The Tuoba 拓跋 (Taghbach, Taɣbač, in Europe known in the inverted form Tabghach, Tabɣač) were a branch of the steppe federation of the Xianbei 鮮卑, and their rulers used the name of the tribal group as their family name. The ruling family founded the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534, also called Later Wei dynasty 後魏) that ruled over more than hundred years over northern China.
Their people originally lived in the region of Mt. Daxianbei 大鮮卑 (north of the river Argun and the Great Hinggan Range, i.e. beyond the northwestern borders of the province of Heilongjiang). Early Chinese sources say they lived of pastoral nomadism, but also of hunting. A few decades ago an inscription on a cliff wall was discovered in the town of Ali Goul Balgasu in the Oroqen Autonomous Banner. It dates from 443 and describes how Tuoba Tao 拓跋焘 (posthumous title Emperor Taiwu 北魏太武帝, r. 423-451) had sent out Li Chang 李敞 to deliver offerings to the dynastic ancestors. This is the earliest evidence of the home region of the Taɣbač people.
The ancestral myth of the Taɣbač says that the dynastic founder was Tuoba Mao 拓跋毛, who unified 36 tribes with 99 families. During the early Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) Tuoba Tuiyin 拓跋推寅 decided to have his people migrate southwards, into the vacuum the Northern and Southern Xiongnu 匈奴 had left. They first moved to what is today Hulun Buir in Inner Mongolia, and later advanced further south to the great Yellow River bend, and became part of the federation of the Xianbei. Some Xiongnu people who still lived in the region of northern Shanxi, became part of the Taɣbač alliance. The Taɣbač were the most powerful of all tribes of the Xianbei federation, so that Chinese historians called them the "fathers and mothers of all northern barbarians". The official history of the Northern Wei dynasty, influenced by Chinese thinking, explained that the oldest ancestor of the Taɣbač was no one else than the Yellow Emperor 黄帝. The term tuoba 托跋 is explained as the native word for tuhou 土后 "ruler of the earth" (i.e. Houtu 后土).
In the mid-second century the Xianbei leder Tanshi Kuai 檀石槐 divided the federation into three parts. The Tagbač belonged to the western wing, whose domains were located west of Shanggu 上谷 (modern Huailia 怀来, Hebei) and extended to Dunhuang 敦煌 in the far west. When the Xianbei federation finally fell apart, the Taɣbač became an independent alliance.
Around 200 the leader Tuoba Liwei 拓跋力微 founded the tribal union of the Luhui 鹿回 that became stronger over time. Liwei had the command over 200,000 men, and finally united all tribes in a new federation of 8 great tribes related to the Tuoba and 75 others, as well as 35 tribes of other ethnics. In 258 the political centre of the federation was moved from the north of the Yellow River bend eastwards to Chengle 盛樂 (close to modern Horinger in Inner Mongolia). In the early fourth century Tuoba Yilu 拓跋猗盧 moved his seat into the commandery of Daijun 代郡 (near Weixian 蔚縣, Hebei) inside the territory of the Jin Empire. Emperor Huai 晉懷帝 (r. 306-312) officially bestowed on him the title of Great Khan (da chanyu 大单于) and gave him the title of Duke of Dai 代. In 315 he obtained the title of Prince of Dai 代王. Tuoba Yilu was so a state official of the Jin Empire 晉 (265-420) and had the right to appoint his own officers and to promulgate his own law. Whether he proclaimed the Empire of Dai 代 (315-376) already in 315, or only in 338, is not clear.
With their migration into the orbit of the Chinese empire, the Tuoba people became settled peasants, and gave up pastoral nomadism. In 376 the Kingdom of Dai, ruled by Tuoba Shiyijian 拓跋什翼犍, was annihilated by the Former Qin 前秦 (351-394), a state ruled by Fu Jian 苻堅 (r. 356-384) from the people of the Di 氐. Their ruler Fu Jian conquered the whole northern part of China. The tribal federation of the Tuoba was split apart, and Tuoba people migrated to all parts of northern China, living side by side with Chinese and Xiongnu (the Dugu 獨孤 and Tiefu 鐵弗 bands).
In 386 Tuoba Gui 拓跋珪 re-founded the state of the Taɣbač and called his dynasty Wei, in remembrance to one of the Three Kingdoms 三國 (220-280). In order to discern that dynasty, the Cao-Wei 曹魏 (220-265, founded by the Cao family), it is called the Northern or Later Wei. The Tuoba also adopted the title of Emperor. Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝 (r. 471-499) moved in 494 the capital seat from Pingcheng 平城 (near modern Datong 大同, Shanxi) into the heart of the north China plain, to Luoyang 落陽. A special edict he decreed prohibited the Tuoba people from ever going back to the steppe. Whoever lived in Luoyang, was to be buried there. In 496 20 he changed the family name from Tuoba to Yuan 元, and so advanced the sinification of the Tuoba people. In 534 a struggle for succession led to a split of the large Northern Wei empire into two parts, the Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550) and Western Wei 西魏 (535-556). Both empire were short-lived and soon replaced by the Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577) and Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581). People of Tuoba origin continued to play important roles in the administration of the Chinese Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) empires, but in the course of the seventh and eight centuries the Tuoba disappeared as a distinct ethnic group.
Tuoba was also used as transcription for the name of one of the eight tribes of the Tangut people (Dangxiang 黨項 or Qiang 羌), who lived in the northwestern parts of Sichuan province and Gansu. During the Tang period they migrated to the north of today's Shaanxi, and their leaders were allowed to bear the family name of the Tang dynasty, Li 李. It was changed to the dynastic family name Zhao 趙 during the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Members of the elite of the Tangutan Tuoba founded during the tenth century the empire of Western Xia 西夏 (1038-1227).