The Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) unified north China in the fifth century CE and stood as a powerful rival to the Liu Song dynasty (420–479) in the south. As military campaigns and diplomatic exchange between the two dynasties became more frequent, both courts strove to deploy a variety of strategies to prevail in the competitions of political authority and legitimacy. This article examines the northern emperor Tuoba Tao's (408–452, r. 423–452) self-representation in his letters delivered to the southern audience at the height of the two states' military struggle. Scholars have ascribed the letters' linguistic simplicity to certain unadorned northern style or ethnic characteristics. The author situates the discussion of Tuoba Tao's letters in the context of courtly composition, diplomatic maneuvers, and historiographical intervention and argues that the simple diction was a deliberate rhetorical choice used by the northern court to construct a different imperial image and to exert psychological influence on the intended readers. Moreover, Shen Yue's (441–513) embedding of the letters in a historical narrative as written documents reshapes the reception of the letters and imposes new interpretive frameworks for later readers.

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