Wei Hsiao-Wen-ti

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Wei Hsiao-Wen-ti

Wei Hsiao-wen-ti (467-499) was the sixth emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty. His reign represents the apogee of the dynasty's power and probably sowed the seeds for its subsequent decline.

Wei Hsiao-wen-ti was born T'o-pa Hung on Oct. 13, 467, in P'ing-ch'eng (east of the present Tat'ung, Shansi, south of the Great Wall), eldest son of Emperor Hsien-wen. He was perfectly white, and there were the usual "supernatural" signs of an imperial birth. His father, a fervent Buddhist, abdicated in 471, and four-year-old Hsiao-wen ascended the throne. The first 19 years of his reign, under the regency of his grandmother, the formidable empress dowager Feng (442-490), were devoted to studies which enabled him to become versed in all aspects of Chinese literary culture, as well as in Buddhism.

Until his grandmother's death Hsiao-wen was only titular head of state, all real decisions being taken by her with the counsel of her Chinese officials. He gave up hunting at the age of 14 to devote himself entirely to preparing himself for his future imperial tasks. He is traditionally thought of as a paragon of rulers, exceptionally attentive to the needs of his people, considerate of others, and profoundly filial.

The two most outstanding events of Emperor Hsiaowen's reign were the promulgation of the "equal-field" (chün-t'ien) system and his removal of his capital from Tat'ung to Loyang, with the accompanying Sinicization that removal symbolized. The equal-field agrarian reform was promulgated in 485, during a period of severe famine, and was an attempt to redistribute the land so that it would be more extensively cultivated. This reform greatly influenced later, similar attempts at land reform and has been passionately debated in China and Japan in recent years.

Hsiao-wen's most important influence in Chinese history was the steps he took to achieve the total Sinicization of his Hsien-pi (proto-Mongol or Turkish) compatriots, to whose T'o-pa clan the Emperor belonged. His own deep interest in Chinese culture had led him to feel he was the true son of heaven and should rule over the entire Chinese Empire from the ancient capital of Loyang, which was in the southern part of his domains. Against the bitter opposition of the entire court, he had the capital moved in 494. Barbarian dress and hair style were prohibited in the same year, and a year later the Hsien-pi language was prohibited in court by all except those who were too old (over 30) to learn Chinese. Finally, in 496, he changed his tribal name from T'opa to the Chinese name of Yüan, had other tribes also take Chinese names, and encouraged the intermarriage of the Hsien-pi noblemen with Chinese girls of aristocratic families.

This nostalgia for China and things Chinese weakened the Northern Wei empire, taking its people away from their homeland, putting them into an inferior position vis-à-vis the culturally superior Chinese officialdom, and generally sowing the seeds of Hsien-pi discontent that was to split the dynasty in two in a little over 3 decades. Hsiao-wen's Sinophilia was also the direct cause of his early end, for he died, exhausted by his campaigning in his attempt to unite all of China, in what is now northern Hupei on April 26, 499, at the age of 32. In 500 his son, Hsüan-wu, had a memorial carved for Hsiao-wen and his wife in the famous caves at Lung-men near Loyang. He remains in history as a man of culture, intelligence, and humanity in an era when this last virtue, in particular, was exceptionally rare.

Further Reading

A good study of Wei Hsiao-wen-ti is in Dun J. Li, The Ageless Chinese: A History (1965). An interesting, somewhat personal view of his equal-field reform is in Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy (trans. 1964). For general historical background see Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China (1950). □