Hsien Pei

Northern Wei

The Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏, pinyin: běi wèi, 386-534), also known as the Tuoba Wei (拓拔魏), Later Wei (後魏), or Yuan Wei (元魏), is most noted for the unification of northern China in 439, it was also heavily involved in funding the arts and many antiques and art works from this period have survived. In 494 AD the dynasty moved its capital from Datong to Luoyang and started the construction of the artificial Longmen Caves. More than 30,000 Buddhist images from the time of this dynasty have been found in the caves. It is thought the dynasty originated from the Tuoba clan of the non-Han Xianbei tribe. The Tuobas renamed themselves the Yuans as a part of systematic Sinicization. Towards the end of the dynasty there was significant internal dissidence resulting in a split into Eastern Wei Dynasty and Western Wei Dynasty.

Rise of the Tuoba

The Jin Dynasty had developed an alliance with the Tuoba against the Xiongnu state Han Zhao. In 315 the Tuoba chief was granted the title of the Prince of Dai. After the death of its founding prince, Tuoba Yilu, however, the Dai state stagnated and largely remained a partial ally and a partial tributary state to Later Zhao and Former Yan, finally falling to Former Qin in 376.

After Former Qin's emperor Fu Jiān was defeated by Jin forces at the Battle of Fei River in his failed bid to unify China, the Former Qin state began to break apart. By 386, Tuoba Gui, the son (or grandson) of Tuoba Shiyijian (the last Prince of Dai), reasserted Touba independence initially as the Prince of Dai. Later he changed his title to the Prince of Wei, and his state was therefore known as Northern Wei. In 391, Touba Gui defeated the Rouran tribes and killed their chief, Heduohan, forcing the Rouran to flee west.

Initially Northern Wei was a vassal of Later Yan, but by 395 had rebelled and by 398 had conquered most of Later Yan territory north of the Yellow River. In 399 Touba Gui he declared himself Emperor Daowu, and that title was used by Northern Wei's rulers for the rest of the state's history. That same year he defeated the Gaoche tribes near the Gobi desert


Early in Northern Wei history, the state inherited a number of traditions from its initial history as a Xianbei tribe, and some of the more unusual ones, from a traditional Chinese standpoint:

  • The officials did not receive salaries, but were expected to requisition the necessities of their lives directly from the people they governed. As the empire's history progressed, this appeared to be a major contributing factor leading to corruption among officials. Not until the second century of the empire's existence did the state begin to distribute salaries to its officials.
  • Empresses were not named according to imperial favors or nobility of birth, but required that the candidates submit themselves to a ceremony where they had to personally forge golden statues, as a way of discerning divine favor. Only an imperial consort who was successful in forging a golden statue could become the empress.
  • All men, regardless of ethnicity, were ordered to tie their hair into a single braid that would then be rolled and placed on top of the head, and then have a cap worn over the head.
  • When a crown prince is named, his mother, if still alive, must be forced to commit suicide. (Some historians do not believe this to be a Tuoba traditional custom, but believed it to be a tradition instititued by the founding emperor Emperor Daowu based on Emperor Wu of Han's execution of his favorite concubine Consort Zhao, the mother of his youngest son Liu Fuling (the eventual Emperor Zhao), before naming Prince Fuling crown prince.)
  • As a result, because emperors would not have mothers, they often honored their wet nurses with the honorific title, "Nurse Empress Dowager" (保太后, bǎo tài hòu).

As sinicization of the Northern Wei state progressed, these customs and traditions were gradually abandoned.

Organization of the Peasants

  • Five families formed a neighborhood (lin)
  • Five lin formed a village (li)
  • Five li formed a commune (tang)

At each of these levels, leaders that were associated with the central government were appointed. In order for the state to reclaim dry, barren areas of land, the state further developed this system by dividing up the land according to the number of men of an age to cultivate it. The Sui and Tang Dynasties later resurrected this system in the 7th century.


During the reign of Emperor Daowu (386-409), the total number of deported people from the regions east of Taihangshan (the former Later Yan territory) to Datong was estimated to be around 460,000. Deportations typically took place once a new piece of territory had been conquered.

Northern Wei Dynasty Deportations
Year People Number Destination
398 Hsien-pei of Hopei and Northern Shantung 100,000 Datong
399 Great Chinese families 2,000 families Datong
399 Chinese peasants from Honan 100,000 Shanxi
418 Hsien-pei of Hopei ? Datong
427 Pop. of the Kingdom of Hsia 10,000 Shanxi
432 Pop. of Liaoning 30,000 families Hopei
435 Pop. of Shensi and Kansu ? Datong
445 Chinese peasants from Honan and Shantung ? North of Yellow River
449 Craftsmen from Changan 2,000 families Datong


As the Northern Wei state grew, the emperors' desire for Han Chinese institutions and advisors grew. Cui Hao (381-450), an advisor at the courts in Datong played a great part in this process. He introduced Han Chinese administrative methods and penal codes in the Northern Wei state, as well as creating a Taoist theocracy that lasted until 450. The attraction of Han Chinese products, the royal courts taste for luxury, the prestige of Chinese culture at the time, and Taoism were all factors in the influence the Chinese in the Northern Wei state. Chinese influence accelerated during the capital's move to Luoyang in 494 and Emperor Xiaowen continued this by establishing a policy of systematic sinicization that was continued by his successors. Xianbei traditions were largely abandoned. The royal family took the sinicization a step further by changing their family name to Yuan. Marriages to Chinese families were encouraged. With this, Buddhist temples started appearing everywhere, displacing Taoism as the state religion. The temples were often created to appear extremely lavish and extravagant on the outside of the temples.

Breakup and Division

The heavy Chinese influence that had came into the Northern Wei state which went on throughout the 5th century had mainly affected the courts and the upper ranks of the Tuoba aristocracy. Armies that guarded the Northern frontiers of the empire and the Xianbei people who were less sinicized began showing feelings of hostility towards the aristocratic court and the upper ranks of civil society. Early in Northern Wei history, defense on the northern border against Rouran was heavily emphasized, and military duty on the northern border was considered honored service that was given high recognition. After all, throughout the founding and the early stages of the Northern Wei, it was the strength of the sword and bow that carved out the empire and kept it. But once Emperor Xiaowen's sinicization campaign began in earnest, military service, particularly on the northern border, was no longer considered an honorable status, and traditional Xianbei warrior families on the northern border were disrespected and disallowed many of their previous privileges, these warrior families who had originally being held as the upper-class now find themselves considered a lower-class on the social hierarchy.

In 523, rebellions broke out on six major garrison-towns on the northern border and spread like wildfire throughout the north. These rebellions lasted for a decade. Exacerbating the situation, Empress Dowager Hu poisoned her own son Emperor Xiaoming in 528 after Emperor Xiaoming showed disapproval of her handling of the affairs as he started coming of age and got ready to reclaim the power that had been held by the empress in his name - due to the emperor being an infant at the time he ascended to the throne, so the Empress Dowager had the actual rule of the country for more than a decade. Soon after, the general Erzhu Rong moved south and sacked Luoyang, who originally had already mobilised on secret orders of the emperor to support him in the struggle in retaking the ruleship from the Empress Dowager Hu, but he was stopped by the emperor's orders again before he could move towards the capital, and as he waited for the emperor's call, the Empress got to the emperor first and poisoned him dead. On Erzhu Rong's orders, the Empress Hu and the new child emperor Yuan Zhao(another puppet child selected by the empress only shortly before) was thrown into the Yellow River and drowned and 2,000 courtiers were gathered on the banks and killed, as it was an effective cry that it was the many embellishments of the Empress Dowager and her crime of poisoning the rightful emperor, her own flesh and blood, that must be punished.

The Two Generals

Erzhu dominated the imperial court thereafter, the emperor was virtually in power in name only and most decisions actually went through the Erzhu, although he did put out most of the rebellions, largely reunifying the Northern Wei state. However, Emperor Xiaozhuang, not wishing to remain a puppet emperor and highly wary of the Erzhu clan's widespread power and questionable loyalty and intentions towards the throne (after all, this man had ordered a massacre of the court and put to death a previous emperor and empress before), killed Erzhu in 530 in an ambush at the palace, which lead to a resumption of civil war, initially between Erzhu's clan and Emperor Xiaozhuang, and then, after their victory over Emperor Xiaozhuang in 531, between the Erzhu clan and those who resisted their rule. In the aftermaths of these wars, the generals Gao Huan(originally a member of the rebel soldiers from the northern frontier who surrendered to Erzhu, then became one of Erzhu clan's top lieutenants; after the Erzhu clan's open war with the emperor, he immediately gathered his own men and turned against his former leader) and Yuwen Tai established themselves in the eastern and western parts of the state, respectively, and they declared for rival claimants on the Northern Wei throne, leading to the state's division in 534-535 into Eastern Wei and Western Wei.


Neither Eastern Wei nor Western Wei was long-lived. In 534, Gao Huan's son Gao Yang forced Emperor Xiaojing of Eastern Wei to yield the throne to him, ending Eastern Wei and establishing Northern Qi. Similarly, in 536, Yuwen Tai's nephew Yuwen Hu forced Emperor Gong of Western Wei to yield the throne to Yuwen Tai's son Yuwen Jue, ending Western Wei and establishing Northern Zhou, finally extinguishing Northern Wei's imperial rule.

Sovereigns of the Northern Wei Dynasty

Posthumous Names (Shi Hao 諡號) Born Names Period of Reigns Era Names (Nian Hao 年號) and their according range of years
Northern Wei Dynasty 386-535
Convention: Northern Wei + posthumous name
The imperial Tuoba family changed their family name to 元 (yuán) during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen in 496 so their names in this table will also thus be "Yuan" subsequently.
Dao Wu Di (道武帝 daò wǔ dì) Tuoba Gui (拓拔珪 tuò bá guī) 386-409 Dengguo (登國 dēng guó) 386-396
Huangshi (皇始 huáng shǐ) 396-398
Tianxing (天興 tiān xīng) 398-404
Tianci (天賜 tiān cì) 404-409
Ming Yuan Di (明元帝 míng yuán dì) Tuoba Si (拓拔嗣 tuò bá sì) 409-423 Yongxing (永興 yǒng xīng) 409-413
Shenrui (神瑞 shén ruì) 414-416
Taichang (泰常 tài cháng) 416-423
Tai Wu Di (太武帝 tài wǔ dì) Tuoba Tao (拓拔燾 tuò bá táo) 424-452 Shiguang (始光 shǐ guāng) 424-428
Shenjia (神䴥 shén jiā) 428-431
Yanhe (延和 yán hé) 432-434
Taiyan (太延 tài yán) 435-440
Taipingzhenjun (太平真君 tài píng zhēn jūn) 440-451
Zhengping (正平 zhèng píng) 451-452
Nan An Wang (南安王 nán ān wáng) Tuoba Yu (拓拔余 tuò bá yú) 452 Chengping (承平 chéng píng) 452
Wen Cheng Di (文成帝 wén chéng dì) Tuoba Jun (拓拔濬 tuò bá jùn) 452-465 Xingan (興安 xīng ān) 452-454
Xingguang (興光 xīng guāng) 454-455
Tai'an (太安 tài ān) 455-459
Heping (和平 hé píng) 460-465
Xian Wen Di (獻文帝 xiàn wén dì) Tuoba Hong (拓拔弘 tuò bá hóng) 466-471 Tian'an (天安 tiān ān) 466-467
Huangxing (皇興 huáng xīng) 467-471
Xiao Wen Di (孝文帝 xiào wén dì) Yuan Hong (元宏 yuán hóng) 471-499 Yanxing (延興 yán xīng) 471-476
Chengming (承明 chéng míng) 476
Taihe (太和 tìi hé) 477-499
Xuan Wu Di (宣武帝 xuān wǔ dì) Yuan Ke (元恪 yuán kè) 499-515 Jingming (景明 jǐng míng) 500-503
Zhengshi (正始 zhèng shǐ) 504-508
Yongping (永平 yǒng píng) 508-512
Yanchang (延昌 yán chāng) 512-515
Xiao Ming Di (孝明帝 xiào míng dì) Yuan Xu (元詡 yuán xǔ) 516-528 Xiping (熙平 xī píng) 516-518
Shengui (神龜 shén guī) 518-520
Zhengguang (正光 zhèng guāng) 520-525
Xiaochang (孝昌 xiào chāng) 525-527
Wutai (武泰 wǔ tài) 528
Youzhu (幼主 yòu zhǔ) Yuan Zhao (元釗 yuán xhāo) 528 None
Xiao Zhuang Di (孝莊帝 xiào zhuāng dì) Yuan Ziyou (元子攸 yuán zǐ yōu) 528-530 Jianyi (建義 jiàn yì) 528
Yongan (永安 yǒng ān) 528-530
Chang Guang Wang (長廣王 cháng guǎng wáng) Yuan Ye (元曄 yuán yè) 530-531 Jianming (建明 jiàn míng) 530-531
Jie Min Di (節閔帝 jié mǐn dì) Yuan Gong (元恭 yuán gōng) 531-532 Putai (普泰 pǔ tài) 531-532
An Ding Wang (安定王 ān dìng wáng) Yuan Lang (元朗 yuán lǎng) 531-532 Zhongxing (中興 zhōng xīng) 531-532
Xiao Wu Di (孝武帝 xiào wǔ dì) or
Chu Di (出帝 chū dì)
Yuan Xiu (元脩 yuán xiū) 532-535 Taichang (太昌 tài chāng) 532
Yongxing (永興 yǒng xīng) 532
Yongxi (永熙 yǒng3 xī) 532-535

See also

Notes, References & Sources

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