In this period, political instability in the north was even greater than that in the south. From 304 – 439AD, a period known by the Chinese as ‘the Sixteen Kingdoms’, a succession of northern tribal rulers fought for control. Political power rapidly changed hands with short-lived warring states. In the late 4th century, however, a nomadic people of Turkic origin – the Xian Bei or Toba Wei – acquired dominance, and in 386 they defeated their last rival, unifying northern China under what was now known as the Northern Wei empire, the first of the five ‘Northern Dynasties’.
Although the emperors of the Northern Dynasties were never recognized by Chinese historians, events in the north had a decisive influence on Chinese history. Behind the military confrontation lay a clash of ideas and ideals which was eventually solved by an incorporation of northern elements into Chinese civilization. Despite political division and economic stagnation – large areas returned to a system of bartering – this was a time of intellectual development, with a continual cross-fertilization from the refugees flowing north and south. The greatest common influence was Buddhism, which entered China both through Central Asia along the Silk Roads and from the south. With its universal offer of salvation, regardless of nationality and rank, Buddhism cut across political frontiers, and with its missionaries came merchants and travellers bringing Western inventions and art motifs, further enriching intellectual and artistic life.
Gradually the northerners became more Chinese. Always heavily outnumbered by the local population and intermarriage was also common. More importantly, having no written language themselves, the northerners took to using Chinese script. In 494, when the Northern Wei moved their capital south - from Datong to Luoyang - the Northern Wei emperor Xiao Wendi (‘Filial Cultured Emperor’) imposed a drastic policy of sinosisation at court. Northerners were obliged to speak Chinese, wear Chinese dress, take Chinese surnames and, stripped of their tribal titles, were reclassified like Chinese families of standing.
The wealth of the north came from land reform. Inheriting the same financial system as the south, in which land taxes were light and the main tax burden borne by free peasants (in poll tax and forced labour), the northerners suffered the same problem of dwindling central revenues. The great landowners and Buddhist establishments (estimated in 554 at 30.000 with 2 million monks and nuns), took so much money and manpower out of the system that strong central government was impossible. In 485, Xiao Wendi introduced a radical land reform known as the Equal Fields system, designed to maintain or increase the number of independent peasants. All state land was nationalized and every peasant family allotted an equal share of about 19 acres (7,5 ha). Of this a small proportion could be held permanently for long term crops such as mulberry trees for silk, but the main part returned to the state on death for redistribution. Although these measures could not regain land already in private hands they prevented further erosion and stabilized central finances, creating a sound economic basis which made the future reunification possible.
In 535, military revolts against the sinosisation at court had split the Wei into rival Eastern and Western Wei kingdoms, followed respectively by the Northern Qi and Northern Zhou dynasties. This resulted in a partial return to northern styles with an emphasis on the military and the foreign nature of Buddhism. This reverse however, was only brief. In 581, four years after the Zhou had defeated the Qi and re-imposed northern unity, a Zhou general, Yang Jian, usurped the throne. This was the man who so easily overcame the effete Southern Chen in Nanjing, and founded the Sui dynasty as emperor Wendi, ruler of all China.
Like the overture to a great opera, the Sui heralded the revival of imperial glory. Although the ‘empire’ had survived in name during the period of disunion, its rulers had been mostly military usurpers, governing only a few provinces, and failing to attract the elusive aura of legitimacy. In 40 years, the Sui introduced the elements needed for genuine imperial rule – a strongly centralized military and civil administration with a sound financial base. They created an effective canal system linking north and south, and while using Buddhism as a unifying force, they revived Confucianism as a source for good administration and legitimacy.