The Toba, or Northern Wei, were nomads variously described as belonging to Tungustic or Turkic ethnicity. During the Era of Division after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 c.e., and after invading nomads drove the Jin (Chin) dynasty to south China, confusion reigned in northern China. In 386 the Toba established a dynasty called the Northern Wei that would control most of northern and northwestern China until 534.
The first capital of the Northern Wei was near modern Datong (Tatung), a frontier city near the Great Wall of China, important because it guarded the boundary between agricultural China and the steppes. There they built a city modeled on Han capitals Chang’an (Ch’angan) and luoyang (Loyang).
The Toba converted to Buddhism and showed their devotion by commissioning the carving of huge cave temples into a rocky escarpment near their capital called Yungang (Yunkang), which remains a monument to Buddhist art.
In 494 the Northern Wei dynasty capital was moved to Luoyang, a city resonant with the history of China. Outside Luo yang they began to build another monument to Buddhism called the Longmen (Lungmen) Caves. The move showed the sinicization of the Toba aristocracy and their identification with Chinese civilization.
In 494 the Northern Wei government outlawed the Toba language, names, and clothing and ordered the Toba people to adopt Chinese names and clothes and to use Chinese exclusively. The imperial family led the way by adopting the surname Yuan.
Claiming to be the legitimate successor of ancient Chinese dynasties, the government also forbade tribal ritual and allowed only Confucian and Buddhist observances. Intermarriage between the tribal aristocracy and Chinese upper classes was actively encouraged.
The Northern Wei also behaved toward other nomadic peoples beyond its frontier in the same manner as traditional Chinese dynasties, when not warring against them, accepting tribute and bestowing gifts, including princesses when necessary.
These policies resulted in a severe split among the Toba. The tough Toba soldiers who still lived by their ancient ways and who guarded the northern and western frontiers revolted in 523. Ten years of civil war followed during which Luoyang was sacked and many of the sinicized aristocrats were massacred, including the empress dowager and the child emperor.
Two strongmen emerged in 534 who divided the territory: One part was called Western Wei, with its capital city in Chang’an; it retained tribal traditions and Toba heritage. The other was called Eastern Wei, with its capital city at Ye (Yeh) in Henan (Honan), where the Toba and Chinese governed in collaboration.
Both of them were short lived and were replaced by two equally ineffective dynasties of nomadic origin. In 581 a nobleman of mixed Sino-nomadic ancestry named Yang Qian (Yang Chien) proclaimed the founding of the Sui dynasty under his leadership.
He would unify north and south and end the Era of Division. Among the northern dynasties the Northern Wei had the longest existence and controlled the most territory. It owed its success and also its ultimate destruction to the policy of sinicization.