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Northern Wei Dynasty

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The Northern Wei Dynasty of Chinese history was ruled by the Tuoba, a nomadic people from the Mongolian steppes. The rulers of the Northern Wei were among the first, and most prominent, to adopt Buddhism and contribute to its spread in China. They are known for their legacy of beautiful Buddhist art, for their successful implementation of the equal-field system, and for the development of a multiethnic elite which played a role in later reunifying China into the Sui Dynasty.

The rulers of the Northern Wei are said to have been particularly fond of the concept of chakravartin (the righteous king who turns the wheel of the Dharma), comparing themselves favorably to the great Buddhist king Ashoka, who ruled in India in the 3rd century BCE.

They established their capital at Datong in Shanxi province in 398, organizing it according to Chinese traditional layouts, employing 100,000 craftsmen to construct it, and forcefully relocating 360,000 people to settle in the area. The Northern Wei Court, despite being ruled by a non-Han people, was filled with Chinese ceremonial and ritual forms, and Chinese music. A Chinese-style bureaucracy enforced a Chinese-style legal code, and was organized according to the nine-rank system, a choice which benefited well-established Han Chinese families, and brought the dynasty the support of their political power and wealth, as well as additional prestige.

The Northern Wei successfully implemented the well-field system beginning in 485, where several centuries earlier the Han Dynasty usurper Wang Mang had failed. They redistributed agricultural land equally among the people, reassigning each plot of land when its owner died. Exceptions were made for land used for certain kinds of purposes that would need to be tended from one generation to the next, e.g. sericulture, thus strengthening the system. Though it had failed under Wang Mang, it succeeded under the Northern Wei, surviving for centuries and being transmitted to Japan as well.

In the 490s, the Northern Wei, having gained control of much of northern China, moved their capital to Luoyang, where they built more than one thousand Buddhist monasteries[1] and many government buildings. They divided the city into wards, a model which was emulated by the Tang Dynasty in Chang'an.

Extensive sinification strengthened the dynasty, but also brought about its eventual end. Chinese elites brought in as advisors gained considerable power, and in the meantime, un-sinicized Tuoba tribesmen, excluded from government and from elite society raised a rebellion in 524 called the Rebellion of the Six Garrisons, and the dynasty, severely weakened, fell ten years later in 534.

References

  • Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures, vol. B, Bedford/St. Martins, 2012. p313.
  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 84-85.
  1. Schirokauer, et al, 86.
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