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Institute for the Study of the Ancient World



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China and Neighboring Territories, ca. 572 CE

Map of China ca. 572 CE

The Northern Qi dynasty (550–577 ce) ruled northeastern China during a turbulent era of civil war and political instability known as the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420–589 ce). During the preceding centuries China had seen a number of invasions by northern tribes, and by the late fourth century much of northern China was controlled by non-Chinese Xianbei rulers who established the Northern Wei dynasty. The Northern Qi were the successors to the Eastern Wei regime, and the dynasty was founded by Gao Huan, formerly the power behind the Eastern Wei throne. The dynasty was ruled by a series of his sons and grandsons until it was conquered in 577 by the Northern Zhou, the successors to the Western Wei.

The Xiangtangshan Caves are located not far from the Northern Qi capital at Ye along the road to Jincheng, the seat of the Gao family, a route much traveled by members of the court. Three of the Northern Qi emperors patronized the caves, and Emperor Wenxuan (r. 550–559 ce) is especially remembered for his lavish temple building. In 555, Wenxuan intervened in the competition between Buddhism and Daoism, citing limited government resources as the reason for providing state patronage to only one religion. He organized a debate at which the superiority of each religion was argued; Buddhism prevailed, and an era of temple and pagoda building that glorified the empire and inspired Buddhist converts began.