Charles C. KOLB

Two Horsemen, a silk scroll painted for the Khitan nobility by an anonymous artist. The Khitan were a Mongolian people who continued some of the Tang dynasty’s artistic traditions. Pictured here is a Khitan nobleman mounted on a horse, and his herald who rides ahead. The Khitan and other groups controlled much of northern China during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, as the central Chinese kingdoms turned increasingly inward after the end of the Tang dynasty. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.

One of the darkest times in Chinese history, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms was an era of political anarchy, national disunity, corruption, and social upheaval in China, beginning with the demise of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and ending with the founding of the Song dynasty (960–1279).

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (???? Wudai Shiguo)—or Ten Nations—was a tumultuous period of Chinese history named for the five successive short-lived dynasties (none lasted more than sixteen years) and the ten major kingdoms that existed during a period that commenced with the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907 CE and ended with the succession of the Song dynasty in 960 CE. Some scholars contend that there were eleven or twelve kingdoms; the Taiwanese historian Bo Yang calculated eleven (including Yan and Qi), but not Northern Han, perceiving it as a continuation of the Later Han. Traditionally, only ten are listed, hence the name “Ten Kingdoms.” Nonetheless, this was a period of social disunity, administrative corruption, political fragmentation, endemic warfare, and the collapse of the monetary system. The cumulative effect of this upheaval was the collapse of northern China’s irrigation system, and the regularity of the seasons that such a system ensured: Canals silted and dams fell into disrepair, floods devastated the countryside, and widespread famine was widespread. In northern China, dynasties succeeded each other in rapid succession, while in southern China polities existed concurrently with each controlling a specific geographical area.

Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, the imperial government granted increased powers to the autonomous regional military governors who became further independent and were no longer subject to the authority of the central government. The Tang emperors, lacking soldiers for the imperial army and faced with military conscript desertions, had become “playthings” of the warlords. The inability to collect revenues and depleted treasury led to a monetary collapse that was exacerbated by a major decline in agricultural production. Attacks by the Turco-Mongolian Khitan and the lack of manpower for the continuous maintenance of dams and canals devastated the agro-economy. In the north, famine lead to the formation of roving bands of robbers who pillaged towns and ravaged public buildings and destroyed irrigation works vital to agricultural production that had been controlled by the central government, and massacred the wealthy and foreign merchants. Collectively, these bands had up to 600,000 men during this era of instability and turmoil.

At the end of the Tang dynasty, political power shifted quickly from the imperial government so that regional military governors (jiedushi) gained control, and by the tenth century, powerful jiedushi became de facto autonomous. In addition, a severe blow to the central government’s authority was dealt by the Huang Chao Rebellion (875–884), in which Huang Chao, a failed civil service examineeturned salt smuggler, led starving peasants and criminal gangs in guerilla warfare against the forces of the Tang.

The Five Dynasties

The Five Dynasties were the Later Liang dynasty (907–923 CE), Later Tang dynasty (923–936 CE), Later Jin dynasty (936–947 CE), Later Han dynasty (947–951 CE or 982, depending if Northern Han is considered part of the dynasty), and Later Zhou dynasty (951–960 CE). Nearly a dozen regional jiedushi are also known: Yan, Qi, Chengde Jiedushi (also known as Zhao), Yiwu Jiedushi, Dingnan Jiedushi, Wuping Jiedushi, Qingyuan Jiedushi, Yin, Ganzhou, Shazhou, and Liangzhou.

The polities in northern China included:

? Zhu Wen at Bianzhou (modern Kaifeng, Henan Province), precursor to Later Liang dynasty;

? Li Keyong and Li Cunxu at Taiyuan (Shanxi Province), precursor to Later Tang dynasty;

? Liu Rengong and Liu Shouguang at Youzhou (modern Beijing), precursor to Yan;

? Li Maozhen at Fengxiang (Shaanxi Province), precursor to Qi;

? Luo Shaowei at Weibo (modern Daming County, Hebei Province);

? Wang Rong at Zhenzhou (modern Zhengding County, Hebei Province);

? Wang Chuzhi at Dingzhou (modern Ding County, Hebei Province).

In the north, the powerful warlord Zhu Wen contrived to have Emperor Zhanozong assassinated in 904, placing the emperor’s thirteen-year-old son on the throne; three years later he induced the boy to abdicate in his favor, and Wen then proclaimed himself emperor (913–923), thus establishing the Later Liang dynasty. Rival warlords declared their own independence in northern China and the most successful established the Later Tang dynasty (907–923 CE) under four sovereigns: Li Cun Xu (923–926), Li Si Yuan (926–933), Li Cong Xu (933–934), and Li Cong Ke (934–936). In 936, Shi Jingtang, a Shatuo Turk jiedushi from Taiyuan, was aided by the Manchurian Khitan Empire in what proved to be a successful rebellion against the dynasty.

The third dynasty was Jin (936–947 CE) under Shi Jing Tang (936–942) and Shi Chong Gui (942–947). In 943 the Khitans declared war on the Jin and three years later seized the capital of Kaifeng, marking the end of the Later Jin dynasty. The Later Han dynasty (947–950 CE) was led by Liu Zhi Yuan (947–948) and Liu Cheng You (948–950). The jiedushi Liu Zhiyuan entered the imperial capital in 947 and founded the Later Han, thereby establishing a third successive Shatuo Turkic dynasty. The fifth dynasty, the Later Zhou (951–960 CE), was led by three emperors: Guo Wei (951–954), Chai Rong (954–959), and Chai Zong Xun (959–960). The Later Zhou conquered much of the Southern Tang from 956–958, and in settlement the Tang ceded all lands north of the Yangzi River to the Zhou. Chai Rong sent armies against the Khitans in 959 in an attempt to regain territories lost during the Later Jin dynasty.

In southern China the polities included:

? Yang Xingmi at Yangzhou (Jiangsu Province), precursor to Wu;

? Qian Liu at Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province), precursor to Wuyue;

? Ma Yin at Tanzhou (modern Changsha, Hunan Province), precursor to Chu;

? Wang Shenzhi at Fuzhou (Fujian Province), precursor to Min;

? Liu Yin at Guangzhou (Guangdong Province), precursor to Southern Han;

? Wang Jian at Chengdu (Sichuan Province), precursor to Former Shu.

The Ten Kingdoms

The Ten Kingdoms (or Nations) included the Wu Yue (904–978 CE), which had five emperors: Qian Liu (904–932), Qian Yuan Quan (932–941), Qian Zuo (941–947), Qian Zong (947), and Qian Chu (947–978). The Min Kingdom (909–945 CE) had at least five monarch
s, as did the Jing Nan or Nan Ping Kingdom (906–963 CE). The Chu Kingdom (897–951 CE), Wu Kingdom (904–937 CE), Southern (Nan) Tang Kingdom (937–975 CE), Southern (Nan) Han Kingdom (917–971 CE), Northern (Bei) Han Kingdom (951–979 CE), Former (Qian) Shu Kingdom (907–925 CE), and Later (Hou) Shu Kingdom (934–965 CE) were the other regional states.

Implications of the Period

The nearly continuous warfare in chaotic northern China led to the displacement of peasant farmers and village craftsmen who became refugees and fled to southern China, where a stable society facilitated the development of technologies, science, culture, and the arts. Painters, calligraphers, and poets emerged during this period, notably Li Yu, the last emperor of the Late Tang, who was renowned as a great master of the ci (song lyric) poems in Chinese literary history. In 910 the king of Wuyue built Hanhaitang Dyke to facilitate agricultural production and enhanced his own wealth and position. Among the significant technological events were the manufacture of porcelain by the southern Chu (still famous for its Changsha Kiln) and the development of printing, which resulted in the publication of numerous Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist classics, including the first complete set of 130 volumes of Confucian writings.

Nonetheless, southern China also suffered from endemic warfare as the Wu Yue fought with other polities until they were supplanted by the Southern Tang. In the 940s Min and Chu had political administrative crises that gave the Southern Tang the opportunity to destroy the Min in 945 and Chu in 951. However, remnants of Min and Chu survived as Qingyuan Jiedushi and Wuping Jiedushi. The Southern Tang became the most powerful polity in southern China but was unable to repel the incursions by the Later Zhou dynasty. The Northern Song dynasty, established in 960, sought to reunify China and succeeded against the Jingnan and Wuping in 963, the Later Shu in 965, the Southern Han in 971, and Southern Tang by 975. By 978 the Northern Song had gained the territories of the Wu Yue and Qingyuan, thereby bringing all of southern China under the control of the central government.

Further Reading

Bo Yang (1962-1980). Bo Yang xuanji [Bo Yang: Selected Works]. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co

Davis, R. L. (2004). Historical Records of the Five Dynasties. New York: Columbia University Press

Fairbank, J. K., & Goldman, M. (2006). China: A new history (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Gernet, J. (1996). A history of Chinese civilization (J. R. Foster & C. Hartman, Trans.). (2nd ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Institute of East Asiatic Studies, University of California (1952–1968). Chinese dynastic histories translations [Zhong gu shi yi cong]. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mote, F. W. (1999). Imperial China 900-1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Needham, J. (Ed.). (1954–2005). Science and civilisation in China (Vols. 1–7). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wang Gungwu. (1967). The structure of power in north China during the Five Dynasties. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wilkinson, E. (2000). Chinese history: A manual (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

Source: Kolb, Charles C.. (2009). Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 827–830. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (W?dài Shíguó ????)|W?dài Shíguó ???? (Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period)

Download the PDF of this article