Table of Contents

16 Kingdoms Period

The Sixteen Kingdoms period took place between 304 and 439 AD. The sixteen states only controlled Northern China following the Jin dynasty and preceded the establishment of the Northern dynasties. During this same time, the Jin dynasty operated in Southern China. The sixteen states often include Han Zhao, Later Zhao, Cheng Han, Northern Liang, Former Liang, Later Liang, Western Liang, Southern Liang, Former Yan, Later Yan, Northern Yan, Southern Yan, Western Qin, Former Qin, Later Qin, and Xia. However, other minor states existed during this time, and not all of these major 16 existed during the entire Sixteen Kingdoms period.

While the Jin dynasty in the South and all preceding dynasties had been under control of the Han ethnic group, these 16 kingdoms were almost entirely ruled by kings of the Wu Hu ethnic group. Many claimed to be emperors, although they had no true empire at their command. Four out of the 16 were founded by Hans: Wei, Former Liang, Western Liang, and Northern Yan.

While it was founded during this time, the Northern Wei dynasty was not considered one of the sixteen states.

5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms

China was in turmoil between 907 and 960, the time period that today is referred to as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. In the north, five different dynasties appeared and disappeared within the years, and in the south, over a dozen different kingdoms and states were founded. The count is not exact—generally, only the ten most powerful are counted, although some include an eleventh or include different kingdoms on the list of ten.

The five dynasties included the Later Liang, Later Tang, Later Jin, Later Han, and the Later Zhou. The usually accepted ten kingdoms were Chu, Min, Wu, Wuyue, Northern Han, Southern Han, Former Shu, Later Shu, Southern Tang, and Jingnan.

Events Leading to the Period

During its decline, the Tang dynasty government gave more and more power to their jiedushi, or military governors. Following the Huang Chao Rebellion, the government was greatly diminished, and these jiedushi more or less ruled over their provinces without any assistance or loyalty to the government. When the Tang fell, they simply dropped all pretense of serving the emperor and ruled openly.

The Five Dynasties

The first of the five dynasties was the Later Liang dynasty. It was formed by Zhu Wen, a powerful warlord who was part of Huang Chao’s rebellion. However, he later sided against the rebels and helped defeat them. For that, he was given a military governorship. However, Zhu Wen was not content with his province and proceeded to conquer his neighbors. In 904, he executed the current emperor (Zhaozong) and placed his son, who was thirteen at the time, on the throne. He served as the power behind the throne for three years before forcing his son to abdicate and declaring himself emperor.

His son, Zhu Zhen, inherited the throne in 923 when his father died. However, he had no desire to rule, and he left the kingdom rather than take the throne, thus ending the Later Liang dynasty.

The Later Tang dynasty followed. It was founded by Li Cunxu after a long battle with his rival, Liu Shouguang. In 923, he claimed the throne and destroyed the Later Liang dynasty. He would later conquer Former Shu in 925, reunited a good part of northern China.

While the Later Tang enjoyed peace for a few years, in 934, the Former Shu rebelled, and in 936, jiedushi Shi Jingtang, allied with the Khitan Empire, launched his own rebellion. He had promised the Khitan control of the Sixteen Prefectures and tribute, although he would later double-cross his allies. His rebellion, however, was successful, and he went on to create the Later Jin dynasty.

As emperor, Shi Jingtang faced attack by the Khitans after he reneged on their agreement. In 943, they declared war on the Later Jin, and by 946, they had taken Shi Jingtang’s capital of Kaifeng. However, while this ended the Later Jin dynasty, the Khitan had no desire to control the area, and they withdrew their forces back to their territory.

After the Khitan withdrew, Liu Zhiyuan moved into Kaifeng in 947 and founded the Later Han dynasty. It would prove to be the shortest of the five, ending in 951 after a coup. The Han General Guo Wei overthrew Liu Zhiyuan and set up the Later Zhou dynasty. However, this transition was not as easy as he hoped, and Liu Chong, one of the Later Han imperial family members, moved to Taiyuan and established the Northern Han dynasty.

Guo Wei died in 951, and his adopted son took the throne. Chai Rong began expanding the empire, and in 954, he defeated the Northern Han and their Khitan allies. In 956, Chai Rong launched a campaign in Southern Tang, the most powerful southern kingdom. Two years later, the Later Zhou defeated the Southern Tang, incorporating much of their territory into the empire. However, in 959, Chai Rong attempted to defeat the Khitan Empire and reclaim the Sixteen Prefectures. Despite winning several battles, he died of illness before he could see his dream realized.

Chai Rong died in 960, but rather than see his heir on the throne, General Zhao Kuangyin launched a military coup. He took the throne and founded the Northern Song dynasty, officially bringing an end to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. For the next two decades, he and his heir, Zhao Kuangyi, began defeated the other kingdoms. In 979, they defeated the Northern Han, and in 982, the Northern Song reunified China.

The Ten Kingdoms

Northern Han – The Only Northern Kingdom

The Northern Han Kingdom is the only kingdom that was not located in the south. The kingdom was founded after the Later Zhou dynasty rose to power. The kingdom allied itself with the Khitan Empire, and thanks to their protection, the kingdom remained independent until the Song dynasty conquered it in 979.

The Southern Kingdoms

While the northern dynasties followed one another, the kingdoms in the south existed concurrently. The nine kingdoms (not including the Northern Han) interacted with each other until their eventual end.

The Kingdom of Wu existed between 902 and 937, and it was founded by Yang Xingmi, a former Tang military governor. His capital was founded at Guangling, although it later moved to Jinling. In 937, the kingdom fell from within when the Southern Tang overthrew it.

The Kingdom of Wuyue was founded in 907 and fell in 978. It was the longest existing kingdom during the time and one of the most powerful. Wuyue was one of the most advanced kingdoms culturally. Once the Tang dynasty fell, Qian Liu founded Wuyue. The kingdom existed until the Song dynasty incorporated it into part of its unified empire in 978.

Founded in 909, the Min Kingdom would exist until 945. Its founder, Wang Shenzhi, took the title Prince of Min. His son, however, declared himself emperor in 933. With his capital at Fujian, the Min Kingdom would rule over its territory until the Southern Tan conquered them in 945.

The Southern Han kingdom (917-971) was ruled over by Liu Yan. It was one of the smaller kingdoms, and little of note occurred during the kingdom until its fall.

The Kingdom of Chu, founded at Changsha by Ma Yin, was one of the shorter kingdoms, existing between 927 and 951. Ma Yin was, like many of the other rulers of the kingdoms, originally a military governor. He ruled the Chu Kingdom until 1951 when it was taken over by the Southern Tang.

Jingnan, the smallest of the kingdoms, was ruled by Gao Jichang. He founded the kingdom in 924, but it was a rather weak kingdom in comparison to the other kingdoms. It fell to the Song in 963, and little was achieved during its 40 years.

907 saw the founding of several of the kingdoms, including the Former Shu Kingdom. It was founded by Wang Jian, a military governor appointed by the Tang. His son, an incompetent ruler by all accounts, surrendered to the Later Tang dynasty forces in 925.

The Later Shu Kingdom (935-965) was more or less the same as the Former Shu Kingdom. As the Later Tang dynasty declined, Meng Zhixiang saw the opportunity to break away and reform the kingdom. It controlled basically the same territory as the Former Shu did, but it would only last 30 years before falling to the Northern Song forces.

The last of the ten kingdoms is the Southern Tang. Founded in 937 on the ruins of the Kingdom of Wu, Southern Tang expanded and conquered many of the other kingdoms. In 961, the empire formed a treaty with the Song dynasty, becoming somewhat subordinate to them. In 975, the Song broke the treaty and invaded, taking over the Southern Tang.

Politics Between the Kingdoms

The southern kingdoms were more stable overall than the northern dynasties, but they still had their share of battles. Wu and its successor, Southern Tang, both warred with their neighboring kingdoms. The Southern Tang destroyed the Min and the Chu, becoming the most powerful of the southern kingdoms. Despite this, the Later Zhou dynasty would defeat them.

In 960, the Northern Song dynasty became focused on reunifying all of China. They defeated one kingdom after another, and finally, in 978, they controlled all of China, ending the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

Beiyang Government

After the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the government of China formed into a Beiyang government that was ruled by different factions of warlords and military regimes which collectively ruled the country from Beijing. It was considered the official government of China from 1912-1928. The government had gotten its name from the Beiyang Army which had risen in power and prominence under General Yuan Shikai during the Qing Dynasty. However, when Yuan died, the army broke down into different warring sectors even though it was supposed to be governed through a centralized government in Beijing. The problem was that whoever controlled the faction which resided in Beijing welded the greatest power and it often left the rest vying for power.

The governmental system did not work and most of the revenue that came into the Chinese government during this time period was spent on military equipment and supplies for whichever general or lord’s army was temporarily in control. With so many people only looking out for themselves or attempting to find a way to promote their good fortune it seemed that there was no one considering what was best for the country as a whole. The government was corrupted and even approached tyrannical on many occasions. While there were civilian entities within the government to try and lend it a more democratic feel, these officials were usually threatened or bribed by the reigning warlord so that they could retain power.

During the twelve years that the Beiyang government was in power there were seven heads of state, five different parliaments, and twenty-five different cabinets. This continuous flux of power and instability almost lead the country to bankruptcy on more than one occasion. In 1917 the Kuomintang challenged the authenticity and legitimacy of the Beiyang government. Chiang Kai-shek led his supporters on the Northern Expedition in 1928 in order to completely finish off the Beiyang warlords in Beijing as well as other sections of the country. China was again unified under the banner of the Kuomintang and received international recognition as the ruling government of China until the communist party’s overthrow in 1949.

Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek was born on October 31st, 1887, in Xikou. His father was a salt merchant who died at an early age and Chiang was wed to Mao Fumei in an arranged marriage. Chiang did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and instead decided to join the military. His main motivation for this was apparently the weakened Chinese government and economy which had come about through the endless civil fighting amongst the warlords of the country.

So, at the age of nineteen, Chiang entered the Baoding Military Academy in 1906, and just one year later he transferred to the preparatory school in Japan (Rikugun Shikan Gakko). It was there that he and his fellow students decided to support the uprising revolutionary movement and overthrow the Qing Dynasty in order for them to set up a government known as the Chinese Republic.
After serving in the Japanese Imperial army for two years (1909-1911) Chiang returned to China after hearing of the Wuchang Uprising. When he went back he found himself serving in the revolution beneath his long time friend Chen Qimei. Eventually the revolution succeeded in its goals of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, and Chiang was a founding and important member of the Kuomintang, otherwise known as the Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT.

However, the newly formed and still fragile government was quickly taken over by Yuan Shikai. Chiang and his compatriots launched a second revolution, which failed. After this attempt to retake power ended, Chiang was forced to divide his time between being exiled in Japan and spending time in the havens provided for men like him in Shanghai. It was in this environment that Chiang first met and began to associate with the underworld gangs who commanded so much power and respect in Shanghai during this time. It is believed that Chiang used the gang’s help and influence when he and fellow KMT members killed the leader of the Restoration Society, Tao Chengzhang, while he was in a hospital in Shanghai on February 15th, 1912.

Four years later on May 18th, 1916, Chiang’s good friend Chen Qimei was assassinated by Yuan Shikai, leaving Chiang to then succeed him as the new leader of the Chinese Revolutionary Party in Shanghai. It was around this time that Sun Yat-sen moved the base of his headquarters to Guangzhou. It was here that Chiang decided to join him even though a short time later Sun was again exiled back to Shanghai because he had been without arms and money for some time. A large theoretical split in ideology was occurring between Sun and the governor of Guangdong about what should be done with the future of China.

While the KMT sought to try and bring China together under a singular military, Chen Jiongming was convinced that the new system should be based on a federalist model. He even suggested that his own province, Guangdong, as a sort of basis for this future establishment. The rift continued until Chen attempted to have Sun assassinated at his home on June 16th, 1923. The bombardment nearly cost Sun and his wife, Soong Ching-ling, their lives. However, Chiang had somehow managed to arrange for gunboats to rescue the couple and this earned Chiang a very deep spot in Sun’s trust.

With some help from Comintern and mercenaries in the area, Sun had managed to regain control of Guangzhou one year later in the early part of 1924. When he managed to accomplish this the first thing that Sun did was to put the Kuomintang through a major renovation in an effort to establish a more revolutionary form of government that would be better equipped to handle the unification of China. To help him accomplish this he sent Chiang to study the socio-economic situation in the Soviet Union. During this trip to Moscow Chiang met with Trotsky and other famous leaders, but he did not believe that the system of government that the Bolsheviks worked under would be a well-suited ideal for China.

Once Chiang returned Sun sat that he was appointed as the Commandant of a school known as the Whampoa Military Academy. While this stance as an educator of the younger generations of soldiers may not have been as powerful a position as some would have wanted, it allowed Chiang the opportunity to come into contact with many young soldiers who were becoming loyal to both the KMT as well as Chiang himself, and this was an important step when considering the placement of his future. During his tenure at the academy Chiang also saw quite a few members of the communist party go through. Many of these would go on to become high-profile leaders and members of the Red Army. Chiang disapproved of the communist party that existed within the KMT because he believed that eventually they would try to overcome the KMT from the inside out.

On March 12th, 1925, Sun Yat-sen died and a great displacement of power occurred within the KMT leadership. There was a clash between Chiang and his followers who veered to the right of the KMT belief system and Wang Jingwei and his comrades who were more on the left side of the political system. The odds were heavily geared in Jingwei’s favor as Chiang was farther down on the political hierarchy of the KMT; however, Chiang was a very skilled political and military opportunist and he eventually won out the party. That same year Chiang would be named the National Revolutionary Army’s Commander-in-Chief. His first mission in this role was to launch the extensive campaign to end the broken feudal leadership of the warlords which controlled a good portion of northern China so that the country could have solidarity under the KMT. This would become known as the Northern Expedition and it began on July 27th, 1926.

To do this the army was placed into three separate branches that would try to achieve their goals by going through the east, the west, and the center. To ensure that the Northern Expedition was a success the KMT had enlisted the help of the Chinese Communist Party or CCP. Wang Jingwei (who was leading the expedition’s western front) combined forces with the CCP and once they had overtaken the city of Wuhan he declared that it was now the base of the National Government. In order to deal with this Chiang halted his portion of the expedition in Nanking and declared the National Government to be based there. He also removed all of the communists from the KMT and formerly expelled the soviet advisors which had been assisting them. This act would ultimately be what led to the beginning of the Chinese Civil War as the communist sought to regain power and control later on. Chiang then turned his attention to the government that Jingwei had established and before long his forces overpowered Jingwei’s. This led to the leftist party that was controlled by Jingwei to surrender completely to Chiang’s government and to follow them to Nanking. The Northern Expedition ended in June of 1928 when the warlord of Beijing surrendered and aligned himself with Chiang’s government.
To make sure that he was firmly cemented as the next leader, Chiang divorced his wife, renounced his concubines and converted to Christianity (specifically Methodism) so that he could marry Soon May-Ling, the younger sister of Sun Yat-sen’s widow, on December 1st, 1927. He also had Yat-sen’s body moved to Nanking and built an extravagant mausoleum for the former leader to be permanently enshrined in.

This was just the beginning for Chiang Kai-shek, however, as he also had to assume power over many of the warlords who continued to maintain their own loyal armed forces. As long as the varying warlords were able to retain some form of fragmented power the country was not truly unified under the KMT. Chiang formerly put an end to this when he was named Generalissimo presiding over all of the forces in China as well as the Chairman of the National Government. This was the completion of the first step of Yat-sen’s three step course of action that the KMT needed to take in order to completely rebuild the country and to turn China over to democratic rule. The second step was for the country to go through a period of political tutelage that would better help to prepare them for a more constitutional form of government.
In the nine years between 1928 and 1937, Chiang’s government made huge steps in consolidating the interests and powers of China and many aspects of a modern Chinese government began to emerge through his actions. The new government had to work hard to make sure that the legal system was brought up to modern standards as well as the banking system. They also had to work hard to fight inflation and rising debts while at the same time building transportation that would better connect the country so that education and health care could also improve.

There was a great deal of success during this period that helped the Chinese people to feel more connected and unified than they previously had. The main problems were often associated with the constant need for Chiang’s government to have to go back and deal with the different uprisings that pointed out where more reform and consolidation was needed on the political and military fronts. Not to mention the fact that although the urbanized centers of China were firmly under the control of the KMT, many of the outlying areas had either remained under the control of the few remaining warlords or had been won over by the Chinese Communist Party.

While he may have been uncertain about how to approach the communist party, Chiang decided to deal a fatal blow to the weaker warlords by declaring war against them in 1930. This would become known as the Central Plains War and the tolls were high, both financially and mortally as the war nearly succeeded in bankrupting the newly established government and cost nearly a quarter of a million Chinese their lives. While he may have won that contingency, Chiang was still unable to completely rid himself of the CCP and its followers.

In 1934 Chiang went on a fifth campaign to try and rid himself completely of the communists, and while he was able to surround the Red Army. The downfall of this plan, however, was when Chiang decided to let the communists escape through the countryside to Yan’an on what has become known as the Long March. It’s believed that the overall intention was to allow the communists to flee in hopes that the few warlords that were still in that area would engage them in battle. This would have further weakened the warlords and put an end to the communists. What Chiang did not count on was the warlord’s willingness to let the communists pass through their lands undisturbed.

In the middle of all of this, Chiang faced problems on the Japanese front when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. At first Chiang responded by resigning as Chairman of the National Government, but he returned within just a few months. However, his tactical response to the invasion was that the country should first deal with the problems created by the communists before they turned their attentions to dealing with Japan directly. This might have been fine had Japan not continued to advance into Chinese territory by bombarding Nanjing and moving into Shanghai in 1932. Many thought that Chiang was too preoccupied with the communist threat to appropriately deal with the Japanese, but the truth was that Chiang was in desperate need of modernizing Japan’s armed forces before trying to deal with them straight on.
In the six years between Japan’s initial invasion into Manchuria in 1931 and the declaration of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the government worked extremely hard to try and update all of its armed forces so that they could accurately deal with the threat of the Japanese. Chiang had sought to establish a sort of temporary peace with Japan in order to give himself time to build up proper fortifications and to expand the communications capabilities of the countryside. If Chiang had allowed his troops to go to full scale war before the country was adequately prepared then he knew that he would be risking more lives and defeat. The downside was that in order to get everything ready for action he had to embrace a policy that was widely unpopular with the residents of China at the time.

As the tensions for war against Japan were winding up, Chiang made his way to Xi’an to coordinate a move against the Red Army that was seeking refuge in Yan’an. This was not to be the way it worked out. Chiang was planning on using the forces under the command of Chang Hsueh-liang for the attack against the Red Army, but Hsueh-liang was from Manchuria, where the Japanese had originally attacked, and he had other plans for Chiang Kai-shek. When Chiang arrived in Xi’an he was kidnapped and held for two weeks. During this time Chiang was held until he agreed to open up a Second United Front against the Japanese using the communists to help him fight against Japan.

Even though his official stance was that the warfare against the communists was over and that they were going to fight together against the Japanese, this was not what Chiang wanted. The public, however, loved the fact that the country seemed to be united against the Japanese front and when China entered the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Chiang was at the height of his career. In fact it has been speculated by many that one of the reasons that he had been left in power after being kidnapped is that he was the only leader with the public support and international roots who would be capable of successfully leading China into war with Japan.

When the war broke out Chiang sent in his best soldiers, many of them from the Whampoa base that he had taught at years before. Of these six hundred thousand that were deployed a month after the war broke out, two hundred thousand died very quickly as they defended Shanghai. This loss, as bad as it was, hurt Chiang worse than he thought at the time because it immediately lessened his largest support base of officers that were loyal to him. However, Chiang had managed to dispel the Japanese claims that China would fall to them within three months as well as demonstrate to many of the Western powers that China was capable of defending a city that they were heavily invested in.

Chiang was not under the delusion that he would be capable of holding onto Shanghai forever, but he was trying to make a diplomatic gesture to the other countries that would indicate that he understood their investments and that he was going to attempt to protect them. This maneuver was meant to imply that since he had helped to defend their interests on his soil that they offer him support against the Japanese and officially declare to be on China’s side during the fight with Japan. Chiang believed that trying to make sure that he secured military aid from the western countries now would greatly benefit him down the road when he was unable to make any grand gestures toward them.

In December of 1937, Nanjing had fallen to the Japanese and Chiang had been forced to move the capital to Wuhan, and later on he would once again have to move the capital city even further inland to Chongqing. Since Chiang did not have the necessary resources to launch a normal war on the Japanese, he strategically tried to use the massive amount of land in China to derail the Japanese war machine. In doing this he kept the supply lines stretched as tightly as they could an