The era of The Northern and Southern Dynasties, which lasted from 386-589 CE, was an era riddled with civil war and political chaos, but arts and culture flourished. Technology made great advancements, and Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism became widespread.
The spread of Buddhism could be attributed to the influx of immigrants who were made up of tradesmen and Buddhist monks from Central Asia. These monks settled in northern China and Buddhism became one of the most popular religion among the imperial during the Northen Wei Dynasty (386-535 CE). The patronage of these imperial resulted in the construction of the Yungang Grottoes at Datong in the Shanxi province, the Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang in Henan province, and the Hanging Temple and Henshan in Shanxi.
Taoism continued its popularity amongst the more wealthy people in China, but the religion did develop dramatically due to Taoist reformers Kou Qianzhi, Lu Jingxiu, and Tao Hongjing. The most successful reformist among the three was Kou Qianzhi. He simplified quite a few complicated Taoist rites and managed to recruit followers from noble families.
The philosophy of xuanxue or “dark learning” became one of the most popular trends in thought, especially in the south. The beliefs were based on three Taoist texts: the Zhouyi, the Tao Te Ching, and the Zhuangzi. The followers of the xuanxue focused on the metaphysical nature of being while incorporating ancient Chinese philosophies. The idea was founded on the assumption that anything nameable, such as movement, change, and diversity, sprang from and was sustained by one detached principle, which was by definition unlimited, unnameable, and unchanging.
It became so popular that Emperor Wen of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479 CE), the first among the southern dynasties, established a Xuanxue Academy. They focused on the principle of Xuanxue, Confucianism, literature, and history and dubbed them the Four Great Subjects of Study. Qingtan, or educated men having whole day conversations about philosophical topics, occurred often. They had no regard for their profession or their family.
With these advancements in philosophies came advancements in political thought. The instability and bleakness of the political atmosphere led to bleaker and darker philosophies which is why many scholars and poets retreated to become recluses and mountain hermits.
Literature flourished in both Northern and Southern Dynasties though their styles were vastly different. Notable writers of the Northern Dynasties included Yu Xin, Xing Fang, Wei Shou, and Wen Zisheng wrote in rougher and more straightforward styles. Mulan was actually written during the Northern Wei Dynasty, but The Ballad of Mulan has been a popular tale since the Tang Dynasty.
Flowery and intricate literature came out of the Southern Dynasties, it was a literary style called pianwen which dated back to the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BCE). Metered rhyme, eloquent language, and classical allusions characterized the popular style, and it was often used in official writings of the Southern Dynasties.
A great cultural reform came during the Northern Wei Dynasty, thanks to Emperor Xiaowen. Despite being Tuoba-Chinese, in an effort to create a more united China, he dictated that all Tuoba tribesmen abandon traditional dress and many customs in favour of Han Chinese traditions to assimilate.
This eased the diplomatic relations between the Tuoba people of northern China and the Han Chinese people who had settled in souther China. The large influx of Han Chinese people to south China led to the eventual assimilation of the indigenous peoples. This cultural exchange and amalgamation greatly contributed to the Sui Dynasty’s successful reunification of the country in 589 CE.
In case you missed the article on the previous Chinese dynasty, you can learn about the Jin dynasty here.