Xianbei (Chinese: 鮮卑; pinyin: Xiānbēi; Wade–Giles:
Hsien-pi) were proto-
Mongols residing in what became today's eastern
Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeast China. Along with the Xiongnu,
they were one of the major nomadic groups in northern China during the
Han Dynasty and subsequent dynastic periods. They eventually
established their own northern dynasties, including the Northern Wei
founded in the 4th century AD by the
2.1 Qin-Han era
2.2 Early state formation:
Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Wei
3.1 Leaf headdresses
3.2 Animal iconography
3.5 Buddhist Influences
4 Modern descendants
5 See also
8 External links
It is widely theorised that the
Xianbei spoke a language related to
the Mongolic languages. Claus Schönig writes:
Xianbei derived from the context of the Donghu, who are likely to
have contained the linguistic ancestors of the Mongols. Later branches
and descendants of the
Xianbei include the Tabghach and Khitan, who
seem to have been linguistically Para-Mongolic. [...] Opinions differ
widely as to what the linguistic impact of the
Xianbei period was.
Some scholars (like Clauson) have preferred to regard the
Tabghach (Tuoba) as Turks, or even as Bulghar Turks, with the
implication that the entire layer of early Turkic borrowings in
Mongolic would have been received from the Xianbei, rather than from
the Xiongnu. However, since the Mongolic (or Para-Mongolic) identity
Xianbei is increasingly obvious in the light of recent progress
in Khitan studies, it is more reasonable to assume (with Doerfer) that
the flow of linguistic influence from Turkic (or Bulghar Turkic) into
Mongolic was at least partly reversed during the
yielding the first identifiable layer of Mongolic (or Para-Mongolic)
loanwords in Turkic. 
Chinese historical texts unequivocally state that the
descendants of the earlier Proto-Mongolic Donghu, which used to be
believed to represent the “Eastern Hu” based on the Chinese
Xianbei were a northern or northeastern Asian northern
Mongoloid population according to modern Chinese and Russian
After the Donghu were defeated by
Modu Chanyu around 208 BC, the
Wuhuan survived as the main remnants of the confederation.
Book of the Later Han
Book of the Later Han says that “the language and culture of the
Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan”.
Eastern Han glazed ceramic statue of a horse with bridle and halter
headgear, from Sichuan, late 2nd century to early 3rd century AD
Records of the Three Kingdoms
Records of the Three Kingdoms say:
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, Queji, Suli and Huaitou. 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,
Queju, Murong, 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,
Rilü Tuiyan, Yanliyou, et al. These chiefs were all subordinate to
Book of the Later Han
Book of the Later Han records a memorial submitted in 177:
Ever since the [northern]
Xiongnu ran away, the
Xianbei have become
powerful and populous, taking all the lands previously held by the
Xiong-nu and claiming to have 100,000 warriors. … Refined metals and
wrought iron have come into the possession of the [Xianbei] rebels.
Han deserters also seek refuge [in the lands of the Xianbei] and serve
as their advisers. Their weapons are sharper and their horses are
faster than those of the Xiong-nu.
Another memorial submitted in 185 is recorded by the Book of the Later
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.
Around A.D. 155, the northern
Xiongnu were "crushed and subjugated" by
the Xianbei. Their chief, known by the Chinese as Tan-shih-huai, then
advanced upon and defeated the
Wusun of the Ili by A.D. 166. He then
formed an allegiance with the southern
Xiongnu to attack
Kansu. China successfully repulsed their attacks in 158, 177 and
"Between A.D. 155 and 166, T’an-shih-huai conducted a series of
major military campaigns that led to the extension of Hsien-pi power
over the Great Steppe as far as southern Siberia and from
the Caspian Sea. Until the third decade of the third century A.D. the
Hsien-pi was the leading power in Central Asia."
Early state formation:
Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Wei
The 3rd century saw both the fragmentation of the
Xianbei in 235 and
the branching out of the various
Xianbei tribes later to establish six
significant empires of their own such as the
Former Yan (281-370),
Western Yan (384-394),
Later Yan (384-407),
Southern Yan (398-410),
Western Qin (385-430) and Southern Liang (397-414).
Most of them were unified by the
Tuoba Xianbei, who established the
Northern Wei (386-535), which was the first of the Northern Dynasties
(386-581) founded by the Xianbei.
Xianbei belt buckles, 3-4th century AD
In 534, the
Northern Wei split into an
Eastern Wei (534-550) and a
Western Wei (535-556) after an uprising in the steppes of North China
Xianbei and other nomadic peoples. The former evolved
Northern Qi (550-577), and the latter into the Northern Zhou
(557-581), while the
Southern Dynasties were pushed to the south of
the Yangtze River. In 581, the Prime Minister of Northern Zhou, Yang
Jian, founded the
Sui dynasty (581-618). His son, the future Emperor
Yang of Sui, annihilated the Southern Chen (557-589), the last kingdom
of the Southern Dynasties, thereby unifying northern and southern
China. After the Sui came to an end amidst peasant rebellions and
renegade troops, his cousin, Li Yuan, founded the Tang dynasty
(618-907); Li led China to develop into one of the most prosperous
states in history. Sui and Tang dynasties were founded by Han Chinese
generals who also served the
Northern Wei dynasty. Through
these political establishments, the
Xianbei who entered China were
largely merged with the Han, examples such as the wife of Emperor
Gaozu of Tang, Duchess Dou and Emperor Taizong of Tang's (Li Shimin's)
wife, Empress Zhangsun, both have
Xianbei ancestries, while those
who remained behind in the northern grassland emerged as later powers
to rule over China.
Art of the
Xianbei portrayed their nomadic lifestyle and consisted
primarily of metalwork and figurines. The style and subjects of
Xianbei art were influenced by a variety of influences, and
Xianbei were known for emphasizing unique nomadic
motifs in artistic advancements such as leaf headdresses, crouching
and geometricized animals depictions, animal pendant necklaces, and
The leaf headdresses were very characteristic of
Xianbei culture, and
they are found especially in
Xianbei tombs. Their corresponding
ornamental style also links the
Xianbei to Bactria. These gold hat
ornaments represented trees and antlers and, in Chinese, they are
referred to as buyao (“step sway”) since the thin metal leaves
move when the wearer moves. Sun Guoping first uncovered this type of
artifact, and defined three main styles: “Blossoming Tree”
(huashu), which is mounted on the front of a cap near the forehead and
has one or more branches with hanging leaves that are circle or
droplet shaped, “Blossoming Top” (dinghua), which is worn on top
of the head and resembles a tree or animal with many leaf pendants,
and the rare “Blossoming Vine” (huaman), which consists of “gold
strips interwoven with wires with leaves.” Leaf headdresses were
made with hammered gold and decorated by punching out designs and
hanging the leaf pendants with wire. The exact origin, use, and wear
of these headdresses is still being investigated and determined.
However, headdresses similar to those later also existed and were worn
by women in the courts.
Another key form of
Xianbei art is animal iconography, which was
implemented primarily in metalwork. The
portrayed crouching animals in geometricized, abstracted, repeated
forms, and distinguished their culture and art by depicting animal
predation and same-animal combat. Typically, sheep, deer, and horses
were illustrated. The artifacts, usually plaques or pendants, were
made from metal, and the backgrounds were decorated with openwork or
mountainous landscapes, which harks back to the
lifestyle. With repeated animal imagery, an openwork background, and a
rectangular frame, the included image of the three deer plaque is a
paradigm of the
Xianbei art style. Concave plaque backings imply that
plaques were made using lost-wax casting, or raised designs were
impressed on the back of hammered metal sheets.
The nomadic traditions of the
Xianbei inspired them to portray horses
in their artwork. It is obvious that the horse played a large role in
the existence of the
Xianbei as a nomadic people, and in one tomb, a
horse skull lay atop
Xianbei bells, buckles, ornaments, a saddle, and
one gilded bronze stirrup. The
Xianbei not only created art for
their horses, but they also made art to depict horses. Another
recurring motif was the winged horse. It has been suggested by
archaeologist Su Bai that this symbol was a “heavenly beast in the
shape of a horse” because of its prominence in Xianbei
mythology. This symbol is thought to have guided an early Xianbei
southern migration, and is a recurring image in many
Figure of a
Xianbei warrior from the
Northern Dynasties (286-581 AD)
Xianbei figurines help to portray the people of the society by
representing pastimes, depicting specialized clothing, and implying
various beliefs. Most figurines have been recovered from Xianbei
tombs, so they are primarily military and musical figures meant to
serve the deceased in afterlife processions and guard the tomb.
Furthermore, the figurine clothing specifies the according social
Xianbei wore long-sleeved robes with a
straight neck shirt underneath, while lower-ranking
trousers and belted tunics.
Xianbei Buddhist influences were derived from interactions with Han
culture. The Han bureaucrats initially helped the
Xianbei run their
state, but eventually the
Xianbei became Sinophiles and promoted
Buddhism. The beginning of this conversion is evidenced by the Buddha
imagery that emerges in
Xianbei art. For instance, the included Buddha
imprinted leaf headdress perfectly represents the
and Buddhist synthesis since it combines both the traditional nomadic
Xianbei leaf headdress with the new imagery of Buddha. This Xianbei
religious conversion continued to develop in the
Northern Wei dynasty,
and ultimately led to the creation of the Yungang Grottoes.
Main article: Change of
Xianbei names to Han names
Xianbei clans adopted Han family names during Northern Wei
Dynasty. Below is a list of the
Xianbei clans that are known to have
been changed into Han family names.
The Northern Wei's Eight Noble
Xianbei surnames 八大贵族 were the
Buliugu 步六孤, Helai 賀賴, Dugu 獨孤, Helou 賀樓, Huniu
忽忸, Qiumu 丘穆, Gexi 紇奚, and Yuchi 尉遲.
The "Monguor" (Tu) people in modern China may have descended from the
Xianbei who were led by
Tuyuhun Khan to migrate westward and establish
Tuyuhun Kingdom (284-670) in the third century and Western Xia
(1038–1227) through the thirteenth century. Today they are
primarily distributed in Qinghai and Gansu Province, and speak a
The Xibe or "Xibo" people also believe they are descendants of the
Xianbei, with considerable controversies that have attributed their
origins to the Jurchens, the Elunchun, and the Xianbei.
Xianbei descendants among the Korean population carry surnames such as
Mo 모 Chinese: 慕; pinyin: mù; Wade–Giles: mu (shortened from
Murong), Seok Sŏk Sek 석 Chinese: 石; pinyin: shí; Wade–Giles:
shih (shortened from Wushilan 烏石蘭, Won Wŏn 원 Chinese: 元;
pinyin: yuán; Wade–Giles: yüan (the adopted Chinese surname of the
Tuoba), Dokgo 독고 Chinese: 獨孤; pinyin: Dúgū; Wade–Giles:
Tuku (from Dugu).
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Xianbei.
Xianbei names to Han names
List of Mongolian monarchs
Northern Wei Dynasty
Tribes in Chinese history
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Xianbei language(Chinese Traditional Big5 code page)
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