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The Xianbei state at its maximum extent
|Capital||Near the Orkhon River, Mongolia|
|History of Mongolia|
Part of a series on the
|History of Manchuria|
The Xianbei state or Xianbei confederation was a nomadic empire which existed in modern-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, northern Xinjiang, Northeast China, Gansu, Buryatia, Zabaykalsky Krai, Irkutsk Oblast, Tuva, Altai Republic and eastern Kazakhstan from 156-234. Like most ancient peoples known through Chinese historiography, the ethnic makeup of the Xianbei is unclear.
After the downfall of the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, who were a northern branch of the Donghu, established domination in Mongolia starting from AD 93.
[F]rom the middle of the first century, the nomadic tribes that replaced the Xiongnu in Mongolia were collectively called the Xianbei. ... It should be pointed out that the names of the various peoples, or subdivisions of peoples, who came into China at this time do not indicate distinct ethnicities.
The Xianbei state reached its height under the rule of the khagan Tanshihuai (141–181).
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, 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. A Han memorial submitted in 177 states:
Ever since the [northern] Xiongnu ran away, the Xianbei have become powerful and populous, taking all the lands previously held by the Xiongnu 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 states:
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.— Book of the Later Han
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 economic base of the Xianbei was animal husbandry combined with agricultural practice. They were the first to develop the khanate system, in which formation of social classes deepened, and developments also occurred in their literacy, arts and culture. They used a zodiac calendar and favored song and music. Tengrism was the main religion among the Xianbei people. After they lost control over Mongolia, their descendants in North China later became fully versed in Chinese cultural traditions.
In 235, Cao Wei, the state that succeeded the Eastern Han (25–220) in North China, assassinated the last khagan of the Xianbei, Kebineng, and caused the disintegration of the Xianbei state. After the fall of the last khans, Budugen and Kebineng, in 234, the Xianbei state began to split into a number of smaller independent domains. The third century saw both the fragmentation of the Xianbei state in 235 and the branching out of the various Xianbei tribes later to establish significant empires of their own. The most prominent branches were the Murong, Tuoba, Khitan people, Shiwei and Rouran Khaganate.
Xianbei peoples subsequently pushed their way inside the Great Wall of China and established an extensive presence in the Sixteen Kingdoms (304–439), Northern Dynasties (386–581), all through the Sui (581–618) and Tang Dynasties (618–907).
The Khitan people, who founded the Liao dynasty (916–1125) in China proper, were included among the Yuwen Xianbei of southern Mongolia, who had earlier founded the Western Wei (535–556) and Northern Zhou (557–581) of the Northern Dynasties in North China in opposition to the Southern Dynasties founded by the Chinese in South China. Khitan-ruled Liao China gave rise to the use of "Cathay" as a name for China in the Persianate world and medieval Europe. This same term is an archaism for the Western world in Standard Chinese.