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Far East Kingdoms



Dynastic China

Modern China has not always existed in its present form since its first appearance as a state. In fact it has rarely been as large in terms of territory as it is today. At several times in its long history the country has fragmented into two or more warring kingdoms. In its early days there were many smaller independent states that were often at war with one another for domination, sometimes for several centuries. This was often followed by relatively short spells of unification under a single strong conqueror, followed again by a return to fragmentation. It was a long, slow climb towards the relatively unified state of the two millennia AD.

China's origins were long seen as being focussed along the Yellow River. Several of the early mythical or semi-historical dynasties of Ancient China were based in territory in this region, with these early confederate kingdoms having being regarded as having laid down the basis of later Chinese unity. That unity only really came with the Qin dynasty, once the old order had been swept away by the Warring States period. Following another fractious period - the 'Three Kingdoms' civil war period - a reunified China appeared again under the Jin.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Cambridge History of Ancient China - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Michael Loewe & Edward L Shaughnessy (1999).)

A Qin iron age sword

Tsin / Jin Dynasty (Western Jin / Sima Jin) (China Reunited)
AD 266 - 589

Chinese unity of the Late Han period officially ended in AD 220 when Emperor Xian was deposed and replaced by Cao Wei who founded the Wei dynasty. Opposed by the Eastern Wu and Shu Han, the 'Three Kingdoms' period of all-encompassing civil war had begun, and it quickly turned into one of China's bloodiest civil wars in its entire history.

The Jin began their careers as regents of the Sima clan for the Cao Wei (as the Wei dynasty became). In AD 263 the Shu kingdom was perceived as being weak by the then-regent, Sima Zhao, so he launched an invasion of its territory and quickly captured it when the Shu emperor was persuaded to surrender. This had removed one facet of the three-sided civil war. Towards the end of the invasion, Sima Zhao had himself created duke of Jin, thereby founding a dynasty which would directly succeed the Wei.

Initially, due to the location of its capital - Luoyang - the dynasty was known as the Western Jin. Thanks to the name of its founder, the dynasty is also sometimes known as the Sima Jin. 'Tsin' comes from older usage, primarily earlier in the twentieth century. In 264, Sima Zhao went one step further by raising himself to the position of king of Jin. His death in 265 meant that his son had to complete the transition in 266, and the Jin dynasty became the official (and legal) rulers of the northern-based Wei and the conquered Shu. Only the Eastern Wu remained to oppose them.

(Information by Peter Kessler, from Military Culture in Imperial China, Nicola Di Cosmo & Robin D S Yates (Harvard University Press, 2009), from Records of the Three Kingdoms, Chen Shou (third century text which covers the period AD 184-220 and which combines individual histories of the three kingdoms), from Zizhi Tongjian, Sima Guang (noted tenth century historical work), and from External Link: Three Kingdoms (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

Western Jin / Sima Jin / Czin' (China)
AD 266 - 317

The Western Jin (or Sima Jin) ruled much of northern and western China between AD 266-280. Only the survival of the Eastern Wu in the south and east kept the 'Three Kingdoms' civil war period going. This situation was ended in AD 280 with a massive Jin assault on Wu territory. The Chinese kingdom was reunited under one ruler for the first time since AD 220.

The situation seemed to stabilise for a time, but corruption quickly set in, largely thanks to the over-tolerant and generous rule of Sima Yan. Thanks to his attempts not to repeat the mistakes of the Cao Wei dynasty political upheaval followed, and then the Western Jin were driven out of Korea in 313. A succession crises was already taking place thanks to Emperor Zhong being developmentally incapacitated, and by 317 China became divided into north and south, a situation which remained unresolved until 589 and the end of the Jin. Names shown are personal name and posthumous imperial name, in that order. The state was also known as Sima Jin thanks to the clan or family name, and also Czin' in connection with references to post-Greek Ferghana, although perhaps only in older scholarly works.

(Information by Peter Kessler, from Military Culture in Imperial China, Nicola Di Cosmo & Robin D S Yates (Harvard University Press, 2009), from Records of the Three Kingdoms, Chen Shou (third century text which covers the period AD 184-220 and which combines individual histories of the three kingdoms), from Zizhi Tongjian, Sima Guang (noted tenth century historical work), and from External Links: Three Kingdoms (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Kroraina.)

266 - 290

Sima Yan / Wu Ti

Former regent of Cao Wei.


With the combined military forces of the north (the former Cao Wei) and west (formerly Shu Han), the Jin have been able to launch a massive attack on the borders of the Eastern Wu from six different directions. The Wu suffer defeat after defeat and one of their most important ministers - the chancellor - is killed during the fighting. With little choice and in order to prevent a bloodbath, Sun Hao formally surrenders on 31 May 280. The 'Three Kingdoms' period is over and China is reunited under a single ruler.

Map of Three Kingdoms China AD 220-263
The reunification of the Chinese kingdom under the Jin effectively saw the former three states merged back into one without any particularly noticeable change in its external borders (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Emperor Wu Ti immediately conducts a census of the single Chinese state which reveals a population reduction of around forty million people since the Late Han period, mostly it seems due to civil war casualties. The figure's accuracy may be disputable, but it still represents a drastic drop.

290 - 301

Sima Zhong / Hui Ti

Son. Largely incapable of ruling. Deposed in coup.

290 - 301

Sima Zhong, unable to rule effectively himself, is dominated by various regents during his reign. The first of them is Yang Lun who has already replaced Sima Yan's official will with a forgery which places him alone in that position instead as joint regent. However, Yang Lun's spell of power is brief. By 291 he has been removed in place of the emperor's wife, the unprincipled and highly dangerous Jia Nanfeng. She retains this important role until AD 300 when the emperor's uncle, Sima Lun, politically defeats her and forces her to commit suicide. His own brief period as regent results in his removal of the emperor and his usurpation of the throne.


Sima Lun

Uncle and usurper. Defeated. Committed suicide.

301 - 302

Sima Lun rules for just three months before he is militarily defeated by a coalition of royal princes - marking the start of the Succession Civil Wars or War of the Eight Princes. Sima Jiong ensures that Emperor Sima Zhong is restored to the throne but then proceeds to take control from behind it. It takes a minor succession crisis in 302 to bring matters to a head. The last of Sima Zhong's children die young but, in attempting to manipulate the succession, Sima Jiong himself is defeated and executed.

301 - 306

Sima Zhong / Hui Ti

Restored. Poisoned.

306 - 307

Sima clan infighting has continued since 302, sometimes flaring up into open hostilities and very often involving court intrigues and plots. In 306 Li Xiong (the Jin governor) and Liu Yuan (a Xiongnu noble) both declare themselves to be rival emperors - Li Xiong of the kingdom of Cheng on the western central edge of China (which is generally indivisible from the Han kingdom formed by another branch of the same family in 338 and is therefore combined as Cheng Han), and Liu Yuan of Han Zhao in the north. These two rival states are the first of the forthcoming 'Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians', and their formation marks the end of the Succession Civil Wars. Emperor Sima Zhong is soon poisoned, apparently by his own regent.

Emperor Wu Ti (Sima Yan)
As Emperor Wu Ti, Sima Yan had been able to complete his father's work and reunite China under one ruler, but his descendants could not find unity amongst themselves and instead started a long-running civil war

307 - 313

Sima Chi / Huai Ti

Brother. Captured in 311. Poisoned in 313.

309 - 311

The kingdom of Han Zhao has increasingly been disrupting Jin rule in the north. Cities and towns both there and in central China have been harassed and even captured. The successful Jin defence of its capital at Luoyang in 309 is one of its few successes. In 310 the dominant imperial regent, Sima Yue, abandons the capital and the emperor. However, beset on all sides by stronger enemies he falls ill and dies in 311. Luoyang and the emperor are captured by Han Zhao forces in the same year.

313 - 316

Sima Ye / Min of Jin

Grandson of Sima Yan. Aged 15. In Chang'an. Executed.


With the fall of the impoverished and poorly-defended town of Chang'an, Emperor Min is captured by the forces of Han Zhao. He is briefly held captive before the decision to execute him is taken. Prince Sima Rui inherits the Jin title and ensures the continuity of the dynasty by withdrawing south of the River Huai. There it survives as the Eastern Jin while Han Zhao governs a large swathe of the north. The period of collapse and division known as the 'Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians' has begun

Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians (China)
AD 317 - 439

At the start of the fourth century AD China found itself once again divided, having only just completed the process of reunification at the end of the period known as the Warlords of the Three Kingdoms. The division was largely caused by the 'Succession Civil Wars' between 301-307 and the increasing belligerence of two rival kingdoms, both of which claimed the imperial title.

The ruling Jin dynasty became increasingly powerless against the northern Chinese kingdom of Han Zhao, founded by Liu Yuan (a Xiongnu noble) in 306. Opposed to them both was the kingdom of Cheng, founded in 306 by Li Xiong (the Jin governor) on the western central edge of China (which is generally indivisible from the Han kingdom that was soon formed by another branch of the same family in 338 and is therefore combined as Cheng Han). The Jin, on the run in the north, retreated south of the River Huai to retain their claim of imperial superiority in the form of the Eastern Jin. These then formed the core of the 'Sixteen Kingdoms'.

This allowed various regional kingdoms and even barbarian empires also to rise and fall in the north and along China's western borders, and these accounted for many of the remaining sixteen kingdoms. Each fought the other for power and territory and, confusingly to western ears, many have very similar names: there were five kingdoms using 'Liang' (Former, Later, Northern, Southern, and Western); four using 'Yan' (Former, Later, Northern, and Southern); three using 'Qin' (Former, Later, and Western); two with 'Zhao' (Former - otherwise known as the aforementioned Han Zhao - and Later); plus the also already-mentioned Cheng Han (early fourth century barbarian arrivals from the north), and Xia.

Not included in the total of sixteen kingdoms or five barbarians are further kingdoms (many short-lived), including those of Chouchi, Duan Qi, Huan Chu, Qiao Shu, Ran Wei, Tuyuhun, Zhai Wei, and Western Yan. Also not included - probably because it was more distant - was the Rouran khaganate to the north-west, which governed much of Mongolia until its defeat by the Göktürk people in the middle of the fifth century. In China proper, much of the fighting and fracturing took place in the north, above the line formed by the River Yangtze, while the kingdoms to the south were largely able to survive without too much interference until the north had managed to reunify. This act precipitated the start of the 'Northern & Southern Dynasties' period.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Origin of the Turks and the Turkish Khanate, Gao Yang (Tenth Türk Tarih Kongresi, Ankara 1986), from Türkiye halkının kültür kökenleri: Giriş, beslenme teknikleri, Burhan Oğuz (1976), from The Turks in World History, Carter Vaughin Findley (Oxford University Press 2005), from The Origins of Northern China's Ethnicities, Zhu Xueyuan (Beijing 2004), from Ethnogenesis in the tribal zone: The Shaping of the Turks, Peter Benjamin Golden (2005), from Shiliuguo Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals of the Sixteen Kingdoms), Cui Hong (Sixth Century Compiler, although not all of his work survives), and from External Link: Kidarites (Encyclopaedia Iranica).)

Sixteen Kingdoms

China's dynasties continues here.