An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Sixteen Barbarian States 五胡十六國 (300~430)

The Sixteen Barbarian States (Wuhu shiliuguo 五胡十六國, 300~430) were one and a half dozen of polities mostly founded by Non-Chinese tribal leaders that ruled over northern China for about 150 years in the early phase of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600). Contrary to the name, some of the states were founded by Chinese, and the number of sixteen does not include all state foundations during that period of time (like Western Yan 西燕, Dai 代 or Qiuchi 仇池). The Sixteen States were not considered as rightful dynasties by Chinese historians. The "five barbarian tribes" were the Di 氐, Jie 羯, Qiang 羌, Xianbei 鮮卑, and Xiongnu 匈奴.

Table 1. The Sixteen Barbarian States Arranged Geographically (Horizontal) and Chronologically (Vertical)
Shanxi/Hebei Shaanxi Gansu Sichuan
前趙 Former Zhao (304-329) 前涼 Former Liang (314-376) 成漢 Cheng-Han (304-347)
[代 Dai (315-376)] 後趙 Later Zhao (319-350)
前燕 Former Yan (337-370) 前秦 Former Qin (351-395)
[西燕 Western Yan (384-394)] 後燕 Later Yan (384-409) 後秦 Later Qin (384-417) [仇池 Qiuchi (296-473)] 後涼 Later Liang (386-403)
南燕 Southern Yan (398-410) 北燕 Northern Yan (409-436) 西秦 Western Qin (385-431) 夏 Xia (407-432) 南涼 Southern Liang (397-414) 西涼 Western Liang (400-421) 北涼 Northern Liang (398-439)
Colours indicate ethnicity as defined in Chinese sources: Di 氐, Jie 羯, Qiang 羌, Xianbei 鮮卑, Xiongnu 匈奴, Chinese no colour. Click on arrows ↑ for details.

The mixed ethnicity of the population in northern China caused different models of living and societies. Some Di communities in the provinces of Qinzhou 秦州 and Yongzhou 雍州 (modern Shaanxi), and the Xiongnu in the province of Bingzhou 幷州 (modern Shanxi) still retained tribal characteristics. Slavery was very common among many tribal societies, and slaves were a traditional part of the households of the "barbarians". The turbulent politics and the many migrations contributed to a levelling of the differnt parts of society in northern China, so that at the end of the Sixteen States period, the differences between Chinese and Non-Chinese were smaller than at the beginning of this era. In the mid-5th century the Xiongnu, Di, Jie and the Western Xianbei had merged with the Chinese, and their peoples had disappeared.

Peasants and inhabitants of town were normally listed in household registers (huji 戶籍) that served as the base for taxation. With the increasingly precarious situation after many decades of war a lot of peasants gave up their own land and became subject to large landowners and transformed from free peasants living in their own household (hukou 戶口) into tenant farmers or servants in the household of a mighty landowner belonging to an eminent family (daxing haoqiang 大姓豪強). These landowners took over the responsibility over large tracts of land not only because they owned it but because the weak central governments were not able to built up a regular administration throughout their country. The landowners so also had a political responsibility. Many of them protected themselves with an own army and had fortified their manors. The many people living among their households were called "hidden and dependent households" (yinfu hukou 蔭附戶口). They were not listed in the tax registers (bian hu 編戶). A similar situation was to be found in the households of the Non-Chinese nobles that likewise of lot of servants and slaves that were not tax-liable.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political, social and economic history of the Sixteen Barbarian States, their geography, and provides a list of all rulers.

Tang Changru 唐長儒 (1992). "Shiliuguo 十六國", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 922-928.