THE EPOCH OF THE FIRST DIVISION OF CHINA (A.D. 220-580)
1 Social, intellectual, and economic problems during the first division
The end of the Han period was followed by the three and a half centuries of the first division of China into several kingdoms, each with its own dynasty. In fact, once before during the period of the Contending States, China had been divided into a number of states, but at least in theory they had been subject to the Chou dynasty, and none of the contending states had made the claim to be the legitimate ruler of all China. In this period of the “first division” several states claimed to be legitimate rulers, and later Chinese historians tried to decide which of these had “more right” to this claim. At the outset (220-280) there were three kingdoms (Wei, Wu, Shu Han); then came an unstable reunion during twenty-seven years (280-307) under the rule of the Western Chin. This was followed by a still sharper division between north and south: while a wave of non-Chinese nomad dynasties poured over the north, in the south one Chinese clique after another seized power, so that dynasty followed dynasty until finally, in 580, a united China came again into existence, adopting the culture of the north and the traditions of the gentry.
In some ways, the period from 220 to 580 can be compared with the period of the coincidentally synchronous breakdown of the Roman Empire: in both cases there was no great increase in population, although in China perhaps no over-all decrease in population as in the Roman Empire; decrease occurred, however, in the population of the great Chinese cities, especially of the capital; furthermore we witness, in both empires, a disorganization of the monetary system, i.e. in China the reversal to a predominance of natural economy after some 400 years of money economy. Yet, this period cannot be simply dismissed as a transition period, as was usually done by the older European works on China. The social order of the gentry, whose birth and development inside China we followed, had for the first time to defend itself against views and systems entirely opposed to it; for the Turkish and Mongol peoples who ruled northern China brought with them their traditions of a feudal nobility with privileges of birth and all that they implied. Thus this period, socially regarded, is especially that of the struggle between the Chinese gentry and the northern nobility, the gentry being excluded at first as a direct political factor in the northern and more important part of China. In the south the gentry continued in the old style with a constant struggle between cliques, the only difference being that the class assumed a sort of “colonial” character through the formation of gigantic estates and through association with the merchant class.