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.

  • Pic.1: Epitaph of Zhang Zhen-From a tomb dated to the Eastern Jin dynasty, third year of Taining (325), Stone; H. (total) 267/8 in. (68.1 cm), Stele: H. 18 in. (45.6 cm), W. 115/8 in. (29.5 cm), D. 53/8 in. (13.5 cm), Base: H. 5 in. (12.5 cm), W. 135/8 in. (34.5 cm), D. 71/2 in. (19 cm), Unearthed in 1979 from the tomb of Zhang Zhen at Zhanglingshan in Luzhi, Wu County, Nanjing Museum

  • Pic.2: Rubbings of the Wang Xingzhi and Song Hezhi epitaphs-Eastern Jin (317–420), modern rubbing, One of the set of 2, ink on paper; (each) 117/8 × 155/8 in. (30 × 39.5 cm), Nanjing Municipal Museum

  • Pic.3: Epitaph stone of Xin Xiang’s wife-Sandstone; H. 231/2 in. (59.5 cm), W. 211/4 in. (54 cm), D. 43/8 in. (11 cm), Rubbing, ink on paper; 231/2 × 213/8 in. (59.5 × 55 cm), From a tomb dated to the Northern Wei dynasty, third year of Shengui (520)
    Unearthed in 1975 from the tomb of Xin Xiang at Dongtaibao village in Taiyuan, Shanxi, Shanxi Museum

  • Pic.4: Rubbing of the Eulogy for the Burial of a Crane (Yi he ming), Southern Dynasties (420–589), Qing dynasty (1644–1911) rubbing Ink on paper, 467/16 in. × 227/16 (118 × 57 cm), Nanjing Museum

A Brief Overview on Calligraphy during the Six Dynasties Period

By Teach China staff

Out of all the distinguished cultures of China, calligraphy is perhaps one of the most commonly taught in K-12 schools in the United States.

Also called “the art of writing,” much has been written about this topic. Asia for Educators (Columbia University) has a unit that comprehensively introduces the styles and materials of Chinese calligraphy, along with questions and exercises for classroom teaching. Dawn Delbanco has written an essay, Chinese Calligraphy, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History to explain calligraphy as an art form and its relationship with Chinese pictographic “characters” (instead of a phonetically based alphabetic system). “…[N]ot only does a character denote specific meanings, but its very form should reveal itself to be a moral exemplar, as well as a manifestation of the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature itself.” Chinese calligraphy, as the highest visual art form of traditional China, conveys such a cultural role, aesthetically and morally.

In the history of Chinese calligraphy, the Six Dynasties (220-589 CE) was “an epoch-making period” (Hai, 2016) that deserves a close review. Willow Weilan Hai, chief curator of the China Institute exhibition 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), highlights the Six Dynasties as a time when Chinese calligraphy had its first peak in terms of productivity, creativity and innovation.

As Hai writes in Six Dynasties: Seeking the Origin of Chinese Art, all five calligraphy scripts already existed before the Six Dynasties. The “seal” script (篆书,zhuan shu) originated from scripts inscribed into oracle bones or casted on bronzes during the Shang (1600-1050 BCE) and Zhou dynasties (1046-256 BCE). In the later Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), the “clerical” script (隶书 , li shu), used by clerks in imperial courts, appeared. Also during the Han dynasty, with the regular use of animal hair brushes for writing, the “running” script (行书,xing shu) and “cursive” script (草书,cao shu) became increasingly popular. Finally, the “standard” script (楷书,kai shu), with the most balanced elegance, emerged.

As an art form that traces back to thousands of years ago, Chinese calligraphy would seem to be distant from the concept of “innovation.” However, during the Six Dynasties period, the use of “running” and “cursive” scripts was nothing less than innovative, as they transformed calligraphy into an art marked by creativity and self-expression. Before the Six Dynasties, calligraphy was mostly used for ritual, ceremonial and religious commissions that were inscribed, casted or written on oracle bones, bronzes, tomb steles and other materials. It was during Six Dynasties, particularly in the southern dynasties “where spontaneity in the heart and versatility in movement had transformed calligraphy into an exquisite art.” (Xue, 2016).

The most celebrated work in the history of Chinese calligraphy is the Lanting Xu (兰亭序,”Preface to the Poems Collected at the Orchid Pavilion”) created by Wang Xizhi in 353 CE.

The Story of Lanting Xu

On the third day of the third month on the lunar calendar in 353 CE, Wang Xizhi was hosting a party for 41 guests.

“Sitting by a winding creek with cups of wine floating down stream, the guests were expected to fetch the cups that had come to a stop or got caught in front of them out of the water. Whoever had to pick up a cup had to improvise a poem on the spot, or he had to finish the wine in the cup if he could not come up with anything. Twenty six people were winners while the rest of fifteen participants who failed to come up with any poem were penalized with cups of wine. For the collection of poems created on the spot, Wang Xizhi wrote a preface while still slightly intoxicated. It gives a description of the gathering and reflects on man’s destiny and the meaning of life. This monumental piece of calligraphy has been the subject of many stories in history ever since its creation. First of all, Wang Xizhi himself later tried several times when he was sober to rewrite the preface, but none of his later renderings could match the calligraphic excellence of the first piece. After being in the Wang family collection for several generations, this original was passed on to a monk in early Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE). Emperor Taizong of Tang, a fan of Wang’s calligraphy, tried every attempt to get it but initially failed, so he sent Xiao Yi, one of his advisers who went in disguise. They succeeded and the piece was then in the emperor’s collection, who loved it so much that it got buried with him. Although the original was gone and only copies of it by Tang calligraphers have survived, this legendary work continues to be admired as “running script model number one” for its exemplary rendering and philosophical content. For more than a millennium, it has remained a model for calligraphy learners and the subject of generations of researchers, making it the greatest piece of Chinese calligraphy.” (Willow Weilan Hai, “Six Dynasties: Seeking the Origin of Chinese Art,” Art in a Time of Chaos [New York: China Institute Gallery, 2016])

Wang Xizhi’s story of the Orchid Pavilion has been told for centuries in China. It vividly depicts how calligraphy captures the artist’s instant spirit as a form of self-expression. Also note that the significant evolvement of calligraphy in the direction of self-expression during the Six Dynasties was the unsurprising result of a noble person or scholar being expected to “have good handwriting skills,” “to speak intelligently,” “to look well mannered and elegant,” and “to demonstrate possession of multiple talents”(Hai, 2016). Teachers can direct students to think about how the development of an art form is related not only to individual artists but also the social context in which they live.

Teachers can also guide students to think about the technical developments of calligraphy. By the Six Dynasties, paper was readily available after its invention during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 CE). Compared to oracle bones, bronzes, or even steles, paper provided a much more flexible medium for calligraphers to express themselves more freely. In addition, the invention of animal hair brushes accelerated the development of calligraphy, as both the sides and tips of the brushes can be pushed in different directions with different amounts of strength, leading to the adoption of more flexible techniques.

The sensation Wang Xizhi created established the “running” and “cursive” scripts as the most flexible and expressive forms of calligraphy for generations to come. Over thousands of years of Chinese history there have been many great calligraphers. But only Wang Xizhi has enjoyed the title of the “Calligraphy Sage.”

Suggested Activity (Courtesy of China Institute Gallery)

The Chinese created a well-developed writing system before the late second millennium BCE. Chinese scripts and fonts have continued to develop over thousands of years from pictographs to logograms. We are still using this writing system today. Many Chinese characters originally emerged from pictorial drawings, so we can tell their meanings by observing the shapes.

How to use the chart (see attached pdf)
• Pick and present some ancient Chinese pictographic characters for students to guess their meanings;
• Compare the modern script with the ancient script; guide students to research the history of the development of select Chinese characters;
• Use the Chinese pictographic characters to create a painting/story.

Related Teaching Standards

New York State Learning Standards for Arts

Standard 4: Understanding the Cultural Dimensions and Contributions of the Arts

Visual Arts (

Key idea: Students will explore art and artifacts from various historical periods and world cultures to discover the roles that art plays in the lives of people of a given time and place and to understand how the time and place influence the visual characteristics of the art work. Students will explore art to understand the social, cultural, and environmental dimensions of human society.

Reference and Other Related Resources:

Hai, Willow Weilan “Six Dynasties: Seeking the Origin of Chinese Art”, in Art in a Time of Chaos, China Institute Gallery, New York 2016. Check out our catalogue sale

Xue, Longchun, “Calligraphy of the Six Dynasties.” In Art in A Time of Chaos, New York: China Institute Gallery, 2016.

Delbanco, Dawn. “Chinese Calligraphy.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 (April 2008)

Asia for Educators.

Lachman, Charles. “Chinese Calligraphy.” New York: Asia Society.

  • Pic.1:Buddha figure – Southern Dynasties period, Liang dynasty, first year of Datong (527), Bronze; H. 41/2 in. (11.3 cm), W. (remaining) 23/8 in. (5.8 cm), Unearthed in 2007 from the Deji construction site in Nanjing, Nanjing Municipal Museum (zong 5172)

  • Pic.2: Four-sided sculptured stone Side 1 – Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), Sandstone; H. 311/2 in. (80 cm), W. (top), 117/8 in. (30 cm), W. (bottom) 133/8 in. (34 cm), Unearthed in 1957 at Nannieshui in Qinxian county, Shanxi, Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 3: Four-sided sculptured stone Side 2 – Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), Sandstone; H. 311/2 in. (80 cm), W. (top), 117/8 in. (30 cm), W. (bottom) 133/8 in. (34 cm), Unearthed in 1957 at Nannieshui in Qinxian county, Shanxi

  • Pic. 4: Four-sided sculptured stone Side 3-Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), Sandstone; H. 311/2 in. (80 cm), W. (top), 117/8 in. (30 cm), W. (bottom) 133/8 in. (34 cm), Unearthed in 1957 at Nannieshui in Qinxian county, Shanxi, Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 5: Four-sided sculptured stone Side 4-Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), Sandstone; H. 311/2 in. (80 cm), W. (top), 117/8 in. (30 cm), W. (bottom) 133/8 in. (34 cm), Unearthed in 1957 at Nannieshui in Qinxian county, Shanxi, Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 6: Standing bodhisattva-Eastern Wei dynasty (534–550), Sandstone; H. 393/8 in. (100 cm), W. 211/4 in. (54 cm), D. 105/8 in. (27 cm), Unearthed in 2001 from Fuxiang Temple in Yushe county, Shanxi, Shanxi Museum

  • Pic. 7: Head of a bodhisattva-Northern Qi dynasty (550–577), Sandstone; H. 121/2 in. (31.5 cm), Unearthed in 1954 from Huata Temple in Taiyuan, Shanxi, Shanxi Museum

A brief overview and resources on Buddhism in Six Dynasties

By Teach China, China Institute
Advised by Annette Juliano

Buddhism is a religion originated in India around 5th – 4th c. BCE, a period when great philosophical thinkers around the world flourished (in Greece, Socrates and Plato; in China, Confucius and Laozi).

An introduction of Buddhism by Prof. Chün-fang Yü can be found on China360 HERE.

Buddhism in Six Dynasties:

A religion from India, Buddhism was introduced to China during the Western Han dynasty, about the second century BCE. At first, the Buddhism was identified as a form of Daoism. With the collapse of the Eastern Han in 220 CE which plunged China into 300 years of political turmoil, civil strife and nomadic invasions, the established beliefs systems of Confucianism and Daoism were discredited. During these years of disunity, known as the Three Kingdoms- Six Dynasties or Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (220-589), Buddhism emerged as a powerful religious, cultural, and political force transforming China’s landscape with pagodas and temples.

It is during the Six Dynasties that Buddhism reached its first peak in China. Buddhist sculptures and steles from the period suggest a complex process of adaptation and transformation reflecting regional differences. For example, sculptures from the Northern Wei Dynasty (385 – 535 CE) often depict figures with distinctive non-Han features, reflecting Tuoba Xianbei nomadic aesthetic preferences. Sculptures from the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 – 577 CE), in northeast China (present day Shanxi, Hebei, Henan, and Shandong), suggest influences arriving from Southeast Asia by sea, in addition to the overland Silk Road.

The Buddhist religion gradually transformed into a “Chinese religion” during this 300 years of disunity and reaches a second peak of artistic achievement and influence in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). A few major factors contributed to adapting and assimilating Buddhism into China’s value system 4th -7th centuries including:

  • The over 300-year disunity during Six Dynasties period shattered China’s existing belief systems. While Confucianism and Daoism continued during the Six Dynasties period, Buddhism was widely developed in both north and south as an alternative, with patrons included the highest courts such as in Northern Wei and Liang.
  • Northern non-Han rulers in China were open to a foreign religion like Buddhism, which offers the concept of “afterlife”, absent both in Confucianism and Daoism.
  • • The Silk Road, started in Western Han dynasty, continued to play an important role to allow Buddhist artisans and clergy to arrive China, as critical interpreters of Buddhism, both in text and visual arts (e.g. sculptures).

It is also important to note that both Confucianism and Daoism continued with their own transformation while Buddhism was integrated into Chinese belief system. For example, Daoism, developed a new school of the Chinese metaphysics, known as “neo-Taoism” or Xuanxue (玄学) (Chang, 2016). Neo-Taoism promoted individual consciousness and freedom of thinking. Scholars, practitioners of Xuanxue from the Eastern Jin (317-420), such as the famous “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” sought ultimate truth in life, through graceful manners, witty debates, drinking, and demonstration of talents in art, literature, and metaphysical debates.

Reference and related resources:

Willow Hai-Chang, Six Dynasties: Seeking the Origin of Chinese Art, Art in a Time of Chaos, China Institute Gallery, China Institute 2016.

Annette L. Juliano, Buddhist Art from China: Selections from the Xi’an Belin Museum from the Fifth through Ninth Century, New York: China Institute, 2007

Angela F. Howard, Buddhist Art in China, China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 A.D., the Metropolitan Museum, 2004.

Denise Leidy, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, Period of Northern and Southern Dynasties:

Buddhism and Buddhist Art:

Buddha related glossary:

Buddhism: the “Imported” Tradition:

More readings on Buddhism in China:

Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (Palo Alto, CA.: Stanford University Press,1959)

Myron Cohen: Religion in a State Society: China

Stephen F. Teiser, “The Spirits of Chinese Religion”

Annette Juliano, Professor Emerita of Art History, Rutgers University and Research Associate, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University. Juliano is also the guest curator of Art in a Time of Chaos: Masterworks from Six Dynasties China 3rd to 6th Centuries.

Response in Literature: Sample Poems from Six Dynasties

By Teach China staff

In this section, three poems from the Six Dynasties period are selected with translations, and notes for teachers or/and students to interpret. While not all are selected according to their literary value, the poems represent three different angles to look into how the Six Dynasties period was reflected in literature.

陶渊明 (东晋)

Returning to the Country (#1)
Tao Yuanming ( Eastern Jin)

Young I was witless in the world’s affairs;
My nature wildness and hills prefers.
By mishap fallen into mundane snares,
Once I had left I wasted thirty years.
Birds in the cage long for their wonted woods,
Fish in the pool for former rivers yearn;
I clear the wildness that stretches south;
Hiding my defects homeward I return.
Ten acres built with scattered house square,
Beside the thatched huts eight or nine in all;
The elms and willows shade the hindmost eaves,
While peach and pear-trees spread before the hall.
While smoke form nearby huts hangs in the breeze;
A dog is barking in the alley deep,
A cock crows from the chump of mulberry trees.
Within my courtyard all is clear of dust
Where tranquil in my leisure I remain;
Long have I been imprisoned in a cage,
Now back to Nature I return again.

(Source: )
The chaotic conditions of the Six Dynasties period also spurred literary developments. The most prominent poet during this period was Tao Yuming (365-427 CE), who “rejected the frustrating and perilous striving for wealth, status, and fame through official service,” and celebrated the “pleasures of digging in the soil or calmly contemplating the trees, the birds, and the landscape, or overcoming inhibitions through a binge of wine drinking.” (Rossabi, 2014)

This poem is one of a series Tao Yuanming produced to celebrate nature and a calm and peaceful life distanced from fame, wealth and the struggles to gain and maintain power. It represents his Daoist ideals and had a significant influence on poets in future generations.
Rossabi, Morris

曹植 (三国)


Poem in Seven Steps
Cao Zhi (Three Kingdoms)

Beans boiled by burning beanstalk,
In the pot, crying,
“We are born from the same roots,
You torment me, why so quickly?”

(by Teach China staff, China Institute)

This poem was written by Cao Zhi (192-232 CE), the third son of Cao Cao (155-220 CE), a warlord during the late Eastern Han who set the foundation for one of the most powerful kingdoms during the Three Kingdoms period. Cao Zhi was said to be Cao Cao’s favorite son because of his literary talents, which caused feelings of jealousy in his elder brother Cao Pi. Even after inheriting Cao Cao’s power, Cao Pi remained jealous and suspicious that Cao Zhi might try to usurp his rule. One day Cao Zhi was summoned to court by Cao Pi and asked to come up with a poem that could testify to his great literary talents, within the time of walking seven steps. Without much preparation or time, Cao Zhi produced this highly allegorical poem, which deeply moved everyone, including Cao Pi, who delayed his purge of Cao Zhi to a later date.

This story first appeared in A New Account of the Tales of the World, also known as Shishuo Xinyu (Chinese: 世说新语), a collection of anecdotal stories published in 430 CE about historical figures from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE. The power struggles between these two brothers and the Poem of Seven Steps have remained well known until this day.

佚名 (北朝)



Song of the Huns
Anonymous (Northern Dynasties)

River Hun
flows beneath Shady Mountain,
Sky, a tent,
covering the whole wild earth.

Dark, how dark, is the sky,
Hazy, hazy, the earth!
Wind blows, heathers bent, and then –
an eyeful of cattle and sheep.

(by Ben Wang, Senior Lecture in Language and Humanities, China Institute)

While the author is unknown, this poem nevertheless captures the poetic landscape of northern China with the simplest language. It also depicts a geography and lifestyle unique to the Huns, a nomadic group in the North. Probably a folksong, this poem was first collected in The Poetry Collection of the Music Bureau, also known as Yuefu Shiji (Chinese: 乐府诗集), which was compiled during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) with over 5,000 poems and songs mostly from the 2nd century BCE to the 6th century CE.

The inclusion of this poem in Yuefu Shiji is evidence of the complicated cultural exchanges and integrations during the Six Dynasties between the Han people, who were mostly forced to move to southern China, and the northern nomadic peoples (including the Xianbei and the Huns or Xiongnu), who subsequently established northern dynasties. This cultural integration contributed to the cultural fluorescence that occurred during China’s period of disunities between the 3rd and 6th centuries and was, in a sense, truly the “dawn of a golden age” (the Metropolitan Museum, 2004) that peaked during the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE).

Reference and related resources:

Morris Rossabi, A History of China, John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
Watt, James C. Y., An Jiayao, Angela F. Howard, Boris I. Marshak, Su Bai, and Zhao Feng, with contributions by Prudence O. Harper, et al. , China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D., the Metropolitan Museum, 2004.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Resource Collections


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.