1.2.5 China: Six Dynasties (220-589) to Wei Dynasties (388-557)

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Six Dynasties:

Hunping Jar
Green glazed vase
Northern Qi murals
Palace Ladies, Admonitions of the Instructress

Wei Dynasties – Northern:
Buddhist stela
Northern Wei stone statue
Mounted Northern Wei warrior
Northern Wei wall murals
Buddha Maitreya
Longmen Caves, Luoyang
Emperor Xiaowen and His Court
Offering Procession of the Empress
Stone Temple Lion
Silk Road camel driver

Eastern and Western Wei:
Stela commissioned by Li Zhewang…
Visit of Manjushri to Vimalakirti
Buddha triad
Eastern Wei Buddhist stele
Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara Guimet
Western Wei cavalry
Dunhuang mural flying apsarasa
Fresco of a Young Girl
Figure of a Civil Official
Section of a Pagoda-Shaped Stele


The Six Dynasties is the name given to four centuries of uncertainty and friction between north and south China. It ran from the end of the Han dynasty until Emperor Wen of Sui reunified Southern and Northern China, to found the Sui Dynasty.

The six dynasties in the name were those in southern China, all of them established their capital at Jianye (today’s Nanjing). These were the Wu (222–280), the Dong (aka Eastern) Jin (317–420), the Liu-Song (420–479), the Nan (aka Southern) Qi (479–502), the Nan Liang (502–557), and the Nan Chen (557–589).

However in the north there wre dynasties founded by invaders from central Asia. These were the Bei (aka Northern) Wei (386–535) based at Datong and later Luoyang; the Dong (aka Eastern) Wei based at Anyang (534–550); the Xi (aka Western) Wei at Changan, today’s Xian (535–557); the Bei Qi at Anyang (550–577); and the Bei Zhou at Changan (557–581).

Confucianism had been at the core of society, but in this period it began to be supplanted by Daoism and Buddhism. A programme of building Buddhist temples and monasteries prompted new forms of art and architecture There was also progress in astronomy, medicine, natural sciences and the wheelbarrow was invented.


A Hunping Jar or soul jar, a type of ceramic funerary urn, possibly filled with fruit to accompany the deceased into the after life.

This one is decorated with Buddhist figures and incorporated architectural designs. it is dated to 265-316 CE.

These were found in the Jiangnan region during the Han and Six Dynasties periods.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

Luoshenfu by Gu Kaizhi, dated 344-406. He was a celebrated Chinese painter and politician, who became a royal officer. He was also a poet and a calligrapher. He wrote three books on painting theory: ‘On Painting‘, ‘Introduction of Famous Paintings of Wei and Jin Dynasties‘ and ‘Painting Yuntai Mountain‘.
A Six Dynasties green glazed jar decorated with lotus flowers.
It is on show at the the National Museum of China, Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Asia6DGreenGlazedVaseLotus-2.jpg
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Northern Qi Tomb Murals dating between 550–577 CE. Disocvered in Jiuyuangang, Xinzhou. It depicts a rural hunting scene on horseback.
This is a detail from one of the scenes:

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com
The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies by Gu Kaizhi, this illustrates nine stories from a political satire about Empress Jia Nanfeng written by Zhang Hua from the 3rd c. The Admonitions scroll was stored in the emperor’s treasure until looted by the British army in the Boxer Uprising of 1900.It is on show at the British Museum but is missing the first three scenes. Another copy of this painting, from the Song Dynasty is on show at the Palace Museum in Beijing, with the full twelve scenes.

WEI DYNASTIES (385-557):

From 386-589 China had separate Northern and Southern dynasties, it was a time of turmoil and civil war. Yet, it was also a time of flourishing arts and culture, technological advancement and saw the spread of Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism. There were advances in astronomy, cartography, mathematics and medicine, It was also the era of heavy cavalry. There was a large-scale migration of Han Chinese south of the Yangtze. The period came to an end with the unification of all of China proper by Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty.

There were three quite distinct periods for the Wei – Northern Wei (385-535), which then split into the Eastern Wei (534-550) and Western Wei (535-557); they were succeeded in the north by the Northern Qi and Northern Zhou. The Southern Dynasties called the Northern Wei the Plaited Barbarians. Yet, the Northern Wei Dynasty, ruled by the Tuoba family, nomads from the Eurasian steppes (today’s Mongolia and NE China), had succeeded in unifying northern China by 439.

By the late 5th c the Emperor’s advisors had instituted major administrative reforms and moved the capital from Datong to Luoyang and the leaders changed their name from Tuoba to Yuan, to reflect their Sinicisation. Many antiques and art works, both Taoist art and Buddhist art, from this period have survived. The Longmen Caves close to Luoyang has over 30,000 Buddhist images.



Chinese Buddhist Stela of the Wei Dynasty, showing front and back.
Buddhism’s official introduction into China was under the imperial patronage of Ming Ti (58-76 CE), the second emperor of the Eastern, or Latter, Han dynasty.

Image source: penn.museum

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This stone statue stood at the entrance of a tomb of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
Today is is on show at the Luoyang Museum.
Mounted warrior of the Northern Wei Dynasty from the collections of the Musée Cernuschi, Paris France.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The Northern Wei made the city of Pingcheng (today’s Datong) their capital. Pingcheng therefore saw an increase in construction work. The Northern Wei adopted Buddhism as their state religion.
The 5th c Yungang grottoes house a Buddhist temple. UNESCO describe it as a ‘masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist cave art’ that it represents ‘the successful fusion of Buddhist religious symbolic art with Chinese cultural traditions’.
Northern Wei statuette of Buddha Maitreya, an individual considered as worthy of becoming a future Buddha, a successor to the current Buddha. He is judged to be able to achieve complete enlightenment, and will teach the pure dharma.

It is 140 x 62 x 49 cm and dated to mid 5th c. The Buddha’s broad shoulders, powerful physique and long legs derive from 5th c Indian prototypes that spread to China along the Silk Road. It is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: khanacademy.org

The Longmen Caves, 12 kms from Luoyang, contain some of the best examples of Chinese Buddhist Art dating from 493-1127. They house tens of thousands of statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples
The earliest artefacts date to the Northern Wei dynasty (493-534), and begin from the time the capital switched to Luoyang from Dàtóng. Luoyang became the historic capital for thirteen dynasties.
The lower figures are two of the Four Heavenly Kings (Fēng Tiáo Yǔ Shùn), who each looks after a cardinal direction. On the left is Vaiśravana, he who hears everything, is their chief and in charge of the north and of rain.
On the right is Virūḍhaka, he who causes to grow, he is king of the south, rules the wind and root growth. These were made later, 673-675.
This 394 x 208 cm limestone plaque has signs of pigment, It is dated to 522-3. It was found in the Binyang Cave (Longmen). The subject is ‘Emperor Xiaowen and his entourage worshipping the Buddha’. It is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: metmuseum.org

This gray limestone relief is entitled ‘Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court’ (c523).
It was found in the Binyang Cave (Longmen). It is held by the Belson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas USA. This was on the opposite side of the Binyang Door, facing the relief of the Emperor above.
This large (48 cm) gray stone seated lion is dated to the Northern Wei dynasty. It is sat bank on its haunches, with forelegs outstretched and has a long tail curled up over its back. The mouth is open for a roar. These are often referenced as temple lions.
Image source: alaintruong.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons
A Northen Wei statuette of a silk road camel and its driver.
It is on show at the Musée Cernuschi, Paris France.

EASTERN WEI (534-550) and WESTERN WEI (535-557):


Stela Commissioned by a Devotional Society, dated 528 CE during the Northern Wei dynasty.
Fabricated in limestone it has traces of pigment; 18 x 61 x 24 cms, it is on show at the Metropolitan Mseum of Art, NY USA.

Image source: metmusuem.org

Image source: metmusuem.org

This limestone base of a stela depicts the Visit of Manjushri (a meditational deity and considered a fully enlightened Buddha) to Vimalakirti (a wealthy patron of Gautama Buddha and the central figure in the Vimalakirti Sutra).

It is dated to 533-543. The inscription again suggests it was commissioned by a devotional society, but in this instance the donors are led by Helian Ziyue, who has the double distinction of being named on a Buddhist object and discoverable in in Chinese historical writings.

This base is 61 x 135 x 84 cms and is on show at the Metropolitan Mseum of Art, NY USA.
This is an Eastern Wei Buddhist triad, the central character is Buddha, flanked bytwo bodhisattvas.
It is on show at the Musée Guimet, Paris France.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This Buddhist stela is from the Eastern Wei Dynasty.
Buddhist art of the Eastern Wei combines Greco-Buddhist influences from Gandhara (far NW India) and Central Asia, in its representations of flying figures holding wreaths, from the Greek, in the folds of the drapery, and Chinese artistic influences.
Image source: Wikimedia commons
This marble statue is of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva holding a lotus flower and a leaf-shaped flask.
It is 75 x 31 cms, dated to 542 and on show at the Guimet Museum, Paris France.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This painting purports to be a Western Wei cavalry engagement, however Wikipedia is questioning its provenance and threatening to take it down.
From Dunhuang Mogao Cave 285, a mural depicting a flying apsara. An apsara is a beautiful, supernatural female of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist culture, a European equivalent would be a fairy or nymph. They are youthful, elegant, and skilled dancers, they sometimes use this attributes to seduce gods and men. They are shape-shifters and can effect games and gambling.

There are two types of apsaras: laukika (worldly) and daivika (divine). Urvasi, Menaka, Rambha, Tilottama and Ghritachi are the most famous apsaras.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Western Wei fresco from the Mo-kao caves. The unknown artist has depicted a young girl.
This Western Wei dynasty stone statuette depicts a Civil Official. It is 32 cms tall and is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: metmuseum.org
A section of a Pagoda-Shaped, 6th c Stele, fabricated in Serpentinite.
It is 13 x 10 x 6 cm on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

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