An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Jin Dynasty 晉 (265-420)

Western Jin 西晉 (265-316)

Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420)

The Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) was a ruling house founded by Sima Yan 司馬炎 (Emperor Wu 晉武帝, r. 265-289). The Jin were the successor dynasty of the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) in China's north, and conquered the last of the Three Empires 三國 (220-280), the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280), in southern China. The territory of the Jin empire covered the whole of China proper and in the beginning extended even to the Western Territories 西域 (modern Xinjiang).

The Jin period is divided into two parts, the Western Jin (Xijin 西晉, 265-316) and the Eastern Jin period (Dongjin 東晉, 317-420). During the Western Jin, the imperial capital was Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan). The weak central government was unable to control the activities of imperial princes who contended for power. The rebellion of the Eight Princes brought an enormous devastation in the whole of northern China. Another challenged were the many non-Chinese tribes that had in the earlier century settled down in northern China. Exploited by the local gentry and landowners, communities of Xiongnu 匈奴, Xianbei 鮮卑 or Tanguts (Di 氐) rose in rebellion, and their leaders founded independent states of their own. These are known as the Sixteen States of the Five Barbarian Peoples 五胡十六國 (300~430). When the capital Luoyang was conquered by the Xiongnu chieftain Liu Yao 劉曜 (r. 318-329), a ruler of the "barbarian" Former Zhao dynasty 前趙 (304-329), the imperial court fled to the southwest. Prince Sima Rui 司馬睿 (Emperor Yuan 晉元帝, r. 317-322) founded a new capital in Jiankang 建康 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), the seat of the Eastern Jin.

The northern aristocracy who had come along with the imperial court to the southeast had to arrange with the powerful local magnates of the lower Yangtze area, and the dynastic family Sima was never able to gain a foothold in southern China. The Eastern Jin dynasty was therefore only the precursor of a series of dynasties that eventually reigned over southern China, the so-called Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589).

Among the members of the Jin period aristocracy, many famous writers and poets were to be found. Such were the calligrapher Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303-361) and the painter Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之 (348-409) or the writers and poets Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 (385-433) and Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365-427). Their works are commonly seen as the first real products of Chinese art. Scholars, disappointed about the missing prospects for career in the public service, discussed in "pure talks" (qingtan 清談) the vanities of life and the beauty of nature. Philosophers initiated a kind of Neo-Daoism and disputed the omnipresence of the Dao in their "teachings of the mystery" (xuanxue 玄學). Daoism, confronted with the new religion of Buddhism, won many followers among the aristocracy, and transformed into a well-defined religion.

The relatively long-lasting rule of the Eastern Jin dynasty inspired - in spite of all military conflicts between the local elites and the central government - the growth of the commercial economy in southeast China and contact to overseas countries.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Jin period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts, the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions.