Sixteen Kingdoms

The Sixteen Kingdoms, or less commonly the Sixteen States, were a collection of numerous short-lived sovereign states in China proper and its neighboring areas from 304 to 439 AD after the retreat of the jin dynasty (265-420) to South China and before the establishment of the Northern Dynasties. Originally, the term was first introduced by Cui Hong in the lost historical record, Shiliuguo Chunqiu (the Spring and Autumn Annals of the Sixteen Kingdoms) and restricted to Sixteen Kingdoms of this era,

namely the states of Han Zhao, Later Zhao, Cheng Han, Former Liang, later liang dynasty , Northern Liang, Western Liáng, Southern Liang, Former Yan, later yan, Northern Yan, Southern Yan, Former Qin, Later Qin and western qin and Xia. The term has been broadened to include all sovereignties from 304 to 439. These do not all exist through the entire period.

A less used term, the Period of Sixteen Kingdoms represents this turbulent era from 304 to 439.

Almost all rulers of the kingdoms were part of the Wu Hu ethnicity and claimed to be the emperors and wangs (kings). The Han Chinese founded the four states: Northern Yan, Western Liang, Former Liang and the state of Wei. Six Chinese rulers of the Former Liang remained titularly under the government of the jin dynasty. The northern wei Dynasty is not counted as one of the Sixteen Kingdoms even though it was founded during the Period.

Rulers of each of the Kingdoms are listed in relevant articles.


The Sixteen Kingdoms Period, also known as the Wu Hu period, was one of the most devastating periods in Chinese history. Following a long period of Chinese dominance since the qin dynasty, the wu hu uprising took over much of the Chinese heartland. It did not end until Jin reclaimed much of central China while northern wei took over the areas north of the Yellow River.

Initial uprising

In 304 AD, following the outbreak of civil war in the ruling jin dynasty in China, the Wu Hu tribes, led by the Xiongnu, rose up against Chinese rule. By 311 AD, with the Disaster of Yongjia, the Wu Hu tribes under the Xiongnu regime of Han then dominated the North China plain. By 317 AD, Jin forces had been completely driven out of North China. An attempt to recover the Central China plain under general Zu Tì (祖逖) was initially successful in recovering all of Henan and Shantung but ended with Zu's death in 321 AD.

Han-Zhao and Later Zhao

Although the Xiongnu regime of Han (which was changed to Former Zhao) was dominant in North China, the Jie general Shi Le challenged the Xiongnu's dominance. In 329 AD, Shi le overthrew Former Zhao and reunified North China. Jie rule was extremely brutal, reportedly even using many Chinese girls as provisions for the army. Later Zhao's rule finally ended with the ascension of Ran Min in 350 AD.

Rise of Ran Wei

Ran Min, a Chinese, restored native rule to China in 350 AD. However, his rule was opposed by the Jie and other Wu Hu. In response, Ran Min ordered that thousands of Wu Hu be killed. Attempts to overthrow Ran Wei by the Jie and other Wu Hu tribes were largely defeated until the Xianbei invaded Ran Wei in 352 AD and defeated Ran Min.

Former Yan and Former Qin

The regime of Former Yan founded by the Xianbei then proceeded to dominate much of North China. Meanwhile, Di tribesmen conquered the region around Shanxi and formed the regime of Former Qin. In 370 AD, Former Qin invaded and conquered Former Yan, unifying most of North China. By 376 AD, after two campaigns against Former Liang and the state of Dai, Former Qin ruler Fu Jian reunified all of North China. The independence of the last Chinese state, the jin dynasty, was now in danger.

Huan Wen's expeditions

The Jin general Huan Wen was determined to reclaim North China for the Chinese jin dynasty. Between 346 AD and 369 AD, Huan Wen launched a series of expeditions against the Wu Hu states in the North. Nevertheless, because of lack of support from the Jin court, Huan Wen did not succeed.

Collapse of Former Qin

Attempting to capitalize on his success and conquer all of China, Fu Jian then proceeded to invade the territory of the jin dynasty, the last Han Chinese state whose conquest would have make Fu Jian the first non-Chinese ruler of China. However, the Jin army rallied and the Chinese forces scored a massive success on the Fei river, where some 300,000 Former Qin troops were routed by an army of 80,000 Jin soldiers. Former Qin then collapsed. After the battle, Jin forces reclaimed much of Henan and Shantung.

Liu Yu's expeditions

In 406 AD, the Jin general Liu Yu began a series of campaigns aimed at reclaiming the Chinese heartland. These campaigns were extraordinarily successful and by 416 AD Jin forces had reclaimed the two capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an which they had lost a century earlier. However, Chang'an was lost in 417 AD. Nevertheless, Liu Yu's success meant that all Chinese territory up to the Yellow River was now reclaimed, though the North was now under the control of Xianbei northern wei.

Non-Han and Non-Wuhu Involvement

The Korean Goguryeo kingdom was a powerful and influential state in northeast China at the beginning of the Sixteen Kingdoms period. Goguryeo was attacked by the Murong Xianbei numerous times, and in AD 342 Prince Murong Huang of Former Yan captured the Goguryeo capital Hwando. Under the powerful and dynamic leadership of feudal kings, Goguryeo during the reign of Gwanggaeto the Great successfully invaded the Korean kingdoms of Baekje, Silla, and Dongbuyeo. Riding its success, Goguryeo campaigned against the later yan kingdom, obtaining the Liao River region.

later yan king Murong Xi twice launched retaliatory attacks to reclaim the Liao River watershed territory, but was only partially successful. At Northern Yan's destruction by the northern wei, Yan king Feng Hong fled to Goguryeo to seek asylum. Although granted asylum, Hong was said to have acted as if he was still king, issuing orders and demanding respect, and was executed by King Jangsu of Goguryeo. The Yuwen Xianbei group Kumo Xi, who lived north of Youzhou, and the Khitan began increasing in strength. In 414, the Kumo Xi tribes sent a trade caravan to Northern Yan, then joined with the Khitan in declaring allegiance to Northern Yan, and then to northern wei after its destruction of Northern Yan.

Thus, the northern wei (essentially the Tuoba Xianbei), held de facto rule over the entire Mongolian Plateau and the Liao River region.

To the west of Chinese territory at the time (in modern Xinjiang ) lay the kingdoms of Piqan, Kucha, Khotan, Dongshi, and Shule. These kingdoms were often controlled or influenced by the various Liang kingdoms that existed during the Sixteen Kingdoms period. The Former Liang organized Gaochang Commandery (Chinese: 高昌郡) and Tiandi County (Chinese: 闐地縣) in the west, both under the administration of the Gaochang Governor. Day-to-day administration was run out of several forts: Western Regions Chief Clerk, Wu and Ji Colonel, and Jade Gate Commissioner of the Army. Other Liangzhou states generally followed this administrative system. In 382, the Former Qin king Fu Jian sent General Lü Guang on a military expedition to the Dayuan kingdom and promoted him to Protector General of the western border regions. After Qin collapsed and Lü Guang founded the Northern Liang, the western border forts and the Piqan kingdom all became parts of or vassals to the Northern Liang.

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