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  • China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties by Mark Edward Lewis
  • Rafe de Crespigny (bio)
Mark Edward Lewis. China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. 347 pp. Includes index, bibliography, illustrations, and maps. Hardcover $29.95, ISBN 978-0-674-02605-6.

Mark Lewis’s volume is the second in a series, which began with The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, and continued with a further volume on China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty, written in collaboration with Timothy Brook, editor of the series, and published in 2009. Further volumes by Brook, The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (2010), and by William T. Rowe, China’s Last Empire: the Great Qing (2009), bring the Belknap project to the early twentieth century. It is an impressive collection of general history and a valuable survey of the field.

In all Chinese history, the Period of Division, Nanbei chao or the Northern and Southern Dynasties, from the early third to the late sixth century C.E., is one of the most complex and difficult to deal with. Lewis’s primary title, China between Empires, indicates the heart of the problem: the people of the time had little idea that the Sui and Tang were waiting for them—they lived in a world where Han was past and the present was political disorder. Historians of recent times are accustomed to dealing with generations and even centuries of apparent stability under the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing, defined even by the titles of those dynasties. In contrast, it can be find it hard to contemplate a period dominated by ephemeral states, each contending over the fragments of a unified civilization and unable either to establish control over any significant region nor to survive more than a few years before being conquered by a rival or overthrown by revolt and subversion. Whereas at other times the imperial court could be seen as the cultural center of the Chinese world, during these four hundred years, the various governments were weak and marginal, and most leaders of the community remained aloof. In particular, as the sixth-century Yan Zhitui wrote in his Family Instructions, a wise gentleman avoided any involvement in military affairs; that led always to disaster.1

Appropriately, Lewis provides only a summary of the formal political and military history of the period. After a first chapter on the geography of North and South China, the second chapter deals with the rise of the great families—a development already well attested during the second century under the Later Han. The third chapter, “Military Dynasticism,” traces the history of a time when, as Lewis observes, “south China had a dynasty with no army, while north China had armies but no dynasty” (p. 73). In the early fourth century, the remnants of the Jin dynasty, which had briefly restored the empire of Han but was then driven south of the Yangzi by non-Chinese enemies, held that position for a hundred years, but then gave way to the Song dynasty founded by Liu Yu, succeeded in turn by the Qi, Liang, and Chen, each lasting some thirty or forty years. In the north, similarly [End Page 350] short-lived states of the fourth century were little more than armed bands under a successful leader, falling apart when he was defeated or died. During the course of the fifth century, the Murong clan of the non-Chinese Xianbi succeeded in unifying North China under the Wei dynasty and sought to establish a Chinese cultural state based upon the ancient capital of Luoyang, but within a few years, mutiny among frontier garrisons brought the government to ruin. Two successors, the Eastern and Western Wei, were subverted by nominal subordinates, and one of those, the Northern Zhou, was taken over in turn. With a secure base and a dedicated army, the new Sui dynasty destroyed its rivals in the north, and in 589—four hundred years after the effective fall of the Han—its troops crossed the Yangzi to overthrow the southern empire of Chen and restore a form of unity to...


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