The Sixteen Kingdoms was a violent era during the third and early fourth centuries CE when five tribes alternated with each other in establishing brief kingdoms in northern China.

The Sixteen Kingdoms was the time (304–439 CE) when non-Han Chinese tribes, including some of nomadic origin, alternated with each other in founding short-lived kingdoms in northern China. (See table 1.) Historians list the kingdoms as the sixteen nations of the five “barbarian” tribes. The time is often referred to as “Wuhu Shiliu Guo” (Period of Five Barbarian Tribes and Sixteen Nations). The five tribes were the Xianbei, Di, Hun, Jiehu, and Qiang, originating from Tibetan, Tangut, Mongol, Proto-Turkic, and Tungus tribes. Eventually the Xianbei tribe reunified northern China in 440.

The entire Huang (Yellow) River valley during this period became a battlefield for tribal kingdoms and some remnant military chieftains. As the nations fought among themselves, blood flowed freely. Although the period is often considered China’s “Dark Age” because of the chaos and foreign occupation of its territories, the period was also a time of great change as China was transformed by the Indian religion of Buddhism.

TABLE 1 Sixteen Nations

1 Cheng Han 301–347 Sichuan Di
2 Han (Anterior Zhao) 304–329 Shanxi and Shaanxi Hun
3 Anterior Liang 317–376 Gansu Han
4 Posterior Zhao 319–351 Shandong, Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanxi Jiehu
5 Anterior Qin 351–394 Liaoning, Shandong, Hebei, Shanxi, Gansu, Sichuan, and Shaanxi Di
6 Anterior Yan 337–370 Liaoning, Shandong, Hebei, and Shanxi Xianbei
7 Posterior Yan 384–409 Liaoning, Shandong, Hebei, and Shanxi Xianbei
8 Posterior Qin 384–417 Shaanxi Qiang
9 Western Qin 385–431 Shaanxi Xianbei
10 Posterior Liang 386–403 Gansu Di
11 Southern Liang 397–414 Gansu Xianbei
12 Northern Liang 397–439 Gansu Hun
13 Southern Yan 398–410 Shandong Xianbei
14 Western Liang 400–421 Gansu Han
15 Xia 407–431 Shaanxi Hun
16 Northern Yan 409–436 Liaoning Han

Further Reading

Fairbank, J. K., & Goldman, M. (1998). China: A new history. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Fairbank, J. K., Reischauer, E. O., & Craig, A. M. (1989). East Asia: Tradition and transformation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Suganuma, Unryu. (2009). Sixteen Kingdoms. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1996–1997. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Sixteen Kingdoms (Shíliù Guó ???)|Shíliù Guó ??? (Sixteen Kingdoms)

Download the PDF of this article