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The Liang Dynasty, 502AD to 556AD

The awakening of Yangtze China to mercantile activities from the end of the the fifth century onwards was to have important social consequences. The commercial upsurge was to contribute to the ruin of an aristocrcy which drew part of its power from the partition of the regions and from economic autocracy of the big estates. This commercial awakening, which was no doubt connected with the development of trade in the South Sea and the Indian Ocean, marked the beginning of a process of evolution which ended in the great economic upsurge of the Yangtze basin and the maritime provinces of the south in the tenth to thirteenth centuries. At the end of the fifth century there was certainly increased commercial activily on the Yangtze, and the presence is recorded of numerous foreign merchants from South-East Asia and the Indo-Iranian world. The trade on the great river, and also Canton in the extreme south, grew in size and the state began to draw considerable revenues from commercial taxes.

This expansion of the economy continued and was consolidated in the long reign of the Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (502-49), who surrounded himself with able advisers in the persons of Shen Yueh (441-513), known especially for his works on phonbetics, and Hsu Mien (466-535), the author of political works. The first half of the sixth century was an epoch of prosperity and peace, the golden age of aristocratic civilation of the southern dynasties. Buddhism, which adapted itself to the social forms of Yangtze China and was favoured in the court and the great noble families, experienced and unprecedented surge. However a very serious crisis, which was to lead to the disappearance of the southern aristocracy, was soon to arise.

The institution of families dedicated to the profession of arms (shih-chia or ping-lu), a practice inaugurated by the Ts'ao, was kept up under the Eastern Chin, and the state had more or less retained control of the armies in the fourth century. This situation did not continue in the fifth century, for from the time of the Sung (420-79) onwards the government began to use half-official, half-private armies consisting of mercenaries recruited in the provinces by the local officials and the big aristocratic families. The formation of these armies of rascals and bandits, which call to mind the "great companies" of the European MIddle Ages and were led by military adventurers, a species of condottiere, was to endanger the central government and cause the fall of the Liang in the middle of the sixth century. One Hou Ching, a general in the service of the Western Wei (north-west China), moved over to the service of the Liang, rebelled in 548 and led his troops on Nanking. During the course of the disturbances which ensured until his death in 552, the Western Wei launched a series of victorious offensives against the Liang empire from the valley of the Wei in Shensi. In 553 they occupied Szechwan, thus cutting the communications between Nanking and central Asia, seized the strategic point of Hsiang-yang, which commands access to the valley of the Han, and advanced into western Hupei as far as Chiang-ling on the middle Yangtze, where they installed a prince of the reigning family of the Hsiao, whom they had taken prisoner at Hsiang-lang. This new Kingdom of Later Liang in Hupei was to be controlled by whatever power was established in the valley of the Wei - the Western Wei (535-57), the Northern Chou (557-81) and the Sui (581-618), who put an end to it in 587. After the Western Wei had gained control of Szechwan and Hupei, the civil war went on in the lower valley of the Yangtze. Ch'en Pa-hsien, an army leader whose fief was in the Wu-ch'ang area - more prosperous at that time than the Nanking area - seized power in 557 and founded the last of the southern dynasties, that of the Ch'en (557-89).

- Jacques Gernet (Re.1987). A History of Chinese Civilization, p.184