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Episode 5 - Fall of the Xia, Rise of the Shang
Last time, we had looked into the Xia dynasty, and what it brought to the population of the Yellow River Valley. This time, we will look at the end of the Xia and the establishment of the Shang in 1600 BCE as well as the influence of the Shang themselves. The oracle bones and how they were discovered, religion, the military and the socio-economic relations of the time.
As the Xia monarch, Jie, was hell bent on a road to disaster, the Shang were building in strength. The man I want to point to is named Zi Lu, who would later be known as Tang, Tang of Shang. I dunno why, but his name has a nice ring to it? maybe it’s the ryhm? But for the purpose of keeping things easy – I will call him Tang of Shang. Noticing that he wasn’t the only one disgruntled with Jie’s rule – Tang started secretly meeting other vassals of the Xia and concocting a plan to rebel against Jie. Tang was the most charismatic and kind leader of the vassal states who thought of rebelling, so naturally – he became the leader. Now of course when the rebellion got underway, Tang completely surprised Jie and knocked the vassals loyal to the Xia out of the conflict extremely quickly. Jie now had to personally deal with Tang, and so the king marched his imperial army to war:
(lower voice – rain sounds on with thunder)
It was here, at the battlefield of Mingtiao (in modern day Henan province) that the 2 forces lined underneath a huge storm. Tang on one side, and Jie on the other. Tang made a rousing speech, telling his men the corruption endorsed by Jie, while the men on his side suffered. He also let it be known that those who fought with him, would be on the right side of history, freeing them to do as they pleased after their military service. The result was a mighty roar from his men and they charged. Jie’s men heard the speech and then thought, wait a minute… Why am I fighting fort this guy? And as the armies clashed, Jie’s front line quickly turned around and fought those behind them, and like a wave, most of the others followed suite. They could see where the tide was turning. So to say the least, the battle was pretty much over before it begun – Jie’s army was routed and the king had to flee.
So that was that, in the space of one battle, 500 years of rule was over, and a new order was in place. But what do we know about the battle itself? Not much, we don’t know numbers or anything. Tang’s speech that he made, was known as ‘Tang’s pledge’, and by all accounts this is true. The storm is also true, funny that, you can record the weather on the day of battle but not rough troop numbers? Yeah… Alright. IF anyone does know these numbers, please drop them in the comments, I can make amendments for the next episode. So what happened to the Xia king Jie? Well, he was forced into exile and died a few years later. And his wife? Well… She committed suicide before Tang’s men reached her. Fair enough, I mean I think she knew better than anyone she was as good as dead if Tang got a hold of her.
Now then, Tang had established a new order, quite a feat. And the new dynasty was born. And you will be glad to hear this – The Shang is proven to be historical fact. Yay! Get the champagne/whisky or prosecco out, because moving forward – we can use tangible evidence!
How do we know the Shang were real? Through these remarkable things called Oracle bones. The concept is rather simple, which we will get to later. But for now, I want to focus on how they were found. Which is rather extraordinary.
Now I know what you are thinking, the bones must have been discovered after the fall of the Shang right? Nahhh, try 1899… So what’s that? Like 4,000 odd years later? Sorry, I might be good at history but my mathematical skills are terrible. Before this time, scholars assumed the earliest form of writing in China came with the Qin dynasty, but no, it goes way further back than that… 1600 years before. The story along like this:
A politician, who was also a bronze collector at the time, named Wang Yi Rong, I’ll say that again – Wang Yi Rong – was sick with malaria, and needed medicine. He went to a local shop and asked for some traditional Chinese medicine to cure his illness, the pharmacist gave him bones, and told him to grind them up and then drink them in his tea. This wasn’t unusual by the way, some traditional Chinese medicines can be bizarre – but in my time there, I haven’t drunk or even seen animal bones to use as medicine – I’ve only stuck to herbs. And no, not THAT herb!
After taking them home, Wang Yi Rong noticed there were inscriptions on the bones, and they didn’t look like inscriptions from the Han dynasty either, they went way further back. He then invited his friend Liu Yi to examine the bones with him. Obviously, they knew they had stumbled onto something big here. They then went back to the pharmacy and began to ask questions.
Unfortunately for Wang, malaria was the least of his worries as he was accused of participating in the Boxer rebellion, and as a result, committed suicide. What is the Boxer rebellion you ask? That is something we will get to… In around a billion podcasts’ time… No seriously, I have no clue how long this will go on for… One thing at a time now!
The mantle was then passed from Wang to his friend Liu Yi – who managed to find the site of the bones in Anyang, in today’s modern Henan province, this was also the site of the last Shang capital. I am going to use a quote from a book by the author YaHui Xu, which I think, sums up this whole scenario rather well:
"No one can know how many oracle bones, prior to 1899, were ground up by traditional Chinese pharmacies and disappeared into peoples' stomachs.”
So that’s all fine and well – we know that the oracle bones originated with the Shang, but what exactly did they mean? Well, it was actually divinations. So, what would happen is that a local shaman, this could me a man or a woman by the way – early Chinese societies weren’t as patriarchal as they would be later on… would come along and perform a service to address the ancestors. Now it isn’t as if the shaman’s would wonder around randomly – they were ordered to, by the religious head of the state. And who was that? The Shang king of course! Not only did the king play a governmental role in the lives of the people, but also a religious one too. I suppose it makes sense – as king, you would wanna know where the ancestors are pleased and where they are not within your kingdom.
Now then, back to the shamans and their bones; they would use tortoise shells or the shoulder blades of Oxen or cows to write the questions people would ask them. Now these questions varied from person to person. Some would ask if they would get a good harvest that year, some merchants would ask if they would get good trade that season and the social elites would ask more specific questions. Ones like, will my reign as king be a good one? Will there be any natural disasters? And the list goes on.
Once the question was asked, the shaman would then toss the bones into a fire and everyone would watch the bones splinter and crack – the shaman was the person who could read these cracks and decipher the ancestors’ answer. That would then get documented.
The cool thing is that after the allocated time slot, so like a week/month/year – whatever it was, the shaman would return and ask if the divination came true and then document what happened. I will run by 3 examples:
Question – Will I be able to sell my cow this month?
Divination – Yes
Result – Cow was sold that month
Now that one was rather simple so we ill try something a little more complex.
Question – Will I win a battle this year?
Answer – Yes
Result – Won the battle, but at heavy losses
And the last one:
Question - Will there be any natural disasters this year?
Answer – No
Result – There was a drought
That’s the thing, not all divinations were correct – and one could argue that if their question was answered in an unsatisfactory way, the individual would try extra hard to prove otherwise. Some even asked about the gender of their baby! Especially the social elites, who wanted male heirs at the time.
Rather remarkable. I would highly recommend looking at my Instagram and Facebook pages, where I have posted a few pictures of what the bones look like now. Or you can do a Google search, whichever is easier!
That’s all fine and well with the Shang then, and it proves they were a true entity. But apart from burning bones, what else did they achieve or accomplish:
Well… They did spread their influence further than the Xia ever did, conquering beyond the reaches of the river valley, reaching the coast of Shangdon province, and even getting further south to the Yangtze river! So how did they do this? To start off I will mention troop numbers - the Shang would have travelled in around groups of 5,000 men – TOPS and raid neighbouring tribes, then declare them a vassal of the central state, then move on. And so the cycle continued. Now I know – the numbers aren’t too high, but please remember this is between 1600 – 1046 BC! Human populations weren’t exactly high like today.
ALSO, the chariot’s influence in warfare had now spread and this new tech filtered through the Shang dynasty. Kinda through a defacto silk road I guess – now traditional Chinese sources say the chariot was invented by a Xia minister named Xi Zhong, but there is no evidence to support this. So please don’t buy into that, it’s more than likely that the chariot was invented in Mesopotamia and it’s influence spread far and wide.
Now I think we all know what a chariot is… But for those who don’t – it is a cart that is dragged by horses with soldiers stationed in it. During the Shang era the soldiers usually on the cart were an archer accompanied by a spearman. These war machines were the modern-day equivalent of a tank – very hard to stop, fast, powerful and devastating to enemy formations.
But I need to ask this question… Did chariots have such a profound impact? Honestly… To answer the latter, I think Chariots were more of a morale shock than anything else… And as well as that, what if it was a really rainy day and the terrain became very boggy? The chariot then, becomes useless! And to top it off, it was only social elites who could afford and use a chariot, it was more to show your position in society. It was very much like Medieval Europe where a knight would show off his prestige with the breed of horse he had, saying: ‘Look at my stallion!’, whereas in Shang China it was ‘Look at my chariot!’. That’s not to say though, that a chariot was useless – if it wasn’t then it wouldn’t have had such a profound impact on the spread of the Han ethnic group and it wouldn’t have been used so widely in later dynasties, as we will soon see. And more to the point – a commander would use a chariot as it would allow him to see troop positions and deploy units of men where needed.
So apart from chariots, what did the Shang have? The usual, axe-men, archers, spearmen and Ji infantry. What’s Ji infantry you ask? They were basically spearmen – except the spear had a bronze tip that was of course very sharp and as well as this, it had what could be described as a hook – making it more deadly. All soldiers, or I should say, MOST soldiers, had bronze armour making it more difficult for their enemies to be effective in close combat, and in turn, they had bronze weapons – making it easier to slay said enemies. It could be concluded then, that the Shang definitely had the advantage in battle, which allowed them to expand as much as they did. They also owe a lot of it to a certain female general as well – but that’s a story for next weeks podcast.
With this new territory, from what I can see – economic inequality at the time, began to widen. Evidence of this is a tomb of a noble woman who had 74 human bodies in the grave with her, as well as dogs and even horses. Proving the amount of wealth people COULD accumulate, if they were born into the right family that is. The poor 74 souls that could have been buried with this noblewoman could have been prisoners of war, slaves or a mixture of the 2.
So where did this wealth come from? Bronze of course! Now I know the Xia are credited with discovering it, but the Shang took this to a whole new level. Bronze was THE metal of the time. IF it’s production could be controlled, new lands could be acquired.
As much as inequality between the classes began to widen, this suggests that the standards of living improved under the Shang. It’s simple – for individuals to get that rich, society itself has to be rich and provide for the needs for those at the top. Now don’t get me wrong, it would be awful to be at the bottom of the social ladder – the farm workers, weapons craftsmen, soldiers and clay workers for example, as much as they were respected, were paid very little. Larger urban centres are also evidence towards society as a whole getting richer, cities such as Yanang and ZhengZhou were massive, which later Chinese generations would populate. It is to be noted though, these settlements would NOT have been as populated as urban centres in Mesopotamia at the time.
It could be seen with the Shang that society as a whole moved forward, bronze was being produced in higher quantities, the armed forces were more advanced, religion had a critical role in the Shang and the kings were the religious heads of state. The population increased and it seems that society as a whole got richer.
But what do you think? Did the Shang achieve a lot more than the Xia? Or did they simply continue things on? And what of the oracle bones that were not discovered… Did they hold any Shang secrets? Let me know in the comments! And if I missed anything that people want to point out, don’t be shy and drop a comment. Also – be sure to share this with people who you think might be interested and give it a rating! This will help the channel grow.
Next time, I will take the time to talk about the noteworthy characters during the Shang period, and how they influenced the state. For example – I didn’t really talk about Tang at all here – more about the legacy and the dynasty he left behind. So Tang will definitely be mentioned, as well as his great advisor! I will then move on to the Shang woman warrior Fu Hao, who is just awesome. As well as her husband of course, he was one of the good Shang kings afterall. Then of course, we will talk about the last ruler Shang Zhou Wang and his wife, who make Jie and Wu Xi look like little kids in all honesty.
And that is a wrap to this weeks podcast, I hope you have enjoyed it, and I will see you next time on the Chronicler podcast channel. Thanks for listening!
Episode 6 - Noteworthy Characters of the Shang
Tang of Shang:
Last week I did mention the first Shang king, Li Zi – who later became known as Tang of Shang. Tang reigned 1675 – 1646 BCE. Now all scholars would agree that some stories about Tang may be exaggerated, but in saying that, all would agree that he was certainly a caring man, who was benevolent, as well as ambitious. Now put all of these together and you could see the recipe for a military overthrow of the current ruling dynasty. A confrontation was inevitable, it was a matter of when and not if.
To highlight his kind-heartedness, there is a story about Tang of Shang after the overthrow of the Xia: The people were suffering from starvation as a result of a drought. To appease the heavens and the ancestors, Tang ordered the sacrifice of not an animal, but a person – all based on the advice of an astronomer. You would think this a good time to find someone unstable and tell them that they are going to be doing a great deed. But no, Tang, being the selfless man, he was – volunteered himself for the sacrifice. He said:
"I am praying for rain for the sake of my subjects. If we have to sacrifice a man to heaven, I will volunteer to be the sacrifice." Next, Tang took a bath, abstained from meat in his diet, trimmed his hair and nails, and drove a white horse carriage, wearing a white coarse linen robe with a white belt to the alter at the mulberry grove. Tang said his prayer to heaven, "The fault is mine and mine alone. Please do not punish my subjects. If my subjects had done anything wrong that might contribute to the drought, I must be the root cause for their wrongdoings. Heaven and ghost spirits, please do not hurt my subjects because I failed to guide them properly due to my insufficient capability."
Next Tang rebuked himself for six minutes and said, "Was the drought caused by any lack of law and order in my administration? Was it because I had been oblivious to my subjects' hardships and because I failed to fulfil their expectations? Was the drought caused by any corruption of the government officials that I was not aware of? Did I waste any money or manpower building an imperial palace on a large scale? Did I employ corrupt and malicious government officials and take their bad advice?" By the time Tang finished his self-reflection, it began to pour within several thousand miles of the altar.
Now of course, to say it rained as soon as he stopped speaking seems HIGHLY unlikely, but y’know, sometimes it’s good to fantasise and think this did truly happen. There are other acts of kindness I can get into, but for the sake of time, I won’t. I think one story is enough to highlight the role Tang played with his people – and this offer to sacrifice himself to heaven probably set the path for future Shang kings to become the religious heads of state as well. I need to mention as well, that Tang, unknowingly started a tradition throughout Chinese history. And that is the military overthrow of an unjust/weak dynasty and replacing it with a new order. That is a theme you will see throughout this show. The Chinese say their history is always a cycle, and in a way it kinda is. But regardless, Tang started off the Shang dynasty with great governance and stability – who would have known that it would last 600 years lasting from 1600 BC right up until 1046 BC, a dynasty which would be ruled by 31 different kings? But that’s exactly what happened. Now of course I am not gonna pick away at the profile of each and every Shang king, just because some of them didn’t do much, and some did – but it would be a huge, tedious process which I think would bore a lot of people. If you wanna know more about each individual ruler of the Shang dynasty, then by all means be my guest! But trust me when I say this – it will be an even bigger hole than the one I dug for myself.
Now Tang, as much as he was a great leader on his own, he wasn’t entirely alone when making decisions. In fact, he relied on one trustworthy advisor by the name Yi Yin, who deserves an honorary mention at least.
How Tang came across Yi Yin, is rather extraordinary – he wasn’t a scholar or anything like that, but in fact a slave. He was born in the year 1649 BC and died at around1550 BC.
Apparently, Yi Yin was abandoned after he was born, he was found in an open field by his adoptive mother, a slave who was collecting mulberry leaves. Yi Yin grew up as a slave too, and inherited his adoptive father’s occupation, as a chef in the noble families. As time progressed it was clear that Yi Yin was wise and insightful, and many of the nobility asked him for advice. Yi Yin’s master then married who would later be called, you guessed it – Tang Shang. Now apparently Tang actually had no idea of Yi Yin’s talents initially, but that all changed when Yi Yin purposefully cooked him the wrong meals. After a lengthy discussion – Tang realised his mistake and quickly made Yi Yin his top advisor, even calling him ‘master’.
Tang consulted Yi Yin’s opinions on many important national affairs. Sometimes Yi Yin gave suggestions derived from his cooking techniques.
He advised Tang: “Ruling a dynasty is just like cooking. It won’t be good if you put too much salt or too little salt. The seasoning you add should be modest. Ruling a dynasty, you cannot be too fast nor too slow. Only by grasping the sequence of order for everything can you manage all things in order. In this way you will be a good king, ruling well and warmly welcomed by your people.”
I never thought I’d hear a quote which compares ruling a kingdom to cooking, but here we are.
The thing about Yi Yin as well is that, he was the one who convinced Tang to rebel in the first place – it was his idea, it was Yi Yin who made the connections between the Shang state and other disgruntled vassals, it Yi Yin who bribed Xia officials for information. In other words, Tang could never have overthrown the Xia if it wasn’t for Yi Yin. So naturally, when Tang formed the new dynasty in 1600 BC – Yi Yin was the prime minister – the first man to get such a high office.
After Tang’s death, Yi Yin still lived – and he actually lived through another 2 generations of the family line (some of the early reigns didn’t last long) – and this left the Shang king Tai Jia as a new ruler, with an old prime minister. Tai Jia actually began to behave like Jie, and discarding the rules of state. Yi Yin then used his powers as the prime minister and exiled Tai Jia to his ancestor’s grave – Tang Shang. There he had to repent for his actions. After his exile was completed – he came back and was a changed man, again… Thanks to Yi Yin. The early dynasty pretty much owed everything to this guy!
Now then, we are gonna skip a few generations and fast forward a bit.
Now enter the tail of Wu Ding and Fu Hao. Wu ding was actually the 21st king of the Shang, according to historian Sima Qian. (Who was alive during the Han dynasty).
The time frame we are talking about here is between 1324–1266 BC.
Wu Ding is actually known as one of the best Shang kings of the entire dynasty, and this is partly due to his concubine Fu Hao. But she doesn’t deserve ALL the glory. Wu Ding himself was wise, kind and used his subordinates to the best of their ability, regardless of their gender. The result was a massive expansion of Shang territory and the Han culture spread through what we call China today. He even helped in the advancement of medicine and the Chinese calendar.
An example of him being wise and kind is that:
When he was young, his father sent him out of the palace so he could experience the lives of the normal citizens, and he experienced these hardships when nobody else known who he actually was. Therefore, when he became the emperor – he had ideas on how to help the lives of the ordinary citizens and implemented them rather well. People had more food because he implemented a grain storage policy which created surpluses, this was good news for Shang subjects because it meant they didn’t have to worry about droughts so much anymore.
As well as this, he implemented a policy, which saw him not have just one wife, but 60. Yes… 60 wives. Please keep in mind that he didn’t get divorced 60 odd times, he had all 60 wives, all at once. One may begin to ask, why did he do this? Surely one wife is enough! (I definitely think so), but this policy ensured the continued loyalty of the vassal states of the Shang. Which in turn brought peace and stability within the kingdom. So, the policy was actually ingenious when you think of it, and it did get implemented by later Shang kings and even later dynasties.
Now enter Fu Hao:
Fu Hao was born in the year 1278 BC in the Northern reaches of the Shang empire at the time – which is modern day Hebei province. And even though she would later be known as a warrior, she didn’t start her life as a peasant, rather the contrary, she was born as a princess and was suited to the future emperor of the Shang – Wu Ding. Some sources say she was his first wife, whilst others say she was the third. I don’t think it matters when you consider that the king had over 60 wives in total…
BUT BACK TO FU HAO.
First woman in Chinese history to become a military strategist and female warrior – evidence of this is in her tomb, as well as on oracle bones. This is significant, we have genuine primary sources written at around the same time she was alive. Now I hope one can really understand the importance of these incredible objects. And of course, there is the archaeological evidence too:
Fu Hao’s tomb is Anyang (one of the Shang capitals), which is in modern Henan province. Tomb was found in 1976 by a woman archaeologist called: Zhong Zhen Xiang who stumbled across the tomb by accident. The tomb itself is the first one ever dedicated to a woman in such a manner – highlighting her importance.
The Shang were fighting a tribe called the Qiang Fang in the northern spheres of Shang influence and it was a stalemate – no side could get the upper hand. It was here Fu Hao asked her husband (the king Wu Ding) to go and fight herself. Wu Ding was apprehensive about this, and asked a shaman to perform a divination ceremony with the oracle bones. The ancestors answer was very clear to his question, and that was YES. Wu Ding then sent Fu Hao to win the war, which she did quite easily. From what I can tell – this was Fu Hao’s first war, and it certainly wasn’t her last. Sources state that during the war with the Qiang Fang tribe, Fu Hao managed to muster over 13,000 men to her command, at a time when armies consisted of about about a thousand men each, this was a huge number. Which again symbolises how much power Fu Hao had and how much faith the king had in her to lead such a large number of men for the time.
After the defeat of the Qiang Fang tribe, King Wu Ding then sent Fu Hao on military campaigns across the Shang empire and she defeated and annexed over 20 tribes into Shang influence. That is a huge number for one person!!!
Now it wasn’t as if Wu Ding simply sent Fu Hao to fight his wars for him. At around the city of Shangqiu (modern day Henan province), an attack came from a tribe known as the Ba Feng. Wu Ding and Fu Hao then marched to Shangqiu to lead the defence of the city. After arriving at the battlefield, Wu Ding decided to launch an assault in the middle of the night, but Fu Hao didn’t join him. Instead, she quietly left the front lines. Alone, Wu Ding led a fierce charge against Ba Feng’s forces. Ba Feng’s front lines were broken. They fled from Wu Ding’s pursuing forces and eventually arrived at a quiet valley.
But before the Ba Feng army could catch their breath, Shang flags emerged at the top of the valley. There were two large characters written on the flags: “Fu Hao.”
Faced with enemy soldiers on both sides, Ba Feng’s troops were thrown into disarray. Before long, the whole army was wiped out.
The queen was the first general in China’s written history to apply ambush tactics in war. What an achievement, not only did she annex 20 new territories for the Shang, but she also developed a new style of warfare at the time? Woo hoo!
After this particular conflict, the territory of the Ba Feng was annexed by the Shang and the Shang’s territory expanded even further towards the coast of the Yellow Sea.
Would Fu Hao continually conquer new territories and create more vassals for the central state?
Unfortunately, no, Fu Hao died very young at the age of 33 in 1245BC. Now there are conflicting arguments about her death – some say she died from exhaustion with her life constantly at war or perhaps in combat? whilst others say she died giving birth to Wu Ding’s child. Now how do we know this? Through the oracle bones of course! Now one might appreciate their total value.
Wu Ding was, as you could imagine, devasted by Fu Hao’s death. Even though he had 60 wives, Fu Hao was by far his favourite – and it’s easy to see why. She was, by all accounts: a beautiful woman, a warrior, a shaman and loyal to the emperor throughout her life. He was so distraught that he built a massive elaborate tomb for her, In total, Fu Hao was buried with:
- 755 jade objects
- 564 bone objects, including nearly 500 bone hairpins and over 20 bone arrowheads
- 468 bronze objects, including 130 weapons, 23 bells, 27 knives, 4 mirrors, and 4 tigers or tiger heads
- 63 stone objects
- 5 ivory objects
- 11 pottery objects
- 6,900 pieces of cowry shell (that Shang used as currency)
- 16 human sacrifices
- 6 dogs
A couple of such items was a huge bronze owl as well as a jade carving of a bird. But from that list of items, I think it is very, very clear that Wu Ding thought extremely highly of her. Wu Ding missed her so much even years after her death, that before a battle he would have his entire army AND family pray to her – hoping she would watch over them.
But for Wu Ding, a tomb and the odd prayer simply wasn’t enough – he posthumously married her to not just one Shang king, but at least 3-4. That’s a huge deal, usually one is enough, but 3-4?! Again, this emphasises how he regarded her – and it seems he wanted to really be sure she would be taken care of after her death. This is an ancient Chinese practise called Ming Hun, （冥婚）. This practise actually still exists even today, but in remote parts of China. For example, if a couple are engaged, then something tragic
happens, like a car accident or something – the families of the bride and the groom usually agree to marry them posthumously. That way they have each other in the after-life.
I suppose you could argue that Wu Ding and his lovely concubine were the pinnacle of the dynasty, and it is easy to see why. Wu Ding ruled the Shang dynasty for 58 years between the years 1324–1266 BC.
Episode 7 - The Fall of the Shang
So where was I… Oh yes… The emperor Wu Ding and Fu Hao had made the Shang dynasty reach it’s peak in (date).
But as we all know, what comes up, must come down… eventually.
Now I have to say, it wasn’t as if the Shang kings were terrible or anything, it was just (to me) – the Shang state was crumbling under it’s own weight. Now let me explain:
The Shang were on fighting on multiple fronts. From the areas North of the Yellow River (close modern day Beijing) all the way to the southern banks of the Yangtze river in the south. From the reaches of Chang’an in the West to the coast of the Yellow China Sea in the East. At times all of these fronts had a war of some sort simultaneously. For a bronze age civilisation, that’s a huge area of land to cover.
The Shang were undermanned to control such a large area, and had to rely on vassals to do this. Now the whole point of being a vassal is that you are protected by the larger state, not the other way around. That is questions began to be asked? Why are we paying tributes to someone else and defending our lands ourselves? Why indeed…
To coincide with this, the vassal states took advantage of this particular weakness, and seized the lands of the Shang enemies for themselves. This was supposed to be out of the question, but what could the Shang kings do about it? Nothing… I suppose they could say ‘we conquered these lands for you my liege, what’s the big deal?’
Now to coincide with this, the gap between rich and poor as widening, people were angry at the social elites who would live lives of sickening pleasure whilst they were sick with starvation.
In all honesty, it was a powder keg, which kept getting filled with gunpowder, and all it took was for someone to light the fire. And that fire came in 1075 – when the last king of the Shang came into power. He is known by 2 names – the first is Di Xin, whilst the other is Shang Zhou Wang. From now on, I will try my best to stick with the latter name. And the reason why is because he is better known as Shang Zhou Wang in China. You will find out why later on.
Now by all accounts Shang Zhou Wang, when he first came to power, was actually quite promising. He showed political intrigue, he was a capable military commander and he could administrate the empire rather well. So all in all, good job!
Now he did have one problem right from the start though, and that was one of his vassal states – the Zhou. The Zhou were to the west of the Shang heartlands and were growing to a worrying level of power. Power to rival the Shang, so Shang Zhou Wang had every right to be concerned. But what didn’t help was the actions of his grandfather, Wen Ding, was also afraid of the state of Zhou. That’s when he thought of a brilliantly stupid idea. Wen Ding invited the leader of the Zhou to the capital in order to thank him for winning a war on behalf of the Shang, but what happened when the Zhou leader reached his destination? Yep, he was thrown in jail. Even though the Zhou state always paid their tributes and fought wars on behalf of the Shang, they were too powerful and it was inevitable for the Shang kings to get paranoid over this.
The poor leader of the Zhou died in his cell… So did this stop the Zhou from expanding and did it make the Zhou forever loyal to the Shang? Absolutely not. From that day on, the Zhou considered the Shang to be their only enemy. So now rather than fighting other tribes to the West of the Shang kingdom, the Zhou started making alliances with them! Now it wasn’t as if the Zhou cut ties there and then, that would have been equally as stupid. But they took their time, pretended to comply and stayed patient. So now, rather than having a useful ally, the Shang had a powerful enemy. Like I said, the idea was stupidly brilliant. Well done Wen Ding, well done.
Anyway, with that background info out of the way, we can fast forward back to Shang Zhou Wang. So like I said, when he started off as king in 1075, he showed promise and actually looked to seal the break between the Shang and the Zhou. And by seal ties, I mean give the Zhou ministers higher salaries and even positions within his own court, as a way of saying, ‘remember that time my grandfather did that stupid thing? Yeah…. Sorry about that.’ Of course the Zhou played along, as it gave them positions to the kings inner circles.
But then… According to historian Sima Qian anyway, something terrible happened.
Shang Zhou Wang found a new wife….
You getting de ja vu in? You should be, remember the last king of the Xia? Apparently his wife helped ruin the dynasty, well let’s let her reincarnation enter the stage: SuDájǐ.
Su Daji was born in around 1076 BC. So that places her birth right at the beginning of Shang Zhou Wang’s reign. That is actually probably about right, it’s not uncommon for older kings to want younger concubines now is it?!
She was actually gifted to Shang Zhou Wang, because Su Daji’s home state; The Yousu, were invaded by the Shang, and as a form of tribute the leader of the clan gave his daughter Su Dájǐ to the king Shang Zhou Wang.
Su Daji was, by all accounts, an extremely beautiful woman. So beautiful in fact, that she stole all of the kings attention. ALL of it… So you know his other concubines? Yeah, they can now look forward to a life of neglect. State affairs? Who needs them? I have ministers who could do that! You get the idea. Now the powder keg would explode.
Now as much as Su Daji was beautiful, she was also cruel. Extremely cruel. Crueller than King Jie of the Xia and his favourite concubine Mo Xi, combined. BUT, I need to mention this – I think it is very unlikely that there is truth in these stories. Don’t get me wrong, Shang Zhou Wang and Su Daji could have been really cruel, but I think this is exaggerated. And the reason why I believe this is because the next dynasty, the Zhou; really needed to justify their overthrow of the Shang. Therefore these stories could well have been created out of thin air, or these stories are true but the truth is completely stretched out to sound even more terrible. Propaganda was a thing in the ancient world too, just ask the Romans!
But before I get into the horrible stuff, I just wanted to insert this, because I think it is nuts if it’s true. So Shang Zhou Wang apparently after meeting Su DaJi, heard that she loved wine, and she loved meat. So you know his solution to make her happy? Well he built ‘the alcohol pool and meat forest’ of course! What’s that you ask? It was literally a wooden forest of meat, where those who attended these parties could simply extend their arm and grab the meat from the tree, the alcohol pool, I think, is self-explanatory… Inside this forest, The King and his favourite concubine would have crazy parties where clothing was not allowed, and let’s just say I will leave it at that, and let your imagination put the rest together. And here was me thinking I had been to crazy parties!
So I guess, that was the better side of Su Daji? Now she had a much, much darker side:
Da Ji was best known for her invention of a device of torture called Paolao: a bronze cylinder heated like a furnace with charcoal until the sides were extremely hot. Then the victim would be bound on the cylinder and baked to death. Da Ji would take great delight in the painful cries of the condemned. Ouch….
It was said that her greatest joy was to hear people cry in physical sufferings. Once, as she saw a farmer walking barefoot on ice during the winter, she ordered his feet be cut off so that she could study it and figure out the cause of its resistance to cold temperature. In another occasion, she had a pregnant woman’s belly cut open so that she could satisfy her curiosity of finding out what happened therein. To verify an old Chinese saying that “a good man’s heart had seven openings,” she had the heart of Bi Gan, one of Shang Zhou Wang’s top and most honest ministers, cut out and subjected it to her to find out for herself.
So I must admit, it honestly looks like she has a crazy scientist vibe right? I mean she studied these body parts after she cut them off/open? But still… Absolutely brutal.
Now this kind of brutality is just unnatural, and some scholars later down the road, actually put this to her being possessed by demon. But this just adds more drama to the reason why the Zhou just simply had to overthrow the Shang. I mean come on, the king let a demon into the palace!
So as you could imagine, this kind of behaviour led to a lot of displeasure within the Shang kingdom, and who’s lurking in the background waiting for their chance at revenge? Oh yes that’s the Zhou, who just happened to be in a few positions of power within the Shang state apparatus. It was those who encouraged Shang Zhou Wang to indulge in his pleasures, saying, ‘ohhhh don’t worry about that small rebellion, I will take care of that’. This of course, pleased the king. It’s a shame too because those loyal to the dynasty seen the scheme but if they spoke out it was a good way to earn yourself a trip to the Pao Lao. And of course, the Zhou did absolutely nothing to stop the rebellion, but instead allied themselves with them!
Even soldiers of the Shang were completely shocked at their commanders’ behaviour. I mean, at the start of his reign, he led them, he fought alongside them, and he won with them. Now what’s he doing? He’s torturing people to please his insane concubine? I didn’t sign up for this! That’s when ministers of the Zhou would whisper in their ear, that there could be an alternative, and so lots of the Shang soldiers did switch sides.
This all finally came to a head and the Zhou rebelled, and by the year 1046, the Zhou met the remnants of the Shang forces at Mu Ye in central Henan province.
The leader of the Zhou was Ji Fa, who would later become known as King Wu of the Zhou as well as his great strategist Jiang Ziya.
The Zhou army had around 4,000 chariots, 45,000 foot soldiers, and 3,000 elite soldiers.
The Shang army had 530,000 men who were not all loyal, as well as 170,000 slaves.
So around 50,000 against 700,000 and you know who won? The Zhou! Now do you believe these numbers or are you sniffing propaganda? Gold star if you sniff the propaganda. There is absolutely no way, the population could support an army of 700,000 men… Just no… The more likely number is around 50,000 against 50,000… And even then, I doubt the numbers were even that high. Just know that the sources at the time will say that there was a huge gap in the numbers, there wasn’t…
The result of the battle was a complete route for the Shang army. Many of the slaves in the army simply refused to fight, whilst some of the soldiers turned their spears upside down as a sign that they didn’t wish to fight.
The Zhou on the other hand, had King Wu leading them, and I mean, actually leading them. Apparently he led the decisive chariot charge which broke the Shang lines, which allowed the Zhou army to break through and cut down those who still fought.
Now Shang Zhou Wang, could see this from the back of his lines, and decided to flee back to the Shang capital – Anyang. There he attempted to make a final last stand, but it was all in vain.
When the Zhou stormed the city the Shang king knew it was game over, he then put on his most expensive outfit, wore his finest jade, gathered all of his treasure into his palace, then burned it to the ground. His favourite concubine Su Daji, was found by King Wu’s men, and she was swiftly beheaded.
And just like that, with one mad king with a mad concubine, and a dynasty is over. Su Daji is one of the most hated Chinese women in their history, and apparently, she is the one who first of beautiful women who ruined a dynasty. And I will say this now, there is a lot of beautiful women who apparently, “ruin” a dynasty.
So remember when I said I had kept the name of Shang Zhou Wang, rather than his original name which was Di Xin? I said I would explain why it changed, and here it is: After he died and the Shang fell. The new king of the new Zhou dynasty just had to add insult to injury by changing his name after he died, and adding Zhou in there… What a shame. I guess…
Next week, I will focus on one primary topic, and it is important, because this topic affected Chinese history basically from here on out, it was the cause of so many conflicts, and so many overthrows of future dynasties. It was used as justifications for attempted overthrows as well as successful ones. I am talking, of course, about the ‘mandate of heaven’, which was born with the Zhou dynasty.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to hearing from you again on The Chronicler podcast channel. See you next time.
Episode 8 - The Mandate of Heaven
The Duke of Zhou (no other name)
Duke of Zhou was the advisor of King Wu – he was King Wu’s uncle.
Mandate of Heaven justified the overthrow of the Shang.
The Zhou looked to the past of Chinese history, and looked at the texts about Yao and Shun. Both of them didn’t transfer power through families, but to the morally right person. This is at the centre of these ideas.
So when the Zhou overthrew the Shang, they argued that it was morally right. And if you have a man like Di Xin and Su Daji in charge, they were probably right… If the accounts are true.
Mandate of Heaven was born with this thinking:
When describing Heaven, we tend to think of it as a spiritual realm that people will go to after death, but the Chinese back then, looked at Heaven like was a natural force.
Heaven was the operation of everything in the universe.
It does have the capacity for action for humans. Heaven can bestow/withdraw it’s mandate to a ruling family.
A good ruler will be granted heaven’s mandate to rule. So what makes a good ruler is someone who is fair in their rule, who can feed his people, who can win wars… You get the idea.
That ruler is the head of the family – so when that ruler is bestowed heaven’s mandate – the entire family has that mandate. That way when the ruler dies, the living families can rightfully rule on.
The mandate, in essence, gives you the right to rule, it gives you legitimacy to rule. And it gives your entire family that legitimacy.
I guess the best comparison to Westernism is the Medieval period where kings had the, ‘divine right to rule’ bestowed onto them by the Papacy, who were afterall, God’s agents on Earth.
This is where it gets different. The Kings in western Europe had ‘the divine right’ to rule, that means it was more like a grant… And the kings of Europe could basically do whatever they wanted.
The Mandate of Heaven on the other hand, is more like a contract. You need to good things in order to keep your mandate. The rulers must create and maintain an environment of peace, stability and wealth.
That way the people can live their livelihoods without fear of invasion, without fear of uprisings, and with no fear of exploitation by the rulers.
The exploitation part can be tricky… Just because the rulers still need to collect taxes, they still need to control industries like metallurgy and agriculture. But they need to do it in a way where the people aren’t worked to death.
If the ruling family DOES begin to do this – HEAVEN WITHDRAWS THE MANDATE
Heaven can withdraw it’s mandate if a dynasty/ruling family begins to abuse it’s power. And what happens afterwards, is that Heaven will look to find another ruler, and after that, Heaven will bestow the mandate on to someone else.
So how would the people know that Heaven has withdrawn it’s mandate from a dynasty and abandoned them?
There are actually a variety of ways that Heaven could do this:
For example, natural disasters… There could be floods, freakish weather patterns, crop failures, disease outbreaks, earthquakes even volcanoes erupting.
Outside the empire: Military defeats and the incapacity to deal with these military defeats, could be a sign that Heaven has withdrawn it’s Mandate from a particular dynasty
Inside the empire: There could be many peasant revolts for whatever reason, and that could be taken as a sign that Heaven has withdrawn it’s mandate from that dynasty.
Sometimes all it could take was one of these things, to overthrow a dynasty, sometimes a combination of all three.
So if we look back to the Zhou overthrowing the Shang then, you can see how this fits in really nicely with their justifications.
With the Shang, you had Shang Zhou Wang, and his insane concubine, who would torture people for a laugh, enslave thousands of people, overtax the people and all out tyrannised the people.
With the Zhou, you had King Wu of the Zhou and his Uncle, the Duke of Zhou.
They were firm, but fair with their rule. They ensured everyone could live a decent life (for the time) and they made sure they could balance their taxes properly. They showed example of how to rule well.
On top of this, when it came down to the battle between the Zhou and the Shang, King Wu actually said to his men, that they weren’t there on that day, just because he wanted to take over the Shang. They were there because Heaven wanted them to be there, to overthrow the Shang. They were there, because Heaven wanted them there, and it was King Wu who was chosen by Heaven to lead them.
That would have been a huge psychological boost to your men – It would have given the feeling that an external force was watching over you, protecting you, as well as your leader.
He even goes on to say that the Shang were legitimate, at first they ruled fairly and justly, but as time has progressed, they have lost that mandate. You could even argue the same for the Xia as well.
The Mandate of Heaven is actually an awesome system.
Because if you challenge a dynasty for power and overthrow them, you had The Mandate of Heaven.
If you challenge a dynasty for power and fail, then it was clear that you didn’t have Heaven’s Mandate.
To further legitimise themselves – the Zhou actually didn’t kill the entire Shang family, but instead let them live. They did re-locate them away from the Zhou capital – but they let them keep their traditions. They could still worship their ancestors etc. Even today in Anhui province, some Chinese families claim they can trace their ancestry back to the Shang period, and it is due to the Zhou making this decision.
As well as this, it did say to all the other ethnic groups in the Zhou kingdom – ‘hey look at us, we are the good guys!’
Episode 9 - The Western Zhou Dynasty
What Inspires Me
For all purposes, I will discuss the Western Zhou dynasty, just because it is easier to break down what happens after the Western Zhou falls…So today’s episode will talk about the Western Zhou dynasty alone.
The Zhou dynasty was established in 1046BC and the dynasty as a whole, lasted until 256BC. But the period we will be looking into today lasts from 1046BC to 772 BC, so around 500 years before the Zhou’s official end
The Zhou dynasty was China’s longest lasting dynasty officially, lasting over 700 years… But the kings we will talk about next episode were nothing more than puppets on strings.
The dynasty was established by King Wu of the Zhou, and like the start of every dynasty, was wise, kind and a good ruler. I bet he never knew he would lay the foundations for China’s longest lasting dynasty… Yet, he did!
After they overthrew the Shang, the Zhou moved the capital away from Anyang (the last Shang capital) and moved to their ancestral homelands – which they called Chang’an. Now moving forward, you will hear a lot about this city… It is the capital of Shaanxi province and it is the modern day Xi’an – Xi’an attracts millions of tourists today because of the history inside the history. Not to mention the street food as well!
The Zhou’s building of the capital set the standard for future Chinese capital cities – some dynasties plunked themselves right into Chang’an themselves or they built whole new capitals, but they were all based off the initial designs of the Zhou dynasty. So what made this the way to go for future dynasties?
Because the capital represented a goodly world order is in play at that present time. As well as this, the shapes of the cities are always square or rectangular shapes on a north/south axis. The residential areas for the ruler and his family were always located in the North and the commoners were in the south. On a map North is always above South – so it has a meaningful significance – the ruling family is above everyone else, and therefore they are the closest ones to heaven. All by simply placing them in the north of a city…
The capital also had a wall surrounding it with 4 gates, East, South, West and North. This was a good form of defence, but it also played ritualistic roles as well. For example, religious buildings and altars were built at the gates, and the kings of the Zhou would come out from time to time, to perform sacrifices to the ancestors and ensure better harvests etc etc.
The Zhou also introduced the worship of Heaven to China. Now don’t get me wrong, they still worshipped their ancestors, and even in China today you can see ancestral worship playing a huge role in society today. But because Heaven is the legitimiser of Zhou rule, they need to incorporate this into the state as well. A way to look at this is that the Zhou considered Heaven to basically be the sky and that is where you will hear the term ‘Tian Xia’ – Tian means sky/heaven and Xia is what is used for ‘under’. So the Zhou controlled ‘all who are under heaven’ in a way. That is the way they seen it anyway, the realm of the dynasty was ‘all under heaven’. The idea of the realm being ‘all under heaven’ led later Chinese civil wars to aim for reunification rather than domination. And no – the Xia dynasty doesn’t translate to ‘the under dynasty’… Xia can also mean a family name.
So we have covered the architecture/religion/the time/and the effects of the dynasty – what about the military? The Zhou dynasty were actually really successful in expanding their territory – much more successful than the Shang. Especially when it came to conquests in the South and the South east. The Zhou’s success in war was almost too good – because this is essentially what leads it to collapse under its own weight.
The Zhou kings could not have exercised absolute power when the empire was so big, so they employed people to positions of power, and they, in turn were to pay fealty to the king. Kinda try and think of it as the Medieval Feudal system – it’s basically that. At the top, you have the kings, middle are the lords, and the bottom are the peasants. This system in Chinese, was called Feng Jian.
Now at the beginning, the bonds between the Zhou kings and their vassal lords was very strong, but they made one fatal error. The positions of lords (like kings) was hereditary. That meant that once someone was put in to govern a particular area, his son would take over, and then his son took over. So those once strong/tight bonds together? They start to become loose and weak as time progresses. The problem is that the first man to be appointed by the king, would also have personal ties with the king, and therefore he would be a loyal servant to the king – but what happens generations later? The vassal has never met the emperor, and starts to question ‘why should I bother paying tributaries to this guy whom I have never met?’
It actually got kinda weird, because lords who were employed by the dynasty, could run their own campaigns of conquest and all they needed were the nod of approval from the central state (which was more or less always given) and then they had new territory which was under ‘The Zhou’ state. Over time, these vassal kingdoms didn’t even bother asking for approval, they just did it anyway, and eventually they turned on each other – BUT, that is during the Eastern Zhou, so lets’ turn back to the West.
The Western Zhou also brought in metal coins to the economy of the realm or what we can call China at its early stages. The Shang dealt with cowry shells as currency, or bargained and bartered with one another in their local economies. The Zhou had now issued a centralised currency, which actually took the shapes of spades, which look awesome! I would definitely recommend checking them out on my Instagram or Facebook page when you get a chance!
The thing is, the Western Zhou is known as the time when everything was hunky dory, it was 200 years of peace and stability… well… inside the kingdom…. It was known as a time of great philosophy and artisans had managed to forge iron; a metal even stronger than bronze! It was also a time of huge population growth as well with a huge baby boom, but that is where the good times end.
The last emperor of the Western Zhou period was called You Wang who ascended the throne in 781BC, and to be honest all I hear about is one story, which is called: ‘Tricking the Marquess with beacon fires.’ So You Wang, was a bit of a simpleton by all accounts… His favourite concubine would never smile, and it seemed like she was miserable at his side. All he wanted was to see her smiling (serious Heath Ledger Joker Vibes) – but unlike the Joker, he doesn’t carve a smile onto his face. Instead the king tried to take her for a walk along the palace grounds, and there he seen one of the signal fires being lit. So the entire army around the palace surrounded the king and tried to decipher where the enemy was. It turns out though, that it was a false alarm, whilst everyone was running around daft trying to figure out what happened, they could hear someone laugh, and it was the concubine… If you can read human behaviour well, and spolit brats who inherited their throne rather than won it, you know what’s gonna happen next. The king noticed he could hear his concubine laugh, FINALLY, something makes her laugh! So he lit the beacon fires, just to hear her laugh again and again. As you could imagine, the surrounding soldiers and the surrounding lords/nobles, got fed up with this. A few of the Zhou vassals then conspired with tribes outside the control of the Zhou state and decided to sack Chang’an. The armies came, the beacon fires were lit, and would you look at that? No army was around to save the day. Due partly to soldiers thinking it was another prank and partly to the fact that some of the soldiers were on the invading side! King You was tracked down and killed, he died in the year 771BC, and had been ruler of the fragmenting state, for just 10 years.
This story draws an obvious comparison to Western stories – the boy who cried wolf. And yeah, the morale of the story is the same too.
The fall of Chang’an then led to what was left of the Zhou royal family, abandoning Chang’an, and moving their capital to Luoyang. And that is where historians draw the diving line between the Western Zhou and the Eastern too – it suits because the capital was literally moved from East to West in 771 BC, the vassals of the state began to ignore and even conspire against the Zhou and this is when you see a transition of peace to absolute chaos during the rest of the dynasty’s reign. You also see the kings having authority during the western period, in the eastern period, they have none.
Next week, we will take a look at the Eastern Zhou period, or what became known as ‘The Spring and Autumn’ period. This period in all honesty, is a can of worms. So what I will do is talk about the period itself – the politics and certain wars for example. And then, I will talk about the different philosophies which were born during this period in history. For example Confucianism, Daoism, legalism, Mohism and of course the creation of the Art of War.
The decentralized rule of the Western Zhou had from the beginning carried within it the danger that the regional lords would become so powerful that they would no longer respond to the commands of the king. As generations passed and ties of loyalty and kinship grew more distant, this indeed happened. In 771 BCE, the Zhou king was killed by an alliance [of tribesmen and vassals].
Episode 10 - Spring and Autumn period
So here we are, episode 10! It’s a nice feeling to hit my first 10 episodes and I must say I am very thankful for all of the responses to the Podcasts I have had so far, they have been great! Please feel free to share the podcast with others, as it will help the channel to grow even bigger! As well as that, if you are listening on Apple Podcasts, make sure to leave a cheeky wee review if you get the chance, it will help the channel get discovered.
My first question when reading about this, was called, why the Spring and Autumn period? Why not the civil war period? But the reason behind it was that the state of Lu called it Qun Qiu (Spring and Autumn annuls) and in each entry they start with the season.
The tiny state of Lu are extremely important in this, not because they emerge victorious militarily, but because it is only their record of period that seems to have survived… And apparently, these texts were edited by Confucius himself. So if you go to read these annuls, you will be reading the penmanship of Confucius. Of course, to do this, you would need to be able to read very old Chinese, which not a lot of people can do today… But still it’s kinda cool that you can read his own writing from 3,000 odd years ago. Most other sources we have were written after the event, from different scholars who wanted to find out just what the hell happened in this time. As much as modern scholars are thankful for this, it just isn’t quite the same as genuine primary sources. Now you may be wondering, what happened to the rest of the documents? Surely there must be an abundance of literary sources? You would be correct in assuming this… But unfortunately, a particular emperor (Who we will talk about soon) didn’t like these books… Aannd I will leave it at that. Sorry for being such a tease…
So the Spring and Autumn period was a time of total chaos, and to analyse it historically, is also a mess. I reckon that if I were to go fully into depth the Spring and Autumn period, I’d still be doing this podcast 10 years later. No joke. There are so many stories surrounding this period. For example the exploits of noble men, tales of undying loyalty, heart wrenching betrayals, romance, war, war and even more war. This time of great struggle though, did inspire great philosophy as well.
The Spring and Autumn period gave rise to sooooo many philosophies, and that’s where we get the name the ‘100 schools of thought’ – there was that many! Now you could see why I would be stuck in this period like the marshy swamp it sounds like, just to get through the philosophies inspired during the time it would take another 100 episodes, mix that with all of the conflicts and legends? Nahhhhh…. The different philosphies will get their own episodes in this podcast – but only the biggest influencers, not all of them.
The thing is as well, every time I read a new article for this time, I find new information! Literally every single time I do some extra research on this topic, or if I buy a new Chinese history book – I learn something new. The problem is as well, that I haven’t really found a Western book that really dives deep into this period of time – the scholars’ books’ whom I have read, barely dip their toe into the vast ocean that is the spring and autumn period, this isn’t a criticism, it’s easy to see why. Firstly due to the content you need to speak of, and secondly because of the varying accounts on each source of information. So my impression is always ‘Yeah Spring and Autumn…. OH Confucius! Let’s dive into his life!’
So last time I mentioned how and why the social order or governmental order of the Zhou dynasty broke down. Now during this time, the state of Zhou still existed, but it was merely a figurehead, the Zhou kings were puppets who danced on the strings of the most powerful states around them.
This was a time of violence… A lot of violence. All you need to know is that basically as social order began to broke down, more and more people declared themselves as kings. There are even cases of just a village leader declaring himself king!
I guess you can say that leading up to this, the Zhou was a very precarious piece of thin ice that was beginning to crack and splinter, the Spring and Autumn period is finally when the ice shattered – the people on top of the ice were plunged into chaos and madness afterwards.
The Zhou, after that idiot king kept lighting the signal fires, moved their capital East to Luoyang and tried to re-establish their power, but they would never rise to the prominence they once enjoyed, and it became clear that the Zhou were weaker than their vassals. The power vacuum was open? Who’s gonna fill it? The answer to that was well…. Everyone! Everyone thought they could fill up this power-vacuum and started governing themselves more autonomously, preparing for war with their neighbours.
There were many soooo many states popping up everywhere, and I will mention the map of Zhou China in 519 BC:
Zhou in Luoyang, Cheng, Sung, Jeng, Chen, Xu, Xai,
Northern states consisted of:
Jin, Yen, Qi, Lu Wei,
To the West you have the state of Qin who were almost considered barbarians at that time considering how west they were
To the South you have the ‘semi barbarian’ states of Chu, Wu and Ying
Now states were in a state of constant change, particularly the smaller ones in the central plains
Now because this was a time of war, there were a lot of rules on how to engage in warfare, and one of the big things was the idea that you better make a sacrifice… And I’m not talking about one, but a lot. Before the campaign starts? sacrifice. Travelling to enemy territory? Sacrifice. The day before a battle? Sacrifice. The day of the battle sacrifice. Aftermath of the battle? Sacrifice. You get the idea. Now it wasn’t human sacrifices, it would be counter productive if you killed a chunk of your army before you even met the enemy, but these sacrifices did serve a purpose. It was to please heaven and the ancestors, and you better make sure heavens on your side, otherwise you will lose the upcoming battle.
As well as that, it was customary for the commanders to give an oath before the battle begun. This oath is called a Shi. And it was between the commander, his lord and of course, heaven. Every Shi pretty much followed this pattern: The commander would start off with the crimes of the armies enemies… You know a usurper or just the fact that they are bad. They would then go on to mention that he is of no particular talent, but heaven has chosen him to lead the army, he then tells his army how they should conduct themselves in battle, from which if they disobey how they will be punished and finally how they would be rewarded if they obeyed and won the battle. An example of one can be found when a commander named Zhao Yang for the state of Jin declared his oath to his army before a battle against the Fan and the Zhonghan states:
“The fan and Zhonghan lineages have gone against the Mandate of Heaven, slaughtered the people and seek to tyrannise Jin state and slay it’s lord. Out lord relied on Zheng to protect him, but now Zheng has betrayed him; they cast off the lord and aid his rebel servants. But in this battle we follow Heavens mandate, obey the command of our lord, restore the potency of duty, and eradicate the shame of our state. For one who conquers the enemy, if he is a higher minister he will receive a large district and if he is a lower minister he will receive a lower district; if he is a noble he will receive 100,000 mou (100,000 x 666 square meters) of land; if he is a famer, a merchant, an artisan he will be permitted to service at court; if he is a slave or bound to menial service, he shall be freed. Should I commit no crime then the lord will consider how to reward me. Should I be guilty, then may I be punished by strangulation, may I have only a thin coffin with no outside layers, may it be drawn by an unornamented horse and wagon, and may I not be buried in the graveyard of my lineage.”
So from the quote – you can see how Zhao Yang followed the customs of the day – he just didn’t mention how he was of no talent. Apparently he didn’t need to because by all accounts he won the battle. And to top that off, the strangulation part – that would definitely have happened if he lost the battle. Chinese commanders were always killed for failures, and quite sadly, it happened because of success at times too, which we will get into in future episodes.
Clearing up the corpses and giving them a proper burial was also an important practise of the day. The dead soldiers, at the end of the day, also had ancestors. But there were times when people wanted to pervert the practise in another way… For example, the state of Chu had fought a battle with the state of Jin. One of the ministers, a man named Fan Dang said to the king of Chu:
“Why doesn’t my lord build a collective tomb and gather the Jin corpses into it to make a Jing Guan (literally a great display), a large mound with a marker to identify it? I have heard it said that when you defeat the enemy you must show your descendants in order that the not forget the achievements of your military prowess.”
To sum up that quote – the minister Fan Dang wanted to build a monument on top of a pile of enemy corpses to show off the king of Chu’s military prowess. The king must have been a bit more compassionate than his advisor because he rejected the proposal saying that this kind of practise was only for the wicked. Sadly though, it does seem like he was in the minority, with some pre-Qin texts saying that the Jing Guan of numberless bones rose up like hills and mountains. Ouch…
Now let’s move on to more individual stories:
The first person I want to talk about is Duke Huang of Qi – Duke Huan was the governor of the state of Qi. Duke Huan was alive between the years 685-643BC and he was the first man to be declared as a hegemonial lord by a Zhou king. This was the highest title a king could give to a vassal – it basically meant that he could do whatever he liked, as long as he ‘defended the Zhou from frequent barbarian raids’. He had a motto: support the king and ward off the barbarians" (zun wang rang yi)
Duke Huan then used this new authority to launch conquests against his neighbours – for example he declared other Zhou ‘vassal’ states such as Song and Lu as barbarians then launched military campaigns against them – garnering even more power for himself.
Another example of a story about undying loyalty is about Jie Zi Tui
Now the thing is, I couldn’t find a DOB for this guy – so I guess all you need to know is that he was born during the Sprin and Autumn period – that time of chaos
Jie Zi Tui grew up in the Han date during this time but in his adult life, served the state of Jin as a minister. The state of Jin, at the time, was located in what is today’s Shaanxi province, and they were pretty much the frontier for the Zhou state – they were the shield in which defended the civilised world of the remains of the Zhou dynasty.
The man that Jie Zi Tui served most prominently was the prince, who was called Chong’er – Chong’er was a military man, and frequently campaign against his enemies. One of those said campaigns, backfired spectacularly, and it was against the state of Qin to the West.
It went so badly that it was only Chong’er and Jie Zi Tui left trying to find their way home and the situation looked grim for the 2 of them. This is where Jie Zi Tui literally cut off pieces of his flesh for Chong’er to eat, therefore ensuring his survival. Different tales depict him shaving his skin off, others depict him cutting off his entire arm, you get the idea.
Now there are 2 conflicting stories as to what happened next, either Jie Zi Tui was dismissed after the pair arrived back in Chong’er’s court, or he simply left and refused any rewards from the ruler, as he knew that becoming a ruler would bring out the worst in his leader – this was still the early days in Chong’ers career!
Jie Zi Tui then retreated to the mountains of Shaanxi and attempted to retire in peace – but Chong’er over the years, felt really guilty about this, so guilty that he decided that he would force Jie Zi Tui out of the mountains if he had to. That is where he lit a fire to try and ‘smoke him out’ but Jie Zi Tui seemed to be as stubborn as he was loyal – because even though he could live if he simply came out, he chose death.
Now I will wrap this off with details of one battle. I finally managed to find details of one particular battle. FINALLY!
This is the battle of Chi Fu and it was fought between the states of Chu and Wu, so this is like the South Eastern states of the time.
The state of Chu were invading and it was them as well as subordinate states. The subordinate states made up the front line (Obviously).
The state were to the East and stationed at the foot of a hill, now cleverly, they also hid units at the other side of the hill.
Once the 2 armies were set up, it was the state of Wu who initiated the attack, but this was a trap. After the initial attack the men began to retreat to the base of the hill. Smelling blood, the Chu army charged forward with all speed, and it is here where the hidden units run around the side of the hill and flank the Chu soldiers – after that… It is game over from there and the Chu forces were completely routed or slaughtered.
Now I will leave it there, just because I can keep going on and on… But this has been such a drain on me to sift through all of this stuff and find some of the best stories I could find.
I feel like I need to menion my 3 main sources of information here: the first one is Proffessor Kenneth J. Hammond, who gave me great insights to China, and I listened to his entire audio book from The Great courses within a couple of weeks! The next is Mark Edward Lewis and his book: Sanctioned Violence in Early China, where I found the primary source quotes of the commanders and last but not least – Google. Where I did a hell of lot of Google searches….
Oh actually, and this would be a good idea to thank my wife, who read Chinese sources (Which are far more detailed and comprehensive than Western ones) and then translated them for me! It should be good motivation for me to learn Chinese more… But sadly I am lacking on that front.
Next time, we will dive into the philosophies of the time, starting with Kun Zi, or what he is better known as, Confucius.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode and I will see you next time, on The Chronicler Podcast channel. Thanks for listening!
Episode 11 - Confucianism
Confucius lived at 550-5480 BC roughly and was born in the state of Lu, which is modern day Shangdong province
He was alive at a time where the state of Zhou had pretty much completely disintegrated and the realm that was China, had started to completely fragment.
This was a time though, when many thinkers had been popping up, and all of them asked the same questions. Such as ‘why has this happened?’ ‘What went wrong?’ and probably most importantly – ‘HOW CAN WE FIX THIS?’
As we dive deeper and deeper into this, we will see people have very, very different ideas on how to fix these problems, but I thought I’d start with Confucianism today, and I will work my way through some of the other major philosophies of the Spring and Autumn period. I am not starting with Confucianism because I think it is the most important, or the other theories are inferior, but because it was definitely one of the top 3 most influential philosophies throughout Chinese history. And I gotta start somewhere right?
Not much info about Confucius himself, the only info available is from his students, who then told their students etc
Confucius spent a lot of time touring around East China and offered his services to the different rulers/states around at the time
Confucius was a member of the Shi elite – the Shi were the political advisors for each state and they would offer their services to different rulers. This range of these services were pretty wide – such as local administration, taxing, warfare etc.
At this time it was possible for different Shi to travel outwith their state of birth and travel around, and this is what Confucius did
BUTTTTTTT…. He didn’t really do well in this.
He was appointed as a local administrator here and there, but it was nothing major. As well as this, there were times when Confucius didn’t like the ruler of a part
icular state and made excuses to leave. Kinda like saying, ‘Oh no, I can’t serve you my lord… My uhhh. My uhhhh mum is sick, that’s it. My mum is sick… So I gotta go, good luck with the endeavour!’
One of Confucius’s more funny quotes is : ‘Is there any ruler that isn’t interested in armies or sex?’ – kinda sums up the rulers of his time I guess?
So this begs the question… Why was he unsuccessful in this endeavour? What went wrong for him? Well… The truth is, it’s because of his idea, which we will get to later. Suffice it to say, that during this time, the ideas of Confucius were not practical during a time of warfare and chaos.
And eventually, Confucius gave up trying to help states politically and returned to Shangdong province, and here he became a teacher.
This is where most information about Confucius comes to light in the historical records, because like previously said, his students took note of his talks and what he said.
So what are his ideas?
He looks into human relationships mostly. And what I mean by that is that the reason why there was so much chaos was because there was now a blurry line between who was in charge and who was to serve. Nobody really knew where their place in the world was – this is where he thought of the theory of the 5 relationships and he looked towards family relationships as a template and then projected that to a larger scale, these relationships were:
King/Emperor/Ruler – Subject
Father – Son
Husband – wife
Elder brother – younger brother
Friend – friend
Just from looking at the 5 great relationships, one can see that he definitely looked to the family as an inspiration to this.
Now we have 5 Great relationships, what does that mean?
Well it means that one will be the more dominant within each relationship – so for example, it is pretty obvious that the ruler will be more dominant than the subject, or they certainly should be. He then goes on to say that the husband is more dominant than the wife, the father over the son, the elder over the younger and even between two friends, where it seems more likely that this would be a relationship of equals, one friend will still be more dominant than the other.
Now it doesn’t mean that the dominant partner within these relationships have the right to abuse what he called the subservient ones, but rather the contrary, it is the duty of the dominant person to protect the subservient person. So the emperor, the father of the realm, should protect his subjects, if he doesn’t, then they have the right to replace him (close tie to mandate of heaven there). As well as that, if the dominant friend bullys the more subservient one, then subservient would pack up and leave town, or abandon the more dominant partner.
Basically, to quote the Rock, you need to ‘Know your role’
So it is here that you can see that Confucius does believe that humans can behave accordingly and in harmony with one another.
This is where the next part of his philosophy comes into play – just because his students would ask him, if people can behave themselves, why are they not?
Confucius would reply, because people have lost their Dao, or the way, and what he thinks is essential to get people to know their role so to speak, he looks to ritual as being the key to this door he has built to himself.
Ritual can be anything, from the very basics to the very elaborate. For example shaking hands on the street is a ritual that is practised every day – it means that we are on an equal level and are willing to work together, something like that. And it could be something very elaborate such as a college graduation or the election of a new prime minister etc.
So you could see how ritual can play a role in the network of relationships now:
Crowning a new emperor symbolises that he is in charge and those under heaven are his subjects – now everyone knows where they stand
A marriage symbolises that you now have a husband and a wife – the husband protects his wife and the wife serves him
Rituals for when a son is born – everyone knows who the father is
Elder brother is born before the younger brother, therefore wiser
Even between two friends, the 2 can practise in any kind of ritual which reinforces who is more dominant
The thing is, these relationships are clearly hierarchal and they are very patriarchal – the one time a woman is mentioned she is in the serving criteria – so you can see he is more focused on men and he thinks a womens place is to serve their husband and to provide children…
Now before any feminists have a go at Confucius, just remember that the dude was alive like 1500 years ago – he was a traditionalist of his time as well, therefore in Confucius’s eyes – this idea made sense, and from his point of view, this would bring a stable and prosperous society.
Now this is the basics of his theory – and in a way I can relate to it – for example an emperor is clearly dominant over a subject, and as well as that, this is subject to change, if the emperor is cruel or is a tyrant then subjects DO NOT need to serve them.
Confucius’s legacy however, really outdone his achievements within his life, the Han dynasty 100’s of years later, took on the ideas of Confucius, and made it THE state sponsored religion. Indeed, when the dynasty was won by Liu Beng – he had a series of rebellions to deal with, and when pondering over the idea on how to run his empire, he said, “I have won the empire on horseback, why should I change this?” One of his advisors replied, “you may have won the empire on horseback. But if you rule it on horseback, how long could you hold on to it?”
Impressed with the wisdom of these words, Liu Beng then looked to Confucianism as his ideal state religion/philosophy. Dynasties even later on would adopt Confucian ideals, especially the Tang and the Ming dynasties.
So it does go to show, the HUGE role Confucianism played on the country that we know as China today, you can still see elements of Confucianism in Chinese society, for example the concept of ‘filial piety’, which is the respect of parents from children. This comes from Confucius’s 5 great relationships ideal.
Further to this, there is a story from when Confucius oversaw an execution, and what had happened is that a man had stolen horses from his neighbour, the authorities had found out about this because the mans own son ratted him out. Now the thing is, did the boy get interrogated or did he go to the authorities willingly? Nobody really knows… REGARDLESS of this though, according to Confucius the son should never do such a thing, even if it is to please a ruler.
Episode 12 - Daoism
Firstly, I would like to say a big sorry for the lack of episodes as of late. But it was coming to exam time here in China, and yeah... I was far toooooooo busy to think I could get this done alongside preparing my students for their exams.
The good news however, is that exam time is over, I have a long break coming up, which means I have so much more time to podcast. So moving forward I hope to keep this going on a weekly basis.
Whilst we are on the subject, to keep up with more podcast episodes be sure to like the page on Facebook, or follow my Twitter or Instagram pages – the links to them will be in the description for this episode.
“Those who know, do not speak, those who speak, do not know” – a classic phase which originates from Daoism.
So now that’s out of the way, lets move on from Confucianism and talk about Daoism.
So the first thing I better talk about is; where did Daoism come from? Who thought of it?
The answer to both of these questions is... Nobody really knows for sure. Daoism is credited to a man named Lao Zi which in Chinese, means old master. Apparently he was taught Confucius himself, but again, this is just a matter of speculation. The book where Daoism’s origins can be found is called the Dao De Jing, which literally means finding the path, just remember that Dao in Chinese means ‘the path’, so Daoism is similar to Confucianism in this sense – it is considered with following the right ‘path’ – the difference is that both religions/philosophies see a different path to follow.
What I found interesting, is that the oldest script found of the Dao De Jing was found inside a tomb at Ma Wang Dui. Ma Wang Dui is an archeological site that was found in 1960’s and it is close to modern day Changsha, which is inside Hunan province. The tomb belongs to probably a high ranking official of the time, we do not know, but the time of the text itself is regarded to have been written at around the 3rd century BC according to Philip J Ivanhoe who wrote ‘the dao de jing of Laozi’ in 2003. However, do not be mistaken, this isn’t the original text, this is the text in it’s present form. There are older ‘originals’ I guess which go back even further than that, right around the time of the Spring and Autumn period. So I mean yeah, Laozi, if he even existed, would have been around at the same time as Confucius, or at least the same time period.
Now that we have gotten the origins out of the way, it’s time to move on with what the philosophy and the religion is about.
Daosim, as you may have guessed, has a lot to do with ‘the Dao’ – the path. But for Daoists, Daoism simply talks about the Dao a universal force, it was created by itself and it created the universe today. The first line of the document Dao De Jing actually says that it is impossible for human beings to even begin to comprehend or understand the Dao as it is so complex. That doesn’t mean however, that it’s patterns cannot be understood. This is called Li – the Li is the breadcrumbs the Dao leaves behind I guess. For example the markings on wood and or the patterns on rocks. Li can also represent the natural, random yet perfect orders of nature, again for example think of the way rivers flow or the way tides come in and out or even weather patterns. Basically, by observing Li – we can see HOW the Dao operates. We cant see why or anything, but at least we see the results of the Dao, which is something I guess.
Daoism also looks to nature as ever-changing, and as many cycles all happening at once. Think of the cycle of life for example, the earth gives birth to plants/trees/animals, they grow, they then wither, they then return to earth, and the cycle repeats itself.
Further to this, a fundamental element for Daoism is Wu-Wei, which literally means ‘doing nothing/not doing/not acting’ Laozi does mention wei wu wei, which would mean doing the non-doing???? I’ll let your perspective try and get your head around that... My perspective of this is that you try your best to not do anything I guess? Or another way to look at this would be don’t force anything, don’t force your way against the Dao, or going with the flow so-to-speak. Try to think of it like this: Don’t bother sailing upriver, because that is against the flow of the Dao.
Daoism is a lot more concerned with nature and natural elements within the universe. Daoism, unlike Confucianism, feels that humans are but a mere spec on the universe and the world that we live on, mother-nature is the ultimate authority in the world. A Daoist scholar would look at the world and see the beauty in mother nature, NOT what humans create.
Let me paint a picture for you:
You are in a small village, you have you, your neighbours and their neighbours. You wake up on a crisp spring morning and walk outside, breath in the fresh air and look around, you have a lake just beside your home, and you can mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. You can also see men fishing in the lake and the women preparing food from the winter harvests. You can hear the birds chirping on the trees or even on the roof of your basic, yet comfortable home. You decide to join the men and go fishing and later you explore the mother-nature that surrounds you, because you know that old saying? Every 1,000-mile journey begins with a single step, but you do not do any harm to mother-nature, and why should you? It provides for you, your family and your village.
This picture that I painted, is the way a true Daoist scholar wants to live his life, surrounded by nature and not interrupting the processes of the Dao. That’s why when you see Daoist inspired art, you see huge paintings of mountains and forests and then you just see the one guy who would look like a pixel on a modern computer. Or even human settlements for that matter – they are always TINY in comparison to the natural environment that surrounds it. This kind of thinking inspired artists in China all the way up to the present day, and in particular the Song dynasty, which I will touch on in the future.
But this brings me up to my next point? Was the Dao de jing the only Daoist text written? The answer is an incredible NO. There is also another famous Daoist text outside the Dao de jing which is the Zhuangzi, and the other was... Zhuangzi...
The 2 are similar in their explanations of Daoism, the only difference is that the Dao de Jing focusses on rulers and how they should rule whilst Zhuangzi focuses on how Daoism can benefit regular people.
Despite these 2 being the most famous book, there are literally thousands of books on Daoism and different perspectives on how to follow the Dao. Daoist authors look to nature to solve problems as well – such as looking for medicinal herbs to be one example. But these Daoist texts have A WHOLE LOAD of information inside them, such as warding off demons or how to meditate.
Now, lets move on to a concept that everyone recognizes well in the west and which also originates with Daoism – Yin and Yang.
Yin and Yang are polar opposites, they are opposite, yet they are inseparable. Yin is feminity, the moon, night, chaos, and the unknown whereas Yang is masculinity, the sun, daytime, peaceful and the known. Basically, one cannot live without the other, and this is a good thing, as it brings balance to natural processes and to the universe as a whole. I suppose the most simple analogy would be to think of it like this: The sun comes up – it’s daytime. The sun goes down – it’s night time. As night time comes into being: the moon goes up. As the moon goes down – it’s daytime again. And the cycle will repeat forever.
Now to wrap it up I am going to focus on one more element of Daosim, just because this is getting ridiculously long now... And that is Qi. So what is Qi? Literally, it means air. But for Daoism, it’s more complicated than that... Obviously... Qi is everything that makes nature function, so think of oxygen or water, and all of the tiny molecules that make these things exists – that’s Qi. Qi is also inside humans, it is the stuff that flows through our body, so like blood for example, if Qi is flowing you are alive and if it stops? Well... you’re dead.
And this flow isn’t only on earth, but it’s in heaven too, according to Daoists, earth and heaven are mere reflections of each other... so if these things happen on earth then it is because they happen on heaven as well. This is where the idea that heaven has a centralised beurocracy in Chnese popular culture comes from, it comes from Daoism! Ever heard of the tale of the Journey to the West? How the monkey king combats many different Gods and angers the Jade emperor? The Jade emperor comes from Daoist thought, not Buddhist thought. Which is strange, because the story is about how the Monkey King escorts a Buddhist Monk West... Hence the name...
That is the thing when it comes to China and religion, officially, the biggest religion in China today is Buddhism. But honestly, the Chinese themselves actually take on parts of many religions and don’t say they are part of one religion. They like to cherry pick different religions and squash them together really, that’s how these different religions tend to live in harmony together today.
So what do think about Daoism ? Is it a cool religion or is it too complicated to even to begin to comprehend? Just an FYI – this barely scratches the surface for Daoism as a whole!
Episode 13 - Legalism
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Now that’s out of the way... Where were we？Ah yes... In today’s podcast, we are going to move away from Confucianism and Daoism and turn to Legalism.
Now before I move forward, if you have no idea what Confucianism or Daoism is, check out my previous podcasts... Just because in order to understand legalism, you need the basics of Confucianism and Daoism. The reason being that legalism is almost like a direct challenge to these other philosophies, and they conflict on pretty much every level.
So legalism... Where did it start? That’s a good question and to tell you the truth, there isn’t a clear cut point of origin.
I cannot stress this enough, legalism as a political ideology almost does have a point of origin, and it begins with 3 men. You have Shang Yang, Han Feizi and Li Si as well.
But before I get into the lives of the three men, which are pretty interesting, I better go with the basics of legalism.
Legalism like I said, is the total opposite of Confucianism. So Confucianism believes that humans are good? WRONG. Legalists argue that all humans are bad! Now one could ask, where is the evidence that humans are bad? To which a legalist such as Han Feizi would say: ‘Have you looked outside?...’ The entire world is at war! Not only that, on every level of society people are self-serving criminals! At the top you have corrupt bureaucrats who will accept any bribe they see fit, and at the bottom level soldiers rape and pillage villages, regular bandits steal from anyone they come across. And the list just keeps going on an on and on.
I guess if you were to sum up legalism quickly you could simply compare it to the donkey with the carrot and the stick theory. For those of you who do not know the theory goes like this:
Let’s say you have a donkey that doesn’t really obey what you tell it to do. You need to figure out a way to control the donkey’s behaviour, so everytime the donkey does something you WANT it to do, you give it a carrot, everytime it does something you DON’T WANT it to do, you beat it with a stick. Eventually the donkey listens to your commands.
Now legalism is similar to that, apart from one fundamental change, instead of awarding the donkey with a carrot, you just tell it you wont kill it that day. Legalism focused on all of the punishment, rather than any rewards.
The theory is, if you beat it enough without any rewards, it will obey you anyway, so why give it a reward? This is what legalism strives for. Now moving forward towards the Qin dynasty, you will see what I mean with the rewards and punishment thing, it got kinda ugly. But for now, this is the theory kinda in a nutshell.
Now this is why I am unsure where legalism did truly originate, just because this was already in place-somewhat in Chinese societies in the past. Think about it, jails already existed before right? So did capital punishment, so this isn’t really a new idea, I think the fundamental difference however is, that it finally got put into writing and got turned into a political theory.
I think the fundamental difference between legalism and Confucianism can relate to power. Confucianism believes power is won through kindness, whereas legalism believes power is contained within the kings of the time and issuing out extremely harsh punishments.
Remember how Confucius scholars said that the rulers of realms should be kind to his nobles and subjects? Legalists argue that is a load of nonsense.
Han Feizi wrote the following:
“It is dangerous for the ruler to trust others. He who trusts others can be manipulated by others. “
Now doesn’t this sound SOOOOOO much like Machiavellism? Isn’t it crazy how similar theories can be thought of in different areas and in different time period?
Anyway, moving on from Renaissance Italy and diving back into ancient china. The quote from Han Feizi does show how legalists would think and their view on statecraft. And I mean, they kinda had a point, during the Spring and Autumn period and even in later unified Chinese dynasties, was there anyone the emperor could fully trust in the imperial court? If we were to ask all of China’s previous emperors today, the vast majority of them would more than likely have said no. Behind every smily face was a dagger poised, waiting to cut down emperors who showed any signs of weakness. Or maybe these ‘faithful’ ministers could simply get a child emperor and make that emperor dance like a puppet on their strings?
Now to counter this, the emperor according to Legalists, should hand out all punishments and rewards to EVERYONE regardless of rank, the only person immune to these laws would be none other than the emperor themselves. That way the kings of the Spring and Autumn period can control their own courts, or as the theory would say anyway.
So that’s enough on legalism I reckon, I could keep going but I think you get the general point... Legalism doesn’t care for virtue, it doesn’t care about people being good. Legalism cares about how to control people’s natural impulses, which are fundamentally bad as well as the methods on how to control these impulses through extremely harsh punishments. I’ll squeeze in a couple more examples here – so lets say you are a minister and you have been ordered to ship 500kg of grain from point A – B and you have a deadline of 5 days. What happens if you take 6 days? Execution? What happens if you do it quicker than 5 days? Execution... You weren’t allowed to showboat in front of the king and make him look bad! And then you have the usual, if you are a thief you will not only get your hands chopped off, but also your tongue just to give you an idea of how harsh a legalist regime would be.
So now I will move on to the proponents of legalism:
And I might as well start with the first guy: Shang Yang.
Shang Yang was born at around 390 BC in the state of Wei. And he would meet a rather grim demise in the year 338 BC. But more on that later.
Shang Yang didn’t serve the state of Wei however, and instead took his fancy ideas and went to serve Duke Xiao of Qin.
Now for those of you who don’t know where these places were, Wei is kinda in the middle of the old Zhou realm, and Qin was on it’s Western border for the most part, so in today’s terms he didn’t travel that far.
Duke Xiao was extremely impressed with Shang Yang, and the latter rose through the ranks extremely quickly. Straight away he began a series of pretty radical reforms for the time. For example he instituted compulsory military service, strict laws which applied to everyone and also agricultural reforms. And what I mean with ‘agricultural reforms’ is that basically, he only created two jobs within the realm of Qin – you were either a soldier or a farmer, NO MERCHANTS ALLOWED! Women were obviously not eligible to be soldiers at that time, so their job was to farm and have children. Were these policies harsh? Yes. But did they gear the Qin up for the final showdown with all of the other states? Yes.
Harsh but effective administration basically. Now did these reforms conflict with the interests of the nobles under Duke Xiao? Ohhhhhhhh yes they did. The only thing that was keeping Sheng Yang alive was his closeness with the duke, but what would happen if he were to die? You guessed it... Those nobles would go after him like wolves after their prey. And that is exactly what happened. Duke Xiao died and then the nobles came after Sheng Yang.
I read a little tale that Sheng Yang tried to go into hiding, and tried to hide in a tavern whilst soldiers were looking for him, however it was passed the curfew time and the landlord refused to let him in in fear of punishment. Sheng Yang sighed and muttered that his laws were too effective... What a twist of irony for the dude.
When he was caught, the nobles were really unsure on how to kill him, but then they thought of a brutal way to do it, in order to appease hevean for the brutality that his administration adopted, so they tied his arms and legs to 4 separate chariots, and at the same time the chariots ran at full speed, which quartered Sheng Yang’s body in what sounds like a horrific scene. Honesty... I thought Medieval Europe was brutal at times, just look into ancient China!
So that’s Sheng Yang’s story told, now I know this was brief, but there are 2 more men I want to cover on this episode...
The next man is Han Feizi, who was probably the most notable legalist of all. Han Feizi was born in 280 BC and he died in 233 BC. Han Fei Zi was born in the state of Han, which again borders the state of Qin. Han was a relatively weak state with not much land, and the land it did have couldn’t really support a lot of agriculture... Now I think I have already mentioned this, but in case I didn’t... Scholars tended to drift between different states and periodically serve that state then move on. It was common practise for that to happen. Han Feizi on the other hand, was actually a prince of Han, so he wasn’t really in a position to be able to do this.
In his philosophical career, Han Feizi actually started off as a pupil under a notable Confucian scholar by the name of Xun Xi, Han Feizi as you could imagine, really didn’t agree with Confucian principles at all, and because of this, he never really got a position within the Han court. Han Feizi is also said to have had a stutter, which made him useless when engaging in a debate, but for what he couldn’t say, he made up for with his writing. Han Feizi wrote many essays about statecraft and how rulers should act. 2 of which are called ‘The 5 vermin’ and ‘The difficulties of persuasion’ . Despite his really good writing ability, ideas and techniques, within the Han court it fell on deaf ears.
BUT, while Han Feizi’s writing caught the attention of nobody in the state of Han, they caught ALL of the attention of a man named Ying Zheng, who was the ruler of the state of Qin. He is known in the world by another name, and that is Qin Shi Huangdi – the first man to unite China under one state. Ying Zheng was a total fanboy of Han Feizi and was desperate to meet the skilled writer.
This just so happens that the 3rd man in this episode comes into effect, and his name is Li Si. Li Si was born in around 280 BC and died at around 208 BC. Now all we need to know about Li Si just now is this:
He was also a student of Xun Xi and personally knew Han Feizi, thereore he thought he could gain favour with Ying Zheng by being the man to get him over to Qin.
With that in mind, Ying Zheng was in a pretty strong position already, the state of Han was in no way able to stand up against Qin and the Qin had already beaten them in a few battles, so now was the time to say, ‘Want peace talks? Good. Oh but we will only discuss peace with Han Fei, nobody else!
I reckon both sides would have been happy with this deal – Han got rid of Han Feizi (Who they probably thought was an annoyance more than anything else) and they get peace with Qin.
Qin on the other side, see this as a win as they get a really capable minister who agrees with the King’s points of views.
What about Han Feizi? Was he happy with this? Yes... He was extremely happy. He must have thought ‘no longer will I be a disgraced minister of Han. I will win back peace for my country; I will be a hero!’
Except, when he got there, he was welcomed to a HUGE party thrown by Ying Zheng himself, and was welcomed as a guest of honour. Han Feizi then quickly shined inside the imperial court and within the kings’ eyes.
It was pretty clear that Ying Zheng intended to employ Han Feizi and implement his ideas, Han Feizi would never return home.
Now... Remember Li Si? How do you think he feels about this? He brought in Han Feizi as he thought it would win HIM favour with Ying Zheng, but what’s happened instead? He’s been totally forgotten about.
I could picture a minister saying ,’sire, Li Si wants to see you.’
To which Ying Zheng would reply:
Now of course, this is definitely hyperbole, Li Si would still have been remembered as he a played a pivotal role within the Qin court.
However, Han Feizi seemed to be a genuine threat to his position. Therefore, he had to get rid of him.
Now I have read 2 tales as to what happens next:
Ying Zheng, Han Feizi and Li Si were debating on how to launch a campaign to unify the realm. Li Si insisted on invading Han first, they were the closest neighbour and the weakest state when looking at a map. However Han Feizi said that invading Han first wasn’t the best option. From there Li Si accuses Han Feizi as being a traitor to Ying Zheng and says he is still loyal to the Han, even after all Qin has done for him! Han Feizi would then be thrown in jail...
The second is pretty similar, Li Si charges Han Feizi with duplicity and then has him thrown in jail. Duplicity is basically a doubtness of your speech or actions – or contradictory actions. It seems like he managed to trump up these charges in any case and Han Feizi was thrown in jail.
The thing is Ying Zheng was actually feeling regretful of this and planned to release Han Feizi, but Li Si put a stop to that in an extremely cruel way...
He ordered Han Feizi to commit suicide and gave him a vile of poison.
There was probably a note of some sort there saying ‘die with honour rather than be disgraced in court’ or something along those lines, now please remember that is my speculation there, there is no evidence that Li Si left a note with that statement on it!
Han Feizi then obliged, and drunk the poison.
Now I know what you are thinking, that Li Si, what a total snake! And I guess you’d be right, however he did go on to serve the state of Qin well, and a short while after Han Fei Zi’s death, the state of Qin would go on to unite all of the realm that once belonged to the Zhou and even expand it further!
Now a big reason for the success of the Qin and China’s first emperor was due to this: Their ideology, which was legalism. Now I am not gonna get into the Qin dynasty yet, just because there are a few more philosophies or writings I think need to be covered before I can move forward.
However, what I will say is that from this time and into the future, Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism all play HUGE roles in the formation and the running of future Chinese dynasties, as we will soon see moving forward.
But in next week’s podcast I am going to cover the works of Sun Tzu, and his most epic of books, ‘The Art of War’
Now I hope you have enjoyed this episode and I look forward to seeing you next time on the Chronicler podcast channel. Thanks for listening!
Episode 14 - Sun Tzu and the Art of War
Just a quick note before I get into today’s podcast. I did issue a vote on my Instagram story about having a Chinese New Year special coming up, and the vote was an overwhelming yes! So on Friday the 12th of February there will be ANOTHER episode from the Chronicler, which will discuss the Chinese New Year, and the stories behind the festival, so tune in for that!
‘Every battle is won before it is fought’ – Here’s a nice wee quote from our main topic of today.
As we move on through the Spring and Autumn period, and yes, we are still in amongst this slug-fest... The most important aspect for all of the differente states who had sprung up was military strategies.
It makes sense, if you are in amongst a world where everyone’s first priority is to survive by any means possible, you better have a few tricks up your sleeves when it comes to the military. This was a time when 2 states would ally with each other because there was a larger state who was a mutual threat to both of them, as soon as that threat was gone however, the 2 former allies would turn on each other and tear themselves to shreds.
That’s what I want to stress in case I haven’t really touched up on this, ALL of these philosophies, Confucianism by the sage Kun Zi, Daoism by Laozi, Legalism by Han Fei Zi, and the other 100 schools of thought were all attempts to find the answers to the problems faced by the peoples in the realm at the time.
That’s all fine and dandy to talk about ritual and how humans are nice, or learning the Dao, or even just being heavily focused on trying to issue out rewards and punishments, but that only deals with the populace... What if you are actually at war with another state? What good would an attitude of ‘wu wei’ do for an emperor if that were to happen? Remember wu wei is a Daoist concept – it means to purposefully do nothing.
MY KING, SOLDIERS ARE INVADING FROM THE NORTH!
Ah it’s ok, once they see how chill we are they wont invade!
Don’t get me wrong, I really like the concept of wu wei, if you feel yourself stressing out, just practise wu wei and do nothing for a while. You can figure out a lot!
That being said, it wasn’t practical on an institutional level, and especially in the dog eat dog world that was the Spring and Autumn period followed by the Warring States period.
This is where our main topic of the day comes into this episode – Sun Zi / Sun Wu/ Sun Tzu. Call him what you like, but I am gonna keep going with the zi theme, considering everyone else has a Zi as their given name who became philosophers or something.
So Sun Zi was probably born in the state of Qi at around 544 BC so we are edging our way closer to the end of the Spring and Autumn period.
I feel like I better do this now before I go any further. But I have neglected not saying which state is which and where they are without going into a lot of detail. So, here we go... In a clockwise direction from furthermost north around the periphery zone kinda states and then we will get to the interior.
By the time of Sun Tzu, you had:
The state of Yan which encompassed areas such as modern day Beijing
The state of Qi which encompassed modern day Shangdong province and Hebei province.
The state of Lu which was kinda in the middle planes, hugging the east coast between the Yellow and river Yangtze rivers
To the South of Lu you had the state of Wu which grew up along the banks of the Yangtze river as it emptied out into the Pacific Ocean, so think of modern day Shanghai, Suzhou etc. That’s where the state of Wu were.
To the south of them you had what were called the Nan-Man people, which literally means Southern Barbarians – those from the central plains of antiquity did turn their noses up at their Southern neighbours for sure.
Now we move West from the state of Wu and look at their neighbours, who were Chu Guo, or the state of Chu. The grew up along the banks of the Yangtze river as it went more inland, so think of provinces such Hubei etc.
Then we move north-west to the state of Qin, and I don’t need to say much more than that because I will cover them in A LOT more detail shortly.
Then finally in the periphery you have the state of Jin, who were in modern day northern shaanxi/shanxi provinces.
So that’s just the states on the perimeter of this war ridden area of the world for the time, so let’s look at the interior:
These states all pretty much hugged the Yellow River valley, and although they had the least amount of land, they certainly had the most prestige, or so they thought.
You had the state of Wei, Cao, Song, Chen, Cai, Zheng and then finally the state of Zhou.
Remember those guys? Who conquered all of this territory before? Now? They only had the city of Luoyang, oh how the mighty have fallen.
For now all you need to know is that these inner states kinda get gobbled up eventually and it is the states in the exterior who benefit the most from this time period, as we will soon see.
But back to Sun Zi, he was born in the state of Qi blah blah blah, and he entered service for the state of Wu.
Now there is an interesting story about his trial shift as the commander of the King of Wu’s army... So here it is:
The king of Wu, called Helu, basically said ‘if you think you are a great general, then make my concubines into a fighting unit’ – a very unusual request considering that it was very ‘unwoman’ like to join the military or even fight in a war. And the kings concubines no-less!! For those of you who do not know, concubine is another fancy word for wife. Kings and later emperors, had many, many wives...
So anyway, Sun zi agrees to the test and the very next day he divides the kings concubines into 2 units, at this time everyone, including the concubines were thinking, ‘wait, is this guy serious?’ Sun Zi asked them if they knew the difference between left/right/forward or back to which they replied yes. That is when Sun Zi put the king’s favourite 2 concubines as the leaders of 2 units. He then ordered for the men to beat the war drums and shouted turn left! All the concubines burst out into laughter.
Sun Zi then looked up to heaven and sighed, he then said as the general it was his fault if his soldiers didn’t understand a command. So he started again, the war drums were being beaten once again and then he shouted ‘Turn left!’ to which again, was met with laughter. Sun Zi then said if the generals orders were clear but the soldiers didn’t obey, it isn’t the general who is at fault but the commanders. Therefore, the blame was placed onto the kings favourite 2 concubines, and from there he ordered them to be beheaded. Now remember, the king was watching this presentation and got a bit of a fright to say the least. He protested to Sun Zi asking him to spare them, but the latter replied, ‘having once received his majesty’s commission as general of his forces, there are certain commands of his majesty, which acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.”
And with that, the 2 women were promptly beheaded.
After the 2 favourite concubines were killed, Sun Zi ordered the 2 in line to be installed as the captains of the battalions. The war drums sounded once again and Sun Zi ordered them to turn right. ALL of them turned right in unison, as they now all knew the consequences if they dared disobey. They were able to march, stop and obey all of the generals commands. Sun Zi then went to the king and said to him, ‘Your soldiers sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them to through fire and water, and they will not disobey”
The King then replied,
“Let Our General cease drilling and return to camp. As for us, we have no wish to come down and inspect the troops.” Probably through sobs, his 2 favourite wives were just killed afterall!
Afterwards, Sun Zi was appointed as the head of the army. Now the thing with this story is that surely, surely, the king could have just , I dunno, just stopped the executions? But no, he got dictated to by a man who was only applying for a job! He hadn’t even gotten it yet!
Although in saying that, I do quite like the thought that if a concubine misbehaved for the king he could just say ‘Don’t make me get Sun Zi’!
So that was the appointment taken care of, Sun Zi was now the leader of the army for the State of Wu, it was probably just as well because the state of Chu to the west looked like they were gonna attack, which they were.
Time for Sun Zi to shine!
And to go with his own words again he said: Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake’ and that is exactly what Chu were doing.
Sun Zi then led his men to a complete victory at the battle of Boju.
Now the thing is, I don’t want to get into too much detail about it, and the reason being that there is a little doubt over where Sun Zi even fought the battle or not. So I don’t wanna waste any time. All you need to know is that Chu were defeated, which then resulted in many more campaigns fought by the state of Wu, and Sun Zi brought the state of Wu to the top of it’s military height! These wars, inspired his greatest work, ‘The Art of War’ or in Chinese Sun Zi Bing Fa.
This is where the previous quotes have came from, and honestly, this book... If you haven’t read it, READ IT!
It’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing I have ever seen, and it isn’t a large book so it would take you like an afternoon to read it.
The Art of War comprises of 13 chapters which talks about, well war obviously.
The chapters go like this:
1 – laying plans
2 – waging war
3 – Attack by Stratagem
4 – Tactical dispositions
5 – Energy
6 – Weak points and strong
7 – Manoeuvring
8 – Variation in tactics
9 – The Army on the March
10 – Terrain
11 – The 9 situations
12 – The attack by fire
13 – Spies
Now the remarkable thing is, within these chapters Sun Zi also kinda promotes peace in a way... Well, I wont call it peace, but more like peaceful ways to defeat the enemy. For example he says
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”
Or again he says:
“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle”
Even then, he goes on to mention that generals shouldn’t rush into every battle presented to them, in other words pick your battles, wait for the enemy to show weaknesses while you show your strength.
Sun Zi also mentions for example, if you are outnumbered and cannot win, then hide, if you have the numerical advantage then you should fight.
Again, another quote:
“It is the rule in war if you have 10 times the enemy’s strength SURROUND THEM. If 5 ATTACK THEM. If twice as many ENGAGE THEM. If equal then DIVIDE THEM. If fewer be able to EVADE THEM. If weaker HIDE from them.”
The thing is I can keep going on and on and on about how the book deals with every situation and every detail such as environmental factors to consider in warfare, supplies, the drains on the state, terrain all the way down to gathering intelligence and being realistic about your own strength...but I wont. Just read It yourself!
Sun Zi Bing Fa has influenced warfare in China ever since it’s inception. Everyone wanted to read it in order to understand warfare and to try and use this information to conquer the land.
For example, China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi boldly said that without the art of war he would never have conquered the other states.
Even Chairman Mao some 2,500 years later said he learned from the art of war in order to unify China under the Communists in 1949.
There are so many other examples I can throw at you, such as the Vietnamese when they were fighting the French, at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese general said he won because he used tactics described in the art of war.
But what’s remarkable is that the book itself has created such a huge legacy not just inside the military, but outside the military as well. The Art of War, as much as it talks about warfare, can be applied to pretty much everything else.
Life in general, is always at war, think about it... Whether it’s on a microbial level, or something as simple as plants competing for sun light, a cheetah chasing a gazelle all the way up to the World Wars, or it could even be something as simple as you having a battle with your inner-self, humans, animals etc are all at a constant state of war. Therefore, this book can be applied to all aspects of life.
The book talks about the environmental factors of war right, so think, if you are a business-man and you have a big meeting, you really need to secure this deal. Now the other business-person could be over-confident and offer you to choose a place to meet... That’s great for you as you choose the terrain where you will have a battle. Or I should say... Discuss the agreement... But think about it, that’s a battle in itself! It’s one side trying to get the upper hand over the other. If you pick an environment that is really comfortable for you, but not your enemy – YOU WILL WIN.
The first thing that popped into my head when saying this was that scene from the Wolf of Wall street where Jordan Belford brings in Steve Madden to his office, and just before Steve Madden enters he has all of his employees riled up shouting abuse as soon as they come in. In other words, he made sure that Steve Madden was uncomfortable as possible whilst he was well in his comfort zone – therefore he gets the deal he wants and WINS! The art of war talks about things just like this.
Many CEO’s in big companies have all read this book, even football managers such as Philipe Scolari Scolari even said it helped him win the 2002 world cup with Brazil! The book can be applied to so many different things in life, so I urge you to read it if you ever get the chance.
So that’s that, a little bit about the Art of War written by Sun Tzu, I bet he never thought that people would still read his book even 2 and a half thousand years after it was written. Yet here we are!
You can get an audio-version of the book on Spotify, or if you want to buy the physical book yourself, you can get it on Amazon for around £7.
If you have read the book, feel free to let me know what you thought of it!
I also have to mention this again, a special will be coming up on Friday the 12th of February which discusses the Chinese New Year and 2 of the stories that surround it, so tune in for it on Friday!
New Year Special!!!
No notes for this one unfortunately, but you can listen to the podcast directly here:
Episode 15 - The Warring States Period
You will be glad to know, that we are FINALLY out of that sludgy mess that is the Spring and Autumn Period and we have moved on to the The Warring States Period. The 2 Chinese names for these periods are Chun Qiu and Zhang Guo. Now the Warring States period, like the Spring and Autumn Period, was a complete mess, but interestingly, in different ways.
Now before I go on, I think I better refresh people’s memories of the time frames we are talking about here.
The Spring and Autumn period is around the dates 771BC to 476 BC, whereas the Warring States period is around 476 BC to 221 BC.
Now the thing is, this time from when it starts, usually depends on who you ask – the time frame is disputed, however, I am only gonna glaze over this, the time frames as much as they are important, I feel in this case it isn’t the biggest deal, what is the biggest deal is WHY the transition?
Why was THIS the moment where we transition from the Spring and Autumn to the Warring States, why was this placed as the line in the sand?
It came around because as the Spring and Autumn period came to a close the process of fragmentation of the former Zhou states began to reverse itself and the smaller states were gobbled up by the larger ones. Then finally, by 476 BC, these states, which were much larger than the Zhou, simply declared themselves to have the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and the first state I believe to do this, was the state of Chu... The duke at the time basically said, ‘I don’t wanna be a duke anymore I wanna be a king!’ And in Chinese the name for king is Wang, so basically he said I wanna be a big Wang! Now the state of Chu were at the Southern periphery of all of these states, and were considered to be barbarians pretty much, so you know what the other northern states had to do right?
Yep, basically, they asked themselves, ‘If the state of Chu can become a big Wang, then I wanna be a big Wang!’
‘I’m the big Wang’
‘Noooooo, I’m the big Wang’
‘I don’t think so I AM THE BIG WANG’
Ok, you get the idea, anyway, that is how it started... Some others say that it started with the partition of Jin, a pretty powerful state in the North, and basically what happened there was that there was a big ol’ civil war within the state of Jin which then fragmented into the states of Wei, Han and Zhao, who would all last up until the end of the Warring States period in 221 BC.
Now if you just Google a map of the Warring States period you are gonna see a bunch of similar but different images, and that’s because all of the different states had great campaigns then lost the territory and it kinda swung back and forth like a giant pendulum.
For example, in 379 BC King Wei in the state of Qi, remember that one? In modern Shangdong province? launched a few campaigns to the north and the west and he was very successful and Qi was one the most powerful states under his reign.
Now then, what I want to try and focus on mostly in today’s episode is:
- How the scale of the battles changed
- How technologies evolved as well as battle tactics
And finally, I think it would be good to portray a few battles that I read about on the episode too.
So, during the Spring and Autumn Period, there were A LOT of battles, which we already kinda knew, but these battles were probably in numbers of the 10’s of thousands, you know, still fairly large but not as large as nowadays wars and that was due to the population sizes at the time.
However, one thing changed all of this – iron. Iron had made it’s way over to China during this time and the metal found it’s way onto farming tools as well as weapons. But for now, lets focus on the farming tools – the tools were rather primitive and crop yields wouldn’t be big, it would always be just enough to sustain the populations of each state at the time. However, iron allowed for agricultural surpluses now, and if there is more food, usually what tends to happen is that there is more people. It is estimated that China’s population increased from 12 million up to 40 million during this time. And it was just was well for those rulers who needed more men to fight in their armies, so pretty much overnight, in historical terms, the sizes of these armies went from 10’s of thousands up to 100’s of thousands quite literally! Even during Sun Tzu’s time, in the ‘Art of War’ he mentions armies of 100,000 as if it’s nothing. He could even calculate the costs of such armies which is crazy!
Now speaking of the ‘Art of War’ , Sun Tzu came from the state of Wu, which was at the Mouth of the Yangtze river, and the State of Wu, like their neighbours to the West, Chu, were considered barbarians by those northerners. However, they would have been pretty sorry after turning their nose up at them, as by 506 Wu were marching and conquering everywhere!
And their bggest target was the state of Chu to the West as they were probably the biggest state at the time, so probably Wu were trying to balance out the power structure.
Now I read a funny story over how the war broke out. Normally, a war could break out over stealing a princess, or a king was assassinated, a new king has a claim to another kings throne, all of these things lead to war right? Ever heard of Mulberry trees leading to a war? Well now you have, Wu went to war with Chu over friggin’ Mulberry trees! The Wu army invaded, won 5 battles, then sacked the Chu capital Ying.
As much as this was a great victory and was unprecedented, it was the high point of the Wu state, and what comes up must eventually come down. And the state of Wu came crashing down shortly after.
Now this is just in the South, wars like this were happening all over the place at the time. But I will focus on the South brifly for these interesting points, just to emphasise how brutal these wars became:
When the state of Wu went on their wee rampage which ultimately lead to it’s own destruction, they used convicts in battle as suicide units. The most notable was in the battle of Ke Fu in 518. 300 convicts were lined up in the front and launched an attack against the Chu army so the Wu army’s main force had time to set up camp.
So the state of Chu, after the sacking of their capital, managed to rebuild and launched an invasion of Wu, now in order to rebuild the army, Chu actually allowed prisoners to join the army... Actually, that’s being too kind, let me rephrase that... The State of Chu forced prisoners to join the army. And they acted pretty much as cannon fodder or suicide units whilst the real, professional army could mop up after the chaos the numbers of prisoners caused.
Now if you think that’s bad, the Yue tribe (Which were even further south than both Wu and Chu) went and one upped both of them. At the battle of Sui Le in 496 BC, the Yue army were struggling to break through the Wu lines, until one of the generals had a bright idea. He lined up 3 detachments of convicts to march in the middle of the 2 armies, and threatened:
“commit suicide now, or we will kill your entire families”
Those unfortunate prisoners, all followed the order...
What that did do however, was allow the Yue army to march around the Wu lines and attack from the flanks as the Wu army watched dumbfounded at this gruesome sight.
According to CJ Peers;
“Southern Warfare was waged with a savagery unknown to the northerners, casualties were far higher, and the total collapse of Wu and Yue can probably be attributed to the excessive strain on the man-power.”
He does go on to mention an account that bodies of Wu warriors covered the Chu border “like weeds”... So yeah... pretty gruesome stuff.
Now these things did happen in the north, and what I mean by that is that prisoners were used in the armies, but not as suicide units! But more like a labour core – if a river was in the way of the army, it would be the prisoners who built the bridge for the army to cross over it.
Like I mentioned before, if you Google a map of the Warring States period then you will find different states... However, by 260 BC, the states and their sizes stayed roughly the same. Now, there were only 7 left, contending to rule all under Heaven.
You had, in no particular order:
All fighting, back-stabbing and trying to outperform each other economically. This was when all of the states, through one way or another, really tried to gear the entire resources of the state for war, and I’m talking from the kings right the way down the farmers. All citizens of the state had to ‘play their part’ so-to-speak. Historian L. Feng goes on to say:
“During the Warring States period, warfare was the most important aspect of social life, the principle of the state, and the compass that directed government policies. It is no exaggeration that by the late Warring States period (3rd century BCE), war had escalated to the level that the entire state was organised for the very purpose of war, and this was true for all states”
So there you go, I didn’t get the idea from thin air.
And this is where the technology side of things comes into it. So I already mentioned one which is iron, a stronger and more resourceful metal than bronze so it was a win-win.
Now, what weapons could be created with iron and not bronze? Good question, but it’s not about the weapons themselves, it’s more the scale at which they could be produced.
However, I am going to give an honorary mention to chariots, chariots may have had their hay-day during the Western Zhou period, but the Warring States period would see their decline into non-essential war machines. Now from what I read, there can be 3 reasons for this:
The first, is that chariots needed a large open plain where the running was good in order for them to effective units. But during this time, the ideas to fight a pitched battle were completely out the window thanks to ‘The Art of War’. If you are a southern army mostly composed of infantry why would you go onto an open plain when the enemy has plenty of chariots? That’s an insane idea! So the rules of war began to change is what I am trying to say.
The second reason was that chariots were beginning to be replaced by regular, good old cavalry. People realised that if you simply put a person on a horses back rather than make it drag a carriage, the horse could run faster! Who would have thought? Ok, that may have been an exaggeration, but you get the point, cavalry replaced chariots towards the end of this period.
And the final reason, it can be argued, was the development of the crossbow in China by a man named Qin Shi in the state of Chu at around . At first these weapons were used primarily to defend settlements due to their slow reload rate. However, as time progressed they were used actively in military conquests. So what did the crossbow have to do with the decline in use of chariots? Well, the reason was that the crossbow could shoot further than a bow and arrow, at a range of around 600 paces... But more importantly, it was the crossbows deadly piercing damage which made it so much more effective. Now if you have a chariot in the thick of battle, all one would need to do is shoot a crossbow at the slow-moving carriage and the arrow could pierce the carriage and kill the ones occupying it. Big target, and it was slow... Yeah... A decent crossbow marksman couldn’t miss it!
It could be assumed then, that the crossbow played a huge role in military developments of the time, and even in later times such as the Han dynasty, who made lethal use of the crossbow, but we are getting ahead of ourselves here.
Now other weapons that were developed during this time were swords, and I’m not talking about swords of bronze or anything, I’m talking about your everday sword you see on the movies. Now these swords were pretty short, but that’s because it favoured close-up and more than likely over-crowded combat, so yeah, that makes sense. It was nothing like the Scottish broad swords that you picture Highlanders using when they fought their neighbours to the South, that being said though, it doesn’t mean they were less effective. With the swords came the overwhelming numbers of infantry that were used in these armies, the infantry were the bread and the butter of the army and everyone knew it, so the focus moved away from small numbers expensive, useless charioteers to huge numbers of cheap, reliable infantry units.
That being said, swords weren’t the only thing in use, you also had spear infantry which had evolved from the dagger axes. Now, there were more reliable halberd units as opposed to dagger axes, and as well as that, the spear lengths were usually shortened, again to compensate for overcrowded battlefields!
So that’s that, that’s troop numbers and the technology that they used.
Now, I have already mentioned battles as examples, but I wanna go a bit further than that and really simulate a battle.
The battle I am going to focus on for today’s podcast is the battle of Maling, or in Chinese, Ma Ling Zhi Zhang.
I have picked this battle as it had a very unusual strategy which proved extremely effective, and for further reference, to build more of an ambience so to speak, I am gonna say Wei guo, Han guo and Qi guo rather than ‘The state of Wei’ etc. guo in Chinese means country or state, so I think it’s better to use it here. But without further ado, lets get into the battle:
It’s the year 341 BC, and Wei guo have set their sights on their neighbours to the West; Han guo. Now the thing is, the Wei army had a bit of a problem... Firstly, the Han were allied with Qi guo, and if the campaign dragged out for too long, no doubt Qi guo would send aid, regardless, the commanders, Pang Juan and the Crown prince Shen led their mighty army of 100,000 men to attack Han Guo, and attack they did.
The Wei army had swept through Han territory like a hot knife through butter, and it seemed nobody could stop them, but at the city of Daliang they finally managed to hold their ground. Han messengers rushed out of the city just before they were encircled and begged Qi for help.
The leaders of Qi were more than happy to help, and sent out generals Tian Ji and Sun Bin with 100,000 men to help their allies. A great battle was about to commence.
Now Sun Bin knew that general Pan Juan of the Wei army thought of Qi soldiers as weak and insignificant, so he wanted to take advantage of that. When the Qi army arrived they attacked the Wei army which was besieging Daliang but then quickly ran away, which fed into the idea that the Qi army was weak in Pan Juan’s mind.
“Hmph, the Qi army really are weak, we will conquer Han Guo in no time!” An excited Pan Juan told the crown prince Shen.
Within the Qi camp, after the ‘failed attack’, Sun Bin put his strategy into motion, he told his counter-part Tian Ji to light 100,000 stove fires tonight, but tomorrow only light 50,000 then the next day 20,000. The Wei army will be tricked into thinking our army is deserting us.
The orders were carried out, and across in the Wei camp, Pan Juan seen fewer and fewer camp fires,
“The Qi army is disintegrating” he thought to himself, and after seeing only enough stove fires for around 20,000 men, he thought now was the time to attack and annihilate the Qi army.
When the morning came around, Pan Juan quickly ordered his 20,000 elite cavalry to form the vanguard, whilst Prince Shen would make the centre of the army with 80,000 infantry. Pan Juan marched full haste towards the Qi army, or what he thought was left of it. The Qi army ran along the road as quickly as they could, abandoning their artillery units in order to get away from their pursuers. The chase had went on all day and eventually the Wei army approached a pass at Maling as dusk began to set in.
The general ordered his men to stop as he noticed a tree that had it’s bark ripped off with writing on it.
Pang Juan ordered some men to hold fires at the tree so he could read it, the writing on the tree said:
Pang Juan si yu ci shu zhi xia (庞涓死于此树之下)
Pang Juan will die under this tree
Just as the general finished reading the words, an arrow zipped through the air and struck him dead.
The Wei warriors were completely stunned, where did the arrow come from? But by then it was too late, in the hills surrounding the pass the Qi army were lying in wait, arrows soared through the air and bared down on the completely helpless troops. Men at the front line were desperate to flee the oncoming attack and tried to run over their comrades behind them, but it didn’t matter, as the Qi had laid caltrops behind them as they entered the pass. Horses got caught in them, men got caught in them, it soon got so bad that Wei soldiers began to run over their dead comrades in order to try and get away. But, the Qi had already sealed off the pass, making it an arena of death, the Qi army cut down every Wei soldier they could find, butchering their way through until the last man perished. By the time dawn broke, an army of 100,000 men had been completely annihilated whilst their enemy came away with less than 5,000 casualties. Later that day, Sun Bin found Pang Juan’s body and buried him under the tree where he wrote that deadly message.
From here, Wei guo was in no position to ever try and dominate all under heaven, and soon both Qi and Qin Guo, further to the West, took advantage of the weakened Wei state and gobbled up most of their territory.
So there you have it, here is one battle simulation I thought I’d cover for you, It’s crazy how a strategy like that, which was later called the strategy of missing stoves, could be so effective right?
But in case any of you guys missed the point here, what Sun Bin did essentially was lure his enemy into a false sense of security, and then enticed them into an ambush site. Clever play Sun Bin, clever play.
But like I said this was just one of many battles, in the famous book describing this area, Zhang Guo, more than 600 battles are recorded in this time period each with colossal armies!
Now I did mention the state of Qin right at the end there, and I tried to keep them out of the picture as much as possible as next week’s podcast is gonna be all about the rise of the state of Qin which would result in China’s first unification.
And that is a wrap for this weeks episode, I hope you have enjoyed the content, and if you did, please be sure to leave a review somewhere for me, whether it’s on Apple Podcasts or Facebook.
Until next time, thanks for listening!
Episode 16 - The Rise of Qin
Hello there and welcome to the Chronicler podcast once again. But before I get started with today’s episode. I just wanna say I started this Chronicler podcast in part ... because China's history goes relatively unnoticed or even completely forgotten around the world. If you're interested in learning more forgotten history, my friend Michael Buster hosts a podcast called Forgotten Wars... a show that focuses on wars that have impacted millions but have been forgotten by billions. The first season focuses on the Boer Wars ... and on the ripple effects that European settlement had in South Africa. Next week, instead of hearing my voice, you will get to hear a pilot episode from the Forgotten Wars podcast. Even now, you can search for the Forgotten Wars podcast almost anywhere you listen to podcasts.
But now, on with today’s episode, which is the rise of Qin.
The state of Qin were on the western periphery of the Warring States at the time and their rise to prominence was down to multiple factors, and I guess a little luck. But the main focus I want to go into today are:
- Qin’s geographical position.
- Seeking talent
- The reforms of minister Shang Yang
- The little bit of luck I mentioned, which was the incompetence of other states of the time.
So I thought I better start with the state of Qin’s geographical position. Like I mentioned earlier, Qin was in the Western zone of the Warring states territory and could easily defend itself from invasions from most sides. Why could it defend itself so well you may ask? Well, if you look at a physical map of China then figure out where Qin were, you would be able to see why. To the South you had mountains, to the West it was mostly desert, the north was mostly plains which were occupied by the Xiong Nu people, a semi-Nomadic confederation (which we will get to later, as they play a role in the rise of Qin as well.) And finally to the East there was only one narrow pass that could give you access to the state. The narrow pass had mountains to the east and the yellow river to your north, so basically, it is a perfect place to ambush an army that might come by and try to attack you. The centre of Qin power was also the city of Xiang’Yang which would later be called Chang’an, and then it’s modern day name is Xi’an. If you ever visit China, I HIGHLY recommend seeing Xi’an, the city is beautiful, the food is awesome and not to mention, the terracotta warriors are there too… But back to the historical stuff. The strategic location of Xiang’Yiang is important because of this pass, there is a reason why future dynasties such as the Qin, the Han and Tang all established their capitals there – that is a solid layer of protection from mother nature before any army could come across the city walls! Now that’s the military side of the location, but what about the land they held? It’s fine and well to hold on to land that’s easily defendable, but if it’s a wasteland? Then what’s the point? But it was actually the contrary, the land in the interior of the state of Qin was rather fertile, agricultural yields were high, there was plenty of iron in the region which allowed it to produce more weapons more quickly than the other states, and therefore giving Qin armies an edge over their enemies. Now speaking of armies, I mentioned the Xiong Nu to the north, the semi -nomad like peoples. Remember at the end of the Western Zhou dynasty podcast episode? There was that unbelievably stupid emperor who kept lighting the fire beacons even though there was no army? Yeah... Well it was an attack from the Xiong Nu that got ignored! As the Zhou royal family were fleeing they left Ying family to protect them as they fled East, as a result, it was the Ying family who became dukes there, further down the line there would be Ying Zheng, who would later be called Qin Shi Huang. But back to the military stuff, the Qin were supposed to defend the realm from these barbarians as they were referred to, and by being in close proximity to the Xiong-Nu, the Eastern states regarded Qin as semi-barbarians themselves, I mean talk about snobby... But I mean it wasn’t as if the Xiong-Nu had that one attack, sacked Chang’an then left to never return! The Qin had to defend their borders from attacks a lot! This did 2 things:
- It gave the Qin army more experience than their enemies, as they had to fight wars on 2 fronts pretty much.
- They had to build a wall! Which would later be connected to other states’ walls and then you would ‘The Great Wall’
But I will leave it there for location, but just remember if you need to defend a state and need to fight a battle: location, location location. It’s important!
The second point I mentioned was seeking talent, and I must admit this kinda blends in nicely with my third point, which is Shang Yang, so what I will do is go over some other famous people or capable ministers who joined the Qin court then move on. Qin didn’t only search within their own borders for talented ministers, but far and wide across the realm to find capable ministers. People literally flocked from other states into the protective boundaries of Qin to serve the dukes, which would later be kinds, who would later be emperors. Talented men such as Han Fei Zi, Shang Yang and Li Si didn’t actually come from the state of Qin, but elsewhere! Han Fei Zi from Han, Li Si from Chu and last but not least, Shang Yang from Wei. Now you’d be thinking that this isn’t exactly a radical idea right? But actually, back then it was. This was the golden age of feudalism in China and that meant positions in government were inherited. I mean, getting a job because your good at it? Who’s this crazy guy? That crazy guy would be Shang Yang by the way... But, this idea allowed Qin to create a strong, stable central government which enforced it’s laws as harsh as they were. Which brings me on to the laws, the laws that Shang Yang enforced.
So my second point was Shang Yang and his reforms. Now I have already mentioned Shang Yang in the episode in regards to legalism. But I did tend to skim over pretty much his life but didn’t get too much into his reforms and the effects of said reforms. So I will do it here.
Shang Yang basically abolished the feudalistic ideas that were present not only in Qin, but every other state of the time, and what is really surprising is that his, I guess you could call patron, duke Xiao, allowed him to do this. Duke Xiao was so impressed with Shang Yang that he allowed him to steamroll over his entire court. Although, I could see why, the more people that were removed who inherited their position rather than earned, the more power the duke had to himself. So basically you could say that Shang Yang really centralised the power of the state. But how did he do this? Well, it was actually quite clever I must admit, I would never have thought of it, but this guy did. That’s probably why hes been remember through the ages and I will likely not be. So what he did was make EVERYONE subject to the law, if you were caught breaking the law, regarding your position, you would be punished in consideration with the law that you just broke. So theft for example would be your hands, nose and tongue chopped off. Shang Yang did create a police state where there was an extremely harsh system of rewards and punishment which EVERYONE was subject to, including the duke’s own son. And boy did the dukes own son get it. Unfortunately, pissing off the future duke of the kingdom wasn’t the smartest of ideas, which we will soon see, but suffice to say, Shang Yang convinced Duke Xiao to punish his own son for a trivial crime. Now that’s the punishment side of things, what about the rewards? Well, the rewards were actually pretty great. The reforms for reward were the agrarian ones, which Shang Yang managed to put through. And, I will let Mark Edward Lewis explain it in his great read, ‘The Early Chinese Empires’:
“Qin’s ultimate military and political success was due to the agrarian reforms instituted by Shang Yang... From 350 BC onward the Qin government legally recognised ownership of land by peasant households, along with the right to buy and sell it. At the same time, families from overpopulated states to the east were encouraged to resettle in the sparsely populated Qin. In exchange for their recognition of land ownership, peasants were obliged to pay taxes and provide service, especially military service, to the state. Qin’s heartland in the Wei river valley was gridded by pathways and irrigation ditches into uniform plots that could be given away as rewards or inducements for loyalty to the central government. This transformation of the structure of Qin agricultural lands and the relation of it’s people to that structure underlay the states’ rise to power”
So, to sum up what Mark was saying here – it basically meant that through allowing peasants to own and sell land, it guaranteed power for the central state. Qin dukes could literally raise armies themselves and wouldn’t need to go through any of the nobility to raise those armies. That was a big deal. It ensured loyalty to the central regime, and it ensured that if the time came, Qin could call on armies quickly. And not to mention the extra plots of land, which could be used for rewards upon completing great military deeds. Or in other words, killing as many enemy soldiers as possible. All of a sudden, the army seemed like a decent place to go for a career and fame, as there were no obstacles to being promoted based on the number of enemy heads you brought back to camp. In other words, feudalism was completely wiped out in Qin, and played a huge role in their success in conquering the other of the warring states. Now I mentioned how Shang Yang annoyed Duke Xiao’s son… Well, he got his comeuppings pretty much as soon as the old man died and his son took over. He immediately set out for his arrest and then executed him by ripping him apart with 4 chariots. Nasty business... But the funny thing is, did the son, who would later be called king Hui Wen remove the reforms? No! And why should he? He did hold complete authority within the state afterall! Thanks to Shang Yang... I would like to think of those lines in the movies you see:
“ Sorry, it’s only business, nothing personal”
Whereas king Huiwen would have said the opposite:
“Sorry Shang Yang, it’s only personal, not business!”
So that’ Shang Yang’s reforms been touched on in a little more depth, and now its time to move on to my 4th and finally point. The incompetence of the other states. Now, the other states were too busy squabbling for short term gains and were constantly fighting each other whilst ignoring the Qin juggernaut that was assembling right on their doorsteps. Even when Qin invaded the kingdoms of Shu and Ba in modern Sichuan province, which will be covered in the next episode by the way, the other states should have been ringing alarm bells, but what did they think? Some barbarians have invaded other barbarians, big deal… Fatal error considering the Sichuan basin was able to easily supply massive armies. Further to this, the state of Chu, which were roughly the same size as Qin, squandered opportunities to work with other states in order to deal with the Qin threat, they could have been leaders in said alliance. Qin also made great use of their spies and managed to get potentially fatal ministers in rival states either on their side or killed by the kings of those states.
And that was that, the seeds were sewn for an ultimate Qin victory, which would come in 221 BC. So next time, I will discuss the conquest itself and then what the Qin dynasty was like to live in and what Qin Shi Huang did whilst he was emperor.
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you haven’t already, be sure to leave a review on Apple Podcasts and share it with friends who you think will enjoy the episode!
Thanks for listening.
Forgotten wars Promotion
This isn't me this time, it's my friend Michael Buster!
Michael Buster has been doing a podcast about, you guessed it... Forgotten wars! In particular his focus on the Boer Wars.
Be sure to check out his podcast here.
Episode 18 - The Qin Dynasty part 1
Notes to discuss:
Birth of Ying Zheng, who would later be known as Qin Shi Huang
Weird story behind his birth
Conquests of Qin – famous battle
What happened after he proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang? Legalist doctrine, highly centralised state, interconnected the walls built by warring states – great wall and created a Chinese cultural identity.
Episode 17 – the Qin Dynasty
This episode is going to start not with Ying Zheng, but a man named Lu Buwei. Lu Buwei was not a king, or a noble, but a merchant, and he wasn’t even from the state of Qin, but the state of Wei. He was, by all accounts, an extremely skilled merchant as well and became incredibly rich, probably just as rich as kings or nobles at the time. Now, what happened was that Lu Buwei was travelling towards the state of Zhao doing what he did, and this is where he came across a prince, and not the prince of Zhao, but the prince of Qin! His name is Zichu, and he wasn’t there on a holiday, but was actually there as a political hostage. Zhao thought that this would garauntee their safety from their aggressors to the West, and it just so happened, that even though Zichu was a prince, he was the grandson of the current king and he had 20 brothers, so he wasn’t seen as the most valuable of hostages. However, Lu Buwei sought to change that. Lu Buwei was a skilled merchant, and seen an opportunity in the young prince. Lu Buwei immediately set about befriending the prince and making sure that he was loyal to him, and eventually the 2 came to an agreement. The agreement was:
Lu Buwei would ensure prince Zichu gets the Qin throne, and Zichu would give him the position of Prime Minister which was second in line, if he could deliver on his promise. Not a bad deal right?
After striking the deal, Lu Buwei set off to the state of Qin with his followers and started making bribes, oh I mean connections, and he finally wormed his way to Zichu’s stepmother, the wife of the current crown prince. There he used his silver tongue (almost literally) to form a coalition with her and to make Zichu the crown prince. She didn’t have a son of her own, so she agreed, no questions asked.
The thing is, Lu Buwei had to wait for 2 generations to pass before his investment bore any fruit... However, being the shrewd businessman he was, he knew long term investments were the best kind, and patience was the key. Unfortunately, he had to do everything to keep the young prince happy in order to gain anything from his investment, even if it meant giving his favourite girlfriend/wife/concubine to the young prince. Which is actually what happened... One night Lu Buwei had Zichu over for drinks and one of the dancers, Zhao Ji, immediately caught Zichu’s eye, and he asked for her hand in marriage... and it just so happened to be Lu Buwei’s girl... Not wanting to lose his investment, Lu Buwei put on his green hat and allowed the marriage to happen. You notice that I said green hat there? You didn’t mishear me, I said it correctly!! If you wear a green hat in China it means your partner/wife has had an affair. And that is why, if you search for hats on Taobao which is Chinese Amazon basically, you will never see green ones for sale! But anyway, back to the story. It’s at this juncture where things get kinda weird... So either she was already pregnant when Zichu asked for her hand in marriage and Lu Buwei pretended that he knew nothing about it, ORRRRRR prince Zichu had super sperm and got her pregnant really quickly. Regardless of who got her pregnant, 9 months later she gave birth to Ying Zheng, who would later be called Qin Shi Huang. I think now wild be a good time to mention that even though the king married Lu Buwei’s girl, he still had an affair with her the entire time they were married...
And the times seemed to go the conspirators’ way, as the current ruler of Qin died, leaving the crown prince spot open for Zichu, and then the new king died only after 1 year, which meant Zichu became the king of Qin in the year 250BC he became king. The times were going great for Lu Buwei, as he got what had bargained for and was now the chancellor! He’s even more rich now!
Even more conveniently for Lu Buwei, the reign of the new king didn’t last very long either and he died in 247 BC, which meant, he would have to ‘look after’ the crown prince Ying Zheng until he was ready to rule for himself, and humbly took on the role as prime minister.
Now you must be thinking Lu Buwei definitely had divine interventions and you could say that was possibly true, how can one guy be so lucky?? But... The good times would come to an end for him after he accomplished everything. His affair with Zhao Ji was now becoming a liability, as rumours were being swept across the realm that Ying Zheng was actually a bastard child, and who knows? Maybe he was? And speaking of Ying Zheng, as time went by, he reached adulthood and looked to strengthen his own power within his state.
Things got worse for Lu Buwei, as he invited someone who he thought could be trusted to handle his affair. And by handle, I mean he basically gave Zhao Ji a young boytoy... The guys name was Lao Ai, and after a while he fancied himself to be king, so he planned a qu, which was discovered, and Ying Zheng dealt with it in a brutal and efficient manner. Killing Lao Ai by ripping him in 2 with chariots... Lu Buwei, by association, should have been put to death according to Qin law, however, due to his influence within the Qin court he managed to get away with being exiled. He was sent away from the capital, and it was here that Ying Zheng would try and make life a misery, no court members were allowed to visit him or anything and he chipped away at Lu Buwei’s psyche. Eventually, he committed suicide. And what about his partner the empress dowager? She died the same year, with ‘unkown causes’ – take what you want from that...
With what was probably his biggest political rival out the way, Ying Zheng managed to consolidate and centralise his power even further than any other Qin king had done before.
It was from here that Ying Zheng harboured talented men such as the legalists Han Fei Zi, and Li Si to operate his war machine.
It was now time, for Ying Zheng to go to war, and not just war with one state... But with ALL OF THEM. One by one all of them will fall like dominoes and the first target on his list, was the state of Han.
In 230 BC, Qin launched their invasion of Han and within a year, Han fell. Han were the first domino...
After conquering Han, Qin Shi Huang capitalised on an earthquake and ordered his generals Wang Jiang, Zhang Hui and Yan Duan He to launch a pincer attack against the state of Zhao. However, an old adversary of theirs was defending Zhao, the general Li Mu, who just happened to be probably the most amazing defensive strategist. Now his strategy this time was rather simple, simply avoid a major confrontation with the Qin army, after a while the army would pack up leave and the day would be saved! However, it didn’t happen as planned... Unfortunately for Li Mu, doing something like this seems rather cowardly, and as a result he was slandered in the Zhao court. What didn’t help was that well placed Qin spies sent bribes to people within the court, who then whispered in the Zhao kings ear, and Li Mu was thrown in jail. Later Li Mu was executed... With the biggest threat out of the way, Wang Jian threw his army at the Zhao capital and by 228 BC, Zhao had fallen. 2 down, 4 to go. After Zhao’s fall, Ying Zheng did go to the Zhao capital, Han Dan, after the state fell, but he didn’t go there to have a party or a victory parade... He went there to settle old scores, and what I mean is that he went and avenged everyone who had wronged him or his mother during their time there. A lot of heads rolled as Ying Zheng sent to work in the capital.
Now that Zhao were out of the way, the next state to fall was the state of Yan. Now, Yan was a bit trickier as the leader of the state actually grew up with Ying Zheng when we was a political hostage. The 2 were old friends, up until Taizi Dan so what Ying Zheng had become when he became the king of Qin. He swore to never allow Ying Zheng to conquer the realm, or die trying to stop him... And we know how this stories gonna go. But for now, there was a time of relative quiet between all of the states – Chu, Wei and Qi wanted nothing to do with what Qin were up to in the north, Qin was just pining for an excuse try and eliminate Yan to the northeast, and Yan, lead by Taizi Dan was trying to find a way to get rid of Ying Zheng. He finally got figured out a plan that he thought might be successful. Playing on his old ties with Ying Zheng, he pretended to be surrendering to Qin and even sent a man named Jing Ke with a map of Yan, in order to ‘help’ him with his invasion. Little did anyone know that Jing Ke was actually an assassin who was hiding a blade inside his robes. As soon as he saw Ying Zheng examining the map he seen his opportunity and tried to kill the king, but his guards were ready and cut down the assassin.
‘So much for old pals!’ Ying Zheng must have thought... ‘BUT WAIT A MINUTE! NOW I CAN INVADE YAN! JOKES ON YOU DANNY BOY!’
This gave him the perfect excuse to invade Yan, and that’s exactly what he ordered his generals to do. Within a year the state of Yan fell and Taizi Dan was captured. 3 down, 3 to go.
The following year, the general Wang Ben directed re-directed the Yellow River to flood the capital of Wei. The water came pouring into the city, the walls collapsed, and with that the king surrendered. 4 down, 2 to go.
The last major obstacle really was the state of Chu, who at least in size of the state, rivalled Qin. Now if Chu had actually tried to help the other, smaller states against Qin when they were launching invasions, China may look entirely different today. However, that didn’t happen, and instead the Chu king was about as useless as a eunuch marrying a princess. Good luck getting newborn heirs from that happy marriage. So now we have established that the Chu king was an idiot, on with the story.
Ying Zheng was planning his invasion and asked his generals ‘how many men will we need to conquer Chu?’ A young general shouted 200,000 !!! Whereas, the old, trusted general Wang Jiang whispered 600,000. Now remember 600,000 was a huge army to call on in this day and age, and even the most prepared state for war, the state of Qin, would struggle with such an army. The army would need supplies, grain and not to mention decent infrastructure to travel through the territory. So quite stingily, or maybe wisely? Ying Zheng went with the young general. But the invasion was a disaster and failed miserably. Ying Zheng then asked Wang Jiang to lead the invasion, the general agreed if only he could get 600,000 men, to which the king agreed. Now Wang Jiang’s invasion was a huge success, and he managed to capture the Chu capital within a year. So now that’s 5 down, 1 to go.
Being completely isolated and surrounded, the king of Qi must have been bitterly regretting not teaming up with someone earlier on, but now it was too late. They decided to put up a last stand, and committed all of their forces to their western border, where they expected the Qin army to attack from. However, the army didn’t come from this direction, instead it came from the North where they had been doing some mop up work with remnants of the state of Yan. A totally unexpected direction of attack left the capital of Qi completely vulnerable. Knowing their number was up, the king surrendered...
All the states had all been defeated and conquered in less than a decade, and by 221 BC, Ying Zheng changed his name declared himself Qin Shi Huangdi – or in English – ‘the first emperor’.
Qin Shi Huang, after unification, believed he would build a dynasty that will last forever, and immediately set to work to give all of the different states 1 country, 1 identity, 1 philosophy. And that, my friends, is where I will leave it. In next weeks episode, I will discuss what Qin Shi Huang does as emperor, because he doesn’t just sit in a lavish palace and enjoy all of lifes’ lovely pleasures. I mean, he does that too, but he actually wants to build a legacy, by any means possible.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode, and I’ll see you next time on the Chronicler Podcast channel. Thanks for listening!
Episode 19 - The Qin Dynasty part 2
So hello once again, this is Dean Strachan reporting in from Beijing, where spring has definitely sprung. The temperature has shot up from around 5 degrees Celsius to around 25... And that temperature will keep climbing up to about 35-40 degrees over the summer. Now I’m from Scotland... So as you could imagine, this is pretty much worse than torture for me. And speaking of that, I was unable to put up a post for the past couple of weeks, and I am very sorry about that, but there are 2 reasons why. The first is that I had a whole tonne of work to do all at once so I needed a week for a breather. Then the 2nd reason is that mid-way through being what felt like worked to death for a week, the sudden change in temperature really done me in and I got hit with a really bad cold. Trust me when I say I would have sounded like Gollum doing an episode last week. So yeah... There was that as well. Now I remember thinking it would be a great and easy life being a high school teacher when I was still in uni... How wrong I was. But regardless, we are here now, and things should run a little more smoothly from here on out. Sorry for the delay in episodes, and now, on with the show.
Last time, we looked into the conquests of Qin Shi Huang and how unified China under his rule, and this time, we will look into what Qin Shi Huang did when he became, well Qin Shi Huang.
Now if you go back to the time to a life as a member of the peasantry in Qin China, I’m sorry to say, but life would have been miserable for you. Now just picture this for a second:
One day, you are working on your patch of land like you always did, you want to ensure that you can get a good harvest to feed you and your family, not only that, you need to ensure that there is a little surplus so you can sell some of this at the local food market. Not to mention paying your taxes as well.
A few days have passed by and things are looking rather grim... Your crops aren’t producing enough food, and to make things worse an imperial inspection is due any day now! Anxiety builds up within your soul, as you know that failure to pay your taxes can either mean getting your nose cut off, getting your left leg cut off, execution, or being forced into the labour corps where you need to build the wall that will keep the Xiongnu away from the civilised world. Being worked to death then being buried underneath the wall? That’s even worse than a public execution...
The imperial inspectors have arrived, and before you can even begin to resist, you have been drafted in the labour corps to build the wall. You desperately try to see your family off one more time, but as soon as it looks like you might even delay the expedition, the inspector whips you, and throws you in line with the undesirables of society. Those people are the worst of the worst, thieves, rapists and murderers are in the line with you, and they are all tied to their baggage train, the guards bark at you to get chained up with them, and with that off you go, along the road in a painstaking journey. You barely get enough time to rest as the guards whip you for holding the line.
As you travel north you feel the weather change considerably as things begin to really cool down, and within 3 months of a long march, you are finally at the wall. Half of the original people who started the journey have already died, and were left by the side of the road. If only you were one of those people, right? Unfortunately for you, the real work is about to begin, as you need to hall bricks, ladders, and other heavy materials up the sides of hills/mountains or around rivers to ensure the wall can be built in the freezing cold of the winter. The rations that you are given are supposed to be porridge, but it’s mostly hot water with the odd piece of grain in it with maybe one herb leaf. As the months go by any meat that was on your bones has withered away, and you are literally a shell of your old self, if only you could either escape! Through death or through a real-life escape... Any friends you have made here have all perished to the harsh climate and treatment of the guards, and it feels like it’s only a matter of days before your time is up as well. And indeed, a few days later, you wake up with a terrible fever, the cold begins to swallow you and you die within hours. The guards then throw your body under the very bricks you were building to build the great wall.
That there, is one of the many legacies of Qin Shi Huang from when he became the 1st emperor of China in 221 BC. Qin Shi Huang may have ruled for only 14 years, but man when he did, he changed pretty much everything in China. Think of it, even the word Qin, it kinda sounds like China right? That’s where it comes from! You have Qin Shi Huang to thank for that. Now the thing is, Qin Shi Huang is a rather controversial figure, because on one hand he set up what could be called the Chinese culture that we know today, but on the other hand, he did this through absolutely brutal methods like the story I just read to you demonstrates.
But this is what is great about studying history and what makes it interesting, people like this guy. So anyway, he was now the first emperor, what happened next? Well, the first thing he needed to do was centralise his power: Only one supreme ruler, and that was it. Now in order to unite what was once divided, the emperor wanted to create a single identity, and that way, he believed he could rule the dynasty forever (yes, he believed in immortality, and yes, I will get to it later)
But back to this single identity – it basically meant 1 people, 1 philosophy, 1 emperor.
To make this reality, Qin Shi Huang went through a huge process of standardising everything in his empire.
The reasons as to why to standardise everything was twofold: The first, is that it eliminates the different cultures that developed during the Warring States period and therefore, eliminates future resistance in time.
The second one was more for logistical purposes. Now to grasp an understanding we need to head back to the Spring and Autumn/Warring States period. During this time, when China was going through this period of fragmentation, it wasn’t just political, it was also cultural as well. This meant that there were different ways of doing things. If you were to cross over from one state to the other and if you were lucky enough to have had a carriage you would need to change carriages at the border, as the width standards for the roads would be different. If you were crossing a border, you would need to use different currencies for money. You would need a different measuring system for goods you were bringing across, the people in the different regions would speak a different dialect, but so much so it would be like a different language from yours. The writing you would see would be completely different as well, it would look kinda similar, but different at the same time.
But now, with the rise of Qin Shi Huang, and the establishment of the Qin dynasty, the new emperor wanted to make sure his empire ran smoothly, so all of these different customs, rules, traditions, measuring systems and road systems all had to be standardised into Qin’s traditions and Qin’s traditions alone. This process of standardisation was fairly intense and was put into immediate effect, pretty much as soon as each state was conquered.
Now it wasn’t as if each state would go down quietly and just accept all of these changes and rules. So to ensure rebellions would be at a minimum was rather ingenius to be fair. So he confiscated all weapons used by soldiers in the previous warring states, melt them down and turn the metal into currency for his empire. This had 2 effects: The first was that there was more money for the imperial treasury and the second was that nobody had any weapons to rebel with! As well as that, he then passed a law which only permitted government officials to have weapons in the first place.
As well as this, the emperor actually spent a lot of time touring the country and ensuring the population was submitting to his rule. He would travel to every corner of his empire to ensure any rebellions could be dealt with quickly and efficiently. But that wasn’t the only reason why he travelled all across the realm, he also wanted to improve the road systems within his empire, and again this makes sense, it means goods can be transported quickly as well as the imperial armies. And of course there was that constant quest for immortality. But for the most part, Qin Shi Huang wanted to make sure his empire ran smoothly, which was a stark contrast from his son, who made a complete mess of it, but again, more on that next time.
So, I know I mentioned a story kinda demonstrating how life was for your average Jo, but I thought I better mention it again, just to emphasise how bad things were for Mr average Jo: A Chinese source which said the following (which I have very roughly translated by the way) and by me, I mean Google Translate...:
Don't even think about good clothes. All the people at the bottom of the Qin State were patched or they can't even wear clothes. They just used cloth to cover their private parts. There were no holidays at all. Endless work can be exchanged for the opportunity to turn over military service, and at the same time, a lot of taxes had to be paid. Many people are exhausted on the road towards extremely hard labour projects, such as the projects to build palaces for the emperor, building roads and of course, what would later be called the great wall of China. “
The original wall still does exist in some areas in China, however the wall that you see on the ‘visit China’ magazine covers, or on your Instagram and Facebook newsfeeds will be the wall constructed by the Ming dynasty over 1,000 years later. To further emphasise just how cruel Qin’s way of governing was for the ordinary people, I found this from ‘The Cambridge Illustrated history of China’, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey which says:
Ordinary people also suffered harsh treatment. Reporting crimes was rewarded, and the lawbreakers, once convicted, were punished severely by execution, hard labour, or mutilation (ranging from cutting off the whiskers to the nose or the left foot). Even perfectly law-abiding people were subject to onerous labour service, and both conscripted and penal labour were used for the building of palaces, roads, canals, imperial tombs, and fortifications [like walls and fortresses]. Several hundred thousand subjects were conscripted to build a huge new palace complex in 212 BC. Even more were drafted to construct the Great Wall.”
So I think those 2 sources really just drive home the point that Qin Shi Huang was a tyrant who instituted a police-state in ancient China.
Now despite the cruelty, Qin Shi Huang was starting to really put all of these disjointed pieces together, centralising power, standardising everything and even trying to eliminate any philosophical rivals. Which brings me on to my next point; being a die-hard legalist, other texts from the other 100 schools of thought such as Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism and all the rest, simply couldn’t be tolerated. And this is where I finally found a source from the Grand Historian himself, Sima Qian – who wrote about the history of China during the Western Han. He reported the following from Qin Shi Huang himself:
“[Historians] hold it a mark of fame to defy the ruler, regard it as lofty to take a dissenting stance, and they lead the lesser officials in fabricating slander. If behavior such as this is not prohibited, then in upper circles the authority of the ruler will be compromised, and in lower ones, cliques will form. Therefore it should be prohibited. I therefore request that all records of the historians other than those of the state of Qin be burned.
With the exception of the academicians whose duty it is to possess them, if there are persons anywhere in the empire who have in their possession copies of [Zhou texts], or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall in all cases deliver them to the governor or his commandant for burning. Anyone who ventures to discuss the Odes or Documents shall be executed in the marketplace. Anyone who uses antiquity to criticize the present shall be executed along with his family.”
So in case you didn’t get much from the rhetoric – it basically means all books other than legalist ones shall be brought in by the state which will then be burned. Now, this to be fair, is basically what happened. However, not everyone conformed to the new imperial edict, and when Qin Shi Huang found out about this, as you could imagine, he was livid! And he ordered that all homes of scholars be searched throughout the empire and if they did have any books that didn’t suit the emperor, they were to be arrested. All of these scholars, around 490 in total, were then buried alive in a giant pit. Talk about a brutal way to go. Now of course, there isn’t any physical evidence, as in no tomb of 490 scholars is around, and as well as that there doesn’t seem to be a record of it, apart from Sima Qian himself. This has led to some people believing that it is just purely slander on Sima Qian’s part... Being a Confucian and all, it makes a sense... However, I am inclined to believe Sima Qian on this one, if you are willing to subjugate an entire population to almost slavery and through labour which is pretty much a death sentence, then you would be willing to bury 490 people who didn’t necessarily agree with you, alive.
So like I said before, Qin Shi Huang was really beginning to mould China into one nation with only one political system, 1 emperor and 1 philosophy. The problem he had was with the ‘emperor’ part... He knew that his time would soon come to an end, like every mortal man. But the emperor believed that he shouldn’t meet this fate, and why should he? He had unified all under heaven, he had created this nation, why should he just die? And so obsessions with immortality creeped into his mind, and not to mention the very numerous assassination attempts on his life led him to think it was his mission to live forever. Now according to Sima Qian, his advisors often tried to find the ‘herbs of immortality’ which would increase his lifespan indefinitely, and on the road he would travel with and meet up with these ‘immortals’ – men who apparently were magic, and ask them to find him the elixir of life. If they returned with a potion the emperor would reward them handsomely, so you know that when the emperor’s carriage came by, just give him a disgusting tasting soup and you will be rewarded! In a fatal twist of irony, it was one of these elixers that would actually kill the emperor in 210 BC, and it is suspected Mercury poisoning is finally what did him in. Now as much as the emperor believed he would live forever, he was no dummy, and prepared an elaborate tomb for himself, y’know, just in case. That tomb which was only rumoured to have existed was discovered by 2 Chinese farmers 2,000 years later in Shaanxi province just outside the modern-day city of Xi’an. This is of course, The Terracotta Warriors. A massive project which is basically an army that protects the emperor in the afterlife. All of these clay warriors have a different appearance, as they were handcrafted by over 7,000 labour conscripts for the emperor. And it isn’t just warriors/infantry that is guarding the emperor’s tomb, but cavalry and chariots as well. It truly is a spectacular sight to behold, and if China is on your list of places to visit, be sure to stop by Xi’an – it truly is a historical marvel, not just for the terracotta warriors, but for seeing traditions in place by the Tang dynasty too! The tomb was actually incomplete when the emperor met his untimely death, so his son, who we will look into next week, was in charge of making sure it was completed. He did this, then buried all of the crafters alive with the emperor in his tomb in order to safeguard it’s location... It was also Qin Shi Huang’s son who placed booby-traps around the emperors tomb to ensure nobody could go robbing his grave later on (Which happened a lot in ancient China by the way) and even to this day, nobody has opened the 1st emperor’s tomb for fear of ruining either being killed or ruining the contents inside it.
And that’s that, so to sum up, Qin Shi Huang was a cruel tyrant of an emperor, but without Qin Shi Huang and his dynasty, there would be no China that we see today. Despite being the dynasty that would last for 10,000 generations like Qin Shi Huang put it, it barely even lasted one, collapsing straight after the emperor’s death. So next week, the episode will more than likely be a lot shorter, as we will take a look into what happens immediately after Qin Shi Huang’s death and his son foolishly hands all of his power over to a kniving eunuch called Zhao Gao, who single-handedly pretty much ruins the dynasty... However, more on that next week!
Now I hope you have enjoyed this episode, this is Dean Strachan, AKA The Chronicler, signing off in Beijing, I hope you all have a lovely day and take care, wherever you might be in the world! Thanks for listening!
Episode 20 - The Fall of the Qin Dynasty
In today’s episode, we will be looking at the fall of the Qin dynasty. Now pretty much, as you may have guessed, when Qin Shi Huang died, his dynasty pretty much died with him.
There were a lot of factors as to why it just suddenly collapsed, which is what we will be taking a wee look into today. So the first is the legalist policies which Qin Shi Huang put into motion, the harsh laws etc. The next is his son, who gives all of his power to a eunuch by the name of Zhao Gao, these 2 factors led to rebellions which suddenly became more widespread, and eventually there will be 2 contenders for power after this, but more on that later.
Now like I mentioned, if you were living as a peasant, or even as part of the nobility to a certain degree, life wouldn’t have been good for you in Qin China. These extremely harsh policies for even the littlest of crimes, would have made life unbearable. Not only that, but the overwhelming presence of the state bearing down and watching your every move must have made people live in constant fear of the patrols which were always around, as well as even their neighbours. It was encouraged to tell the guards of any of your neighbours’ misdeeds so they could be punished, so you had to get on with everyone, just from fear, and fear alone. As well as that, people were forced into labour projects which were pretty much a death sentence, and it is clear to see why many people were unhappy. Furthermore, the traditions that your family once followed for generations were also outlawed – for example if you were a Daoist and you simply wanted to go with the flow, it was now forbidden... This actually had huge problems for the Qin dynasty as many of the emperors new subjects couldn’t really get with the programme if you know what I mean. For example, the former state of Chu were pretty heavy into Daoist traditions, and now it was just to be taken away? Well... It was safe to say that this feeling of hatred against Qin was boiling under the surface, but all that was keeping it together was the power that Qin Shi Huang projected onto the empire. Even in modern day Shangdong province, where Kun Zi/Confucius came from, would have practised Confucian ideals, but now those were outlawed. Qin Shi Huang made sure that everyone got the message by burning those books publicly and burying the scholars alive who failed to give them to the government. You could argue that this state of tension between the populace and the regime was a powder keg, waiting to explode, and that explosion happened as soon as Qin Shi Huang popped his clogs and died.
This brings me on to the second part of this, which will be the larger part – the first emperor’s successor and his confidant in power, the eunuch Zhao Gao. But first we need to go to the story of when Qin Shi Huang died. By the time he had died, he was on the road with his usual entourage, his right hand man Li Si and his head of palace eunuch’s Zhao Gao. But the other most important character to be on this trip was Qin Shi Huang’s 18th and youngest son, Hu Hai. Now Hu Hai is the one who actually becomes Qin’s second emperor, however he wasn’t supposed to be... The man who was supposed to be the second emperor was stationed up at the great wall with one of Qin’s most famous generals Meng Tian. His name was Fu Su, but a series of events occurs which stops him from becoming the emperor.
What happened supposedly, was that Meng Tian was very good friends with the current crown prince, and it was a safe bet that he would become the new emperor’s right hand man once word of the emperor’s death came about. If Meng Tian and Fu Su got to power, Zhao Gao knew his number would be up. So here was the problem, neither of them were around when the emperor died... and it just so happened, that Li Si and Zhao Gao didn’t particularly get along with Meng Tian, so Zhao Gao proposed a scheme in which to stop Fu Su from becoming emperor.
Now as Qin Shi Huang lay there dying in his bed in Da Ping Tai village 100 km from Xiang Yang, he sent an ugent letter to summon Fu Su to Xiang Yang for the funeral, but of course he gave the letter to Li Si and Zhao Gao to deliver, which of course they didn’t do. Instead, Zhao Gao managed to convince Li Si to forge the emperors signature and rather than summoning Fu Su and Meng Tiang to the funeral, they received orders to commit suicide in order to join the emperor in the afterlife, which surprisingly they did.
Whilst the 2 were reading their letters, the royal entourage was making it’s way to Xiang Yang to bury the emperor and to cover up the stench of the emperor’s rotten corpse it is said that Li Si had rotten fish put in the carriages in front and behind the carriage carrying the emperor. To carry on the charade Zhao Gao even ordered the eunuchs who normally served the emperors food to continue as normal, and eat the food in the carriage beside the rotten corpse...
But regardless, the path was open for Ho Hai to become the emperor, and that is exactly what happened. And when the timing was right, the conspirators announced the emperors death. After the emperor died, the dynasty only lasted 3 years afterwards, and those 3 years were rife with constant rebellions and famine because nobody was farming. This took centuries in the making, all of these pieces which had finally fallen into place for the Qin, and it died within 39 months. But the only good news, I guess, is that it does pave the way for future dynasties. That’s the thing about the Qin dynasty, they may have only been around for around 15 years, but man they made a huge impact on Chinese culture, society and history.
So with that conspiracy and politicking out of the road which resulted the new emperor being crowned, to which he called himself ‘Qin ershi’ – and boy were the good times a’coming. Nah, I’m just kidding, he was a spoiled, arrogant, pleasure seeking, simpleton who had no experience in running his own bath, nevermind an empire. He was the perfect emperor for Zhao Gao to manipulate and that’s how it went. Qin Ershi was happy to have all of his concubines in the one night, party all the time and let Zhao Gao run the empire for him. The only time Qin Ershi was in court, was to hear good news about everyone was happy and how he had the mandate of heaven. If anyone sent any news, like there is a rebellion, there is a food shortage or there was a natural disaster, the emperor would execute them and their entire families. It’s safe to say that the emperor only liked ‘yes-men’. However, as this time progressed Zhao Gao managed to convince the emperor to not even bother going into court, and he could dominate processions, the deal was that the emperor would try to find the key to immortality whilst Zhao Gao would hand him any news of ‘importance’ – now of course Zhao Gao knew that the emperor only liked ‘yes-men’ so he withheld all the bad news and kept telling the emperor that it was all sunshine and roses.
Now there is a story about Zhao Gao, which kinda emphasises how much control he had over the Qin court. He even summoned the emperor into the court for this show... And what happened was that Zhao Gao was presenting a gift of this mighty ‘horse’ which was given to the emperor of Qin from the Xiongnu tribes to the north. Thus demonstrating Qin power. However, it was’'t a horse that was brought into the court, but it was in fact a deer. Now Zhao Gao, really wanted to exercise his power over the other ministers and basically said ‘this is a horse, does anyone challenge this statement? All of the members of the court knew fine well it was a deer but they knew if they disagreed, they would soon lose their heads. So everyone, apart from 2 men in the court said that the deer was a horse. This story is called ‘zhi lu wei ma’ and it is still told in China today. But I mean just this story, just goes to show just how much power Zhao Gao wielded in the name of the emperor.
Now of course with an incompetent ruler in charge of a society that has strict adherence to laws, you just know that it was a disaster waiting to happen, and the dynasties days were numbered. Things got so bad that even Li Si, who initially helped the young emperor get to power, tried to see him but Zhao Gao refused to let it happen, the tension between the two men got so bad that eventually Li Si was killed for treason, under some trumped charges engineered by Zhao Gao of course and the once great advisor was giving the 5 pains, or Wu Xin. This type of execution involved tattoo in the face, nose cut off, feet cut off, privates cut off and then finally being cut in half in the waste. But of course before this, he had to go through just a wee bit of torture as well.
And the thing is, it was only Qin Shi Huang who held all of this together, but now he was gone and it was as if all of these conquered states were all itching to rise up and spit in the faces of the dynasty which was in charge, the timing couldn’t be better – a eunuch was terrorising the imperial court, the emperor was an imbecile, a bunch of ambitious men were all trying to exploit the situation and the fear that the first emperor inspired was now gone. It was clear to all that something was going to happen, and indeed it did.
There is a story that a couple of soldiers in 209 BC named Cheng Sheng or Cheng She as well as Wu Guan were in the process of escorting a unit to a small town to defend, but had been slowed down due to bad weather and would miss their deadline. Now if you were late, you were dead. So the 2 put their heads together and said, ‘well to hell with this’ and rose up in rebellion. It didn’t achieve a huge overthrow of the Qin government, but it did set into motion, events that the Qin dynasty simply couldn’t withstand. These motions was that a small spark turned into an inferno as many people ran to join the cause and before you know it, they were campaigning in the name of the state of Chu and then a new king of Chu was installed, declaring independence from Qin. This uprising like I said, quickly died out, but before anyone could react, several more uprisings were springing up everywhere and more and more people were declaring independence.
It was becoming a free for all out there and the Qin emperor didn’t even know what was going on as he only ever wanted to hear good news. But finally once he actually sees what is happening it was too late... He realised that Zhao Gao had really usurped power and induced this reign of terror on the Qin court. However, before he could do anything about it Zhao Gao, obviously being more politically savvy than the young emperor, had him done in before he could do any damage. The next, and last Qin emperor lasted only 46 days, before he allowed himself to be demoted to merely a king rather than emperor and from there he disappeared from history. But at least in those 46 days he did do one positive thing – he had Zhao Gao executed, and then stepped down to the forces of one of Liu Bang, one of the main men in Chinese history, who would face down the great, all powerful and mighty Xiang Yu and who later found the Han dynasty.
However, I need to mention this, the Qin empire didn’t resign with that much of a whimper, they did go out with a bit of a bang at the battle of Ju Lu, or Ju Lu Zhi Zhang if you wanna say it the Chinese way. This was a real David and Goliath situation where Xiang Yu only had around 2-300,000 troops under his command, whereas the Qin army had anywhere between 3-500,000 troops under the overall command of general Zhang Han. This battle resulted in around 200,000 Qin troops dead and then another 200,000 buried alive by Xiang Yu, but I will talk more about this battle as well as the rise of the main two characters in my next episode which is gonna be all about the Chu-Han contention. This is where I will discuss our two main characters – Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, who would battle over the Qin empire. The 2 would battle it out for 4 years, but man these 4 years are so full of events, battles and plots that it is difficult to cover in just one episode. However, that being said, I really should only make it one, considering it’s only 4 years in China’s 5,000 year history...
And that’s it, this is Dean Strachan AKA The Chronicler, signing off from Beijing, China. I hope you all have a wonderful day/night wherever you may be. Take care now! Thanks for listening.
Episode 21 - The Chu-Han Contention
Today’s episode I will be taking a head-first dive into the messy history of the Chu-Han contention. This period was only between 206-202 BC, but boy there are a lot of events and stories that really need covered to do this period of time any justice. And I am hoping to squeeze it all in to one podcast episode. There will be a lot of characters here, who I simply don’t do justice, but I am hoping to come back to them at another time. So the podcast today, that I am going to focus on, is really just gonna say the most important things as to what happened in this period of Chinese history. The two main characters in this period are Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. And this is a side-note here, there is a show on Netflix called ‘Kings War’ which is all about this period in Chinese history – go and check it out. The acting is good overall, the show really shows you the characters and what they were like as well and it was an all out good show which is pretty historically accurate. However, the fight seems are a bit meh.
The first guy I want to take a look at in this epic history is Liu Bang.
Liu Bang had nothing. But to be fair to him, by all accounts he sounded like quite a character. For example, he was always welcome at the bars in his hometown which was Pei county. His presence and his character always brought more people into the bar giving it more business, which led to him getting free drinks most of the time!
His sweet-talking is actually what got him his first wife. By all accounts, he managed to talk his way into a party of wealthy aristocrats, the host Mr Lu, completely believed that Liu Bang was a rich man and a governor of a neighbouring county. He later managed to gain access to Mr Lu’s daughter and before anyone could say ‘what the hell is happening?’ they were engaged and then married. To be fair, at the beginning of their relationship they seemed to get on rather well. However, by the next episode you will hear about a completely gruesome story about what empress dowager Lu does...
But to the rebellion itself, what made Liu Bang rebel? He actually started his rebellion by carrying out orders from the Qin government coincidentally. He had orders to escort prisoners up to the wall where they would carry out their sentence. However, along the road he noticed that some of the prisoners had managed to escape. He asked one of his men, ‘whats the punishment for losing some of the labour force?’ to which his friend said ‘death’. Hmmmm Ok... He then asked, what’s the punishment for being late? To which the reply was again death. That’s when Liu Bang decided ‘to hell with this’ and cut the prisoners loose and ran for the hills. Weirdly enough, most of the prisnoers actually joined Liu Bang in what can only be called a mutiny at this stage. However, as time went on, he would retake his home-town Pei county and then meet up with larger rebel forces led by Xiang Yu.
This would now be a good time to talk about Xiang Yu. So Xiang Yu was pretty much the opposite of Liu Bang. But when did he start to become famous? It actually started not so much with him, but his uncle, Xiang Liang. Now Xiang Liang was a court noble in the Chu court, y’know, before Qin Shi Huang conquered everything, and Xiang Liang was rather a wise man... He could see the writing on the wall and knew Qin’s time was up. It was pretty clear that when Qin Shi Huang died, all of the former states and peoples within these states wanted to wash away the past 13 years of legalist doctrine with the blood of the Qin royal family and the soldiers they commanded. Now early in the campaign, Xiang Liang proves to be a credible general and an able politician. For example, he managed to track down the legitimate heir to the Chu throne and stuck him back in the palace. And where was this king hiding you may ask? He was hiding in plain sight, herding sheep... Bu regardless, he was found and put back on his throne by the Xiang family and was named King Huai. But of course, inevitably the Qin court does send an army to deal with him and basically at one battle Xiang Liang gets too cocky thinking he could take on the Qin army outnumbered and outwitted by the Qin general, Zhang Han and ends up getting himself killed. Xiang Liang’s death leaves control of what was left of the Chu army to the hands of Xiang Yu. It’s here where supposedly Xiang Yu and Liu Bang swear to be brothers and die on the same day... Who knew the two men would become bitter rivals in the future...
So when comparing Liu Bang to Xiang Yu, you can see that the two men had totally different backgrounds... This is an important detail, as it shows when moving forward from here on out.
Things began to settle down rebellion-wise and there was just enough time for the Chu king to hold court with both Xiang Yu and Liu Bang present. However, the king made a shock announcement, saying the first to reach Han Ku Pass and then take the Qin capital, Xiang Yang, that man would become a king, an equal to the guy who just wrote this edict. What was even more amazing was that the king of Chu gave Liu Bang a huge advantage in this... Basically he gave Liu Bang a more direct route whereas Xiang Yu had to take the long way around, and not to mention fight a huge Qin army along the way.
Smouldering with hatred of Liu Bang, Xiang Yu was just itching for a fight, he had to march north and cross the yellow river, and he could see that morale was low for his men... Afterall, he was outnumbered by a huge margin. It was almost an extra 400,000 on the Qin side, led by the very man who killed Xiang Yu’s uncle – the general Zhang Han. So after crossing the Yellow River, Xiang Yu decided to burn all the boats, and said there would be no turning back for the rebel army.
This tactic seemed to do the trick, and Xiang Yu won 9 separate battles against Zhang Han’s generals and almost destroyed the Qin army completely. This of course was the battle of Ju Lu, and it was Xiang Yu’s most famous victory. However, Xiang Yu still had a problem... He still hadn’t dealt with Zhang Han yet, who was a little further to the North. However Xiang Yu’s top advisor, Fan Zeng knew how to make him surrender. It was rather simple, send a diplomat to Zhang Han and explain his situation. The situation being that Zhao Gao was extremely jealous of other mens’ success. So even if Zhang Han won and crushed Xiang Yu’s forces, Zhao Gao would find a way to kill him as he would be a threat to his tyrannical rule. On the other hand, if Zhang han lost, then Zhao Gao would simply say he couldn’t do his job and then have him executed. Win or lose, Zhang Han would lose his life either way. And with that, Zhang Han surrendered alongside the remains of his army, around 200,000 strong.
Now normally, when an army this size surrenders to you, you should be jumping with joy. However, Xiang Yu wasn’t... Xiang Yu was rather low on supplies and couldn’t feed an extra 200,000 mouths all of a sudden. As well as that, he mistrusted all things Qin, and in particular Zhang Han, who he seen as a threat. Therefore he concluded that the only way to really mitigate any power and any damage Zhang Han could do to him, Xiang Yu decided to bury those 200,000 captives alive. The weird part in all this, is that he kept Zhang Han alive afterwards...
Meanwhile, whilst Xiang Yu was committing war crimes, Liu Bang was playing the nice guy – and every Qin city he went to, he would offer them a chance to surrender, if the city did so without a fight, not only would he spare everyone, but he would also give the city protectors the same jobs somewhere else! It dpesm’t mean to say that Liu Bang was all nice however... He did use a trick of bribing enemy generals to make their armies surrender then killing everyone... But for the most part, he was a less cruel alternative to Xiang Yu.
Now we get to the peak of the rivalry between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu in 206 BC when Liu Bang gets to Xiang Yang first, takes the capital and makes Qin’s last emperor resign his post. But... All credit to Liu Bang here, he didn’t kill anyone when he got into the city, and told his men to stand down, and not to loot the place. He entered the palace once then decided to leave it and camp outside the city.
Now you’d be thinking, ‘why on earth would he do that?’ but there was a good reason for it! Liu Bang knew that Xiang Yu was on the way and had a much larger army than him. Not to mention, that it was bloody Xiang Yu leading the army. However, as Xiang Yu tried to get through Han Ku pass, he was met with opposition?!!??! The opposition was none other than Liu Bang’s troops. So as you could imagine Xiang Yu was livid when he heard about this and wanted to kill Liu Bang right then and there, but that would be difficiult considering Liu Bang had the strategic advantage. So he thought of a different tactic, or should I say, Fan Zeng thought of a different tactic. Basically, the two were ‘sworn brothers’ afterall, why not have a drink and mull this hole thing over? Liu Bang agreed to the request and it became pretty clear what this whole thing was about.
Xiang Yu demanded that Liu Bang apologise and remove his army to allow Xiang Yu through to the city. Liu Bang, using his wits of course! And then explained how he hadn’t even statyed in the imperial palace as he was ‘looking after it’ for Xiang Yu. Now of course, nobody really believed this, but Liu Bang was backed up by his actions.
It’s important to note that during the meeting Fan Zeng was rather twitchy, trying to give Xiang Yu a signal in order to let a man planted there as a ‘guard’ kill Liu Bang ending the rivalry right there and then. However, Xiang Yu refused to do this – despite committing war crimes, Xiang Yu did have an impending sense of honour about him. Eventually Fan Zeng tried a different tactic, and asked someone to do a ‘sword dance’ for the party. The dancer was one of Xiang Yu’s relatives, Xiang Chuang, and every time he swung his sword, it got itself that little closer to Liu Bang’s throat. Afterwards, Xiang Po, andother of Xiang Yu’s relatives, agreed that this was dishonorable, and put himself between Liu Bang and the killer! Tensions really began to simmer between the party’s of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, and that was when Liu Bang said he was getting a call of nature then got the hell out of there once he was outside. I honestly don’t blame him.
So after the ‘sword dance’ incident Liu Bang basically tried to keep a very long distance between himself, and Xiang Yu. But anyway, Xiang Yu was now a king, an equal to King Huai back in Chu, and like every king he gave fiefs away to those who helped him get to power. The problem however was Liu Bang. He did afterall, ‘keep’ the capital waiting for Xiang Yu’s entry right? So Fan Zeng thought he came up with a clever ploy... He said to make Liu Bang the protector of Shu and Ba, basically what he deemed to be a wasteland to the West. This is modern-day Sichuan province by the way. Back then, there was this stereotype that it was a wilderness that couldn’t support agriculture and the people there were semi-barbarians and all sorts of rumours. But that’s the thing, it was all based on rumours and snobbery. The opposite was actually the truth, the Sichuan basin has extremely fertile land even today, and can support huge populations. As well as that, there is a huge mountain range that could act like a defensive layer so Liu Bang could sit there rather safe from any attacks led by Xiang Yu. On the other hand, Xiao He, one of Liu Bang’s best advisors, actually read Qin’s tax records when they spent that short time in the palace and took those records with him, when Liu Bang was sent packing to this ‘wasteland’ Xiao He showed him the records and they laughed with delight.
It’s also worth noting here that Liu Bang’s most famous general, Han Xin, comes into the picture here. There was only one path leading through the mountain passes, and Han Xin ordered for it to be destroyed whilst Liu Bang and his army headed into their new destination. The reason being was that Han Xin had figured out an alternative route and used this to surprise Xiang Yu when he launched his attack against Chu later on. I will do an episode on both Han Xin and Xiao He separately, because I know I am dragging this out now, and I am not doing these two men justice here.
Now after this settlement, everyone knew that there would be a war between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, and it came pretty much as soon as Liu Bang was ready to strike. Now why didn’t Xiang Yu strike West first and finish off Liu Bang? The reason was actually because Xiang Yu grabbed too much power for himself and basically there were uprisings everywhere, particularly in the state of Zhao, which Xiang Yu had to go and put down. So whilst the great general was distracted, it was the perfect time for Liu Bang to strike.
Now the thing is that the 2 would fight it out, and Xiang Yu would win, then Liu Bang would retreat and then come back again. This happened I think at least 3 times. And even on the second time Xiang Yu had managed to capture Liu Bang’s family, including his wife, his father and his eldest son. Luckily Xiang Yu was the ‘noble type’ and kept Liu Bang’s family alive. Now there are a couple of stories I wanna cover here...
The first is that after losing the battle, Liu Bang was on the run in his chariot, but Xiang Yu’s army was closing in on him, and the problem was that 2 of his children were with him and that is when he decided to try and kick them out of the chariot!!!!!!! They were slowing him down??? Luckily, the driver, Fan Kuai (another famous subordinate of Liu Bang) talked him out of it, and they managed to settle back in Liu Bang’s old town, Pei County before heading back to Han.
The second story is that just before the final battle would be had out between the 2 men, Xiang Yu tried to lure Liu Bang to fight him by showing his father before Liu Bang’s entire army and threatened to boil the man alive. Now most children would be enraged at such an insult and want revenge straight away. Or at least try to negotiate for their fathers’ life... But Liu Bang? Nah... He just shouted across ‘Send me a cup of the soup!’... So remember how I said Liu Bang was a good guy? Maybe not on the personal side...
Regardless, by not budging on his whole father being boiled alive thing, Xiang Yu simply couldn’t burn the old man alive, as it was dishonourable, what wasn’t though, was pulling out a crossbow and trying to get a cheap shot on Liu Bang while he was exposed. The crossbow actually hit Liu Bang in the chest, but he fooled Xiang Yu’s entire army saying he only hit hm in the foot, demoralising Xiang Yu’s forces further. After a while, the 2 manahed to agree – the realm was to be divided in half, and in exchange for that, Liu Bang get’s his family back.
And that was it, all living in peace and harmony right? Right? WRONG!
Literally as soon as Liu Bang got his family back? He turned on Xiang Yu and eventually the tide began to go in Liu Bang’s favour.
The biggest reason for this was that the 2 men learned different lessons with each battle. With every victory over his enemies, Xiang Yu became more cocky, and more suspiscious of his subordinates, whereas Liu Bang employed, and more importantly, listened to, wise men such as Xiao He and Han Xin.
It all finally came to a head in 202 BC when Xiang Yu had either killed the majority of his loyal advisors or they all deserted him whilst Liu Bang had more and more men flock to his cause, and it all came to a head at the battle of Gaixia. It was here, where the great Xiang Yu was finally defeated in battle, and it was indeed, his last battle. The weird thing is that he almost escaped, but finally he was cornered, and along and heard that there was a reward for the man who killed him. Xiang Yu apparently muttered a joke saying he will do the closest guy to him a favour and slit his own throat.
And that was that, by 202 BC LiuBang had won and had founded the Han dynasty. Now there is actually so much more I could have covered in this episode such as battles and things, but I was trying my best to get this within 20 minutes or so, and now I realise this has went on to… minutes. Sorry about that!
However, I hope you enjoyed this episode and next week we will be taking a look into what Liu Bang does when he becomes the emperor of a new Han dynasty. See you then!
Episode 22 - The Establishment of the Han Dynasty
It was the year 202 BC, and Liu Bang had won all those under heaven, Tian Xia, or the known world for the Chinese at the time. It was a great achievement; he went from just a lowly peasant to an emperor. He was the first man to accomplish this, but he wont be the last emperor to achieve this grand rise. Liu Bang is also known as emperor Gaozu, so if you ever see emperor Gaozu anywhere on anything you read, it’s Liu Bang.
So what did emperor Gaozu do as emperor? It was quite a lot to be fair, and it ensured the prolonged existance of the Han dynasty, which lasted 400 years. But the way I think it’s best to break it down is to follow the rest of the episode like this: social reforms, political reforms alongside military campaigns and lastly, the court politics and that nasty business of succession. Now I won’t spend too much time on all of these features, as I don’t want the episode to drag on with loads of names that I haven’t mentioned yet, so I will paint the most basic of pictures without going into too much detail.
Remember those days of Qin? Where everyone was bound to pay very heavy taxes or face death? Well, to be honest, Liu Bang kinda liked that idea, as well as many other harsh policies under the Qin dynasty, but one of his advisors argued to the emperor, “but sire, if you rule your empire on horseback, how could you hope to keep it?” impressed by these words, Liu Bang then decided to take it easy on everyone and went for a more Confucius based state-philosophy. This meant that the emperor now respected Confucius scholars (Which he never did before) and there was even one time when a scholar went to see him, the king of Han (not emperor yet) asked the dude for his hat then peed in it... But now, Confucianism was seen as the correct way to manage the empire that he had won, and Confucian scholars began to fill in some government positions. But did that mean for the working people? The peasantry, the backbone of society? The first thing it meant was that there was so much leniency in the laws and the police-state that Qin Shi Huang had established was now gone. That’s one way to get the support of the people, but how could the emperor boost it even further? Ah, there we go! Less taxes! Everyone loves less taxes. So everyone enjoyed that.
Now I do need to mention this here – Confucian scholars who would play prominent roles in later generations of the Han dynasty, and you’d be correct in thinking that they would make sure that they would make the Qin dynasty seem like the worst thing that humans ever produced... This is when we see this little disconnect in the histories here – Qin Shi Huang did build up the state system, he made a decent job of the beaurocracy, he built the wall etc etc etc. but it is Liu Bang who benefits the most from all of this work as he simply uses these systems and roads built by the Qin and just adapts them to the way he wants them. If it wasn’t for what the Qin managed to accomplish, no matter how brutal the method they did it, the Han dynasty would have struggled so much more in the early days.
So that’s all I can really say when it comes to the peasantry and the social changes – Confucianism was becoming the state ideology and replacing that of the Qin, and Qin laws were getting used, but much more leniently and taxes were lowered substantially.
This brings me on to political reforms. Now Liu Bang, after winning the war against Xiang Yu, he had to award the men who helped them there with positions. Also, I didn’t really mention this last time, but all of the previous warring states all rose up in rebellion alongside Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, so Liu Bang had to consider this as well. Now what he did was put all of his closest men, people like Han Xin, Xiao He, Fan Kuai, Chen Ping, Zhang Liang and Lu Wan into the imperial government, and sometimes they were vassal kings of different territories within the empire too. The other previous kings were allowed to keep their titles, but now they were vassals under Liu Bang. Now this arrangement would be fine as long as Liu Bang was alive, but what if he wasn’t? And Liu Bang wasn’t like Qin Shi Huang, he accepted death as a part of life, but memories of the warring states and the failure of the Zhou dynasty to keep their empire together was on everybody’s mind, and in particular Liu Bangs. Now to solve this problem Liu Bang was both patient and cunning. What he did was basically wait for any slight sign of insubordination and any excuse to replace those who were supposed to be loyal to him with his own family. This strategy proved to be effective and slowly, 1 by 1 all of those men who were loyal to Liu Bang and helped him to become emperor were killed off under the slightest charges, and those vassal kings were all replaced as well with member of the Liu family, thus securing the dynasties longevity. Now you’d be thinking, that’s the reward for helping the guy? Death? That’s harsh, and you are right, it is! But the emperor was thinking long-term, any threats simply couldn’t be accepted. The only guy who managed to keep his head who was close to the emperor was Zhang Liang, another great advisor, but his son didn’t share the same fate, which I will get to later.
Now some of those who were loyal to Emperor Gaozu initially did eventually try to rebel, but by then it was too late, Liu Bang was watching everyone like a hawk and he had an iron grip on power. The example I want to go to is the great general Han Xin. Han Xin always had a rather difficult relationship with Liu Bang, and Liu Bang was always weary of him, afterall he was the greatest military tactician around and his ideas were better than Liu Bang’s half the time. However, Han Xin could have been a great military genius, he was a dummy when it came to court politics, and very soon after receiving these rewards for his services Liu Bang started throwing accusations and gradually taking the generals power away from him. Han Xin, as you could imagine, felt like the emperor was being rather ungrateful for his services and plotted a rebellion. However it was quickly found out and Han Xin was tricked into coming into LuoYang where the emperor wasn’t there to see him, but empress Dowager Lu as well as Xiao He, after Han Xin was captured he appealed to Xiao He to speak to the emperor on his behalf and spoke of their previous friendships. However Xiao He apparently replied ‘we were friends, but I am more loyal to the throne than to my friends’
And with that Han Xin was dragged off and beheaded. Supposedly, he was said to have remarked in bitter irony that he, the most legendary military strategist ever, was outwitted by a woman... I mean how could a woman outwit a man in a mans world!!! Now why did he think this? The truth is that Liu Bang was actually on a military campaign against one of those other lords who were ‘disloyal’ to the throne, and actually had no idea that this was happening.
That being said, Xiao He knew that he was in a lot of trouble as well now, he ordered the death of the great general without authorisation. What should he do? Well it was simple, he told one of the other great advisors, Lu Wan, to accuse him of embezzling taxes on his own little luxuries in front of Liu Bang so there was then pretence to have him executed. Liu Bang must have been rather sad by the time he reached old age, all of the men who got him to that great position of power had all been killed or were driven into hiding by his own suspicions/ideas to protect the future of the dynasty. But regardless, the tactic proved effective and it kept the Han dynasty going for a rather successful run.
The next area I need to focus on is the military, because like I said previously emperor Gaozu went on military campaigns against his subordinates for ‘disloyalty’ and then after defeating them, he replaced them with his own family members. The Xiong Nu to the north however, were totally different. They had ravaged the Chinese for centuries, but at least there was now a great wall between them and the nomadic raiders, but did the wall stop them? Well, yes and no. Regardless, by 200 BC the emperor went on his last major campaign, and it wasn’t fighting other Chinese peoples this time, but the Xiongnu. Now by all accounts things were going rather swimmingly at the beginning of the campaign, but after a while Liu Bang was completely surrounded at Mt Baideng and suffering heavy casualties. It was rather evident that the campaign north was a complete failure and it was a huge debaukle. It looked like the emperor may lose his life, however one of his top advisors, Chen Ping, basically said to bribe his way out of this, and that’s exactly what he did. The imperial treasury that accompanied the emperor on the campaign was given to the leader of the Xiong Nu – Chan Yu, and with that the campaign was over and the emperor managed to stay alive. What evolved from this was basically the Han dynasty’s later emperors’ following this example and appeasing the northerners. Liu Bang even sent one of his daughers to the Xiong Nu as tribute. The dynasty would continue this policy of basically paying tribute to keep the northerners at bay with silk, gold, and women. All of this changed with the 5th emperor, Han Wu Di, who I will get to in a few weeks.
But now I am brought to the last point, which was the ever so tricky business of succession. Liu Bang had many concubines, but his favourite was lady Qi, and the empress dowager Lu really hated that. Well maybe not so much hate it, but she was certainly jealous of her. But it seemed the feelings were felt both ways between the 2 women. Now again, Confucian scholars tend to paint Empress Lu as a jealous, spiteful, evil woman, however the truth is more complicated than that. The reason why they do this is because after Liu Bang died in 195 BC, empress Lu basically takes over all the power within the dynasty for while, now according to Confucians it wasn’t a woman’s place to do such a thing, hence the bad public relations image the empress gets. The 2 women were engaged in a bitter rivalry for their 2 sons to become the next emperor, so of course things were ugly between them. Empress Lu’s son was Lin Ying and lady Qi’s son was Yu Ri. Now by all accounts, Yu Ri was the brighter of the two, and Liu Bang played with the idea of making him the heir to the throne. However he was really talked out of the idea as it was clear, all of the ministers valued the traditions that the elder brother (which Lin Ying was), should inherit the throne, and more importantly, he was the son of the empress dowager. After this a rift began to drive Liu Bang away from the empress Lu Zhi and it was clear scores would be settled after he died, which is indeed what happened. Now don’t get me wrong Liu Bang listened to the advice and made Lin Ying he heir, and he became the emperor after Liu Bang’s death. But the fears the old emperor had in regards to his eldest son being unfit to rule were pretty well placed, as his son as emperor was basically a puppet, and his mother Empres dowager Lu was the one pulling the strings. Her first act through her son was to eliminate all competition, which of course meant lady Qi was pretty much top of that list followed by her son Ru Yi. Ru Yi got a relatively quick death through being forced to drink poisoned wine, however Lady Qi’s ending was rather gruesome. Lü Zhi had Concubine Qi killed in such an inhumane manner: she had Qi's limbs chopped off, eyes gouged out, ears sliced off, forced her to drink a potion that made her mute, and then thrown into a latrine. She called Qi a "human swine" (人彘). Several days later, Emperor Hui was taken to view the "human swine" and was shocked to learn that it was Concubine Qi. He cried loudly and became ill for a long time. He requested to see his mother and said, "This is something done not by a human. As the empress dowager's son, I'll never be able to rule the empire.” From then onward Emperor Hui indulged himself in carnal pleasures and ignored state affairs. Which probably suited the empress just fine, as it allowed her to control state affairs and promote the Lu family to compete with the current Liu family in court.
And that’s that, the Han dynasty’s way to secure power for the next 400 years, there was a little interregnum period in the middle with a new dynasty being proclaimed called the Xin dynasty. However it didn’t last really long. So moving forward I think I will discuss break down the Han dynasty in these ways: The emperors leading up to Han Wudi, then a huge episode on Han Wudi, after the Han Wudi episode, I will take a break and talk with a podcaster named Death of the Roman Republic, where we discuss and compare the Roman and Han empires who were around at the same time. Afterwards, we will then continue the journey through the Han dynasty as it begins to falter and break away into 3 kingdoms. HOWEVER. Next week there will be no podcast episode, and the reason being is that I am gonna be in my wifes’ hometown next week for another wedding celebration. That’s right, I need to do a wedding ceremony in my wife’s hometown as well, otherwise her family wont see our marriage in Scotland as legitimate. Now I could edit episodes in between this period, but I will struggle to upload anything as my wife’s hometown is an extremely rural area, and there will be very little in the way of activity from me in the next week. So I hope you can forgive me for spending some quality time with the inlaws over the May holiday, and in all honesty, I could do with the break!
Episode 23 - The Western Han Dynasty
The Han dynasty, founded by Liu Bang, is in many ways seen as the pinnacle of Chinese culture, expansion and domination in Asia. An example that later dynasties would always try to emulate. The Han dynasty however, was not entirely all sweet roses, as we will soon see. But first, the breakdown of the Han that I am going to attempt is gonna go like this: 1st – the Western Han, 2nd – Han Wu Di (who deserves an episode on his own), 3rd – my podcast with the DOFTRR where we compare Han China to Imperial Rome and then finally the interregnum period followed by the Eastern Han period.
So on with this episode – the Western Han period was between 206 BC and lasted up until 9 AD. In this 200 year period A LOT happened. I spoke a little bit about Liu Bang/Emperor Gaozu had organised the dynasty in my latest episode, but now it’s time to move on from him. I think the best way to really break down the Western Han Dynasty in terms of a general overview without taking too much away from Emperor Han Wu Di is to talk about the following: poetry, art, and the Shi Ji by Sima Qian who was alive at the time of the Han.
Now I could talk about governmental changes, the silk road, the military expansion and the revival of Confucianism that is always associated with the Han dynasty, and you’d be right, all of this did happen in the Han dynasty, and it had a huge impact on Chinese culture and life thereafter. But remember what I said – I am trying to NOT take anything away from emperor Han Wu Di, who is pretty much responsible for all of these achievements... Now you know why I think he deserves his own episode right?
Ok, so the Han dynasty was a time where Chinese culture and identity began to flourish. Even though many of the original Han temples and buildings had been destroyed by many, many civil wars since it’s fall, the Han legacy has lasted through it’s language and culture. The largest ethnic group in China are called the Han... Where do you think they got their name from? It was the Han dynasty. Even in Chinese language, the words for Chinese language is either 中文 which means the language of the middle Kingdom, OR it can be called 汉语 – this literally means LANGUAGE OF THE HAN! So well done Han dynasty, you managed to create your own wee legacy in the language of 1.4 billion people. So how was this language used? Well, if you think about it, people just had a hard time during the times of the qin and then the Chu-Han contention, now all of a sudden, they were free! So they wanted to express their inner emotions, simply because they had the bloody time to now without thinking about getting stabbed from someone. And this is where we begin to see poetry begin to flourish at the time of the Han. A new genre of poetry had begun to emerge, which was called Fu poetry. Fu roughly translated is kinda like ‘rhapsody’ or ‘poetic exposition’. These poems were very long, descriptive compositions that were designed to entertain and became the norm of the day. Around 1,000 of the original Fu actually survive. There were many famous poets around at the time, for example Sima Qian, the grand historian himself, wrote poems alongside a man named Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan was one of the most famous poets of the Han Dynasty.
Here is an excerpt from the poem LI SAO (The Lament), it is not only one of the most remarkable works of Qu Yuan, it ranks as one of the greatest poems in Chinese or world poetry. It was probably written during the period when the poet had been exiled by his king, and was living south of the Yangtse River.
The name LI SAO has been interpreted by some as meaning "encountering sorrow," by others as "sorrow after departure." Some recent scholars have construed it as "sorrow in estrangement," while yet others think it was the name of a certain type of music.
This long lyrical poem describes the search and disillusionment of a soul in agony, riding on dragons and serpents from heaven to earth. By means of rich imagery and skilful similes, it expresses love of one's country and the sadness of separation. It touches upon various historical themes intermingled with legends and myths, and depicts, directly or indirectly, the social conditions of that time and the complex destinies of the city states of ancient China. The conflict between the individual and the ruling group is repeatedly described, while at the same time the poet affirms his determination to fight for justice. This passionate desire to save his country, and this love for the people, account for the poem's splendour and immortality.
A prince am I of ancestry renowned,
Illustrious name my royal sire hath found.
When Sirius did in spring its light display,
A child was born, and Tiger marked the day.
When first upon my face my lord's eye glanced,
For me auspicious names he straight advanced,
Denoting that in me Heaven's marks divine
Should with the virtues of the earth combine.
With lavished innate qualities indued,
By art and skill my talents I renewed;
Angelic herbs and sweet selineas too,
And orchids late that by the water grew,
I wove for ornament; till creeping Time,
Like water flowing, stole away my prime.
Magnolias of the glade I plucked at dawn,
At eve beside the stream took winter-thorn.
Without delay the sun and moon sped fast,
In swift succession spring and autumn passed;
The fallen flowers lay scattered on the ground,
The dusk might fall before my dream was found.
Had I not loved my prime and spurned the vile,
Why should I not have changed my former style?
My chariot drawn by steeds of race divine
I urged; to guide the king my sole design.
Three ancient kings there were so pure and true
That round them every fragrant flower grew;
Cassia and pepper of the mountain-side
With melilotus white in clusters vied.
Two monarchs then, who high renown received,
Followed the kingly way, their goal achieved.
Two princes proud by lust their reign abused,
Sought easier path, and their own steps confused.
The faction for illict pleasure longed;
Dreadful their way where hidden perils thronged.
Danger against myself could not appal,
But feared I lest my sovereign's sceptre fall.
Now trust me when I say this, this was a very short excert of the poem... If you wanna see the whole poem you can get it at:
That’s where I got it from.
So now that we have the poetry out of the way, what comes next? The artwork... The artwork of the Han dynasty can be seen to be a follow-up form those glorious days of the Zhou dynasty. For example the use of bronze vessels for ceremonial purposes, however the Han put their own twist on it by melding the bronze with gold or silver. Now what is remarkable about Han artwork is the amount of detail that’s been left behind. For example, no houses from the Han dynasty have been left standing, obviously just because of how long ago it was, however through depictions on Han pottery, archaeologists can accurately recreate not only a Han house, but an entire village! Tourists can go to the old Chang’an or modern-day Xi’an and find a totally recreated Han village there and see how the local people lived their lives.
Now art comes in many forms, it’s not just pottery and painting, but also music and dancing too! Which again, seen a huge surge in popularity during the Han dynasty. Again, this was a time of peace and stability, so of course the arts began to flourish. As a result of the silk road being opened up, many instruments were exchanged between the Chinese and their Western neighbours. Lutes similar to today’s Middle Eastern ‘ud, oboe-type instruments, and metal trumpets; among those brought from India were long-necked lutes and drums made their way to China through the silk road. These instruments were then used alongside the Chinese instruments already present there, such as the Chinese flute and the zither. Now of course, all of these orchestras had to be used alongside dancers, and dancing became a big thing Han China too. The music and dancing had two categories; court music and ritual music. Now what these essentially are is music for official matters, so for example when the emperor was coming to court. And then the ritual music would be music for weddings or funerals etc.
Alongside these new discoveries being made between East and West and the sharing of not only instruments, but foods, technologies and even religions, the Chinese invented their own technologies. However, these crucial new technologies that I want to mention, which is paper and the seismograph, were invented during the Eastern Han, so they can be saved for then. But to be fair, this golden age also flourished during the western Han too – new technlogoies in science, for example using herbal medicine, and taking acupuncture even further than ever had been before. Furthermore taking steps in studying chemistry and zoology were all conducted during the Han dynasty.
Now I can be brought onto my last point for this podcast, which is Sima Qian, the Grand Historian. Sima Qian was born in around 145 BC and died in around 86 BC. He wrote the Shi Ji, or the Records of the Grand Historian. Sima Qian travelled across the Han empire and compiled his documents trying to find out everything that happened in China as far back as he possibly could. This is where all/most of my sources have came from up to this point – Sima Qian’s Shi Ji. The Shi Ji is incredibly detailed, and it was often said Sima Qian would travel across the country and listen to all of the tales of old and document them. From there he could write his great work. So the tales of the Xia dynasty, and even the sage kings before the Xia and Huangdi and Shennong before them are all born from Sima Qian’s book. Now surprisingly, Sima Qian wrote all the way up to his current present day and wrote about his current emperor – Han Wu Di, I said surprisingly, because he actually wrote not all nice things about his master, to which he was castrated. By all accounts, the 2 made a deal, Han Wu Di would let him live as a eunuch as long as he could continue his work compiling his history, to which the 2 agreed. I’d for one, would choose death... to hell with that! Just remember, that when it came to Chinese eunuchs, it wasn’t part of the package that was removed, it was the FULL package...
And that is a wrap for today’s episode – I hope you have enjoyed this rather different take on Chinese history that I did. Now next week, I am going to focus on what most people remember from Han China, which is Han Wu Di and the changes that he brings to the realm. I hope you look forward to that episode and I will see you next time on the Chronicler podcast channel!
Episode 24 - Han Wudi
Like I said in my last podcast, Han Wudi deserves an episode on his own, now we have a lot to cover, so I hope you are ready for this incredible story about an emperor who seemed rather useless at the beginning of his career to being the undisputed ruler of the dynasty. Liu Che, also known as Emperor Wu, would become the longest lasting emperor in Chinese history up until the Qing dynasty over 1,000 years later. Han Wudi made many groundbreaking reforms, and really took the Han dynasty (and China) to new heights in terms of territorial expansion, influence and culture. In today’s episode, we will begin with Emperor Wu’s early reign (which was extremely difficult), then move on to the reforms he made and then finish it off with his territorial expansion and what he left behind.
Liu Che was born on the 30th July 157 BC, and was the crown prince of the Han dynasty. He was the destined to be the 5th emperor of the Han. Now some sources say that on the day of the noble birth, locals could see a dragon flying over the imperial palace, a truly auspicious sign.
Liu Che’s father died when he was young, only 15 years old, and it was in the year 141BC that he became the new emperor of the Han dynasty.
Liu Che, now emperor Wu, had a few obstacles to his rule when he became emperor. The first was his grandmother, Grand empress dowager Dou. The Grand empress had lots of friends and nobles who had basically began to live extremely comfortable lives in the capital, happily take bribes and ignore the calls of the people. Emperor Wu wanted to change this, but he soon quickly realised that his gran held real political power over the Han court, and any mention of reform was simply blocked through one legal loophole or another.
Emperor Wu tried to propose reforms known as the Jianyuan Reforms (建元新政). The reforms had 5 main goals:
- Officially endorsing Confucianism as the national philosophy (乡儒术). Previously, the more libertarian Taoist ideals were held in esteem;
- Forcing noblemen back to their own fiefdoms (令列侯就国). A large number of noblemen were living in the capital Chang'an, lobbying court officials while exploiting the central government's budget to cover their expenses despite already having gained great wealth from their own feudal land tenure taxation. Emperor Wu's new policy dictated that they could no longer live off the government's spending and must leave the capital if lacking any justifiable reason to keep staying;
- Removal of non-central government sanctioned checkpoints (除关). Many lords of vassal states had established checkpoints along main state roads that went through their territory with the purpose of collecting tolls and restricting traffic. Emperor Wu wanted to seize the control of transportation from local authorities and return that control back to the central government;
- Encouraging the reporting and prosecution of criminal activities by nobles (举谪宗室无行者). Noblemen engaged in illegal activities would be impeached and punished and their assets or lands could be confiscated back as state property;
- Recruitment and promotion of talented commoners into government positions (招贤良) in order to reduce the administrative monopoly by the noble class.
However, despite the need for reform, he met fierce resistance from his gran, bloody old people... ALWAYS GET IN THE WAY RIGHT????
Not to worry, Emperor Wu played it cool, and took the advice his mother, who basically said ‘she’ll be dead soon, bide your time’ which he did. He pretended to not be interested in government, and went out hunting and partying frequently – and this suited the conservative elements in the Han court just fine!
What nobody knew however, was that Han Wudi then went on to form a secret council of members that reported to the emperor DIRECTLY EVERYTHING that went on in the Han court. This was both in public and behind closed doors – Chinese court culture, very much like the Roman senate, was full of political intrigue, and Emperor Wu wanted to know everything that was going on. The people he employed for these jobs would be known as the emperor’s inner circle and the scheme was rather ingenious. The people who the emperor employed were usually peasants or were very low rank, from there he would promote them to low tasking jobs with the promise of high court positions in the future based on their deeds to help the emperor. From here, the servants could spy on the nobles from right under their noses and report back to the emperor directly. By employing people of low rank with the promises of high court positions later on ensured emperor Wu’s subordinates/spies would be fiercely loyal to him.
Emperor Wu’s mother proved to be right when she told the young emperor to bide his time, as by 135 BC, his grandmother passed away, and with that any opposition to reforms. Immediately, Han Wudi expelled the nobles who he knew were against him, and replaced them with the young and talented insider court he had been preparing for years. Then to add insult to injury to those nobles who had defied him, Emperor Wu sanctioned that all nobles and vassals had to divide their realms between their sons equally after they died, this made it so much easier for Emperor Wu to simply divide and conquer those who remained. Thus, increasing his power and completing the process of centralization power to the emperor and the imperial court.
Emperor Wu’s next issue was not a political or military one, but a cultural one. Han Wudi faced the same problem as his ancestors; ‘how should the empire be run?’ Should it be run through fear and at the point of a sword? Or should it be run with moral integrity?
Emperor Wu decided to go with the latter, and openly demonized legalism as the Qin had failed to control their state with that philosophy and it was much hated anyway, and he openly embraced Confucianism. Now you’re probably thinking, so what he embraced Confucianism, what’s the big deal? The fact is, it was a HUGE deal. Confucianism became the closest thing to what the Bible or the Qur’an is to Christians and Muslims. And speaking of Christians, Christianity only became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire through Emperor Constantine. So in this regard, Emperor Constantine of Rome and Emperor Wu of China are comparable.
Any legalists who were in any governmental position were swiftly kicked out under Emperor Wu and replaced with Confucian ones. Confucianism became the state philosophy under Han WuDi and China’s cultural problems were for the most part, solved. Han Wudi did take it a step further though, in order to get a job in the government, one had to be able to read, recite and remember the Confucian classics in an exam. This included the Spring and Autumn Annuls, the classics of poetry, the writings of Mencius (a student of Confucius) and many more! One had to display a level of competency in these exams if they had any hope of getting a government job. This system was called the Imperial Examination System, and this practice even lasted after the Han dynasty ended, and it was later emulated by other Chinese dynasties. The imperial examination system ensured that individuals would get jobs in the government because they were actually good at their job, and not through family ties, which was pretty much the norm before then.
The last and final part of Han WuDi’s legacy was his military campaigns and the territorial expansion of the Han dynasty under his reign.
Emperor Wu decided to strike at China’s troublesome neighbours to the North – the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu, if you remember, had been accepting bribes of Chinese silk, gold and even princesses in order to not invade Han China. All of that was about to change, as Emperor Wu had decided enough was enough and prepared for war.
The major issue the emperor faced however, was that war was expensive, and was a huge drain on the economy. In order to compensate for this – emperor Wu decided to nationalise salt and iron production – the 2 most profitable resources within the empire, furthermore, he standardized the prices of gran and ensured that the minting of coins was also standardized and run by the state. Through these reforms (which were somewhat unpopular) Emperor Wu was able to field multiple armies in the 100s of thousands at a time. Now, he had an army that he could throw at the Xiongnu.
By 133 BC, Wudi officially ended paying tributes to the Xiongnu and launched the first of many, many campaigns into the North. These campaigns lasted between 127 – 119 BC. The campaigns were brutal, intense and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. However, Han tactics under generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing proved to be decisive. The Xiongnu cavalry in many ways, were superior to that of the Han, so to compensate for this, the Han invested crossbows and halberd infantry initially. However, they were inevitably too slow. The idea was that the Han would basically steer the Xiongnu cavalry into traps where they couldn’t escape and their maneuverability would be obsolete, and with that the spear infantry would do their work and cut them down. Any riders who did manage to escape that scene of carnage would then be chased down by the Han forces’ cavalry. However, this didn’t really work – so a new solution was put into place. Basically become exactly like the Xiongnu in order to defeat them! Which actually worked.
For example, the Xiongnu were masters of ‘hit and run’ tactics, they would launch a huge raid, kill as many as possible, loot as much as possible, then run away. The Han infantry couldn’t even begin to dream of keeping up with them. But now, the times had changed, and if when the Xiongnu began to disperse, the Han forces began would race after them with their cavalry and cut down the Xiongnu leading units in order to confuse the enemy and then hunt down the rest. These kind of tactics proved decisive and very soon, it was the Xiongnu who would suffer defeat after defeat at the hands of the Han forces. Generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing launched devastating raids into Xiongnu territory and took over the land. The most famous of these battles was the Battle of Mobei in 119 BC, where Han forces slaughtered over 90,000 Xiongnu troops and forced the Nomads north into the Gobi desert. It was here, that the Han dynasty would expand northward and the West creating a corridor of safe passage for merchants on the silk road. This became known as the He Xi corridor. The silk road opened up lots of commercial opportunities to the Han dynasty and of course to the Romans in the West. This corridor and trade route, connected the 2 empires, even though it was in an unofficial way – which I will discuss with DOTRR podcaster next week and it will be on next weeks episode!
Furthermore, the silk road will get it’s own episode I think, as it includes an incredible journey westward by one of Emperor Wu’s subordinates. But more on that later, back to the conquests of Emperor Wu.
After dealing with the Xiongnu and securing his northern flank – Han Wudi focused on the South, the South became rather volatile at the perfect time for Wudi. The north had been crushed and it was at this moment, when the Han forces were free – that the South had tried be troublesome in 138BC. Now I am going to oversimplify this, as the relations between the North and South were rather complicated, but what you need to know is that what is today’s southern China, provinces like Chong Qing, Guandong, Guangxi, Hainan, Yunnan and Fujian were not under Han rule at the time. The Southerners, also known as Bai Yue – meaning 100 tribes, seen their northern neighbours as foreigners and generally wanted to be left alone. The problem however, was that some Han peoples had moved South and assimiliated into the local cultures, and sometimes became leaders, and then became vassal kingdoms to the Han empire. As well as that, the southern tribes, were more likely to fight each other than the Han dynasty, which was all fine and well for the Han. However, one such conflict between the Ming Yue and Nan Yue saw the latter offering to become a vassal of the Han empire. Once the danger was over however, the relationship would fall apart as the native prime-minister of the Nan Yue – Lu Jia, killed his pro-han king Zhao Xing and led a rebellion against the Han. Han Wudu, furious with this sign of disloyalty, sent an army of 300,000 men and crushed the Nan Yue into submission. This show of brute force meant that the Southern tribes soon after, all submitted to the authority of the imperial court.
The south did well for Han Wudi, as now he had access to more tropical climates which in turn, meant more goods such as elephant tusks, peacocks and pearls could be used by the Han aristocracy. What’s more though, is that the coastline in the south acted as a great hub for trading with places further away. As well as this, the conquest of the Southern provinces allowed Wu Di to completely assimilate Han culture into the South and ensured Han culture dominated the region. He did this through rather brutal tactics – he split the Nan Yue kingdoms into 9 provinces, all with Han officials ruling over them, and in Ming Yue, he moved the population out of the region and into the Chinese heartlands, ensuring the people would be brought into Han culture. If Han Wudi didn’t do this – perhaps the South’s languages and peoples and cultures would be more diverse than it is today.
Next, in the territorial conquests, came to what is now North Korea in 109BC, a breakdown in relations where the kingdom Gojoseon executed a Han envoy. Now of course, if you are gonna kill the messenger, be sure to actually be able to back yourself up with an army when war inevitably hits you in the face... King Ugeo of the Gojoseon however, didn’t do that. And when the enraged Han Wudi led a massive army against the Koreans, it was an easy win and the Han empire annexed the northern tip of the Korean peninsula. This started a long tradition of Chinese domination over Korea.
And that’s that – Han Wudi managed to accomplish such an astronomical achievement for his time. He managed to almost double the size of his empire, he managed to secure his power by centralizing the Han regime and he also answered the cultural questions the empire was asking of itself. Han Wudi managed to achieve all of this in one lifetime, in China he is by far one of the most famous emperors ever, and it certainly the most famous of the Han dynasty. However, modern day scholars have put a shade of doubt over Han Wudi – was he really a great figure who had the peoples interests at heart? Or was he, as some have suggested, a cruel conqueror who led the destruction of many different cultures and ways of life? Let me know what you think!
Episode 25 - Comparison of the Han dynasty and ancient Rome!
This is my good friend, a podcaster by the name of Death of the Roman Republic as well I, comparing ancient Rome to Han China!
If you want to listen to the episode, you can check it out on my pdcast section. It was a lot of fun!
If you are interested in Roman history as well as Chinese history, then be sure to check out Death of the Roman Republic's website here:
Episode 26 - Death of Han Wudi, decline of the Han, in with the 'New'
Han Wudi died at the age of 71 in 86BC, he reigned for a whopping 56 years. The longest record for the reign of any emperor in China, and that would continue up until the Qing emperor Kangxi over 1,000 years later. But in terms of records, he did set records in other areas too – for example, territorial expansion of Han culture, which would last until the Tang dynasty. Furthermore, he also set up Confucianism as the state philosophy/religion which stayed up until the fall of the Qing dynasty. Now other religions came were obviously present in China as well, such as Daoism and Buddhism. But I will do an entire episode on the Silk road and what travelled to China on the road, Buddhism being probably the most important thing.
But of course, as soon the emperor died, the Han dynasty pretty began to decline. The biggest reason being that all of these military campaigns and heavy taxes were now beginning to add up, and it was just a case of the costs beginning to outweigh the benefits really. So pretty much, after Han Wudi died, the Han dynasty pretty much said ‘no more conquering’, almost like a Pax Romana if you wanna compare it to ancient Rome. ‘We have basically reached the full capacity of our boundaries, and can no longer expand further’. Now speaking of Rome, it was during this time that you would have the rise of the Caesar’s and the fall of the Roman republic which would then be replaced by the Roman Empire.
There were other problems too, after the rise of such a prominent figure who controlled so much within the imperial court and who indeed centralised power to himself – it begs the question – what will happen after he’s gone? And this was on the mind of lots of people... And as a result, when the new emperor was crowned, emperor Lu Fuling, also called emperor Zhao, there was a bit of a power grab, as the new head of state simply couldn’t control his imperial court. With the lack of control, and the sudden expansion of administrators for the new regime in the newly conquered territories, allowed corruption to become a real problem within the imperial treasury. So the governmental concerns and the economic concerns pretty much tied hand in hand and the dynasty began to decline.
What this allowed to happen though, was the rise of a new figure within the political spectrum, and his name was Wang Mang. Now I’m not gonna lie I’ve fast-forwarded a little bit in time here, 8 new Han emperors had been and went since the rise of Wang Mang, well... Actually... It’s more like 7 – as Wang Mang convinces the 8th emperor since Han Wudi, Liu Ying, who didn’t even get a posthumous title because he abdicated for his powerful minister! That’s a sad state of affairs...
But what about Wang Mang, was he a great guy or a power-hungry tyrant? Did convince many people to join his side in de-throning the Han with great ideals, or did he do this with the point of a sword? Well, let’s find out shall we!
Wang Mang was born in 45BC to not the worst of circumstances, his family were descendants of the former state of Qi’s nobility, and they were rather close with the imperial family. So you could argue that Wang Mang came from a certain degree of comfort, he wasn’t exactly a peasant who worried about crop failures or anything, that’s for sure. However, Wang Mang was of a low rank considering his heritage, but it didn’t stop Wang Mang from rising through the ranks. Now you must be asking, why did he rise through the ranks? The main reason is that the Wang family had a bit of a bad rep for being wasteful, for example his cousins had competition on who could spend the most money in a single day. I’ll just leave it up to your imagination what they spent the money on... Whereas Wang Mang was different – he didn’t dress like a flash noble, you know with the expesive hats, jade jewlery and the finest silk money could buy. Wang Mang dressed like a humble, Confucian scholar.
And indeed that’s what he seemed to aspire to, whilst his family members went out and got smashed on the drink, Wang Mang would study the classics. Being a staunch Confucian helped Wang Mang to understand the concept of 小心 (xiao xin) – which means filial piety to ones parents. Wang Mang showed great respect to his peers, and great respect amongst scholars and government officials, who began to take notice of the man. Wang Mang, with this background and connection to the royal family, and his studies, made him a strong candidate when government posts came up, which they did. Wang Mang then began to rise through the ranks quickly, and what is strange about the dude is this: the more government posts he got, so the more pay/power he got, the more humble he became! Sounds like the modern day president of Uruguay at this rate who literally lives in a shack! Wang Mang was similar! I mean, he didn’t live in a shack, but he didn’t spend any of the extra money on lavish parties, expensive jewellery, hunting trips or even concubines (speaking of which, he only kept one) but instead donated most of his earnings to scholar work and to the peasantry. This of course, granted him even more respect amongst the nobility within the Imperial Court at the time, by the time Wang Mang was 37, he rose to the highest rank within the court, and had became very close to emperor. Emperor Cheng, the guy who had been promoting Wang Lang, died in 7CE, and left his son Liu Ying was named his successor with Wang Lang as his regent.
Now everyone thought that this was a great idea, but it actually turned out to be the end of the dynasty (temporarily). Wang Lang looked at the world around him, seen what was going on, for example a ruined economy and a corrupt government alongside with a heavily taxed peasantry – then decided to take the ultimate step – he would use his position as regent to dethrone the young emperor Liu Ying.
This is where debate comes in this respect – what Wang Lang does as emperor hits with a lot of backlash at the time and was later demonised as the horrible usurper that the restored Han dynasty said he was. But then you have scholars who praised his efforts, and even Mao Zedong praised him as the ‘first socialist ruler of China’. Now I am not gonna get into the politics of today, but I mean, the fact that Mao Zedong said this about the guy means a lot – it shows he had a big impact even if he didn’t reign long.
So speaking of that, what was the name of his new dynasty gonna be? He called it the Xin dynasty – Xin in Chinese literally means new, so in other words, he called it the new dynasty. The name is rather fitting to be fair, the Han had been 200 years old now, and Wang Mang wanted to make changes which bring about a new social order. The Xin dynasty only lasted from 9CE to 23 CE, so a grand total of 14 years! Not even as long as the Qin dynasty... And to be fair, it probably didn’t have such a great impact like the Qin did, particularly because the Han get back in power after the death of Wang Lang and his newly create dynasty.
Now on to the reforms themselves. To try and rejuvenate the dwindling Han economy, Wang Mang decided to take on a more socialist side of things, as the praises from Mao may have suggested already. For example, he created almost like a ‘Robin Hood’ tax, in other words, he taxed the rich heavier than ever before, in order to reinvest the money into poorer communities. Further to this, he also gave the poor loans from the state, to help them in times of famine.
However, his 2 most memorable reforms were these:
Nationalise ALL land in the empire. And when I say nationalise, I mean nationalise... It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, the land belonged to the state from 9AD. Wang Mang even wrote:
““The strong, possess lands by the thousands of mu, while the weak have nowhere to place a needle."
What he is referring to here is the fact that wealthy nobles and merchants had managed to buy up all of China’s land, and then basically held the peasantry to ransom. If there was a famine and the peasants couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted. All of this, Wang Mang tried to change, by ensuring all land belonged to the state. Now some of you may be thinking, why bother? Why bother helping the working people when nobody else would, and when they couldn’t defend themselves? And yeah, you’d be right, but he did this, I believe, for 3 reasons. It let people see that Wang Mang was benevolent, and by demonstrating he was better than Han emperors, he had the Mandate of Heaven. Also, Wang Mang believed that would help the economy to recover, and therefore the realm would be more prosperous. And FINALLY, it coincided with Confucian values, which Wang Mang was all about. I think it is important to note here too, that in Han China, the social hierarchy was seen as in different ways to the West. At the top you’d have the imperial family and lords (like everywhere else in the world) but the people who came second were the peasantry – the farmers. These people, the Chinese believed, were the backbone of society, and without them everyone would starve! At the bottom, were the merchants. The merchant classes were always looked down upon by scholars and nobles alike, just because they don’t actually produce anything... They make money from moving goods around, and it was from this they made lots of money. This in turn, allowed the merchant classes to rise in terms of wealth, to the same levels of nobility. Then of course, they could bribe their way into government. Wang Mang wouldn’t have liked that one bit.
Wang Mang also tried to re-introduduce a fantasy that scholars believed to be true at the time, which was the way farming was conducted during the times of the Zhou dynasty. This was the Jing system. The idea being that the farmers get about 5 acres of land each, they farm in their fields and arrange them to look like the character ‘Jing’. What would then happen is the state collect the crops in the middle of the farming formation almost which would be like a tax, and it would amount to around 10%. Wang Mang believed that 5 acres was enough to support one family, it should be enough! Turned out he was pretty wrong. Very wrong... People began to struggle rather quickly...
So, how many people has Wang Mang managed to piss off so far?
Does the list continue? Not really, but there is one other drastic reform that Wang Mang tries to implement which is worth mentioning. This is the reforms on currency.
To monopolise government control on gold, Wang Mang ordered all of the gold that could be collected, to be brought to the capital and to the stored in the imperial palace. Now note, this wasn’t for him to use on his own pleasures, but it was more like a bank that stores it’s gold reserves. That included all of the gold coins that were currently in circulation, and Wang Mang replaced them with 4 bronze denominations of purely nominal value—round coins with values of one and 50 cash and larger, knife-shaped coins worth 500 and 5,000 cash. Since Wang's 50-cash coins had only 1/20th the bronze per cash as his smallest coins did, and his 5,000-cash coins were minted with proportionally even less, the effect was to substitute fiduciary currency for a Han dynasty gold standard. Surprisingly, the effects of these changes were felt not just in Han/Xin China, but imperial Rome as well. Emperor Augustus was forced to ban the purchase of expensive imported silks with what had become—mysteriously, from the Roman point of view—irreplaceable gold coins. With hindsight, we know where those gold coins went – into the new imperial treasury. These bronze coins that Wang Mang introduced, were easily counterfeited which then inflated prices for goods, which didn’t bold well for anyone. So now on the list, who has Wang Mang pissed off?
And the Romans!
So it was a shame for Wang Mang, he was trying his best to make things better, and things just kept getting worse for the dude. Land reforms had backfired, monetary reforms had backfired. He has annoyed pretty much everyone close to him, what else could possibly go wrong?
Earthquake? A flood?
Oh great, there was an earthquake and the Yellow River changed course AGAIN, which has resulted in another flood, AGAIN. So if you were in any doubt, who has Wang Mang managed to piss off since seizing power?
Everyone? Yes, everyone!
It was at this stage, that everyone, or more or less everyone, turned against Wang Mang, and rebellions sprung up everywhere.
One of the most famous of these rebellions were the Chi Mei Jing (赤眉軍), or in other words – the red eyebrows. Now where does the name come from? It comes from one of the battles against Wang Mang and the leaders, unsure on how to tell who was fighting who, the rebels came up with the idea to paint their eyebrows red so they knew who was who! Surely different coloured clothes would do? Why the eyebrows? I mean... I guess it’s a psychological weapon, right? If I was in the imperial army I’d stop a minute to ask the guy next to me, ”dude, why they got red eyebrows?”
Regardless, after sending his forces against the rebels, the Imperial Army under Wang Mang were completely destroyed and Chang’an was the target of the rebels. What didn’t help the imperial army was that they were didn’t have any self-discipline, so literally burned down homes and treated the locals so poorly! So the people who had nothing to do with the war, decided to join and aide the rebels!
By the time the year 23 was coming around, Wang Mang new he was done for, and but rather than trying to run away, he stayed in the capital and met his fate. It seems though, that Wang Mang decided to leave the humble life behind, and chased the most basics of human pleasures with his final few weeks left. He even sent magicians to his palace to perform spells on him and according to some sources, he even took drugs during this time.
It’s summed up nicely here by by numismatist (guy who collects coins) Rob Tye:
“Such excesses seemed out of character for Wang, a Confucian scholar and renowned ascetic.
“Frankly, my own assessment is that he was high on drugs for most of the period," Tye writes. “Knowing all was lost, he chose to escape reality, seeking a few last weeks of pleasure."
Frankly, I agree with Rob here, if I knew I only had a few weeks to live and I was an emperor, I’m pretty sure I’d do my very best to get as far away from reality as possible. However, the short lived Xin dynasty started the Wang Mang’s usurpation of power in 9CE and ended with his death in year 23. The 14 years in power can be divided roughly in half, with the first 8 years of his rule with a pursuit of reforms and the final 6 years characterised by fighting rebellions. It is said that when rebels stormed the imperial palace and killed Wang Mang, the cut his body to pieces, and one source even saying that someone cut his tongue out and ate it!
This turns me to the final part of this episode – was Wang Mang China’s first socialist as he has been claimed to be? A Or was he power hungry usurper that he is depicted to be?
It’s actually rather difficult to say to be honest, the reason being is the total lack of sources. No primary sources really say why he usurped power, just that he did. But the restored Han dynasty (which I will discuss in a later episode) did their very best to make Wang Lang out to be a horrible usurper of power. He is known as one of the worst Xiao Ren 小人 (villain) in Chinese history even today. But I mean, is this reputation deserved?
Hu Shih, a Chinese diplomat and scholar in the early to mid-20th century published a study giving Wang Lang a bit of a better reputation. For example, he said Wang Lang wasn’t at fault, but it was the Han dynasty! As they had produced a bunch of incompetent rulers to oversee the dynasty – a usurpation was inevitable. Furthermore, speaking of the usurpation of power from Wang Mang, it was a peaceful one. The first one ever in Chinese history. And to be honest, I think it’s only 1 of 2? Maybe 3 at a push...
Sure, he tried some radical reforms that seemed to help the working man so to speak, so it could be argued that he was socialist, but ultimately the reforms he tried to pursue backfired spectacularly which angered the subjects of the empire he took over. I guess, we will never know Wang Mang’s true intentions when it comes to the reforms, he pursued and what kind of person he truly was. Did he see himself as a messenger of heaven to sort out the mess that those under it found themselves in? Or was he really just a power-hungry tyrant? This is the beauty of history sometimes – I guess we will never know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t guess! What do you think of Wang Mang? Feel free to let me know!
Episode 27 - The Silk Road
I thought that before moving forward, I need to at least dedicate 1 episode to the famous Silk Road.
Now for those of us who study history, we know what the Silk Road was, but for those who maybe don’t – it was simply a trade route between East and West. It was officially opened during the Han dynasty, however the trade links between East and West have lasted longer than around 200 BC. I already talked about this with the use of Chariots during the Shang dynasty – the Chinese didn’t invent their own chariots – the technology was learned from the empires in Central Asia.
This episode will break into 4 major blocks – the first, a brief overview of how the bloody silk road even came into existence, the second part will be all about the commodities that were traded, there was a wide range of products to be traded, and merchants were very keen to make the journey between East and West in search of riches, but what products were the most lucrative?
The final two parts will talk about China’s major exporter, which was the real money-maker, and if you may have guessed, it was silk. So I will discuss how silk was actually made and who wanted the silk in the first place. Then after that, I obviously need to talk about China’s major import, which may surprise some people, as it wasn’t a material object, but a religion, a religion we know today as Buddhism.
But anyway, on with the show.
So how did the silk road come into existence? I suppose it can be argued that people always wanted to explore, and traders always wanted to exploit new markets, and therefore travelled through Central Asia to Europe or East Asia. However, what made this possible, was the Royal Roads built by the Achaemenid Empire under the leadership of Darius I between the years of 522 – 486 BC. Darius pushed a lot of reforms into the empire, and in particular infrastructure projects such as the royal roads, and the building of luxurious temples and all sorts. I always find it ironic that Darius did this, declared war on the Greeks, tried to invade then failed, then his son tried it and also failed, then Alexander used the ‘great’ road system to conquer the empire he improved. However, despite the roads being mostly an imperial postal service, it was also used by the military, and then of course where the army goes, merchants usually follow. Naturally, the Greek empires that came after the Achaemenid empire and split apart after Alexander’s death then added to this imperial road system and there was a great exchange of cultures between the Greeks and their Persian subjects – eventually merchants would have stumbled across the realm we know today as China, and Wala, you have the silk road. But like I said, this road was operating unofficially for centuries before the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, it’s important to note that the silk road officially opened in around 200BC with the Han dynasty, as they openly tried to protect merchants exporting their beautiful silk from their empire over to the West.
So now, on with the second part of this podcast – what goods were actually traded? What was desired by the West from the East and vice versa. Now I will start with what the West exported, there is no reason behind this apart from the fact that I will move on to China’s major export and how it was made after, so it will be a smooth transition. Now then, the highly sought out goods from the East was things like:
- Saddles and Riding Tack
- The grapevine and grapes
- Animal furs and skins
- Woolen blankets, rugs, carpets
- Textiles (such as curtains)
- Gold and Silver (silver becoming so important to Chinese currency in later dynasties)
- Weapons and armor
Now horses was a major deal for the Han dynasty – the Han actually went to war for the beautiful horses of the West with the Greek city state Dayuan. Emperor Wu was the sovereign of the Han dynasty at the time, so you know how that went... However, these heavenly horses were said to be powerful and mighty, but more importantly, superior to that of the Xiongnu who were still causing the Han emperor a headache.
So that is the commodities that were traded to the East, now what about East to West?
- Precious Stones like rubies etc.
- China (plates, bowls, cups, vases)
- Spices (such as cinnamon and ginger)
- Gunpowder (now of course gunpowder came during the Song dynasty, however it’s still worth a mention)
So that was the commodities that not only the ancient Chinese exported to the West, but ancient India as well. It’s important to note here – that the Silk Road should actually be called the Silk Roads considering that there was more than one route from West to East or East to West.
So now that we have dealt with the commodities that were traded, what was China’s biggest exporter? It was of course silk. But why? Silk today, and I mean the real deal silk, is actually still expensive. That’s because it is extremely labour intensive. Which brings me on to my next point, how silk is made. Now this may surprise a few people, but silk comes from a type of worm, and it has been given the name the silk worm. Weaving silk comes in 5 stages. The first is that the silk worms are hatched, and then fed fresh mulberry leaves. The worms when they first hatch then gorge themselves on the leaves for about 2 weeks, and then begin to build themselves a cocoon. Once the cocoon is completed – they then get boiled. Don’t worry animal rights activists, the worm doesn’t get boiled alive inside its cocoon, that would be stupid, they wait for the worm to leave its cocoon, then boil the fibres it leaves behind, which after-all is silk! The boiling process is only there to remove the sticky gum-like substance that holds the strands of silk together. Once that has been done, the silk makers then defloss the silk, in other words, make the material finer as there might be fuzzy bits after the boiling process. Then once this has been done, the silk fibres can begin to be untangled, then the silk gets dyed. Now traditionally, natural dyes were used, so dye from fruits etc, would be put into a mixture with the silk to give it it’s colour, then once that is done, they would spin the silk, which would lay the silk down flat onto a surface in preparation for weaving. Once silk has been weaved into clothing, it could be printed, which is basically fancy patterns of dragons or whatever you want on the clothes. The secret of how silk was made was kept by the Chinese for centuries, well and beyond the Han dynasty, as it was the biggest money maker of the time. I did a little research on just how much silk actually cost in ancient Rome, and it would seem depending on the time, it varied, which makes sense. However, the most general overview I can give is that 1 pound of silk cost around 300 denarii – a Roman soldier’s salary for 1 year!!!!!!! Now again, this depended on the which stage of the Roman empire you are referring to, as with time Roman currency almost became worthless however, all I know that silk was bloody expensive in Ancient Rome, and it was highly sought after by the upper classes, thus creating a huge source of revenue for the Chinese, especially because nobody else knew where silk actually came from or how it was made, it was only up until the Byzantine empire that we see Europeans actually making silk themselves (after a mission to steal Chinese silk worms which was a success).
This leaves me with my last and final part to today’s episode – which was the major and most influential import into China, and that was Buddhism. Buddhism, as you may or may not know, began in modern day Nepal or India, with a man named Siddhartha Gautama at around 500 BC. Gautama was born into an aristocratic family and by all accounts, had all the pleasures that life could ever ask for, he lived the high life. However, he was never allowed to leave his palace of luxury, it is said, that his father wanted to protect him from the dangers outside the walls of the palace. Anyway, being curios Siddartha managed to get outside the walls, and what he seen horrified him, horrified him so much that he chose to abandon the pleasures his birth entitled him to, and chose an ascetic life. He travelled around for a while, and then met some other monks who were also ascetic, and they chose to meditate under trees, searching for the meaning of life. Siddhartha Gautama meditated under a tree for 40 days and nights, basically almost starving himself to death, he even said himself that during that time if he pressed his hands between his back and stomach, he could feel them touching each other! But on the 40th day – he finally achieved Nirvana/enlightenment. And it was from here that he would be called Buddha, which means the enlightened one. Now Buddhism as a religion, basically tries to end human suffering, that is the aim. How does it do this? Well according to Buddha, human suffering comes within, all of the joys in life, you know eating, sex, drinking, etc. make humans want more of it, and because humans want more of it, they will never be happy unless the can feed their addictions almost. The only way to stop suffering, was to stop wanting. If you feel yourself wanting something, then move away from it. That’s why Buddhist monks never take a wife, and they do not own any material possessions etc.
Now, this podca st episode isn’t about Buddhism as a religion, to be honest, you could probably have an entire show dedicated to Buddhism as a whole, so I hope my very, very brief overview was enough for you.
But back to the silk road stuff, Buddhism first made its appearance in China during the Han dynasty, and from there it’s roots would cling into Chinese society and way of life, very gradually, but effectively. The Chinese people for the most part, were pretty accepting of the religion as it gradually made its presence more and more known, and even mixed Buddhist traditions with their own Daoist or Confucian ones. However, this happened with later dynasties. Now this was a big deal, as Buddhism in China today, is the largest religion within the country, and all it started with was a few followers of the Buddha travelling along the silk road into China and teaching the local peoples there, then from there it spread throughout China. Quite remarkable, isn’t it?
However, it wasn’t always peaceful like this – during the Northern and Southern dynasties period it was militant Buddhists who took over the northern parts of China and forced Buddhism on the people, however, that is a story for another time.
Episode 28 - Dragon boat festival SPECIAL!
Like I said in my podcast last week, in China we were celebrating the Dragon Boat festival. So this week, I thought it would be a good idea to talk of the legend behind the Dragon Boat festival and where it comes from. Afterall, it is still celebrated today, and this legend happened thousands of years ago. So this week we are moving away from our narrative story (again) and are focusing on something that happened way before the end of the Western Han dynasty, we are going back, to the Warring States Period or, zhang guo shi ji.
If you do not know what the warring states period is, then I suggest you head on back to episode 15, where I dedicated an entire episode to the Warring States), it would probably also be worth your while to look at the Spring and Autumn Period while you are there, or Chun Qiu.
But for now, lets hop into our time machine and head on back to the Warring States Period where the legend for the Dragon Boat festival begins, with a man named Chu Yuan.
Chu Yuan was born at around 340 BC in what is modern day Hubei province (you all know where Hubei proivince by now, think of COVID’s starting point), but anyway, he was born to a noble family in the state of Chu. With the right background, Chu Yuan excelled at his scholarly ways, and soon became a high-ranking government minister for his intelligence. Chu Yuan was an incredibly stubborn man, who championed political loyalty to ones’ sovereign and to keep independence, in particular as the state of Qin was growing increasingly more powerful.
Chu Yuan, to counter this threat, advised King Chu to form alliances with the other states, as it was clear it was needed in order to survive the state of Qin’s armies. However, jealous ministers and scholars of Chu Yuan, managed to turn the king against him, and he was exiled.
During his time in exile, Chu Yuan would write poems dedicated to the love of his country, and also of romance. Chu Yuan is known as one of the greatest poems ever in Chinese literature, as he even made up his own style to poetry. Now normally, Chinese poetry follows a 4 character line structure. So, 1 line in the poem is 4 characters, and the last character usually is a play on the tones from the last character in the last line. Think of it in the sense that we make our poems rhyme... That’s the idea anyway. But what Chu Yuan did was different, he didn’t stick to just 4 characters in a line, but wrote as many as he wanted to tell his story. The style became known as Sao, and it influenced many poets in the future, particularly in the Tang dynasty.
Now amazingly, Chu Yuan’s poems pretty much all survived, well, the famous ones anyway, and you can still read them today in a book called the Chu Ci, which roughly translated, is Chu Poems, or Poems of the South. Nothing fancy, but it’s simple and effective. The Chu Ci is a book of not only Chu Yuans poems, but also other poets from the era as well like Song Yu.
So like I said, Chu Yuan, during his time in exile, wrote all of these poems, and spoke of the wonders of his country (which was Chu) there wasn’t a unified ‘China’ yet, and as time passed by he became increasingly alarmed with what was going on elsewhere. It is said, that in times of depression, Chu Yuan would go to visit a well, where he would stare at his miserable expression and sigh. This well, apparently, you can stil see today in Hubei province, and it’s called the ‘Face Reflection Well’.
Finally, the Qin juggernaut had made it’s move, and it was only a matter of time before the last state, his state, was gonna meet it’s end. By 278 BC, the Chu king had been captured, and their capital Ying, had also been captured by the Qin general Bai Qi. Upon hearing the news, Chu Yuan, in his depressed state, wrote his final poem, titled ‘Lament for Ying’, upon completion, Chu Yuan wondered over to the Miluo river, tied a rock to his body and threw himself into the river. This was his last defiance to the Qin, he said he would rather die, than submit to a foreign ruler, especially those tyrants of the Qin, and with that, he died.
The local people when seeing this, tried frantically to find his body, but couldn’t find him. So to stop fish and evil spirits from eating him/or taking him away, they frantically threw rice into the river in an attempt to save him, the beat drums around river as loud as they could and they splashed their paddles into the water to ward them all away.
However, a few days later, Chu Yuan’s spirit did appear over the river, and he said that he didn’t die because of fish or through drowning, but because of a river dragon. Qu Yuan told the people who saw him to stop throwing rice into the river, but instead to wrap their rice into triangular patches of silk as an offering to the Dragon. That was on the 5thday of the 5th month within the Lunar Calendar, and from that day onwards, the peoples around the river would throw in their rice patches wrapped in silk into the Miluo river to honour Qu Yuan’s unwavering loyalty and patriotism, but also to honour the dragon within the river. And that my friends, is the end of the story, and how the Dragon Boat Festival came into being.
Nowadays, Qu Yuan is probably the most famous poet in China, as China right now, is feeling very patriotic, so naturally the government encourages students in schools to recite AT LEAST 1 of his poems. It’s like back in Scotland, we get a Rabbie Burns day, where everyone eats haggis, neeps and tatties and recite the poems of Robert Burns over a whisky.
The Duan Wu festival, is similar to that. People remember Qu Yuan’s loyalty to his state and eat Zongzi. Zongzi is the adaptation of the rice in silk patches, nowadays, it’s sticky rice wrapped reed leaves. The rice is also filled with either beans and dates OR with meat. I’m not gonna lie, I think they taste pretty good, so I am not gonna complain about eating them at least once a year. As well as this, the dragon boat festival’s name suggests some other aspects to the festival – and you are right! People decorate their boats with dragons (obviously) and participate in races along the Yangtze, Miluo, Pearl and many more rivers! The Dragon Boat Festival tends to happen between May and June, and it has been a tradition in China for over 2,000 years now, and it will likely never stop!
Next week, we will get back onto our narrative and our chronological podcast, which will be the Eastern Han Dynasty and it’s collapse.
Episode 29 - The Eastern Han Dynasty
Ok... I am hoping to cover the Eastern Han dynasty in one podcast... Boy, this is gonna be tough, but I will do my best. I think the best way to break this period down would be to discuss: The aftermath of the death of Wang Mang, the golden age that soon followed, and then the corruption that resulted from said golden age which then led on to rebellions, and one in particular where the rebels wore yellow scarves on their head.
But first, the Eastern Han period lasted from around 25AD until 220AD, and it is called the Eastern Han because when the Liu family took over once again, the new emperor, Liu Xiu moved the capital away from Chang’an and moved it over to Luoyang. However, how did the Han empire become restored? Well, lets go back a bit and look at the death of Wang Mang.
When Wang Mang was trying to, and failing to, deal with the red eyebrow rebels, many remnants of the Liu took advantage of the situation and began to rise up with their own families. After the rebels decapitated Wang Mang, they immediately installed a child on the throne, his name was Liu Penzi who was a member of the Liu family, in order to ‘restore’ the Han. The rebels were seen as the heroes of the common people, who had restored order to the world. However, that soon quickly fell apart... due to the decantralised nature of the rebels, they soon quickly fought amongst themselves, abandoned the politics, and with that, the capital and they simply just went home. It makes sense, the politics, years of fighting and a disease outbreaks within the armies too. Some of the soldiers probably just wanted to go home once the job was done!
Anyway, the rebels began to disperse and then 2 main rivals for power rose up. Both of whom were members of the Liu family. On one hand was the brothers Liu Yen and Liu Xiu and on the other was Liu Xuan. The first to act amongst all of the chaos where 11 different factions within the Han dynasty, or Liu family if you wanna call it that, rose up claiming they were the legitimate heirs to the throne was Liu Xuan. He acted first and became the emperor Han Geng Shi Di and to be frank, he wasn’t any good at his job. His pitiful reign of only 2 years between 23 – 25 Ad is rather self explanatory... He sent out generals to fight off rebels and remnants of supporters of Wang Mang, and left the governing to officials. So what could he do as emperor? Well... Party of course! And it is said that he indulged in a lot of pleasures. What also didn’t help, is that emperor Geng Shi Di basically didn’t know how to rule anyway, and as each month passed by he grew more and more isolated. Now it’s important to note that the red eyebrows were still at large during this time, and the emperor was simply unable to deal with them.
Amongst all of this chaos, and his growing paranoia of his fellow cousin Liu Yen, Liu Xuan made a critical error by having him assasinated. So whilst emperor Geng Shi Di was fumbling his way through Chinese court politics and making a mess of everything, Liu Xiu was working behind the scenes, building up support, all geared toward ‘revenge’ for his brother’s death.
Now you might be thinking that I said ‘revenge’ in a sarcastic way, and I kinda did, as the 2 brothers were also competing against each other for power, albeit, now blatantly, but nonetheless, they were competing. Evidence of this is the separate groups forming around the 2 contenders.
But again stupidly, Liu Xuan left Liu Xiu alive, why would you do that?... Don’t spare anyone if you are assassinating potential rivals... However, from everyone elses point of view, it was a good thing, as emperor Geng Shi Di was overthrown by those troublesome red eyebrows and just when everyone thought the country was about to fall to chaos again, it was Liu Xiu who appeared and proclaimed himself emperor. A brilliant military strategist, Liu Xuan bided his time and waited for the right time to strike, and why not let the rebels and imperial forces battle it out so he can take advantage of the situation? By 25AD, Liu Xiu had swooped through the Yellow River, defeated the red eyebrow rebels and then took over the mess. Luckily, Liu Xiu wasn’t an idiot, and slowly accumulated his power at Luoyang. The other warlords or members of the Liu family who had claimed power, were all gradually brought to heel over his early reign. Once power was firmly within Liu Xiu’s grasp, and peace finally restored, by 36 or 37AD, Liu Xiu granted himself the title Emperor Guang Wu Di. Emperor Guangwu reigned for 32 years altogether and brought order back to the empire. For example, he managed to lower taxes and allowed the economy to recover. Which set the stage for his son and successor, emperor Ming Di, and so the Han second golden age began.
It was during the reign of emperor Ming that Buddhism began to be accepted in China, and I will more than likely do a separate podcast on that, but for now, let’s get back to the Eastern Han.
Emperor Ming and his successor, Liu Da, or emperor Zhang ushered in the Han dynasties second golden age. 1 of China’s 4 great inventions was, well... Invented during this time. It was something that gets used even up to this very day, think about the time you took notes in class, or whenever you phone the bloody bank because something has went wrong – you ALWAYS have a notepad next to you. Well, you can thank the Han eunuch Cai Lun for that, as he experimented within the imperial palace, and found a way of processing hemp to make high quality paper. This truly was revolutionary, as beforehand, the nobles within China wrote on scrolls of bamboo, now I don’t know if you know this, but if you are an emperor and are governing an empire – bamboo slips becomes extremely heavy. Qin Shi Huang is even said to have noted how many decrees he wrote purely based on the amount of weight, which was at least 50kg or edicts... That is a hell of a lot!
But, with the invention of paper, well that means the beurocracy can actually function so much more effectively and quickly, as a piece of paper is lighter than a scroll of bamboo. Don’t get me wrong, the beurocracts still liked to keep their traditions, so they did wrap the paper in slips of bamboo, just to protect the contents inside it. But still, if it was a big spheel about something, it still only required one slip of paper folded into 1 bamboo scroll, rather than thousands of slips of bamboo.
With the bureaucracy doing so well, everything else seemed to recover from the interregnum period, the economy was booming once again, corruption had been rooted out, and even some territories, which were pretty much abandoned during the time of civil war, were retaken. All seemed all good and well for the Eastern Han.
But, what comes up, must eventually come crashing down.
With time being the killer of any empire, it seemed the Han dynasties time was up. For starters, the same bureaucracy that did so well in revitalising the Han, over time, became more corrupt. Powerful factions began to emerge within the Han court, and in particular, the eunuch faction. The eunuchs were not supposed to be involved in any politics, but as time went by, the Han emperors began to listen to the eunuchs over his ministers more and more. Beforehand, in times of famine, the imperial government handed out grain, allowed peasants to hunt on the hunting grounds of the nobility and lowered taxes. Whereas, towards the end of the dynasty, if there was a famine, taxes were increased, and no grain was given to the peasantry, all of the money that should have went to relieve the people, began to mysteriously disappear, and the eunuchs, all of a sudden, had palaces almost as big as the emperor. I’ll let you do the math, but you know what happened to that money. The central bureaucracy was paralysed by its own corruption. It’s safe to say that all it took was a little spark, to ignite the fires of rebellion, and it happened when there was a succession crisis at court, and then a rebellion led by Daoist ‘magician’ brothers, the Zhangs. Followers of the 3 brothers began to wear yellow scarves around their heads, and the rebellion became known as the Yellow Turban rebellion. Or in Chinese, huan jin qi yi. The Han dynasty, surprisiginly, were surprised by this rebellion, which is just insane, considering how things were going at this point in history. The rebellion gained a huge amount of momentum and by 184AD many followers flocked to the cause. The Han dynasty responded in a uniquely stupid way, they didn’t really have an army to deal with the uprising as it was off way into the frontiers, so the dynasty had to rely on local strong men, or basically feudal lords to clean up the mess. The rebellion was instantly cleared away by the likes of Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Jian, to name a few. Now keep those 3 names in mind, they are very famous in China even today, and you can guarantee I will talk about them in more depth in the future. The rebellion was completely crushed by 185AD, the warlords were better equipped, trained and just smarter than the rabble of farmers literally with farming tools rather than weapons. Despite the war only lasting a year though, over 1 million people died as a result of this rebellion. Now, the Han dynasty faced a new and even larger problem – the very warlords who they sent to crush the rebellion. Everyone who participated in the military action against the rebels knew that the Han dynasty was on it’s last legs, and tried to gain more power for themselves whilst all saying they were fighting for the Han dynasty. So it would go like ‘this guy wants to usurp power! Kill him’ and it went around like that. All it took was something like, oh I dunno, a succession crisis? The emperor is dead with 2 sons who are not of age yet you say? Hallelujah! It soon became a three for all, and many warlords rose up fighting for control of the realm, there were so many lords that I could mention, and it would make Game of Thrones look like a childrens book to be honest, however, I am not gonna do that here, I am gonna skim over this just now, and then explain the complexities of what exactly happened in future episodes. Considering we are dealing with the Eastern Han dynasty alone with this episode, I kinda wanna keep it related to the Eastern Han. The final nail in the coffin was when one of these warlords, a man named Dong Zhuo swooped in from Xiliang in the North West and took control of the imperial family. Dong Zhuo killed the older of the 2 brothers and then put the young Han emperor on the throne, then named himself chancellor. A reign of terror sweaped through the imperial court and nobody dared defy the mad general. This is when we begin to see the emergence of the 3 kingdoms period, and my episodes are kinda gonna overlap here. But suffice it to say, Dong Zhuo gets his cummupings and it is here, that the young emperor would fall into the hands of Cao Cao, and he would remain a puppet of the Cao family up until he deposed by Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi in 220AD. Almost 400 years of rule, a golden age, new inventions and a time of (relative) peace during that time, apart from a few blips, was all over. You’d think the emperor would have went out with a bang, but actually, it was already clear the Han dynasty was long gone, and the 3 kingdoms period had ‘officially’ begun.
Now you be thinking, Deano, you have completely skimmed over the rebellion and everything else after the Han began to decline!! And yes, you are right, but there is a reason for this. I believe that the Yellow Turbans deserve their own episode, as to being a major contributor to the Han dynasty collapsing, so I wanna go in more depth as to the ins and outs of the rebellion and how it got crushed. Then, that can set us up rather nicely for the 3 kingdoms era. For the 3 kingdoms, I am actually unsure on how to approach it... On one hand, I LOVE the book Romance of the 3 kingdoms, but on the other, this is a Chinese history podcast, not a 3 kingdoms one. So I don’t think it’s fair to spend so much time on a period that only lasted around 80 years, when China’s history lasts 5,000. It’s a numbers game here – so what I will do, is explain the 3 Kingdoms period, discuss what happened and it’s legacy and then move on. HOWEVER, with future episodes, and particularly once I have covered all of the different dynasties in China’s history. I will definitely be revisiting the 3 Kingdoms period and going more romance mode on it.
But that will be for my podcast episode next week. I hope you enjoyed this episode!
Episode 30 - The Yellow Turban Rebellion
For just a moment, I am going to take you back to the life of a peasant during the time JUST BEFORE the outbreak of the Yellow Turban Rebellion.
The year is 183AD, since I was a child, all I have known is to farm and prepare for floods or famines accordingly. However, when I was a child, I remember my grandfather telling me about the greatness of the Han government, how in times of crisis the government would support us, they lowered taxes and of course, the military conquests! Whereas now, things seem like they have been completely turned upside down and inside out!!! You were supposed to pay a regulated tax amount every year in grain, and that was it. But now?? Government troops and officials come more and more regularly demanding more and more taxes, and for who?!!?! The emperor and his armies for further conquests or to defend the empire?? NOOOO... It is for that disgusting half-man faction who ‘advise’ the emperor. Of course, it’s the eunuchs. Imagine that, the emperor is so blind to the corruption within his own court because the 10 attendants/top 10 eunuchs, control EVERYTHING whilst building up a nice wee fortune for themselves.
Long pause (Allow for music to build atmosphere)
(Sigh) The Yellow River has flooded... AGAIN! And of-course back in the days of grandad, the taxes would have been lowered to help us peasants to ride through the disaster, but of course here we are and on que the tax collectors have arrived, demanding more taxes to help ‘repair’ the damages. Yeah right... More like repair one of the many estates of eunuchs or their friends. To make matters worse, my wife was injured in the flooding, how could I pay for a doctor? How can I help her? What am I gonna do?
That’s when, that’s when I heard of 3 healer brothers called Da Yi – Zhang Jue, Zhang Liang and Zhang Bao. They supposedly heal people for free! I heard they weren’t far from here, I better over there and see if they can help.
After travelling a few days, I made it to the Zhang’s. The rumours are true! They help people and don’t charge ANYTHING! I still remember the conversation with master Zhang Jue, when I asked him if he would charge me, he said:
“Why would I charge you when the government in LuoYang bleed you dry?”
Those words shook me more than any storm or earthquake could. But just when I thought I couldn’t be more impressed, the 3 brothers performed a chant and used some elixir which healed my wife’s wounds!
After much discussion, I found my views on the government and that of Master Zhang’s aligned, and not even just the government, but even our ways of life! He then told me;
“The time of the Han will soon be at an end.”
“How do you know this?”
He grinned at me, and said;
“Because I intend to take it down. Will you join me in my quest to follow Heaven’s mandate brother?”
“Of-course” I said without hesitation, and with that, I had signed up to not just a small rebellion, but a mass movement with hundreds of thousands of brothers. Soon, we will take down the Han and the Yellow Sky will rise!!!!!”
So please note, that I did fabricate this story based on the facts that I read. But this is how the rebellion got such a large following when it did kick off in 184 AD. The Han court at this stage, was completely crippled by its own corruption. The emperor of the time, Emperor LingDi, had relied on the eunuch faction within his court, and the eunuchs gave themselves more and more power. The 10 attendants or the Shi Chang Shi were the most powerful of these eunuchs and abused their powers. They could release imperial edicts on behalf of the emperor, whilst simultaneously blocking any other proposals by other factions within the court. The eunuchs, and in essence, the imperial court, didn’t help the peasants in any way, and when natural disasters occurred, like the Yellow River flooding, or a famine or a locust swarm sweeping through the land, the imperial court didn’t do anything to relieve these people, but in fact made their burdens worse by taxing them further. Furthermore, rebellions had already broken out previous to the Yellow Turbans and nothing had really been done about them. To make matters worse, rich landowners took advantage of people’s hardships and basically enslaved tenants who couldn’t pay rent. This extremely harsh way of life with absolutely no escape made people turn to banditry or 3 Daoist doctors who toured around North of the Yellow River and treated people for free. These 3 brothers were Zhang Jue, Zhang Liang and Zhang Bao. Apparently, on their travels, Zhang Jue found a sacred Daoist text in a cave and learned spells and healing powers. It was here that he prophesised the Han would end soon. As the brothers travelled the land, they gathered a following, as it was said Zhang Jue was a magician who performed medical miracles which included herbal elixirs and chants, as well as teaching people how to live by the right path or Dao. What is surprising though, is that 2 major sources of information that scholars go to, to get this information – the Hou Han Shu (Later Han Book) or the San Guo Zhi (Records of the 3 kingdoms) don’t have a biography of Zhang Jue and his brothers leading up to the rebellion, and for the most part... They don’t focus on the Yellow Turbans’ activities during the rebellion, rather the contrary, they focus on the generals who were sent out to pacify the regions where Yellow Turbans took over. The Yellow Turbans activities themselves barely get a mention, apart from such and such a general took over such and such a commandry by killing the leader there. But we do know is this:
The harsh lives of the peasants, the natural disasters and the corruption of the Imperial court combined with the preaching and teaching of the Zhang brothers led the people to believe that the Han dynasty had lost the mandate of heaven, all of these events and lines of thought intertwined and set China onto a path of a rebellion with much bloodshed.
Zhang Jue had managed to infiltrate the imperial court with one of his trustees, Ma Yuanyi, which again, just highlights how corrupt the imperial court was... Ma Yuanyi actually managed to convince a couple of the eunuchs in the 10 attendents to join Zhang Jue’s cause! All the plans were almost set in motion, and the date was set for the 3rd of April, 184. However, the plans were leaked to the imperial court by a man named Tang Zhou, who felt he wasn’t included in the plans.
Emperor Ling, completely taken aback by the plan to rebel, executed Ma Yuanyi by dismemberment and then had thousands of other co-conspirators in LuoYang rounded up then executed.
When Zhang Jue caught wind of this, he started the rebellion immediately and proclaimed ‘The way of Great Peace’ at around February or March in 184. I find that ironic, he called it the great way of peace, but called for a hell of a lot of violence to achieve that peace...
But regardless, Zhang Jue was named The general of Heaven or tiangong jiangjun （天公清狛）, Zhang Liang was named the general of Earth or digong jiangjun (地公清狛)，Zhang Bao was named the general of Man or rengong jiangjun (人公清狛) which highlights the Daoist nature of the rebels – heaven, earth and man are all interconnected. Hundreds of thousands hear the call to arms, some report as many as 360,000 men joined the rebellion and they wore yellow scarves around their heads. Hence the name Huangjin (黄巾) or translated to English – Yellow Turbans or what it should correctly be called – the Yellow scarves rebellion. I mean come on, turbans aren’t even a Chinese item of clothing! But Yellow Turbans does seem to have a nicer ring to it.
When Zhang Jue called the people to arms, sources mention that he said:
Cang tian yi si, huang tian dang li
Sui zai jia zi, tian xia da ji
Translated to English, this says;
The azure sky is already dead, the yellow sky will rise
When the year is jiazi, there will be prosperity under heaven
But I must admit, the Chinese version sounds more elegant. This declaration by Zhang Jue, became the rebels’ slogan and they would chant this, amongst other chants, before running into battle.
The imperial government, like a few rebellions before it, didn’t really do anything about the rebellion until it spread across the entire Han empire. The emperor and the imperial court simply didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation, and it was clear that this rebellion was more than just a small revolt, but rather the contrary. The Zhang brothers begun the rebellion North to the Yellow River Yu province, modern day Henan province. However, this wasn’t the only place people heeded the call and took up arms. Rebels rose up in You province, Jing province, Ji province, Xu province, Yang province and even as far as Chengdu. The whole empire was engulfed in the flames of rebellion and a bloody war broke out.
In order to deal with the rebels, Emperor Ling did 2 things: The first was that he allocated the tasks to local lords in their respective areas to defeat the rebels. The second was that he sent out officials from the imperial court like He Jin, Huangfu Song and Lu Zhi to lead the imperial armies under direct command of the imperial court to crush the rebels. The former would come back to the haunt the imperial court, as this allowed these lords to basically run their territory independently and it significantly weakened the central authority. But, more on that later.
At first, the lack of response from the imperial court and the sheer magnitude of the rebellion allowed the rebels to do well and take many commanderies within the provinces where they rebelled. However, once the Han juggernaut got going, it became a bit of a bloodbath.
For example, the Zhang brothers moved towards Zhulu commandry in modern day Hebei province but were defeated by Lu Zhi and were besieged in Guangzong county. It looked like the rebel leaders would be defeated there and then, but Lu Zhi was accused of treason by one of the eunuch’s back in Luoyang and he was escorted back to the capital as a prisoner. Dong Zhuo was then sent to replace the successful general and made a complete arse of the situation and was defeated by Zhang Jue’s rebel forces. Dong Zhuo was then replaced by Huangfu Song, who didn’t let the rebel forces breath, kept relentlessly attacking the rebel forces and gave them no time to rest. But, after a few days the rebel leader, Zhang Jue, had died of illness and his brother，Zhang Liang, took over the rebel army and under renewed leadership their resistance became stronger. Huangfu Song, mindful that his failure would probably mean getting fired or worse, executed, came up with a cunning plan.
Huangfu Song pretended that he was setting up for a lengthy siege, so simply block the rebels in the commandry and simply starve them out. The rebels had plenty of supplies, so they were quite happy to try and wait it out. But this is what Huangfu Song was counting on, he wanted the rebels to let their guard down, and after a few days, under the cover of darkness during the night, the Han forces rushed the commandry and unleashed their ferocity onto the enemy. The rebels, taken by surprise, were cut to pieces including their leader – Zhang Liang along with his brother Zhang Bao. 30,000 rebels were killed in the fighting alongside another 50,000 who tried to flee by crossing the Yellow River and ended up drowning.
After the battle was over, Huangfu Song found Zhang Jue’s dead body, decapitated him and then sent his head back to Luoyang, you’d think the failed rebellion was humiliating enough, right? But to chop the dudes head off after being dead a few days just seems cruel...
In the other provinces some of the local warlords really shone in their performances in dealing with the rebels, men such as Cao Cao, Sun Jian, Yuan Shu, Yuan Shao, Gongsun Zan and even a sandal weaver by the name of Liu Bei, who started his own militia to defeat the rebels with a butcher and pea seller. But, again, we will get to those guys later on.
The initial rebellion only lasted 10 months, and the sources such as Hou Hanshu or later Han book state that not just thousands, but millions of people died in this rebellion. Now, please be mindful that it is very likely that those numbers are greatly exaggerated, for example after one particular battle, Cao Cao said he killed over ‘1 million’ rebels. 1 million rebels in one place? It seems rather far-fetched. But why exaggerate the number in the first place? Well... Think about it, if Cao Cao did indeed kill 1 million rebels in a battle and reported it to the imperial court? That would win him great rewards! And who could prove him wrong? None of those dead rebels that’s for sure... Not to mention his subordinates, why would they doubt their commander? Afterall, it bolstered their reputation as well. But, what we can see from these figures, regardless of exaggeration, is the devastating effect on the population this rebellion had.
With the leaders dead, you’d think that the remnants of the Yellow Turbans would scatter to the hills and pray that they wouldn’t be discovered from participating in the rebellion. However, that wasn’t the case. Rebels kept sprouting up in the land 10 years after the initial rebellion!
For example, in the year 188, 4 years after the rebellion initially took place and 3 years after it was crushed, the White Wave bandits took up arms in Xi He commandry and allied themselves with the Xiongnu. Some 100,000 rebels participated and wreaked havoc across the land. However, when the emperor was fleeing from Chang’An after being relocated there by Dong Zhuo in 195 – the White Wave Bandits actually escorted him safely to Luo Yang, and from there a large chunk of them joined Cao Cao’s forces when he reacted first and *ahem* saved the emperor and relocated the imperial capital to Xu Chang, which was Cao Cao’s capital funnily enough.
Another group of rebels took up arms in Yan province in 192 and even killed the local governor there. The remaining officials fled to, you guessed it, Cao Cao, and asked him to be the new ruler of Yan province. Cao Cao for his part, was more than happy to oblige and lef his forces against the rebels and crushed them. The rebels, numbering over 300,000 surrendered to Cao Cao with their families. Cao Cao formed them into elite units known as the qingzhou bing (青州兵) or in English, Qing Zhou army. It was these elite units that decide the fate of the north in later years when Cao Cao faced off against Yuan Shao.
There were other Yellow Turban remnants as well, for example in the 190’s Yellow Turban leaders; He Yi, Huang Shao and He Man all took up arms in Runan commandry. It was once again Cao Cao who led his forces, defeated them and recruited them.
There is one last Yellow Turban rebellion in the aftermath that I will speak of, just because I found a source of information which shows the devastating effects on the local population the rebellion had.
So to start off, a little background info: After the Yellow Turban rebellion was crushed in 184 AD, the flames of the rebellion weren’t totally washed out, as I have mentioned previously. But in the Chengdu plain, something almost entirely different happened. So to start, I am going to quote the Han Hou Shu:
“At that time the rebellious bandits of Yi province Ma Xiang, Zhao Zhi and others proclaimed themselves “Yellow Turbans” at Mianzhu and gathered a band of peasants exhausted from their labours, in a day or two obtaining several thousand men. First, they killed the prefect of Mianzhu, Li Sheng. Then they collected the clerks and commoners numbering 0ver 10,000 men and went forth. Defeating Luo district, attacking Yi Province, killing Xi Jian, finally reaching Shu and Qianwei commandries. Within 2 weeks they had defeated 3 commandries and Ma Xiang proclaimed himself Son of Heaven, and his band numbered 10,000.”
Now from the quote you can gather that this seemed more like an opportunistic bandit who disguised himself as a Yellow Turban and took advantage of the grumbling local population in the area he was in. (Modern day Sichuan province).
Now with every war, when an army comes and besieges a city or when it really comes to the nitty gritty of things, it’s the most vulnerable people who suffer the most. Those who don’t have the money to flee cities before it is sieged as well non-combatants like women and children are the ones who pay the true price of war. The story I want to tell focuses on the former, not the latter.
3 women by the names of Nee Yi, Nee Ji and Nee Hua were all widowed at an early age. Now, later dynasties, but not particularly the Han, would say that a woman was only allowed one marriage, and it would be seen as a bit of a disgrace to remarry after the early death of a husband, and they would use the story of Nee Yi, Nee Ji and Nee Hua to emphasise this to women in their domains.
But regardless, on with the story. The 3 women, after their husbands died, held to the propriety of a single marriage, and carried out the chastity of the Gong Jian. By all accounts, the 3 women were extremely attractive, so it wasn’t as if they couldn’t find a new husband, they just chose not to find one. Their oath to never wed a new husband earned them the name ‘The 3 chaste ones’, and hearing of the Yellow Turban army bearing down on them in Ba commandry (Where they were located), the women fled to the walled city of Langzhong, and there the people of the city tried their best to hide the women, so as to stop their purity being disgraced, if you catch my drift... However, it soon became evident that the county would fall, and rather than being raped then butchered, the 3 women, Nee Li, Nee Ji and Nee Hua walked to the Han River, jumped in and drowned to stop the rebels from getting to them. According to the Huayang Guo Zhi, a yellow bird cried out and flew back and forth where they drowned, and the author of the book Chang Qu, even wrote a poem about it! It said:
Guan, Guan! Cry the yellow birds
Gathered in the trees
Coy and comely, the pure women
Beautiful and virtuous
I think of their beauty and virtue
Their hearts not stones
Alas! They approached the river
Far away, they cannot be had
From the poem, you can see the author does support the womens’ decision to drown themselves rather than getting captured, and to be honest, I would agree with him.
Now the poem does romanticise the sacrifice of the women, BUT, and this is a big BUT! It does give us, the audience, an insight to the horrors of war, and it just shows how some things in war simply haven’t changed. 2,000 years later, during WW2, think of the Rape on Nanking – God only knows how many women were raped in Nanking, and when the Soviet Armies were invading Germany – lots of German women made the same decision as those 3 women in the poem here – they chose to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Red Army alive BECAUSE THEY KNEW WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THEM. It is horrible, and to be frank, a lot of the time it isn’t spoken about enough when people discuss wars of the past. But reflecting back to what I said before the poem, the direct quote from the Hou Han Shu – when Ma Xiang begun his rebellion, it seems like it was so easy for him to take over these commandries, and it kinda was – due to the fact that the people of the region were unhappy. Which again brings me to this – can’t you see history repeating itself? People are much more eager to join rebellions when the goings aren’t good. In the Shu and Ba regions, there wasn’t even any natural disasters or anything, it was just the government was so corrupt, which was a breeding ground for rebels to gather support for a violent uprising.
The rebellion by Ma Xiang was, eventually crushed, by a local noble named Jia Long, who then welcomed the new lord of the Cheng Du, a man named Liu Yan, to take up his post. But for whatever reason (No source really indicates why) Jia Long rebelled against Liu Yan and then was defeated. What a chaotic time to be alive!
Now if you think all the names and poems etc. I have shared was overwhelming... Then let me know... As next weeks’ podcast dives into the 3 kingdoms period. The 3 Kingdoms period, is, without a doubt, my absolute favourite part of China’s history. But, I promise... I will keep all of the nitty gritty details to a minimum, and just focus on the major events so that we can move on rather swiftly. Don’t get me wrong, we will revisit parts of the 3 Kingdoms as time progresses, but I do want to get past this period... Which is rather complex, so we can plod along forward with future eras in China’s very long history.
Thanks for listening!