Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period
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Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
Five Dynasties Ten Kingdoms 923 CE.png
The Later Liang (yellow) and contemporary kingdoms
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History of China
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Five Dynasties and
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The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-979) was an era of political upheaval and division in 10th-century Imperial China. Five states quickly succeeded one another in the Central Plain, and more than a dozen concurrent states were established elsewhere, mainly in South China. It was the last prolonged period of multiple political division in Chinese imperial history.[1]

Traditionally, the era started with the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907 and reached its climax with the founding of the dominant Song dynasty in 960. In the remaining 19 years Song gradually subdued all the remaining states.

Many states had been de facto independent kingdoms long before 907, as Tang dynasty's ability to control its officials gradually waned, but have now been recognized as such by foreign powers. After the Tang had collapsed, the warlords who controlled the Central Plain crowned themselves as emperors. During the 70-year-long period, there was near constant warfare between all the emerged kingdoms and alliances they formed. All of them had the control of the Central Plain as their ultimate goal as that would have granted them the legitimacy over all their territories and rest of China as the legitimate successor to Tang.

The last of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms regimes, the Northern Han, held out until 979, when Song had officially conquered it, thereby reclaiming all of the territory of the former Tang dynasty.


Towards the end of the Tang dynasty, the imperial government granted increased powers to the jiedushi, the regional military governors. The An Lushan and Huang Chao rebellions weakened the imperial government, and by the early 10th century the jiedushi commanded de facto independence from its authority. In the last decades of the Tang dynasty, they were not even appointed by the central court any more, but developed hereditary systems, from father to son or from patron to protégé. They had their own armies rivaling the "palace armies" and amassed huge wealth, as testified by their sumptuous tombs.[2] After the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 907, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period thus ensued.

Due to the decline of Tang central authority after the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), there was growing tendency to superimpose large regional administrations over the old districts and prefectures that had been used since the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). These administrations, known as circuit commissions, would become the boundaries of the later Southern regimes; many circuit commissioners became the emperors or kings of these states.[3] The administrations of the Five Dynasties and the early Song dynasty shared a pattern of being disproportionately drawn from the families of military governors in northern and northwestern China (Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi), their personal staff, and the bureaucrats who served in the capitals of the Five dynasties. These families had risen to prominence due to the unraveling of central authority after the An Lushan Rebellion, despite lacking esteemed ancestry.[4] The historian Deng Xiaonan argued that many of these military families, including the Song imperial family, were of mixed Han Chinese-Turkic-Kumo Xi ancestry.[5] Even the rulers of the Southern states were almost all military leaders from the north with their key officers and elite forces also hailing from the north, since the bulk of the Tang army was based in the north.[6]

The term "Five Dynasties" was coined by Song dynasty historians and reflects the view that the successive regimes based in Kaifeng possessed the Mandate of Heaven. Yet three of these dynasties were founded by barbarian Shatuo Turks, and the Southern regimes generally had more stable and effective government during this period.[7] The Qing historian Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692) wrote that this period can be compared to the earlier Warring States period of ancient China, remarking that none of the rulers could be described as "Son of Heaven". These rulers, despite claiming the status of emperor, sometimes dealt with each other on terms of diplomatic equality out of pragmatic concern. This concept of "sharing the Mandate of Heaven" as "sibling states" was the result of the brief balance of power.[8] After the reunification of China by the Song dynasty, the Song embarked on a special effort to denounce such arrangements.[9]

The historian Hugh Clark proposed a three-stage model of broad political trends during this time period. The first stage (880-910) consists of the period between the Huang Chao Rebellion and the formal end of the Tang dynasty, which saw chaotic fighting between warlords who controlled approximately one or two prefectures each. The second stage (910-950) saw the various warlords stabilise and gain enough legitimacy to proclaim new dynasties. The third stage (950-979) saw the forceful reunification of China by the Later Zhou dynasty and its successor the Song dynasty, and the demilitarisation of the provinces. Southern China, divided into several independent dynastic kingdoms, was more stable than the North which saw constant regime change. Consequently the Southern kingdoms were able to embark on trade, land reclamation and infrastructure projects, laying the groundwork for the Song dynasty economic boom. This economic shift to the south also led to a vast southward migration. Several Northern dynasties originated in the northeast, and centralisation of the north led to a migration of provincial elites into the capital, particularly northeasterners, creating a new metropolitan culture.[10]

Significant jiedushi

Later Liang in 907 AD

North China

South China

Five Dynasties

Later Tang in 926 AD

Later Liang (907-923)

During the Tang Dynasty, the warlord Zhu Wen held the most power in northern China. Although he was originally a member of Huang Chao's rebel army, he took on a crucial role in suppressing the Huang Chao Rebellion. For this function, he was awarded the Xuanwu Jiedushi title. Within a few years, he had consolidated his power by destroying neighbours and forcing the move of the imperial capital to Luoyang, which was within his region of influence. In 904, he executed Emperor Zhaozong of Tang and made Zhaozong's 13-year-old son, Ai Di (Emperor Ai of Tang), a subordinate ruler. Three years later, he induced the boy emperor to abdicate in his favour. He then proclaimed himself emperor, thus beginning the Later Liang.

Later Tang 923-937

In the final years of the Tang Dynasty, rival warlords declared independence in the provinces they governed--not all of which recognized the emperor's authority. Li Cunxu and Liu Shouguang fiercely fought the regime forces to conquer northern China; Li Cunxu succeeded. He defeated Liu Shouguang (who had proclaimed a Yan Empire in 911) in 915, and declared himself emperor in 923; within a few months, he brought down the Later Liang regime. Thus began the Shatuo Later Tang -- the first in a long line of conquest dynasties. After reuniting much of northern China, in 925 Cunxu conquered the Former Shu, a regime that had been set up in Sichuan.

Later Jin

Later Jin in 939 AD

The Later Tang had a few years of relative calm, followed by unrest. In 934, Sichuan again asserted independence. In 936, Shi Jingtang, a Shatuo jiedushi from Taiyuan, was aided by the ethnic-Khitan Liao dynasty in a rebellion against the Later Tang. In return for their aid, Shi Jingtang promised annual tribute and the Sixteen Prefectures (modern northern Hebei and Beijing) to the Khitans. The rebellion succeeded; Shi Jingtang became emperor in this same year.

Not long after the founding of Later Jin, the Khitans came to regard the emperor as a proxy ruler for China proper. In 943, the Khitans declared war and within three years seized the capital, Kaifeng, marking the end of Later Jin. But while they had conquered vast regions of China, the Khitans were unable or unwilling to control those regions and retreated from them early in the next year.

Later Han

Later Han in 949 AD

To fill the power vacuum, the jiedushi Liu Zhiyuan entered the imperial capital in 947 and proclaimed the advent of the Later Han, establishing a third successive Shatuo reign. This was the shortest of the five dynasties. Following a coup in 951, General Guo Wei, a Han Chinese, was enthroned, thus beginning the Later Zhou. However, Liu Chong, a member of the Later Han imperial family, established a rival Northern Han regime in Taiyuan and requested Khitan aid to defeat the Later Zhou.

Later Zhou

Later Zhou in 951 AD

After the death of Guo Wei in 954, his adopted son Chai Rong succeeded the throne and began a policy of expansion and reunification. One month after Chai Rong took the throne, Liu Chong, Emperor of Northern Han, colluded with Liao Dynasty to launch an assault on Later Zhou. Against the advice of Minister Feng Dao, Chai Rong decided to lead his army against the incursion. When Chai Rong engaged Liu Chong at Gao Ping (in modern Jincheng), two of Chai's generals, Fan Aineng and He Hui, fled from the battlefield along with their troops. At this critical moment, Chai Rong risked his life to break through the defense and crushed Liu's forces. After this campaign, Chai Rong consolidated his power.[11] Between 956 and 958, forces of Later Zhou conquered much of Southern Tang, the most powerful regime in southern China, which ceded all the territory north of the Yangtze in defeat. In 959, Chai Rong attacked the Liao in an attempt to recover territories ceded during the Later Jin. After many victories, he succumbed to illness.

In 960, the general Zhao Kuangyin staged a coup and took the throne for himself, founding the Northern Song Dynasty. This is the official end of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. During the next two decades, Zhao Kuangyin and his successor Zhao Kuangyi defeated the other remaining regimes in China proper, conquering Northern Han in 979, and reunifying China completely in 982.

Ten Kingdoms

Unlike the dynasties of northern China, which succeeded one another in rapid succession, the regimes of South China were generally concurrent, each controlling a specific geographical area. These were known as "The Ten Kingdoms" (in fact, some claimed the title of Emperor, such as Former Shu and Later Shu). Each court was a center of artistic excellence. The period is noted for the vitality of its poetry and for its economic prosperity. Commerce grew so quickly that there was a shortage of metallic currency. This was partly addressed by the creation of bank drafts, or "flying money" (feiqian), as well as by certificates of deposit. Wood block printing became common during this period, 500 years before Johannes Gutenberg's press.

The Ten Kingdoms were:

Only ten are traditionally listed, hence the era's name. Some historians, such as Bo Yang, count eleven, including Yan and Qi but not the Northern Han, viewing it as simply a continuation of Later Han. This era also coincided with the founding of the Liao dynasty in the north, and the Dali Kingdom in the southwest.

Other regimes during this period include Zhao, Yiwu Jiedushi, Dingnan Jiedushi, Wuping Jiedushi, Qingyuan Jiedushi, Yin, Ganzhou, Shazhou, and Liangzhou.

Yang Wu

The Yang Wu (902-937) was established in modern-day Jiangsu, Anhui, and Jiangxi. It was founded by Yang Xingmi, who became a Tang Dynasty military governor in 892. The capital was initially at Guangling (present-day Yangzhou) and later moved to Jinling (present-day Nanjing). The kingdom fell in 937 when it was taken from within by the founder of the Southern Tang.


The Wuyue was the longest-lived (907-978) and among the most powerful of the southern states. Wuyue was known for its learning and culture. It was founded by Qian Liu, who set up his capital at Xifu (modern-day Hangzhou). It was based mostly in modern Zhejiang province but also held parts of southern Jiangsu. Qian Liu was named the Prince of Yue by the Tang emperor in 902; the Prince of Wu was added in 904. After the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907, he declared himself king of Wuyue. Wuyue survived until the eighteenth year of the Song dynasty, when Qian Shu surrendered to the expanding dynasty.


The Min (909-945) was founded by Wang Shenzhi, who named himself the Prince of Min with its capital at Changle (present-day Fuzhou). One of Shenzhi's sons proclaimed the independent state of Yin in the northeast of Min territory. The Southern Tang took that territory after the Min asked for help. Despite declaring loyalty to the neighboring Wuyue, the Southern Tang finished its conquest of Min in 945.

Southern Han

The Southern Han (917-971) was founded in Guangzhou by Liu Yan. His brother, Liu Yin, was named regional governor by the Tang court. The kingdom included Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan.

Ma Chu

The Ma Chu (927-951) was founded by Ma Yin with the capital at Changsha. The kingdom held Hunan and northeastern Guangxi. Ma was named regional military governor by the Tang court in 896, and named himself the Prince of Chu with the fall of the Tang in 907. This status as the Prince of Chu was confirmed by the Southern Tang in 927. The Southern Tang absorbed the state in 951 and moved the royal family to its capital in Nanjing, although Southern Tang rule of the region was temporary, as the next year former Chu military officers under the leadership of Liu Yan seized the territory. In the waning years of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the region was ruled by Zhou Xingfeng.

Northern Han

Though considered one of the ten kingdoms, the Northern Han was based in the traditional Shatuo stronghold of Shanxi. It was founded by Liu Min (), formerly known as Liu Chong (), after the Later Han fell to the Han Chinese-led Later Zhou in 951. With the protection of the powerful Liao dynasty, the Northern Han maintained nominal independence until the Song dynasty wrested it from the Khitans in 979.

Jingnan (also known as Nanping)

The smallest of the southern states, Jingnan (924-963), was founded by Gao Jichang. It was based in Jiangling and held two other districts southwest of present-day Wuhan in Hubei. Gao was in the service of the Later Liang (the successor of the Tang in North China). Gao's successors claimed the title of King of Nanping after the fall of the Later Liang in 924. It was a small and weak kingdom, and thus tried to maintain good relations with each of the Five Dynasties. The kingdom fell to advancing armies of the Song in 963.

Former Shu

Former Shu (907-925) was founded after the fall of the Tang Dynasty by Wang Jian, who held his court in Chengdu. The kingdom held most of present-day Sichuan, western Hubei, and parts of southern Gansu and Shaanxi. Wang was named military governor of western Sichuan by the Tang court in 891. The kingdom fell when his son surrendered in the face of an advance by the Later Tang in 925.

Later Shu

The Later Shu (935-965) is essentially a resurrection of the previous Shu state that had fallen a decade earlier to the Later Tang. Because the Later Tang was in decline, Meng Zhixiang found the opportunity to reassert Shu's independence. Like the Former Shu, the capital was at Chengdu and it basically controlled the same territory as its predecessor. The kingdom was ruled well until forced to succumb to Song armies in 965.

Southern Tang

The Southern Tang (937-975) was the successor state of Wu as Li Bian (Emperor Liezu) took the state over from within in 937. Expanding from the original domains of Wu, it eventually took over Yin, Min, and Chu, holding present-day southern Anhui, southern Jiangsu, much of Jiangxi, Hunan, and eastern Hubei at its height. The kingdom became nominally subordinate to the expanding Song in 961 and was invaded outright in 975, when it was formally absorbed into Song China.

Transitions between the Ten Kingdoms

Song dynasty's conquest of China (960-979)

Although more stable than northern China as a whole, southern China was also torn apart by warfare. Wu quarreled with its neighbours, a trend that continued as Wu was replaced with Southern Tang. In the 940s Min and Chu underwent internal crises which Southern Tang handily took advantage of, destroying Min in 945 and Chu in 951. Remnants of Min and Chu, however, survived in the form of Qingyuan Jiedushi and Wuping Jiedushi for many years after. With this, Southern Tang became the undisputedly most powerful regime in southern China. However, it was unable to defeat incursions by the Later Zhou between 956 and 958, and ceded all of its land north of the Yangtze River.

The Song dynasty, established in 960, was determined to reunify China. Jingnan and Wuping Jiedushi were swept away in 963, Later Shu in 965, Southern Han in 971, and Southern Tang in 975. Finally, Wuyue and Qingyuan Jiedushi gave up their land to Northern Song in 978, bringing all of southern China under the control of the central government.

In common with other periods of fragmentation, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period resulted in a division between northern and southern China. The greater stability of the Ten Kingdoms, especially the longevity of Wuyue and Southern Han, would contribute to the development of distinct regional identities within China. The distinction was reinforced by the Old History and the New History. Written from the northern viewpoint, these chronicles organized the history around the Five Dynasties (the north), presenting the Ten Kingdoms (the south) as illegitimate, self-absorbed and indulgent.[2]


The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period turned away from the international cultural mood of the Tang dynasty and appears as a transition towards the solidified national culture of the Song dynasty.[12] Throughout the period, there was marked cultural and economic growth, rather than decline.[1]

Although short, the period saw cultural innovations in different areas. Pottery saw the appearance of "white ceramics"/ In painting, the "varied landscape" of China was inspired by Taoism. It emphasized the sacredness of mountains as places between heaven and earth and depicted the natural world as a source of harmony.[13]

Early Snow on the River (? ); shan shui painting by Chao Khan.


In later tradition, the Five Dynasties is viewed as a period of judicial abuse and excessive punishment. This view reflects both actual problems with the administration of justice and the bias of Confucian historians, who disapproved of the decentralization and militarization that characterized this period. While Tang procedure called for the delaying executions until appeals were exhausted, this was not generally the case in the Five Dynasties.[14]

Other abuses included the use of severe torture. The Later Han was the most notorious dynasty in this regard. Suspects could be tortured to death with long knives and nails. The military officer in charge of security of the capital is said to have executed suspects without inquiry.[14]

The Tang code of 737 was the basic statutory law for this period, together supplemental edicts and collections.[14] The Later Liang promulgated a code in 909.[14] This code was blamed for delays in the administration of justice and said to be excessively harsh with respect to economic crimes. The Later Tang, Later Jin, and Later Zhou also produced recompilations. The Later Han was in power too briefly to make a mark on the legal system[14]

See also


  1. ^ a b Glen Dudbridge (2013). A Portrait of Five Dynasties China: From the Memoirs of Wang Renyu (880-956). Oxford University Press. p. 8. ISBN 9780191749537. Dudbridge actually quotes Reischauer's Ennin's Travels.
  2. ^ a b Xiu Ouyang (2004). Historical Records of the Five Dynasties. Translated by Richard L. Davis. Columbia University Press. pp. LV-LXV. ISBN 9780231128278. The information was taken from Richard L. Davis's introduction.
  3. ^ Robert M. Hartwell (1982). "Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 42 (2): 397.
  4. ^ Robert M. Hartwell (1982). "Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 42 (2): 405-408.
  5. ^ Nicolas Tackett (2017). The Origins of the Chinese Nation. University of California, Berkeley: Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-1-316-64748-6.
  6. ^ Wang, Hongjie (2011). Power and politics in tenth-century China : the Former Shu regime. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-60497-764-6.
  7. ^ Eberhard, Wolfram, A History of China (1977), "Chapter IX: The Epoch of the Second Division of China."
  8. ^ Wang, Hongjie (2011). Power and politics in tenth-century China : the Former Shu regime. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press. pp. 5-6, 8, 11-12, 122, 247, 248. ISBN 978-1-60497-764-6.
  9. ^ Nicolas Tackett (2017). The Origins of the Chinese Nation. University of California, Berkeley: Cambridge University Press. p. 128. ISBN 978-1-316-64748-6.
  10. ^ Michael Szonyi (2017). A Companion to Chinese History. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. pp. 127-128. ISBN 9781118624548.
  11. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, ch. 291.
  12. ^ The Culture of China. Britannica Educational Publishing. 2011. p. 245. ISBN 9781615301836.
  13. ^ "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms". Museum of Chinese Art and Ethnography, Parma.
  14. ^ a b c d e John W. Chaffee, Denis Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 5, The Five Dynasties and Sung China, 960-1279 AD, Part 2, Cambridge University Press, 5 Mar 2015, McKnight, Brian, "Chapter 4: Chinese law and the legal system"

Further reading

External links

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