Times & Places

Six Dynasties (220-589 CE)

The three kingdoms of Wu, Wei, and Shu were eventually united into the Jin dynasty, one of the nearly thirty dynasties and small kingdoms that made up what is referred to as the "Six Dynasties" (220-589 CE). This was a period of upheaval and great change, and China would not be unified again until the Sui dynasty. During these times, a lasting distinction between north and south emerged. The rule of foreign invaders in the north led to a Chinese migration south where native emperors ruled. Nanjing in the south became a cultural capital, political center, and destination for Southeast Asian and Indian missionaries and merchants.

Confucianism declined, and Taoism and Buddhism became firmly established. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, Taoism became an organized religion with a canon of scriptures and temples. Mahayana Buddhism, supported especially by the southern aristocracy, exercised great influence on art. Before developing into a particularly Chinese style, Buddhist art was a mix between Central Asian and indigenous approaches. Early Buddhist art at times reveals the influence of Gandharan art.

A mix of Central Asian and Chinese motifs and techniques can be seen across a variety of art in this time, from metalwork and relief sculpture to ceramics. Ceramic production reflected the northern/southern distinction. In the north, wares were coal fired, and it would be in the Sui dynasty that true porcelain would be produced. In the south, where wares were wood fired, celadons and a rich black-glazed ware were made.

The Sui dynasty (589-618 C.E.) reunified China after centuries of division. Though brief, prosperous trade developed, Buddhist art flourished with the support of devout emperors, and ceramic production continued in both the north and the south.

Drawn from

  • Sherman E. Lee, Far Eastern Art, 5th Edition (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1994), 156-163.

  • Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 92-121.

  • Ann Paludan, "Six Dynasties," Oxford Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T016513pg8#T016630. Accessed May 18, 2015.

  • William Watson, The Arts of China to AD 900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 113.

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