White Jade River      
september 2020      

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 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, the Rouran, and the Xianbei. One tribal group of the Xianbei became very important in the mid-fourth century CE, namely the Taybač (Chinese rendering Tuoba, in the West known as Tabgach). The Tuoba leader Yilu founded the kingdom of Dai (315-376). His most important successor was Shiyijian (r. 338-376) who even adopted a Chinese-style reign motto called Jianguo "Foundation of the empire". In 376 his small realm was conquered by the Former Qin (351-394) whose troops conquered the whole of northern China. With the support of the Later Yan (384-409) ruler Murong Chui (r.384-395), the Tuoba chieftain Gui (called Tuoba Gui) was able to refound the Dai empire in 386. From his capital at Shengle (near modern Helingeer (Hohhot), Inner Mongolia) he could step by step conquer the north of China, divided the Later Yan realm into two parts, and subdued the Xia (407-431), the Later Qin (384-417) and the many Liang and Yan empires. He made even territorial advances against the southern empire of Liu-Song (420-479) that was severely shaken by succession struggles.

In 398, Tuoba Gui (posthumous title Emperor Daowu r.376/386-408) made himself emperor and renamed his state
Wei. Historians later called this dynasty the Northern Wei, in order to distinguish it from the Cao-Wei (220-265), one of the Three Kingdoms ("sanguo" 220-280). The capital was shifted from Shengle to Pingcheng (modern Datong, Shanxi), but in fact, Tuoba Gui made still use of the mobile imperial secretariat (xing shangshutai, short xingtai). Following the rapacious style of politics of his forerunners in the Sixteen States(shiliguo: 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 "worms", and the city state of Shanshan. 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 near the Yinshan Range 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 (posthumous title Emperor Mingyuan r.409-423) were still no autocratic rulers. Investing their strength and courage into the conquest wars, the Tuoba aristocracy and their tribes (buluo) 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) around the capital, or in the six military districs (liuzhen) at the northern frontier, and they were given the title of "seniors of the four regions and the submissive barbarians" (sifang fanfu daren) or "seniors hosts of the dependent tribes" (binguo zhubu daren).

The Sinification of the Tuoba Elite

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 ... impeded 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 to install his own son as supervising regent (jianguo), and six advisoring ministers (fuzuo dachen) that were to defend the imperial power against the mighty Tuoba families.
Tuoba Tao (posthumous title Emperor Taiwu, r.423-451) finally gave up the system of the "six senior ministes" (liubu darenguan) and definitely arranged his administration in a bureaucratic and Chinese style with a territorial administration in regions, commanderies, and districts (zhou, jun, xian). He also founded a National University (taixue) for the Confucian education of a scholarly and official elite, a state secretariate, and the regulation and standardization of the penal (falü) and the administrative law (lüling).

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 "Perfect Lord of the Great Peace".
Tuoba Tao's successor Tuoba Jun (posthumuos title Emperor Wencheng, r.452-465) enforced this tendency in order to strengthen the central government by the support of the Daoist and Buddhist clergy.

Tuoba Hong (posthumous title Emperor Xianwen, r.465-470) came under the influence of Empress Dowager Feng (posthumous name Empress Dowager Wencheng ) who took over regency ... in 476. His young son Tuoba Hong (later known as Yuan Hong, posthumous title Emepror Xiaowen, r.471-499) was controlled by the Empress Dowager's favourites Zhang You, Wang Rui and Zhao Mo. Yet among the courtiers there were also many Confucian officials like Gao Lü, Gao Yun or Li Chong 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 (modern Baotou, Inner Mongolia) ... 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), 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. Xianbei costumes and even the use of the native language were prohibited. The capital was again shifted from Datong, Shanxi to the traditional city Luoyang (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 (posthumous title Emperor Xuanwu r.499-515) came to the throne. He was dethroned by Gao Zhao and Yuan Yu in 515, two ministers who enthroned his son Yuan Xu (posthumous title Emperor Xiaoming, 515-528). Emperor Xiaoming stood under the influence of Yuan Yong, Yuan Cha, and Empress Dowager Hu. In 525, the Empress Dowager took over the regency for her son (who was) replaced by Yuan Zhao.

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). Several of the rebels and their followers, like Yu Lin, Hu Bi, Moxi Dati (Mozhe Taiti), Moxi Niansheng or Moqi Chounu (a special pronunciation), proclaimed themselves kings or even emperors.

At that moment the dynasty that ruled over southern China in the
Liang empire (502-557)(1), saw her chance to reconquer some territory "occupied" by the Northern Wei. The Tuoba noble Erzhu Rong finally was able to take over control of the capital and the court, ... , and made Yuan Ziyou (Emperor Xiaozhuang, r.528-529) the new emperor. Yuan Ziyou's son Erzhu Zhao ... made Yuan Gong emperor (Emperor Jiemin, r.351). Erzhu Rong's general Gao Huan founded his own power base in the eastern part of the Yellow River plain and replaced Emperor Jiemin with Yuan Xiu (Emperor Xiaowu, r.532-534). But Yuan Xiu was unwilling to be controlled by Gao Huan and took escape to the mighty Xiongnu general Yuwen Tai who resided in Chang'an (modern Xi'an, Shaanxi). Gao Huan installed another puppet emperor and shifted the capital to Yecheng (near modern Runan, Henan). Yuwen Tai thereupon founded the independent Western Wei empire (Xiwei: 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 (Dongwei: 534-550), both ruled by descendants of the Tuoba.

A few sections about killing and drowning have been left out. Life is hard as it is.
(1) During which periode the "Liang sutra" was composed, a long enumeration of Buddhist monks-scholars-practitioners that were known and remembered at that time.

October 30, 2011. Source: Ulrich Theobald

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