This article will address the topic of Xianbei, which is extremely relevant and interesting today. Xianbei is a topic that has generated great debate and has captured the attention of many people in different fields. Throughout history, Xianbei has been the object of study, analysis and reflection, which has contributed to its evolution and understanding in a current context. Furthermore, Xianbei has played a significant role in the lives of many people, directly or indirectly impacting various aspects of society. Therefore, it is essential to explore and delve into the importance and relevance of Xianbei, as well as its implications and consequences today.

3rd century BC–3rd century AD
StatusNomadic empire
CapitalMount Danhan (around present-day Shangdu County, Inner Mongolia)
Common languagesXianbei
GovernmentTribal confederation
• c. 156–181
• c. 181–189
• c. 190s
Historical eraAntiquity
• Established
3rd century BC
• Disestablished
3rd century AD
2004,500,000 km2 (1,700,000 sq mi)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Rouran Khaganate
Han dynasty
Dai (Sixteen Kingdoms)
Traditional Chinese鮮卑
Simplified Chinese鲜卑

The Xianbei (/ʃjɛnˈb/; simplified Chinese: 鲜卑; traditional Chinese: 鮮卑; pinyin: Xiānbēi) were an ancient nomadic people that once resided in the eastern Eurasian steppes in what is today Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern China. The Xianbei were strongly suggested to be a multilingual, multi-ethnic confederation consisting of mainly Proto-Mongols (who spoke either Pre-Proto-Mongolic, or Proto-Mongolic and Para-Mongolic), and, to a minor degree, Tungusic and Turkic peoples. They originated from the Donghu people who splintered into the Wuhuan and Xianbei when they were defeated by the Xiongnu at the end of the third century BC. Following the split, the Xianbei people did not have a direct contact with the Han dynasty, residing to the north of the Wuhuan. In the first century BC, the Xianbei began to actively engage in the struggle between the Han and Xiongnu, which culminated in the Xianbei replacing the Xiongnu on the Mongolian Plateau in 93 AD.

In the mid-2nd century, the chieftain, Tanshihuai unified the Xianbei and waged war against the Han dynasty. His confederation threatened the Han's northern borders for many years, but quickly disintegrated following his death in 181 AD. After suffering several defeats by the end of the Three Kingdoms period, the Xianbei migrated south and settled in close proximity to Han society and submitted as vassals to the Chinese dynasties. As one of the so-called "Five Barbarians" that settled in northern China, the Xianbei fought as auxiliaries for the Western Jin dynasty during the War of the Eight Princes and the Upheaval of the Five Barbarians before eventually distancing themselves and declaring their autonomy as the Jin was pushed to the south. During the Sixteen Kingdoms period, the Xianbei founded several short-lived states in the north and established themselves on the Central Plains.

The Xianbei were at one point all subjected to the Di-led Former Qin dynasty before it fell apart not long after its defeat in the Battle of Fei River by the Eastern Jin. In the wake of the Former Qin's collapse, the Tuoba formed the Northern Wei dynasty and eventually reunited northern China, ushering China into the Northern and Southern dynasties period. The Northern dynasties, all of which were either led or heavily influenced by the Xianbei, opposed and promoted sinicization at one point or another but trended towards the latter and had merged with the general Chinese population by the Tang dynasty. The Northern Wei also arranged for ethnic Han elites to marry daughters of the Tuoba imperial clan in the 480s. More than fifty percent of Tuoba Xianbei princesses of the Northern Wei were married to southern Han men from the imperial families and aristocrats from southern China of the Southern dynasties who defected and moved north to join the Northern Wei.


Figure of a Xianbei warrior from the Northern dynasties (286–581 AD) era. The figure wear a covered "wind hat", trousers, short upper tunic and a cape tied around the neck, designed to protect against the wind and dust.

Paul Pelliot tentatively reconstructs the Later Han Chinese pronunciation of 鮮卑 as */serbi/, from *Särpi, after noting that Chinese scribes used 鮮 to transcribe Middle Persian sēr (lion) and 卑 to transcribe foreign syllable /pi/; for instance, Sanskrit गोपी gopī "milkmaid, cowherdess" became Middle Chinese 瞿卑 (ɡɨo-piᴇ) (> Mand. qúbēi).

According to Schuessler, however, the Later Han Chinese pronunciation of 鮮卑 is /sian pie/, and he does not reconstruct syllables ending in -r for this stage. His reconstruction of the Later Han pronunciation of 室韋 is /śit wui/.

On the one hand, *Särpi may be linked to Mongolic root *ser ~*sir which means "crest, bristle, sticking out, projecting, etc." (cf. Khalkha сэрвэн serven), possibly referring to the Xianbei's horses (semantically analogous with the Turkic ethnonym Yabaqu < Yapağu 'matted hair or wool', later 'a matted-haired animal, i.e. a colt') On the other hand, Book of Later Han and Book of Wei stated that: before becoming an ethnonym, Xianbei had been a toponym, referring to the Great Xianbei mountains (大鮮卑山), which is now identified as the Greater Khingan range (simplified Chinese: 大兴安岭; traditional Chinese: 大興安嶺; pinyin: Dà Xīng'ān Lǐng).

Shimunek (2018) reconstructs *serbi for Xiānbēi and *širwi for 室韋 Shìwéi < MC *ɕiɪt̚-ɦʉi.


Mural paintings of court life in Xu Xianxiu's Tomb, Northern Qi dynasty, 571 AD, located in Taiyuan, Shanxi province


Warring States period's Chinese literature contains early mentions of Xianbei, as in the poem "The Great Summons" (Chinese: 大招; pinyin: Dà zhāo) in the anthology Verses of Chu and possibly the chapter "Discourses of Jin 8" in Discourses of the States.

When the Donghu "Eastern Barbarians" were defeated by Modu Chanyu around 208 BC, the Donghu splintered into the Xianbei and Wuhuan. According to the Book of the Later Han, "the language and culture of the Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan".

The first significant contact the Xianbei had with the Han dynasty was in 41 and 45, when they joined the Wuhuan and Xiongnu in raiding Han territory.

In 49, the governor Ji Tong convinced the Xianbei chieftain Pianhe to turn on the Xiongnu with rewards for each Xiongnu head they collected. In 54, Yuchouben and Mantou of the Xianbei paid tribute to Emperor Guangwu of Han.

In 58, the Xianbei chieftain Pianhe attacked and killed Xinzhiben, a Wuhuan leader causing trouble in Yuyang Commandery.

In 85, the Xianbei secured an alliance with the Dingling and Southern Xiongnu.

In 87, the Xianbei attacked the Xiongnu chanyu Youliu and killed him. They flayed him and his followers and took the skins back as trophies.

In 93, as the Northern Xiongnu were forced to the northwest by the Han dynasty, the Xianbei occupied the Mongolian Plateau, absorbing 100,000 Xiongnu tribes and increasing their strength.

In 109, the Wuhuan and Xianbei attacked Wuyuan Commandery and defeated local Han forces. The Southern Xiongnu chanyu Wanshishizhudi rebelled against the Han and attacked the Emissary Geng Chong but failed to oust him. Han forces under Geng Kui retaliated and defeated a force of 3,000 Xiongnu but could not take the Southern Xiongnu capital due to disease among the horses of their Xianbei allies.

The Xianbei under Qizhijian raided Han territory four times from 121 to 138. In 145, the Xianbei raided Dai Commandery.

Around 155, the northern Xiongnu were "crushed and subjugated" by the Xianbei.

Xianbei Confederation

Around the mid-2nd century, a chieftain, Tanshihuai, unified the Xianbei tribes and established an imperial court at Mount Danhan (彈汗山; in present-day Shangdu County, Inner Mongolia). Under Tanshihuai, the Xianbei attacked the Wusun in the west and repelled the Dingling from the north and Buyeo from the east. He divided the Xianbei empire into three sections, each governed by an appointed chieftain.

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 彌加, Queji 闕機, Suli 素利 and Huaitou 槐頭. 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 柯最, Queju 闕居, Murong 慕容, 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 置鞬落羅, Rilü Tuiyan 曰律推演, Yanliyou 宴荔游, et al. These chiefs were all subordinate to Tanshihuai.

Throughout his reign, Tanshihuai aggressively raided the Han dynasty's northern borders, with his first recorded raid being in 156. In 166, he even allied with the Southern Xiongnu and Wuhuan to attack Shaanxi and Gansu. These raids devastated the border commanderies and claimed many lives. Though the Han was able to repel them at times, they were concerned that they would not be able to subdue Tanshihuai. The Han attempted to appease him by offering him the title of King, but Tanshihuai rejected them and continued to harass their borders.

In 177, Xia Yu, Tian Yan and the Southern Xiongnu Chanyu, Tute Ruoshi Zhujiu led a force of 30,000 against the Xianbei. They were defeated and returned with only one-tenth of their original forces. A memorial made that year records that the Xianbei had taken all the lands previously held by the Xiongnu and their warriors numbered 100,000. Han deserters who sought refuge in their lands served as their advisers and refined metals as well as wrought iron came into their possession. Their weapons were sharper and their horses faster than those of the Xiongnu. Another memorial submitted in 185 states that the Xianbei were making raids on Han settlements nearly every year.

Despite the constant raids, the loose Xianbei confederacy lacked the organization of the Xiongnu empire, and they were struggling to sustain their growing population. Tanshihuai died in 181 and was succeeded by his son, Helian, but he lacked his father's abilities and was killed in a raid on Beidi during the last years of Emperor Ling of Han. Helian's son, Qianman was too young at the time of his father's death, so the chieftains elected his nephew, Kuitou, to succeed him. Once Qianman came of age, however, he challenged his cousin to succession, destroying the last vestiges of unity among the Xianbei.

Iron broadsword, Xianbei nation during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), from a Xianbei tomb in Yushu, Jilin Province

Three Kingdoms

Han-era Xianbei belt fasteners from a Xianbei tomb in Yushu, Jilin

By the Jian'an era (196–220), the Xianbei had split into many different groups, most notably with Kuitou ruling in Inner Mongolia, Kebineng in northern Shanxi, and Suli and Mijia in northern Liaodong. Following his death, Kuitou's brothers Budugen and Fuluohan succeeded him. After Cao Cao defeated the Wuhuan at the Battle of White Wolf Mountain in 207, Budugen, Fuluohan, Kebineng and others paid tribute to him. In 218, Fuluohan met with the Wuhuan chieftain Nengchendi to form an alliance, but Nengchendi double crossed him and called in Kebineng, who killed Fuluohan. Budugen went to the court of Cao Wei in 224 to ask for assistance against Kebineng, but he eventually betrayed them and allied with Kebineng in 233. Kebineng killed Budugen soon afterwards.

Kebineng was from a minor Xianbei tribe. He rose to power west of Dai Commandery by taking in a number of Chinese refugees, who helped him drill his soldiers and make weapons. After the defeat of the Wuhuan in 207, he also sent tribute to Cao Cao, and even provided assistance against the rebel Tian Yin. In 218 he allied himself to the Wuhuan rebel Nengchendi but they were heavily defeated and forced back across the frontier by Cao Zhang. In 220, he acknowledged Cao Pi as emperor of Cao Wei. Eventually, he turned on the Wei for frustrating his advances on Suli. Kebineng conducted raids on Cao Wei before he was killed in 235, after which his confederacy disintegrated.

Distribution of major Xianbei clans by the end of the Three Kingdoms period[image reference needed]

Many of the Xianbei tribes migrated south and settled on the borders of the Wei-Jin dynasties, where they often offered their submission. In 258, the Tuoba tribe settled in the abandoned city of Shengle, north of the Yin Mountains. To the east of them, the Yuwen tribe settled between the Luan River and Liucheng, while the Murong tribe were allowed to move deeper into Liaodong. The Duan tribe was founded in Liaoxi within the Great Wall by a Xianbei ex-slave along with a group of exiles. In the west, an offshoot of the Murong moved into northern Qinghai and mixed with the native Qiang people, becoming Tuyuhun. The Qifu tribe settled near the Longxi basin, while a branch of the Tuoba, the Tufa tribe, roamed the Hexi corridor. In 270, the Tufa chieftain, Tufa Shujineng, led the various ethnic tribes in the northwest in a rebellion against the Jin dynasty in Qin and Liang provinces but was defeated in 279 by Ma Long.

Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern Wei

Northern dynasties horseman
Northern Wei cavalry
Northern Wei cavalry

During the War of the Eight Princes, the Xianbei of the northeast, primarily the Duan, were brought in to fight in the civil wars of the Jin princes and played a deciding factor in the wars. When the Xiongnu in Shanxi rebelled and founded the Han-Zhao dynasty, the Tuoba offered their assistance to Jin to fight the rebels. The Jin were heavily reliant on the Xianbei's military force as they gradually lost the north during the upheaval of the Five Barbarians. For their services, the Duan and Tuoba were granted the duchies of Liaoxi and Dai, respectively. However, for varying reasons, most of the Xianbei eventually withdrew from the conflict, allowing the remnants of Jin to be quickly overwhelmed. Mass number of Chinese officers, soldiers and civilians fled south to join the Eastern Jin or north to join the Xianbei duchies.

The Xianbei founded several of the Sixteen Kingdoms in northern China. The Murong of Liaodong were the most notable clan of this period. Having adopted the Jin governing system and customs, they rose to prominence during the fall of Western Jin by providing refuge and cooperating closely with the Chinese exiles, eventually establishing Xianbei rule over the Central Plains after they defeated the Ran Wei in 352. They founded the Former Yan (337–370), Later Yan (384–407) and Southern Yan (398–410), including the Western Yan (384–394) which is not considered to be one of the Sixteen Kingdoms. The Murong dominated the northeast and at one point vied to unify China, but fell short due to family infighting, corruption and weak rulers. Meanwhile, in Gansu, the Qifu established the Western Qin (385–431) while the Tufa established the Southern Liang (397–414).

The Tuoba retained their fiefdom of Dai (310–376), which was elevated to a kingdom in 315, before they were eventually conquered by the Di-led Former Qin dynasty. With the fall of Dai, northern China was briefly unified under the Qin, but as they rapidly collapsed following a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fei River in 383, the Tuoba restored their state as the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535), becoming the first of the Northern dynasties (386–581). The Northern Wei grew in power after they defeated and supplanted the Later Yan on the Central Plains. In 439, they conquered the last of the Sixteen Kingdoms, thereby unifying the north and completing the transition into the Northern and Southern dynasties period.

Xianbei belt buckles, 3–4th century AD

Sinicization and assimilation

The Northern Wei unification was long-lasting and brought a period of relative peace to the north in the wake of the chaotic Sixteen Kingdoms period. Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei established a policy of systematic sinicization that was continued by his successors and largely abandoned Xianbei traditions. The royal family took the sinicization a step further by decreeing the change of Xianbei names to Han names, even changing their own family name from Tuoba to Yuan. Emperor Xiaowen also moved the capital to Luoyang, one of the most important cities in Chinese history, away from Pingcheng near the northern frontiers. While the population in Luoyang were open to accepting the sinicization policies, the population near the old capital were more conservative and held on to their Xianbei culture.

Marriages to Han elite families were encouraged, and the Northern Wei started to arrange for Han Chinese elites to marry daughters of the Xianbei Tuoba royal family in the 480s. More than fifty percent of Tuoba Xianbei princesses of the Northern Wei were married to southern Han Chinese men from the imperial families and aristocrats from southern China of the Southern dynasties who defected and moved north to join the Northern Wei. Some Han Chinese exiled royalty fled from southern China and defected to the Xianbei. Several daughters of the Xianbei Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei were married to Han Chinese elites, the Liu Song royal Liu Hui (刘辉), married Princess Lanling (蘭陵公主) of the Northern Wei, Princess Huayang (華陽公主) to Sima Fei (司馬朏), a descendant of Jin dynasty (266–420) royalty, Princess Jinan (濟南公主) to Lu Daoqian (盧道虔), Princess Nanyang (南阳长公主) to Xiao Baoyin (萧宝夤), a member of Southern Qi royalty. Emperor Xiaozhuang of Northern Wei's sister the Shouyang Princess was wedded to The Liang dynasty ruler Emperor Wu of Liang's son Xiao Zong 蕭綜.

When the Eastern Jin dynasty ended, Northern Wei received the Han Chinese Jin prince Sima Chuzhi (司馬楚之) as a refugee. A Northern Wei Princess married Sima Chuzhi, giving birth to Sima Jinlong. Northern Liang Xiongnu King Juqu Mujian's daughter married Sima Jinlong.

In 534, the Northern Wei split into an Eastern Wei (534–550) and a Western Wei (535–556) after several uprisings in six major-frontier towns in the north inhabited by Xianbei, Han Chinese and various other ethnic groups. The conventional reason for the uprisings were the Northern Wei's sinicization policies; after moving the capital to Luoyang, the influence of the Xianbei military elites that guarded the northern frontiers declined in favour of the sinicized families in Luoyang, leading to widespread discontent. However, recent studies argue that the uprisings had more to do with the corruption of the upper-class military elites, weak economic base and harsh environment of the six frontier towns at the expense of the local lower-class soldiers and ethnic settlers.

The Eastern Wei evolved into the Northern Qi (550–577), and the Western Wei into the Northern Zhou (557–581), while the Southern dynasties were pushed to the south of the Yangtze River. The Northern Qi was ruled by the Gao clan, a Xianbeified Han Chinese family who were backed by the Xianbei elites and favoured the Xianbei tradition. The Northern Zhou was ruled by the Yuwen clan of Xianbei ethnicity. Ruling over a predominantly Chinese population, the military reforms of the Northern Zhou and its predecessor Western Wei saw their attempt to revive the Xianbei warrior culture, which includes reverting the sinicized names of the Northern Wei and rewarding Han Chinese officers with Xianbei names. The Prime Minister of Northern Zhou, Yang Jian, later had these names restored back to Han names.

In 581, Yang Jian founded the Sui dynasty (581–618). His son, the future Emperor Yang of Sui, absorbed the Chen dynasty (557–589), the last kingdom of the Southern dynasties, thereby unifying much of China. After the Sui came to an end amidst peasant rebellions and renegade troops, his cousin, Li Yuan, founded the Tang dynasty (618–907). Sui and Tang dynasties were founded by Han generals who also served the Northern Wei dynasty. Through these political establishments, the Xianbei who entered China were largely merged with the Chinese, examples such as the wife of Emperor Gaozu of Tang, Duchess Dou and Emperor Taizong of Tang'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 as Mongol Yuan dynasty and Manchu Qing dynasty.

In the West, the Xianbei kingdom of Tuyuhun remained independent until it was defeated by the Tibetan Empire in 670. After the fall of the kingdom, the Xianbei people underwent a diaspora over a vast territory that stretched from the northwest into central and eastern parts of China. Murong Nuohebo led the Tuyuhun people eastward into central China, where they settled in modern Yinchuan, Ningxia.


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 favoured song and music. Tengrism and subsequently Buddhism were the main religions among the Xianbei people. After they abandoned the frigid north and migrated into Northern China, they gradually abandoned nomadic lifestyle and were sinicized and assimilated with the Han Chinese. Emperor Xiaowen of the Xianbei-led state of Northern Wei in northern China, eventually decreed the changes of Xianbei names to Han names. Prior to Tanshihuai, the Xianbei did not have a hereditary system, and their chieftains were chosen by electing a member of their tribe based on their character and abilities. Even as they established their states on the Central Plains and adopted the Chinese hereditary system, influential brothers, uncles and cousins of the Xianbei rulers often posed as rival claimants to the throne.


Xianbei head ornament with horse motif. Northern dynasties (A.D. 386 – 581)
Northern Wei earrings. Northern Wei dynasty, 5th century

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.

Leaf headdresses

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.

Animal iconography

Flying Horse plaque, Xianbei culture, Inner Mongolia province, China. 1st century BC to 1st century AD.

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. 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 their 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.

Buddhist influences

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.


Native toXianbei state
RegionMongolian–Manchurian grassland
Erac. 3rd century BC – c. 3rd century AD
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Painting of the Tuoba-Xianbei Northern Zhou general Li Xian (504–569 AD)

The Xianbei are thought to have spoken Mongolic or Para-Mongolic languages, with early and substantial Turkic influences, as Claus Schönig asserts:

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, 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 into Mongolic was at least partly reversed during the Xianbei period, yielding the first identifiable layer of Mongolic (or Para-Mongolic) loanwords in Turkic.

It is also possible that the Xianbei spoke more than one language.


Xianbei warrior horsemen armed with long bows. Northern Qi dynasty (北齊 550–577 CE), Taiyuan, Shanxi Province.

According to Du, et al. (2024), some historians believe that the Xianbei could have had "exotic" features such as high nose bridges, blond hair and thick beards. However, other scholars have suggested the appearance of the Xianbei was not dramatically different from modern East Asians. A genetic analysis of Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou revealed that he had an East Asian appearance, consistent with the hypothesis that the Xianbei were primarily of East Asian appearance.

Yellow hair in Chinese sources could have meant brown rather than blonde and described other people such as the Jie rather than the Xianbei. Historian Edward H. Schafer believes many of the Xianbei were blondes, but others such as Charles Holcombe think it is "likely that the bulk of the Xianbei were not visibly very different in appearance from the general population of northeastern Asia." Chinese anthropologist Zhu Hong and Zhang Quan-chao studied Xianbei crania from several sites of Inner Mongolia and noticed that anthropological features of studied Xianbei crania show that the racial type is closely related to the modern East-Asians, and some physical characteristics of those skulls are closer to modern Mongols, Manchu and Han Chinese.


A genetic study published in The FEBS Journal in October 2006 examined the mtDNA of 21 Tuoba Xianbei buried at the Qilang Mountain Cemetery in Inner Mongolia, China. The 21 samples of mtDNA extracted belonged to haplogroups O (9 samples), D (7 samples), C (5 samples), B (2 samples) and A. These haplogroups are characteristic of Northeast Asians. Among modern populations they were found to be most closely related to the Oroqen people.

A genetic study published in the Russian Journal of Genetics in April 2014 examined the mtDNA of 17 Tuoba Xianbei buried at the Shangdu Dongdajing cemetery in Inner Mongolia, China. The 17 samples of mtDNA extracted belonged to haplogroups D4 (four samples), D5 (three samples), C (five samples), A (three samples), G and B.

A genetic study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in November 2007 examined 17 individuals buried at a Murong Xianbei cemetery in Lamadong, Liaoning, China ca. 300 AD. They were determined to be carriers of the maternal haplogroups J1b1, D (three samples), F1a (three samples), M, B, B5b, C (three samples) and G2a. These haplogroups are common among East Asians and some Siberians. The maternal haplogroups of the Murong Xianbei were noticeably different from those of the Huns and Tuoba Xianbei.

A genetic study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in August 2018 noted that the paternal haplogroup C2b1a1b has been detected among the Xianbei and the Rouran, and was probably an important lineage among the Donghu people.

A full genome analysis published in November 2023 analyzed the genomic data of nine Xianbei individuals (ca. 200 CE to 300 CE), together with previous published Xianbei samples, covering almost the entire period of Xianbei as well as pre- and post-Xianbei periods, and found that the Xianbei displayed a homogenous population with nearly exclusive Ancient Northeast Asian ancestry. The authors further remark that these results are consistent with an Amur River region, specifically around the Greater Khingan mountain range area, origin for the ancestral Xianbei population. Early Xianbei did not display signs of admixture from surrounding groups, while later Xianbei displayed limited amounts of admixture with "late Xiongnu-Sarmatian-like" and Han Chinese ("Yellow River farmer-like") groups. Later Xianbei in Northern China adopted an agricultural lifestyle and mixed with the local population, contributing to the genetic history of Northern China.

A 2024 study on Xianbei remains, including the remains of Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou, found them to be derived primarily from Ancient Northeast Asians at c. 62–96%, with a lower amount of admixture from Neolithic 'Yellow River farmers' (associated with Han Chinese) at c. 4–32%. Western Steppe Herder ancestry was only found at low amounts or absent entirely among the different Xianbei remains (average at c. 2–7%). The analysed Xianbei remains display their closest genetic affinities to ancient Khitan and Mohe people, as well as modern-day Mongolic peoples. The amount of Ancient Northeast Asian and Yellow River farmer ancestries varied depending on geographic location, suggesting a form of heterogeneity among the ancient Xianbei. In contrast to the Xianbei, the early Turkic ruling class, the Ashina tribe, was found to be nearly entirely derived from Ancient Northeast Asians without significant Yellow River ancestry.

Northern Qi hunting scene
Northern Qi hunting scene

Notable people

Female Xianbei figure


Sixteen Kingdoms

Yan and Tuyuhun


Southern Liang

Western Qin

Northern dynasties

Painting depicting a Xianbei Murong archer in a tomb of the Former Yan (337–370).

Sui dynasty

  • Dugu Qieluo (獨孤伽羅, 544–602), formally Empress Wenxian (文獻皇后), an empress of the Sui dynasty
  • Yuchi Yichen (尉遲義臣, died 617), a prominent general of the Sui dynasty
  • Yuwen Shu (宇文述, died 616), a paramount general of the Sui dynasty
  • Yuwen Huaji (宇文化及, 569–619), a paramount general of the Sui dynasty
  • Yuwen Zhiji (宇文智及, 572–619), a general of the Sui dynasty

Tang dynasty

Modern descendants

Most Xianbei clans adopted Chinese family names during the Northern Wei dynasty. In particular, many were sinicized under Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei.

The Northern Wei's Eight Noble Xianbei surnames 八大贵族 were the Buliugu 步六孤, Helai 賀賴, Dugu 獨孤, Helou 賀樓, Huniu 忽忸, Qiumu 丘穆, Gexi 紇奚, and Yuchi 尉遲.

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. 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.

Xianbei descendants among the Korean population carry surnames such as Mo 모 (Chinese: ; pinyin: ; Wade–Giles: mu (shortened from Murong)), Seok Sŏk Sek 석 Chinese: ; pinyin: shí; Wade–Giles: shih (shortened from Wushilan 烏石蘭), Won Wŏn 원 (Chinese: ; pinyin: yuán; Wade–Giles: yüan (the adopted Chinese surname of the Tuoba)) and Dokgo 독고 (Chinese: 獨孤; pinyin: Dúgū; Wade–Giles: Tuku (from Dugu)).

See also


  1. ^ Zhang Zhengming (2017) accepts the reading 鮮卑 (also seen in the early 19th century version published by Jinzhang bookstore (錦章図書局) in Shanghai) as the ethnonym of the people who accompanied the Chu. However, 鮮卑 Xianbei is likely a scribal error for 鮮牟 Xianmou (as in other versions like Sibu Congkan (四部叢刊), or Siku Quanshu (四庫全書)). Eastern Wu scholar Wei Zhao states that the 鮮牟 Xianmou were an Eastern Yi nation, while the 鮮卑 Xianbei were of Mountain Rong origin. The apparent scribal error results in contradicting statements, apparently by Wei Zhao, that the Xianbei were an Eastern Yi nation and a people of Mountain Rong origin. Huang Pilie (1763–1825) states that the reading 鮮卑 Xianbei was inauthentic and identifies the 鮮牟 Xianmou with 根牟 Genmou, an Eastern Yi nation conquered by the Lu state in the 9th year of Duke Xuan of Lu's reign (600 BCE).


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  2. ^ Bang, Peter Fibiger; Bayly, C. A.; Scheidel, Walter (2 December 2020). The Oxford World History of Empire: Volume One: The Imperial Experience. Oxford University Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-19-977311-4.
  3. ^ a b c Golden 2013, p. 47, quote: "The Xianbei confederation appears to have contained speakers of Pre-Proto-Mongolic, perhaps the largest constituent linguistic group, as well as former Xiongnu subjects, who spoke other languages, Turkic almost certainly being one of them."
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