Xianbei state
c. 93–234
The Xianbei Confederation c. 180
The Xianbei Confederation c. 180
The Xianbei state at its maximum extent
The Xianbei state at its maximum extent
StatusNomadic empire
CapitalNear the Orkhon River, modern-day Mongolia
Common languagesXianbei
Historical eraAntiquity
• Established
c. 93
• Disestablished
200[1]4,500,000 km2 (1,700,000 sq mi)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Rouran Khaganate
Han dynasty
Dai (Sixteen Kingdoms)

The Xianbei state or Xianbei confederation was a nomadic empire which existed in modern-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, northern Xinjiang, Northeast China, Gansu, Buryatia, Zabaykalsky Krai, Irkutsk Oblast, Tuva, Altai Republic and eastern Kazakhstan from c. 93 to 234. Like most ancient peoples known through Chinese historiography, the ethnic makeup of the Xianbei is unclear,[2] though they are believed to have been a Proto-Mongolic people.[3] There are also other strong suggestions that they were a multi-ethnic confederation with Mongolic and Turkic influences.[4][5] They originated from the Donghu people who splintered into the Wuhuan and Xianbei when they were defeated by the Xiongnu at the end of the third century BC. The Xianbei were largely subordinate to larger nomadic powers and the Han dynasty until they gained prominence in 87 AD by killing the Xiongnu chanyu Youliu. However unlike the Xiongnu, the Xianbei political structure lacked the organization to pose a concerted challenge to the Chinese for most of their time as a nomadic people.


When the Donghu "Eastern Barbarians" were defeated by Modu Chanyu around 208 BC, the Donghu splintered into the Xianbei and Wuhuan. According to the Book of the Later Han, “the language and culture of the Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan”.[6]

The first significant contact the Xianbei had with the Han dynasty was in 41 and 45 when they joined the Wuhuan and Xiongnu in raiding Han territory.[7]

In 49, the governor Ji Tong convinced the Xianbei chieftain Pianhe to turn on the Xiongnu with rewards for each Xiongnu head they collected.[7] In 54, Yuchouben and Mantou of the Xianbei paid tribute to Emperor Guangwu of Han.[8] In 58, Pianhe attacked and killed Xinzhiben, a Wuhuan leader causing trouble in Yuyang Commandery.[9]

In 85, the Xianbei secured an alliance with the Dingling and Southern Xiongnu.[7]

In 87, the Xianbei attacked the Xiongnu chanyu Youliu and killed him. They stripped the skin off of him and his followers and took the skin back with them as trophies.[10]


After the downfall of the Xiongnu, the Xianbei replaced them with a loose confederacy from AD 93.[2]

Qizhijian became the first great war-leader of the Xianbei in 121. From 121 until his death in 133, the Xianbei made regular raids on Han territory.[11] In 145, the Xianbei raided Dai Commandery.[12]

Flying Horse plaque, Xianbei culture, Inner Mongolia province, China. 1st century BC to 1st century AD.

Around 155, the northern Xiongnu were "crushed and subjugated" by the Xianbei. The Xianbei chief, known by the Chinese as Tanshihuai (檀石槐) then advanced upon and defeated the Wusun of the Ili region by 166. Under Tanshihuai, the Xianbei extended their territory from the Ussuri to the Caspian Sea. He divided the Xianbei empire into three sections, each ruled by twenty clans. Tanshihuai then formed an alliance with the southern Xiongnu to attack Shaanxi and Gansu. The Han dynasty successfully repulsed their attacks in 158. In 177 AD, Xia Yu, Tian Yan and the Tute Chanyu led a force of 30,000 against the Xianbei. They were defeated and returned with only a quarter of their original forces.[13] A memorial made that year records that the Xianbei had taken all the lands previously held by the Xiongnu and their warriors numbered 100,000. Han deserters who sought refuge in their lands served as their advisers and refined metals as well as wrought iron came into their possession. Their weapons were sharper and their horses faster than those of the Xiongnu. Another memorial submitted in 185 states that the Xianbei were making raids on Han settlements nearly every year.[14]

Tanshihuai of the Xianbei divided his territory into three sections: the eastern, the middle and the western. From the You Beiping to the Liao River, connecting the Fuyu and Mo to the east, it was the eastern section. There were more than twenty counties. The darens (chiefs) (of this section) were called Mijia 彌加, Queji 闕機, Suli 素利 and Huaitou 槐頭. From the You Beiping to Shanggu to the west, it was the middle section. There were more than ten counties. The darens of this section were called Kezui 柯最, Queju 闕居, Murong 慕容, et al. From Shanggu to Dunhuang, connecting the Wusun to the west, it was the western section. There were more than twenty counties. The darens (of this section) were called Zhijian Luoluo 置鞬落羅, Rilü Tuiyan 曰律推演, Yanliyou 宴荔游, et al. These chiefs were all subordinate to Tanshihuai.

Iron broadsword, Xianbei nation during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), from a Xianbei tomb in Yushu, Jilin Province


Belt fasteners, Xianbei nation during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), from a Xianbei tomb in Yushu, Jilin Province.

The loose Xianbei confederacy lacked the organization of the Xiongnu but was highly aggressive until the death of their khan Tanshihuai in 182.[16] Tanshihuai's son Helian lacked his father's abilities and was killed in a raid on Beidi in 186.[17] Helian's brother Kuitou succeeded him, but when Helian's son Qianman came of age, he challenged his uncle to succession, destroying the last vestiges of unity among the Xianbei. Qianman was unsuccessful and disappeared soon after. By 190, the Xianbei had split into three groups with Kuitou ruling in Inner Mongolia, Kebineng in northern Shanxi, and Suli and Mijia in northern Liaodong. In 205, Kuitou's brothers Budugen and Fuluohan succeeded him. After Cao Cao defeated the Wuhuan at the Battle of White Wolf Mountain in 207, Budugen and Fuluohan paid tribute to him. In 218, Fuluohan met with the Wuhuan chieftain Nengchendi to form an alliance, but Nengchendi double crossed him and called in another Xianbei khan, Kebineng, who killed Fuluohan.[18] Budugen went to the court of Cao Wei in 224 to ask for assistance against Kebineng, but he eventually betrayed them and allied with Kebineng in 233. Kebineng killed Budugen soon afterwards.[19]

Kebineng was from a minor Xianbei tribe. He rose to power west of Dai Commandery by taking in a number of Chinese refugees, who helped him drill his soldiers and make weapons. After the defeat of the Wuhuan in 207, he also sent tribute to Cao Cao, and even provided assistance against the rebel Tian Yin. In 218 he allied himself to the Wuhuan rebel Nengchendi but they were heavily defeated and forced back across the frontier by Cao Zhang. In 220 he acknowledged Cao Pi as emperor of Cao Wei. Eventually he turned on Cao Wei for frustrating his advances on another Xianbei khan, Sui, and he launched raids on Cao Wei's territory. Kebineng was ultimately assassinated by Cao Wei in 235, after which his confederacy disintegrated.[20][21]

Later history

Xianbei belt buckles, 3–4th century AD
Painting depicting a Xianbei Murong archer in a tomb of the Former Yan (337–370).

After the fall of the last khans, Budugen and Kebineng, in 234, the Xianbei state splintered into a number of smaller independent domains. The third century saw both the fragmentation of the Xianbei state in 235 and the branching out of the various Xianbei tribes later to establish significant empires of their own. The most prominent branches were the Murong, Tuoba, Khitan people, Shiwei and Rouran Khaganate.

Xianbei peoples subsequently moved south of the Great Wall of China and exerted considerable influence during the Sixteen Kingdoms (304–439), Northern dynasties (386–581),[22][23][24] Sui dynasty (581–618), and Tang dynasty (618–907). Most notably, ethnically Xianbei monarchs ruled several of the Northern dynasties, including the Northern Wei, Western Wei (535–556), and Northern Zhou (557–581).[25][26][27][28]

The Khitan people, who founded the Liao dynasty (916–1125) in Northeast Asia,[29] were included among the Yuwen Xianbei of southern Mongolia,[30] who had earlier founded the Western Wei and Northern Zhou.[31] The Khitan-ruled Liao dynasty gave rise to the use of "Cathay" as a name for China in the Persianate world and medieval Europe.[32]

The Mongols derived their ancestry from the Mengwu Shiwei of Inner Mongolia and northeastern Mongolia, where Shiwei is a variant transcription for Xianbei.[33]


The economic base of the Xianbei was animal husbandry combined with agricultural practice. They were the first to develop the khanate system,[29] in which formation of social classes deepened, and developments also occurred in their literacy, arts and culture. They used a zodiac calendar and favoured song and music. Tengrism and subsequently Buddhism were the main religions among the Xianbei people. After they abandoned the frigid north and migrated into Northern China, they gradually abandoned nomadic lifestyle and were sinicized and assimilated with the Han Chinese. Emperor Xiaowen of the Xianbei-led state of Northern Wei in northern China, eventually decreed the changes of Xianbei names to Han names.[34]


See also



  1. ^ Bang, Peter Fibiger; Bayly, C. A.; Scheidel, Walter (2 December 2020). The Oxford World History of Empire: Volume One: The Imperial Experience. Oxford University Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-19-977311-4.
  2. ^ a b Wyatt 2004, p. 8.
  3. ^ Kradin N. N. (2011). "Heterarchy and hierarchy among the ancient Mongolian nomads". Social Evolution & History. 10 (1): 188.
  4. ^ Bartolʹd, Vasilij Vladimirovič; Bartolʹd, Vasilij Vladimirovič (1977). Turkestan down to the Mongol invasion. E. J. Gibb Memorial series (4th ed.). Cambridge: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust. ISBN 978-0-906094-00-6.
  5. ^ Hess, Michael; Scharlipp, Wolfgang-Ekkehard (1994). "Die frühen Türken in Zentralasien. Eine Einführung in ihre Geschichte und Kultur". Oriens. 34: 546. doi:10.2307/1580530. ISSN 0078-6527. JSTOR 1580530.
  6. ^ Chen, Sanping (1996). "A-Gan Revisited — The Tuoba's Cultural and Political Heritage". Journal of Asian History. 30 (1): 46–78. JSTOR 41931010.
  7. ^ a b c Xianbei 鮮卑
  8. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 1016.
  9. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 899.
  10. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 991.
  11. ^ de Crespigny 2017.
  12. ^ Cosmo 2009, p. 106.
  13. ^ Cosmo 2009, p. 107.
  14. ^ Twitchett 2008, p. 445.
  15. ^ SGZ 30. 837-838, note. 1.
  16. ^ de Crespigny 2017, p. 401.
  17. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 320.
  18. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 237.
  19. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 25.
  20. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 289.
  21. ^ Lü, Jianfu [呂建福], 2002. Tu zu shi [The Tu History] 土族史. Beijing [北京], Zhongguo she hui ke xue chu ban she [Chinese Social Sciences Press] 中囯社会科学出版社.
  22. ^ Ma, Changshou [馬長壽] (1962). Wuhuan yu Xianbei [Wuhuan and Xianbei] 烏桓與鮮卑. Shanghai [上海], Shanghai ren min chu ban she [Shanghai People's Press] 上海人民出版社.
  23. ^ Liu, Xueyao [劉學銚] (1994). Xianbei shi lun [the Xianbei History] 鮮卑史論. Taipei [台北], Nan tian shu ju [Nantian Press] 南天書局.
  24. ^ Wang, Zhongluo [王仲荦] (2007). Wei jin nan bei chao shi [History of Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties] 魏晋南北朝史. Beijing [北京], Zhonghua shu ju [China Press] 中华书局.
  25. ^ Chen, Yinke [陳寅恪], 1943, Tang dai zheng zhi shi shu lun gao [Manuscript of Discussions on the Political History of the Tang Dynasty] 唐代政治史述論稿. Chongqing [重慶], Shang wu [商務].
  26. ^ Chen, Yinke [陳寅恪] and Tang, Zhenchang [唐振常], 1997, Tang dai zheng zhi shi shu lun gao [Manuscript of Discussions on the Political History of the Tang Dynasty] 唐代政治史述論稿. Shanghai [上海], Shanghai gu ji chu ban she [Shanghai Ancient Literature Press] 上海古籍出版社.
  27. ^ Wang, Qinghuai [王清淮] (2008). Tang tai zong [Emperor Taizong of the Tang] 唐太宗. Beijing [北京], Zhongguo she hui ke xue chu ban she [Chinese Social Sciences Press] 中国社会科学出版社.
  28. ^ Yang, Jun [杨军] and Lü Jingzhi [吕净植] (2008). Xianbei di guo chuan qi [Legends of the Xianbei Empires] 鲜卑帝国传奇. Beijing [北京], Zhongguo guo ji guang bo chu ban she [Chinese International Broadcasting Press] 中国国际广播出版社.
  29. ^ a b Wittfogel, Karl August and Chia-sheng Feng (1949). History of Chinese society: Liao, 907–1125. Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society distributed by the Macmillan Co. New York. p. 1.
  30. ^ Cheng, Tian [承天] (2008). Qidan di guo chuan qi [Legends of the Khitan Empires] 契丹帝国传奇. Beijing [北京], Zhongguo guo ji guang bo chu ban she [Chinese International Broadcasting Press] 中国国际广播出版社.
  31. ^ Liu, Zhanwu [刘占武] and Ren Xuefang [任雪芳] (2007). Sui Tang wu dai da shi ben mo [Major Events of the Sui, Tang, and Wudai Dynasties] 隋唐五代大事本末. Beijing [北京], Zhongguo guo ji guang bo chu ban she [China International Broadcasting Press] 中国国际广播出版社.
  32. ^ Fei, Xiaotong [费孝通] (1999). Zhonghua min zu duo yuan yi ti ge ju [The Framework of Diversity in Unity of the Chinese Nationality] 中华民族多元一体格局. Beijing [北京], Zhongyang min zu da xue chu ban she [Central Nationalities University Press] 中央民族大学出版社. p. 176.
  33. ^ Zhang, Jiuhe [张久和] (1998). Yuan Menggu ren de li shi: Shiwei--Dada yan jiu [History of the Original Mongols: research on Shiwei-Dadan] 原蒙古人的历史: 室韦--达怛研究. Beijing [北京], Gao deng jiao yu chu ban she [High Education Press] 高等教育出版社. pp. 27–28.
  34. ^ Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Kwang-ching Liu – The Cambridge illustrated history of China