movement of the Yellow Turbans, which can be compared with the Bagaudae in Gaul or with the circumcellions of northern Africa [1] (also caused by the development of private property), the victorious Chinese generals carved out three great kingdoms from what had once been China. This period of the ‘Three Kingdoms’, as Chinese historians call it, did not last longer than 60 years, but it is interesting because it brings into focus two important traits of Chinese history that have retained their validity down to our own day.

The first is that China was not divided into two kingdoms – those of the Yellow River and of the Blue River – but into three. Along with China’s northern and southern kingdoms, there is a third – China’s western kingdom. This last occupied an area more or less identical with the modern province of Sichuan.

The existence of this third kingdom was not a simple accident of history; Sichuan was destined from the beginning to play its own rôle in the history of China. Although manifesting all the characteristics of Chinese agriculture, Sichuan forms a basin partially separated from the rest of China by a series of mountain ranges, and which, more importantly, is so favoured by the gods as to be self-supporting, a fact that accounts for its special characteristics.

Sichuan is a mountain valley. It lies in a basin of subsident earth at the foot of lofty mountains – the Alps of Sichuan – which provide it with a great number of rivers, [2] fertile water for irrigation, which added to abundant rainfall enables the fertile red soil reinforced by alluvium washed down from the mountains to yield three harvests a year – fodder, corn and rice. The sides of these Alpine valleys are covered with fruit trees, vines and mulberries. This is indeed a region for cultivation.

Coal is found at ground level, and there is iron ore alongside it. Substantial salt beds mingle with oil deposits. It is a real region of mineral wealth!

It is in Sichuan that China produces the best silk, and it is here too that China’s best paper is manufactured. It is indeed a region of industry.

Finally, the easy life, ‘the good life’ in Sichuan has at all times attracted a flow of immigrants from almost everywhere, and this has produced a mixed population, which like all such populations is noted for its amiability, courtesy and extreme politeness, outstanding even in China – which is saying a great deal, as well as for its artistic temperament. The capital of Sichuan is called ‘the Paris of China’.

And since this Eden is bordered on the west, north and east by mountain ranges, and as the Blue River on its southern border forms a barrier to the entry of ships by the rapids at its exit from Sichuan, it is easy to understand that although it is Chinese in all its essential characteristics, the province has always had the tendency to keep to itself, to ‘live a life of its own’, as far away as possible from the troubled outside.

However, every privilege involves obligations. The fact that it is at the same time the jewel and the retreat of China has in grave circumstances obliged Sichuan to be its refuge.

Thus we can see that during the epoch we are now in, Sichuan provided shelter for the last of the Han. In fact, it was a prince of that family that Sichuan accepted as king, a king who still even claimed to be emperor, albeit without an empire, and without even the hope of ever having one, as Sichuan did not ever aspire to governing China.

Later on, two Tang emperors, at intervals of a hundred years, likewise had occasion to take shelter there, [3] and it is only 20 years ago that Chiang Kai-shek’s government, driven out of all the coastal provinces by the Japanese, contrived to establish its capital at Chongqing, [4] the province’s commercial and financial centre, where he was treated more like the guest of the Governor of Sichuan than as his chief.

The second characteristic of this era is the rôle that Nanjing began to play. In the year 229, Nanjing became the capital of the kingdom of the Blue River, [5] and it was to remain the capital of the whole of the south – that is, of all that part of China that remained unconquered by the barbarians, until the empire was reconstituted – for three-and-a-half centuries, in other words.

So far from the historic capitals of old China at Chang'an and Luoyang, cities on the Yellow River, and still in the mountain region, a new metropolis was to arise in the open plain by the Blue River. This indicates the progress of land development in China, and the move in its centre of gravity towards the sea and the south. What is more, it is from now on that this new China was going to be the real China, far more than old China, which was too often destined to fall under the yoke of the barbarians. The China that grew up in the Wei Valley was to maintain itself in the lower reaches of the Blue River. Chinese civilisation and the Chinese state were created in a hard, difficult border country, but it was in easy, sheltered country that it achieved its fullest development, and where it resisted best. Birth comes about by effort, but we keep going by our bulk.

The Coming of the Barbarians

After the period of the Three Kingdoms, the unity of China was reconstituted by a sort of mayor of the palace of the kingdom of the Yellow River who founded the Jin dynasty, which, however, was only temporary. [6] Thirty years after having mounted the imperial throne, the Jin no longer ruled over anything apart from the Blue River.

What in fact happened was this. Just as Rome at around this time found it expedient to leave its watch on the Rhine in the hands of the Germanic tribes who had been enrolled under the eagles for this purpose and settled on its left bank, so since the year 48AD the Han had settled first the Huns and then the Tungus on the inside of the Great Wall in order to use them as a defence against their compatriots. And just as with the Roman empire, as soon as these mercenaries had become civilised enough to be effective in the struggle against their masters, they cast off their allegiance and became invaders.

They first founded a kingdom in Shanxi on the left bank of the middle reaches of the Yellow River, and in 311 they seized the Jin emperor, whose successor was obliged to take refuge in Nanjing. [7]

Thus began the onslaught by all the Hunnish and Tungus tribes on China’s northern region. For a century, it was divided into a number of ‘barbarian kingdoms’ that succeeded one another and changed themselves in accordance with arrival of fresh tribes and changes of domination. [8] It was just like Western Europe in the fifth century.

In about the beginning of the fifth century, one of these tribes – the Tuoba, posing as defenders of Chinese civilisation, just as the Franks of the same era in Gaul were posing as defenders of Roman civilisation, and, like them, doubtless thanks to an alliance they were able to make, as Clovis did, with the civilised natives – succeeded in triumphing over their rivals and achieving the unity of China along the Yellow River. [9]

This Sino-Mongol hybrid had not unimportant consequences. At first, the invasions were stopped. The poacher became gamekeeper. Not content with merely defending China’s frontier, the Tuoba carried out many a raid into the lands which had formerly been their cradle. Amongst other things, they severely chastised the Avars there, who were the most audacious Mongol tribe of the time, just as Charlemagne’s Franks were later to chastise the Saxons no less severely. [10]

It was also a period of great art, of religious art, for this was also the era of the great development of Buddhism in the Far East, and this was its most important characteristic.

With the installation of barbarian kingdoms in northern China, Buddhism in fact ceased to be the belief of a small number of the faithful and became an official religion. With some rare exceptions, all the barbarian chiefs, and especially the Tuoba, were convinced Buddhists, just as the Germans who had installed themselves in the Roman Empire were dead set on Christianity.

Buddhism, like Christianity, responded to the need the barbarians had of ridding themselves of the sentiment of inferiority they could not fail to have felt penetrating even as conquerors amongst a people who enjoyed a civilisation whose superiority they could not but acknowledge.

In fact Buddhism, just like Christianity but even more so, is a religion of humanity, a ‘universal’ religion, not the religion of a people or of a race. It is, as has been said, ‘a moral system where all men may be united’. [11]

Buddhism was born as a reaction against the racism of the Hindu Brahmin, just as Christianity was a reaction against the racism of the Jewish Pharisee. ‘The Brahmin is born of woman just as the pariah, the least of humans is, against whom he bars the way of salvation’, proclaimed Buddha. Thus Buddhism teaches that everyone, whatever his race or his position in the social scale, may attain salvation alone by virtue of his individual conduct. All men are therefore equal, at least before God.

It is understandable how such religions suit times of invasion, when it is a matter of assimilating two races and two civilisations. They suit the vanquished and the victorious alike – the vanquished because they assure them that, in spite of their defeat, they are still the equals of their conquerors; the conquerors, because they convince them that in spite of the inferiority of their own culture they are the equals of the conquered people whose moral and intellectual superiority they experience every day.

Universal religions are at once the religions of slaves and of masters, the religion of the conquered and of the conquering, for the reason that they enable you to achieve spiritual equality with the master who crushes you or the subject who despises you, whichever is the case. [12]

This explains the amazing paradox which has so astounded historians; how a religion of meekness and charity, as all universal religions are of necessity, comes to be practised by violent and vindictive barbarians; how so extreme a devotion comes to be allied with such ferocious cruelty. Whilst some of the Hun kings had the women of their harems beheaded and their bodies served up as dishes at the table, they were at the same time founding Buddhist monasteries, [13] just as Fredegund heaped up gifts on the abbeys and chose priests to carry out her crimes, hoping to mitigate the wrath of heaven in this way. [14]

It is this cruelty, this unbridled and uncontrollable violence, that gives the barbarian his sense of inferiority, and it is this inferiority that he tries to expiate by piety towards He who decrees respect for human life.

In the last analysis, therefore, it is thanks to the barbarians and their invasions that Buddhism and Christianity became for thousands of years the two most important religions in the world.

Buddhism, however, did not triumph so completely in China as Christianity did in Europe, because the penetration of the Mongol peoples into China was nearly always restricted to the north, whilst that of the Germanic peoples extended to every European part of the Roman empire. Confucianism and Daoism have consequently existed side by side with the new religion. But they have not been more than minority religions; moreover, both of them, and especially Daoism, have been profoundly influenced and modified by Buddhism.

The End of ‘Byzantium’ and the Restoration of Unity

Whilst these events were taking place in the north, the China of the Blue River remained united, first of all under the sceptre of the Jin Dynasty, and then under other dynasties that were likewise Chinese, with Nanjing as their capital, [15] just as the eastern Mediterranean was to stay under the authority of Byzantium, the ‘Second Rome’, throughout the whole of the era of the ‘barbarian kingdoms’ of the west. The morals of Nanjing were moreover as dissolute, and even more so, than those known in Byzantium; pederasty and assassination were the rule.

Also, as they became almost completely sinicised, the northern barbarians were able without difficulty to complete their work of finally seizing the China of the south. The first representative of a new Tuoba dynasty, the Sui, made himself master and sovereign of Nanjing in 588. [16] China’s unity was then restored. The Middle Ages were at an end.

The first Chinese Middle Ages were of a shorter duration than were our own – three-and-a-half centuries instead of 10, and the rupture was also of less consequence.

It would have been abnormal had it been otherwise, because civilisation had taken far deeper root in the soil of China than in that of the Mediterranean. Whilst the end of the Roman empire led to the disappearance of Mediterranean trade, on which the ancient civilisation was based, the end of the Han empire left untouched the Yellow and Blue Rivers, with their irrigable lands. That is why, not only in the basin of the Blue River, but also in that of the Yellow River, even under the domination of the barbarians, Chinese civilisation managed more or less to survive. The Middle Ages in China were not completely ‘dark’.

On the other hand, when these Middle Ages were over, it was not to give birth, as it was with us, to a new civilisation, but only to give a new lease of life to the old Chinese tradition of the Han, which resumed its course as it had been. The Chinese Middle Ages were no more than a simple breach in the same civilisation, and not a passage from one civilisation to another.


1. The circumcellions were the rural supporters of the rigorist Christian sect of the Donatists founded in north Africa in 312AD, who resisted the authority of both emperor and church. The Bagaudae were Gallic peasantry whose uprisings began during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian and went on intermittently until late in the fourth century.

2. ‘Sichuan’ means ‘the country of four rivers’. It means the Min River and three of its tributaries; these are real mountain rivers. But the country is also watered by the Fu Jiang and the Jialing, not to mention the Blue River, which is its southern boundary. [Author’s note]

3. In 755, General An Lushan led a revolt against the Tang Emperor Xuan Zong (712-756), who fled south to Chengdu in Sichuan. In 880, a peasant insurrection approached the Tang capital of Chang'an, and the Emperor Xi Zong (873-888) again fled to Chengdu.

4. Between July and October 1938, the Japanese army moved closer to Wuhan, the Guomindang capital after the fall of Nanjing and Hankou. Chiang decided to evacuate the government to the south-west, to Chongqing in Sichuan.

5. In 229, Sun Quan set up the kingdom of Wu with its capital at Jianye, now Nanjing.

6. In 263, the Kingdom of Wei annihilated Shu, and three years later Sima Yan (Emperor Wu Di, 266-290) removed the last Wei emperor and founded the Western Jin Dynasty (266-316) using the former capital of Wei at Luoyang as its centre. In 280, the third kingdom, Wu, was conquered, so reuniting the country for a short time under the rule of Jin.

7. In 304, a Xiongnu noble, Liu Yuan, declared himself emperor and founded the Northern Han, or Former Zhao Dynasty (304-329), with its capital at Pingyang in Shanxi. In 311, his son Liu Cong captured Chang'an and took prisoner the Western Jin Emperor Min Di (Sima Ye, 313-316). A year later, Sima Rui (Emperor Yuan Di, 317-322) set up the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) with its capital at Jiankang (now Nanjing). The consensus amongst modern scholars is that the Xiongnu of the Chinese texts are not to be identified with the Huns who attacked the West.

8. The period following the collapse of the Western Jin Dynasty is one of great political confusion. The following states competed with and supplanted each other in rapid succession: Northern Han, or Former Zhao (304-329); Cheng Han (304-347); Former Liang (313-376); Later Zhao (319-352); Former Yan (337-370); Former Qin (351-394); Western Yan (384-396); Later Yan (384-408); Later Qin (384-417); Later Liang (385-403); Western Qin (385-431); Northern Wei (386-535); Southern Liang (397-414); Northern Liang (397-439); Southern Yan (398-410); Western Liang (400-421); Xia (407-431); Northern Yan (409-436).

9. In 386, Tuoba Gui (Emperor Dao Wu Di, 386-409) founded the Kingdom of the Northern Wei with its capital at Pingcheng in Shanxi. In 439, his second successor Tuoba Tao (Emperor Tai Wu Di, 423-451) conquered the Northern Liang state and united the whole of northern China. Clovis (481-511), king of the Salian Franks, conquered what had been the Roman province of Gaul, and by accepting orthodox Christianity as his religion proclaimed himself heir and protector of Roman civilisation.

10. The armies of Tuoba Tao crossed the Gobi desert to strike at the Avars in 429, 443 and 449. The Great Wall was repaired and extended as far as Kalgan, and in 445 and 448 the Tuoba army penetrated as far as Khojo in Chinese Turkestan. Charlemagne’s conquest of the Saxons (772-805) was ruthlessly carried out, including the massacre of 5000 hostages in 782, and the forced conversion of the Saxons and their king to Christianity.

11. Przyluski, Le boudhisme, Paris, 1932, pp5-6. [Author’s note]

12. The When counter-invasions take place, in other words, when it is a people of a superior civilisation that invades the country of an inferior civilisation, or of an equivalent civilisation, and establishes its domination, nothing of the sort takes place. On the contrary! The invader, who enjoys at the same time both cultural and political superiority, has no need of equalising himself with the conquered, in whatever way this might be. Consequently, far from a religious fusion taking place between the two peoples by means of a universal religion, the religion of both of them takes on racist characteristics, or the differences they already have are accentuated, and the opposition of religions is appealed to, by both conquered and conquerors, to reinforce their social separation and their political opposition (for example: Islam and Christianity in the African colonies; Catholicism in Ireland and Poland, conquered by Protestant England and Orthodox Russia). [Author’s note]

13. Xiongnu Emperor Shih Hu (334-349) of the Later Zhao Dynasty used to have his most attractive concubines roasted and served up for dinner, passing their heads around for the admiration of his guests. He was at the same time ‘one of the most zealous protectors of Buddhism’ (René Grousset, The Rise of the Chinese Empire, London, 1952, p106).

14. Fredegund was the wife of Chilperic I (561-584), Merovingian King of Soissons. She was ruthlessly murderous and sadistically cruel, being responsible for killing King Sigebert I of Austrasia in 575, as well as attempts upon the lives of Sigebert II of Burgundy and her own sister, Brunhild.

15. In 420, a general of the Eastern Jin state, Liu Yu (Emperor Wu Di, 420-422), dethroned the last Jin emperor and inaugurated the Song Dynasty (420-479). This was in turn followed by the Qi (479-502), Liang (502-557) and Chen (557-589) dynasties, which ruled over the south from Jiankang (Nanjing).

16. When the last emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty came to the throne at the age of eight, power fell into the hands of Yang Jian, a royal relative on the female side. In 581, Yang Jian (Emperor Wen Di, 581-604) dethroned him and set up the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581-618).