The two great folk of the Hsien-pei were the Mu-jung clan and the T'o-pa clan. During the period of the Eastern Chin the Mu-jung clan established many states that all eventually declined and fell ending with the Latter Yen as the Mu-jung clan returned to historical obscurity while rising up to replace them were the T'o-pa clan. During the era of the Southern and Northern Dynasties the T'o-pa established a strong and powerful Northern Wei state that for one-hundred and seventy years maintained a brilliant position in the history of the age.
The history of the ancestors of the T'o-pa clan is extremely vague. The Book of the North (Pei Shu) says that they are the descendants of Huang-ti's son Ch'ang-i but these and many other myths were all molded into shape during the Northern Wei and are of little value as a basis of opinion. What we do know is that their ancestors were called the "braided head" type of Hsien-pei and therefore later men of the south always called the Northern Wei the "braided slaves." The earliest of the states founded by the T'o-pa clan was that of T'o-pa Li-wei, first establishing a capital at Sheng-le. After passing through four successive rulers the crown came to T'o-pa Lu-kuan when the clan split into three sections, and then during the reign of T'o-pa I-lu when they were reunited and he accepted Chin enfeoffment as the Duke of Tai which led to the result of of the creation of the kingdom of Tai. The kingdom was passed to She-iichien and then was destroyed by the Former Ch'in but when the Former Ch'in disintegrated then Shen-i-chien's grandson, T'o-pa Kuei, restored the kingdom and established the Northern Wei.
Beginning in the reign of T'o-pa Kuei, the ruler Tao-wu-ti, the T'o-pa peoples began to be separated from their tribal nomadic existence as the established a formal organization and an officialdom to staff it, laying the organizational foundation for a state. T'o-pa Kuei was also a courageous fighter and he was the one who destroyed the Latter Yen state that lay to the east and also attacked the Jou-jan whose empire spread across the north to extend to the borders of the Wei kingdom for a thousand li. In was only later that his use of cruel and saidstic tortures resulted in deaths for he still had the habits and values born of a life in the wild beyond the forts of the frontiers. Late in his life T'o-pa Kuei became particularly cruel and after a reign of twenty-four years he was suddenly killed by his son T'o'pa Shao. T'o-pa Kuei's eldest son, Ssu, killed Shao and then himself ascended the throne to become Ming-yuan-ti in the era before the Eastern Chin had fallen and before Liu Yu had campaigned in the north. It was only after Ssu (???) had come to the throne that Liu Yu usurped the throne of the Southern Court and it was also in 422 that Ssu took advantage of Liu Yu's defeat and retreat across the Yellow River to sieze the lands of four Sung strongholds. T'o-pa Ssu dreamed of prolonging his life and to this end investigated Taoist alchemy, and late in life he adopted the regimen of eating only cold foods and eating as little as possible, so when he suddenly became ill and was no longer able to administer the state after a reign of ten years he died and passed on the throne to his son, T'o-pa T'ao, who went on to become T'ai-wu-ti. T'o-pa T'ao was a military man of greap proportions and it was he who during the period of his reign successively eliminated the Hsia, Northern Yen and Northern Liang states to unify the north. There were also large-scale campaigns in the north against the Jou-jan and a southern expedition against Liu-Sung where the horses of the north watered along the banks of the Yangtze and the might of their army made all of Chiang-tung tremble with fear. Among the battles of his lifetime it was those fought with the Jou-jan that were the most fiercely fought. The Jou-jan, also called the Juan-juan, were classified as belonging to the Eastern Hu peoples and a separate branch of the Hsien-pei. While the Northern Wei was establishing a capital at P'ing-ch'eng and extending their power into the Central Plain, the Jou-jan were gradually growing in size and strength, completely occupying the former lands of the Hsiung-nü to form a great threat to the survival of the Northern Wei state. In 423 in order to guard against Jou-jan incursions the Northern Wei constructed a "Great Wall" that extended for two-thousand li from Chih-ch'eng to Wu-yuan and was known as the Northern Wei Wall. At the very start of the reign of T'o-pa T'ao the Jou-jan had already pillaged the Former Wei capital of Sheng-le so in 429 he mounted a major punitive expedition against the Jou-jan ordering the capable general Chang-sun Han and others to attack and defeat the raiders, pursuing them as far as Mo-pei (north of the Gobi in Outer Mongolia) which was several thousand li beyond the frontier, and accepting the surrender of over thirty-thousand Jou-jan villages (lo). After this from time to time the Northern Wei and Jou-jan engaged in hostilities but although the Jou-jan were brave and fierce their military forces lacked organization so it was usually the case that they were defeated by the Northern Wei. As a ruler T'o-pa T'ao was impartial in his rewards and punishments, and also had the ability to employ others with the result that he was very popular with the troops. He also promoted literary studies with the creation of over one-thousand new characters in 425, while in 426 he built and established an Imperial Academy (T'ai-hsüeh) offering sacrifices to Confucius to begin a trend of increasing cultural assimilation with the men of Han. However, the most serious drawback that T'o-pa T'ao had was his superstitious belief in Taoism. He honored K'o Ch'ien-chih, the Taoist priest from Mt. Sung, as the Taoist Primate, ordering the nation to honor him as such, and also built a ritual site for the use of the Taoist Primate to the southeast of P'ing-ch'eng with an altar five-stories tall, where one-hundred and twenty Taoist priests were maintained with a monthly allowance of food and clothing, and T'ao even went so far as to change the name of the reign period to T'ai-p'ing Chen-chün (the Peace of the Taoist Immortal) in order to signify his acceptance of this heavenly mandate. He also listened to and believed the counsel of the Taoist priests to destroy Buddhism saying that it was the religion of the eastern and northern barbarians so in 446 an edict was handed down that prohibited Buddhism. Temples and pagodas were destroyed, scriptures and paintings were burned and monks and nuns were slaughtered in what was a singular catastrophe for the Buddhist community in China.
It was during the great wars of 450-451 between the Sung and the Wei that the troops of T'o-pa T'ao approached Kua-pu and watered their horses along the banks of the Yangtze. Although the common folk of Sung suffered grievously, the Wei army also had severe losses such that when T'o-pa T'ao returned to the north the casualties among the men and horses exceeded 50% and so among the men of the state it was unavoidable that had had words of complaint. During the campaign Imperial Heir Huang had served as regent and used the occasion to set up many of his supporters into positions of power and therefore, Tsung Ai, the Regular Palace Attendant and favorite of T'o-pa T'ao's, often found himself at odds with the Imperial heir. Now taking advantage of the general sense of unease and while many rumors were flying about, Tsung Ai started his own rumors about the followers of the Imperial Heir to bring about their downfall. T'o-pa T'ao had all of the dependents of the Eastern Palace (the residence of the Imperial Heir) executed while the Imperial Heir worried himself to death with his fears. As soon as the Imperial Heir had died, T'o-pa T'ao was filled with remorse and therefore, enfeoffed Huang's son, Chün, as the King of Kao-yang and this gave his followers the idea of having the King designated as the new Imperial Heir. Then quite suddenly in 452 the fear that his crime would be discovered drove Tsung Ai to murder T'o-pa T'ao. Along with the palace eunuchs, Tsung Ai killed T'o-pa Han King of Ch'in and then along with the cabinet minister Lan Yen, Ho Tsu and others he set up T'o-pa Yu King of Nan-an as emperor while Tsung Ai himself became the Commander-in-Chief and General-in-Chief to share in the government and was in full control. In everything that he did T'o-pa Yu was pressured by Tsung Ai so he was unable to act independently which drove him to plan the removal of Tsung but was without success while contrary to this Tsung did succeed in killing him. With Tsung Ai having killed the last two rulers, the Imperial Court was in confusion but among them was the Han-lin Gentleman-of-the-Palace Liu Ni, who along with the Master of the Palace Writers Yuan Ho, Lu Li and others plotted together to seize and kill Tsung Ai, while supporting the Imperial grandson T'o-pa Chün as the new emperor known as Wei Wen-ch'eng-ti.
The reign of T'ai-wu-ti was a period of expansion for the Northern Wei; from Wen-ch'eng-ti on was a period of preserving the gains already made. The former was based on military expansion while the latter period saw the development of a civil administration. Because Wen-ch'eng-ti, T'o-pa Chün, was young a regency was set up that was quite able to take heed of the affairs of state with the Minister of the Masses Lu Li, the Master of writing Liu Ni, and Kau Yun the Gentleman-in-Attendance upholding the government with a single heart. Closely watching the conduct of the bureaucracy and giving personal attention to the distress of the peasantry, the state actively engaged itself in the tasks of cultivation and increase. The thirteen years of the reign of T'o-pa chün constituted a period of peace and plenty for the Northern Wei. At the request of his ministers the emperor also rescinded the ban on Buddhism and was himself tonsured by five Buddhist teachers and worthies in a sudden reversal of the ruling style of his grandfather, T'o-pa T'ao. Buddhism had not only been restored, but quite unexpectedly became even more vigorous as everywhere their temples were restored and it was also at this time that the famous Yung-an grottos were built. (For more on these grottos see the sections on Learning and the Arts.)
When T'o-pa Chün died in 465 Imperial Heir Hung ascended the throne to become Wei Hsien-wen-ti. When Hung came to the throne he was just twelve years old and Chancellor I Hun high-handedly assumed dictatorial control over the government, killing Lu Li the Minister of the Masses. The drove the Empress Dowager Feng to plot together with Chia Hsiu, Pacifying the Distant Genral and others to execute I Hun, making use of Kao Yun to control the administration while she personally assumed control of the regency. It was at this moment he revolt of Tz'u-hsün King of Chin-an broke out and the troops of Wei were able to take advantage of the situtation to descend upon the south and sieze the lands of Ch'ing-chou and Huai-pei, making the Huai River the new border with the Southern Court. The Empress Dowager Feng was the daughter of Feng Lang, the Count of Liao-hsi Commandery and a man of Han. However, Hsien-wen-ti, T'o-pa Hung (弘), was not the son of Empress Dowager Feng but was born to the Honorable Lady Li. When Hung had been designated as the Imperial Heir his mother had been ordered to commit suicide. Although Hung had been brought up by Empress Dowager Feng the feelings between mother and son were anything but harmonious. In 467 Empress Dowager Feng handed over the government to Emperor Hung but in reality still maintained complete control. When he was young Hung had been particularly fond of Buddhism and had no real interest in administering the government so in T'ai-shih 7 (471) declaring himself the Shang-huang "Retired Emperor" he handed over the throne to Imperial Heir Hung (宏) who at the age of only five became Wei Hsiao-wen-ti. Although Empress Dowager Feng now became the Imperial Grandmother, she was in reality only a few years past thirty and maintained in the palace many of her favorites which was the reason Hsien-wen-ti was so dissatisfied with her behavior and had already once before had Li I, who was one of her lovers, killed. The Empress Dowager bitterly resented this interference with he freedom by Hsien-wen-ti so during the 4th lunar month of T'ai-shih 8 (476) when within the span of an evening he suddenly became violently ill and died it was rumored that he had been poisoned by the Empress Dowager. With the death of Hsien-wen-ti, Empress Dowager Feng once again assumed control of the regency and although her private life was unrestrained, her administration was well ordered and during the period that she ruled the society was peaceful and stable with a stern but impartial control over the bureaucracy. For about ten years after 469 good relations were continuously maintained with the Southern Court in order to conserve the resources of the state. In 479 a coup rocked the Southern Court as Hsiao Tao-ch'eng replaced the Sung Dynasty as Liu Ch'ang King of I-yang fled into exile in the north, where he requested that Wei troops be sent to help him recover the throne so the Empress Dowager immediately sent an army into the south. The armies fought each other from 480 to 481 when since neither had yet been able to wrest victory from the other, both sides recalled their armies and while they still faced each other across the Huai, once again north and south restored good relations. The Empress Dowager then turned her attention and energies to the task of constructing an internal administrative structure. In 483 the prohibition began that people of the same surname could no longer marry; in 484 official salaries were increased while corruption and negligence were severely punished; in 485 the "Equal Fields System" was put into practice. In 486 on the advice of Li Ch'ung-chih the Prefect of the Archives, the old laws were examined and then a village organization was put into effect in the countryside. Every five families formed a lin (neighborhood), five lin formed a li (community), while five li formed a tang (village) each headed by its respective headman who was to reorganize the household registers and carry out the census, and the entire empire was not divided into thirty-six provinces. It was at this point that the Northern Wei was formally changed from a feudalistic clan society to a unified administration, while in the realm of political systems this represented yet another step toward sinification. In 487 an imperial edict required that all of the local counties and villages (hsien and tang) establish schools to revive culture and education, while in 488 Li Piao the Deputy of the Archives offered up a memorial enumerating six (five?) methods for giving peace to the people, and they are: one, the powerful and noble families are very extravagant and excessive, so it is only proper to increase restrictions. Two, the Imperial Heir of the state must have an official teacher, so it is only fitting that we establish a tutor to instruct and guide the Imperial Heir. Three, we should set up warehouses for the collection of grain to be used to guard against shortages. Four, in the seven provinces south of the Yellow River we should promote men of talent in compliance with the official sequence of posts. Five, when a family member breaks the law although there will be no persons held responsible for the crime who were not fuilty, there must, however, be an admission while awaiting punishment to make people have hearts that know shame. Hsiao-wen-ti and Empress Dowager Feng both adopted these one by one. Incredibly, the Northern Wei was a great country of the time and everywhere there was the appearance of peace. With the coming of 490, the Empress Dowager passed away. Starting in 465 the Empress Dowager had headed the government for twenty-five years and with her death Hsiao-wen-ti subsequently took over control of the government.
Hsiao-wen-ti came to the throne at the age of twenty-four and just as he reached the prime of his life so too did the fortunes of the state reach their zenith. Ever since his youth Hsiao-wen-ti had been deeply influenced by Han studies, and although he was a Hsien-pei, he still deeply admired Chinese customs. In 490 after the regency had ceased to govern the first thing that he did was to build a Hall Of Enlightenment (NOTE: a hall for sacrifices, recption of nobles, conferring of honors and other state functions of high ceremony) and an Imperial Ancestor Shrine, and discussed and fixed rites and music. In 491 he ordered sacrifices to Confucius and kings Yao, Shun, Yü and the Duke of Chou, granting to Confucius the posthumus title of "Literary Sage Father Ni" (). The emperor also personally carried offered sacrifices and modelled them after the story of the ruler Han Hsiao-ming-ti called "The Rites of Caring for the Aged" (). He appointed Wei Yuan as Minister of the Masses as Thrice Venerable and the Grand HErald Yu Ming-ken as "Wu Keng" (). Hsiao-wen-ti thought that as a capital P'ing-ch'eng was out of the way, cold and not deserving to serve as the center of both church and state, so he decided that he would move the capital to the Central Plain. However, the nobility in court were all northerners who did not want to move south. T'o-pa Hung Hsiao-wen-ti and T'o-pa Ch'eng King of Jen-ch'eng decided on a plan and then announced that they wanted to mount a large-scale expedition to the south. It was then in 493 that Hsiao-wen-ti personally set out at the head of 300,000 infantry and cavalry from P'ing-ch'eng headed south and during the 9th lunar month of that year the force arrived in Lo-yang. It just happened that a great rainstorm covered the heavens and for a long time there had been peace in the north so that the men and officers were all unwilling to do battle in a distant land and complained in droves. Hsiao-wen-ti took advantage of the opportunity to circulate an announcement that said, "the army is on the road so how is ti that we can return without accomplishing anything, if you do not wish to campaign in the south then first let us transfer the capital to this place and tomorrow we can make plans to subdue the south." The assembled crowd shouted out its approval and so it was that the capital was then established in Lo-yang. On the one hand Hsiao-wen-ti appointed men to manage affairs in the new capital while on the other he sent King Ch'ebg of Jen-ch'eng back to P'ing-ch'eng to exhort their subordinates and set the minds of the people at ease, as he himself remained behind at Yeh-ch'eng with the temporary capital to oversee the entire operation. The next year was 494 and it was during this year that the Wei ruler moved all of the civil and military officials from P'ing-ch'eng to Lo-yang to empty out the area of the north. The emperor ordered the civil engineers Tung Erh, Chiang Shao-yu and others to begin a large-scale construction of palaces and residences in Lo-yang based on Han Chinese models. With this the Eastern Capital that had been ravaged in the tumults brought about by Liu and Shih was now once again to be completely restored. The layout of Lo-yang during the Northern Wei can be seen in the Records of the Buddhist Temples of Lo-yang (Lo-yang ch'ieh-lan chi) and from it was can visualize some of its grandeur.
After the Northern Wei transferred their capital to Lo-yang in T'ai-ho 18 (494 , Ch'i Ming-ti Chien-wu 1) the Southern Court was suddenly faced with the coup of Hsiao Luan (in 495) so the Wei emperor personally led an expedition into the south but returned after unsuccessfully assaulting Chung-li and I-yang. For the next few years after this the Wei armies invaded the south several times more, all without any great gains so that once again we find the usual situation between north and south being that of stalemate. Although Hsiao-wen-ti was unable to obtain any success in his military efforts in the south, in the several years both before and after the transfer of the capital all of his energies were directed toward the reform and development of the internal administrative structure of the state and with popular enlightenment. This is known in history as the famous "Hsiao-wen Sinicization Movement" (孝文華化運動), and the content of this sinicization is as follows:
This kind of active policy of sinicization on the part of Hsiao-wen-ti at the time encountered fierce opposition within the country from a group of conservatives and triggered the revolts of the Heng-chou Prefect Mu T'ai and the Ting-chou Prefect Lu Jui who were both put down by Yuan Ch'eng King of Jen-ch'eng. Hsiao-wen-ti was finally able to put his plan into effect by neutralizing the opposition with armed force.
This sinicization sponsored by Hsiao-wen-ti is a major historical event because it further urged on the racial and cultural fusion of the ethnic groups of the Chinese nation. However, speaking only from the perspective of the Northern Wei, this event had a mixed impact on the Northern Wei state. Its major benefit was that it forced the Northern Wei to accept Han culture, and as they progressed from barbarian to civilization they showed marked progress both politically and academically. Its major drawback was that it made the men of Wei lose touch with the spirit of strength and bravery that had originally animated them, and this was especially true of the Wei aristocracy and Royal Family for with the move to Lo-yang their lifestyles quickly changed becoming extravagant as the traditional spirit that moved their people unexpectedly declined. Another very important influence on this was that after the transfer of the capital, the north was empty and deserted to later give rise to the revolt of the Six Garrisons.
T'o-pa Hung, the ruler Hsiao-wen-ti, had only been on the throne for twenty-nine years when he died in 499 at the age of only thirty-three, with Imperial Heir K'o ascending the throne to become the Northern Wei ruler Hsüan-wu-ti (Proclaims Martial Virtue) and from this point on the Northern Wei state fell abruptly from prosperity into decline.