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Although the Xiongnu finally had been driven back into their
homeland by the Chinese in A.D. 48, within ten years the Xianbei
(or Hsien-pei in Wade-Giles) had moved (apparently from the north
or northwest) into the region vacated by the Xiongnu. The Xianbei
were the northern branch of the Donghu (or Tung Hu, the Eastern
Hu), a proto-Tunguz group mentioned in Chinese histories as
existing as early as the fourth century B.C. The language of the
Donghu, like that of the Xiongnu, is unknown to modern scholars.
The Donghu were among the first peoples conquered by the Xiongnu.
Once the Xiongnu state weakened, however, the Donghu rebelled. By
the first century, two major subdivisions of the Donghu had
developed: the Xianbei in the north and the Wuhuan in the south.
The Xianbei, who by the second century A.D. were attacking
Chinese farms south of the Great Wall, established an empire,
which, although short-lived, gave rise to numerous tribal states
along the Chinese frontier. Among these states was that of the
Toba (T'o-pa in Wade-Giles), a subgroup of the Xianbei, in modern
China's Shanxi Province. The Wuhuan also were prominent in the
second century, but they disappeared thereafter; possibly they
were absorbed in the Xianbei western expansion. The Xianbei and
the Wuhuan used mounted archers in warfare, and they had only
temporary war leaders instead of hereditary chiefs. Agriculture,
rather than full-scale nomadism, was the basis of their economy.
In the sixth century A.D., the Wuhuan were driven out of Inner
Asia into the Russian steppe.
Chinese control of parts of Inner Asia did not last beyond
the opening years of the second century, and, as the Eastern Han
Dynasty ended early in the third century A.D., suzerainty was
limited primarily to the Gansu corridor. The Xianbei were able to
make forays into a China beset with internal unrest and political
disintegration. By 317 all of China north of the Chang Jiang
(Yangtze River) had been overrun by nomadic peoples: the Xianbei
from the north; some remnants of the Xiongnu from the northwest;
and the Chiang people of Gansu and Tibet (present-day China's
Xizang Autonomous Region) from the west and the southwest. Chaos
prevailed as these groups warred with each other and repulsed the
vain efforts of the fragmented Chinese kingdoms south of the
Chang Jiang to reconquer the region.
By the end of the fourth century, the region between the
Chang Jiang and the Gobi, including much of modern Xinjiang, was
dominated by the Toba. Emerging as the partially sinicized state
of Dai between A.D. 338 and 376 in the Shanxi area, the Toba
established control over the region as the Northern Wei Dynasty
(A.D. 386-533). Northern Wei armies drove back the Ruruan
(referred to as Ruanruan or Juan-Juan by Chinese chroniclers), a
newly arising nomadic Mongol people in the steppes north of the
Altai Mountains, and reconstructed the Great Wall. During the
fourth century also, the Huns left the steppes north of the Aral
Sea to invade Europe. By the middle of the fifth century,
Northern Wei had penetrated into the Tarim Basin in Inner Asia,
as had the Chinese in the second century. As the empire grew,
however, Toba tribal customs were supplanted by those of the
Chinese, an evolution not accepted by all Toba.
The Ruruan, only temporarily repelled by Northern Wei, had
driven the Xiongnu toward the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea
and were making raids into China. In the late fifth century, the
Ruruan established a powerful nomadic empire spreading generally
north of Northern Wei. It was probably the Ruruan who first used
khan (see Glossary).
Data as of June 1989