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Wu Hu

Wu Hu (五胡 Pinyin Wǔ Hú) or Five Hu is a collective term for non-Chinese tribes during the period from the Han Dynasty to the Northern Dynasties. These nomadic tribes originally residing outside China gradually migrated to inhabit areas vacated by years of turmoil between the Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms. These non-Chinese tribes, which the Han had fought to a standstill along the border, seized the opportunity afforded by the weakness of the Chinese government to extend their search for pastoral lands into the fertile North China Plain.

The Rebellion of the Eight Kings during the Western Jin Dynasty triggered the large scale Wu Hu uprising from 304, which sacked the Chinese capitals at Luoyang (311) and Changan. The Hunnic Kingdom of Han-Former Zhao captured and executed the last two Jin emperors as the Western Jin Dynasty crumbled in 317. Most Chinese fled to the south of Yangtze River as numerous tribes founded by Wu Hu and remnants of Chinese wreaked havoc in the north. Fu Jian temporarily unified the north but his brilliant achievement was destroyed after the Battle of Feishui. The Northern Wei Dynasty unified again in 439 and ushered in the Northern Dynasties.


Past and present definitions

Wu Hu literally means "five non-Chinese races", hence giving it another name, the Five Hu. Wu Hu were composed of five nomadic tribes: Xiōngn (匈奴, sometimes identified with the Huns), Xiānbēi (鮮卑), (), Qiāng (), and Ji () although different groups of historians and historiographers have their own definitions.

The above composition of Wu Hu is the most accepted since those five tribes were the major ones. The term Wu Hu was first used in Cui Hong's Shiliuguochunqiu , which recorded the history of the five tribes' ravaging Northern China from the early 4th century to the mid 5th century.

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 ravaging of China (五胡亂華). Tribes founded by Wu Hu were coined the Sixteen Kingdoms.

Definition of Wu Hu: a collective term of all non-Chinese tribes ravaging China from late 3rd to mid-5th century. Traditionally (but still in use to some extent) it only included Xiongnu, Xianbei, Di, Qiang and Jie.

Origins of the various definitions

Traditional historians interpreted "Hu" as "barbarians", in parallel to those in Europe; some further stretched this obsolete analogy to equate "Hu" with "Xiongnu" or Huns. Others objected to such similarities, stating that Wu Hu were substantially civilized before the turmoils 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 them to as the "Wu" (the "non-Chinese" or the "barbarian"). Both terms were used concurrently. Nevertheless "Wu" later became the collective term of 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).

The following is dedicated to the causes, course and aftermath of the war. Refer to the Sixteen Kingdoms for history of each of the Wu Hu tribes.

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 being having heavy tributes 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 dynasty defend against the Xiongnu's (the Southern and Northern Xiongnu) in return. The more they engaged in commerce with the Chinese, the more they preferred staying near the dynasty'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 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 commercial and military benefits. As the Northern Xiongnu, the master 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. Du Xin (竇憲 50s92), brother-in-law of Emperor Zhang through his sister Queen Duo, utterly defeated the Northern Xiongnu in a series of campaigns during the era of Yongyuan (89105). The remnants just escaped annihilation, conceded defeat, began migrating out of the Mongolians steppes and disappeared as a distinct group of herdsmen from the records of Chinese history once and for all. Others assimilated into other tribes by intermarriage: the Yuwen tribe was a brilliant example.

Whether these remnants were the ancestors of the Huns is still a controversy among some present-day historians, especially in the West. All must agree that a power vacuum was left on the Mongolian steppes. Main contenders were the Southern Xiongnu who inhabited south of the steppes and now propagated into groups of more than a hundred thousand herdsmen on the Xi He plain, Xianbei which lay just east of the steppes and resided on the plains of Manchuria, Dingling who originally dwelt on the banks of Lake Baikal and had already commenced trekking south into the steppes before Duo Xian set in his plan on exterminating the Northern Xiongnu, and Wuhuan who lived south of Xianbei and was the weakest of the four.

Instead of constantly trading for provisions, tools and luxuries, these four powerful groups of herdsmen, though allies of the dynasty, often cooperated among themselves to plunder areas of the northern border. The dynasty could not muster an all-out campaign to wipe them out (at least not yet, see below) but often attempted many diplomatic and monetary measures, sometimes treacherously, to sway any or more groups from the alliance of herdsmen.

On the other hand the dynasty was constantly declining as clans of consorts and eunuchs engaged themselves in a continuous contention for power. Wealthy merchants, individuals, families and aristocrats were annexing lands from peasants who had been cultivating their own land for years. "Landless" peasants had to come under the protection of the rich and pay their rent only to these new landowners for living. Coupled with bureaucratic corruption, tax payable dropped dramatically. On the other hand large landholding families took advantages of the weakness of central government and established their own armies. Region, Commandry and Prefecture (州郡縣 zhōu, jn, xin) became an authoritative three level system of local administration. The governor of a region (the highest level) administered his territories as an independent ruler. Among other rights, the recruitment of troops and tax collection could be carried out at the discretion of the regional governors, contributing to the inevitable crumbling of China into an era of disunity.

The dynasty also had to deal with Qiang and Di on the western border, who had constantly been involved in skirmishes, individually and together, against the dynasty since the middle of Western Han Dynasty (around mid-1st century BC). As the Eastern Han Dynasty declined, Qiang, nominal ancestor of modern Tibetans, had begun planning major campaigns of invasion. Through spies and collaborators, the Han court knew well enough of the situation and had to continuously deploy legions 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 a cradle of ambitious militarists, the most famous of whom was Dong Zhuo (董卓 Dong3 Zhuo2, 130s192), pretender of the Han court from 189-192. The more the Han court was weakened by domestic problems, the more the herdsmen craved for procuring the dynasty's wealth. Wuhuan was a frequent ally with the Han court against Xianbei and the Southern Xiongnu (hereafter abbreviated as Xiongnu) although it sometimes allied with Xiongnu to fend off joint attacks by the Han and Xianbei.

The Han court also deployed mercenaries of Xianbei and Wuhuan cavalries for campaigns against Wu Hu and quelling peasant insurgents. Being treated similarly to Chinese peasants, these mercenaries were often sympathizers of peasant uprising and hence not trusted by the Han's military authorities. However they were the best available option to suppress the insurgents and consequently legions were poorly treated such as deploying them far away from their homeland, at the most dangerous position on the field or starving them from provision and weapon. Thus militarists who earned trust from Xianbei or Wuhuan would collaborate with the tribes for their own sake.

For instance the legion of Wuhuan cavalries of about 5000 men resided in Youzhou (including area of today northeastern Hebei and western Liaoning Province) was deployed in Southern Jingzhou (today Hunan Province) for 3 consecutive unbearable years. The rebellion (187-189) of Zhāng Chn (張純, died 189) and Zhāng Jǔ (張舉, died 189) in Youzhou with those Wuhuan cavalries marked the first of such collaborations. Yun Shào (袁紹, 140s202) and Gōngsūn Zn (公孫瓚, 140s199), celebrated two of the "warlords" in the era of the Three Kingdoms, also exploited Wuhuan and Xianbei respectively for their own quests for predominance. Ironically Gongsun Zan was the commander to suppress the rebellion of Zhang Chun and Zhang Ju .

Xianbei confederacy of Tan Shi Huai

Bitter relationship of sometimes friend and sometimes enemy between the Han's court and groups of herdsmen lasted from the start of 2nd century to early 160s until the appearance of Tán Shí Huái (檀石槐 b. 120s - d. 181), an illegitimate son of a low ranked military officer in Xianbei mercenaries deployed against Southern Xiongnu. Despite his low social status among Xianbei herdsmen, he managed to unify all Xianbei tribes under a military and commercial confederacy against the Han's court.

Xianbei tribes each led by a chieftain were grouped under the confederacy into three smaller federations, the Western, the Central and the Eastern, according to their residing areas. Notable chieftains under Tan Shi Huai were Mu Rong (see Sixteen Kingdoms), Haui Tou (see Sixteen Kingdoms) and Tui Yin (see Tuoba).

The confederacy was a rudiment of a centralized government. All tribes had to share all trade profits, military duties and a unified stance against the Han's court. Signs of slavery were also observed as captives were forced to provide provisions and weapons.

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

Uneasiness of the Han court on the vicious development of a new power on the steppes finally ushered in the only all-out campaign of all troops deployed on the northern border to annihilate the confederacy once and for all. In 177 A.D., 30000 Han cavalries commanded by Xi&aagrave; Yù (夏育), Tiān Yn (田晏) and Zāng Mín (臧旻), each of whom was the commander of troops against Wuhuan, Qiang, Southern Xiongnu respectively before the campaign, attacked the confederacy.

Each military officer commanded 10,000 cavalries and rode north in 3 different routes, aiming at each of the 3 federations. Cavalries commanded by chieftains of each of the 3 federations almost annihilated the invading force. 80 percent of the troops were killed and the three officers, who only brought tens of cavalries safely back, were relieved from their posts.

This victory marked the zenith of confederacy as the Han's court was completely helpless to 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 provision. The Xianbei tribe now propagated into a group of more than one million herdsmen after two decades of prosperity, let alone other adherents notably the Southern Xiongnu, and thus cannot simply rely on looting provision from areas of dynasty's northern border.

Tan Shi Huai found a temporary solution as he sacked the area of modern Jilin province, inhabited by the Wō people (倭). Regarded as the ancestor of modern Japanese, those proficient fishermen provided a source of provision, though never enough. To make the matter worse, successors of Tan Shi Huai (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 contended among themselves for the now nominal lord of confederacy.

On the other hand, tribes began emigration from the steppes mainly to the southwest and southeast for better pasture. Weakness of Han's court also encouraged the tribes to move further into China. For example Tūfǎ (禿髮) tribe, an offshoot of the Tui Yin (Northern Wei Dynasty) settled in the eastern mountainous area of today Qinghai province. Thus the effective border of dynasty was pushed further south. 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.

Tan Shi Huai territory
Map Explanations:

  • Han Xiongnu = Southern Xiongnu
  • Dinglins = Dingling
  • the Northern Xiongnu north of Xian Bei were not purely Xiongnu; many intermarriaged with Xianbei.

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 generated a severe shortage of labor, a solution to which was encouragement of immigration of Wu Hu herdsmen. Thus the Wei court, controlling Northern China at the time, reluctantly yielded areas already occupied to Wu Hu and sometimes colonized war-uninhabited areas with some weaker tribes of herdsmen. Several large-scale forced relocations of Di to area of southwestern Shǎnxī and northern Schuān (四川) took place in the 220s.

Surprising to some historians, the immigration went smoothly since no powerful confederacy of any tribes was established. Wuhuan, partisan of Yuan Shao and his sons, had already been squashed when Cao Cao expedited into Youzhou. Its herdsmen were dispersed all over Northern China and no longer a major threat. Some of them even assimilated into Chinese, Xianbei and Xiongnu by marriage, thus Wuhuan was 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 was observed after the unification under the Western Jin Dynasty as the relocated tribes adopted agriculture and contributed to revival of economy. Other tribes, still residing areas where they occupied since the Eastern Han Dynasty, frequently served as mercenaries against minor rebellious chieftains such as Kē Bǐ Nng (軻比能) and Tūfǎ Sh Jī Nng (禿髮樹機能 ).

However the Jin bureaucracy forgot an underlying threat: Wu Hu herdsmen now composed of 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 be halted.

Crisis of the Jin Dynasty

Era of temporary prosperity had been observed since Jin Wudi unified China in 280: Wu hu tribes residing inside and in the vicinity of China regularly pay tributes to the Jin's court. They traded horses and animal products for agricultural goods and silk. Mecenaries can always be called upon request. Powerful chieftains cannot match against treacherous diplomatic measures of bureaucracy. The scenario resembled that of Eastern Han Dynasty with one exception: underlying internal weakness of the dynasty provided the Wu Hu the invaluable chance to became rulers of China themselves.

Important reason for this weakness was the influence of the principalnlandholding families. These families were so powerful that founders of the three kingdoms had to rely on them to establish their kingdoms. 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 reominent 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 their ways of killing time. They engaged either in extravagantly showing off their wealth or time-consuming and often useless discussion on Daoism. Such ideologies were so trendy that minorities of hard working individuals were often regarded mundane. Local officials and nobles often exploited both peaseants and Wu Hu herdsmen for personal extravagance and bribery for higher posts. Productivity even exceeded that of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Given much less population than its precedent dynasty, works under Jin's rule were harder per capita.

Though Jin Dynasty was slowly deteriorating socially and politically, some officials did foresee the crisis. Prose of the God of Money (錢神論 Qin Shn Ln) and Prose of Tribe Relocation (徒戎論 T Rng Ln) acutely reflected the extravagant livelihood and the possible uprising of Wu Hu. Latter passage provided locations of Wu Hu residence. Southern Xiongnu now dominated Bingzhou (today Shanxi province) and their horsemen could arrive at Jinyang (today Taiyuan) in half-day time and Luoyang the capital in days.

All these brilliant petitions were ignored.

Outbreak: Rebellion of the Eight Kings

Accession of Emperor Hui in 290 began the crumbling of Jin Dynasty. Retarded at birth, he was merely a puppet of powerful parties which strived to control the Jin's court. During the Rebellion of the Eight Kings, any party in power always wiped out its former by murder, disloyalty, mass executions or battles. Each struggle grew more violent and bloodier than the one before. Not surprisingly, Wu Hu mecenaries 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 compromise Jin court's order for better living and widespread upraising soon followed.

Revolt by Q Wnnin (齊萬年), a Di chieftain residing in border of today Shaanxi and Sichuan province, marked the first of such upraising. His group of insurgents, which mainly made up of Di and Qiang tribesmen, numbered around fifty thousand. Though his revolt was suppressed after six years of destructing battles, waves of refugees and remnants wreaked havoc in neighboring territories. First of the Sixteen Kingdoms was found by the group of Di refugees fled into Sichuan.


See also

Last updated: 07-29-2005 22:56:06
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13