The Southern and Northern Dynasties
Preceded by the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) and followed by the Sui Dynasty (58-618), the Southern and Northern Dynasties lasted from 420 to 589, which was a time of turmoil and war, but it was also a time of prosperity for art, culture, religion and technology in the history of China.
The Southern Dynasties (420-589) refer to the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479), the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502), the Liang Dynasty (502-557) and the Chen Dynasty (557-589); the Northern Dynasties (386-581) include the North Wei (386-557), the East Wei (534-550), the West Wei (535-556), the North Qi (550-577) and the North Zhou (557-581) dynasties. Although there were unceasing social disorders, frequent changes of dynasties and unexpected natural disasters, the Southern Dynasties (420-589) and the Northern Dynasties (386-581) remained in stalemate for over 100 years, and the historians called this period the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589).
The Southern Dynasties (420-589)
China was divided into South China and North China in 304, which confronted each other. Four dynasties stepped onto the historical stage successively in North China — the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479), the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502), the Liang Dynasty (502-557) and the Chen Dynasty (557-589) — which were known as the Southern Dynasties (420-589) in Chinese history. All of the four dynasties had their capitals in Jiangkang (presently Nanjing of Jiangsu Province), except that Emperor Yuan of the Liang Dynasty (502-557) had his capital at Jiangliang (presently Jiangling of Hubei Province) for three years.
The Southern Dynasties (420-589) was a changing period for the nobilities from prosperity to decline. Though the nobilities still enjoyed a very high social status in the Southern Dynasties (420-589), they couldn’t completely control the political situation owing to the increasingly strengthened imperial power. With the areas to the south of the Yangtze River becoming further developed, more and more Han people from the lower class stepped into the bureaucratic ranks and received the pleasure of the emperors during the Southern Dynasties (420-589).
As the longest dynasty among the Southern Dynasties (420-589), the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) was founded by Liu Yu, a general of the Northern Garrison Army of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), who came into power through suppressing Huan Xuan’s rebellion in 404. He didn’t even hesitate to lead two northern expeditions against North China just to gain prestige, during which he seized the territories of Henan, Shandong and Guanzhong (the lower valley of the Wei River).
By killing Emperor An (Sima Dezong) and deposing Emperor Gong (Sima Dewen) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), Liu Yu crowned himself Emperor Wu of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) on July 10th of 420, thus ending the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) and establishing the Southern Dynasties (420-589). Tuoba Gui of the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) unified North China in 440, since the confrontation between North China and South China had begun.
Emperor Wu was very frugal after ascending the throne, but he was not interested in royal education and trusted unworthy men, leading to a great disaster in his court. After realizing the imperial power was threatened by the nobilities, Emperor Wu started to promote humble clan landlords to higher official positions and gave military power to his kinsmen. Owing to his kinsmen often plotting to overthrow him, Emperor Wu was so terrified that he frequently had them killed.
Emperor Wu abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Liu Song (later Emperor Shao), who was deposed and later killed by his men, Xu Xianzhi and Fu Liang, owing to his immoral behavior. The courtiers set up Liu Yilong (another son of Emperor Wu) as Emperor Wen of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479). Emperor Wen later had Xu Xianzhi and Fu Liang killed with the help of General Tan Daoji (a general of the Northern Garrison Army), and during his reign the political situation was rather stable owing to his cleansing of political corruption and advocating frugality; this period was known as the Yuanjia Administration in the history of China.
Emperor Wen had launched several northern expeditions against the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) since 430, ending up with failure each time owing to insufficient preparations and inadequate commands, which had greatly weakened his kingdom. On the contrary, the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) crusaded against the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) and conquered the Yangtze River area in 445, following which the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) remained in a weakened state.
Emperor Wen was murdered by the crown prince, Liu Shao, in 453. The third son of Emperor Wen, Liu Jun, killed Liu Shao, crowning himself as Emperor Xiaowu of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479), but he was very licentious and cruel and even raped his own niece, leading to his kinsmen’s rebellion, and he slaughtered them all in Guangling (presently Yangzhou of Jiangsu Province).
After the death of Emperor Xiaowu, Liu Ziye (later Emperor Qianfei of the Liu Song Dynasty) ascended the throne, ordering his own kinsmen to be killed which eventually resulted in his assassination by Liu Yu. After usurping the throne, Liu Yu crowned himself as Emperor Ming of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) and killed all the descendants of Emperor Xiaowu.
As the son of Emperor Ming, Liu Yu (later Emperor Houfei of the Liu Song Dynasty) ascended the throne and the military power fell into the hands of Xiao Daocheng. By deposing Emperor Houfei and setting up Liu Huai (the third son of Emperor Ming) as a puppet emperor, Xiao Daocheng arrogated all powers to himself.
After crushing his political opponents, Yuan Can and Shen Youzhi, Xiao Daocheng deposed Liu Huai and crowned himself Emperor Gao of the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502), symbolizing the demise of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479).
The Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502) was established by Xiao Daocheng (later Emperor Gao) in 479, who was from the Xiao family of Lanling (presently Cangshan County, Shandong), and he was disdained by the nobilities owing to his previously lower social standing.
Like the founding father of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479), Emperor Gao remained very frugal during his reign. He died after ruling for four years and was succeeded by his eldest son, Xiao Ze (later Emperor Wu of the Southern Qi Dynasty). Xiao Ze made a peace treaty with the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) and maintained security in his territory, and this peaceful period was known as the Yongming Administration in the history of China.
Emperor Wu was succeeded by his grandson, Xiao Zhaoye, who was assisted by Xiao Luan in conducting state affairs. Xiao Luan usurped the throne by killing Xiao Zhaoye and Xiao Zhaowen (brother of Xiao Zhaoye), crowning himself Emperor Ming of the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502), who also used government secretaries to monitor his kinsmen and had all the descendants of Emperors Gao and Wu killed.
Xiao Baojuan became emperor after the death of Emperor Ming, and he was so cruel and tyrannical that he even had his assisting ministers killed, sparking rebellions across his kingdom. Just as the saying goes, "when all birds are shot, the bow will be set aside; when all hares are killed, the hounds will be stewed and eaten”, Xiao Baojuan killed his meritorious general, Xiao Yi, after putting down a rebellion. Xiao Yan, brother of Xiao Yi, rose in revolt against Xiao Baojuan to avenge his brother in 501. After Xiao Yan’s conquering of Jiankang (presently Nanjing of Jiangsu Province), Xiao Baojuan was murdered by his general, Wang Zhenguo. Xiao Yan usurped the throne and crowned himself as Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (502-557) in 502, thus ending the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502).
The Liang Dynasty (502-557) was established by Xiao Yan (Emperor Wu) in 502, and he was economical, diligent in government affairs and cared for the common people, which enabled his military strength to surpass that of the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) during his reign. Unlike the emperors of the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502), Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (502-557) was very lenient to his kinsmen.
As a very learned emperor, Emperor Wu advocated cultural exchanges among scholars, who greatly promoted the cultural prosperity of the Liang Dynasty (502-557), but he lent a willing ear to flattery and praise from treacherous court officials during his later years. He even tried to become a monk in Tongtai Temple three times owing to his obsession with Buddhism, but he was persuaded to return to his kingdom each time by abbots, and he donated a large sum of money to the temple.
During Emperor Wu’s reign, nearly half of the population became monks in respect of the fact that the Buddhists and Taoists were exempt from taxes according to laws, which caused great damage to the Liang Dynasty (502-557).
The Liang Dynasty (502-557) was at war with the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) near the southern part of Huai River and won it in 503, and the former also defeated the latter in the battle of Shouyang in 516. Emperor Wu was willing to accept the surrendered generals from the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) in order to reap where he had not sowed.
As the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) was rent into the West Wei Dynasty (535-556) and the East Wei Dynasty (534-550), Emperor Wu gave shelter to Hou Jing (the rebellious East Wei general) and sent him to crusade against the East Wei Dynasty (534-550). After the Liang army led by Hou Jing was defeated, Emperor Wu was to sacrifice Hou Jing as a peace offering. Hearing the news, Hou Jing rose in revolt against Emperor Wu and conquered Jiankang (presently Nanjing), and Emperor Wu fled to Taicheng.
Hou Jing ordered the slaughter of the nobilities after capturing Jiankang, dealing a crushing blow to the Liang Dynasty (502-557), and it turned out that Emperor Wu was starved to death. Hou Jing made Xiao Gang (the eldest son of Emperor Wu) a puppet emperor and took his place later, and he even established the Han State. Later, Chen Baxian, the governor of Guangzhou, collaborated with Wang Sengbian, a general under the command of Xiao Yi (governor of Jiangling), to crusade against Hou Jing and had him killed.
Xiao Yi succeeded to the throne and crowned himself Emperor Yuan of the Liang Dynasty (502-557). Xiao Cha guided the East Wei army to attack Jiangling and killed Emperor Yuan the following year, and he was made a puppet emperor of the West Liang Dynasty (502-557).
After Emperor Yuan was killed, Chen Baxian and Wang Sengbian set up Xiao Fangzhi (son of Emperor Yuan) as Emperor Jing. The Liang army retreated in defeat again and again during the wars with the North Qi Dynasty (550-577), and Wang Sengbian was forced to depose Emperor Jing and to set up Xiao Yuanming (backed up by the North Qi Dynasty) as emperor, under great pressure from the North Qi Dynasty (550-577). Out of great dissatisfaction with Wang Sengbian’s decision, Chen Baxian led his army to attack Wang Sengbian and had him killed, and he deposed Xiao Yuanming and re-established Xiao Fangzhi as Emperor Jing.
Chen Baxian usurped the throne and established the Chen Dynasty (557-589) in 557, claiming the title of Emperor Wu of the Chen Dynasty (557-589), thus ending the Liang Dynasty (502-557).
The Chen Dynasty (557-589) was established by Chen Baxian in 557, who was from Wu (presently Shanghai). Owing to the Wu and Qiao clans being greatly weakened during the Hou Jing Rebellion, a number of independent regimes emerged in South China after the wars. Chen Baxian (Emperor Wu of the Cheng Dynasty) adopted a pacifying policy to these regimes due to his limited military power.
Chen Qian, the nephew of Emperor Wu, succeeded to the throne and became Emperor Wen after the death of Emperor Wu. As the Liang Dynasty (502-557) fell, Wang Lin established a kingdom in Lianghu (presently Hubei and Hunan Provinces) and, allied with the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) and the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581) to attack Jiankang, ended up with being defeated by the Chen army. Emperor Wen made every effort to make his kingdom prosperous during his reign, greatly improving the economic situation in South China.
After Emperor Wen died, the crown prince Chen Bozong (later Emperor Fei) ascended to the throne, and he was deposed by his own uncle, Chen Wangxu, who claimed himself Emperor Xu of the Chen Dynasty (557-589). The North Wei Dynasty (386-557) intended to invade the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) and invited the Chen Dynasty (557-589) to assist with the attack. Emperor Xuan accepted the offer and sent General Wu Mingche to assist the cause in 573, recovering the lost territory in the southern area of the Huai River two years later.
After the fall of the North Qi Dynasty (550-577), the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) crusaded against the Chen Dynasty and defeated it in 577, leaving it in a precarious situation. All of a sudden, Emperor Wu of the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581) died, which stopped the southern advance of the North Zhou Dynasty’s (557-581) army. The death of Emperor Wu also resulted in internal strife, and Yang Jian took the opportunity and seized the throne, establishing the Sui Dynasty.
After the death of Emperor Xuan, Chen Baoshu ascended the throne as Emperor Houzhu of the Chen Dynasty (557-589), who was very licentious and wasteful during his reign, leading to chaos and corruption in his kingdom. The Sui troops burned the farmlands of the Chen Dynasty (557-589) during the harvest time, which greatly weakened the strength of the Chen Dynasty (557-589).
Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) sent his son, Yang Guang (later Emperor Yang), to launch a war against the Chen Dynasty (557-589) in 588. Chen Shubao continued to live a licentious life with his concubines owing to relying on the natural barrier of the Yangtze River, and the Sui army seized Jiankang and captured Chen Shubao, leading to the fall of the Chen Dynasty (557-589).
The Northern Dynasties (386-581)
Confronting the Southern Dynasties (420-589) in the history of China, the Northern Dynasties (386-581) lasted for 150 years (from 439 to 589), and consisted of the North Wei (386-557), the East Wei (534-550), the West Wei (535-556), the North Qi (550-577) and the North Zhou (557-581) dynasties.
All the Northern Dynasties (386-581) were established by the Xianbei people except for the North Qi Dynasty (this was established by the Sinicized barbarians).
With the state of Dai as its predecessor during the Sixteen Kingdom Period, the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) was established by Tuoba Gui in 386, who became Emperor Daowu later. Emperor Daowu was very cruel and was murdered by his own son, Tuoba Shao. Tuoba Si (Tuoba Gui’s eldest son) ascended the throne as Emperor Mingyuan of the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) in 387. He conquered Henan of the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) and died soon afterwards, and he was succeeded by his son, Tuoba Tao (later Emperor Taiwu). Tuoba Tao made every effort to improve his kingdom, greatly increasing the strength of the North Wei Dynasty (386-557). He ordered attacks on the Liu Song Dynasty repeatedly and also launched a series of wars against the North Liang Dynasty (401-439), Rouran and Shanshan (a state in the West Region), and he even proscribed Buddhism after suppressing the Gai Wu (Buddhist follower) Rebellion. He carried out cruel punishments in his later life, leading to his assassination by the eunuch, Zong Ai, in 452.
After Emperor Taiwu’s death, the Empress Dou held court from behind a screen, and she set up Tuoba Yuanhong as Emperor Xiaowen of the North Wei Dynasty (386-557). Greatly influenced by his mother (Empress Dou, a Han woman), the Emperor Xiaowen thought that the Xianbei people should be Sinicized owing to the advanced Han civilization. He moved the capital from Pingcheng to Luoyang to learn the Han culture, and even ordered Xianbei nobles to move into Luoyang, leaving some (who didn’t want to move) in Pingcheng.
Emperor Xiaowen carried out a series of social reforms aimed at enabling the Xiaobei nobles to conform to the Han cultural standards, including adopting the Han bureaucratic establishments, banning Xianbei costumes and advocating donning the Han costume at court, learning the Han language, encouraging the inter-marriage between Xianbei people and the Han people, and adopting a one-character Chinese surname among the Xianbei people, which greatly improved national reunification in his kingdom.
After the Sinicization movement, the economic and military strength was greatly improved in the North Wei Dynasty (386-557). Emperor Xiaowen also launched a series of wars against the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502), but ended up with failure each time. The nobles who didn’t want to move into Luoyang gradually lost favor in the sight of Emperor Xiaowen, resulting in a split in the North Wei Dynasty (386-557).
Tuoba Yuanxiu succeeded to the throne as Emperor Xiaowu of the North Wei Dynasty in 532, and the North Wei Dynasty was split into the East Wei (534-550) and the West Wei (535-556) dynasties in 534 owing to internal strife among nobles.
Confrontation between the East Wei and the West Wei
The East Wei Dynasty (534-550) was established by Tuoba Shanjian (later Emperor Xiaojing) in 534 with Yecheng (presently Anyang of Henan and Linzhang Counties of Hebei Province) as the capital, and the East Wei Dynasty (534-550) was set up by Tuoba Baoju (later Emperor Wen) in 535 with Chang’an (presently Xi’an of Shaanxi Province) as the capital. As a matter of fact, the power of the East Wei (534-550) and the West Wei (535-556) dynasties were wielded by Gao Huan and Yu Wentai respectively, and a series of wars resulted in a stalemate between the two states.
The East Wei Dynasty (534-550) was dominated by the Sinicized Xianbei people, who highly relied on Xianbei nobility politically. Gao Huan advocated the personnel policy of "only using the talented", so many famous court officials became his friends. Gao Huan ordered General Dou Tai to crusade against the West Wei Dynasty (535-556) in 536, but ended up with being defeated by the East Wei Dynasty’s (534-550) troops, and Dou Tai killed himself out of shame. As the West Wei Dynasty (535-556) was visited by a great drought in 538, Gao Han seized the chance to attack the West Wei Dynasty (535-556), and ended up with failure in the battle of Shayuan. He led 100,000 troops to attack the West Wei Dynasty (535-556) in 546, but he lost the war for the third time, leaving over 70,000 soldiers dead and wounded.
Gao Huan was consumed with great grief in 548, and his son, Gao Cheng, inherited his title. Gao Cheng was assassinated soon afterwards; his brother, Gao Yang, inherited his title and killed Emperor Xiaojing and the royal members in 550. Gao Yang established the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) in 550, claiming himself to be Emperor Wenxuan of the North Qi Dynasty.
Under the assistance of eight generals (Yu Wentai, Yuan Xin, Li Hu, Li Bi, Zhao Gui, Yu Jin, Du Guxin and Houmo Chenchong), the West Wei Dynasty (535-556) effectively resisted a series of attacks from the East Wei Dynasty (534-550). At that time, the economy and culture of the West Wei Dynasty (535-556) was not as prosperous as that of the East Wei Dynasty (534-550), and Yu Wentai ordered Su Chuo to make reforms in order to strengthen the nation. The reforms, such as setting up the Fubing System (a local militia system existing in China between 6th century and 8th century) and advocating militarism, greatly enhanced the military strength of the West Wei Dynasty (535-556), which also had a great influence on the political and military systems of the Sui (581-618) and the Tang dynasties (618-907).
During the Hou Jing Rebellion, Yu Wentai seized the opportunity to attack the Liang Dynasty (502-557) and captured Shu (presently Sichuan Province) and Jiangling (presently Jiangling of Hubei Province). After the death of Yu Wentai, Yu Wenhu (Yu Wentai’s nephew) arrogated all powers of the West Wei Dynasty (535-556) to himself in 556, and deposed Emperor Gong and set up Yu Wenjue (son of Yu Wentai) as Emperor Xiaomin of the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581) in 558, symbolizing the demise of the West Wei Dynasty (535-556).
Confrontation between the North Qi and the North Zhou (557-581)
As the successor of the East Wei Dynasty (534-550), the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) was established by Gao Yang (Emperor Wenxuan) in 550. Emperor Wenxuan defeated the Kumoxi people, the Qidan people, the Rouran people and the Shanhu people (a branch of the Huns) one after another; he even conquered the territorial area to the south of the Hurai River, and great progress was made in agriculture, salt and iron trade, and porcelain trade during his early reign.
Emperor Wenxuan became licentious and cruel during his late reign, even ordering the slaughter of the Han nobilities in favor of the Xianbei nobilities, and the common people rebelled against him owing to his oppression, greatly reducing the strength of the North Qi Dynasty (550-577). Gao Yin ascended the throne as Emperor Fei of the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) after the death of Emperor Wenxuan, and he was assisted by his uncle, Gao Yan.
Gao Yan soon usurped the throne and became Emperor Xiaozhao of the North Qi Dynasty (550-577), during whose reign the national strength was restored gradually, and he died during the 2nd year of his reign and was succeeded by his brother, Gao Zhan (later Emperor Wucheng).
Emperor Wucheng was very unprincipled and licentious; he died of excessive indulgence in sex and he was soon succeeded by his son, Gao Wei. As the old saying goes, "like father, like son”. Gao Wei was also unprincipled and licentious; he even had General Hulu Guang killed out of jealousy, resulting in great chaos in his kingdom, and the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) was conquered by the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581) in 577.
As the successor of the West Wei Dynasty (535-556), the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581) was established by Yu Wenjue (Emperor Xiaomin) in 550, but the political power was wielded by his cousin, Yu Wenhu. Emperor Xiaomin intended to ally with Zhao Gui and Gu Duji to kill Yu Wenhu, but their scheme was soon discovered. Yu Wenhu had Emperor Xiaomin deposed and had Zhao Gui and Gu Duji beheaded after a fierce battle, and he set up Yu Wenyu as Emperor Ming of the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581) and poisoned him in 560. Later, Yu Wenhu set up Yu Wenyong as Emperor Wu of the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581). By adopting a stratagem of concealing his true intentions, Emperor Wu successfully had Yu Wenhu killed after being used as a puppet for 12 years, and he came into real power of the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581).
Emperor Wu had great talent and bold vision, carrying out a series of reforms during his reign, which greatly reinforced the strength of the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581). Emperor Wu even conquered the North Qi Dynasty (550-577) in 577, and he was succeeded by his eldest son, Yu Wenyun (later Emperor Xuan of the North Zhou Dynasty), in 578. Emperor Xuan was very tyrannical and licentious, and even killed Yu Wenxuan (an official with meritorious records) and took away his wife. Emperor Xuan was succeeded by his son, Yu Wenchan (later Emperor Jing of the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581). Emperor Jing was deposed by Yang Jian in 581, thus ending the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581).
A number of outstanding Taoist reformers emerged during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), represented by Kou Qianzhi, Lu Jingxiu and Tao Hongjing, under whose efforts Taoism took a new look. Kou Qianzhi made the highest achievement among the three reformers, and he simplified some Taoist fast rites and recruited royal members and nobilities to take part in Taoism, which greatly alleviated class contradictions in the society and had landmark significance in the development of Taoism.
Buddhism was very popular in the North Wei Dynasty (386-557) during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), which greatly boosted the development of Buddhist statues, murals and grottoes, highlighted by the Thousand Buddha Caves (in Dunhuang of Gansu Province), the Yungang Grottoes (in Datong of Shanxi Province), the Maijishan Grottoes (in Tianshui of Gansu Province) and the Longmen Grottoes (in Luoyang of Henan Province).
Great progress was made in art during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), which was represented by paintings in the Southern Dynasties (420-589) and stone carvings in the Northern Dynasties (386-581).
The theory of painting was established in the Southern Dynasties (420-589). Xie He proposed six methods to appreciating paintings in his works, Hua Pin, of which the rhythmic vitality was considered the highest standard of painting appreciation.
The stone carvings of the Northern Dynasties (386-581) were represented by grottoes, painted sculptures and mausoleum sculptures. The Yungang Grottoes feature Buddhist statues with calm and solemn looks, the painted sculptures of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang are characterized by significant smiles, and the clay sculptures of Yongning Temple (in Luoyang of Henan Province) feature vividness and delicateness.
The imperial mausoleums of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) were decorated with stone pillars, steles and stone beasts, which created a solemn atmosphere on the whole, highlighted by the mausoleums of Emperor Wu and Emperor Jing of the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502).
Experience the Cultures of the Northern and Southern Dynasties with China Highlights
Visit China to explore the ancient grottoes of the Northern and Southern Dynasties like the Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes in Luoyang, Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, and The Maijishan Grottoes in Tianshui, Gansu Province.
I updated this article on October 28, 2013
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- Chinese Dynasties
- Prehistoric Times of China
- The Xia Dynasty
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