There are actually two wholly separate dynasties spelled Jin if you omit tone-marks in Pinyin: the Jin4 and the Jin1. In Wade-Giles these are both spelled Chin. In Gwoyeu Romatzyh they are distinguished as Jinn and Jin.

Jin4, an important era in literature and culture, is written with an old character meaning "to advance", which has been used as a placename in and around modern Shanxi/Shansi province since Warring States times. There was a state of Jin at that time, and later there was a Kingdom of Jin in the same area.

Jin1 means "gold", and is said to derive from the "golden sands" in their home region, in modern Mongolia and Manchuria. This name "gold" may conceivably be related to the name of the later Golden Horde.

The Jin4 Dynasty (265-420 C.E.). The ruling family of the Jin4 dynasty was the Sima clan, which had been important in the Three Kingdoms period. The Simas deposed the Wei ruling family in 265, and in 280 took control of the last remnant of the state of Wu, so that they effectively united "China" for a brief time. Their capital was at Luoyang in the northwest, and in 316 they were defeated by the Xiongnu.

That was the end of what is now known as the "Western Jin", but in 317 a member of the Sima clan managed to take control of the old Wu capital of Jiankang, which is modern Nanjing/Nanking. Thus began the "Eastern Jin". The Jin4 were thus the second of the so-called Six Dynasties - the series of governments that had their capitals at Jiankang.

The Jin4 had to struggle with large numbers of immigrants uprooted by the preceding century of civil war, and their rule was weak for most of their reign. Literature and the arts flourished generally in the hands of individuals working outside of the court. The most famous literary figure of the period is the poet Tao Yuanming, noted for his continuous drunkenness (or, anyway, for the drunken and easy-going persona in his work). There was a sharply growing interest in alchemical mysticism, religious Taoism, and the newly introduced religion of Buddhism. Much of the culture for which the Jin4 are famous emphasizes the whim of the individual and a lack of interest in court affairs. Tao Yuanming boasted that he held office for only 80 days before (acutely homesick) he resigned to go back to his family a few miles away. He says he spent the rest of his life drinking heavily and planting beans.

Despite briefly unifying the traditional Chinese territories, the Jin4 did not have the power to leave long-lasting influence on Chinese culture. But their rule marked the beginning of real Chinese exposure to the south of what we now call China.

The crisis that led to the collapse of the Jin4 was the "Tao of Five Bushels of Rice" (wu3-dou3-mi3 dao4) rebellion led by a pirate with Taoist leanings. The generals who suppressed his forces in 402 themselves became hard for the government to control, and in 420 one of them, Liu Yü, founded a new dynasty, the Liu Song dynasty (not to be confused with the later Song dynasty).

The Jin1 dynasty (1115-1234 C.E.) The Jin1 were Jürchen people, neither culturally nor politically Chinese. That should not be surprising. They were merely one of a series of non-Chinese governments based in north China for almost half a millennium before 1400. The Jin1 succeeded the Liao and were themselves displaced by the Mongols, both also non-Chinese. Jürchen culture and language are important in Tungusic linguistics and anthropology, but the Jin1 seem to have had little direct and positive effect on high Chinese culture, except for one very important thing: it was they who crushed the Song in north China and forced them to flee south. Some of the terrifying events of those days were documented by the poetess Li Qingzhao in her epilogue to her husband's Records on Bronze and Stone. The Southern Song dynasty, once it was reestablished at Hangzhou, managed to coexist in relative peace with the Jin1, until both were erased by the Mongols.

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