The Xianbei (/ʃjɛnˈb/; Chinese: 鮮卑; pinyin: Xiānbēi) were an ancient nomadic people that once resided in the eastern Eurasian steppes in what is today Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern China. 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 3rd 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. After suffering several defeats by the end of the Three Kingdoms period, the Xianbei migrated south and settled in close proximity to Chinese society and submitted as vassals, being granted the titles of Dukes. As the Xianbei Murong, Tuoba and Duan tribes were one of the Five Barbarians who were vassals of the Han Chinese Western Jin and Eastern Jin dynasties, they took part in the Uprising of the Five Barbarians as allies of the Han Chinese Eastern Jin against the other four barbarians, the Xiongnu, Jie, Di and Qiang. The Xianbei were at one point all defeated and conquered by the Di Former Qin empire before it fell apart at the Battle of Fei River at the hands of the Eastern Jin. The Xianbei later founded their own states and reunited northern China as the Northern Wei. These states opposed and promoted sinicization at one point or another but trended towards the latter and had merged with the general Chinese population by the Tang dynasty.[1][2][3][1][4][2][5][6]


Paul Pelliot tentatively reconstructs the Later Han Chinese pronunciation of 鮮卑 as *serbi after noting that Chinese scribes used 鮮 to transcribe Middle Persian sēr (lion). Same root might be the origin of the related Shiwei and Sibe people.

The other character was used to transcribe foreign syllable /pi/; for instance, Sanskrit गोपी gopī "milkmaid, cowherdess" into Middle Chinese (kɨoH-piᴇ ).

Moreover, 室韦 (Chinese: 室韋; pinyin: ShìwéiMC *ɕiɪt̚-ɦʉi < *sirwi)is possibly the later form of Xiānbēi.

Shimunek (2018) uses the name serbi for Xianbei and shirwi for Shiwei (室韦):

Shirwi *χon 'ten' ← OTrk dial. *hon ~ *hun 'ten'. This Shirwi word is unrelated to Middle Mongol harba-n 'ten' and its Middle Kitan cognate *par 'ten'. The Shirwi numeral is explainable as a replacement of the earlier Common Serbi-Mongolic form due to the prestige of a neighboring Old Turkic dialect.[7]

*Särpi may be linked, on the one hand, to Mongolic root *ser ~*sir which means "crest, bristle, sticking out, projecting, etc." (cf. Khalkha сэрвэн which means "crest, bristle, sticking out, projecting").

On the other hand, Mänchen-Helfen considers *särpi to be an Indo-European loanword (cf. Greek ἅρπη "sickle, bird of prey",[8] Latvian sirpis "sickle", etc.).


Xianbei tomb mural
Xianbei horseman
Xianbei cavalry


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”.[9]

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.[10]

In 49, the governor Ji Tong convinced the Xianbei chieftain Pianhe to turn on the Xiongnu with rewards for each Xiongnu head they collected.[10] In 54, Yuchouben and Mantou of the Xianbei paid tribute to Emperor Guangwu of Han.[11]

In 58, the Xianbei chieftain Pianhe attacked and killed Xinzhiben, a Wuhuan leader causing trouble in Yuyang Commandery.[12]

In 85, the Xianbei secured an alliance with the Dingling and Southern Xiongnu.[10]

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.[13]

Xianbei Conferedation

After the downfall of the Xiongnu, the Xianbei established their confederation in Mongolia starting from AD 93.

In 109, the Wuhuan and Xianbei attacked Wuyuan Commandery and defeated local Han forces.[14] The Southern Xiongnu chanyu Wanshishizhudi rebelled against the Han and attacked the Emissary Geng Chong but failed to oust him. Han forces under Geng Kui retaliated and defeated a force of 3,000 Xiongnu but could not take the Southern Xiongnu capital due to disease among the horses of their Xianbei allies.[14]

The Xianbei under Qizhijian raided Han territory four times from 121 to 138. .[15] In 145, the Xianbei raided Dai Commandery.[16]

Around 155, the northern Xiongnu were "crushed and subjugated" by the Xianbei. Their chief, known by the Chinese as Tanshihuai, 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. Han dynasty successfully repulsed their attacks in 158, 177. The Xianbei might have also attacked Wa (Japan) with some success.[17][18][19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

Three Kingdoms

Xianbei hunter

The loose Xianbei confederacy lacked the organization of the Xiongnu but was highly aggressive until the death of their khan Tanshihuai in 182.[22] Tanshihuai's son Helian lacked his father's abilities and was killed in a raid on Beidi in 186.[23] 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. 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.[24] 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.[25]

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 the Wei for frustrating his advances on another Xianbei khan, Sui. Kebineng conducted raids on Cao Wei before he was killed in 235, after which his confederacy disintegrated.[26]

Many of the Xianbei tribes migrated south and settled on the borders of the Wei-Jin dynasties. In 258 Tuoba Liwei's people settled in Yanmen Commandery.[27] The Yuwen tribe settled between the Luan River and Liucheng. The Murong and Duan tribes became vassals of the Sima clan. An offshoot of the Murong tribe moved west into northern Qinghai and mixed with the native Qiang people, becoming Tuyuhun.[10]

In 279, the Xianbei made one last attack on Liang Province but they were defeated by Ma Long[disambiguation needed].[17]

Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Wei

Northern dynasties horseman
Eastern Wei cavalry

The 3rd century saw both the fragmentation of the Xianbei in 235 and the branching out of the various Xianbei tribes.

The Xianbei tribes Tuoba, Murong and Duan submitted to the Western Jin dynasty as vassals, the Tuoba were made Dukes of Dai (Sixteen Kingdoms), the Murong were made Dukes of Liaodong, and the Duan were made Dukes of Liaoxi. The three Xianbei tribes fought on the Western Jin side against the other four barbarians in the Uprising of the Five Barbarians after a Xiongnu and Jie led slave revolt toppled Western Jin rule in northern China. Mass number of Chinese officers, soldiers and civilians fled south to join the Eastern Jin or north to join the Xianbei duchies which remained in direct communication with the Eastern Jin in southern China, receiving orders.

The Xianbei later 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). The Xianbei were all conquered by the Di Former Qin empire in northern China before its defeat at the Battle of Fei River and subsequent collapse.

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.[28][29][30]

Xianbei belt buckles, 3-4th century AD

Sinicization and assimilation

Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei established 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.

The Northern Wei started to arrange for Han Chinese elites to marry daughters of the Xianbei Tuoba royal family in the 480s.[31] More than fifty percent of Tuoba Xianbei princesses of the Northern Wei were married to southern Han Chinese men from the imperial families and aristocrats from southern China of the Southern dynasties who defected and moved north to join the Northern Wei.[32] 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,[33][34][35][36][37][38] 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.[39] 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.[40]

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.[41]

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 inhabited by Xianbei and other nomadic peoples.[42] The former evolved into the 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.[43][44] Through these political establishments, the Xianbei who entered China were largely merged with the Chinese, 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,[45] while those who remained behind in the northern grassland emerged as later powers to rule over China as Mongol Yuan Dynasty and Manchu Qing Dynasty.

In the West, the Xianbei kingdom of Tuyuhun remained independent until defeated by the Tibetan Empire in 670. After the fall of the kingdom, the Xianbei people underwent a massive diasporas over a vast territory that stretched from the northwest into central and eastern parts of China. Murong Nuohebo led the Tuyuhun people to migrated eastward into central China and settled in modern Yinchuan, Ningxia.


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 ultimately, the Xianbei were known for emphasizing unique nomadic motifs in artistic advancements such as leaf headdresses, crouching and geometricized animals depictions, animal pendant necklaces, and metal openwork.[46]

Leaf headdresses

The leaf headdresses were very characteristic of Xianbei culture, and they are found especially in Murong 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.”[47] 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.[46][47][48]

Animal iconography

Another key form of Xianbei art is animal iconography, which was implemented primarily in metalwork. The Xianbei stylistically 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 Xianbei nomadic 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.[49][50]


The nomadic traditions of the Xianbei inspired them to portray horses in their artwork. 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.[51] 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.[49] This symbol is thought to have guided an early Xianbei southern migration, and is a recurring image in many Xianbei art forms.


Figure of a Xianbei warrior from the Northern Dynasties (286-581 AD) era

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 statuses: higher-ranking Xianbei wore long-sleeved robes with a straight neck shirt underneath, while lower-ranking Xianbei wore trousers and belted tunics.[52]

Buddhist influences

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 Xianbei conversion 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.[46]


It is widely theorized that the Xianbei spoke a language related to the Mongolic languages or Turkic languages. Claus Schönig writes:

The 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 Xianbei and 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 of the 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 Xianbei period, yielding the first identifiable layer of Mongolic (or Para-Mongolic) loanwords in Turkic. [53]

It is also possible that the Xianbei spoke more than one language.[54]


The origins of the Xianbei are unclear. It is proven that they were a Mongoloid population. Chinese anthropologist Zhu Hong and Zhang Quan‐chao studied Xianbei crania from several sites of Inner Mongolia and noticed that anthropological features of studied Xianbei crania show that the racial type is closely related to the modern East-Asian Mongoloids, and some physical characteristics of those skulls are closer to modern Mongols, Manchu and Han Chinese.[55]

The Xianbei may have had a predisposition to yellow hair. During a confrontation between Emperor Ming of Jin and a rebel force in 324, his enemies were confused by his appearance, and thought he was a Xianbei due to his yellow beard.[56]


Genetic studies published in 2006 and 2015 revealed that the mitochondrial haplogroups of Xianbei remains were overwhelmingly of East Asian origin. According to Zhou (2006) the haplogroup frequencies of the Tuoba Xianbei were 43.75% haplogroup D, 31.25% haplogroup C, 12.5% haplogroup B, 6.25% haplogroup A and 6.25% "other."[57]

Zhou (2014) obtained mitochondrial DNA analysis from 17 Tuoba Xianbei, which indicated that these specimens were, similarly, completely East Asian in their maternal origins, belonging to haplogroups D, C, B, A and haplogroup G.[58]

Notable people


  • Kebineng (軻比能, died 235), a Xianbei chieftain who lived during the late Eastern Han dynasty and Three Kingdoms period

Sixteen Kingdoms

Northern dynasties



Modern descendants

Most Xianbei clans adopted Chinese family names during Northern Wei Dynasty. Below is a list of the Xianbei clans that are known to have been changed into Chinese 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 the Tuyuhun Kingdom (284-670) in the third century and Western Xia (1038–1227) through the thirteenth century.[59] Today they are primarily distributed in Qinghai and Gansu Province, and speak a Mongolic language.

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.[60][61]

Xianbei descendants among the Korean population carry surnames such as Mo 모 Chinese: ; pinyin: ; Wade–Giles: mu (shortened from Murong), Seok Sŏk Sek 석 Chinese: ; pinyin: shí; Wade–Giles: shih (shortened from Wushilan 烏石蘭, Won Wŏn 원 Chinese: ; pinyin: yuán; Wade–Giles: yüan (the adopted Chinese surname of the Tuoba), Dokgo 독고 Chinese: 獨孤; pinyin: Dúgū; Wade–Giles: Tuku (from Dugu).[62][63][64][65][66][67][68]

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  • Crespigny, Rafe de (2007), A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms, Brill
  • Crespigny, Rafe de (2010), Imperial Warlord, Brill
  • Crespigny, Rafe de (2017), Fire Over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty, 23-220 AD, Brill
  • Twitchett, Denis (2008), The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, Cambridge University Press

Juha Janhunen (27 January 2006). The Mongolic Languages. Routledge. p. 393. ISBN 978-1-135-79690-7.

External links