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Traditional Chinese 鮮卑
Simplified Chinese 鲜卑
Painting depicting a Xianbei archer
The Xianbei state (1st-3rd century).

The Xianbei (Chinese: 鮮卑; Wade–Giles: Hsien-pi) were proto-Mongols residing in what became today's eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeast China.


It is generally accepted that the Xianbei spoke a language related to the Mongolic 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. [1]


Chinese historical texts unequivocally state that the Xianbei were descendants of the Donghu, which used to be believed to represent the “Eastern Hu” based on the Chinese record. The Xianbei were a northern or northeastern Asian population according to modern Chinese and Russian anthropologists.[2]

Qin-Han era[edit]

After the Donghu were defeated by Modu Chanyu around 208 BCE, the Xianbei and Wuhuan survived as the main remnants of the confederation. The Book of the Later Han says that “the language and culture of the Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan”.[citation needed]

The Records of the Three Kingdoms 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.[3]

The 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 Han:

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.

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 Shensi and Kansu. China successfully repulsed their attacks in 158, 177 and 279[4]

Early state formation: Sixteen Kingdoms and the Northern Wei[edit]

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.[5][6][7]

Xianbei belt buckles, 3-4th century CE

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.[8] 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 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.[9][10] 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,[11] 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 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.[12]

Leaf Headdresses[edit]

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.”[13] 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.[12][13][14]

Animal Iconography[edit]

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.[15][16]


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.[17] 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.[15] 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.[18]

Buddhist Influences[edit]

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.[12]

Modern descendants[edit]

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.[19] 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.[20][21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Janhunen 2006, pp. 405-6.
  2. ^ Anthropology of Archaeological Populations from Northeast Asia*
  3. ^ SGZ 30. 837–838, note. 1.
  4. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 53–54. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9. 
  5. ^ Ma, Changshou [馬長壽] (1962). Wuhuan yu Xianbei [Wuhuan and Xianbei] 烏桓與鮮卑. Shanghai [上海], Shanghai ren min chu ban she [Shanghai People's Press] 上海人民出版社.
  6. ^ Liu, Xueyao [劉學銚] (1994). Xianbei shi lun [the Xianbei History] 鮮卑史論. Taibei [台北], Nan tian shu ju [Nantian Press] 南天書局.
  7. ^ Wang, Zhongluo [王仲荦] (2007). Wei jin nan bei chao shi [History of Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties] 魏晋南北朝史. Beijing [北京], Zhonghua shu ju [China Press] 中华书局.
  8. ^ Charles Holcombe, A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, p 68 Cambridge University Press, 2011
  9. ^ Chen, Yinke [陳寅恪], 1943, Tang dai zheng zhi shi shu lun gao [Manuscript of Discussions on the Political History of the Tang dynasty] 唐代政治史述論稿. Chongqing [重慶], Shang wu [商務].
  10. ^ Chen, Yinke [陳寅恪] and Tang, Zhenchang [唐振常], 1997, Tang dai zheng zhi shi shu lun gao [Manuscript of Discussions on the Political History of the Tang dynasty] 唐代政治史述論稿. Shanghai [上海], Shanghai gu ji chu ban she [Shanghai Ancient Literature Press] 上海古籍出版社.
  11. ^ Barbara Bennett Peterson (2000). Barbara Bennett Peterson, ed. Notable women of China: Shang dynasty to the early twentieth century (illustrated ed.). M.E. Sharpe. p. 181. ISBN 0-7656-0504-X. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  12. ^ a b c Watt, James C.Y. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD. Comp. An Jiayao, Angela F. Howard, Boris I. Marshak, Su Bai, and Zhao Feng. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. Print.
  13. ^ a b Laursen, Sarah. Leaves That Sway: Gold Xianbei Cap Ornaments from Northeast China. UPenn Repository. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=edissertations>.
  14. ^ http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=edissertations
  15. ^ a b Bunker, Emma C., and Zhixin Sun. "Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes: The Eugene V. Thaw and Other New York Collections." Google Books. Ed. James Watt. Yale University Press, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
  16. ^ Psarras, Sophia-Karin. "Han and Xiongnu: A Reexamination of Cultural and Political Relations (I)." Monumenta Serica. Vol. 51. N.p.: Monumenta Serica Institute, n.d. 55-236. Ser. 2003. J Stor. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40727370>.
  17. ^ Dien, Albert E. "The Stirrup and Its Effect on Chinese Military History." Ars Orientalis. Vol. 16. N.p.: Freer Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian Institution and Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan, n.d. 33-56. Ser. 1986. J Stor. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4629341>.
  18. ^ Dien, Albert E. Six Dynasties Civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007. Print.
  19. ^ Lü, Jianfu [呂建福], 2002. Tu zu shi [The Tu History] 土族史. Beijing [北京], Zhongguo she hui ke xue chu ban she [Chinese Social Sciences Press] 中囯社会科学出版社.
  20. ^ Liaoning Provincial Nationalities Research Institute 辽宁省民族硏究所 (1986). Xibo zu shi lun kao [Examination on the History of the Xibo Nationality] 锡伯族史论考. Shenyang, Liaoning Nationalities Press
  21. ^ Ji Nan [嵇南] and Wu Keyao [吳克尧] (1990). Xibo zu [Xibo Nationality] 锡伯族. Beijng, Nationalities Press.


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

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