China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
In the famously multiethnic context of early medieval China, the Xianbei deserve particular attention because, among the ethnically non-Chinese regimes of this period, they alone succeeded in ruling portions of North China for more than two hundred years. The Murong branch of the Xianbei established a series of short-lived Yan kingdoms in Northeast China during the Sixteen Kingdoms period, and the Tuoba branch founded the the long-lasting Northern Wei dynasty, whose legacy was handed down to the Eastern and Western Wei and then the Northern Zhou and Northern Qi. Recent scholarship has shown that simplistic models of Han vs. hu, and the old narrative of Sinicization that once dominated our understanding of the period, are insufficient to explain the significance of the Xianbei’s role in Chinese history. What is needed is a more complex model that considers cultural contact, interaction, adaptation, assimilation, and shifting relationships of power and prestige between ethnic groups. The papers in this panel, which draw on a range of historical and archaeological evidence, aim to contribute to a more complex understanding of that role by considering points of contact where Xianbei identity comes to the fore. Examining the boundaries that are drawn between “us” and “them” in particular moments, and the cases which transgress or transcend these boundaries, provides a clearer sense of the significance of this group in the history of medieval North China, and may also shed light on their eventual assimilation into the general population in the late medieval period.