It is believed that the Tuoba Xianbei (also known as the Toba Wei and the Tabgatch) developed an independent cultural identity separating them from the larger cultural milieu of Eastern Hu peoples of northern China sometime in the first century BCE. No mention of the Xianbei appears in the annals of Chinese history until later, yet it is the Tuoba Xianbei's own legends have helped to establish an approximate place of origin for this people. The Xianbei creation myth has their earliest ancestors emerging from a sacred cave, the location of which was lost to the Tuoba Xianbei themselves. According to the Weishu, the history of the Northern Wei dynasty later founded by the Tuoba Xianbei, in 443 CE a contingent of horsemen known as the Wuluohou asked for an audience with the Northern Wei emperor Tuoba Dao. They informed him that their people had heard of a cave located in what is now the Elunhchun Autonomous Banner in northeastern Inner Mongolia. The local inhabitants worshiped this cave as a Xianbei ancestral shrine, a fact that convinced Tuoba Dao that the legendary cave that gave birth to his people had been located. The Weishu goes on to say that the emperor sent an emissary, Li Chang, to investigate the report. Li Chang verified the story, and held various ceremonies to worship the Xianbei ancestors, and left an inscription describing the ceremonies. The cave, known today as Gaxian cave site, and the inscription were discovered in 1980 by archaeologists. This find and other historical and archaeological evidence has helped to verify that the Tuoba Xianbei probably emigrated south from this area sometime in the early first century CE.1
By the mid-third century CE, Xianbei controlled much of northern China, from Hebei and Shanxi to the Daqing Mountains in Inner Mongolia. In 258 a Xianbei confederation was formed, and a few decades later came to the aid of the Western Jin dynasty, who were under attack from an army led by a Liu Yuan, a man of Xiongnu descent who made an unsuccessful bid to reestablish the Xiongnu empire. As a reward, the Western Jin granted the Xianbei leader, Tuoba Yituo, a fiefdom and military rank. This, however, was not enough to put an end to Xiongnu ambitions. They sacked the Western Jin capital in 311 CE and established the brief reign later referred to in Chinese histories as the Former Qin.
The Former Qin court forcibly removed the Xianbei to Shandong province, removed their leader to their capital Changan as hostage, took away their herds and stationed troops that forced them to engage in agriculture. By the late 380s the Former Qin dynasty had effectively collapsed after a failed attempt to conquer southern China, and the hostage Xianbei leader, Tuoba Gui, took the opportunity to establish his own reign as King of the State of Wei in 386. In 398, with much of northern China was under his control, Tuoba Gui set up the capital of the Northern Wei empire of Pingcheng (modern Datong in Shaanxi).2 After repeated attacks from nomadic groups moving south from Outer Mongolia, in 429 the Northern Wei launched a decade-long military campaign, forcing the nomads to submit and effectively securing their northern border.
The Northern Wei dynasty proceeded to effectively rule what would become the longest-lived and most powerful of the northern empires prior to the reunification of northern and southern China under the Sui and Tang dynasties. Trade flourished between China and Central Asia, and the influence of Indian artistic styles is particularly evident in the art of the Northern Wei period. Like the Mongols a millennium later, the Xianbei came to rely heavily on Han Chinese administrators and bureaucrats to help run the state. This close contact with Chinese culture helped transform the Xianbei aristocratic class from nomadic horsemen to Sinophilic urbanites. Important and influential families (including the imperial family) adopted Chinese surnames, abandoned traditional dress for Chinese fashions, and perhaps most importantly for Chinese art history, converted to Buddhism, which they enthusiastically patronized.
Great wealth and large parcels of land were donated to Buddhist monasteries, which would later lead to a serious drain of capital and a real threat to the state. But for most of the fifth century, Buddhism received the virtually unrestrained support of the Northern Wei court, except during a brief period from 446 to 452, when the emperor Dai Wudi (423-452) made Daoism the religion of state, and brutally persecuted Buddhism and its clergy and monasteries, as well as its art, literature and architecture. Upon Wudi's death, the persecution ended, and generous court sponsorship of Buddhism resumed. The highlight of this sponsorship is arguably the cave temples of Yungang, and the eclectic monumental icons that so clearly demonstrate the Northern Wei sculptural style.
While the sinicization of the Northern Wei rulers pleased the empire's Chinese subjects, it alienated those Tuoba Xianbei who desired to retain their ethnic identity. Feeling abandoned by their own rulers in favor of Chinese subjects, compounded by the loss of capital through extravagant patronage of Buddhist culture, led to a military uprising in 524. A few years later, a full civil war exploded after the empress Hu had the emperor Xiao Mingdi assassinated in order to put her son on the throne. Both she and her child were killed in 534, and the empire was split into two halves, ruled by the Eastern and Western Wei dynasties, which would rule only for a number of decades until the establishment of the Sui dynasty in 589.
(1) Adam T. Kessler, Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Genghis Khan (Los Angeles: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1993), pp. 70-73.
(2) Ibid, p. 81.