Five Dynasties History

Five Dynasties History

The Five Dynasties History (Chinese: 五代史; pinyin: Wǔdài Shǐ) was an official history of the Five Dynasties (907-960), which controlled much of northern China. It was compiled by the Song Dynasty official-scholar Xue Juzheng in the first two decades of the Song Dynasty, which was founded in 960. It is one of the Twenty-Four Histories recognized through Chinese history.

The book comprises 150 chapters, and was in effect divided into 5 books, Book of Liang, Book of Tang, Book of Jin, Book of Han and Book of Zhou. After the New History of the Five Dynasties by Ouyang Xiu was published, it was no longer popular. The fatal blow came in 12th century when it was removed from the Imperial Library and was no longer published by order of the Jin Dynasty. The book was lost during this period.

During the 18th century, Qing Dynasty scholars found many complete quotes of the book in Yong Le Da Dian. They extracted them and together with other sources of the same period, they were able to largely reconstruct the book, although missing a few chapters. There have been rumours that copies of the original book exist but to date, none has been found.

Contents

The Five Dynasties

The Five Dynasties comprised a string of dynasties in northern China that succeeded one another from 907 to 960. They bridge the time from which the Tang Dynasty fell in 907 to the rise of the Song Dynasty in 960, which eventually conquered all but the very northernmost reaches of China.

The Five Dynasties are the Later Liang Dynasty, Later Tang Dynasty, Later Jin Dynasty, Later Han Dynasty, and Later Zhou Dynasty.

Xue Juzheng

Xue Juzheng (912-981) lived through all five of the Five Dynasties and received his '’jinshi’’ examination degree under the Later Tang Dynasty. He then continued to hold office through the three subsequent dynasties. He took service with the Song Dynasty when it established itself in northern China in 960.

Purpose

The primary purpose of The Five Dynasties History was to establish the claim of the Song Dynasty to the Mandate of Heaven, essentially the divine right to rule the Chinese realm. The Song Dynasty took over control of northern China from the last of the Five Dynasties, the Later Zhou Dynasty. From there, they conquered southern China to eventually rule all but the northern fringe of China known as the Sixteen Prefectures, which was under the control of the Khitan Liao Dynasty. Xue sought to establish the claim of the Song Dynasty to the Mandate of Heaven through the succession of the Five Dynasties.

Xue argued that as each of these five dynasties controlled the traditional heart of China and held territory vastly larger than any of the kingdoms to the south, the Mandate naturally flowed through these dynasties.

Issues

In establishing the path of the Mandate through from the Tang Dynasty to the Song Dynasty through the Five Dynasties, there are several issues that Xue Zhucheng had to address. The first of these was the brutality exercised by the Later Liang Dynasty, the first of the five dynasties. Zhu Wen’s brutality led many to want to exclude that dynasty from the Mandate of Heaven due to the requirement that the leader work with benevolence.

Another issue had to do with the middle three, the Later Tang Dynasty, Later Jin Dynasty, and Later Han Dynasty respectively. None of these were Han Chinese ruled dynasties. Rather, all were led by Shato.

Finally, the last major hurdle had to do with the ability to rule of all China. While each of these five dynasties held more territory than any of the other Chinese polities of the era, the reality is that none of them realistically had the chance to conquer the southern kingdoms and unite the entire realm.

Legacy

Xue’s work gives us invaluable information regarding the Five Dynasties that ruled most of northern China from 907 to 960. Historians rely on this source today for much of what we now know about this period of Chinese history.

There are a couple of more ominous legacies as well, however. One is the use of official histories to strengthen claims to the Mandate of Heaven, including the bending of historical fact to suit the needs of the patron dynasty. While this is not the first instance of distorting history to legitimize ruling claims (both within and outside China,) this particular work strengthened this trend in Chinese history.

Finally, there is the legitimizing of foreign dynasties, which set up the justification for later conquest dynasties that would control much of China’s destiny for most of the next millennium.

References

Mote, F.W. (1999). Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press. 


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