The Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589AD) was a period in the history ofChina, following the Jin Dynasty (265–420) and followed by the Sui Dynasty. It was an age of civil war and political disunity. However it was also a time of flourishing in the arts and culture, advancement in technology, and the spread of foreign Mahayana Buddhism and native Daoism. Distinctive Chinese Buddhism was also matured during this time and shaped by the northern and southern dynasties alike.
During this period the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal tribesmen in the south. Many northern Chinese also immigrated to the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the first century AD) in both north and south China, along with Daoism gaining influence from the outline of Buddhist scriptures (with two essential Daoist canons written during this period). Although multiple story towers such as guard towers and residential apartments existed in previous periods of China , during this period the distinct Chinese pagoda tower (for storing Buddhist scriptures) evolved from the stupa, the latter originating from Buddhist traditions of protecting sutras in ancient India.
The south and north developed into a relatively stable equilibrium, due to geographical differences. The flat steppes of the north gave a significant edge to cavalry, while the hilly and mountainous riverlands of the south gave a significant edge to naval warfare. A strong navy on the Yangtze River could protect the south from the north, since cavalry was almost useless in the mountainous riverlands. Likewise, logistical difficulties for the horse-poor south made it difficult to maintain a successful northern campaign. Depending on the relative strengths of the states, the Huai River area and the Sichuan basin were the primary areas of significant territorial changes. This barrier was only overcome by the first Emperor of the Sui Dynasty, who built a large invading navy in the Sichuan basin, hence his ability to more easily conquer the south and reunify China.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the political disunity of the times, there were notable technological advances in China. With the invention of the stirrup during the earlier Western Jin Dynasty, not only were cavalry tactics improved immensely, but heavily armored Chinese cavalry also became the norm in this age. Advances in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and cartography are also noted by historians. The famous Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi (429–500 AD) belonged to this age, an intellectual and social product of the elite culture shaped and developed in southern China during this period of time.
The Chinese arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting, and music flourished during this period like never before, as Chinese aristocrats mainly in the south were socially expected to master these as their pastimes. Although the north had its cultural achievements, the south (specifically at the capital of Nanjing) was the place for higher cultural achievement, elitist culture, artistic refinement, and new standards of art that ranked artists according to their various abilities.