An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Eastern Wei Dynasty 東魏 (534-550)

Sep 17, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The Eastern Wei dynasty Dongwei 東魏 (534-550) ruled over one of the successor states of the Northern Wei empire 北魏 (386-534). It belongs to the so-called Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581) and was founded by Yuan Shanjian 元善見, who was a son of Prince Wenxuan 文宣王 of Qinghe 清河, a member of the ruling family of the Northern Wei, and the only ruler of the dynasty. The Eastern Wei empire covered the modern provinces of Shanxi, Shandong, Henan and Hebei. The capital was Ye 鄴 (near modern Anyang 安陽, Henan).
In the late 520s the powerful potentate Erzhu Rong 爾朱榮 dominated the central government of the Northern Wei empire. In 530 Emperor Xiaozhuang 北魏孝莊帝 (r. 528-529) had assassinated Erzhu Rong during a court audience. His nephew Erzhu Zhao 爾朱兆 rose in rebellion, conquered the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan) and killed Emperor Xiaozhuang. Erzhu Zhao installed Yuan Gong 元恭 as the new emperor (posthumous title Emperor Jiemin 北魏節閔帝, r. 530-531). A former retainer of Erzhu Rong, Gao Huan 高歡, began to wage a war against the Erzhu clan, with the support of the other aristocratic families of the Taɣbač. In 532 he killed Emperor Jiemin and enthroned Yuan Xiu 元脩 (Emperor Xiaowu 北魏孝武帝, r. 532-534). Gao Huan was from then on the factual regent of the Northern Wei court. In 534, refusing to further being the puppet of Gao Huan, Emperor Xiaowu fled to Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) in the west and asked the local potentate Yuwen Tai 宇文泰 for his protection. Gao Huan simply enthroned Yuan Shanjian 元善見 (Emperor Xiaojing 東魏孝靜帝, r. 534-550) as the new emperor, an act that led to a schism of the dynasty. Yuan Shanjian ruled over the eastern half of the empire. His reign is by historians therefore called that of the "Eastern Wei". In the west, Yuwen Tai enthroned Prince Yuan Baoju 元寶炬 as emperor of the Western Wei dynasty 西魏 (535-556).
Gao Huan had moved the capital from Luoyang to Ye, while he himself resided in Jinyang 晉陽 (modern Taiyuan 太原, Shanxi). He had made himself highest commander of the Six Garrisons (liuzhen 六鎮) and was the factual regent of the Eastern Wei empire, while Emperor Xiaojing was mere his puppet. Yet Gao Huan could not have won this powerful position was it not for the support of the Taɣbač aristocracy. In turn for this support, Gao Huan bestowed large favours to the nobility and had them live the live of their own culture. The Chinese gentry on their side was given the freedom to extract as much funds from their lands as possible. Gao Huan's government was thus nourished by a high grade of corruption in the upper level. The economy of the eastern realm was, in comparison with the Western Wei empire, relatively advanced. The Eastern Wei empire disposed of a large amout of arable land, a large population, and a prospering economy. Only this circumstance made such a government like that of Gao Huan possible.
Gao Huan several times tried to conquer the west. In 537 his army fought with that of Western Wei at the Tongguan Pass 潼關, but general Dou Tai 竇泰 was defeated and committed suicide. In the same year the battle of Shayuan 沙苑, the battle of Heqiao 河橋 in 538, and the battle of Mangshan 邙山 in 543 brought no decision. In 546 Gao Huan personally led an army to besiege the city of Yubi 玉壁 (modern Jishan 稷山, Shanxi). During the siege Gao Huan became sick and died in the following year, back in his residence. His sons Gao Cheng 高澂 and Gao Yang 高洋 took over regency for Emperor Xiaojing. In 550 Gao Yang deposed the emperor and proclaimed his own dynasty, the Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577).
There is no official dynastic history for the Eastern Wei dynasty. Its history is included in the official dynastic history of the Northern Wei, the Weishu 魏書 that was compiled by Wei Shou 魏收.

Table 1. Rulers of the Eastern Wei Dynasty 東魏 (534-550)
Capital: Ye 鄴 (near modern Anyang 安陽, Henan)
dynastic title {temple name} personal name reign-periods
Dongwei Xiaojingdi 東魏孝靜帝 (r. 534-550) Yuan Shanjian 元善見 Tianping 天平 (534-537)
Yuanxiang 元象 (538)
Xinghe 興和 (539-542)
Wuding 武定 (543-550)
550 Eastern Wei replaced by Northern Qi 北齊.
Lu Kaiwan 盧開萬 (1992). "Dongwei 東魏", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 182-183.
Zhongguo lishi da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《中國歷史大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (2000). Zhongguo lishi da cidian 中國歷史大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 3326.