What is the meaning of the Sixteen Kingdoms in China?
In the early part of the current era, China moved from a united country to a country divided by geography and political powers. The Western Jin dynasty (265 – 316 CE), which controlled most of Ancient China, began to lose power in the early part of the 4th century. In 317 CE, the Western Jin dynasty court moved its political base south of the Yangtze River and began the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 – 420 CE).
Before the Sixteen Kingdoms, Chinese emperors welcomed nomadic people from the north into Chinese territory. Several groups lived south of the Great Wall, trading and intermarrying with the Chinese.
Segmentation of northern China occurred when many feudal states, led by self-proclaimed emperors or kings from these nomadic people, sprang up from 304 to 439 CE. Historically, these feudal states are known as the Sixteen Kingdoms. While Chinese historians acknowledge that the Sixteen Kingdoms existed, they do not include them in official listings as dynasties with ruling emperors.
Additionally, four other ruling groups, the Western Yan (394 – 394 CE) and the Dai (315 – 376 CE) in Shanxi and Hebei provinces, and the Northern Wei (386 – 534 CE) and the Qiuchi (296 – 473 CE) in Gansu province held power north of the Yangtze River. Historians do not include these four powers in the Sixteen Kingdoms.
What Caused the Downfall of the Western Jin Dynasty
For more than 20 years, the first emperor of the Western Jin dynasty, Emperor Wu (265 – 290 CE), successfully reunited Ancient China by defeating the Wei (220 – 264 CE), Shu (221 – 263 CE), and Wu (222 – 280 CE) dynasties of the Three Kingdoms. Unfortunately, Emperor Wu’s efforts were short lived. After his death in 290, civil war broke out amongst palace officials and the ruling family.
In addition, more nomadic tribespeople from Turkey, Tibet, and Mongolia moved into the western and northern parts of China. These tribespeople (Xiongnu, Jie, Xianbei, Di, and Qiang) began exploiting the weakness of the Western Jin armies – too many places to fight and poor leadership lacking in a centralized strategy for maintaining authority in the region. As the tribal leaders won a fight, they took control of the area and established control. The Wu Hu or Five Barbarians uprising is named for these five tribal groups and the part they played in the downfall of the Western Jin dynasty.
Furthermore, several military members and official government administrators of the Western Jin dynasty saw opportunities to exploit their positions and take control of the area they were sent to protect or govern.
After many years of fighting and the capture of the last Western Jin dynasty emperor, Mindi, and to retain some authority in China, the remaining court members of the Western Jin dynasty moved to Jiankang (modern Nanjing). There they established the Eastern Jin dynasty under Emperor Yuandi, thus moving the authority and the capital of the Han people south of the Yangtze.
Who were the Sixteen Kingdoms
Also known as the Sixteen States and Sixteen Barbarian States, the Sixteen Kingdoms covered territory from the edges of southeast Russia and the western coast of the Yellow Sea through the Gobi Desert area in the north and west of China and south to the Yangtze River.
In Sichuan province, Li Te of the Di people from Tibet, founded the Cheng-Han (304 – 347 CE) kingdom.
Three kingdoms controlled areas of Shanxi and Hebei provinces – Later Yan (384 – 409 CE), Southern Yan (398 – 410 CE), and Northern Yan (409 – 436 CE).
- Morong Chui, of the Xianbei people from Mongolia, founded the Later Yan or Hou Yan kingdom.
- Murong De, of the Xianbei, founded the Southern Yan or Nan Yan kingdom.
- Feng Ba, of the Han Chinese, founded the Northern Yan or Bei Yan kingdom.
Shaanxi province had four of the sixteen kingdoms – Former Jin (351 – 395 CE), Later Jin (384 – 417 CE), Western Jin (385 – 431 CE), Xia (407 – 432 CE).
- Fu Jian, of the Di, founded the Former Jin or Qian Jin kingdom.
- Yao Chang, of the Qiang people from Tibet, founded the Later Jin or Hou Jin kingdom.
- Qigu Guoren, of the Xianbei, founded the Western Jin or Xi Jin kingdom. This kingdom is not to be confused with the earlier Western Jin dynasty founded by Emperor Wudi (265 – 289 CE).
- Tiefu Qujie, of the Xiongnu, founded the Xia kingdom.
Three kingdoms covered parts of Shanxi, Hebei, and Shaanxi provinces – Former Zhao (304 – 329 CE), Former Yan, and Later Zhao (319 – 350 CE).
- Liu Yuan, of the Xiongnu people from Siberia and Mongolia, founded the Former Zhao or Qian Zhao.
- Morong Huang, of the Xianbei, founded the Former Yan or Qian Yan kingdom.
- Shi Le, of the Jie from Siberia and Mongolia, founded the Later Zhao or Hou Zhao.
Gansu province saw five of the sixteen kingdoms – Former Liang (314 – 376 CE), Later Liang (386 – 403 CE), Southern Liang (397 – 414 CE), Western Liang (400 – 421 CE), and Northern Liang (398 – 439 CE).
- Zhang Gui, of the Han Chinese, founded the Former Liang or Qian Liang kingdom.
- Lu Guang, of the Di, founded the Later Liang or Hou Liang kingdom.
- Tufa Wugu, of the Xianbei, founded the Southern Liang or Nan Liang kingdom.
- Li Gao, of the Han Chinese, founded the Western Liang or Xi Liang kingdom.
- Duan Ye, of the Xiongnu, founded the Northern Liang or Bei Liang kingdom.
Downfall of the Sixteen Kingdoms
For 135 years of the Sixteen Kingdoms era, the kings, rulers, and dynastic emperors sought to control the vast empire of Ancient China. During this time, constant fighting between ethnic groups saw land changing hands, while infighting within a kingdom saw new rulers taking over every few years.
The tribal people ruling the Sixteen Kingdoms were nomadic or semi-nomadic people. When the Han Chinese of the Western Jin dynasty left northern China, their administrative activities or government policies went with them. Although those people of the non-ruling classes were for the most part glad to see the Han Chinese go, it meant that a way of life, which may have helped some to prosper, was gone.
The Sixteen Kingdoms’ rulers adapted and adopted administrative activities from the Han Chinese, which ultimately, may have led to their demise, as they needed many of the previous ruling class officials to help them. Giving these officials access to the inner workings of the new rulers led to more fighting and rulers being overthrown or killed.
Additionally, these new rulers wanted to be seen as Chinese, which meant leaving behind their nomadic tribe’s cultural practices. As they chose to become more Han Chinese like, they allowed more scholars and officials of the Han Chinese to infiltrate their governments. Tribal customs including language, dress, and cultural norms became outlawed. Removing people’s ability to practice their ancestral customs and forcing them to practice “potentially” alien customs and bureaucracies may have led to instability and allowed for the downfall of each the Sixteen Kingdoms.
Ultimately, the end came for the Sixteen Kingdoms when the Northern Wei dynasty, comprised of the Xiongnu people, made successful invasions into each of the Sixteen Kingdoms and reunified northern China.