There are two main divisions in the history of the dynasty. The Western Jin (265–316) was established as a successor state to Cao Wei after Sima Yan usurped the throne, and had its capital at Luoyang or Chang’an (modern Xi’an; Western Jin reunited China in 280, but fairly shortly thereafter fell into a succession crisis, civil war, and invasion by the “Five Barbarians.” The rebels and invaders began to establish new self-proclaimed states in the Yellow River valley in 304, inaugurating the “Sixteen Kingdoms” era. These states immediately began fighting each other and the Jin Empire, leading to the second division of the dynasty, the Eastern Jin (317–420) when Sima Rui moved the capital to Jiankang (modern Nanjing). The Eastern Jin dynasty was eventually overthrown by the Liu Song.
Under the Wei, who dominated China’s Three Kingdoms period, the Sima clan rose to prominence, particularly after the 249 coup d’état at the Gaoping Tombs. Sima Zhao assisted the throne in suppressing other rebellions, recovering Shu and capturing Liu Shan in 263 and opposing Zhong Hui’s rebellion the next year. His ambitions for the throne remain proverbial in Chinese but he died before he could rise higher than prince of Jin, a title named for the Zhou-era marchland and duchy around Shaanxi’s Jin River. (He was granted the title as his ancestral home was located in Wen County within Jin’s former lands.)
The Jin dynasty was severely weakened by interceine fighting among imperial princes and lost control of northern China after non-Han Chinese settlers rebelled and captured Luoyang and Chang’an. In 317, a Jin prince in modern-day Nanjing became emperor and continued the dynasty, now known as the Eastern Jin, which held southern China for another century. Prior to this move, historians refer to the Jin dynasty as the Western Jin.
Northern China fragmented into a series of independent kingdoms, most of which were founded by Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di and Qiang rulers. These non-Han peoples were ancestors of the Turks, Mongols, and Tibetans. Many had, to some extent, been “sinicized” long before their ascent to power. In fact, some of them, notably the Qiang and the Xiongnu, had already been allowed to live in the frontier regions within the Great Wall since late Han times. During the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms, warfare ravaged the north and prompted large-scale Han Chinese migration south to the Yangtze Basin and Delta.
The Jin dynasty is well known for the quality of its greenish celadon porcelain wares, which immediately followed the development of proto-celadon. Jar designs often incorporated animal, as well as Buddhist, figures.