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The Xianbei (Hsien-pei; simplified Chinese: 鲜卑; traditional Chinese: 鮮卑; pinyin: Xiānbēi; Wade–Giles: Hsien1-pei1, "Syambi" or "Sumbe" in Mongolian) were an ancient, significant Mongolic nomadic people residing in what became today's eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeast China.
Chinese historical texts unequivocally state that the Xianbei were descendants of the Donghu. They were a northern or northeastern Asian Mongoloid population according to modern Chinese and Russian anthropologists. The Donghu are mentioned by Sima Qian as already existing in Inner Mongolia north of the state of Yan in 699–632 BC. Mentions in the Lost Book of Zhou (Yizhoushu) and the Shanhaijing indicate the Donghu were also active during the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC). The Upper Xiajiadian culture is sometimes associated with the Donghu. Donghu, and therefore the Xianbei, were also heirs of the horse-riding nomadic way of life first seen in the Afanasevo culture (3500–2500 BC) in Mongolia. They were a Shamanists, pastoralist, yurt-dwelling warlike people fond of epic poetry, wrestling, horse racing, archery, fur hats and fermented mare's milk. The Mongolic-speaking Xianbei formed a part of the Donghu confederation, but had earlier times of independence, as evidenced by a mention in the Guoyu ("晉語八" section) which states that during the reign of King Cheng of Zhou (reigned 1042–1021 BC) the Xianbei (鮮卑) came to participate at a meeting of Zhou subject-lords at Qiyang (岐阳) (now Qishan County) but were only allowed to perform the fire ceremony under the supervision of Chu (楚), since they were not vassals by covenant (诸侯). The Xianbei chieftain was appointed joint guardian of the ritual torch along with Xiong Yi. These early Xianbei came from the nearby Zhukaigou culture (2200–1500 BC) north in the Ordos Desert where maternal DNA corresponds to Mongolic Daurs and Evenks (Tungusified Xianbei). The Zhukaigou Xianbei (part of the Ordos culture of Inner Mongolia and northern Shaanxi) had trade relations with the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC). The Xianbei may have come to Qiyang as one of the Donghu tribes or as a separate Mongolic tribe. Whatever the case, they later formed an integral part of the Donghu confederation and took part in its various wars. As a nomadic confedation composed mainly of the Xianbei and Wuhuan, the Donghu were prosperous in the 4th century BC during the later Zhou dynasty, forcing surrounding tribes to pay tribute and constantly harassing the State of Zhao (325 BC, during the early years of the reign of Wuling) and the State of Yan (in 304 BC Qin Kai, general of King Zhao of Yan, was given as a hostage to the Donghu). The Donghu, who were ruled by a king, enjoyed a golden age in the 4th century BC before Wuling and Qin Kai retaliated by adopting Donghu clothing and battle tactics and the North Wall of the Yan State was built to keep the Donghu out. Despite losing battles to Wuling and Qin Kai the Donghu were still powerful and prosperous (according to Sima Qian) until 209 BC when the Xiongnu rose to put an end to their dominance.
After the Donghu were defeated by Modu Chanyu around 208 BC the Xianbei and Wuhuan survived as the main remnants of the confederation. The Hou Hanshu says that “the language and culture of the Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan”. Tadun of the Wuhuan (died 207 AD) was the ancestor of the proto-Mongolic Kumo Xi (aka Tatabi). The Weishu (Description of the Khitan, Vol. 1000, 2221) records that the Kumo Xi and Khitan (descendants of the Xianbei) spoke the same language. In 49 AD the Mongolic Xianbei ruler Bianhe (Bayan Khan?) raided and defeated the Xiongnu, killing 2000, after having received generous gifts from Emperor Guangwu of Han. In 54 AD the Xianbei rulers Yuchoupen and Mantu presented themselves to the Han emperor and received the titles of wang and gou. Until 93 AD the Xianbei were quietly protecting the Chinese border from Wuhuan and Xiongnu attacks and received ample rewards. From 93 AD the Xianbei began to occupy the lands of the Xiongnu. 100,000 Xiongnu families changed their name to Xianbei. In 97 AD Feijuxian in Liaodong was attacked by the Xianbei, and the governor Qi Sen was dismissed for inaction. Other Xianbei rulers who were active before the rise of the Xianbei emperor Tanshihuai (141–181) were Yanzhiyang, Lianxu and Cizhiqian. Cizhiqian fought against the Han dynasty in the period 121–132 with mixed results. The Xianbei reached their peak under Tanshihuai Khan (reigned 156–181) who expanded the vast, but short lived, Xianbei Empire.
Tanshihuai was born in 141. According to the Hou Hanshu his father Touluhou had been serving in the Southern Xiongnu army for three years. Returning from his military duties Touluhou was furious to discover that his wife had become pregnant and given birth to a son. He ordered the child put to death. His wife replied: “When I was walking through the open steppe a huge storm developed with much lightning and thunder. As I was looking upward a piece of hail fell into my mouth, which I unknowingly swallowed. I soon found out I had gotten pregnant. After 10 months this son was born. This must be a child of wonder. It is better to wait and see what happens.” Touluhou did not heed her words, so Tanshihuai was brought up secretly in the ger (yurt) of relatives. When Tanshihuai was around 14 or 15 years old he had become brave and sturdy with talent and ability. Once people from another tribe robbed his maternal grandparent's herds. Tanshihuai pursued them alone, fought the robbers and managed to retrieve all the lost herds. His fame spread rapidly among the Xianbei tribes and many came to respect and trust him. He then put some laws and regulations in force and decided between litigants. Nobody dared to violate those laws and regulations. Because of this, he was elected supreme leader of the Xianbei tribes at the age of 15 and established his ordo (palace) at Mount Darkhan. He defeated the Dingling to the north (around Lake Baikal), Buyeo to the east (north of Korea) and the Wusun to the west (Xinjiang and Ili River). His empire stretched 7000 km and included all the lands of the former Xiongnu.
The Sanguo Zhi records:
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 Tanshihuai.
Uneasiness at the Han court about this development of a new power on the steppes finally ushered in a campaign on the northern border to annihilate the confederacy once and for all. In 177 A.D., 30,000 Han cavalry attacked the confederacy, commanded by Xia Yu (夏育), Tian Yan (田晏) and Zang Min (臧旻), each of whom was the commander of units sent respectively against the Wuhuan, the Qiang, and the Southern Xiongnu before the campaign. Each military officer commanded 10,000 cavalrymen and advanced north on three different routes, aiming at each of the three federations. Cavalry units commanded by chieftains of each of the three federations almost annihilated the invading forces. Eighty percent of the troops were killed and the three officers, who only brought tens of men safely back, were relieved from their posts.
The Hou Hanshu records a memorial submitted in 177 AD:
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 AD is recorded by the Hou Hanshu:
The 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.
Tanshihuai died in 181 at the age of 40. The Xianbei state of Tanshihuai fragmented following the fall of Budugen (reigned 187–234), who was the younger brother of Kuitoi (reigned 185–187). Kuitou was the nephew of Tanshihuai's incapable son and successor Helian (reigned 181–185).
The 3rd century AD saw both the fragmentation of the Xianbei Empire in 235 and the branching out of the various Xianbei tribes later to establish significant empires of their own. The most prominent branches are the Murong, Tuoba, Khitan, Shiwei and Rouran. These tribes spoke Mongolic (or Para-Mongolic) languages. The Murong tribe were descendants of the tribal division ruled by Murong, the Xianbei chief of the central section under Tanshihuai. Murong Mohuba actively supported Sima Yi's Liaodong campaign in 238, leading an auxiliary Murong force. Mohuba was succeeded in 246 by his son Muyan (木延) who also aided the Cao Wei campaign against the Goguryeo that same year. The Former Yan (337–370), Western Yan (384–394), Later Yan (384–409) dynasties as well as the Tuyuhun Kingdom (285–670) were all later founded by the Murong. The Tuoba (Tabgach) tribe started their rise with Tuoba Liwei (219–277) who was the ancestor of the future Northern Wei Dynasty and was thus posthumously honored as Emperor Shenyuan, with the temple name Shizu. The Khitan tribe formed part of the Yuwen Xianbei under Yuwen Mohuai (reigned 260–293). They separated from the Yuwen along with the Kumo Xi in 344 and finally separated from the Kumo Xi in 388 beginning their independent history. The Khitan later established the Dahe Confederation (618–730), the Yaonian Khaganate (730–906), the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) and the Kara-Khitan Khanate (1124–1218). The Shiwei tribe, like the Tuoba, were originally located to the north of the Murong and Khitan. While the Tuoba migrated south and established the State of Dai (310–376) and Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) the Shiwei remained in the north but eventually paid tribute to the Northern Wei (for example the Wuluohu sub-tribe started paying tribute in 444). Known also as the Tatars the Shiwei would later establish the Khamag Mongol Khanate (1125–1206), the Mongol Empire (1206–1368), the Northern Yuan Dynasty (1368–1635) and the Zungar Empire (1640–1756). The Rouran tribe remained in Outer Mongolia after the fragmentation of the Xianbei Empire. Yujiuliu Muguliu (reigned early 4th century) was the first ancestor of the Rouran khagans. Yujiuliu Shelun was the first major steppe leader to use the title “Khagan” in 402. The Rouran (also called Jujuan, Juanjuan and Nirun) are sometimes equated with the Avars. The Avar khagan Bayan I has both a Mongol name (meaning 'rich') and title. The Göktürks relentlessly pursued the Rouran (whose subjects they formerly were) west all the way to Crimea in the 550s–570s.
The Xianbei were descendants of the Donghu, which used to be believed to represent the “Eastern Hu” based on the Chinese record. Now most Chinese historians believe that Donghu by itself was an ethnonym, rather than having derived from their location on the east of the Xiongnu. Whereas Donghu was a Chinese transcription, the Mongolian reference was “Tünghu”. Later they migrated south and westward into areas of the modern Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, and Liaoning. Possibly some Xianbei groups also lived in ancient Eastern Heilongjiang or Hulun[disambiguation needed] Manchu Imperial province, currently Khabarovsk and Amur regions in the Russian Far East.
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. 
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.” 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 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.  
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 Xianbei art forms.
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.
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.
It is generally accepted that the Shiwei branch of the Xianbei spoke a Mongolic language. The core Borjigid Mongols of Genghis Khan are the Mengwu Shiwei. The Proto-Mongolic language, archaic features of 13th century written Mongolian as well as Mongolic loanwords in Old Turkic reflect the early Shiwei language. The Khitan language, a Mongolic language, has several closed systems of lexical items for which systematic information is available and which show that the language was Mongolic. These include seasons, numbers, animals, directions and natural objects. The fact that these two major Xianbei branches spoke Mongolic is enough for some to acknowledge that the Xianbei spoke Mongolic. Two more branches showing evidence of being Mongolic are the Murong (included in the core of the Xianbei during Tanshihuai's reign) and the Tuoba. According to the Dunhuang Documents (P. 1283, in Tibetan) the "language of the Khitan and that of the Tuyuhun could generally communicate with each other". This shows that the Murong spoke a language closely related to Khitan. The earliest attestation of the Mongolic title 'Khagan' is among the Murong Xianbei between 283 to 289. The Mongolic word 'Agan' (elder brother) is also attestable from a Murong Xianbei song composed in 285. Many Tuoba words are Mongolic such as holan (many), eulen (cloud), ezhen (owner), akan (brother), shilu (high mountain), chino (wolf), kapagchin (doorkeeper), tapagchin (infantryman), bitigchin (scribe), kelmorchin (interpreter), sagdagchin (quiver-bearer), qitgaichin (executioner), portogchin (post-office clerk) and tawusun (dust). Of these the most important is the Tuoba word for cloud 'eulen' (Pinyin: youlian) which is not only exclusively Mongolic (i.e. not found in Turkic or Tungusic) but can also be directly compared to the Khitan word for cloud (eu.ul) and the Shiwei word for cloud (e'ule). This makes possible an accurate reconstruction of the Xianbei word for cloud as spoken in the time of Tanshihuai (141-181) and before. These four important branches, the Shiwei, Khitan, Murong and Tuoba all arose as discernible entities in the middle of the 3rd century just after the Xianbei Empire had fallen in 235. They were continuations of the original Xianbei populations. The fact that the Rouran branch of the Xianbei used the title 'Khagan' independently of the Murong shows their close continuity with the early Xianbei. Certain words and names of the Rouran also indicate a Mongolic identity. The fact that the Weishu states the Kumo Xi spoke the same language as the Khitan and that the Hou Hanshu states the Wuhuan spoke the same language as the Xianbei indicate relative linguistic homogeneity within the Xianbei and a common Mongolic identity of the Wuhuan and Xianbei as remnants of the Donghu confederation.
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. Items with Mongolic roots and/or suffixes and apparently borrowed into Turkic in this period include Old Turkic balbal ‘statue (of a slain enemy)’ < Mongolic *bari.mal ‘structure’ (from *bari- ‘to grab; to construct’), kertü ‘true’ < Mongolic *gere.tü ‘evident’ (from *gere ‘light’), qarghu ‘watchtower’ < Mongolic *kara.xu (from *kara- ‘to watch’), and yalawac ‘envoy’ (< *yala.ba.ci ‘invitee’, from Mongolic jala- ‘to invite’). In many other cases criteria for the direction of borrowing are missing, as in Turko-Mongolic *kom (qom) ‘a piece of felt placed under the pack on a camel’.
Other Xianbei words :
- chjichjeni (Chinese pronunciation) — Mongolian: tsetsen (wise)
- bidechjeni — Mongolian: bicheech (typist)
- chjeguichjeni — Middle Mongolian: juuchin Modern Mongolian: zuuchin (letter carrier)
- fuchjeni — Middle Mongolian: buurchin. This word used in Secret History of the Mongols. (cook)
- fuchjuchjeni — Mongolian: örtööchin (relay stationist): Ortoo
- hulochjeni — Mongolian: horchin (weapon keeper/carrier)
- kebochjeni — Mongolian: haalgachin (doorkeeper)
- pudachjieni — Mongolian: bogtagchin (woman who keeps noble's clothes)
- syanchjeni — Mongolian: zamchin (guide, middleman)
- tsihaichjeni — Mongolian: gesgeegchin (executioner)
- tsivanchjeni — Mongolian: helmerch (translator)
- uaichjeni — Mongoian: üizen (title of clerk/noble)
- yanchjeni — Mongolian: yamutan Modern Mongolian: yazguurtan (noble)
During the Sixteen Kingdoms (304-439) period, the Xianbei founded six kingdoms in China proper, including 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.
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 Northern China inhabited by Xianbei and other nomadic peoples. 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 Guang, 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 Shimin, 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.
Today the "Monguor" as known in the West and as “Tu Zu” in 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. Today they are primarily distributed in Qinghai and Gansu Province, and speak an Altaic Mongolic language. The multi-ethnic environment and relative distant distribution in the northwest, detached from the political centers of China, have enabled them to preserve their language and culture until the present times.
The Xibe or "Xi Bo" people also believed themselves to be descendants of the Xianbei, with considerable controversies that have attributed their origins to the Jurchens, the Elunchun, and the Xianbei. Since they were historically referred to as "Suolun people" and spoke Tungus rather than Mongolic language, they may have derived their origins from one or more fractions of the Xianbei or other ethnic groups subjugated by the Xianbei. While most of the Xianbei went south and westward to establish different empires, they remained behind in Manchuria until subjugated by the Jurchens who moved southward from the Tungus Plains in Eastern Russia.
- Change of Xianbei names to Han names
- List of Mongolian monarchs
- Northern Wei Dynasty
- Xianbei state
- Sixteen Kingdoms
- Tribes in Chinese history
- Wu Hu
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