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Chinese History - Political history of the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534)

The conquest of northern China
The sinification of the Tuoba rulers
Ruling empresses and chieftains: the end of Northern Wei



After the dissolution of the Northern and Southern Xiongnu 匈奴 federations in the north and northwest of China, the vacuum left over by them was filled by new steppe peoples that are commonly believed to be early speakers of Turkish or Mongolian. Among these peoples the most important were the Gaoche 高車, the Rouran 柔然, and the Xianbei 鮮卑. One tribal group of the Xianbei became very important in the mid-fourth century CE, namely the Taγbač (Chinese rendering Tuoba 拓跋, in the West known as Tabgach). The Tuoba leader Yilu 猗盧 founded the kingdom of Dai 代 (315-376). His most important successor was Shiyijian 什翼犍 (r. 338-376) who even adopted a Chinese-style reign motto called Jianguo 建國 "Foundation of the empire". In 376 his small realm was conquered by the Former Qin 前秦 (351-394) whose troops conquered the whole of northern China. With the support of the Later Yan 後燕 (384-409) ruler Murong Chui 慕容垂 (r. 384-395), the Tuoba chieftain Gui (calle Tuoba Gui 拓跋珪) was able to refound the Dai empire in 386. From his capital at Shengle 盛樂 (near modern Helingeer 和林格爾, Inner Mongolia) he could step by step conquer the north of China, divided the Later Yan realm into two parts, and subdued the Xia 夏 (407-431), the Later Qin 後秦 (384-417) and the many Liang 涼 and Yan 燕 empires. He made even territorial advances against the southern empire of Liu-Song 劉宋 (420-479) that was severely shaken by succession struggles.
In 398, Tuoba Gui (posthumous title Emperor Daowu 北魏道武帝, r. 376/386-408) made himself emperor and renamed his state Wei 魏. Historians later called this dynasty the Northern Wei, in order to distinguish it from the Cao-Wei 曹魏 (220-265), one of the Three Kingdoms 三國 (220-280). The capital was shifted from Shengle to Pingcheng 平城 (modern Datong 大同,Shanxi), but in fact, Tuoba Gui made still use of the mobile imperial secretariat (xing shangshutai 行尚書臺, short xingtai 行臺). Following the rapacious style of politics of his forerunners in the Sixteen States 十六國 (300~430), Emperor Daowu resettled peasants and artisans to the new capital as laborforces. For the next few decades, the only real challenger of the Tuoba imperium in the reunified north were the nomad tribes of the Rouran that the Tuoba dispisedly called Ruanruan 蠕蠕 "worms", and the city state of Shanshan 鄯善. In 429 the Rouran could finally be pacified.
Although the Tuoba had united the north of China under their rule and began to make use of Chinese officials in their central and local administrations, the Tuoba regime and society still preserved many aspects of the old nomad tradition of the Xianbei people. The court often moved around instead of residing in the capital, and twice a year, the old pastures at Nanlu 南麓 near the Yinshan Range 陰山 were visited to bring offerings at the tombs of the dynastic ancestors. Agriculture was still seen as an economical field not worth enough for the Tuoba people. Another, rather cruel tradition of the Tuoba rulers was to kill the mother of a new ruler to prevent her family from achieving powerful positions in the central government.
Emperor Daowu and his successor Tuoba Si 拓跋嗣 (posthumous title Emperor Mingyuan 北魏明元帝, r. 409-423) were still no autocratic rulers. Investing their strength and courage into the conquest wars, the Tuoba aristocracy and their tribes (buluo 部落) had not only become rich and wealthy, but had also been rewarded with influential posts in the governmental structure. Powerful families were installed in eight princedoms (baguo 八國) around the capital, or in the six military districs (liuzhen 六鎮) at the northern frontier, and they were given the title of "seniors of the four regions and the submissive barbarians" (sifang fanfu daren 四方蕃附大人) or "seniors hosts of the dependant tribes" (binguo zhubu daren 賓國諸部大人).


These members of the mighty Tuoba aristocracy had great influence on the political decisions of the emperor although they were no part of the Chinese-style administration that had been superficially imposed on the Northern Wei empire. In 405 Emperor Daowu gave up the Chinese state sacrifices to Heaven and Earth and reintroduced the old Xianbei-style sacrifices, and he also followed the old tradition of killing the emperor's mother to impede the empress dowager's family to interfere into the court politics. His successor Emperor Mingyuan again followed the advise of his Chinese consultant Cui Hao 崔浩 to install his own son as supervising regent (jianguo 監國), and six advisoring ministers (fuzuo dachen 輔佐大臣) that were to defend the imperial power against the mighty Tuoba families. Tuoba Tao 拓跋燾 (posthumous title Emperor Taiwu 北魏太武帝, r. 423-451) finally gave up the system of the "six senior ministes" (liubu darenguan 六部大人官) and definitely arranged his administration in a bureaucratic and Chinese style with a territorial administration in regions, commanderies, and districts (zhou 州, jun 郡, xian 縣). He also founded a National University (taixue 太學) for the Confucian education of a scholarly and official elite, a state secretariate, and the regulation and standardization of the penal (falü 法律) and the administrative law (lüling 律令). While the great part of the Tuoba aristocracy were adherents of Buddhism as a "barbarian", non-Chinese religion, Tuoba Tao saw himself as an incarnation of a Daoist deity called Taiping Zhenjun 太平真君 "Perfect Lord of the Great Peace". Tuoba Tao's successor Tuoba Jun 拓跋濬 (posthumuos title Emperor Wencheng 北魏文成帝, r. 452-465) enforced this tendency in order to strengthen the central government by the support of the Daoist and Buddhist clergy.
Tuoba Hong 拓跋弘 (posthumous title Emperor Xianwen 北魏獻文帝, r. 465-470) came under the influence of Empress Dowager Feng 馮太后 (posthumous name Empress Dowager Wenming 文明太后) who took over regency and killed him in 476. His young son Tuoba Hong 拓跋宏 (later known as Yuan Hong 元宏, posthumous title Emepror Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝, r. 471-499) was controlled by the Empress Dowager's favourites Zhang You 張祐, Wang Rui 王睿 and Zhao Mo 趙墨. Yet among the courtiers there were also many Confucian officials like Gao Lü 高閭, Gao Yun 高允 or Li Chong 李沖 who supported the reform politics of Empress Dowager Feng and Emperor Xiaowen. The latter can be called the first Confucian-educated ruler of the "barbarian" Northern Wei dynasty. Many old customs of the Xianbei people like the annual pilgrimage to the tombs of the ancestors near Yunzhong 雲中 (modern Baotou 包頭, Inner Mongolia) or the assassination of an empress dowager were given up. But the most important reform of Emperor Xiaowen was the census and the land reform by the introduction of the equal-field system (juntianfa 均田法), measures that did not only contribute to higher tax revenues, but also to the amelioration of living standard of the peasant people and the improvement of the economy in total. The Northern Wei state had under his rule become a proper Chinese state. The Tuoba aristocracy was forced to adopt Chinese-style family names. Tuoba Hong himself chose the name Yuan 元. Xianbei costumes and even the use of the native language were prohibited. The capital was again shifted from Datong 大同, Shanxi to the traditional city Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan), which was located in the middle of the Yellow River plain, the cultural cradle of China. While the imperial family in fact had the control over the center of the empire, the Tuoba aristocracy had lost their main power base.

Ruling empresses and chieftains - the end of Northern Wei

After the dead of Emperor Xiaowen, the young prince Yuan Ke 元恪 (posthumous title Emperor Xuanwu 魏宣武帝r. 499-515) came to the throne. He was dethroned by Gao Zhao 高肇 and Yuan Yu 元愉 in 515, two ministers who enthroned his son Yuan Xu 元詡 (posthumous title Emperor Xiaoming 北魏孝明帝, 515-528). Emperor Xiaoming stood under the influence of Yuan Yong 元雍, Yuan Cha 元叉, and Empress Dowager Hu 胡太后. In 525, the Empress Dowager took over the regency for her son, but killed and replaced him by Yuan Zhao 元釗.
Already in 519, leading Tuoba aristocrats had united their military forces and in 523 revolted from their garrisons in an uprising called the "Rebellion of the Six Garrisons" (liuzhen qiyi 六鎮起義). Several of the rebels and their followers, like Yu Lin 羽林, Hu Bi 虎賁, Moxi Dati 莫析大提 (Mozhe Taiti 莫折太提), Moxi Niansheng 莫析念生 or Moqi Chounu 萬俟醜奴 (a special pronunciation), proclaimed themselves kings or even emperors. At that moment the dynasty that ruled over southern China in the Liang empire 梁 (502-557), saw her chance to reconquer some territory "occupied" by the Northern Wei. The Tuoba noble Erzhu Rong 爾朱榮 finally was able to take over control of the capital and the court, drowned the Empress Dowager, and made Yuan Ziyou 元子攸 (Emperor Xiaozhuang 北魏孝莊帝, r. 528-529) the new emperor. Although Yuan Ziyou was able to kill Erzhu Rong, his son Erzhu Zhao 爾朱兆 took revenge and made Yuan Gong 元恭 emperor (Emperor Jiemin 北魏節閔帝, r. 351). Erzhu Rong's general Gao Huan 高歡 founded his own power base in the eastern part of the Yellow River plain and killed Emperor Jiemin, replacing him with Yuan Xiu 元修 (Emperor Xiaowu 北魏孝武帝, r. 532-534). But Yuan Xiu was unwilling to be controlled by Gao Huan and took escape to the mighty Xiongnu general Yuwen Tai 宇文泰 who resided in Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). Gao Huan installed another puppet emperor and shifted the capital to Yecheng 鄴城 (near modern Runan 汝南, Henan). Yuwen Tai thereupon founded the independent Western Wei empire 西魏 (535-556) whose rulers were descendants of the Tuoba house, but were controlled by Gao Huan. From 534 on, the Northern Wei empire was divided into two parts, the Western Wei and the Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550), both ruled by descendants of the Tuoba.


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May 17, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail