Asia in 500 AD, showing Northern Wei territories and their neighbors
Northern Wei administrative divisions as of 464 AD
Shengle (386–398, capital of former Dai, near modern Huhhot)|
|20 February 386|
• Emperor Daowu's claim of imperial title
|24 January 399|
• Unification of northern China
• Movement of capital to Luoyang
|25 October 493|
• Erzhu Rong's massacre of ruling class
|17 May 528|
• Establishment of Eastern Wei, marking division
|8 November 535|
• Emperor Xiaowu's death
|3 February 535|
|450||2,000,000 km2 (770,000 sq mi)|
|Literal meaning||Northern Wei|
|History of China|
|Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BC|
|Xia dynasty c. 2070 – c. 1600 BC|
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|Zhou dynasty c. 1046 – 256 BC|
|Spring and Autumn|
|Qin dynasty 221–206 BC|
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|Three Kingdoms 220–280|
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|Northern and Southern dynasties|
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|Yuan dynasty 1271–1368|
|Ming dynasty 1368–1644|
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|Republic of China 1912–1949|
|People's Republic of China 1949–present|
The Northern Wei or the Northern Wei Empire (//), also known as the Tuoba Wei (拓跋魏), Later Wei (後魏), or Yuan Wei (元魏), was a dynasty founded by the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei, which ruled northern China from 386 to 534 (de jure until 535), during the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Described as "part of an era of political turbulence and intense social and cultural change", the Northern Wei Dynasty is particularly noted for unifying northern China in 439: this was also a period of introduced foreign ideas, such as Buddhism, which became firmly established.
During the Taihe period (477–499) of Emperor Xiaowen, court advisers instituted sweeping reforms and introduced changes that eventually led to the dynasty moving its capital from Datong to Luoyang, in 494. The Tuoba renamed themselves the Han people surname Yuan (元) as a part of systematic Sinicization. Towards the end of the dynasty there was significant internal dissension resulting in a split into Eastern Wei and Western Wei.
Many antiques and art works, both Taoist art and Buddhist art, from this period have survived. It was the time of the construction of the Yungang Grottoes near Datong during the mid-to-late 5th century, and towards the latter part of the dynasty, the Longmen Caves outside the later capital city of Luoyang, in which more than 30,000 Buddhist images from the time of this dynasty have been found.
Rise of the Tuoba Xianbei
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 Tuoba 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, Tuoba 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 Tuoba 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 Tiele 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 Northern Wei Empire's history progressed, this appeared to be a major contributing factor leading to corruption among officials. Not until the 2nd 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 instituted 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|
|398||Xianbei of Hebei and Northern Shandong||100,000||Datong|
|399||Great Chinese families||2,000 families||Datong|
|399||Chinese peasants from Henan||100,000||Shanxi|
|418||Xianbei of Hebei||?||Datong|
|427||Pop. of the Kingdom of Xia||10,000||Shanxi|
|432||Pop. of Liaoning||30,000 families||Hebei|
|435||Pop. of Shaanxi and Gansu||?||Datong|
|445||Chinese peasants from Henan and Shandong||?||North of Yellow River|
|449||Craftsmen from Chang'an||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 court's taste for luxury, the prestige of Chinese culture at the time, and Taoism were all factors in the growing Chinese influence 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. Also from 460 onwards the emperor's started erecting huge statues of the Buddha carved near their capital Pingcheng which declared the emperors as the representatives of the Buddha and the legitimate rulers of China.
The Northern Wei started to arrange for Han Chinese elites to marry daughters of the Xianbei Tuoba royal family in the 480s. Some Han Chinese exiled royalty fled from southern China and defected to the Xianbei. Several daughters of the Xianbei Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei were married to Han Chinese elites, the Liu Song royal Liu Hui (刘辉), married Princess Lanling (蘭陵公主) of the Northern Wei, Princess Huayang (華陽公主) to Sima Fei (司馬朏), a descendant of Jin dynasty (265–420) royalty, Princess Jinan (濟南公主) to Lu Daoqian (盧道虔), Princess Nanyang (南阳长公主) to Xiao Baoyin (萧宝夤), a member of Southern Qi royalty. Emperor Xiaozhuang of Northern Wei's sister the Shouyang Princess was wedded to The Liang dynasty ruler Emperor Wu of Liang's son Xiao Zong 蕭綜.
When the Eastern Jin dynasty ended Northern Wei received the Han Chinese Jin prince Sima Chuzhi (司馬楚之) as a refugee. A Northern Wei Princess married Sima Chuzhi, giving birth to Sima Jinlong (司馬金龍). Northern Liang Xiongnu King Juqu Mujian's daughter married Sima Jinlong.
Kongzi was honoured in sacrifices as was Earth and Heaven by the northern dynasties of non-Han origin. Kongzi was honored by the Murong Wei Former Yan Xianbei leader. Kongzi was honored by the Di ruler Fu Jian (337–385). Kongzi was honored in sacrifices by the Northern Wei Xianbei dynasty. Kongzi was honored by Yuoba Si, the Mingyuan emperor. Han dynasty Emperors, Shang dynasty ruler Bigan, Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun were honored by Yuoba Si, the Mingyuan Emperor. Kongzi was honored extensively by Tuoba Hong, the Xiaowen Emperor.
A fief of 100 households and the rank of (崇聖侯) Marquis who worships the sage was bestowed upon a Confucius descendant, Yan Hui's lineage had 2 of its scions and Confucius's lineage had 4 of its scions who had ranks bestowed on them in Shandong in 495 and a fief of ten households and rank of (崇聖大夫) Grandee who venerates the sage was bestowed on Kong Sheng (孔乘) who was Confucius's scion in the 28th generation in 472 by Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei.
An anti Buddhist plan was concocted by the Celestial Masters under Kou Qianzhi along with Cui Hao under the Taiwu Emperor. The Celestial Masters of the north urged the persecution of Buddhists under the Taiwu Emperor in the Northern Wei, attacking Buddhism and the Buddha as wicked and as anti-stability and anti-family. Anti Buddhism was the position of Kou Qianzhi. There was no ban on the Celestial Masters despite the nonfullfilment of Cui Hao and Kou Qianzhi's agenda in their anti-Buddhist campaign.
Cui Zhen's wife Han Farong was buried in a Datong located grave.
Breakup and division
The heavy Chinese influence that had come 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 been held as the upper-class now found 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 when he inherited the throne as an infant, giving the Empress Dowager rule of the country for more than a decade. Upon hearing the news of the 18-year-old emperor's death, the general Erzhu Rong, who had already mobilised on secret orders of the emperor to support him in his struggle with the Empress Dowager Hu, turned toward Luoyang. Announcing that he was installing a new emperor chosen by an ancient Xianbei method of casting bronze figures, Erzhu Rong summoned the officials of the city to meet their new emperor. However, on their arrival, he told them they were to be punished for their misgovernment and butchered them, throwing the Empress Hu and her candidate (another puppet child emperor Yuan Zhao) into the Yellow River. Reports estimate 2,000 courtiers were killed in this Heyin (Ho-Yin) massacre on the 13th day of the second month of 528.[a]
The two generals
Erzhu dominated the imperial court thereafter, the emperor held power in name only and most decisions actually went through the Erzhu. The emperor did stop 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 Rong in 530 in an ambush at the palace, which led 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 aftermath of these wars, two generals set in motion the actions that would result in the splitting of the Northern Wei into the Eastern and Western Wei.
General Gao Huan was originally from the northern frontier, one of many soldiers who had surrendered to Erzhu, who eventually became one of the Erzhu clan's top lieutenants. But later, Gao Huan gathered his own men from both Han and non-Han troops, to turn against the Erzhu clan, entering and taking the capital Luoyang in 532. Confident in his success, he set up a nominee emperor on the Luoyang throne and continued his campaigns abroad. The emperor, however, together with the military head of Luoyang, Husi Chun, began to plot against Gao Huan. Gao Huan succeeded, however, in keeping control of Luoyang, and the unfaithful ruler and a handful of followers fled west, to the region ruled by the powerful warlord Yuwen Tai. Gao Huan then announced his decision to move the Luoyang court to his capital city of Ye. "Within three days of the decree, 400,000 families--perhaps 2,000,000 people--had to leave their homes in and around the capital to move to Yeh as autumn turned to winter." There now existed two rival claimants to the Northern Wei throne, leading to the state's division in 534-535 into the Eastern Wei and Western Wei.
Neither Eastern Wei nor Western Wei was long-lived. In 550, Gao Huan's son Gao Yang forced Emperor Xiaojing of Eastern Wei to yield the throne to him, ending Eastern Wei and establishing the Northern Qi. Similarly, in 557, Yuwen Tai's nephew Yuwen Hu forced Emperor Gong of Western Wei to yield the throne to Yuwen Tai's son Yuwen Jue, ending the Western Wei and establishing the 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 ranges 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 tāo)||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
|Daughter of Emperor Xiaoming||None||528||None|
|Youzhu (幼主 yòu zhǔ)||Yuan Zhao[b] (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[c]||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
A Buddhist stela from the Northern Wei period, build in the early 6th century.
Mounted warrior of the Northern Wei Dynasty from the collections of the Musée Cernuschi.
Male figure wearing Hanfu robes, from a lacquerware painting over wood, Northern Wei period, 5th century AD
Northern Wei wall murals and painted figurines, Yungang Grottoes, 5th to 6th centuries.
- Change of Xianbei names to Han names
- Middle Binyang Cave
- Empress Dowager Wenming tomb
- Jinping Commandery
- 1,300 or 2000 according to different versions of the Book of Wei
- Empress Dowager Hu initially declared Emperor Xiaoming's "son" (actually a daughter) emperor, but almost immediately after admitted that she was actually female and declared Yuan Zhao emperor instead. Emperor Xiaoming's unnamed daughter was therefore arguably an "emperor" and his successor, but is not commonly regarded as one. Indeed, Yuan Zhao himself is often not considered an emperor.
- The Northern Wei imperial prince Yuan Hao, under support by rival Liang Dynasty's troops, declared himself emperor and captured the capital Luoyang in 529, forcing Emperor Xiaozhuang to flee. Yuan Hao carried imperial title and received pledges of allegiance from provinces south of the Yellow River for about three months before Erzhu Rong recaptured Luoyang. Yuan Hao fled and was killed in flight. Due to the briefness of Yuan Hao's claim on the throne and the limited geographic scope of his reign, he is usually not counted among the succession of Northern Wei emperors.
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