Wu Hu

Wu Hu

:"For the city, see Wuhu. For the history of each of the Wu Hu tribes, see Sixteen Kingdoms."Wu Hu (zh-cpl|c=五胡|p=Wǔ Hú|l=Five Hu) is a collective term for various non-Chinese steppe tribes during the period from the Han Dynasty to the Northern Dynasties. These nomadic tribes originally resided outside China proper, but gradually migrated into Chinese areas during the years of turmoil between the Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms. These non-Chinese tribes, whom the Han had fought to a standstill, seized the opportunity afforded by the weakness of the central government to extend their settlement of pastoral lands into the fertile North China Plain.

The Rebellion of the Eight Kings during the Western Jin Dynasty triggered a large scale Wu Hu uprising from 304, which resulted in the sacking of the Chinese capitals at Luoyang (311) and Chang'an. The Xiongnu Kingdom of Han-Former Zhao captured and executed the last two Jin emperors as the Western Jin Dynasty collapsed in 317. Many Chinese fled to the south of Yangtze River as numerous tribesmen of the Wu Hu and remnants of the Jin wreaked havoc in the north. Fu Jiān temporarily unified the north but his brilliant achievement was destroyed after the Battle of Feishui. The Northern Wei Dynasty unified northern China again in 439 and ushered in the period of the Northern Dynasties.


The term Wu Hu was first used in Cui Hong's "Shiliuguo Chunqiu", which recorded the history of the five tribes' ravaging Northern China from the early 4th century to the mid 5th century. Wu Hu means "five nomadic groups", hence the alternative "Five Hu." The most accepted composition of Wu Hu included five nomadic tribes: Xiongnu (匈奴, sometimes identified with the Huns), Xianbei (鮮卑), Di (氐), Qiang (羌), and Jie (ethnic group) (羯) although different groups of historians and historiographers have their own definitions.

Collective term for nomads

After later historians determined that more than five nomadic tribes took part, Wu Hu has become a collective term for all non-Chinese nomads residing in North China at the time. The time at which the ravages occurred is called The Period of Wu Hu (五胡時代) or the Wu Hu Chaos in China (五胡亂華, literally "Five Hu Wreak-havoc-on China"). States founded by Wu Hu were called the Sixteen Kingdoms.

Han definition for Xiongnu

Traditional historians interpreted "Hu" as "barbarians"; some further stretched this obsolete analogy to equate "Hu" with the Xiongnu. Others objected to such similarities, stating that Wu Hu were substantially civilized before the turmoil of the Western Jin Dynasty.

Xiongnu was in fact the most powerful non-Chinese ethnic group neighboring the Chinese Han Dynasty therefore the Han simply referred to them as the "Hu" (the "non-Chinese" or the "barbarian"). Both terms were used concurrently. Nevertheless, "Hu" later became the collective term for non-Chinese ethnic groups and was often preceded by Chinese numerals and characters such as "Wu" (five) and "Zhu" (numerous). A diplomatic message in Han Shu defined Hu as the "proud son of heaven" (天之驕子) (Chapter 94).

Wu Hu after the fall of Northern Xiongnu

When the Eastern Han Dynasty slowly brought the Northern Xiongnu into submission in the 1st century by military and diplomatic measures, hordes of herdsmen and the Southern Xiongnu, originally subdued by the Northern Xiongnu, began trading without having heavy tribute imposed on them. Horses and animal products were traded mainly for agricultural tools, such as the harrow and the plough, and clothing of which silk was the most popular. Those herdsmen helped the Han dynasty defend against any remaining Xiongnu in return. The more they engaged in commerce with the Chinese, the more they preferred to stay near China's border, to facilitate trade, instead of residing on the steppes of Manchuria and Mongolia.

Some groups of non-Xiongnu herdsmen even settled permanently within the border, first of which was the Wuhuan (烏桓), who immigrated to the area of today's Province of Liaoning during the era of "Jiangwu" (2556). Note that the Southern Xiongnu migrated before Wuhuan but not for commercial reasons.

Liaison among the dynasty and groups of herdsmen relied on mutual economic and military benefits. As the Northern Xiongnu, the masters of the Mongolian steppes and mortal enemy of the dynasty, was still potent enough during the reigns of Emperor Ming, Emperor Zhang and Emperor He (58105) to keep the volatile alliance intact, the Eastern Han dynasty enjoyed the most prosperous years of its almost 200 years of existence. Even fragments of the Northern Xiongnu migrated well within the border to the Xi He plain (literally meaning the plain on the west of the Huang He, south of the Ordos Desert).

The picture drastically changed in the later years of reign of Emperor He, son of Emperor Zhang. Dou Xian (50s92), brother-in-law of Emperor Zhang through his sister Empress Duo, utterly defeated the Northern Xiongnu in a series of campaigns during the "Yongyuan" era (89105). The remnants just escaped annihilation, conceded defeat, began migrating out of the Mongolian steppes and disappeared as a distinct group of herdsmen once and for all. Others were assimilated into other tribes by intermarriage: the Yuwen tribe being a good example.

In their wake a power vacuum was left on the Mongolian steppes. The main contenders were the Southern Xiongnu, who inhabited a region to the south of the steppe and had now grown into a group of more than a hundred thousand herdsmen on the Xi He plain, the Xianbei, who lived in the east of the steppe residing on the plains of Manchuria, the Dingling, who originally dwelt on the banks of Lake Baikal and had already commenced trekking south into the steppes before Duo Xian destroyed the Northern Xiongnu, and the Wuhuan, who lived south of Xianbei and were the weakest of the four.

Instead of constantly trading for provisions, tools and luxuries, these four powerful groups of herdsmen, though still allies of the Han Dynasty, often cooperated to plunder areas of the northern border. The dynasty could not muster an all-out campaign to wipe them out, but often attempted, through diplomatic and monetary measures to split one or more groups from the alliance of herdsmen.

On the other hand the dynasty was constantly declining as clans of consorts and eunuchs engaged in a continuous struggle for power. Wealthy merchants and aristocrats were acquiring lands from peasants who had been cultivating their own land for years. "Landless" peasants had to come under the protection of the rich and so pay rent to these new landowners rather than pay taxes to the government. Coupled with bureaucratic corruption, tax revenues dropped dramatically. Large landholding families also took advantages of the weakness of central government and established their own armies. Increasingly governors of regions (the highest level) administered their territories as independent rulers. The recruitment of troops and tax collection could be carried out at the discretion of the regional governors, contributing to the disunity that led to the inevitable crumbling of China into Three Kingdoms.

The dynasty also had to deal with Qiang and Di on the western border, who had constantly been involved in skirmishes against the dynasty since the middle of Western Han Dynasty (around mid-1st century BC). As the Eastern Han Dynasty declined, the Qiang, nominal ancestors of modern Tibetans, began planning major invasions. Through spies and collaborators, the Han court knew about the situation and had to deploy soldiers near the border to fend off Qiang skirmishes and small-scale invasions.

Although few major Qiang invasions were carried out, never successfully, such a military deployment constantly drained the treasury and was a cradle for ambitious militarists, the most famous of whom was Dong Zhuo (130s192), the pretender to the Han court from 189-192. The more the Han court weakened through domestic problems, the more the herdsmen craved the dynasty's wealth. The Wuhuan were a frequent ally with the Han court against Xianbei and the Southern Xiongnu (hereafter abbreviated as Xiongnu), although they also sometimes allied with the Xiongnu to fend off joint attacks by the Han and Xianbei.

The Han court also deployed mercenaries from the Xianbei and Wuhuan for campaigns against the Wu Hu and to quell peasant insurgents. These mercenaries were often sympathetic to the peasant uprising and hence not trusted by the Han military authorities. However they were the best available option for suppressing the insurgents and consequently these solders were poorly treated by being deployed far away from their homeland, or in the most dangerous positions on the battlefield or by starving them of provisions and weapons. Thus militarists who could earn the trust of the Xianbei or Wuhuan would collaborate with the tribes for the sake of their own careers.

For instance a unit of about 5,000 Wuhuan cavalry that usually resided in You Province (part of modern northeastern Hebei and western Liaoning Province) was deployed in Southern Jing Province (in Hunan Province) for three consecutive years. The rebellions (187-189) of Zhang Chun (died 189) and Zhang Ju (died 189) in You Province in alliance with this Wuhuan cavalry unit marked the first of many such collaborations. Yuan Shao (140s202) and Gongsun Zan (140s199), two of the celebrated warlords in the Three Kingdoms era, also exploited Wuhuan and Xianbei respectively in their own quests for predominance. Ironically Gongsun Zan was the commander tasked with suppressing the rebellion of Zhang Chun and Zhang Ju.

Xianbei confederacy of Tanshihuai

The bitter and unstable relationship between the Han court and various nomadic groups lasted from the start of 2nd century to early 160s until the appearance of Tanshihuai (檀石槐 b. 120s - d. 181), an illegitimate son of a low ranked military officer of Xianbei mercenaries deployed against the Southern Xiongnu. Despite his low social status among Xianbei herdsmen, he managed to unify all the Xianbei tribes under his rule in a confederacy against the Han court.

Each Xianbei tribe was led by a chieftain and were grouped under the confederacy into three smaller federations, the Western, the Central and the Eastern. Notable chieftains under Tanshihuai were Murong (see Sixteen Kingdoms), Huitou (see Sixteen Kingdoms) and Tuiyin (see Tuoba).

The confederacy was a rudimentary centralized government. All tribes had to share all trade profits, military duties and a unified stance against the Han court. Slavery was also important as captives were forced to work to provide provisions and weapons.

Supported by this confederacy, Tanshihuai brought the Southern Xiongnu into a close alliance. The Wuhuan, Dingling, Qiang and Di were at times aiding the confederacy which now included all the major tribes on the steppes stretching from today Jilin province to central Xinjiang.

Uneasiness at the Han court about this development of a new power on the steppes finally ushered in the only all-out campaign on the northern border to annihilate the confederacy once and for all. In 177 A.D., 30000 Han cavalry commanded by Xia Yu (夏育), Tian Yan (田晏) and Zang Min (臧旻), each of whom was the commander of units sent against the Wuhuan, the Qiang, and the Southern Xiongnu respectively before the campaign, attacked the confederacy.

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.

This victory marked the zenith of confederacy as the Han court was completely helpless in the face of any invasion that the confederacy could have launched. However the confederacy had its own problems to solve, the most important of which was the shortage of provisions. The Xianbei tribe now increased into a group of more than one million herdsmen after two decades of prosperity, without counting other adherents such as the Southern Xiongnu, and thus could not rely on simply looting provisions from China's northern border.

Tanshihuai found a temporary solution when he sacked the area of modern Jilin province, inhabited by the Wō people (倭). These proficient fishermen provided a source of provisions, though it was never enough. To make the matters worse, the successors of Tanshihuai (his sons and nephews) after his death in 181 never earned the respect from chieftains of the three federations. They were also less ambitious and constantly fought among themselves for the increasingly powerless lord of confederacy.

On the other hand, tribes began to emigrate from the steppe, mainly to the southwest and southeast for better pasture. The weakness of the Han court also encouraged tribes to move further into China. For example the Tufa (禿髮) tribe, an offshoot of the Tuiyin (Northern Wei Dynasty), settled in the eastern mountainous area of today Qinghai province. Thus the effective border of dynasty was pushed further south and east. The confederacy was virtually dissolved in early 3rd century therefore the warlords of the Han dynasty could play their own game of fighting for supremacy without much interference from tribes outside China.

Wu Hu in the period of Three Kingdoms

As the Eastern Han Dynasty slowly disintegrated into an era of warlords, battles for predominance eventually ushered in the Three Kingdoms. However years of war had generated a severe shortage of labor, a solution to which was the encouragement of immigration of Wu Hu herdsmen. Thus the Wei court, controlling Northern China at the time, reluctantly yielded areas already occupied to the Wu Hu and sometimes colonized areas depopulated by war with some weaker tribes of herdsmen. Several large-scale forced relocations of Di to area of southwestern Shaanxi and northern Sichuan took place in the 220s.

Surprising to some historians, the immigration went smoothly since no powerful confederacy of any tribes was established. Wuhuan, partisans of Yuan Shao and his sons, had already been squashed when Cao Cao sent an expedition into You Province. Its herdsmen were dispersed all over Northern China and were no longer a major threat. Some of them even assimilated into Chinese, Xianbei and Xiongnu by marriage, thus the Wuhuan were not counted as one of the five tribes of Wu Hu.

Later years of the period saw only skirmishes on borders as the three governments concentrated on reclaiming the loss of productivity. Thus an era of prosperity began after the unification under the Western Jin Dynasty as the relocated tribes adopted agriculture and contributed to the revival of the economy. Other tribes, still residing in the areas that they had occupied since the Eastern Han Dynasty, frequently served as mercenaries against minor rebellious chieftains such as Kebineng and Tufa Shujineng (禿髮樹機能).

However the Jin bureaucracy forgot an underlying threat: Wu Hu herdsmen now composed more than half of the national population. Living in areas well south of the Great Wall and closer than ever before to the capital of China at Luoyang, any widespread uprising would be impossible to halt.

Crisis of the Jin Dynasty

A era of relative prosperity had existed since Jin Wudi unified China in 280: Wu hu tribes residing inside and in the vicinity of China regularly paid taxes to the Jin's court. They traded horses and animal products for agricultural goods and silk. Mercenaries could always be called upon request. Powerful chieftains cannot match the diplomatic measures of the Chinese bureaucracy. The scenario resembled that of Eastern Han Dynasty with one exception: the underlying internal weakness of the dynasty provided the Wu Hu with the invaluable chance to become rulers of China themselves.

An important reason for this weakness was the influence of the principal landholding families. These families were so powerful that the founders of the Three Kingdoms had to rely on them to establish their domains. The Nine grade controller system, by which prominent individuals in each administrative area were given the authority to rank local families and individuals in nine grades according to their potential for government service, further consolidated their authority. Because the ranking was arbitrarily decided by a few prominent persons, it frequently reflected the wishes of the leading families in the area rather than the merit of those being ranked.

Since individuals from the elites were almost guaranteed bureaucratic posts without ever working hard, many found other ways of killing time. They engaged either in extravagantly showing off their wealth or time-consuming and often useless discussions on Daoism. Such pastimes were so popular that the minority of hard working individuals were often despised. Local officials and nobles often exploited both peasants and Wu Hu herdsmen for personal gain and in order to bribe officials for higher posts.

Although the Jin Dynasty was slowly deteriorating socially and politically, some officials did foresee the crisis. "Discussion of the God of Money" (錢神論 "Qián Shén Lùn") and "Discussion on Tribe Relocation" (徒戎論 "Tú Róng Lùn") acutely reflected the extravagant livelihood and the possibility of an uprising of the Wu Hu. The latter work provides accurate locations of the region where the Wu Hu resided. Southern Xiongnu now dominated Bingzhou (in modern Shanxi province) and their horsemen could arrive at Jinyang (Taiyuan) in half-a-day's ride and Luoyang, the capital, in a few days.

Outbreak: Rebellion of the Eight Kings

The accession of Emperor Hui in 290 marked the beginning of the crumbling of the Jin Dynasty. Possibly retarded at birth, he was merely a puppet of powerful parties which sought to control the Jin court. During the Rebellion of the Eight Kings, all parties in power attempted to wiped out the former rulers by murder, disloyalty, mass executions or battles. Each struggle grew more violent and bloodier than the one before. Not surprisingly, Wu Hu mercenaries were often called upon. Wu Hu chieftains and herdsmen clearly comprehended the selfishness of nobility and destruction of the country through their struggle for power and wealth. Coupled with famine, epidemic and floods, cannibalism was observed in some parts of the country only few years after Emperor Hui's accession. Wu Hu herdsmen saw no reason to obey orders from the Jin court and widespread uprisings soon followed.

The revolt by Qi Wannian (齊萬年), a Di chieftain residing in the border region of today's Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces, marked the first such uprising. His group of insurgents, which was mainly made up of Di and Qiang tribesmen, numbered around fifty thousand. Although his revolt was suppressed after six years of destructive battles, waves of refugees and remnants wreaked havoc in neighboring territories. The first of the Sixteen Kingdoms was founded by a group of Di refugees who fled into Sichuan.

ee also

*History of China
**Han Dynasty
**Three Kingdoms
**Jin Dynasty (265-420)
**Sixteen Kingdoms
**Southern and Northern Dynasties
**Northern Wei Dynasty
*Shiliuguo Chunqiu
*Chinese sovereign
*List of past Chinese ethnic groups

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