Responses to Chaos: Art, Religion and Literature in Six Dynasties China (221 to 581 CE)

All Grades, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Resource Collections
  • Pic. 1: Carved Tomb Panel from the sarcophagus of Yu Hong’s tomb. The twelfth year of the Kaihuang period of Sui Dynasty (592) Unearthed in 1999 from the tomb of Yu Hong at Wangguo village in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 2: Drawing of pic. 1.

  • Pic. 3-4: Carved Tomb Panel from the sarcophagus of Yu Hong’s tomb The twelfth year of the Kaihuang period of Sui Dynasty (592) Unearthed in 1999 from the tomb of Yu Hong at Wangguo village in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 5-6: Carved Tomb Panel from the sarcophagus of Yu Hong’s tomb The twelfth year of the Kaihuang period of Sui Dynasty (592) Unearthed in 1999 from the tomb of Yu Hong at Wangguo village in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 7: Persian plate with hunting scene From a tomb dated to the Northern Wei dynasty, second year of Jingming (501) Silver; H. 1 5/8 in. (4.1 cm), Diam. 7 1/8 in. (18 cm) Unearthed in 1981 from tomb of Feng Hetu at Xiaozhan village in Datong, Shanxi Collection of the Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 8: Rubbing of a Brick Wall Depicting the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove Southern Dynasties, Collection of the Nanjing Museum

  • Pic. 9: Rubbing of a Brick Wall Depicting the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove Southern Dynasties, Collection of the Nanjing Museum

  • Pic. 10: Five-Bodhisattva statue. The Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577) H. 60 cm Unearthed in 1954 from Huata Temple in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province Shanxi Museum

Unless specially noted, all photos are credited to China Institute Gallery, Art in a Time of Chaos: Masterworks from Six Dynasties China, 3rd-6th Centuries, on view from September 30, 2016 to March 19, 2017 at China Institute, New York.

Introduction to “Dark Ages” in China, 220-581

By Morris Rossabi

Chinese and Western historians have treated the era from 220 to 581 in China as a “Dark Age” because the country had no central government and was plagued by repeated conflicts and wars. The collapse of the Han (206 BCE—220 CE), one of the greatest dynasties in Chinese history, resulted in political chaos, which permitted foreign, mostly nomadic pastoralists living north of China, to occupy much of North China and to found Chinese-style dynasties. In response, Chinese leaders established dynasties in South China, but none could overcome the non-Chinese peoples who controlled North China in order to create a unified and centralized government. Such instability led to damage of the land, the deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people, and an increase in banditry, which would seem to substantiate the concept of a Dark Age during this era.

Yet Dark Ages in politics need not undermine cultural, religious, and artistic developments. The Spring and Autumn (722-481 BCE) and Warring States (403-221 BCE) eras in China resembled the Dark Ages described above with a lack of a unified government and repeated violence that ravaged the countryside and harmed the population. However, these two periods witnessed a cultural flowering, as Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and Mohism developed, Chu Yuan (c. 339 BCE–unknown; alt. c. 340–278 BCE) wrote one of the great poems in the Chinese language and would be commemorated in the annual Dragon Boat festival, and trade increased dramatically.

The so-called Dark Ages of the third through the sixth centuries witnessed a similar cultural efflorescence. Confucianism, the dominant philosophy of the Han dynasty, had pledged stability and harmony in implementation of its principles, but the fall of the Han caused many Chinese to lose faith in its efficacy [see Note1]. As a new approach, the Silk Roads offered access to Buddhism, a religion that could translate into inner peace for individuals in times of turbulence and could also serve as a unifying force. Foreigners from Central Asia and India, as well as native Chinese, began to translate the Buddhist writings into Chinese, and pilgrims such as the renowned monk Faxian (337-422 CE) traveled to India to study with Buddhist masters. A variety of Buddhist sects reached China, with the most popular representing the Mahayana (or Greater Vehicle) order rather than the more austere and demanding Theravada sects. Aware that most people were not literate, Buddhist monks and government officials turned to art to convey the Buddhist message. They ushered in a spectacular flowering of sculpture and painting in great Buddhist cave complexes in Yungang (in the city of Datong) and Longmen (in the city of Luoyang) and the extraordinary Silk Road Buddhist site at Dunhuang. Westerners, including Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, who reached the 492 caves at Dunhuang, were dazzled by the art, much of which derived from the so-called Dark Ages, and brought back objects to the British Museum and the Musee Guimet [see Note2].

Sogdians (of Iranian heritage and language) from Central Asia also contributed luster to this period. Some settled in Northwest China, which challenges the conventional wisdom that China was isolated during the “Dark Ages.” Most were merchants and craftsmen who introduced the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism to China. Recently discovered Sogdian tombs in Northwest China reveal exquisite bronze and stone objects that reflect Zoroastrian religious beliefs, especially about the afterworld (Pic. 1-6). Funerary couches with depictions of banquet scenes and non-Chinese dancers and stone representations of camels and other animals are but two of these objects. Sogdian officials also commissioned Chinese potters to produce celadon ware showing animals, which represented Silk Roads motifs. The Sogdians set the stage for the arrival of Sassanian Persian metal workers who crafted beautiful silk and gold objects for Chinese patrons and Buddhist monasteries, and in at least one case the central theme depicted derives from the Shah nameh, the Iranian national epic(pic. 7). Also of note was the representation of Greek themes. In any event, silver and gold objects, produced by Sassanian metal workers became critical to the art of the “Dark Ages” and to the ensuing Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty.

Multiculturalism [see Note3] thus flourished during the so-called Dark Ages, but foreigners contributed to more than the arts. The Northern Wei (386-534), ruled by the Tuoba people, was the first dynasty in China to adopt Buddhism as the Court religion and patronized the great Buddhist cave art in Yungang and Longmen. It also developed a land and tax system that was adopted by the Tang dynasty.

Rather than being a Dark Age, the era from 220 from 581 contributed enormously to religion and the arts in China and set the stage for the cosmopolitan and even more multicultural Tang dynasty.

Note 1

With the fall of Han dynasty, during which Confucianism was officially endorsed by the court, some elite scholars turned to Daoism. For example, scholars like Wang Bi (226-249) sought to reconcile Confucianism with Daoism. In “A History of China”, Rossabi writes:“An individual needed to be involved in this world, but his behavior ought to be predicated on a detachment and disinterestedness that led to proper Confucian conduct – that is, Wang Bi linked Confucian action to Daoist motivations.” Others abandoned Confucianism more thoroughly. The most renowned are the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove(pic. 8-9), several of whom “shocked their contemporaries with their unconventional behavior by carousing, drinking and appearing in the nude.” (Rossabi, 2014)

Note 2

Buddhism(Pic. 10) offers a sophisticated belief system for none-Chinese as an alternative of Confucianism and Daoism under the ruling of Northern Wei. However, it shall be noted that the acceptance of Buddhism and its transmission were not all smooth, even with strong support from the highest courts. There was hostility among Daoist monks and Confucian scholars toward Buddhism. For example, in 446, persuaded by prominent Confucians at the time, Emperor Wu (424-452) in Northern Wei supported to restrain Buddhism…“monasteries were razed and scriptures were burned and an unknown number of monks were killed.” (Rossabi, 2014)

Note 3

Multiculturalism during this time period also provides a good opportunity to look into the dynamic process when identities are shaped and reshaped. Northern China at the time was under the control of non-Chinese conquerors, such as Tuoba, Xiongnu, and Di, who typically raided and retreated to the northern steppe during their conquests. When these nomadic conquerors settled in northern China, there was a clash between those who were not ready to abandon their freer and more mobile existence, and those who employed Chinese-style administration system to assist them in ruling China and Chinese people. In fact, hostility provoked among the nomads resulted in rapid violence in northern China, which underwent difficulties to maintain a stable rule. (Rossabi, 2014)

Prof. Morris Rossabi, Senior Scholar and Adjunct Professor in Inner Asian and East Asian history at Columbia University

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Morris Rossabi (Ph.D.) teaches Chinese and Inner Asian History and is the author and editor of more than twenty books, including Khubilai Khan, Voyager from Xanadu, A History of China, and The Mongols: A Very Short Introduction. He has also written three chapters for the authoritative Cambridge History of China. Formerly Chair of the Arts and Culture Committee of the Open Society Institute, he has written chapters in catalogs of exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angele County Museum of Art.

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