An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Western Wei Dynasty 西魏 (535-556)

Sep 17, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The Western Wei dynasty Xiwei 西魏 (535-556) 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 Baoju 元寶炬, son of Prince Yuan Yu 元愉 of Jingzhao 京兆王 and grandson of Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝 (r. 471-499) of the Northern Wei dynasty. The Western Wei empire covered the region of the modern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu, the western part of Henan, as well a the northern part of Hubei. The capital was Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi).
In 543 Emperor Xiaowu 北魏孝武帝 (Yuan Xiu 元脩, r. 532-534) fled to the west and submitted himself to the protetion of the powerful warlord Yuwen Tai 宇文泰, in order to escape the power of the potentate Gao Huan 高歡 who dominated the court at the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan). Yet instead of supporting the Emperor Xiaowu, Yuwen Tai killed him and installed Prince Yuan Baoju as emperor of the Wei dynasty (posthumous title Emperor Wen 西魏文帝, r. 535-551). Gao Huan had meanwhile enthroned another prince, Yuan Shanjian 元善見 (Emperor Xiaojing 東魏孝靜帝, r. 534-550), so that the Wei empire was from then on divided into an eastern and a western part, known to historians as the Western and Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550) empires. In the west, Yuwen Tai was the factual regent. He proclaimed a series of 24 new rules (Xinzhi 新制), later added by a further set of 36 laws, the so-called Zhongxing yongshi 中興永式 "The everlasting patterns of the Zhongxing reign". The main objective of these administrative laws was to prevent corruption or embezzlement, to reduce the number of state offices, the introduction of neighbourhood heads (zhengzhang 正長) responsible for the administration of the local communities, the establishment of agrarian colonies (tuntian 屯田) to promote agriculture, a regular assessment of forthcoming taxes (jizhang 計帳), and the regular use of household registers (huji 戶籍). In 641 Su Chuo 蘇綽 recommended six measures for the enhancement of the administration of the capital region. Yuwen Tai took over these suggestions and had proclaimed them as the Liutiao zhaoshu 六條詔書 "Edict of the six rules". These rules were to be studies by all persons who wanted to become officials concerned with civilian administration. The six rules were, first, a pure heart (qingxin 清心, no corruption), second, honest behaviour with an educational effect (dunjiaohua 敦教化), third, the effectful use of all arable land (jindili 盡地利), fourth, promotion of competence (zhuo xianxiang 擢賢良), fifth, feeling pity in lawsuits (xu yusong 卹獄訟), and sixth, equalizing taxes and corvée service (jun fuyi 均賦役). In 551 the system of the eight military "pillars of state" (zhuguo 柱國) as given up and the garrison militia (fubing 府兵) were directly subjected to the control of the central government instead of to generals controlling the regions of the empire. The equal-field system (juntianzhi 均田制) invented by the Northern Wei, was continued, yet documents found in Dunhuang 敦煌 (Xiwei Datong shisannian jizhang 西魏大統十三年計帳) show the available land never sufficed to distribute an appropriate amount of land to the whole population. All able-bodies men had to deliver military service to the government for two months a year, which is quite a hard burder for a peasant population.
Nonetheless, the population experienced some relatively peaceful decades under the rule of the Western Wei dynasty. The reform in government were so effective that the Western Wei armies were able to withstand the attacks of the Eastern Wei empire. Emperor Wen was followed by his son Yuan Qin 元欽 (known as the Deposed Emperor 西魏廢帝, r. 551-553). During his reign, Western Wei armies under general Yuchi Hui 尉遲迥 conquered the territory of modern Sichuan and the city of Jiangling at the banks of the Yangtze River, tracts of land that were until then part of the territory of the Liang empire 梁 (502-557) in the south. Yuwen Tai soon replaced Yuan Qin by his brother Yuan Kuo 元廓 (Emperor Gong 西魏恭帝, r. 553-556). In the same year as Yuwen Tai died, his son Yuwen Jue 宇文覺 proclaimed himself emperor and founded the Northern Zhou dynasty 北周 (557-581).

Table 1. Rulers of the Western Wei Dynasty 西魏 (535-556)
Capital: Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi)
dynastic title {temple name} personal name reign-periods
Xiwei Wendi 西魏文帝 (r. 535-551) Yuan Baoju 元寶炬 Datong 大統 (535-551)
Counter-Emperor Xianyu Chen 鮮于琛 (r. 535)
Shangyuan 上願 (535)
The Deposed Emperor (Feidi) 西魏廢帝 (r. 551-553) Yuan Qin 元欽
Xiwei Gongdi 西魏恭帝 (r. 553-556) Yuan Kuo 元廓
556 Western Wei replaced by Northern Zhou 北周.
Lu Kaiwan 盧開萬 (1992)."Xiwei 西魏", 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. 3, 1271-1272.
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, 3328.