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Detail of a figure of a Xianbei warrior. (Editor at Large/CC BY SA 2.5) Background: Filial sons and virtuous women in Chinese history, a lacquer painting over a four-panel wooden folding screen; from the tomb of Sima Jinlong in Datong, Shanxi province, dated to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD)

The Xianbei: A Chinese Dynasty Emerges from Nomadic Warriors of the Steppe

The Xianbei people … invade our frontiers so frequently that hardly a year goes by in peace, and it is only when the trading season arrives that they come forward in submission. But in so doing they are only bent on gaining precious Chinese goods; it is not because they respect Chinese power or are grateful for Chinese generosity. As soon as they obtain all they possibly can [from trade], they turn in their tracks to start wreaking damage.”
- Book of the Later Han

The Xianbei were a confederation of nomadic tribes that inhabited the steppe region to the north of China during the Jin Dynasty and the succeeding Northern and Southern Dynasties. The best-known and most politically successful group within the Xianbei federation were the Tuoba Xianbei, who founded the Northern Wei Dynasty, a major power in the north during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period.

The Xianbei Origin Myth

According to the origin myth of the Xianbei, their ancestors emerged from a sacred cave in what is today Inner Mongolia. Archaeological work in the region of the Gaxian Cave site in 1980 yielded an inscription and various artifacts which suggest that the Xianbei were likely to have originated in this area. Thus, the Xianbei are referred to by some scholars as proto-Mongols.

Xianbei belt buckle from the 3rd-4th century. (Public Domain)

Xianbei belt buckle from the 3rd-4th century. ( Public Domain )

Not all scholars, however, agree with this, and there are various theories regarding the ethnic and linguistic affiliation of the Xianbei. Some, for example, have argued that the Xianbei were proto-Turks, whilst others have suggested that they were of Tungusic ethnic origin.

In any case, the Xianbei’s migration into China occurred around the end of the 3rd century BC, just shortly after the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty. Prior to this migration, the homeland of the Xianbei was under the rule of the Donghu (which literally means ‘Eastern Barbarians’), another group of nomadic peoples.

When they were destroyed by the Xiongnu, yet another nomadic people, there was a split in the Donghu confederation, one group of which was the Xianbei. As their homeland was now occupied by the Xiongnu, the Xianbei were forced to move eastwards, finally settling at the foot of Mount Xianbei in Liaodong, from which they derived their name.

From the Xianbei Tomb Paintings (of Former Yan) excavated in 1982 at the Zhao-yang 袁台子朝陽 area, across the Daling River, Liao-xi. Painting of Murong Xianbei archer. (Public Domain)

From the Xianbei Tomb Paintings (of Former Yan) excavated in 1982 at the Zhao-yang 袁台子朝陽 area, across the Daling River, Liao-xi. Painting of Murong Xianbei archer. ( Public Domain )

Tensions with the Han Dynasty

Later on, the Xianbei were forced to move further south, into the region of the River Siramuren, as they had to recognize the suzerainty of the Han Dynasty, following the defeat of the Xiongnu by the Chinese. This occurred during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, who ruled China between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

The weakening of central authority during the Later Han Dynasty, however, allowed the Xianbei, along with other nomadic tribes, to raid the border territories of the Han Empire. During the 1st century AD, Ji Tong, the Han governor of Liaodong made the decision to allow the Xianbei to trade in certain border towns, which stopped the raids. Additionally, the Xianbei began to pay tribute to the Han court, and eventually became a Han vassal.

Worn by a Xianbei aristocrat, this ornament features antlers with three branches and ten golden leaves each. The leaves are attached with gold rings to allow them to sway when the wearer moves; this was known as Bu Yao (moving with the rhythm of one's steps). Horses were believed to dispel evil and bring good fortune. (Editor at Large/CC BY SA 2.5)

Worn by a Xianbei aristocrat, this ornament features antlers with three branches and ten golden leaves each. The leaves are attached with gold rings to allow them to sway when the wearer moves; this was known as Bu Yao (moving with the rhythm of one's steps). Horses were believed to dispel evil and bring good fortune. (Editor at Large/ CC BY SA 2.5 )

In spite of this, the Xianbei and the Han Empire had an uneasy relationship. For instance, around the beginning of the 2nd century AD, the Xianbei migrated into territory once occupied by the Wuhuan (another nomadic tribe), which caused alarm in the Han court. As a result, the Han allied themselves with other barbarian tribes to repel the Xianbei.

Towards the end of the same century, the Xianbei were led by Tanshihuai, who formed an alliance with other barbarian tribes and launched a large-scale attack on the Han. As the Han were unable to defeat Tanshihuai, they offered him the title of ‘prince’ and the hand of a Han princess in marriage in exchange for peace. After the death of Tanshihuai, the Xianbei confederation began to disintegrate, as his successor was a weak leader.

Xianbei cavalry figurines. (dandebat)

Xianbei cavalry figurines. ( dandebat)

The Tuoba Xianbei Found a Dynasty

The Xianbei became a powerful force once more during the 4th century AD. During this time, China was ruled by the Jin Dynasty, and some of the Xianbei clans were already vassals of the Jin emperors. The Jin Dynasty, however, lost control of northern China during the beginning of the 4th century, which ushered in the Sixteen Kingdoms period. During this period, various barbarian states emerged in northern China, a number of which were founded by Xianbei clans. The Sixteen Kingdoms came to an end during the first half of the 5th century AD and was followed by the North and South Dynasties.

In the north, the Northern Wei had already been the dominant power since the late 4th century AD, and would continue to be as such until the first half of the 6th century AD. This dynasty was founded by the Tuoba Xianbei, the most politically successful Xianbei clan.

Tomb figurines of two men, China, Northern Wei dynasty, 386-534 AD, earthenware with traces of paint - Östasiatiska museet, Stockholm, Sweden. (CC0)

Tomb figurines of two men, China, Northern Wei dynasty, 386-534 AD, earthenware with traces of paint - Östasiatiska museet, Stockholm, Sweden. ( CC0)

Finally, the Xianbei who migrated into China were Sinicized (made Chinese in character or form) over time, adopting the customs and the way of life of the Han Chinese (who formed the majority of the population). Those who remained on the steppes, on the other hand, maintained their traditions and eventually developed into other ethnic groups.

Top Image: Detail of a figure of a Xianbei warrior. ( Editor at Large/ CC BY SA 2.5 ) Background: Filial sons and virtuous women in Chinese history, a lacquer painting over a four-panel wooden folding screen; from the tomb of Sima Jinlong in Datong, Shanxi province, dated to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD). ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren

References

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Holloway, A., 2014. Ancient Coffin Rescued from Tomb Raiders in Inner Mongolia Reveals Remains of Aristocratic Woman. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/ancient-coffin-rescued-tomb-raiders-inner-mongolia-09876

Holloway, A., 2016. 1,500-Year-Old Tomb Found in China with Incredible Golden Jewelry.  [Online]
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Horseback Mongolia, Inc., 2018. Xianbei and Rouran dynasties. [Online]
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Miller, M., 2015. Tomb of a Nomadic Tribal Princess Will Help Unravel China’s Complicated Ethnic History.  [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/tomb-nomadic-tribal-princess-will-help-unravel-china-s-complicated-ethnic-020666

Theobald, U., 2000. Xianbei 鮮卑. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Altera/xianbei.html

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www.dandebat.dk, 2018. 14. The New Whites - Xianbei. [Online]
Available at: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-dan14.htm

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