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Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

The End of the Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty’s domination of China officially ended in 907 with the death of the puppet Emperor Ai of Tang. The long road to its decline started during the time of the An Lushan rebellion (755-763). The Tang emperors had lost the Mandate of Heaven, but their legitimacy to rule was not the only casualty of the disintegration. China lost its domination of the Central Asian frontier to the Tanguts after the Tang lost many soldiers during the years of war. The troops loyal only to the different military generals increased, which meant that the power in the provinces now shifted to the local governors. The Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms that came later are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History between 907 – 960 AD.

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The weak central government was unable to curb corruption committed by the government officials. The common people suffered from severe oppression and poverty so that many were forced to resort to banditry. Huang Chao, a former soldier, and trader, turned into a prolific bandit and rebel after the oppression he experienced during the last years of the Tang. He started his career in Guangzhou. The rebellion he launched quickly spread to the other parts of China until his troops captured Chang’an in 881. He was the first and last king of this “kingdom of Qi” as Huang Chao died in 884 and a new Tang Dynasty was reinstated. The reinstatement, however, was short-lived as its last emperor, Ai of Tang, was ousted by the military commander Zhu Wen in 907 AD.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

The tumultuous period between the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was called the era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.

The Five Dynasties which flourished during this period were:

“Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms”

Later Liang (907-923)

Zhu Wen, the founder of the Later Liang Dynasty, served as a high-ranking officer in Huang Chao’s rebel army during the last years of the Tang dynasty. He rose to prominence when he helped capture the city of Chang’an in 881.  He maintained the control of the imperial family thereafter. Zhu Wen installed Ai of Tang as puppet emperor in 905, but removed the young figurehead two years later and declared himself the new emperor of the brand new Later Liang Dynasty.

He established the city of Kaifeng as the Later Liang capital, but he also controlled the main capital Chang’an and the secondary capital Luoyang. The Later Liang held the greater part of northern China except for the territories dominated by other dynasties and kingdoms. Three kings had ruled Later Liang before the dynasty fell apart. It was later overpowered by the Shatuo Turks from the State of Jin, as well as Later Tang in 923.

Later Tang (923-936)

The Later Tang Dynasty was founded by Li Cunxu (Emperor Zhuangzong), and it rose after the dissolution of its rival dynasty, the Later Liang. Its rulers originated from the Shatuo Turks who had a strong alliance with their northern neighbors, the Khitans. Li Cunxu took over the territories once controlled by the collapsed Later Liang dynasty, then established his capital at Luoyang, and extended his rule from the Shanxi region to as far west as Sichuan. The Later Tang Dynasty ended when it was overpowered by the Liao dynasty of the Khitans.

Later Jin (936-947)

Shi Jingtang, the son-in-law of the Later Tang emperor Li Cunxu, rebelled against his father-in-law and declared himself as the emperor of a new dynasty, the Later Jin. Upon the dissolution of the Later Tang, the Later Jin dynasty took over its territories except for the Sichuan region which was ceded to the Kingdom of Later Shu. Its rulers further lost the Sixteen Prefectures it previously held to the powerful Liao dynasty of the Khitans. It was dissolved by the Liao after Shi Jingtang’s successor rebelled against them.

Later Han (947-951)

The Later Han Dynasty was founded by a former military governor of Bingzhou, Liu Zhiyuan, who rebelled against the Later Jin after its dissolution by the Liao dynasty. He took advantage of Later Jin dynasty’s weakness and the Khitans’ succession issues to declare himself emperor of the Later Han. He ruled from the city of Kaifeng and took over the territories of the Later Jin, but the dynasty’s domination was cut short when Liu Zhiyuan’s son and heir, Liu Chengyou, was ousted in 951 by Guo Wei.

Later Zhou (951-960)

The Later Zhou dynasty was established after a successful coup led by the Han Chinese military commander named Guo Wei against the Later Han’s Liu Chengyou. Guo Wei declared himself the emperor of the Later Zhou and proved to be a capable ruler who provided relative stability to his domain. He died in 954 and was succeeded by his adoptive son, Guo Rong, whose promising reign was cut short when he died in 959. The deceased Guo Rong was succeeded by his young son, but the boy was later deposed by the general Zhao Kuangyin (later Emperor Taizu of Song) in a coup d’etat in 960.

The Ten Kingdoms:

Wu (907-937)

The kingdom of Wu rose right after the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 907. It was established by the soldier-turned-governor Yang Xingmi of Luzhou prefecture. Before the fall of the Tang, Emperor Zhongzong appointed Yang Xingmi as the Prince of Wu and refused to recognize Zhu Wen’s legitimacy as emperor of the Later Liang after the removal of the last Tang emperor. Yang Xingmi, however, later declared Wu as an independent kingdom and proclaimed himself as its king. He then ruled from the city of Guangling and controlled parts of present-day provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, and Hubei. The last king of Wu was deposed by Xu Zhigao, the adopted son of the powerful director of the guard Xu Wen in 937, who then founded the kingdom of Southern Tang.

Wuyue (907-978)

The coastal kingdom of Wuyue was under the control of the powerful Qian family whose members rose to prominence in the military during the last years of the Tang dynasty. It was founded by Qian Liu, the Prince of Yue and Wu, who took advantage of the Tang collapse in 907 to declare himself king of the independent kingdom of Wuyue. He ruled from the coastal city of Hangzhou and controlled present-day Shanghai, Zhejiang, parts of Jiangsu province, and Fujian after the fall of the kingdom of Min. The coastal kingdom of Wuyue benefited from the maritime trade with Korea and Japan. Unlike its neighbors, its citizens enjoyed a measure of stability until it was absorbed by the Song Dynasty in 978.

Min (909-945)

Located south of Wuyue in present-day Fujian province, the less prosperous kingdom of Min rose to become one of China’s Ten Kingdoms in 909. It was founded by the former military officer Wang Shenzi who established the city of Fuzhou as his capital and declared himself the Prince of Min when the Tang dynasty collapsed. Although Fujian is located near the coast, its rugged landscape made it isolated and less prosperous than the neighboring Wuyue. When the kingdom of Southern Tang rose to prominence and threatened its delicate independence, the king of Min had no choice but to seek an alliance its northern neighbor, the kingdom of Wuyue. Both kingdoms, however, were unable to resist the Southern Tang which conquered Min in 945.

Chu (907-951)

The Chu kingdom was founded by Ma Yin, a governor who named himself the Prince of Chu when the Tang Dynasty collapsed. He established the kingdom’s capital in Changsha and controlled the Hunan province as well as parts of Guangxi. Ma Yin’s kingdom was relatively peaceful and prosperous. However, its decline started after his death and the rise of the kingdom of the Southern Tang. The kingdom of Chu was later folded into the Song Dynasty domain in 963.

Southern Han (917-971)

The Southern Han Kingdom was established after Liu Yin, a governor, and military officer, became Prince of Nanping two years after the fall of the Tang Dynasty. He declared himself king in 917 and called his domain the Great Han in 918. The king ruled from Guangzhou and controlled the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, as well as parts of northern Vietnam and the island of Hainan. Just like neighboring kingdoms, it fell to the Song in 971.

Former Shu (907-925)

Wang Jian, the governor of Western Sichuan, declared himself the king of Shu when the Tang collapsed in 907. Its capital was in Chengdu and the Former Shu dominated Sichuan, Chongqing, as well as parts of Shaanxi, Hubei, and Gansu. It was conquered by Later Tang ruler Li Cunxu, but it retained it brief independence for some time after the Later Tang’s collapse and until it was conquered by the Later Shu.

Later Shu (934-965)

One of the many military governors who took power during the Ten Kingdoms period was Meng Zhixiang. He was a Later Tang governor who was assigned to govern the Former Shu Kingdom until he rebelled and founded his own kingdom which he christened Later Shu (a different ruling family from the Former Shu). It had the same capital and territories as the Former Shu, but it fell to the Song in 965.

Jingnan (924-963)

Also known as Nanping, the kingdom of Jingnan was founded by Gao Jixing who was the military governor of Jiangling County. It was established when the Later Liang fell to the Later Tang in 924. Jingnan’s domain was known to be the smallest and the weakest among the Ten Kingdoms. The Song Dynasty acquired it in 963.

Southern Tang (937-975)

Xu Zhigao was the adopted son of the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Wu. He declared himself king in 937 and renamed his little domain as the kingdom of Southern Tang. Its later rulers absorbed the kingdom of Min in 945 and added the kingdom of Chu in 951. The Southern Tang became a vassal state of Later Zhou but fell to the Song in 976.

Northern Han (951-979)

Years before the domination of the Song, a man named Liu Min tried to revive the glory days of the Han dynasty by folding in the Later Han territories into his own when the dynasty fell in 971. He established his kingdom’s capital in Taiyuan and the Northern Han ruler controlled the Shanxi region which was wedged between the more powerful Khitan Liao territory and the Song. It later fell to the Song in 979.

Picture By Ian KiuOwn work, CC BY 3.0, Link
Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Ropp, Paul S. China In World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Tan, Koon San. Dynastic China: An Elementary History. Other Press, 2014.
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