Toba Establishes the Northern Wei Dynasty in China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the Period of Disunity, a nomadic tribe established a dynasty in Northern China that lasted until 534 c.e. and acted as the precursor to the reunification of China under the Sui.

Summary of Event

Following the demise of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), China was plunged into three and a half centuries of division, commonly referred to as the Period of Disunity. In the first stage, the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 c.e.), three kingdoms established hegemony in the southwest, southeast, and northern regions of China. This was followed by a tentative reunification under the Western Jin (Chin) from 280-316. (The Jin Dynasty was founded in 265 and became known as the Western Jin in 280, after conquering the Wu Dynasty.) Wendi Li Anshi

With the fall of the Jin, China again became divided between north and south (with the Huai River serving as the traditional line of demarcation). Starting in about 304, a succession of non-Chinese nomads established the so-called Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians in the north (304-439), while the south was ruled by a bewildering array of Chinese factions, each of whom installed their own dynasties. Amidst the social, political, and economic chaos of the period, one nomadic tribe, the Toba (T’o-pa), succeeded in establishing the longest dynasty of the period, effectively ruling northern China from 386-534 as the Northern Wei.

The ethnic origins of the Toba (a variant of their own name for themselves, Tabgatch) is still a matter of some controversy. One of three members of the Xianbei tribal confederation, consisting of nomadic herdsmen from southern Manchuria who had settled in southeastern Mongolia in the third century c.e., the Toba moved into northern modern-day Shanxi Province by 315. The Toba confederacy appears to have been composed of tribal units of Mongol and Turkish origins. Briefly establishing a small state in north-central China, known as the Dai, in 338, the Toba had capitulated to Tibetan rule (Earlier Qin, or Ch’in, Dynasty, 350?-394) in 376. Although subdued, the Toba were never effectively destroyed, and when the Qin, seeking to invade southern China, met with defeat in 383 at the Battle of the Fei River, the Toba quickly reasserted themselves. By 386, enjoying a strategic position along one of the principal invasion routes into north China, they had succeeded in gaining control over much of the region.

Abandoning their traditional nomadic lifestyle, the Toba established their capital at Datong (Ta-t’ung) in northern Shanxi. Faced with the need to feed a settled community, the Toba spent the next decade securing control of the fertile plains of eastern China. By 430 c.e., they had conquered all of northern China, moving as far south as the former Han capital of Luoyang, abandoned in 311. Mass migrations to the south following the chaos of the Han’s fall had severely depleted the population base in the north, leaving vast amounts of arable land abandoned. To reclaim the arid land, the Toba pursued a policy of mass deportation of conquered peoples into the region around Datong. An estimated 460,000 people were uprooted and moved during the reign of Dao Wudi, the first Toba emperor (r. 386-409).





Unlike their nomadic predecessors, the Toba began a deliberate process of sinicization from the outset. Datong was built in traditional Chinese style; the walled, rectangular city was oriented to the four compass points and included such features as an Ancestral Hall and Great Earth Mound. Lacking the administrative skills necessary to effectively govern an agricultural state, the Toba quickly turned to the Chinese landowning gentry. Cui Hao (Ts’ui Hao; 381-450) introduced Chinese administrative and penal codes into the new dynasty, and the Toba appointed resident Chinese gentry to governmental positions as representatives of the capital in their local district. This close collaboration would continue throughout the period and would prove to be both beneficial and detrimental to the Toba. In addition, the nomadic conquerors abandoned their traditional religion of shamanism and animism in favor of Buddhism and the indigenous tradition of Daoism, both of which would enjoy state support at various times.

In an effort to raise agricultural production, increase the tax base, provide tillable land for those deported and prevent farmer migration, the Toba introduced their most significant, and longest lasting, institution in 486 c.e. The land equalization system (juntian), created by Li Anshi, would remain in effect until 750. Under this plan, every adult (male and female) was entitled to a standard allotment of agricultural land, the typical family receiving approximately 14 acres (6 hectares). Eighty percent of the land was to be reserved for grain cultivation and ideally would gradually revert back to the state as the farmer grew older or became disabled, until at the individual’s death, all the land would be back in state control and subsequently redistributed to the young. The state collected an annual tax in grain from this “personal share land,” usually no more than one-thirtieth of the yield. The remaining 20 percent, the so-called “mulberry land” was to be held by the family in perpetuity, as long as it was maintained. This land was to be dedicated to permanent crops, most often mulberry trees, whose leaves would feed silkworms. A second tax in kind from the silkworm production was also collected. However, any crops grown under the trees were not taxable, thus effectively stimulating the creation and cultivation of very diversified crops.

In addition to the taxes in kind, every farmer owed the state twenty days of labor, or the payment of an extra tax. Most scholars doubt that the Toba were ever completely successful in carrying out this policy, necessitating as it did both zero population growth and strict continuous census taking, but it did serve as an effective check on the growth of the Chinese gentry and was practiced in various forms for nearly three centuries.

As the administrative apparatus grew, a steadily rising number of Chinese reclaimed prominence and power, while the Toba, at least those at the capital, increasingly viewed themselves as Chinese. The apex came during the reign of Emperor Wen (r. 471-499 c.e.). For both practical and political reasons, in 493, Wendi ordered the capital moved six hundred miles south of Datong, to the abandoned Han capital of Luoyang. From a practical standpoint, Datong was situated at the end of a very long supply line, perfectly appropriate for a seminomadic, steppe empire, but wholly inadequate for a new urbanized society. Luoyang, located on the Yellow River, provided easy access to waterborne transportation and was strategically positioned in the center of the most productive agricultural zone. In addition, from a political perspective, the growing Chinese contingent convinced the emperor that tradition and prestige dictated such a move. Wendi, who went by the extended name Xiao Wendi (Filial Cultured Emperor, reflective of the Chinese emphasis on filial piety), concurred, and ordered the immediate reconstruction of Luoyang on a grand scale; when finished, the new capital stretched 6 miles (nearly 10 kilometers) east to west, and 4.5 miles (more than 7 kilometers) north to south, containing a reported 1,367 monasteries. Wendi proclaimed that henceforth Chinese was to be the official language, all were to adopt Chinese dress, Chinese family names were to replace old tribal affiliations, and intermarriage was strongly encouraged. Wendi himself took the lead, changing the imperial family name to Yuan.

These events served as the death knell for the Toba nobility. Six hundred miles from their original tribes, unable to transfer their herds over such a distance, forbidden to return north, and ultimately left with nothing to do, they quickly became impoverished and resentful. While the court and its largely Chinese bureaucracy flourished, the Toba who remained on the steppe for defense grew to despise those in the capital, disgusted with their sinicized and sedentary life of luxury. The combination of disgruntled nobility and apprehensive military commanders, who viewed the rise of the Chinese bureaucracy as a threat to their own traditional power, would lead to the eventual downfall of the Northern Wei.

In 523, with the support of Toba nobility, the Rebellion of Six Garrisons, involving more than one million Toba, erupted onto the North China Plain. A ten-year civil war followed, in the course of which the Empress Regent Hu had Emperor Xiao Mingdi assassinated and replaced with a child. In response, the rebellious armies captured Luoyang, and drowned Hu and the child in the Yellow River; two thousand of her courtiers also perished. Finally, in 534, the two most powerful military leaders divided the kingdom between themselves, with the resultant Eastern Wei (534-550) reverting back to a nomadic, militaristic lifestyle, and the Western Wei (535-557) continuing as a sinicized state.


The Northern Wei emerged in the midst of political and social chaos to establish the longest single dynasty during the Period of Disunity. Politically, it provided an era of stability and prosperity for north China. Its economic policy and creation of the land equalization system not only benefited the peasant population but also laid the foundation for similar policies over the next three hundred years. The Toba’s self-conscious, and highly successful, sinicization would be repeated numerous times over the course of ensuing Chinese history, with the last, and perhaps most notable example being the Manchu/Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Culturally, the Northern Wei also created some of the most remarkable Buddhist cave temples and sculptures in the world. Begun in 460 c.e. at Yungang, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Datong, the first caves were dug by Buddhist monks under the leadership of Tanyao, appointed as head Buddhist monk by the emperor. Carved out of sandstone cliffs, there are fifty-three caves containing more than 51,000 (out of an estimated 100,000) statues and bas-reliefs of the Buddha and other figures, the largest a seated Buddha measuring 56 feet (17 meters) high and 52 feet (16 meters) wide. Once the capital was moved to Luoyang, work stopped at Yungang, and a new cave complex begun at Longmen near the capital. Here, more than 1,300 caves contain 100,000 scultures, several Buddhist pagodas and numerous inscriptions distributed through 2,100 grottoes and niches. The work in both of these complexes represents some of the earliest examples of stone carving in China and are considered the high point of Buddhist artistic expression.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. A concise history with a well-balanced section on the Northern Wei.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenner, W. J. F. Memories of Loyang: Yang Hsüan-chih and the Lost Capital (493-534). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1981. A highly readable and interesting account of the new capital at Luoyang.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mather, Richard B. “K’ou Ch’ien-chih and the Taoist Theocracy at the Northern Wei Court, 425-451.” In Facets of Taoism, edited by Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. An excellent study of the impact Daoism had on the early history of the dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodzinski, Witold. A History of China. New York: Pergamon Press, 1979. Another good account of the basic history of this period.
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Categories: History