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386-581 Northern Wei Dynasty / Xianbei / Seonbi / Hsien-pei

Mongolia History Map - Toba-Wei 386-581 ADThe Northern (Toba) Wei undertook major and controversial centralizing reforms, moved its capital to Loyang 494, and attempted sinification in language, surnaming, rites, dress, and marriage. During the period of political fragmentation from the third to the sixth centuries AD, the Xianbi Empire [“Northern Wei” dynasty] [386-581? / 380-558?] was created by the Toba Wei. The Xianpei nationality united the various ethnic groups in north China and set up the Northern Wei Dynasty in AD 386 with its capital in Datong. Datong remained the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty for 108 years, until in AD 494 Emperor Xiao Wen, pursuing a policy of assimilating all ethnic groups with the Han culture, moved the capital southwards to Luoyang.

The Xianbei leader Tuoba Gui established his own reign as King of the State of Wei in 386. In 398, with much of northern China was under his control, Tuoba Gui set up the capital of the Northern Wei empire of Pingcheng (modern Datong in Shaanxi). After repeated attacks from nomadic groups moving south from Outer Mongolia, in 429 the Northern Wei launched a decade-long military campaign, forcing the nomads to submit and effectively securing their northern border. The Northern Wei dynasty proceeded to effectively rule what would become the longest-lived and most powerful of the northern empires prior to the reunification of northern and southern China under the Sui and Tang dynasties. In 534 the empire was split into two halves, ruled by the Eastern and Western Wei dynasties, which ruled only a few decades until the establishment of the Sui dynasty in 589.

In the "History of the Northern Wei" it is said, that the Kao-chi (these two characters mean "high cart" in Chinese; and the Wei shu explains the name, by the big wheels of their carts) originally dwelt south of the Mongolian desert, and west of the Yellow river; but towards the end of the 4th century AD, they emigrated to the northern verge of the Gobi. In the "History of the Tang dynasty" (618—907), a long article is devoted to the Hui-ho or Uigurs. It is there stated, that at the time of the Northern Wei (386—558), the same people were called Kao-che (it may also be pronounced Kao-ku). During the Sui dynasty (589—618), they were known under the name of Wei-lio.

The Si-fan produced the dynasties of Tcheng in Szetclmen, 301-346 AD; of the Former Tsin, 390-395 AD, Later Tsin, 384-417 AD, both in Shensi. The Tobat Tatars, who produced the great dynasty of the Northern Wei, 386-582 AD, belonged to the same group. They were apparently acquainted with the Syriac writing, at least about 476-500 AD, and they had a court language of their own, in which their ruler Wan-ti at that time (in 486 AD) ordered that a translation of the Hiao king or 'Book of filial piety' should be made. Its use was not abolished before 517 AD.

The Northern Wei dynasty was of Tungus origin. It swayed Southern Mongolia and the northern part of China, and, encroaching upon the dominions of tho Southern Sung and the other Southern Dynasties. The Turkish rulers of the Northern Wei held sway over Northern China from the latter end of the 4th to the middle of the 6th century. These rulers were essentially Turks, and the ruling family called itself Tobar, which is but a form of Turkish toprak (earth). They, in fact, despised any long line of ancestry, and gave out that they were themselves children of the soil.

The Toba-Wei rulers of the north were dazzled by southern culture and refinement, by reports of the splendid palaces and Buddhist temples. The emperors of the Northern Wei Dynasty initially believed in Buddhism, and many ancient buildings, sculptures, drawings, paintings, and other pieces of Buddhist art in Datong date from that time. The Yungang Grottoes are the crowning achievement of this ancient culture.

After the Han dynasty, Confucianism fell into a period of decline. Tsao Tsao, the founder of the Wei dynasty, in 210 AD openly decreed official employment of bad men, and destroyed the moral influence that Confucianism had exerted. During the Wei and the Tsin dynasties 220-316 AD, Taoism was powerful. Confucianism, although remaining nominally the state religion, had lost its supremacy. Nevertheless, the governments, especially those of the Northern Wei, the Northern Chou and the Tang dynasties, did apply some Confucian pr1nciples to political and economic problems, so that the people still enjoyed some of its benefits.

The history of Northern Buddhism in the late fourth and early fifth century is an extremely complicated subject. In the famous decree of 446 AD, emperor Taiwu of the Toba Wei dynasty ordered the execution of all monks and the destruction of all Buddhist buildings and objects. Buddhism is described as a monstrous forgery, which had been concocted from Laozi, Zhuangzi and some "empty talk of Western barbarians."

The Toba-Wei adopted Taoism as a state religion, and most of the Toba emperors underwent ceremonial induction in Taoist holy orders. For centuries Taoists provided religious support to Chinese rulers, but more crucially, to rulers who had not been born Chinese, and were seeking to be accepted as worthy rulers by their Chinese subjects. The Toba were one such regime, but they never achieved their goal of unifying China.

This age saw the spread of a more settled and more agricultural way of life among non-Chinese in the Northeast. In 487, a shortage of food and no green grass on the plains, finally forced the Toba to move south to the ancient Chinese capital of Luoyang. The decisive reason was the need to be within reach of cheap transport for supplies. On this occasion, the harshness and variability of the weather dictated the destinies of history.

Rhinoceroses hung on in the Southwest until the end of the nineteenth century, but are now extinct in China. Climatic change must have been a factor in their long and eventually fatal southward retreat, and the desire of the Court for tribute in the form of horns from particular localities must also have kept up the pressure for hunting.

In 423, the advisers of the ruler of the non-Chinese Northern Wei dynasty, which at that time still ruled mainly over the largely nomadic Toba people, told him that if he was unable to destroy a small state as a source of booty with which to sate his followers, “we should engage in a hunt within a constructed enclosure on the Yin Mountains76 and slaughter a vast number of birds and animals. Their skins, flesh, tendons, and horns may be used to meet the needs of the army.” A few years later, in 431, “several tens of thousands of horsemen” from three of the northern tribes under Toba rule “drove several million deer to this place where the emperor then proceeded to hold a great hunt, whose spoils he presented to his followers. He had a stone engraved south of the desert to record his capacity for achievement.”

Seeing the luxury of the rich with their unlimited extension of land holdings as contrasted with the misery and suffering of the homeless poor, Northern Wei revived the old system of land distribution, with this difference: instead of there being lands to be cultivated in common for the government, taxes in money were substituted. This restoration of the Tsing Tien System was easily accomplished because the population of North China not only had been reduced in the struggle between the Tsins and the invaders, but were again reduced when Northern Wei permitted the faithful subjects of the Tsins to migrate southward and live under their old rulers.

There were innumerable tracts of land deserted and unclaimed which the government could distribute so that instead of having to confiscate the possessions of the rich for the benefit of the poor as in Wang Mang's time, the Northern Wei rulers simply rented to the people lands which had reverted to the government.

The northern empire comes down in history first as Northern Wei, which was later split up into Western and Eastern Wei, which in turn were respectively succeeded by Chi and Chow. The latter absorbed the former, and then by conquering Chen, the representative at that time of the Southern Dynasties, the victorious general of the Northern Chow founded the Sui Dynasty, which, ruling a reunited China, extended the northern policies of agricultural administration throughout the empire.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2012 18:54:09 ZULU