Northern Dynasties

The Northern Dynasties (北朝) refers to a period in Chinese history when several successive dynasties ruled northern China from 386 to 581 AD, following the division of the Jin Dynasty. Here’s an overview of the key Northern Dynasties:

Background and Overview:

  1. Division of the Jin Dynasty: The Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 AD) weakened due to internal strife and attacks by nomadic peoples from the north. By 386 AD, the Jin court had lost control over northern China, leading to the establishment of independent regimes in the north.
  2. Ethnic Background: Many of the rulers of the Northern Dynasties were of non-Han ethnicities, primarily the Xianbei and later the Tuoba (a Xianbei clan).
  3. Periodization: The Northern Dynasties period is divided into several major dynasties:
    • Northern Wei (386-534 AD): Initially unified under the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei, it later split into Eastern Wei and Western Wei before reunifying briefly under the Northern Zhou.
    • Eastern Wei (534-550 AD): One of the successor states of the Northern Wei after its split, ruled by the Tuoba clan.
    • Western Wei (535-557 AD): The other successor state of the Northern Wei after its split, also ruled by the Tuoba clan.
    • Northern Qi (550-577 AD): Founded by Gao Yang (Emperor Wenxuan) after he overthrew the Eastern Wei, it was known for its cultural achievements and conflicts with the Western Wei.
    • Northern Zhou (557-581 AD): Established by Yuwen Tai after he overthrew the Northern Qi, marking the end of the Northern Dynasties period.

Key Northern Dynasties:

  1. Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD):
    • Tuoba Clan: Founded by Tuoba Gui, it was the first and longest-lasting of the Northern Dynasties.
    • Religious Policy: Notably sponsored Buddhism, which had a significant impact on Chinese culture and art.
  2. Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550 AD):
    • Split from Northern Wei: Established by Tuoba Shao after the division of the Northern Wei into Eastern and Western Wei.
  3. Western Wei Dynasty (535-557 AD):
    • Reunification: Briefly reunited the Northern Wei before splitting again into Western Wei and Northern Qi.
  4. Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD):
    • Gao Yang (Emperor Wenxuan): Known for its cultural prosperity, including the patronage of Daoist and Buddhist traditions.
    • Military Conflicts: Engaged in wars with the Western Wei and other northern regimes.
  5. Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581 AD):
    • Yuwen Tai: Established by Yuwen Tai after overthrowing the Northern Qi.
    • Sui Dynasty Transition: The Northern Zhou’s conquest of the Chen Dynasty in the south led to the reunification of China under the Sui Dynasty in 581 AD.


  1. Cultural and Religious Influence: The Northern Dynasties period witnessed the flourishing of Buddhism and its integration into Chinese society, which continued to shape Chinese culture in subsequent dynasties.
  2. Political Fragmentation: The division between northern and southern China during the Northern Dynasties laid the groundwork for future periods of division and reunification in Chinese history.
  3. Art and Architecture: The Northern Dynasties contributed to the development of Buddhist art and architecture, particularly in cave temples and monumental sculptures.

The Northern Dynasties period was marked by political fragmentation and cultural exchange, with each dynasty leaving its own imprint on Chinese history and culture.