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Chinese History - The Sixteen Barbarian States 五胡十六國 (300~430)

The Sixteen Barbarian States Wuhu shiliuguo 五胡十六國 (300~430) were one and a half dozen of polities mostly founded by Non-Chinese tribal leaders that ruled over northern China for about 150 years in the early phase of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600). Contrary to the name, some of the states were founded by Chinese, and the number of sixteen does not include all state foundations during that period of time (like Western Yan 西燕, Dai 代 or Qiuchi 仇池). The Sixteen States were not considered as righteous dynasties by Chinese historians.
The Sixteen States were:

Arranged by name, colours indicating ethnicity (Di 氐 D, Jie 羯 J, Qiang 羌 Q, Xianbei 鮮卑 Xb, Xiongnu 匈奴 Xn, Chinese no colour):
Cheng-Han 成漢 (304-347 D)
Former Zhao 前趙 (304-329 Xn) , Later Zhao 後趙 (319-350 J)
Former Yan 前燕 (337-370 Xb) , Later Yan 後燕 (384-409 Xb) , Northern Yan 北燕 (409-436) , Southern Yan 南燕 (398-410 Xb)
Former Liang 前涼 (314-376) , Later Liang 後涼 (386-403 D) , Northern Liang 北涼 (398-439 Xn) , Southern Liang 南涼 (397-414 Xb) , Western Liang 西涼 (400-421)
Former Qin 前秦 (351-395 D) , Later Qin 後秦 (384-417 Q) , Western Qin 西秦 (385-431 Xb)
Xia 夏 (407-432 Xn)

Arranged by geographical distribution and time:
前趙 Former Zhao 前涼 Former Liang
後趙 Later Zhao [代 Dai]
前燕 Former Yan 前秦 Former Qin
Western Yan]
Later Yan
後秦 Later Qin 後涼 Later Liang [仇池 Qiuchi]
Southern Yan
Northern Yan
Western Qin

Southern Liang
Western Liang
Northern Liang

Political History

During the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Western Jin 西晉 (265-316) dynasties the imperial court had moved a lot of Non-Chinese peoples into the reach of the metropolitan region in order to better control the nomad tribes, as well as to recruit soldiers for their constant campaigns. The result of this politics was that at the end of the 3rd century, virtually all provinces in northern China were characterised by a mixed population of Chinese and Non-Chinese. Except the Xianbei population in the northwest and the Di and Qiang in the west, all other natives had been settled down on Chinese territory by force. There was therefore a large potential for rebellion and social conflicts in the regions where foreign tribes lived together with Chinese. The traditional tribal structures had been destroyed, and the original life of pastoral nomadism had to be given up. Even those of the "barbarians" that had already settled down before their forced migration to inner China had lost their homelands and were made slaves of Chinese large landowners.
Under the reign of Emperor Hui 晉惠帝 (r. 290-306), the central government of the Jin empire suffered from power struggles among the imperial family that culminated in the rebellion of the Eight Princes (bawang zhi luan 八王之亂). The shaken foundations of the Jin empire incited two tribesleaders to declare their independency in 304: Li Xiong 李雄, chieftain of the Cong 賨 in the region of modern Sichuan, and Liu Yuan 劉淵, a Xiongnu chieftain. This was the beginning of 136 years of turbulence in northern China, where one state after the other rose and declined. The north was only reunited in 439 when the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) annihilated the empire of Northern Liang 北涼 (398-439) in the far west. Except four states (Western Liang 西涼, Northern Yan 北燕, Former Liang 前涼 and the Wei-Ran state 魏冉), all other empires, kingdoms and polities in the north were founded by Non-Chinese persons. They came from the "five barbarian" peoples (wuhu 五胡) of the Xianbei 鮮卑, Jie 羯, Qiang 羌, Di 氐 and Xiongnu 匈奴 (including the Lushui 盧水 and Tiefu 鐵弗 tribes).
Most historians divide the this period of time into two parts, the battle of Feishui 肥水 taking as a division line. In the first half of this period, the Cheng-Han dynasty 成漢 (304-347) ruled over modern Sichuan, the Former Zhao 前趙 or Northern Han 北漢 (304-329) and the Later Zhao 後趙 (319-350) over Shaanxi, the Former Yan 前燕 (337-370) over Hebei, the Former Liang 前涼 (314-376) over Gansu, and the Former Qin 前秦 (351-395) over Shaanxi. The Former Qin was able to almost reunite northern China but was defeated by imperial Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420) troops in the battle of Feishui in 383. The Former Qin destroyed also the kingdom of Dai 代 (315-376) and the state of Ran-Wei 冉魏 (350-352). After the downfall of the Former Qin, ever more states mushroomed in the north. Later Qin 後秦 (384-417) and Western Qin 西秦 (385-431) controlled Shaanxi, Later Yan 後燕 (384-409), Southern Yan 南燕 (398-410) and Northern Yan 北燕 (409-436) ruled over Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong, Later Liang 後涼 (386-403), Northern Liang 北涼 (398-439), Southern Liang 南涼 (397-414) and Western Liang 西涼 (400-421) dominated Gansu and the far west, and Xia 夏 (407-432) controlled northern Shaanxi. The state of Western Yan 西燕 (384-394) is not counted among the Sixteen States, likewise not the five states of Qiuchi 仇池 (296~473) and the polities of the Qiang tribes in Dangchang 宕昌 (approx. modern Lintan 臨潭, Minxian 岷縣, Tianshui 天水 and Wudu 武都, Gansu) and Dengzhi 鄧至 (in the upper course of River Min 岷江, Qinghai) that survived into the 6th century.


Permanent warfare and the need of the various governments to use the narrow tax revenues for the building-up of an administrative structure and to finance the military campaigns led to a very unstable economic situation in most parts of northern China during that era. Landless peasants offered themselves as servants to the landowners in their large fortified manours (wubi 塢壁) or flocked to the military garrisons that offered employment. Both employment situations freed the peasants from being taxed but lowered the tax income of the state. In order to ensure a stable supply for the capitals, the rulers of the various states captured people in conquered regions and forcibly settled them down in their capital regions. When the dynasty broke down, a lot of these war captives returned to their native places or were forced into slavery by the next dynastic founder. Life was therefore extremely instable, and both the population as well as the states founded in these centuries were caught in a permanent status of improvisation. Yet there were also exceptions. The state of Cheng-Han, for instance, enjoyed decades of peace and so made possible a certain economical prosperity. The same is valid for the Former Liang in the far west and the Former Yan empire in the northeast. The population in northern China during the 4th century decreased in comparison to the centuries before. It was especially the inhabitants of the area south of the Yellow River that sought refuge in southern China, where the Jin dynasties continued to rule as Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420). People of the ancient capital region around Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an, Shaanxi) fled to Sichuan and to the middle Yangtse region, others emigrated to the west. In the northeast, a lot of people moved eastwards into the region of the River Liao 遼河. All these movements of population depopulated northern China, but on the other side contributed to the economical prosperity of southern China and Sichuan and to the relatively good situation in the west.
In order to enhance the agricultural productivity, the ruler of Former Yan opened areas for cultivation that had formerly been reserved for the hunting sports of the elites. The rulers of the Former Liang cared for an open trade along the Silk Road and the market towns in the west. Military campaigns were, of course, also interrupted by short periods of peace. Most rulers in the Yellow River plain tried to promote the agricultural production during such times and to help the economy recovering. Shi Le 石勒 (r. 319-333), the notorious warlord of the Later Zhao, for instance, lowered the amount of taxes in kind (grain and textiles) to be delivered and encouraged the peasants to cultivate mulberry trees for the production of silk. His successor Shi Hu 石虎 (r. 334-349) did not only request that a large amount of grain be shipped to the capital each year, but also took care for the erection of granaries along the waterways. Similar measures were taken by Fu Jian 苻堅 (r. 356-384), ruler of the Former Qin, during the first half of his reign. He had a Chinese advisor called Wang Meng 王猛 who suggested using the traditional Chinese methods of economic politics rather than supporting the nobility of the "barbarians". Under Fu Jian's reign Chang'an regained some of its former economic strength as a place where merchants gathered from throughout the country and men of the trades produced their crafts. Yao Xing 姚興 (r. 393-415) of the Later Qin saw to it that peasants did not sell themselves as slaves because of famine and drought, and proclaimed a liberation of all slaves. Yet curruption and harsh punishments ruined his good intentions. The rulers of Western Liang, Southern Liang and Nortern Yan likewise supported a opening of fields and cut taxes.

The Population

The mixed ethnicity of the population in northern China caused different models of living and societies. Some Di communities in the provinces of Qinzhou 秦州 and Yongzhou 雍州 (modern Shaanxi), and the Xiongnu in the province of Bingzhou 並州 (modern Shanxi) still retained tribal characteristics. Slavery was very common among many tribal societies, and slaves were a traditional part of the households of the "barbarians". The turbulent politics and the many migrations contributed to a levelling of the differnt parts of society in northern China, so that at the end of the Sixteen States period, the differences between Chinese and Non-Chinese were smaller than at the beginning of this era. In the mid-5th century the Xiongnu, Di, Jie and the Western Xianbei had merged with the Chinese, and their peoples had disappeared.
Peasants and inhabitants of town were normally listed in household registers (huji 戶籍) that served as the base for taxation. With the increasingly precarious situation after many decades of war a lot of peasants gave up their own land and became subject to large landowners and transformed from free peasants living in their own household (hukou 戶口) into tenant farmers or servants in the household of a mighty landowner belonging to an eminent family (daxing haoqiang 大姓豪強). These landowners took over the responsibility over large tracts of land not only because they owned it but because the weak central governments were not able to built up a regular administration throughout their country. The landowners so also had a political responsibility. Many of them protected themselves with an own army and had fortified their manours. The many people living among their households were called "hidden and dependant households" (yinfu hukou 蔭附戶口). They were not listed in the tax registers (bian hu 編戶). A similar situation was to be found in the households of the Non-Chinese nobles that likewise of lot of servants and slaves that were not tax-liable.

Recruitment of Officials, Education and Learning

Not all governments treated Chinese and Non-Chinese equally. This was especially true for the recruitment of state officials. Shi Le, ruler of the Later Zhao, reintroduced the system of categorizing members of the eminent families into one of nine ranks that allowed them to occupy corresponding ranks in the central government and the local administration. In the process of this categorization not all grand Chinese families were given an appropriate rank but were often degraded in favour to Xiongnu families. The states of Former Yan, Later Yan and Southern Yan also made use by the Chinese nine-rank system (jiupin zhongzheng zhi 九品中正制) for the recruitment of civilian and military officials. The problem with this system was that Chinese were often not considered as belonging to the nobility (shizu 士族), or "eminent families", but as part of the common people (shuzu 庶族). Yet members of the nobility did not have to pay taxes nor to deliver labour or military service to the government.
A lot of governments of the Sixteen States established schools in their capital in which those eligible for government posts were educated. Former Zhao even had a National University (taixue 太學) for this purpose. The Later Zhao governent set up a National University, a capital School of the Four Gates (simenxue 四門學), and schools in the commanderies and princedoms (junguoxue 郡國學), in which sons of the eminent families and "future aides" (jiangzuo 將佐) were educated. In the Official School (gaoxue 高學) of the Former Yan empire more than 1,000 pupils, sons of "high families" (gaomensheng 高門生), were enrolled. Emperor Murong Huang 慕容皝 (r. 334-348) himself had compiled the statutes of this school. Yao Xing of the Later Qin invited Confucian professors (boshi 博士 "erudites") to teach more than 10,000 students in Chang'an. He also founded a School of Law (lüxue 律學) for the education of the petty officials of the local governments. This was the first school of law in China. Former Liang, Western Liang, Northern Liang and Southern Liang also cared for the education of their future state officials.
Some of the rulers of the Sixteen States were interested in literature. Fu Jian's brother Fu Rong 苻融 and his nephew Fu Lang 苻朗 could read Buddhist writings and were able to correspond in the "pure conversation style" popular during the Jin period. Fragments of Fu Lang's book Fuzi 苻子 are preserved. Yao Xing was also able to discuss Buddhist writings. In 437 Juqu Mujian 沮渠牧犍 (r. 432-439) from the Northern Liang sent tributes to the court of the newly founded Liu-Song dynasty 劉宋 (420-479), among them a lot of books written by persons from Northern Liang.

Buddhism and the Western Territories

In a time of worldy turbulence and instability, people quite naturally resorted to religion to release them from their daily sufferings. The advent of Buddhism in China during the 1st century CE had prepared a fertile soil for the "dark age" in China. Buddhist monks were also supported by the rulers of the various "barbarian" states. Shi Le and Shi Hu of the Later Zhao invited the monk Fotu Cheng 佛圖澄 and founded more than 800 monasteries. Fotu Cheng can be called rather a magician than a Buddhist monk, but he deeply contributed to the popularity of Buddhism. A lot of commoners used the institutions of the monasteries to escape taxation because monks were not tax-liable. Accordingly, the monastic communities easily swelled. Shi Hu supported this tendendy with his statement that he, as a "barbarian", should follow the "barbarian" religion of Buddhism. He also abolished a former regulation that Chinese were not allowed to enter a monastery. In religious respect, Chinese and Non-Chinese were treated equally. One of Fotu Cheng's most important disciples was the Chinese Dao'an 道安 who traveled through northern China to preach the teachings of Buddhism. He was likewise venerated by the court of the "barbarian" Former Qin and the Chinese of the Eastern Jin empire in the southeast. Dao'an was one of the first monks to screen the available Buddhist writings, to translate some of them from Sanskrit into Chinese, and to compile a catalogue. He also tried to fix the monastic rules and to write down the orally transmitted vinayas of which at that time no original texts were available. Dao'an therefore suggested to emperor Fu Jian to invite the famous translator Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 from the state of Qiuci 龜茲 to come to Chang'an. In 382 general Lü Guang 呂光 (the eventual founder of the Later Liang) was sent out to the west to conquer Qiuci, but he failed, and when he returned, Fu Jian's empire had already disintegrated. It was only in 401 that Yao Xing of the Later Qin was so happy to welcome Kumārajīva in Chang'an, a city that became the centre of Buddhism in northern China at that time. Somewhat later, Juqu Mengxun 沮渠蒙遜 (r. 400-432) of the Northern Liang supported the Indian translator Tanwuchan 曇無懺, and the region of Gaochang 高昌 on the northern route of the Silk Road became a centre of Buddhism, together with the city of Yutian 于闐 on the southern route. The critical view towards the different transmissions of Buddhist writings, as well as the missing of a lot of rules for the monastic communities led to the need for the search for original Buddhist writings. A lot of Chinese monks began undertaking the long journey to India in the search for the writings (qiu jing 求經). The most famous of these monks was Faxian 法顯 who left Chang'an in 399 and returned after long and adventurous years by sea in 412. He had compiled the book Foguoji 佛國記 "the Buddhist lands", a detailed description of the countries he crossed on his way to northern India and back. The region of the ancient Silk Road was controlled by the states of Liang. Former Liang transformed the region of Gaochang into a commandery (jun 郡) and made it the westernmost commandery of whole China. Lü Guang of the Later Liang appointed his son Lü Fu 呂復 Grand protector of the Western Territories (xiyu da duhu 西域大都護). Li Gao 李暠 (r. 400-416) of the Western Liang appointed his son "Commander over the Western Barbarians" (xiyi xiaowei 西夷校尉). The rulers of the Northern Liang themselves were appointed regional governors (mu 牧) of the province of Liangzhou 涼州 by both the Northern Wei and the Liu-Song empires. The "barbarian states" thus took care for the open trade along the Silk Road and contributed to the cultural exchange between China and the countries in Central, Western and Southern Asia. In times of unrest, another trade route to the west was opened, crossing the land of the Tuyuhun 吐谷渾 (Tanguts) in the Tsaidam Basin. This was way also easier to reach from Sichuan and from the Yangtse region. While Chinese merchandise traveled westwards, Buddhism and Hellenistic art reached China from the west along the Silk Road. The arts flourished in the Buddhist cave monasteries that were built up in the western regions, most famous being the grottoes at Dunhuang 敦煌.

Source: Tang Changru 唐長儒 (1992). "Shiliuguo 十六國", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 2, pp. 922-928. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.

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October 9, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail