The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

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The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby waywardauthor » Sun Aug 20, 2017 2:49 am

The Following is one chapter from the Cambridge History of China from the Qin to the end of the Han. This should fit the copyright just fine, as disseminating a chapter or two is pretty common among universities and it is for an academic purpose without monetary benefit. It is in Wade-Giles, but it might be good to see someone else's perspective on this since we seem to be circling Rafe de Crespigny, and occasionally visiting Farmer, Loewe and Goodman.




The reign of Ling-ti (A.D. 168-189) began with a crisis. The court eunuchs felt that they had lost their power with the demise of the previous emperor, and they were desperate to regain it. The leading families and officials were overconfident and reacted too late. The choice of Ling-ti

On 25 January A.D. 168, Huan-ti (r. 146-168) died, leaving no designated heir. The next day, his wife, the empress Tou (d. 172), was declared empress dowager, a title which gave her the authority needed to validate edicts. At this time she was in her late teens or early twenties. This was not the first time that the throne had been left vacant, and a rich body of precedent had grown up to deal with just such a situation. The empress dowager, in secret consultation with the most senior male member of her family (in this case her father, Tou Wu, d. 168), was expected to select a candidate who met the following requirements. He should be a young male member of the imperial Liu family, chosen from the noble descendants of Chang-ti (r. A.D. 75-88), who together formed the most senior branch of that family.

In order to secure support for the candidate, and in contravention of established practice, Tou Wu called together a conference of at least eight persons representing various cliques and interests. The Tou family was represented by Tou Wu himself, by his son, and by two of his nephews. The powerful families were represented by Yuan Feng (d. ca. 180), the most senior member of the noble Yuan family, and the bureaucracy was present in the person of Chou Ching (d. 168) who, as supreme commander (t'ai-wei), was the head of all officials. The palace establishment was represented by Liu Shu (d. 168), whose rank is variously given as gentleman of the palace or palace attendant. Finally, there was the eunuch Ts'ao Chieh (d. I 8 I ) , until then a minor figure, who doubtless represented the empress dowager and thus the throne.

Liu Shu is on the record as having proposed for the succession a certain Liu Hung, the third marquis of Chieh-tu-t'ing, at the time a boy of eleven or twelve years of age and a great-great-grandchild of Chang-ti. Chieh-tut'ing was about 500 miles northeast of the capital, Lo-yang, and the marquis's family had been living there for the past thirty-six years, since A.D. 132. Liu Shu came from the same region, which may help explain his proposal. There is very little likelihood that the marquis had ever been in the capital or had met previously with Tou Wu.

Liu Shu's proposal was adopted by Tou Wu, who in his turn notified the empress dowager. She agreed, and issued an edict in which she stated that: After an investigation of virtues and a discussion of talents, no one was found to match the marquis of Chieh-tu-t'ing, Liu Hung, who, in his twelfth year, has the virtues of King Ch'eng of the Chou dynasty [r. 1115-1078 B.C.] in a majestic way. . . . May Liu Hung be the heir of the late emperor.

Liu Hung is known to history as Ling-ti. Ts'ao Chieh, again as the empress dowager's representative, and Liu Shu were sent to Chieh-tu with a thousand eunuchs and bodyguards of the late emperor to escort the emperor designate to the capital. The journey there and back took about two and a half weeks, and in the interregnum, on January 30, Tou Wu had himself
promoted by his daughter to the rank of general-in-chief (ta chiang-chun). This rank was customarily given to the senior member of an empress dowager's family and implied no actual military command.

It was probably also during the interregnum that incidents occurred concerning the late emperor's large harem. The empress dowager had never been Huan-ti's favorite wife, but she had been forced upon him by high-placed bureaucrats. Huan-ti had given his favors to nine other women who were now at the empress dowager's mercy. She killed one of them, but the remaining eight were spared after two eunuchs had vigorously interceded for them. What happened to these women and the rest of the harem is not known, but it is likely that they were sent home. Some of the ladies may have found their way to Tou Wu's household, or at any rate rumors to that effect circulated later in the year.

On 16 February, the emperor-designate's retinue arrived at the gates of Lo-yang and was met there by Tou Wu. Tou Wu and Ts'ao Chieh then introduced the boy to the court, and on the next day the formal enthronement took place. This ceremony was accompanied by two acts of state. First, Ch'en Fan (ca. 90-168), an old ally of Tou Wu from the time of the political struggles of the preceding reign, was given the position of grand tutor (t'ai-fu); second, Ch'en Fan, Tou Wu, and a third statesman, Hu Kuang (91-172), who had had a distinguished career with a dazzling record, were placed collectively "in charge of the Privy Secretariat," thus creating a regency triumvirate, so common during the Han dynasty.

The struggle for power

These arrangements seemed to be satisfactory to all concerned, and for the rest of February, March, April, May, and early June nothing is recorded except formalities: Huan-ti was buried, and the new emperor announced his accession in the shrines of the founders of the Former and Later Han, respectively.

Meanwhile, however, opposing forces had started to work on the emperor and the empress dowager. The young emperor had taken along with him from Chieh-tu his wetnurse and a few trusted servants whom he called his "lady secretaries." This clique and the eunuchs expected favors and appointments, but so did Tou Wu's side. Evidently, the Chieh-tu-t'ing clique and the eunuchs met initially with more success than did Tou Wu, for it is said that "every time Tou Wu and Ch'en Fan advised against certain appointments, their protests were overridden."

There are, however, no real examples to prove Tou Wu's and Ch'en Fan's bitter complaints about one-sidedness in the distribution of favors. We only know of the case of Liu Shu, who had originally proposed the new emperor, and who was driven to death by a eunuch, Hou Lan (d. 172) with the emperor's connivance. On 10 June, the new emperor's grandfather, grandmother, and father were given honorary titles elevating them to imperial status posthumously; his mother, however, who was still alive in Chieh-tu-t'ing, was not invited to come to the capital, nor was she given full imperial status. Behind this decision we may see the hand of the empress dowager, who wanted to spare herself the embarrassment of two empresses dowager at one court.

Tou Wu and Ch'en Fan began to discuss their misgivings, and Ch'en Fan proposed a drastic solution. In his view, all eunuchs should be executed. It evidently took some time before Tou Wu was brought round to this view, but in the meantime he secured some important appointments for his own supporters. He managed to have a protege appointed an official of the secretariat, and he could depend on the loyalty of the commandant of one of the five regiments stationed in the capital. Perhaps as a threatening gesture to the eunuchs, he appointed several of their victims in the struggles of the preceding reign as members of his personal staff.

On 23 June, there was an eclipse of the sun and Ch'en Fan seized upon this bad omen to urge Tou Wu on. He complained of the influence of the Chieh-tu-t'ing clique and of the eunuchs. Tou Wu decided to act; he read a memorial in the court that asked for all the eunuchs' heads, complaining that they had overstepped the limits of their positions by appointing their clients all over the empire. The execution of all eunuchs without exception was refused by the empress dowager; instead, she handed over the two eunuchs who had frustrated her attempts to kill the eight women of the late emperor's harem earlier in the year.

The cards were now on the table, and initially it seemed that Tou Wu's side was gaining the advantage. On 8 August, honors, doubtless long awaited, were proclaimed ennobling Tou Wu, his son, his nephews, Yuan Feng, Ts'ao Chieh, and four others for their support of the new emperor. One of Tou Wu's nephews was put in charge of a regiment of the standing army, bringing the number of regiments on Tou Wu's side to two.

Ch'en Fan, however,was not satisfied, and he stepped up the pressure on the empress dowager to deliver up more eunuchs. To this end, he read a very strong memorial in the court branding five eunuchs —Hou Lan and Ts'ao Chieh among them-and the Chieh-tu-t'ing clique as traitors. The court was shocked by this and the empress dowager again refused to deliver up the culprits.

A stalemate resulted, and Tou Wu wavered. A new impulse for action came when Liu Yv, a fortune-teller who was an expert in astronomical portents, pointed out to Ch'en Fan that the planet Venus was behaving in a way "not advantageous to great ministers"; he evidently meant the eunuchs. This may have been during August or in early October. Tou Wu and Ch'en Fan must have come to the conclusion that pressure on the empress dowager would not have the desired effect, and they therefore tried a different approach. If the eunuchs could be indicted for specific crimes, their arrest could hardly be blocked. To this end, Tou Wu packed the civil and judicial administration of the capital with his supporters, and then managed to have a eunuch who was loyal to him, Shan Ping, appointed to the strategic position of director of the Yellow Gates (huang-men ling, or head eunuch), thus acquiring a foothold within the palace.

By now it was late October, and the affair was quickly drawing to a conclusion. In order to obtain incriminating evidence against the eunuchs, the new head eunuch arrested and tortured one of them until he was willing to implicate Ts'ao Chieh and another eunuch, Wang Fu (d. 179). It is interesting to see that at this point, Tou Wu and Ch'en Fan evidently worked at cross purposes. Ch'en Fan wanted the arrested eunuch to be killed immediately, but Tou Wu, hoping to extract more confessions, spared his life.

The crisis

The head eunuch immediately wrote a memorial to have Ts'ao Chieh, Wang Fu, and others arrested, and during the night of 24-25 October he had the fortune-teller bring the memorial into the palace. Neither Tou Wu nor Ch'en Fan seem to have been fully aware of this fact, for the turn that events were now taking evidently surprised them. When the memorial was brought in, no doubt to have it ready for the early morning levee, the eunuchs secretly opened it, after some hesitation; they were shocked at the number of eunuchs named for arrest. Seventeen eunuchs then swore on oath to kill Tou Wu. They "smeared blood on their mouths" and prayed to August Heaven: "The Tou family has no moral principles; we wish that August Heaven will assist the emperor in executing it. A good thing must succeed, and the empire will gain peace." Ts'ao Chieh was woken; he escorted the young emperor to a safe place, gave him a sword, and put his wetnurse at his side. He had the gates closed and forced the officials of the secretariat at the point of the sword to draw up an edict that appointed Wang Fu as head eunuch, with the specific command to execute the rival head eunuch, who was Tou Wu's ally.

Wang Fu killed his rival in the prison and took the tortured eunuch back with him to the palace. Then the eunuchs took the empress dowager by surprise, as they clearly did not trust her. They confiscated her seals, and with that authority they ordered soldiers to guard the two palaces and the road that ran between them; thus protected in the rear, they issued an edict that asked for Tou Wu's arrest. They also changed two key figures in the civil and judicial administration at the capital.

From what followed it can be seen that Tou Wu and Ch'en Fan had not coordinated their plans, and indeed had not foreseen that trouble would arise so swiftly. Tou Wu, who had gone out for the night, was surprised by the edict, which was delivered to him by the same eunuch who had been in prison until just some hours before. He refused to accept it, but instead fled to his nephew, the commander of one of the two regiments loyal to him, and awaited the dawn.

In the meantime, Ch'en Fan had likewise been surprised by the events. He hurried to the palace with eighty of his subordinates — not professional soldiers, it would seem. With some difficulty he gained access to the palace compound, where he was confronted by Wang Fu, the new head eunuch. There followed a shouting match. For a while both parties stood their ground, but then the number of eunuch soldiers increased, and they surrounded Ch'en Fan until he was overpowered and taken to prison. He was trampled to death there later that day. What happened to the eighty young men is not known, but apparently there was no fighting between them and the eunuch army.

With Ch'en Fan and the empress dowager out of the way, only Tou Wu remained. The key to this problem lay with a certain Chang Huan, a military commander who had recently returned in triumph to the capital." With him there had also returned his victorious army, and it was to him that the eunuchs turned to have Tou Wu arrested. He had remained uninvolved during the preceding conflict, but now he threw his lot in with the eunuchs and proceeded with his soldiers to look for Tou Wu. At dawn, the two armies met outside the walls of the palace. Again a shouting match resulted, with both sides trying to persuade the other side to defect. It is said that, owing to their great respect for the eunuchs, soldiers began to defect to Chang Huan's side. Company after company went over, and shortly before midday Tou Wu's defenses crumbled. He killed himself, the rest of his family was killed, and other key figures were rounded up and killed, sometimes with their families. It is remarkable that neither during this confrontation nor during the earlier one with Ch'en Fan was there any actual fighting.

The empress dowager was placed in custody in the Southern Palace, and three days later, on 28 October, eighteen eunuchs were ennobled for their "merit in punishing Tou Wu and Ch'en Fan." The third member of the triumvirate, Hu Kuang, who had kept out of the struggle, was rewarded for his prudence with the position of grand tutor, a post left vacant by the death of Ch'en Fan. Dismissals and banishments probably continued to take place for some days, and we are told that "several hundred" died.' Lingti's reign had begun.


Under the rule of the eunuchs, the structure of imperial government changed. First, a career in the bureaucracy was closed to all but allies of the eunuchs; subsequently it became something that was bought and sold. The eunuchs themselves penetrated into the military. Never-ending rebellions forced the court to delegate some of its powers to provincial governors, and squabbles over the succession created rifts within the palace itself. This was the last period of orderly Han government.

The court in May 189

At the end of Ling-ti's reign, in May 189, the two most formidable ladies of the court were the emperor's mother and the emperor's wife, and these ladies were not on good terms. When the Tou Wu crisis was over and Empress Dowager Tou was locked up in the Southern Palace, the new emperor hastened to send for his mother to join him in Lo-yang. He gave her full imperial status early in 169, and as Empress Dowager Tung (d.189) she resumed her great influence over the boy.

The emperor's wife, the empress Ho (d. 189), was a butcher's daughter who had bought her way into the harem; in 176 she bore the emperor his first son, Liu Pien (176—190). " This had won her the title empress in 181, but, knowing how insecure that position was, she had every reason for alarm when, in that same year, another son was born, to another lady. This second son and his mother, Lady Wang (d. 181), were a threat to the empress and her son. For if he so wished, the emperor could repudiate her and take Lady Wang as his new empress. He might also choose this second son as his heir and successor; the emperor was fond of the child and had called him Liu Hsieh (181-234), which means "Liu who looks like me."

To forestall this, the empress poisoned Lady Wang. But the child was taken out of her reach and raised by the emperor's mother, the empress dowager. When the furious emperor prepared to depose the empress, eunuchs dissuaded him. Both ladies, therefore, had their own candidate for the succession. If the eldest son succeeded, the empress would automatically become empress dowager, and in that capacity she would be able to hold on to power for many years to come. If the younger son succeeded, the empress dowager would become grand empress dowager and could look forward to continued years of power and influence. In fact, however, right up to the day of his death, 13 May 189, Ling-ti had not been able to decide between his two sons and the question was still unresolved.

The empress dowager Tung counted among her assets one nephew who had been given a high general's post and some one thousand men to command. The empress Ho counted among her assets her half-brother Ho Chin (d. 189), who held the exalted rank of general-in-chief from 184. This rank gave him political powers in times of national emergencies, but no actual troops to command. Another half-brother of the empress, Ho Miao (d. 189), held the distinguished rank of general of the chariots and cavalry {cbv-chi cbiang-chun), only one step below the rank held by the empress dowager's nephew. Ho Miao did have troops at his command.'

Ling-ti's predecessor, Huan-ti, had not been very popular in his time. His excessive reliance on eunuchs from 159 onward had caused resentment among officials and those who aspired to be officials; such men saw themselves as "pure" in contrast with the eunuchs and their allies, who were branded "foul." There had been a steady stream of memorials against the eunuchs, and several incidents pitting "pure" officials against "foul" eunuchs, and the court had been defied in matters regarding life and death by officials. In 167 agitation among students at the Academy and officials who had connections with them had reached such a point that the court felt obliged to exclude some of them from holding any office whatsoever. In the field of political philosophy, some authors had attacked contemporary evils with a vehemence rarely seen before.

The prestige of the throne and of its occupant had further decayed during Ling-ti's reign. He had been called "mediocre" and "benighted" during his own lifetime, and soon after his death the leading politician of the day, Tung Cho (d. 192), said: "Any thought of Ling-ti makes me furious." In A.D. 190, four of Ling-ti's predecessors were deprived of their posthumous titles on the ground they had been "worthless sovereigns";'7 Ling-ti had never been considered for such a title in the first place. During his reign, at least one plot had been hatched to replace him with another member of the Liu family, and he had had to suffer the indignity of seeing four men proclaimed as rival emperors in different parts of China (one in the south in 172, one in Lo-yang itself in 178, one in the north in 187, and one in the west in 188).' In the year 184, a massive propaganda effort had succeeded in convincing hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants that the days of Han were over, with the result that they had taken up arms to overthrow the dynasty and to create a new era of happiness. This rebellion, called the Yellow Turbans after the color of the cloth that the rebels wrapped around their heads, had been crushed early in 185, but its effects were still very much visible in May 189.

Military organization

These effects were most noticeable in the military organization. In the first place, there was the regular standing army consisting of five regiments, the same army that had refused to come to Tou Wu's aid in 168. It is not clear how this army was deployed in May 189: some of it may have been in the capital; some of it may have been in various parts of the country where rebellions were going on. All these rebellions were in some way or another the result of the Yellow Turban rebellion of 184.'

When the Yellow Turban revolt had broken out, the court had hastily created new titles for the military men it sent into the field against them. In the five intervening years some of these titles had been rescinded, but in May 189 there were still many titles and persons that did not fit into the regular military system. One of them was the general-in-chief, Ho Chin, the empress's half-brother. His title had been conferred on him almost on the very day that news of the Yellow Turbans had reached the capital. Although he had played no role in the war against the rebels, the title could not very well be taken away once the rebellion was over. There was also the title general of the agile cavalry (p'iao-chi chang-chun), which had been given to the emperor's mother's nephew.

General of the chariots and cavalry was the title given to another half brother of the empress (Ho Miao), and next to him there were three other generals, appointed in May 189. One was the general of the rear, Yuan Wei (d. 190), a member of the noble Yuan family. The other two were the general of the van and the general of the left, both away fighting rebels in the east of the empire. These six generals' titles all represented a deviation from normal practice, and some of them had lain dormant since the days of the wars of the restoration, 150 years previously. They were revived not only in response to the never-ending rebellions, but also as a means of satisfying the ambitions of the two leading ladies' family members.

It was the title of general-in-chief, previously held by Tou Wu for a few brief months in 168, that was the least unusual. There had been six such officers prior to Ho Chin's appointment, but all except one had died a violent death in struggles with the court. Apparently, there was a conflict of interest between some of the generals-in-chief and the emperors, and in Ho Chin's case it was to be no different. Prior to 188, general-in-chief was in fact the highest title available to commoners (except grand tutor), and Ho Chin could use his authority to overpower the court and the eunuchs in the event of an emergency. It was probably as much for this reason as for any other that in September 188 Ling-ti took the unprecedented step of appointing a eunuch as commander-in-chief of a wholly new army. This commander-in-chief, Chien Shih (d. 189), was a protege of the emperor, and even the general-in-chief was under his orders."

Ostensibly, the new army, called the Army of the Western Garden, had grown out of the emperor's fear of the Yellow Turbans. Next to the eunuch commander-in-chief, he appointed seven men who were not eunuchs as colonels of the Army of the Western Garden. Some of these colonels had made a name for themselves in the wars against the Yellow Turbans and other rebels; others belonged to the influential Yuan family or were proteges of that family. The colonels' soldiers had probably served under their command previously, and this may have been the third motive behind the creation of the new army. In defense against rebels, many private individuals had begun to recruit their own armies. The Western Garden Army provided some sort of legality for these armies, and ensured that they would fight on the side of the emperor.

The appointment of a eunuch as commander-in-chief was the last logical extension of a process that had started right after the Tou Wu crisis, the extension of eunuch power into all branches of the imperial government. Ts'ao Chieh, one of those who had plotted Tou Wu's downfall, had been general of the chariots and cavalry for one hundred days in 169, and again for five months in 180. Another eunuch held the same rank for four months in 186, and now Chien Shih was commander-in-chief. On 21 November 188, the emperor, seated under a magnificent umbrella, reviewed his troops and declared himself supreme general (wu shang chiangchvn) — the first time during Later Han that an emperor took an additional title.

In spite of these precautions, the colonels of the Army of the Western Garden hardly ventured out into the field. In December 188, the commander-in-chief sent his deputy to fight rebels in the west, and another colonel successfully fought remnants of the Yellow Turbans south of the capital. This latter colonel, however, received no recognition of his victory and died in jail just one month before the emperor himself died. In the early months of 189, when roaming rebels threatened the capital, it was not the Western Garden army that was sent against them, but a minister leading his own private army. Another rebel, one whom the court had been unable to conquer, was showered with titles and privileges; this gesture implied that it paid to rebel against the Han. There was something undeniably weak about the dynasty, in spite of all its new titles, new structures, and new armies.

When Ling-ti lay dying, one of the two generals fighting in the east, Tung Cho, had been recalled to the capital to assume a civilian post, but he had refused to accept the charge. Instead, he claimed that his troops would not let him go, and with these troops he marched in the direction of the capital. Ling-ti scolded him by means of a letter, which Tung Cho ignored. When Ling-ti breathed his last, Tung Cho had advanced to a point some 80 miles northeast of the capital "to wait for the changes that time would bring."

The great proscription (tang-ku), 169—184

Twenty of the years of Ling-ti's reign represent the longest consecutive period of eunuch rule during the history of the dynasty. We have already seen how, toward the end of the period, such influence came to extend into the military organization. Very little is known about the background of the eunuchs, how they were selected for castration and by whom, or how they were given positions in the palace. We do not know whether there was a system of cooptation or whether they had to pass any tests. We do know, however, of their great influence on affairs, and their great staying power once entrenched in the ruler's confidence.'

In May 189, all of the important eunuchs involved in the Tou Wu crisis were gone. Hou Lan had committed suicide in 172, Wang Fu had died in jail in 179, and Ts'ao Chieh had died a natural death in 181. Their places had been taken by Chien Shih (d. 189), the commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Garden; Chao Chung (d. 189), who had been general of the chariots and cavalry for four months in 186; and Chang Jang (d. 189), the mastermind behind the emperor's financial manipulations. Ling-ti called Chao Chung his "mother" and Chang Jang his "father." The Yuan family also had a representative within the eunuch establishment, Yuan She (d. X79). who held the rank of regular palace attendant (chung-ch'ang-shih).

The eunuch establishment consisted of a bewildering variety of titles and offices, and in the course of Ling-ti's reign this variety had increased. It was by now common for eunuchs to hold noble titles which they transferred to adopted sons. Eunuchs were usually ennobled in groups, a reflection of the fact that they cooperated in groups when they aided the throne against a military leader or an encroaching bureaucrat. In 126, nineteen eunuchs had been ennobled on the same day, in recognition of their help in placing Shun-ti (r. A.D. 125—144) on the throne; in 159, five eunuchs had been ennobled (together with seven men who were not eunuchs) for their help in eliminating the general-in-chief Liang Chi's (d. 159) influence; in 168, eighteen eunuchs had been ennobled for their help in doing away with Tou Wu and Ch'en Fan; in 172, twelve eunuchs were ennobled for having discovered a plot against the throne; in 185, twelve eunuchs were ennobled because the emperor was led to believe that they had been of help in quelling the Yellow Turbans. Chao Chung and Chang Jang belonged to the group of twelve ennobled in 185.

The variety of titles available to eunuchs increased after 175. That year it was decreed that all offices in the palace that were headed by directors would henceforth be headed by eunuchs. Similarly, all posts of assistant to the directors were reserved for eunuchs. It is not specified which offices were affected by this measure, but it is likely that from 175 onward the emperor's table, writing utensils, clothes, jewelry, precious objects, and even his health and medicine, were entrusted to eunuchs. From 175 it was also a eunuch who determined "the price of things," which probably meant the price that the court paid for its purchases.

This, however, was a minor matter in comparison with the offices that became available to their proteges, their brothers, and their parents, as a result of the Great Proscription (tang-ku) of 169-184. This had started toward the end of 169 as a smoldering conflict between the eunuchs, firmly entrenched in the ruler's confidence since the Tou Wu crisis, and some high bureaucrats who were resentful of their lack of influence. It had now come out into the open, and the eunuchs had won. Eight officials were accused of banding together as a clique that was injurious to the emperor's interests, and when these eight had been killed the way was free to kill about a hundred more of their proteges, sons, and parents. When this was done and their wives and smallest children had been banished to the cold north or the malaria-ridden south, notices went up in the office of the superintendent of trials with the names of those who were forbidden in perpetuity to hold any office. Not only were they themselves excluded, but also all those who shared a common great-great-grandfather with any of the listed persons.

It had taken some time before Ling-ti, only thirteen years old, had fully understood what was going on. Although such a massive proscription had once been in effect in 166-167 during a similar struggle between bureaucrats and eunuchs, the new emperor did not know what the words "proscription of a clique" (tang-ku) meant. When it had been explained to him that this meant that the "clique" plotted against the state itself, the emperor approved the edict, and the Great Proscription started. In 176 an official had dared to ask for an abolition of the proscription; as a result, the proscription was widened and applied to everybody having any connection at all with the "clique." In 179, with Hou Lan and Wang Fu dead, the scope of the proscription had been somewhat narrowed, but it took until 184 and the Yellow Turban rebellion before the eunuchs lost their grip on the appointments, and then the Great Proscription ended. In the meantime, however, the nature of high office had changed; from something acquired through skill and merit, it had become something that was sold to whoever offered the highest price.

In the early days of the dynasty, the number of eunuchs had been no more than fourteen, but it is reported that toward the end of Ling-ti's reign, the number had swollen to two thousand. It should not be thought that this huge establishment lived in peace and quiet, and in fact internal rifts had appeared. The foremost rivalry was between the eunuchs belonging to the establishment of the emperor's mother and those belonging to that of the empress. Another division was between the twelve eunuchs ennobled in 185 for merit and some other eunuchs who resented their sway over the empire's finances and talents. During Ling-ti's reign there had been plots of eunuchs against eunuchs, accusations had been brought in and counter-accusations had been the result. In the end, the twelve eunuchs triumphed over all their enemies.

In 171 there was a plot to have the empress dowager freed from her luxurious prison, and most serious of all, it was a eunuch who told the emperor in 184 that the cruel exactions of the twelve and their proscription had caused the Yellow Turban rebellion. In the first case, the eunuchs intervening for the empress dowager Tou were accused of speaking maliciously about the emperor's mother-and so the two women were used against each other. In the case of the Yellow Turbans, deft maneuvering succeeded in shifting the blame from the twelve living eunuchs to Wang Fu and Hou Lan who had died, discredited, a few years earlier; then to two eunuchs who belonged to the establishment of the emperor's mother, and finally to the accuser himself. We have seen that the twelve were even ennobled the next year for their pains.'

The eunuchs themselves held power only within the palace, but in the years of the Great Proscription, relations, proteges, and adherents of the eunuchs had been appointed to posts within the capital and in the countryside, thus building up a vast network of influence. It is not clear how the end of the proscription affected this situation, but the eunuchs remained the most important holders of power during the rest of Ling-ti's reign. Whatever plot was made to discredit and destroy them, they always resurfaced. When, on the other hand, the eunuchs plotted to have someone discredited or destroyed, they nearly always succeeded.

The most spectacular case was that of the king of Po-hai (d. 172), a younger brother of the late Huan-ti. He had lost his title and his kingdom, but had promised to pay money to Wang Fu if the latter could have it restored. Wang Fu delivered the desired result, but the other did not pay up. In 172, Wang Fu had his revenge. The king was accused of sacrilege. He committed suicide, and Wang Fu and eleven others were ennobled. In 179, a plot against the eunuchs failed miserably, and four high-ranking officials perished. In 181, it was a group of eunuchs who persuaded the emperor not to depose the empress Ho, who had just poisoned Lady Wang. Many more examples could be given of the successes of the eunuchs, and only a few of their failures. As long as Ling-ti lived their influence could not be broken, and it was a final sign of his trust when the emperor on his deathbed placed his younger and favorite son, Liu Hsieh, in the charge of Chien Shih, the eunuch commander-in-chief.

The state of the bureaucracy in May 189

In the course of the twenty-one years of Ling-ti's reign (A.D. 168-189), the imperial bureaucracy changed almost beyond recognition. We have seen that many military titles were revived or created because of the series of rebellions that had plagued his reign ever since the Yellow Turbans, and to accommodate various interests in the capital. In the civil service, a parallel development took place. A few new titles were created or revived; in other cases existing offices were given new functions and powers. When such new titles concerned only the emperor's own household staff, the impact was perhaps not very great. This was the case with the three new imperial parks laid out in 180, the new imperial stables founded in 181, and the Bureau of the Orchard created in 183. These new establishments were probably staffed with eunuchs only.

The highest ranks in the civil bureaucracy did not change visibly. The grand tutor, Hu Kuang, had died in A.D.172, and no successor had been named. This was according to precedent; the nominal task of the grand tutor was to guide a young and inexperienced ruler "toward goodness," and when a grand tutor died, no new one was appointed until the accession of a new emperor. It is true that Hu Kuang's own appointment had represented something of an anomaly, since he was Ling-ti's second grand tutor, appointed after the first one, Ch'en Fan, had met his death thanks to the eunuchs in October 168. Evidently it was not considered necessary to depart further from precedent by appointing a third grand tutor for Lingti, the more so since the emperor had officially come of age in 171. The function, therefore, was vacant in May 189.

When there was no grand tutor, the top ranks of the civil service consisted of three excellencies, nine ministers, and eight secretaries with stipends equal to those of ministers. Ostensibly this structure remained the same during the whole of Ling-ti's reign, but there was in fact an important change in the situation after A.D. 178. From then on, high office had to be bought for cash; it was no longer conferred on those who were the most deserving, but simply on those who were the richest.

In a way, sale of office was the logical outcome of a process that had started some seventy years previously, when it became the custom to dismiss the three excellencies after freakish or disastrous events. Such events, such as earthquakes or the birth of children with two heads, were considered to be Heaven's criticism of the emperor's conduct, and by shifting the blame to the three excellencies the emperor was exonerated. Under such circumstances, however, it became impossible to predict how long any of the three excellencies would stay in office. Their function was, in fact, separated from political reality. This weakening of their power was offset by an increase in the power of other government institutions. Initially this had been the secretariat, but since the Tou Wu crisis, it had moved to the eunuchs.

On a limited scale, for a limited period, and in answer to great financial difficulties, sale of office had been made possible on a few occasions previously, in 109 and in 161. In 178, however, the offices for sale included the highest of the empire, and Ling-ti could not claim any financial difficulties other than those occasioned by his own greed, that of his mother, and that of some of the eunuchs. If it was the political insignificance of the three excellencies that made the sale of office possible, it was corruption in high circles that rendered it attractive.

The sale of office was organized from a building called the Western Quarters, in the Western Garden. It cost 10 million cash to become one of the three excellencies; 5 million cash secured one of the posts of the nine ministers (cbiu-ch'ing); and for the governership of one of the one hundred or so commanderies one had to furnish 20 million cash. Those with an excellent reputation were allowed to halve the price, and in practice every official who had received an appointment went first to the Western Garden to bargain. In these bargainings, it was not always the court that won. In 185, Ts'ui Lieh (d. 192) became minister of finance for the price of 5 million, and during the installation ceremonies Ling-ti was heard to remark, "If we had kept him waiting a bit longer, we could have got ten million out of him." In order to get more money, after 187 the emperor allowed the sale of lesser marquisates {kuan-nei hou).

Euphemistically the emperor called the money thus collected his "courtesy money" (li-ch'ien), and he had a treasury built to store it, the Western Quarters. It was there too that he stored the "gifts" that flowed to him from all over the empire, offered to the emperor himself, to his mother, or to certain eunuchs, in the hope of achieving recognition or advancement; it was there that he stored the millions of cash being squeezed out of the population, at a rate of 10 cash per mou (o. 113 acres), during 185 for the building of a new palace; and it was there that the 300 million cash levied by "irregular decrees" were also stored. Another invention, "Army Assistance Funds," also went there, but when the emperor abolished all difference between the private and the public purse in 185 he built another treasury, the Hall of Ten Thousand Cash, to store the empire's annual taxes. The only time the Western Garden was of any use to the government as a whole was in 184, when the emperor magnanimously offered his horses to the armies fighting the Yellow Turbans.

Some of the people who bought high office were nouveaux riches whose ancestry is unknown and whose descendants are lost to history. Others, however, included the cream of imperial society. The influential Yuan family bought one of the three excellencies' positions for one of its members, Yuan Wei, in 182; Ts'ao Sung (d. 194), the adopted son of a eunuch, became one of the three excellencies for a reported 100 million cash in 188. Apparently, the prestige of being one of the Han dynasty's three excellencies was enough to command a high price.

If there was no shortage of candidates willing to apply for high office in the capital, the situation with regard to other offices was different. Apart from those who did not want to pay and made a fuss over the issue, thus embarrassing the court, there were deeper reasons why some extraordinary measures had to be taken to fill all posts. One of the reasons was the Great Proscription, which lasted from 169 until 184. Another was the so-called exclusion system: An official was not allowed to serve in the commandery or county in which he had been born; he was also excluded from serving in the domicile of his wife. These rules had become increasingly complex, and in Ling-ti's time long-term vacancies resulted.

In order to have more persons available to hold office, in 176 the court appointed over one hundred elderly university students after a summary examination; next year, in another surprise move, some merchants were awarded the title "filial son" and were immediately given minor posts. Such ad hoc measures proved unsatisfactory, and in 178 another unprecedented step was taken. A whole new university, the School at the Gate of the Vast Capital (Hung-tu men hsveh), was created, and its students were virtually guaranteed an appointment to the bureaucracy. The students of the normal university were apparently not considered politically safe enough, witness the fact that in A.D.172 over a thousand of them had been imprisoned by the eunuchs in the course of yet another brief power struggle in the capital. There is no mistaking the shock that the new university caused. Several officials protested against the favoritism that the emperor showed to its students, but all the evidence suggests that the emperor ignored their complaints.

We have seen how the rebellions affected military organization; during the last year of Ling-ti's reign, their effect came to be felt on the civil service as well. It came to the court's attention that its repeated failures to deal swiftly with rebellions were caused by basic weaknesses in the local administration. The rebellions were usually too wide-spread to be dealt with by the relatively small armies of the various commanderies but there was no one on the spot with sufficient authority to mobilize and command larger armies. Every time a larger army had to be deployed, the court had to appoint a new commander. Before this whole process was completed, the rebellion had often escalated and inflicted humiliating defeats on the commanderies.

The court, however, was afraid to leave potentially powerful commanders of large armies permanently away in the provinces, and in the beginning resorted to makeshift measures. An effort to have a court official as permanent commander of a provincial army had already proved unsuccessful in A.D. 179. In the intervening years other devices had been invented, but in 188 the court finally took an important, and in retrospect, fateful step. It appointed regional commissioners {mu\ literally "shepherds") for regions (cbou) ridden by rebellion. These commissioners were to be stationed in their areas; they held full ministerial rank, and took precedence over all other local officials. In other words, relatively independent provincial power centers had been created. One of them was to develop into a fully independent empire, taking upon itself the mandate of Han and claiming to be its only legitimate successor.

From his deathbed, Ling-ti made his two last appointments, and both concerned regional commissioners. Messengers were sent north to give the very successful commissioner of a northern province, Liu Yv (d. 193), the additional title of supreme commander. This was only the second time that one of the three excellencies had been appointed outside the capital. At the same time, messengers were sent west with the credentials of a commissioner to offer the title to a general who was refusing to disband his troops. Against orders this general was leading his troops toward the capital, so his appointment as commissioner may have been a last effort to force him to take his army back with him to his own area. Whatever the reason, it did not work. The general was none other than Tung Cho, and even with his additional title he continued his march on the capital, arriving, as we have seen, at a point 80 miles northwest of Lo-yang when Ling-ti breathed his last on 13 May 189.

Rebellions and wars

Four kinds of wars beset Ling-ti's reign: there were raids and incursions into Chinese territory by foreign peoples; there were uprisings of foreign peoples within Chinese territory; there were revolts and mutinies pitting Chinese against Chinese, usually for reasons of material distress; and there were rebellions with religious, antidynastic overtones.

Raids and incursions were nothing new, nor was the court's inability to protect its northern provinces from nomads and horsemen who came to grab what they could not afford to buy. "From 168 onwards, no year was free from them," says the historian. This refers specifically to the situation along the northeastern edges of the frontier. Two nomadic peoples, the Wu-huan and the Hsien-pi, descended every winter on the relatively rich and well-stocked Chinese towns, but only once, in 177, did the court send a large expedition against them. Part of the expedition consisted not of Chinese, but of cavalry of yet another foreign people, thus honoring the political adage of "using barbarians against barbarians." This force was defeated, and from then on the war was left to the local officials, who were unable to cope with it.

If we look along the northern frontier in a westward direction, the situation between the Chinese and the foreign peoples living there becomes more complex. In A.D. 50, the first emperor of Later Han had permitted a branch of the Hsiung-nu to settle inside the Great Wall. In effect, this meant that he had ceded the territory to them, although in Chinese eyes the area remained a part of the empire. During the reign of Ling-ti the arrangement caused no trouble, and in fact it was cavalry of these Hsiungnu that fought on the emperor's side against the Hsien-pi and the Wuhuan in 177. Toward the very end of the reign, however, succession troubles arose within the leadership of the Hsiung-nu, and one of their leaders who lost this struggle appealed in vain for the emperor's help. Disillusioned, he joined local Chinese rebels, and was with them when the emperor died.

Farther west and to the south lay an area inhabited by Chinese and another foreign people, the Ch'iang. Although this people did not at the time inhabit Tibet, they are often called "proto-Tibetans" in Western literature. During Ling-ti's reign, the Ch'iang were more warlike than the Hsiung-nu. In A.D. 184, in the wake of the Yellow Turban rebellion, the Ch'iang and a number of Chinese rose up against the empire. Their rebellion spread and twice threatened the old capital, Ch'ang-an (in 185 and 187).

At one point the situation looked so hopeless that the minister of finance advised the emperor to abandon the whole area affected by the rebellion, but in March 189, two months before the emperor's death, the court scored a victory of sorts against a combined army of Ch'iang and Chinese. Unfortunately, the victory merely caused the rebel forces to split into three groups; one of the Chinese rebels then styled himself king and would not be dislodged for another thirty years.

In the southern provinces, the Chinese lived intermingled with yet other foreign peoples often called collectively the Man. Relations with them too were frequently strained to the point of war. From 178 until 181 there was a protracted struggle, which was finally won by the court. In the remaining years of Ling-ti's reign trouble flared up now and then, but by the time of his death the situation was fairly peaceful.

It was not often that Chinese farmers and soldiers rebelled solely out of desperation. In A.D. 170, 186, and 187 there were three such uprisings, but even in these cases one cannot be sure that the rebellions did not have another, ulterior motive. It was the rebellions that did rest on such ulterior motives which were most devastating to the empire. Such rebellions are sometimes called "religious rebellions" because the aims of the rebels were not only political, but also religious in nature. In contemporary Chinese thinking, the dynasty, though not always the actual reigning emperor, represented a cosmic force. Here, it matters little what cosmic force was understood; to some the dynasty was the living representation of the element called "fire," and its sway was uncontested as long as "fire" ruled the world. To others, the dynasty represented the verification of old prognostications, written down in strange, esoteric books. Had not Confucius himself foreseen that the Han would come to power three centuries after his death?54 Even for the more literal-minded, the dynasty, by its very existence, proved to be Heaven-willed, and as long as no one convinced them that Heaven's will had changed, they would put up with the existing ruling house.

With a variation on an old French saying, the prime maxim of Chinese politics is // ne faut pas manger a I'empereur (One should not nibble at the emperor). The Chinese themselves put it differently: "Dethronement and enthronement are weighty affairs quite beyond the power of ordinary men." However powerful a general or minister might become, it was useless to set up a new dynasty as long as there was not yet enough demonstrable cosmic backing for the venture. Success itself was taken as a sign of Heaven's approval, but it was approval of an equivocal nature; for it could either mean approval of the person himself, or, as some took it, approval of one's services to the dynasty. More proof was needed to show that Heaven really willed a new dynasty.

For some, this proof consisted of signs and miracles; for others, of new prophecies; for others still, it was metaphysical theories and calculations that provided proof. In short, in order to proclaim a new dynasty, one had to possess (or to fabricate) cosmic backing, proving in some way or other that the days of the Han were over. Conversely, when a new dynasty was indeed proclaimed, one could be sure that there was demonstrable cosmic backing. It is in this latter case that so-called "religious rebellions" come into the picture.

"Religious rebellion" is the translation of a term, yao-tsei, that occurs for the first time in Chinese historiography in connection with the year A.D. 132. A literal translation of this term is "magic rebels," but from the little information we possess it appears that what is actually meant is "rebels who use signs and miracles in order to support their cause." What the signs and miracles were the historian hardly ever bothers to specify, but the cause for which the rebels stood is known to us in a large number of cases. What the "magic rebels" wanted was a new emperor —not from the house of Han, but from their own ranks. In other words, they wanted a change of dynasty. This became increasingly apparent after 144, when the dynastic succession in Lo-yang was quite openly manipulated by Liang Chi (d. 159), the general-in-chief. He poisoned one Han emperor and set up another, Huan-ti. Perhaps in response to this, we see three rebel emperors proclaimed in the one year 145, and in 147, 148, 150, 154, 165, 166, 172, 187, and 188 a further nine rebel emperors were set up, often with huge support.

We also know of a few instances when plots were hatched against the throne-in 147, in 161, in 178, and in 188. The titles of these rebel emperors reveal that they saw themselves as founders of a new era, or as the fulfillment of a cosmic-religious process. We have two Yellow Emperors, in 145 and in 148, and we may presume that the rebels who produced these emperors thought that the reign of fire, and its color red, was over, and that a new era, that of earth and yellow, had now begun. In 145 we find a Black Emperor, who probably inaugurated the rule of water and its color black. We have an Emperor of the Great Beginning in 154; an Emperor Supreme in 165; a Grand Emperor in 166; and a Yang-ming Emperor (which may mean Emperor of the Light of the Sun) in 172.

The rebellion that produced this latter emperor was the first "magic rebellion" of Ling-ti's reign. We do not know what theory these rebels had; we only know that it took the court three years to suppress the upstart rival. Religion, however, is difficult to stamp out with weapons, and in the same period that this rebellion was raging in southern China (172-175), a family of physicians was impressing the local population with miracle cures in northern China. Disease, they taught, is the result of sin, and if one confesses one's guilt, health will return. The leader of this sect of healers was called Chang Chueh (d. 184), and at some time during his activities he adopted the idea that it was up to him to supplant the dynasty.

To this end, he began to organize his followers into units, and to urge them on with promises of a better world, a world of great peace, to come. "When a new cycle of sixty years begins, great fortune will come to the world," he prophesied, thus committing himself to the year 184, when, by traditional reckoning, such a cycle would start again. Such plots could not remain secret, and as early as 181 the minister of finance had written to the emperor that apparently there was some movement afoot, and that he should try to disperse the followers of Chang Chueh by peaceful means, since otherwise they might be stirred into action. Soon after the letter was written, however, a fire broke out in the imperial harem, the minister of finance was dismissed to atone for this sign of Heaven's wrath, and the matter was left in abeyance.

Chang Chueh could proceed with his plans, and the date of the uprising — which was to occur at various places on the same day —was set for 3 April 184. Just before this date, one of Chang Chveh's followers got cold feet and denounced the plot and its details to the throne. When the emperor ordered further investigation, Chang Chueh realized that he could not wait until the agreed date.

When the court's investigation implicated hundreds of people, including palace guards who believed in the teachings of Chang Chueh, there may have been surprise; there was, however, outright shock when news arrived that rebellions had broken out simultaneously in no fewer than sixteen commanderies, stretching in a broad belt south, east, and northeast of the capital. This was the Yellow Turban rebellion. Everywhere the commandery armies were defeated, important cities were captured, kings were kidnapped, and many imperial officials took the safest way out: they fled.

Oddly enough, we do not know when the rebellion broke out. We only know it must have been on a day in March 184, for the first reaction of the court is dated 1 April 184. The empress's half-brother, Ho Chin (d. 189), was given the title and authority of general-in-chief. The palace guards and the standing army were put temporarily under his command "in order to preserve the calm in the capital." In the countryside, a first line of defense was laid south of the capital, where eight newly created commandants guarded strategic posts. Finally, the court selected three officials to take the campaign into the countryside, one to the north, two to the south.

We know the course of these campaigns in great detail. Here, however, it must suffice to say that the Yellow Turbans were defeated during February 185. But the court did not profit from its victory for long. Within two months, new rebellions, spawned by the Yellow Turban movement though not necessarily with its religious basis, broke out time and again. Some had fanciful names (Black Mountain, White Wave), some called themselves plainly Yellow Turban. In the end this wave of rebellions proved too much for the court, and the Black Mountain rebels were given the status of local officials, with permission to send in candidates for appointment. When it turned out that this was not enough, the court sent a private army under a warlord against them, as the court's own army was apparently powerless.

The impact of the Yellow Turban rebellion on military and civil administration has already been shown. In A.D. 188, there was a further massive uprising in what is now Szechwan province, but although its leader called himself a Yellow Turban and took the title Son of Heaven, there is no known connection between the real Yellow Turbans in eastern China and this rebellion in the west. This latter rebellion, too, had to be fought by private armies, and it is possible that it was this circumstance that prompted the court to change its local administration and to appoint plenipotentiary regional commissioners.

If it was not this rebellion, then it was a more long-lasting rebellion in the north that prompted the court to appoint the commissioners. In 187, a Chinese ex-official succeeded in convincing several chiefs of the Wu-huan people that the Chinese were treating them badly and so incited them to revolt, with himself as their leader. The ex-official too declared himself to be a new Son of Heaven, and in this case it was a commissioner who finally put things right in April 189, just a few weeks before Ling-ti died.

Culture and scholarship under Ling-ti

Many more details could be added to the picture of Ling-ti's reign. There were earthquakes, droughts, floods, locusts, caterpillars, epidemics, and hail storms. The court reacted by proclaiming amnesties and rebates of taxes, by distributing medicine, and by ordering prayers for rain. In the heavens there were eclipses and comets, while on earth there was an extraordinary series of freaks: a horse giving birth to a human child, a virgin giving birth to a baby with two heads and four arms, plants suddenly adopting the shape of an animal, chickens changing into cocks, and snakes, tigers, and madmen sneaking in and out of the palace. In the popular stories that grew up around the fall of the Han, these freaks and strange happenings are fondly enumerated as omens of the imminent collapse of the dynasty.

There was no lack of building activity, although we hear equally often of fires ravaging palaces or of walls suddenly collapsing. An observation tower was built, four bronze men and four bronze bells were cast, new money was issued. On the happy side, there were magic mushrooms, phoenixes, and in the year preceding the Yellow Turban rebellions, the sources say there was a bumper harvest. Several outlying countries came to offer tribute to the Chinese Son of Heaven, thus proving his influence in civilizing the world. The emperor himself, however, is said to have been addicted to all things barbarian: clothes, food, music, dances, and furniture.

Perhaps the most important scholar of the reign was Ts'ai Yung (133-192), and the most important scholarly event of the era was the erection in the capital of stone slabs inscribed with the correct text of the classics. This project was ordered in A.D. 175 and completed in 183, Ts'ai Yung being one of the main executors of this enormous task. Fragments of the Han Stone Classics still survive.

If we have devoted a lot of attention to the world of Ling-ti, it is because his reign was the last stable period of Han rule. This was the world that people remembered, that they wanted to re-create in whole or in part; it was also the world that refused to come to life again. When Ling-ti closed his eyes on 13 May 189, in a sense it was the whole traditional empire that died with him, although this was not immediately apparent.


The somewhat complex series of events in which the Han dynasty came to an end may be summarized in the following terms. The leading families and officials massacred the eunuchs, but lost the emperor. Tung Cho then manipulated the imperial succession, and in the east a coalition was formed against him. Thanks to its pressure, the Han emperor and Tung Cho were driven westward, but the coalition broke up with its members destroying one another until only seven remained. Meanwhile, Tung Cho had died, and the Han emperor was wandering over the face of the earth until he was received by Ts'ao Ts'ao. Ts'ao Ts'ao then overcame all but two of his rivals, and his son set himself up as emperor of Wei in place of the Han emperor. His two rivals claimed equal rank, and for forty years China was to have three emperors.

The Ho family takes control

The reign of Ling-ti was a period of challenge and change, and when he died in May 189, he bequeathed to his successor an inherently unstable government. Any successor would immediately be the focal point of powerful conflicting interests: those of the eunuch establishment, of the empress's family, of regional governors with armies, of the career bureaucrats, and of the mother of Ling-ti. Meanwhile, among the population the very legitimacy of the dynasty was in doubt, as may be witnessed in the religious rebellions, especially that of the Yellow Turbans.

Who was to succeed Ling-ti? There were two candidates, his elder son Liu Pien, thirteen years old, and his younger son, Liu Hsieh, eight years old. The first was the favorite of the empress' party, while the latter was the protege of Ling-ti's mother and in the care of Chien Shih, the eunuch commander-in-chief. For one day after Ling-ti's death the issue hung in the balance, but on 15 May Liu Pien mounted the throne. His mother received the title empress dowager and assumed the regency. A new grand tutor was found in the person of Yuan Wei (d. 190), a member of the noble Yuan family, and he together with the general-in-chief Ho Chin, the empress dowager's half-brother, took control of the secretariat. The boy Liu Hsieh was taken from Chien Shih and given the title prince. Chien Shih, uneasy about the situation but still commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Garden, tried to unite the eunuchs in a plot against Ho Chin. The plot leaked out; Chien Shih was arrested and executed on 27 May, and his troops came under the command of Ho Chin.

The Ho family was now in control, and moved quickly against the mother of Ling-ti. Within six weeks this lady lost first her right of residence in the palace; then her nephew, the general of the agile cavalry, who committed suicide under pressure from Ho Chin; and finally her own life on 7 July, suddenly dying from grief and fear.

With these opponents out of the way, the basic issue still remained: what was to become of the eunuchs? In the drama that unfolded during the summer months, there were four major participants: Yuan Shao (d.202), one of the colonels of the Army of the Western Garden, a member of the Yuan family, and an enemy of the eunuchs; Ho Chin, who was not sympathetic to the eunuchs but who had to take into consideration the wishes of his half-sister, the empress dowager, and who wavered and delayed; the empress dowager, who was not willing to sacrifice the eunuchs because that would make herself and the emperor virtual captives of Ho Chin and Yuan Shao; and finally the eunuchs themselves, who had no resources but their own wit and the empress dowager's support. In the background was the hovering presence of Tung Cho, who still lay encamped with his troops some 80 miles northwest of the capital.

The events of 168 were uppermost in everybody's mind; at that time Tou Wu had faced a similar situation, had similarly wavered, and in doing so had lost his life. Yuan Shao was determined that this situation should not be repeated, and he constantly urged Ho Chin on, reminding him of Tou Wu and telling him he should not let this chance slip. Ho Chin spoke to his half-sister and received the more or less standard answer, that the eunuchs were to remain in their positions. Some other members of the Ho family, notably Ho Chin's brother Ho Miao and his mother, were bribed by the eunuchs and thus spoke in their favor; this strengthened the empress dowager's resolve not to give in.

The appeal for outside help and the massacre of the eunuchs Up to this point, the situation looked like a replay of the Tou Wu crisis, but at this juncture Yuan Shao introduced a new factor in the equation. The eunuchs, he argued, had to go, and the sole obstacle to their removal was the empress dowager. In order to force her to change her mind, troops were needed. With Ho Chin's approval, he called on several private army commanders to lead their troops toward the capital. Ho Chin himself had an even better idea: he asked Tung Cho, general of the van, whose troops lay 80 miles northwest of the capital, to advance toward Lo-yang. Then he sent one of his own men with troops away to the countryside and villages around the capital, with orders to ravage, plunder, and burn. The fires could be seen from the city, but still the empress dowager refused to dismiss the eunuchs. Ho Chin's brother even suggested to Ho Chin that he had better make his peace with the eunuchs; did the Ho family not owe its prominence to those eunuchs who had helped their half-sister to attain and keep the position first of empress, now of empress dowager?

Ho Chin wavered again. He sent messengers to stop Tung Cho's advancing armies, and Tung Cho reluctantly complied with the order. On the other hand, he had Yuan Shao appointed to a position which gave him judicial powers within the capital district, and Yuan Shao, in his turn, urged Tung Cho and the leaders of the private armies to send in memorial after memorial against the eunuchs. This psychological war had brief success. At one point, the empress dowager did indeed dismiss all the eunuchs, but they used the influence of other members of the Ho family to have the order rescinded. This was the situation when 22 September 189 dawned.

At the levee that day there was a somewhat unexpected visitor, whose presence made the eunuchs nervous: Ho Chin, who had said that he was ill, was apparently well enough to come to court with a request. The eunuchs managed to have the conversation between the empress dowager and Ho Chin repeated to them by an informer, and were as shocked as the other eunuchs had been twenty-one years earlier when they learned the contents of Tou Wu's memorial: Ho Chin was asking for the execution of all eunuchs.

At this point, just as twenty-one years previously, it was the eunuchs' capacity for improvisation, teamwork, and quick action that set the tone of events. The empress dowager had undoubtedly refused Ho Chin's request, and when Ho Chin left the palace the eunuchs called him back, saying that the empress dowager had something more to tell him. Meanwhile, they had gathered weapons and men behind the antechamber to the empress dowager's apartments. When Ho Chin was seated on the floor, waiting for the moment when his half-sister would call him in, the chief eunuch, Chang Jang, the very person who had invented some of the more spectacular of Ling-ti's financial schemes,73 made a quick last-moment apology for himself and the eunuchs in general. He said that first, the chaos in the empire was not their fault, and second, that the eunuchs had saved the empress dowager when Ling-ti was on the brink of deposing her in 181; for these reasons the Ho family should be grateful. That was the last thing that Ho Chin heard, for his head was thereupon chopped off. Next the eunuchs composed an edict dismissing Yuan Shao. The imperial secretaries refused to copy it out, requesting an interview with the general-in-chief first. For an answer Ho Chin's head was tossed to them, and this apparently persuaded them to comply.

Now that the general-in-chief was dead, there was a problem. In contrast with the situation twenty-one years earlier, rhere were no generals or troops in the capital who were loyal to the eunuchs. This was perhaps the crucial difference between the situations in 168 and in 189, and it turned out to be fatal for the eunuchs. When news of Ho-Chin's death reached the Yuan family, Yuan Shao's first reaction was to kill the person appointed by the eunuchs to replace him. Then he led troops toward the Northern Palace. In the meantime Yuan Shu (d. 199), Yuan Shao's half-brother, had led troops to the Southern Palace, and fighting broke out between him and eunuchs defending this palace. Fighting continued until the sun went down, but then Yuan Shu set fire to a palace gate in order to smoke out the eunuchs.

The fire had more effect than was perhaps intended. Not only did the eunuchs flee toward the Northern Palace by way of the covered passageway between the two palaces, but they took with them their only security: the empress dowager, the new emperor, and the latter's half-brother, Liu Hsieh. In the melee, however, the empress dowager escaped. The empress dowager could not know that she was now almost the only person of her family who was still alive; her other half-brother, who still held the rank of general of the chariots and cavalry, and who was reportedly in the eunuchs' pay, had just been killed in front of the Northern Palace, with the connivance of Yuan Shao. In this way the Ho family was removed from the scene. Chao Chung, the eunuch whom Ling-ti had called his "mother," perished on the same day as the empress dowager's half-brother.

The scene of the fighting now shifted to the Northern Palace, where the eunuchs held the emperor and his half-brother. On 25 September, Yuan Shao broke into the palace compound and let his soldiers kill every eunuch in sight, reportedly over two thousand men. But their prize, the eunuch Chang Jang, escaped them, and fled from the palace with the new emperor and his half-brother, out of the city and toward the Yellow River. The other party followed in hot pursuit. Near the river they met, and finally Chang Jang jumped into the water and drowned. Thus were the eunuchs removed once and for all from the political scene.

The emergence of Tung Cho

With the eunuchs out of the way and the emperor at large in the countryside, the outstanding question was that of who would fill the power vacuum. This could not be the Ho family, because all its male members were dead. Nor, as it turned out, would it be the Yuan family. It was Tung Cho who had seen the fires in the capital from afar and who had hurried with his troops to take his part of the spoils. In the capital, where he arrived on 25 September, he learned that the emperor was supposed to be in the mountains somewhere north of the city. Taking, or even forcing, the senior officials of the state to accompany him, he went in search of the emperor. But when the two finally met, the encounter was somewhat chilly. The young emperor was afraid of Tung Cho's troops, and when Tung Cho tried to get the emperor to explain to him what had happened, he could not get a clear answer.

Tung Cho then questioned the young emperor's half-brother, Liu Hsieh, and learned the whole story. It appeared that they had wandered on foot through the night and finally found an open cart at some commoner's house, on which they had ridden to this encounter. This story was later embroidered by storytellers, and in their tales of the end of the empire it came to stand for the nadir of the emperorship.

From this point onward, an important aspect of the historical process is the uphill struggle of the court to regain at least a semblance of control, moral or military, and preferably both. In the process, however, military force and moral authority came to be divided among different persons. The final abdication in 220 of the last Han emperor in favor of Ts'ao P'i (A.D. 186-226) can be seen, in this respect, as an effort to combine the two sources of power again in one person; the effort, however, was only partially successful.

But to carry the story back to 25 September 189. When Tung Cho returned to Lo-yang with the emperor and the prince, he faced a difficult situation. He had no formal standing in court; compared with the Yuan family he was a nobody, and the number of his troops was not particularly impressive. To deal with these weak points, he resorted to intimidation and ruse, while outwardly maintaining all the semblances of legality. Yuan Shao was browbeaten and fled on 26 September; great scholars, including Ts'ai Yung, were intimidated into joining his government. In strictly legal terms he obtained the post of minister of works; and he cited old and venerable precedents for his plan to depose the young emperor, who had made a bad impression on him, and to enthrone Liu Hsieh, his halfbrother, instead.

This last plan encountered more opposition than he perhaps expected, but he was determined and swept away all counterarguments. On 28 September he forced the empress dowager to depose the emperor and to set up Liu Hsieh in his stead. This done, he removed the empress dowager from the court and arranged for her death two days later.

It is not easy to understand why Tung Cho did all this. It is possible that he wanted to imitate one of the most prominent statesmen of the Han dynasty, Huo Kuang (d. 68 B.C.), the only one who ever successfully deposed one emperor and set up another, 263 years before Tung Cho's time. It is possible that he wanted to appoint an emperor who was totally his own creature. He may have had sentimental reasons too, but one thing is sure: Tung Cho had "nibbled at the emperor," and from now on he found that the court was more of a liability than an asset.

The coalition in the east

It is convenient to shift our attention at this moment away from Tung Cho's court and toward the area east of the capital. In this area opposition against Tung Cho began to build up, fanned by some important refugees from the capital. Foremost among these were Yuan Shao, who had fled very soon after Tung Cho's entry into the capital; Yuan Shu (d. 199), his half-brother, who fled later in 189; and Ts'ao Ts'ao (155—220), one of the colonels of the Army of the Western Garden, who also fled toward the end of 189. They were joined by a host of commanders, soldiers of fortune, and officials and ex-officials of the dynasty, who formed a loose coalition with one purpose uniting them. The usurper Tung Cho should be defeated, since he had manipulated the succession and could therefore easily be branded a disloyal subject.

What was to happen after Tung Cho's defeat was less certain; perhaps there were vague plans to restore the young ex-emperor to his throne. This deposed emperor was a burden on Tung Cho, for he could easily become the focal point of loyalist sentiments, and Tung Cho had him killed on 3 March of the next year. Two months later, he had his revenge on the Yuan family. The grand tutor, Yuan Wei, who was still in the capital, was killed by him with all the remaining members of the Yuan family on 10 May; reconciliation was forever impossible.'

Meanwhile, pressure from the east had been mounting, and the presence of the emperor in Lo-yang began to affect Tung Cho's chances for counterattack. If he left the capital, another party could capture the emperor and proclaim Tung Cho a rebel against the dynasty; if he remained in Lo-yang, his enemies would have relatively free play; taking the court along on his campaigns would be far too cumbersome. A compromise solution was found in the plan to send the emperor away from the belligerents to the relative quiet in the west of the empire, where Tung Cho probably had his greatest regional following.

The inevitable opposition against this unusual plan was crushed. On 4 April 190 the boy emperor and his court were sent away to the west, to the old capital of Ch'ang-an, still an important city although it had not been a capital for some 150 years. This "shift of the capital westward" as the Chinese call it, was in fact an enormous migration, because willy-nilly thousands of people followed the emperor, ravaging and pillaging for food, and harried by Tung Cho's soldiers. They formed a miserable throng who could have no hope of a return to Lo-yang, which was burned to the ground by Tung Cho.

At this point it is convenient to add a note about our sources. The confused period that followed is known to us in great detail. The sources do not shirk from describing the innermost feelings and the most secret conversations of the many interesting persons who now came to the fore. On the other hand, the sources also describe how the silken scrolls contained in the imperial library and archives were cut up and used as bags or canopies when the emperor moved to Ch'ang-an, and how the majority of the books and state documents that were saved from this barbarism were nevertheless lost in the confusion.

Once in Ch'ang-an, the court was in no position to gather and store away documents, and even if it did, they were not taken along when the emperor made his hazardous journey back to Lo-yang, five and a half years later. It is important to remember that most of the information that has come to us from these troubled times derives from partisan sources. When it comes from the person concerned, it naturally exaggerates his good qualities and excellent plans; when it comes from his enemies, it dwells on the other's cruelty, stupidity, or unworthiness. To avoid misrepresentation due to a dazzling array of plots, stratagems, victories, and defeats, we attempt here, with the full advantage of hindsight, to present only the bare outlines of the events that followed.

The eclipse of the Han court

The disappearance of the emperor from Lo-yang gave Tung Cho a brief respite and weakened the resolve of the coalition against him. There were peace overtures, followed by surprise attacks. Among the coalition there was talk of appointing an emperor of their own, and gradually its members began to fall out. Nevertheless, attacks by the coalition eventually forced Tung Cho to retreat westward, and he joined the emperor in Ch'ang-an in May 191. A year later he was killed, and the emperor passed through an extraordinary number of hands in the four years that followed.'

During those years, his influence on the affairs of China as a whole was restricted to one fact: his existence as the legally uncontested bearer of the imperial title successfully prevented any of the warlords from taking this title for themselves. Otherwise he was without influence. He kept up the semblance of a court, which was replete with senior officials, and in May 195 he married. In August 195 he fled from Ch'ang-an, and after an eventful and hazardous journey that took a year, he reached Lo-yang, his first capital, in August 196.

In his empire, the situation was chaotic. A traveler passing through China in those days would come across numerous warlords, rebels, and independent local officials, some of whom had been in office since Ling-ti's time (168-189), while others had been nobodies until recently. The situation did not remain stable for more than a few months, and the general of today might well be tomorrow's corpse. Nevertheless, as the period progressed, the contours of an eightfold division of the empire became visible.

In the northeast there was Yuan Shao; south of him Ts'ao Ts'ao; southwest of the latter and due south of the capital, Yuan Shu (d. 199); due south of the latter, Liu Piao (144—208), who owed his appointment to Tung Cho; east of Liu Piao, and filling in the space of southeastern China, was the brilliant young warlord Sun Ts'e (175-200). These five men more or less occupied the eastern half of the empire.

In the western half, we have in the southern part Liu Chang (d. ca. 223), whose father had been appointed as a regional commissioner in 188 by Ling-ti. North of Liu Chang's territory, the area known as Liang was divided among rebels who had first risen up against Ling-ti in 184. Wedged between these rebels and Liu Chang lay the strange enclave called Han-chung, which was ruled by a religious leader, Chang Lu.

In this enclave, every believer paid five pecks of grain or rice to his religious superiors, who in turn provided safety and cured disease by making the patient confess his sins. Although this latter practice is reminiscent of the Yellow Turbans, there are no known connections between the Yellow Turbans and the Five Pecks of Grain. This movement had grown up independently in the general area of Han-chung, its roots going back to the reign of Shun-ti (A.D. 125—144), if we are to believe the least exaggerated of our sources. In the years prior to A.D. 196, control over the movement had been wrested from a family of patriarchs and passed into the hands of Chang Lu (fl. 190—215) who, it seems, added a few touches to the religious teachings and practices, and who built up a veritable hierarchy with which to govern his lands. On the political side, it is important to realize that trouble was brewing between Chang Lu and his southern neighbor, Liu Chang. On the other side of China, Yuan Shao, Ts'ao Ts'ao, and Yuan Shu had also become enemies.

The court in Ts'ao Ts'ao's hands (A.D. 196-200)

With the emperor in Lo-yang, a situation such as had obtained in the last phase of the Chou period, five or six centuries earlier, could be repeated. The Han emperor, just like the last of the Sons of Heaven of the house of Chou, might conceivably have remained in the capital without any power, performing only ritual duties, while the warlords fought it out between themselves. The Han emperor, however, stood at the apex of a cosmic religious system far more complex than any that had obtained in the Chou period. Despite some hesitation, emperorship had come under question, and the duration of the dynasty had become the subject of prognostication and speculation. It could be asked whether, as the Chinese put it, it was a time when the "deer was loose" and the first person to catch it would become emperor. Alternatively, it could be asked whether this was a time when emperorship could pass only peaceably from one dynasty to the next, with one distinguished but exhausted line of sovereigns giving the title of its own free will to its most deserving subject. Or else, as some may have thought, the Han dynasty was going through a periodic decline from which it would rise to be more resplendent, and to continue its perpetual rule over the world.

With emperorship as the focal point of such powerful theories, the presence of the real emperor could not remain without consequences for the warlords who were nearest to him: Yuan Shao, Ts'ao Ts'ao, and Yuan Shu. These three men had personal loyalties to the dynasty, and owed their present positions in part to the former emperor (Ling-ti). Apparently, Yuan Shao was the first to hear the news that the court was traveling in his direction. He pondered on the possibility of receiving the emperor in his own camp but decided against it, probably because the disadvantages of such a situation had been exaggerated to him. Ts'ao Ts'ao was next to hear, but he saw more advantages than disadvantages.

When the emperor and empress arrived in Lo-yang in August 196, Ts'ao Ts'ao cajoled the court with a mixture of promises and threats to repair to his own base, the city of Hsu, where the party arrived on 16 October 196. Yuan Shu was bypassed, and when he realized that Ts'ao Ts'ao would never let the captive emperor go, he tried to establish his own dynasty in 197. This, however, made a bad impression. His own people began to desert him, and just before his death in 199, penniless, he tried to sell his title to Yuan Shao, though nothing came of it. By proclaiming his own dynasty, il avait mange a I'empereur, and he had bitten off more than he could chew.

Yuan Shu's death left the field in the northeastern quarter of the empire open to Yuan Shao and Ts'ao Ts'ao. The latter had meanwhile instituted a policy of financial stability, and to this end had set up a system whereby soldiers received plots to till in exchange for regular payment of grain as taxes to Ts'ao Ts'ao. Thus backed by the moral authority of the emperor and the regular supply of provisions, he steadily increased his influence until the decisive battle with Yuan Shao in B.C. 200, fought at Kuan-tu, roughly on the border of their two territories.

The other two warlords in the eastern half of the empire, Liu Piao and Sun Ts'e, were meanwhile involved in complicated alliances and counteralliances with both Ts'ao Ts'ao and Yuan Shao. Liu Piao managed to steer relatively clear of too close an involvement, and his capital, Hsiang-yang, grew into a veritable center of culture and peace. Sun Ts'e steadily increased his power over the southeastern quarter of China, but just before the great battle between Ts'ao Ts'ao and Yuan Shao, he died. He was twenty-five years old. His brother, Sun Ch'van (182-252), succeeded him.

In the western half of China, the quarrel between the religious leader Chang Lu and his southern neighbor Liu Chang had come out into the open, and the boundaries of the religious state had been extended southward into the territory of Liu Chang. The rebels in the northwestern corner of China more or less faded from the historian's attention, to make their reappearance in the sources only when Ts'ao Ts'ao turned his attention there in the years following his battle with Yuan Shao at Kuan-tu in 200.

The battle of Kuan-tu was won by Ts'ao Ts'ao, who put Yuan Shao to flight. Yuan never regained the initiative; after his death in 202 his two sons quarrelled over the inheritance, and in 206 Ts'ao Ts'ao took over the whole area once controlled by the last descendants of the noble Yuan family. In 207 Ts'ao Ts'ao ventured even farther north and defeated a force of Wu-huan cavalry, so that the whole northeastern quarter belonged to him.

At his southern border, the situation had not changed greatly. His neighbors, Sun Ch'van in the southeast and Liu Piao in the southwest, had maintained a wary loyalty to the emperor, and by implication to Ts'ao Ts'ao. This apparent quiet was threatened when Liu Piao fell seriously ill in 208 without having a worthy successor, and it was open to question whether Ts'ao Ts'ao or Sun Ch'van would take over his territory. There was even a third possibility. Since the beginning of the confusion after Ling-ti's death, an intrepid soldier of fortune, Liu Pei (161—223), had appeared on the scene, aiding first one, then another warlord. In 208, his position was such that it was feared that he too might succeed in taking over from the dying Liu Piao.

When Ts'ao Ts'ao decided to take the initiative and indeed forced Liu Piao's son to surrender his lands the other two warlords now had reason to fear that Ts'ao Ts'ao would next turn against one of them. They formed a temporary coalition, and when Ts'ao Ts'ao sailed further south, his ships were burned and his troops defeated at a place called the Red Cliffs. The battle at the Red Cliffs marked the end of Ts'ao Ts'ao's southward ventures, and thus the end of an era. Henceforth the south, that is the territory in the hands of Sun Ch'van, Liu Pei, and the other warlords farther west, was left to its own devices.

Ts'ao Ts'ao's last years (208-220)

The last years of Ts'ao Ts'ao were spent extending his power in a northwesterly direction and consolidating his position vis-a-vis the emperor. When he had tried to take over the territory of Liu Piao, he lost part of that territory in the battle of the Red Cliffs. He did, however, win the allegiance of Liu Piao's entourage, and several of the scholars and poets who had found refuge at Liu Piao's peaceful capital now flocked to Ts'ao Ts'ao to grace his administration.

Meanwhile, Ts'ao Ts'ao had effected a fundamental change in the top structure of the imperial bureaucracy. Up to 208, the emperor had continued to maintain a nominal bureaucracy under all circumstances, the top echelons of which consisted of the three excellencies and nine ministers.

Needless to say, under the circumstances the offices were no longer for sale as they had been under Ling-ti, and the emperor must at times have been happy to find anybody at all to fill these posts. In 208, however, Ts'ao Ts'ao abolished the offices of the three excellencies and replaced them by two top officials, the chancellor and the imperial secretary. For himself, he took the title of chancellor.

Up to 208, relations between the Han court and Ts'ao Ts'ao's entourage had been rather formal. Ts'ao Ts'ao had not taken extravagant titles. In 196 he had been appointed minister of works, concurrently charged with the office of a general of the chariots and cavalry, but he seems to have relinquished the latter title in 199. In 204 he took the additional title of regional commissioner, but this was only a formal recognition of power he already had. The emperor had his own entourage, not surprisingly consisting of Han loyalists and men of conservative opinions.

It was in these circles that the theory that the dynasty was merely passing through a temporary decline was likely to find its most ardent supporters. In A.D. 200, Hsvn Yveh (148-209) produced a history of Han; its central message was that after these dark years, a restoration was to follow. In the same year, the court, with or without the emperor's knowledge, plotted to have Ts'ao Ts'ao killed, probably motivated by a mistaken reading of his plans. The plot was foiled, and Ts'ao Ts'ao continued as before. In 203, however, he had an overseer appointed to keep an eye on the court bureaucracy.

After 208, Ts'ao Ts'ao set out on a policy of using his influence over the captive court to its fullest extent. In 212 he was exempted from "hurrying while approaching the emperor," a distinction usually reserved for elderly statesmen. In 213 he took the title duke of Wei, received exceptional honors, and presented three of his daughters to the emperor. In 214 he received additional honors, deposed the empress whom the emperor had married in 195, and killed the two imperial princes who had been born in the meantime. In 215 his daughter became empress; in 216 he took the title king of Wei, thereby breaking the unwritten constitution of the Han empire, which excluded everyone not of the imperial blood from holding the title of king (wang). In 217 additional honors were conferred on him, and it is common practice on the part of Chinese historians to imply that only his death on 15 March 220 prevented him from taking the ultimate step, that of setting himself up as emperor.

This latter statement is based on a reading of Ts'ao Ts'ao's ulterior motives, and can never be wholly convincing. Ts'ao Ts'ao must have been aware that any "nibbling at the emperor" would weaken rather than further his standing in the rest of the empire. When Ts'ao Ts'ao killed the two princes in 214, the warlord Liu Pei warned him against further attacks on the imperial family by going into mourning, far away in the southwest. In 219 the issue was freely discussed with Ts'ao Ts'ao.

In this discussion, two arguments emerged, one cosmological and one practical. The cosmological argument stated bluntly that all signs proved that Heaven had taken away the mandate from Han and given it to Ts'ao Ts'ao. The practical side retorted that Han's mandate looked very feeble indeed, but before the whole of China was conquered there could be no question of a clear and manifest new mandate. Ts'ao Ts'ao, essentially a practical man, concurred with the latter view.

Before we pursue this subject further, we will describe the main events in the rest of the empire. Ts'ao Ts'ao had extended his territory in a westerly direction. In 211 the area around the old capital Ch'ang-an was conquered; in 214 a self-styled king who had held out in the far west since the last year of Ling-ti's reign was finally captured; in 215 the religious leader Chang Lu surrendered, and this development opened up for Ts'ao Ts'ao a road into the southwestern quarter of the empire. In that quarter, meanwhile, things had changed. By ruse and force Liu Pei had wrested control from Liu Chang, the erstwhile regional commissioner of I-chou. With Liu Pei in the southwest, Sun Ch'van in the southeast, and Ts'ao Ts'ao in the north, a threefold division of the empire evolved. This was to last for more that fifty years.

In his last years, Ts'ao Ts'ao suffered some reverses. In 218 a Han loyalist plot was hatched against him, but it failed. In 219 Liu Pei took the area formerly held by the religious leader from Ts'ao Ts'ao and broke Ts'ao Ts'ao's claim to sole legality by styling himself king. That same year, Sun Ch'van extended his power further north, thus upsetting the balance even more. Ts'ao Ts'ao's death came at an unfavorable moment.

The abdication of Han Hsien-ti (November-December A.D. 220)

Amid real or imagined family quarrels, Ts'ao P'i (186—226), Ts'ao Ts'ao's heir apparent, took over his father's titles and offices. He became the new King of Wei, the new chancellor, and the new regional commissioner of the domain. With undue haste, as some saw it, since a filial son was supposed to remain in mourning longer than Ts'ao P'i did, the new king made a festive tour of the southern part of his domain. It is very likely that Ts'ao P'i felt that he needed to show his new force to both internal and external rivals, and more specifically to his younger brothers, and to Sun Ch'van in the south Sun Ch'van reacted by offering his allegiance; an important general of Liu Pei did the same, and so did the king of a non-Chinese tribe on the border between Liu Pei and Ts'ao P'i's territories.

Such good signs prompted one courtier to reveal information which he had not disclosed for seven years. Since 213 he had known, from ancient prognostications, that Ts'ao P'i was the one who would mount the imperial throne. If this was meant as a feeler, it worked. During the last weeks of November up to 10 December, there was a lively discussion about the change of mandate, in which the Han emperor, Ts'ao P'i, Ts'ao P'i's entourage, and the Han court finally reached agreement. On 11 December 220 the spell was broken; the Han emperor abdicated in favor of Ts'ao P'i, and the Han dynasty was no more.

Immediate consequences

There was, however, no certainty that the Han dynasty had come to an end. When news of the abdication reached Liu Pei in his southwestern capital, he gave out that the Han emperor had been killed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Ts'ao P'i had given the ex-emperor a beautiful title, a splendid income, and several privileges. Liu Pei, however, went into mourning, and members of his staff began to send in memorials full of proofs that Liu Pei was the Heaven-willed successor of the Han. One of the best minds of China, Chu-ko Liang (181-234), a man whose name is still known among the Chinese for his brilliant strategies, and who was at that moment the principal supporter of Liu Pei, joined the others. It was perhaps his support more than that of the others that persuaded Liu Pei to take the next step. On 15 May 221, he became emperor, stating emphatically that the rule of Han was to be eternal. He said that he was a member of the Han imperial family, which may very well have been true, and called his dynasty Han. So, in the southwestern quarter of the empire, the rule of Han continued.

The third warlord was somewhat taken by surprise. For the time being, he recognized the new Wei dynasty in the north, and received the title "king." In A.D. 222, however, he proclaimed his own calendar, which implied that he did not fully recognize the regime of Wei. The proclamation of a calendar was an imperial prerogative; Liu Pei had proclaimed his own when he took the imperial title in 221. From 222 onward, there were three calendars, one for Wei, one for Liu Pei's regime of Han, and one for Sun Ch'van. Undoubtedly because Sun Ch'van could not claim that the Han emperor had abdicated in his favor, or that he was himself a member of the Han imperial family, he had to remain content with his royal title.

Only in 229 were signs and miracles reported which augured an imperial title for Sun Ch'van. From 23 May 229 onward Sun Ch'van is known as the first emperor of the Wu dynasty, and there were now three emperors. Liu Pei had died in 223 and Ts'ao P'i in 226, but their successors were to continue their wars against each other for more than half a century.


The Han dynasty fell because the concept of dynastic change had made its way from the people to influential circles in Ts'ao Ts'ao's entourage. Weak emperors, or eunuchs, empresses, and the Yellow Turbans are blamed for the decline of Han, but until a thousand years after its fall efforts were still being made to restore the dynasty. For some, the creation of the Wei dynasty remained an unlawful act which tainted those emperors and their successors with illegitimacy. Such a view left open the question of where the legitimate succession had been moved.

The dynasty and metaphysics

Just as in the case of the Roman empire, so with the Han dynasty it has been asked why the empire fell. The answers have been as varied as those about Rome, some blaming individual emperors, some calling attention to institutional and cultural factors quite beyond the control of individuals. There is of course a difference between politicians who saw it happen in their lifetime and historians who pondered the question at a distance.

The commonest explanation of the fall of Han is given by the opening line of a fourteenth-century novel that concerns the end of the dynasty: "In general, the world must unite when it has long been divided and it must be divided when it has long been united." This explanation regards all the actors and all their actions as essentially subordinate to some greater, empirically proved process, whereby anything that is created must one day fall apart. This view is akin to that of those Western historians who regard the fall of Rome as the outcome of an inevitable process, as if an empire were an organic structure subject to organic decay.

Others, looking more closely into the matter, have tried to discover the material reasons for the unmistakable decline of the dynasty. As we have seen, there was a school of thought which held that this decline was only a temporary affair, and that the Han would resurface. This school was vindicated by Liu Pei's accession, but its voice was silenced in the north, and eventually in the southeast too, when Sun Ch'van declared on his accession that the Han dynasty was "exhausted." Another school of thought conceded that the dynasty was at its end, but only the conqueror of the whole of China could claim to be its successor. This school counted Ts'ao Ts'ao among its adherents, but its voice too was drowned out after his death. Both ways of thinking, however, did not totally disappear, but continued to exercise an influence in the centuries to come.

The third school of thought, which held that an immediate change of dynasty was inevitable, turned out to be the most successful, and we must look for the roots of this theory in order to understand the abdication. There can be little doubt that it originated among the people and found its first expression in the rival emperors that were set up by rebels "who worked with signs and miracles." If there had been only one such emperor, we might brush the phenomenon away as an isolated fact. We can, however, document at least fourteen such rival Sons of Heaven within the period A.D. 132—193, spread over all areas of the empire, and we must recognize the existence of a process. On the one hand, emperorship came under the influence of religion; on the other hand, popular religious ideals increasingly found political expression.

At the beginning of the dynasty, by 202 B.C., the first Han emperor had been successful thanks to his military victories, and religion played only a small role. This had been a time when the "deer was loose," when the imperial title was the prize for whoever caught it. Gradually, however, the emperors had acquired a new prerogative. From 113 B.C. onward a reign title was published at fixed intervals in order to designate the years. The year 104 B.C. was thus called the first year of the Grand Beginning, the next year was the second year of the Grand Beginning, and so on. After four years of Grand Beginning, a new reign title was published. The year 100 B.C. was called the first year of Heavenly Han.

On first glance, it looks as though the Former Han emperors were free to publish a new reign title whenever they chose, but closer inspection suggests that this was not so. Wu-ti changed his era names every fourth year, as did Hsvan-ti, Ch'eng-ti, and Ai-ti; Yvan-ti did so every fifth year, and Chao-ti every sixth. This cannot be due to coincidence; it strongly suggests that the emperors were bound by unknown reasons to fixed periods of time before they could change the reign title. Even Wang Mang, who temporarily set aside the Han dynasty, never published reign titles that lasted longer than six years. Only the Later Han emperors were free from such constraints and changed reign titles seemingly at will. This resulted in reign titles that remained in force for decades (the longest era lasted thirty-two years), but also in some that did not last longer than one year (the years 120, I21, and 150 each represented one complete era). The Later Han emperors were in this respect more free than their predecessors of the Former Han.

It was during the last decade of the Former Han that the dynasty had begun to be connected with prognostication and omens. Prognostications surfaced wherein the length of the dynasty was foretold, and omens no longer simply expressed Heaven's anger, but seemed to point to a complete dynastic change. After the Wang Mang interval, the restoration of the dynasty in A.D. 25 was itself an event heavily supported by such prognostications, and it drove contending theories underground.

Prognostications were considered as being written by Confucius or ancient sages. The Five Classics, it was argued, expressed the sum total of the truth, but the Sage had known all along that their language was difficult. Therefore he wrote secret appendices to the classics in order to make his intentions fully known. Toward the end of the Former Han, these appendices were being "discovered" and used for or against the dynasty. It has been said that by linking the authorship of prognostication texts with Confucius, the prestige of the Confucian classics was attached to the dubious practice of fortunetelling. If that is so, the Later Han's reliance on prognostications must in its turn be seen as an effort to attach the prestige of the Confucian classics to the restoration.

So, although it was established by military conquest, Later Han emperorship acquired a metaphysical footing. During the early reigns the distinction between the emperor's temporal and his metaphysical power did not come out into the open; under the later reigns it became accepted that the emperor need not necessarily rule as well as reign. The many child emperors illustrate this point; while they could not possibly be expected to rule, their mere presence sufficed to fulfill the metaphysical requirements of the governing elite.

But to return to the Chinese people: in itself it is not surprising that it took a long time before the institution of emperorship began to have a place in popular thinking. Emperorship had been imposed on the people in 221 B.C., and whatever theories the elite might build around it, time was needed before these theories could be absorbed by the population at large.

Most important in the metaphysical underpinning of emperorship was the so-called Five Phases (uw-bsing) theory:1" everything, from the grand movements of history to the minute workings of the human body, was the outward expression of one of five metaphysical powers: earth, water, fire, wood, or metal. These powers succeeded each other in fixed sequence, and it was important to know which was paramount at any given moment. If one did not take this into account, the chances were that one's actions might run counter to the power then in force, and thus end in failure. On a grand scale, history was understood as the sequence of these powers, each dynasty representing one of them, and each new dynasty signaling that the old power had disappeared, to be replaced by a new one. In A.D. 26, the first emperor of Later Han decided that fire was the power then in force, and that his dynasty was the worldly manifestation of it. The color red corresponded with fire, and so we often read about the Red Han or the Red Liu (Liu being the surname of the Han imperial family).

A weak point in this metaphysical legitimation of the dynasty lay in its inherent fluidity; it was generally understood that no power remained in force forever, and where there were signs that a new power was coming to the fore, it would have to imply consequences for the dynasty. If the Five Phases theory provided legitimacy, on the one hand, it also served as an instrument for dynastic change. The most common theory was that fire would in due time be replaced by earth with its corresponding color, yellow. Uncertainty, however, surrounded the question of when and how this replacement was to take place. Was earth to conquer fire, or was fire going to give birth to earth? In political terms, was the new dynasty to be established through conquest, or was it to be established by peaceful means?

We know very little about popular religion during the Han. We can surmise that it must have been fragmented, each region having its own customs and deities. To the official historian it was not an interesting phenomenon unless it interfered with the business of government. During the Later Han, however, religion sometimes took the form of mass movements, as for instance in 107, when the historian noted a mass migration of people in the northern regions, where they had been circulating alarming stories. In 175 too, a mass movement was reported to the court, and the Yellow Turbans were the most dramatic instance of a mass movement bred by religion. In recent years, studies have revealed that during the middle period of the Later Han there existed a sect that foretold the coming of a messianic figure who would deliver the faithful from earthly troubles."

Religion and politics form a potent mixture, as the court will have noticed when it had to deal with rival emperors set up by the people in connection with some metaphysical or religious system. Among the elite, meanwhile, the question of the dynasty's legitimacy took a different turn. Almost everyone conceded that the dynasty and the Liu family were the legitimate holders of the imperial title, and even when they felt dissatisfaction with the actual emperor, they did not try to change the dynasty. Instead, a number of plots were hatched to replace the living emperor with another member of the imperial family.

In 107, perhaps in 127, in 147 and in 188, we have evidence of plots to remove the living emperor. If any of them had succeeded, the new emperor would still have been chosen from the Liu family. When the coalition against Tung Cho deliberated the setting up of a new emperor in 191, the man they considered was again a member of the Liu family. If there were many indications among the people that the Han dynasty had outlived its mandate, this thinking did not travel upward into the elite.

It was during the confused last thirty years of the dynasty that such ideas finally began to influence this group. The old elite had disappeared, and new men took their place as warlords and strategists, bringing with them fresh ideas. Prognostications that had long been forgotten came once more to the fore, and as at the end of the Former Han, omens were once more interpreted as signs of the impending end of the dynasty. The establishment of a new dynasty was not, in the eyes of the proponents of dynastic change, merely a military affair. In their eyes this was certainly not a time when "the deer was loose," but rather a time when Heaven had selected its man in advance. Those who see in the abdication of Hsien-ti merely a cold game of power politics misjudge the religious, joyous side of the event.

In this thinking, the old dynasty voluntarily abdicated, and voluntarily passed on its mandate to the new man. In this respect, elite thinking differed from popular thinking. The popular rebellions with antidynastic overtones prove that, among the people, the theory of dynastic conquest was accepted. The actual abdication proves that the theory of peaceful and voluntary dynastic change came to prevail among the elite.

If we accept that the theory of dynastic change first became visible among the elite during the last years of the Former Han; that it was then driven underground by the restoration, to be combined with popular religion during the last century of Later Han rule; and that finally it was taken over, in modified form, by the new elite gathered by the various warlords, the question of why the Han fell has been answered in part. The Han fell because there had grown up a metaphysical system that called for its fall, and which waited only for the right man to implement the theory. Many believed that Ts'ao Ts'ao was this right man; he, however, warded off such suggestions. He tried to build a new structure, one in which the emperor reigned and the generals ruled. His son Ts'ao P'i did not share his father's ideas, and had a few reasons of his own to aspire to the title of emperor.

His succession as Ts'ao Ts'ao's heir was not uncontested; if he became emperor, any effort to remove him would become an effort to remove an emperor and this, as history proved, was unlikely to meet with support or success. Moreover, Ts'ao P'i was the son of a powerful and imposing father, and even though he had inherited Ts'ao Ts'ao's titles, it is not certain that he also inherited Ts'ao Ts'ao's prestige. His somewhat hasty tour of his southern possessions so soon after his father's death may have been, among other things, an effort to boost his popularity with his troops. Another reason for Ts'ao P'i's accession as first emperor of the Wei dynasty may have been that he was five years younger than the Han emperor and thus in a slightly uncomfortable position to give him orders.

When all is said and done we still do not know whether Ts'ao P'i yielded to pressure from his own officials or planned and started the whole process of abdication himself. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But if Ts'ao P'i thought that by declaring himself emperor he would win the same loyalty as the Han emperor, history proved him wrong.

Traditional theories about the decadence of the dynasty

Most historians describe the history of the Later Han as one of decline from a vigorous beginning to a ruinous end. So it is natural that they should have asked how this decline came about. Traditionally, three answers have been given. Some historians blame individual emperors; others blame rule by women and eunuchs; and yet others blame the Yellow Turbans. This is the way in which the history of the Later Han and of Liu Pei's Han dynasty was described in A.D. 304:"

My Epochal Founder, Kuang-wu-ti, extensively applying his sage-like military excellence, restored life to the foundations of the dynasty, sacrificing to Han on a par with Heaven, not neglecting its ancient practices, causing the sun, the moon and the stars, which had been dimmed, to give fresh light, and the holy vessels, which had been hidden, to shine forth with fresh lustre. The combined eras of Ming-ti and Chang-ti doubled this splendour, its blazing brightness spreading twice as far. From Ho-ti and An-ti onward, imperial control gradually slackened; to follow in Heaven's footsteps became difficult indeed, and the line of imperial succession was repeatedly interrupted. The Yellow Turbans turned all nine provinces into a billowing sea, the host of those marred by castration poisoned all within the four seas, Tung Cho followed this by giving free rein to his raving madness, Ts'ao Ts'ao and his son perpetrated their evil-doings one after the other.

Thus the last Han emperor was cast aside from his ten thousand kingdoms, Liu Pei was abandoned in far-away Shu, hoping there might perhaps in the end be an upsurge carrying him back to the ancient capitals.

Unexpectedly, Heaven did not show regret for the disasters it caused, and Liu Pei's son ended in utter anxiety and humiliation. Since his altars to the soil and to the grain perished, until today forty years have passed, during which the ancestral temples have not enjoyed sacrificial blood. Now Heaven is guiding all men's minds, showing regret for the disasters it caused to imperial Han. . . .

This remarkable piece of pro-Han propaganda, which was written on the occasion of yet another restoration of the Han in A.D. 304 (see p. 370 below), contains most of the elements that are stressed again and again by Chinese historians who study the causes of the fall of Han. We see mentioned the role of individual emperors, the harmful effects of child emperors ("the line of imperial succession was repeatedly interrupted"), the Yellow Turbans and the eunuchs ("the host of those marred by castration"). It shows a definite bias against the Wei dynasty ("Ts'ao Ts'ao and his son"), thereby foreshadowing the "legitimate succession" debates of later ages (see below, pp. 37 3f.). Finally the text is an expression of the recurrent idea that Han could not really ever die. Earlier on in the passage, the length of the Han dynasty is calculated at "double the years of the Hsia and Shang, with more sovereigns than the Chou," meaning at least a thousand years and some forty emperors."

Many Chinese historians discuss the merits and demerits of individual emperors because they feel that it is the individual emperors who caused the dynasty to flourish or decline. Discounting child emperors (of which the Later Han had five), the dynasty consisted of nine emperors: Kuangwu-ti, Ming-ti, Chang-ti, Ho-ti, An-ti, Shun-ti, Huan-ti, Ling-ti, and the last emperor, Hsien-ti. In traditional thinking, some of these nine are good and others are bad. The first emperor, Kuang-wu-ti, is always considered good, and to him attach the excellence and virtue that are inevitably ascribed to founders of dynasties. The last emperor too enjoys a good reputation, which is surprising in view of the fact that traditional historians often find in last emperors signs of vice and unfitness to govern. The historian Fan Yeh (398-446) sums up the general opinion when he writes: "Heaven had long since been tired of the virtue of Han; what blame attaches to the last emperor for this?"

The second emperor, Ming-ti, is also considered good, an exception being made, however, for the harshness of his punishments. Chang-ti, his successor, is also good, although the historian Wang Fu-chih (1619-1692) saw in him the first signs of dynastic decline." The burden of the blame is borne by the five emperors who succeeded him. As early as A.D. 190, the scholar Ts'ai Yung called Ho-ti, An-ti, and Huan-ti "worthless." In 219, during discussions with Ts'ao Ts'ao about the history of the dynasty, it was An-ti who was seen as the first bad emperor. Since then tradition has wavered between naming Ho-ti or An-ti as the first bad emperor. Their successors, Shun-ti, Huan-ti, and Ling-ti, meet with universal condemnation, although Huan-ti and Ling-ti are considered worse than Shun-ti. In due time, the expression "Huan and Ling" came to mean "oppressive government," and they passed into the language of politics and poetry as the latter-day equivalents of "Yu and Li," the traditionally bad kings of Chou. "

As we have seen, the growth of historical stereotypes around the Later Han emperors began in the last decades of the dynasty itself, and it is not surprising that such stereotypes should have made a deep impression on traditional theories of the decline of the dynasty. The historian Ssu-ma Kuang (1019—1086) distinguished four major phases in the history of Later Han. Initially there was the splendid period of Kuang-wu-ti, Ming-ti, and Chang-ti, when everybody "down to the palace guards" was steeped in the classical virtues and ancient ways were followed. Ho-ti, An-ti, and Shun-ti lacked this excellence. Fortunately, the inherited influence of the first three emperors continued to work on the high-ranking officials, and many excellent statesmen emerged. Often at the cost of their lives, they prevented the collapse of the state. If Shun-ti had had a worthy successor, the dynasty might have witnessed a revival, but unfortunately Shun-ti was followed by the "stupid tyranny of Huan and Ling."

Not only did these emperors persist in their predecessors' follies, but they added to these a ceaseless persecution of the worthy, so that virtue disappeared from the court and hatred was bred. Thus, in the last phase, Hsien-ti became a "homeless wanderer," though in his person the last vestiges of former greatness lingered on. His mere presence sufficed to prevent Ts'ao Ts'ao, a "cruel and strong man," from taking the throne for himself.

The historian Chao I (1727-1814) has a different theory. Kuang-wu-ti, he argues, did not stem from the main branch of the Former Han imperial family, but from a collateral branch. His founding of the Later Han was, therefore, "a new twig on an old trunk; it may look flourishing, but its vital energy is limited." Small wonder, then, thatHo-ti, An-ti, Shun-ti, Huan-ti, and Lingti, not to mention the child emperors, died young, not one of them living beyond thirty-four years of age. Only Kuang-wu-ti, Ming-ti, and, strangely enough, Hsien-ti, lived beyond that age. In his view, the prosperity of the whole empire is connected with the longevity of the individual emperors, and the decline of the dynasty shows in their early deaths."

The importance that Chao I attaches to these frequent early deaths is perhaps not so far-fetched as it seems. When the traditional historian is asked why Ho-ti and An-ti right through to Ling-ti were bad, the invariable answer is "Because they allowed women and eunuchs to rule." It is here that the frequent early deaths come into the picture. Child emperors and emperors dying young will have no direct descendants, so that the throne will often be left vacant. Constitutionally, the lack of an heir leads to a regency by the empress dowager and her family, who then proceed to select a new emperor from a collateral branch of the imperial house, thus making "a twig grow upon a twig."

Naturally, they will select a young child, so that they can prolong their power. Equally naturally, if the emperor grows up he will resent the regent's influence and will start to look for allies. The members of the bureaucracy are of no use to him. They are either bought or cowed into submission by the regent's family, and in any case an extension of imperial power is not in their interest. Consequently, the emperor turns to the eunuchs, often his sole confidants. When the regent is removed, the eunuchs, as sole interpreters and executors of the imperial will, fill the power vacuum. In this way eunuch rule is explained as the inevitable outcome of rule by women, which is in its turn explained as the inevitable consequence of a weakness in the male line.

Basically, it matters little whether one connects rule by women and eunuchs with the early deaths of emperors (as Chao I does) or with a decline in virtue (as Ssu-ma Kuang did). The fact remains that rule by women and eunuchs is indeed a marked characteristic of Later Han history from Ho-ti until the massacre of the eunuchs in September 189. Why should rule by women and eunuchs be considered a sign of dynastic decline? The odd fact is that the traditional historians hardly ever bother to explain this; the argument is taken for granted. Occasionally, we read that power must emanate from yang, the active, vigorous, male principle of nature.

Women naturally represent yin, the opposite, passive principle. Eunuchs too were considered yin, since their maleness, their yang, had been cut off. In this way, rule by women and eunuchs is interpreted as power emanating from yin, a concept abhorrent to the traditional thinker.

Heaven, earth, and nature seemed to share this abhorrence and showed it in the occurrence of comets, earthquakes, and freaks. The idea that nature itself abhors rule by women and eunuchs is also very old. When the historian Ssu-ma Piao (ca. A.D. 300) compiled a list of such unnatural phenomena, he explained most of them as being caused by women's and eunuchs' rule. Within a month after Ts'ao Ts'ao's death, his son and heir, Ts'ao P'i, then only king of Wei and not yet emperor, enacted a rule forever barring eunuchs from holding any but menial positions, and in 222, just before Ts'ao P'i, now emperor, appointed his first empress, he decreed that empresses, empresses dowager, and their families should forever be banned from participation in government affairs.

To this picture of bad emperors, regents, and eunuchs a fourth element can be added: the Yellow Turbans. A few traditional historians see the Yellow Turbans as the most important immediate cause of the fall of the dynasty. Ou-yang Hsiu (1007—1072) writes: "When the Yellow Turban rebels rose, the house of Han was in great disarray" and "beyond help."

Ho Cho (1661-1722) connected the Yellow Turbans with eunuch rule: "During the Later Han, the swarms of the Yellow Turbans and the wars between the warlords proceeded from the persisting influence of eunuch poison."

These historical stereotypes have also made their influence felt on Western historians. Like their Chinese counterparts, they too stress bad or irresponsible emperors, factional strife involving empresses dowager and eunuchs, and the Yellow Turbans as the symptoms or causes of the dynasty's decline. But Western historians do not understand the badness or unfitness of emperors in terms of a decline of virtue. They see it as the inevitable result of the fact that the emperors of a dynasty (except for its founder) grow up in a palace, out of contact with the people and constantly surrounded by luxury and intrigue. In the case of the Later Han, this explanation is somewhat feeble: An-ti, Huan-ti, Ling-ti, and Hsien-ti spent their early years away from the palace, but this seems to have had no influence on their fitness to govern.

Empresses dowager, their families, and eunuchs figure in Western and Chinese literature alike as symptoms of dynastic decay. In recent years, a reevaluation has been attempted of the eunuchs' role in the decline of the Later Han. Far from their being a sign of weakness, the eunuchs actually filled an important constitutional purpose. Han government, it is argued, depended on a system of checks and balances to prevent any group from seizing total power. When the regents' families upset the balance, the throne was constitutionally obliged to restore it, and here the eunuchs moved in.

If the regents' families had won, the very system of Han government would have been demolished and the dynasty would have perished earlier than it did. In this view, the eunuchs actually served to prolong the dynasty's life. This explanation has one weakness; during the Later Han a number of regents had it in their power to set up a new dynasty, yet they never did so. This was not because they had no means of doing so, but because, among the elite of that time, there was no political or metaphysical theory that could legitimize a change of dynasty.

The Yellow Turbans are frequently mentioned in Western literature as an important factor in the fall of Han. This is partly due to mainland Chinese historians, who have written extensively on peasant rebellions. In Chinese Communist historiography, peasant rebellions are considered a progressive element, and around i960 a host of studies appeared on this subject. Part of this interest spread to in Western sinology, and numerous studies on the Yellow Turbans were the result. There is a certain justice in the idea that a peasant rebellion, provoked by misgovernment, can topple a dynasty, but in the case of the Later Han the question of cause and effect is not as clear as many Chinese Communist and Western historians make it appear.

The Yellow Turban rebellion broke out in A.D.184. It flared up periodically in the years afterward, and the structure of government changed on account of the chronic rebellions. In 192 Ts'ao Ts'ao succeeded in winning over a reported 300,000 Yellow Turbans. He incorporated them into his own army, but after 192 there are still many indications of continued Yellow Turban activity. They aided now this warlord, now that one, or they operated independently. After 207, however, their name disappears from the records; thus they cannot have played a direct role in the abdication of 220.

But their indirect role was perhaps more important than their direct involvement. Among religious rebellions, the Yellow Turbans were more outspoken than any other in stating that the days of Han were over. "The green Heaven is already dead, the yellow Heaven will take its place," was their slogan in 184. "Green Heaven" is usually interpreted as meaning Han, although in the orthodox theory the color of Han was red. In 192 they sent a letter to Ts'ao Ts'ao in which they rejected any idea of a rapprochement between him and themselves. They wrote: "The element of Han is already exhausted, a yellow house will be established, and the great movements of Heaven are not, sir, something that you can encompass." It is impossible to ascertain whether the incorporation of huge numbers of Yellow Turbans into Ts'ao Ts'ao's army in 192 actually strengthened those elite circles that advocated immediate dynastic change; the most that we can say is that it cannot have weakened such thinking.

The influence of the Yellow Turbans on the events of 189 in the wake of Ling-ti's death is equally difficult to gauge. Tung Cho had earned his first successes in 184 in the course of the war against the Yellow Turbans. So had Ts'ao Ts'ao, Liu Pei, and a host of other warlords. In this respect their role is important, though indirect, and it must be stressed that Yellow Turbans were in no way directly involved in the events of 189. In spite of the rebels' opposition to the court and the dynasty, it is clear that the person of the actual living emperor, even though he may be a "homeless wanderer" like Hsien-ti, filled them with awe and uneasiness.

Several times Hsien-ti was in the hands of rebels, both during the eclipse of the court in the years 192-195 and during his journey back to Lo-yang in 195-196. Although in theory nothing could have been easier than killing this teenage boy, in fact he was spared even though his whole court was massacred. The rebels who accompanied Hsien-ti on his flight toward Lo-yang were glad to let him go as soon as the opportunity arose, because his presence caused them uneasiness. They were incapable of setting up a new emperor and a new dynasty, doubtless because they did not have a well thought-out theory to support such a change. It was left to elite circles to develop such a theory, and the confusion of the last decades of Han gave them and their man the opportunity to come to the fore. When Ts'ao P'i subscribed to this theory and accepted Hsien-ti's abdication in A.D. 220, the Yellow Turbans are not likely to have been uppermost in his mind.

The continuing ideal of Han

The unity of China under one leader is the most persistent ideal of Chinese history. It is as manifest in the twentieth century as it was in the fifth century B.C. Whenever China has been divided under different regimes, this has been felt to be a temporary situation. During the Warring States period that preceded the Han, and during the Middle Ages that followed it, peace never lasted longer than a few years, and the ultimate goal of all wars was always the same: the reunification of China under one leader.

During the Warring States period, the various kings themselves were perhaps not totally aware of the form this unity and this leadership was to take, but during the Middle Ages (the four centuries after the fall of Han, 220—589), the unity and order of Han were remembered as a reality and the name of Han came to stand for a perfection that had been lost and a unity that was desired. Several rulers named their dynasties Han or designed genealogies connecting them with Han emperors. Several families proudly traced their ancestry to some Han official, and in faraway Japan several clans claimed descent from Han kings (sometimes nonexistent).

In Liu Pei's dynasty, a theory was developed which held that several Han dynasties were to succeed each other, just as brothers are born one after the other. The Former Han was seen as the elder brother, the Later Han as the middle brother, and a new Han dynasty was to follow as the youngest brother. For this reason, the Han dynasty established by Liu Pei in A.D. 221 is sometimes called "youngest brother Han.'"'° This dynasty was suppressed in 263, but forty years later a new Han dynasty was proclaimed in north China in A.D. 304. Part of the proclamation which heralded this dynasty has been noted above (p. 363).

Its ruler, Liu Yuan (d. 310), was a Hsiung-nu king in his own right, but in 304 he adopted the additional title of emperor of Han. This was not an empty gesture. Liu Yuan was well aware of the facts of China's remote history, and he knew that some of China's greatest Sons of Heaven had been born, like himself, in barbarian countries. He had studied the Han shu, where he learned that, five hundred years earlier, the very first Han emperor had given a princess in marriage to one of his own ancestors. The line that had sprung from this marriage bore the imperial surname Liu, in deference to the princess, and this was a sign of the brother-to-brother relationship between the Han imperial family and the princess's descendants, Liu Yuan himself.

Liu Yuan had a detailed knowledge of the vicissitudes of Later Han history and the events accompanying its fall. The history of Liu Pei's Han dynasty, which was in his eyes the true successor to Han, was known to him, as may be seen in his remark:'3' Han has possessed the world for a large number of generations, its grace and virtue have so been locked within the people's hearts that Liu Pei, cramped down in an area not larger than one province, could yet hold his own against the rest of the world.

The ignominious end of this Han dynasty, whose emperor, Liu Pei's son, surrendered meekly to the Wei in the north in A.D. 263, may or may not have been seen by Liu Yuan, who was at the time working as a minor official in the capital of Wei. Forty years later, in 304, he decided to press the "brother-to-brother" claim and to found his own Han dynasty. When he died in 310, he was awarded the posthumous name Kuang-wen; Chinese custom in these matters links the concept wen (excellence in peacetime) with its opposite, wu (excellence in wartime), so that, by being called Kuang-wen, he was placed on a par with Kuang-wu[-ti], the founder of the Later Han.

He built an ancestral temple in which he sacrificed to the most eminent Han emperors, and in this sense the Han dynasty continued until this temple was burned to the ground in 318, "amid the howls of ghosts.'" But in the intervening years, the magic of the name Han had seemed to work. In 311, this Hsiung-nu Han dynasty conquered the capital city of Lo-yang and captured the Chinese emperor alive. When the curious Hsiung-nu emperor asked his Chinese confrere why he thought it had come to this, the hapless victim felt obliged to reply that it had all been Heaven's work: "Great Han is destined to receive a number of years in conformity with the principle of Heaven," presumably meaning eternity.IJ3

The Chinese had meanwhile enthroned another emperor in the other capital, but to no avail. The armies of the alien Han dynasty overran Ch'ang-an in 316, and once again a Chinese emperor was carried off alive to his Hsiung-nu rival. A little while later, the Hsiung-nu emperor's son died, but after some days he revived and had a wonderful story to tell: while he had appeared to be dead, he had actually roamed in the heavens, where he had met the ghost of Liu Yuan, who told him that the heavens kept a place in reserve for his father. Another king of heaven had requested him to take a present back with him to the world of the living, to the emperor of Han. When the present was examined, it vindicated the son's story. The Han emperor was overjoyed and exclaimed that he was not afraid of death anymore.'

While Han's majesty was thus manifest even in the realm of the dead, on earth its prestige dimmed considerably after the destruction of the ancestral temple in A.D. 318; in 319 the reigning Hsiung-nu emperor abandoned the name of Han and adopted the name Chao instead. This was done because he, unlike Liu Yuan, thought that the Hsiung-nu emperors represented an independent dynasty. They were the successors not to Han, but to the Chin dynasty, two of whose emperors had fallen into his hands. Nevertheless, sacrifices to Liu Yuan were continued until 329, when this Chao dynasty, and all its princes and high officials, were buried alive in Lo-yang.'

Nine years later, in A.D. 338, a new Han dynasty was proclaimed in the same city that had served as Liu Pei's capital, in the southwestern corner of China. Detailed information is unfortunately lacking, and we do not know the reason for this decision. The new Han emperor bore the surname Li, so he could not conceivably claim to belong to the Han imperial family, whose surname was Liu. Whatever the reason, this dynasty lasted only nine years. Its last emperor surrendered to the Chin dynasty, which had been overrun by the Hsiung-nu emperors in the north, but which had been restored in the southeast.' This emigre Chin dynasty never recaptured the north and tottered on until 420, when a general, Liu Yv (356-422), forced the last Chin emperor to abdicate.

Liu Yv called the dynasty he founded Sung, but it is significant that he took pains to trace his ancestry back to the very first emperor of Han, who had now been dead for six hundred years. The historian Shen Yveh (441- 513), who was ordered by the throne in 487 to describe the rise to power of Liu Yu, gave as his explanation for Liu Yv's success that in all the intervening two hundred years since the fall of Han, the people had never really forgotten the Han, and that the Wei and Chin dynasties had actually each been a kind of caretaker dynasty, to bridge the gap between the Later Han and Liu Yv's Sung dynasty.'

After this the name of Han appears once more during the Middle Ages. A northern general, Hou Ching (503-552), had reason to fear for his life and in 548 offered his assistance to the then southern emperor, Wu-ti of the Liang dynasty (r. 502—549). The southern court mistakenly trusted him, but once the general was firmly entrenched in the southern capital of Chien-k'ang, he initiated a policy of terror, starving the old emperor, then eighty-five years old, to death, placing a puppet emperor on the throne of Liang, and finally setting himself up as emperor in 551. This short-lived dynasty (Hou Ching was killed in the next year and the Liang house was restored) was called Han, for reasons that we do not know. Apparently Hou Ching had taken with him from the north the idea that the name Han might serve as powerful propaganda, and he may have wanted the spiritual power of this name to guarantee the longevity of his dynasty.'

For the following 366 years, the name of Han disappears. During these centuries, China witnessed the unification of the empire by the Sui dynasty in 589, followed by the splendor of T'ang until 907. When the T'ang dynasty collapsed, the resulting chaos was in some ways reminiscent of the situation after the fall of Han. Among the fifteen or so dynasties that were proclaimed in the period 907—980, four were called Han. The longest lasted from 918 until 971 and was based in Canton. A curious detail is that its emperors, who bore the Han imperial surname of Liu, were probably of Arab descent. In the north, two Han dynasties were proclaimed, one lasting from 947 to 950, the next lasting from 951 until 979. In both cases the emperors were of non-Chinese descent, although they bore the family name of Liu. The shortest Han dynasty lasted for only one year (917) and was proclaimed in southwestern China, where Liu Pei had once ruled as Han emperor. Its ruler, however, did not claim descent from the Liu family.

The last dynasty to bear the name Han was proclaimed four centuries later, in 1360. It is not clear what prompted its founder, who started life as a fisherman's son, to adopt the grandiose title of Han more than a millennium after Hsien-ti's abdication. His dynasty was extinguished four years later by the founder of the Ming dynasty, and details are scarce. I4° Since then the name Han lives on in expressions such as "Han characters," meaning Chinese characters, and the "Han race," meaning people of northern China. "Han scholar" is still the name the Chinese apply to someone whom we call a sinologist.

The legitimate succession

Each in its own way, the various Han dynasties proclaimed after A.D. 200 bear witness to the old idea that Han could not really die. But historians have to deal with facts, and the traditional Chinese historian faced a problem when he had to write about the period after A.D.220. In that period there were three calendars, and the historian had to choose which would be the main calendar and which would be the main dynasty in order to be able to date events. The historian's choice in this matter was not arbitrary; on the contrary, he chose the dynasty and the calendar which he considered to be legitimate, thereby declaring the other two dynasties illegitimate.

This problem is known as that of the legitimate succession. The question was whether the Han Mandate of Heaven had moved in 220 to Ts'ao P'i, who accepted Hsien-ti's abdication; or to Liu Pei, who belonged to the imperial family; or to Sun Ch'van, who had no direct connection with the Han. The latter possibility has never been considered, and all historians concur in regarding the Wu dynasty as illegitimate. The choice has been between Liu Pei and Ts'ao P'i, who both had claims to being the true successors of Han.

During the period of division after 220, this problem was more than academic. When the Chinese dynasties were driven to the southeast after 316 by non-Chinese invaders from the north, it was important for them to know that they were the true holders and inheritors of the mandate. The true mandate, it was believed, would protect them like a spiritual barrier against their northern adversaries and eventually help them to regain the north.

The historical facts are as follows. In 263 Liu Pei's Han dynasty was conquered by its northern rival, the Wei dynasty of Ts'ao P'i; in 266 the Wei dynasty abdicated in favor of a new dynasty called Chin; in 280 this Chin dynasty conquered the southeastern state of Wu, thus reuniting the empire. In 316 the Chin dynasty was driven to the south, and from then on northern China was ruled by non-Chinese dynasties. In the south, the Chin gave way to the Sung in 420; the Sung to the Ch'i in 479; the Ch'i to the Liang in 502; and the Liang to the Ch'en in 557. The Ch'en dynasty ended in 389 when it was conquered by its northern rival, the Sui, and China was reunified once more.

The historian Hsi Tso-ch'ih (d. 384) showed considerable bias against Ts'ao Ts'ao. In his eyes the Wei were rebels against the Han, and the true mandate had gone to Liu Pei in the southwest. At the end of Liu Pei's dynasty the mandate returned to the north and came to be vested in the Chin dynasty, the dynasty under which Hsi Tso-ch'ih himself lived. For him the Chin dynasty was the direct successor to Han, without any intermediary.

The historian and man of letters Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-1072) solved the problem in another way. In his view, all three post-Han dynasties were equally illegitimate because none of them succeeded in reunifying the empire. He argues that the true mandate was simply cut off in 220. It reappeared briefly under the Chin when this dynasty reunified China in 280, but afterward it was again cut off, reappearing only in 589 when the Sui reunified the empire.'

Ssu-ma Kuang (1019-1086) had to be more practical. When he compiled his vast comprehensive history of China, he had to make the choice between the calendars of the three successor states. He chose the calendar of the Wei dynasty and disregarded the other two calendars. In order to explain his choice, he developed a theory in which the unity of the empire was seen as the prerequisite of the true mandate. In his eyes, only Han, Chin, and Sui were legitimate dynasties, all others being mere feudal states. These feudal states were alike in that they did not possess the true mandate, but the feudal state that had accepted the abdication of a legitimate dynasty was somewhat more legitimate than the others. For that reason he chose the Wei dynasty as the main successor to Han, but he made clear that he did so more for reasons of expediency than of orthodoxy.

This superficial treatment of the problem was attacked by Chu Hsi (1130—1200) when he rewrote Ssu-ma Kuang's history. Chu Hsi chose the dynasty of Liu Pei as the holder of the true mandate. For Chu Hsi, Liu Pei's connection with the Han imperial family outweighed any claim Ts'ao P'i could lay to legitimacy, and in his history he used Liu Pei's calendar.

For the period 264—280, after Liu Pei's dynasty was vanquished but before the southeastern Wu dynasty was conquered, Chu Hsi was at a loss what to do. Since for him all calendars current in that period were equally false, he solved the problem by writing them in small script only.

When the Wu dynasty was extinguished in 280, Chu Hsi felt that the true mandate had reappeared with the Chin dynasty, and he returned to large script to write the dates. From then on the true mandate went along with the Chin to the south in 317, only to disappear again in 420 when the Chin dynasty fell. In 589 it reappeared when the Sui dynasty once more reunified China. The northern non-Chinese dynasties are in his eyes as illegitimate as the southern successor states to Chin.

We have seen that Chinese historians vary in their judgment on the events of A.D. 220, and most of them question the legality of the abdication. In this respect, Ts'ao P'i has not succeeded in convincing later generations, while Liu Pei still made his claim felt a millennium after his death. Modern Chinese and Western historians have usually opted for Ssu-ma Kuang's practical solution, and with the application of the Western calendar to Chinese history the problem tends to disappear. The idea that a unified China is in some way more normal than a divided China has taken firm root in Western sinology. As a result, the period covered by the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) is usually called Han.

Its three successor states are usually grouped together as the Three Kingdoms, and the Three Kingdoms together with the subsequent period of division (220—589) is sometimes termed the Middle Ages. None' of the twenty-odd dynasties that rose and fell in that period succeeded in giving its name to the era. It is only after 589, when Sui unified the country, that the title of a dynasty reappears as the name of an era; the period 589-618 is called Sui, and the period 618-907 is called T'ang after the T'ang dynasty that succeeded the Sui. Apparently, only a dynasty that rules the 144 The small script used for the periods 264-280 and 420—589 can be seen in any edition of the T'ung-chim kang-mu. Chu Hsi discusses his reasons for doing so in the Fan-li section of the introductory chapter of his book, and in his preface.

The legitimacy of the Wei dynasty, or rather its lack of legitimacy, played a role in the so-called Great Rites controversy of the 1520s in Ming China. Opponents of the emperor in this controversy cited as an authoritative model a decree issued by the Wei emperor Ming in 229 in support of their argument, but their adversaries rejected this on the grounds of the Wei dynasty's dubious legitimacy. In the 1060s, in a similar controversy, Han Huan-ti and Ling-ti were cited as authoritative models, a claim indignantly rejected by Ssu-ma Kuang because he considered the two to be "mediocre rulers." In other words, the legitimacy of a previous dynasty and the stature of individual previous emperors influenced the way in which they could be used as authoritative models during later political struggles. See Carney Thomas Fisher, The gnat ritual controversy in Ming China whole of China can succeed in giving its name to a whole period, and in this subtle way the Han mandate lives on in modern writings. For the true mandate of Han is not a question of metaphysics alone; at its core is the very real question of the unity of China itself.
Last edited by waywardauthor on Mon Aug 21, 2017 1:14 am, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sun Aug 20, 2017 3:09 pm

This excites me. I've wanted to get my hands on this book for a while, it's just so expensive! I will read it soon, thanks for sharing it with us waywardauthor!
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby Xu Yuan » Mon Aug 21, 2017 1:02 am

That was a terrific read. A bunch of things I already knew, but there was a lot of new stuff in there. I've heard some defense of Emperor Ling before but when he is literally quoted as saying "We could have got 10 million out of him." well... that's a little too close to modern day for my tastes, haha. I also like the nuanced take on the Eunuchs as part of the constitutional checks and balances of the Later Han against the Gentry. That argument does sort of fall apart when it was clear there was no check to the Eunuch's power after Huan got rid of Liang Ji and the eunuchs disposed of Chen Fan.

The information on the Three Kingdoms is also interesting. I didn't realize that Liu Bei sent a warning to Cao Cao over the death of the two Imperial Princes and even went into mourning over the event. This is the first I had heard of it. The enduring namesake of the Han as a concept is also an intriguing aside which could have had its own argument fleshed out, I feel.

All in all it was a wonderful read and I suggest everyone to give it a look over.
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby waywardauthor » Mon Aug 21, 2017 1:54 am

Sun Fin wrote:This excites me. I've wanted to get my hands on this book for a while, it's just so expensive! I will read it soon, thanks for sharing it with us waywardauthor!
Its my pleasure. I picked up an online copy from Cambridge's website at university, and after taking a look at my old files I thought it might be good to put up a part of it. I'm not sure I can share much more of the book, but if there's something specific you're interested in I can take a look for you.

Xu Yuan wrote:All in all it was a wonderful read and I suggest everyone to give it a look over.

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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby qqdonut » Wed Nov 15, 2017 7:23 am

Thanks for this! I happen to have scans of some of this chapter (but not all of it). Here's the two maps included from my copy.
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby Lord Yang Jiahua » Wed Nov 15, 2017 9:34 pm

Im going to post this here, i would have put it after my commentaries on the novel, because its relevant to the first 3 chapters, but i had a bunch of thoughts, and decided to roughly write it up. When i can get a more thorough and less, ad hoc (because its a giant wall of text in some sense) way to read the chapter over, i'll have a more detailed critique. Sorry it is a wall of text, though it is quite wonderful to see some actual new academic works on the subject.

A Short Response to B J Mansvelt Beck

A fellow forum member posted this man's work up, and I will attempt to critique the perspective of this historian who is using the historical sources which do show where the novel differs.

The buying and selling of offices is an interesting feature that the novel conveniently leaves out. Dong Zhuo obtained two of the Three Elder Lords positions prior to becoming Prime Minister, as per the chapter notes in the novel. The positions were Minister of Works and Grand Commandant. Now the reader knows how he obtained them.

Of note is that under the Wei Dynasty the position of Grand Commandant at least according to the novel became regarded as a figurehead position.

Yuan Wei, Imperial Guardian, apparently had bought his position, though the novel depicts nothing negative about Yuan Wei's position. Dong Zhuo of course has Yuan Wei killed.

One still must ask though, where did all the money that was used to buy high positions actually go? The eunuchs pocketed it quite possibly, to what end though and only to have it be quite meaningless after their extermination in 189, is quite the mystery. Quite possibly it all just went poof and disappeared. Quite possibly the numbers are exaggerated. Who knows, perhaps Dong Zhuo hid it all somewhere when he razed Luoyang and retreated west to Chang An. The fact that Cao Cao seems to have financed the Imperial court on his own dime when he took control of the Emperor in 196 and moved the court to Xuchang, can't simply be because that kind of financial power would give him supreme control.

The novel also has Yang Biao, Grand Commandant, high official, then senior official, and office-buyer apparently, quite readily removed by Cao Cao when he takes power, though not killed. Possibly the Yang clan's financial power(inferred) was a threat, along with the obvious independence he represented from Cao's clique of appointees when he took control. (More on this in succeeding Chapters).

Mansvelt attaches an importance to control of the secretariat, where decrees originate, the novel does too, but not until Dong Zhuo and his generals enter the scene, and of course when Cao Cao takes over.
Considering my comments on the novel's portrayal of Emperors, its safe to say that the Emperor had become a weak figurehead at best.

Mansvelt comments on all the traditional fall of the Han reasons including “rule by women and eunuchs”. The Novel notes and translator also point out that, a Eunuch and a Woman are treated as the same thing by the novel, or as extremely similar metaphysical comparisons. Mansvelt's comments also make sense that the struggle between the Empress/Regent faction and the Eunuchs basically had become an endless loop. Why the Emperors lacked the ability for independent action through their ministers and those offices then to break the loop, is not answered. The various plots to rid the court of eunuchs all seem to be Regent faction based, so that would then make the justifications by its backers as a return to rule by virtuous people(or some similar reasoning) hollow.

That Empress He did not wish to be controlled solely by her brother's faction is an interesting touch. Which would bear out the novel's depiction of why the eunuchs apparently call on her to save them at certain points.

The inner court faction dynamics, would effectively point to the Ministerial offices actually having some kind of true court power. Otherwise the novel would have had no need to illustrate how badly the eunuchs handle the people in those positions, and history would have no reason to bear out that the buying offices basically weakens the power therein.

Mansvelt points to a lack of any kind of reasoning, for change of dynasty, as a major factor, bar the various apparently mystical portents or bad omens. The novel and various histories make great use of the Yao – Shun Abdication model, which bears out that there was lack of a precedent for changing of dynasty except this one(which is mystical in most senses). Therefore the Han figurehead Emperors remained for quite some time until the appearance of regional armies after 190, as in fact powerful.

So the question becomes, during the End of the Eastern Han, or Later Han, we have various factors in play : A two Faction court dynamic that will continually react on itself for control behind the throne. The sale of offices as a way to weaken the power of those offices. Lack of a means to really effect a changing of dynasty, therefore the current dynasty and emperor will remain, basically guaranteeing the first factor. Lack of independent action by the Emperor outside of some shallow reliance on the Eunuchs to balance the various Regents. The question is, why didn't the Emperors simply act like Emperors?

Sure many of them come to throne as children, but Huan and Ling both saw adulthood, and the Western concept of a “majority” , so what made their Imperial Highness' so cowed, or shallow to not simply think, how can I not be controlled by my overbearing Mother and her people, and not wind up a tool for the Eunuchs to use, (considering it seems the Emperor has no idea whats going on sometimes with royal decrees).

I hesitate to comment on religious, or pseudo religious factors for adding to the fall of the Han, only because the Yellow Turbans, or Yellow Scarves in the Novel, fail quite convincingly. Which seems to effect that in the Han dynasty, the people at least as a collective entity could not make direct change to the state of China. Had the Yellow Scarves actually succeeded, one could then not only easily answer the question why did the Han Dynasty fall, but also easily point out that the power was with the people of the Empire, and not the courts or officials. In fact the reverse has to be true.
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby CaTigeReptile » Wed Nov 15, 2017 11:39 pm

A fascinating read. I don't have much of use to say except that I loved the walkthrough of how Liu Bei's dynasty came to be viewed as legitimate by so many and also the use of the Han as a symbol of legitimacy for the next 1500 years. I also enjoyed the part about how cultural biases (whether they be Western, ancient/medieval Chinese, or modern Chinese) are reflected in analyses of the fall of the Han (re: Yellow Turbans, why the dynasty fell, Eunuchs, etc).
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby Sun Fin » Fri Nov 17, 2017 11:58 am

I've finally read it all! Such a great piece! I knew that the government was corrupt and you could buy office at the end of the Han but I hadn't realised it was as blatant and state authorised as that! Thanks so much for posting it wayward scholar!
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Sat Nov 18, 2017 12:30 pm

Just read through it, very intresting read even from someone who read the Huan-Ling chapters of the ZZTJ
The buying and selling of offices is an interesting feature that the novel conveniently leaves out. Dong Zhuo obtained two of the Three Elder Lords positions prior to becoming Prime Minister, as per the chapter notes in the novel. The positions were Minister of Works and Grand Commandant. Now the reader knows how he obtained them.

Why would Dong have to pay the bribes rather then just arrange the appointments from an emperor he controlled?

Yuan Wei, Imperial Guardian, apparently had bought his position, though the novel depicts nothing negative about Yuan Wei's position. Dong Zhuo of course has Yuan Wei killed.

In fairness to the novel, without explaining the context of why all the officers paid up, it would just make a lot of people look bad unfairly.

One still must ask though, where did all the money that was used to buy high positions actually go? The eunuchs pocketed it quite possibly, to what end though and only to have it be quite meaningless after their extermination in 189, is quite the mystery. Quite possibly it all just went poof and disappeared. Quite possibly the numbers are exaggerated. Who knows, perhaps Dong Zhuo hid it all somewhere when he razed Luoyang and retreated west to Chang An. The fact that Cao Cao seems to have financed the Imperial court on his own dime when he took control of the Emperor in 196 and moved the court to Xuchang, can't simply be because that kind of financial power would give him supreme control.

I feel the article does explain where the money went and yes of course, with all the chaos after Ling died, what money remained probably slipped out of Han hands.

The novel also has Yang Biao, Grand Commandant, high official, then senior official, and office-buyer apparently, quite readily removed by Cao Cao when he takes power, though not killed. Possibly the Yang clan's financial power(inferred) was a threat, along with the obvious independence he represented from Cao's clique of appointees when he took control. (More on this in succeeding Chapters).

Bear in mind it was more "The Han offers you chance to take office but you have to pay to take up this opportunity" then "ok slt is open, start bidding war". Yang Biao was a noted figure even before he took office and a Han loyalist, Yang was connected to Yuan clan which helped make Cao Cao wary.

Mansvelt attaches an importance to control of the secretariat, where decrees originate, the novel does too, but not until Dong Zhuo and his generals enter the scene, and of course when Cao Cao takes over.
Considering my comments on the novel's portrayal of Emperors, its safe to say that the Emperor had become a weak figurehead at best.

Don't think that is fair to say, Huan and Ling both held power. May not have used it well and their power may not been as much as it should have been but they were rulers

Mansvelt comments on all the traditional fall of the Han reasons including “rule by women and eunuchs”. The Novel notes and translator also point out that, a Eunuch and a Woman are treated as the same thing by the novel, or as extremely similar metaphysical comparisons. Mansvelt's comments also make sense that the struggle between the Empress/Regent faction and the Eunuchs basically had become an endless loop. Why the Emperors lacked the ability for independent action through their ministers and those offices then to break the loop, is not answered. The various plots to rid the court of eunuchs all seem to be Regent faction based, so that would then make the justifications by its backers as a return to rule by virtuous people(or some similar reasoning) hollow.

Huan and Ling sided with the eunuchs against the gentry basically, Huan's predecessors were children

Yes, anti-eunuch plots tended to be gentry based

The question is, why didn't the Emperors simply act like Emperors?

They did when they were adults and free of regent control

Sure many of them come to throne as children, but Huan and Ling both saw adulthood, and the Western concept of a “majority” , so what made their Imperial Highness' so cowed, or shallow to not simply think, how can I not be controlled by my overbearing Mother and her people, and not wind up a tool for the Eunuchs to use, (considering it seems the Emperor has no idea whats going on sometimes with royal decrees).

They weren't controlled by their mothers and it was a free alliance with the eunuchs against a gentry they understandably never trusted. They would rely on reports from their local administrators and ministers as to what was going on bar when they (rarely) toured the lands
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Re: The Fall of the Han by B J Mansvelt Beck

Unread postby Lord Yang Jiahua » Sat Nov 18, 2017 8:56 pm

Tch, criticisms stepped on, but eh i don't know as much as many of the people here, especially about Three Kingdoms historically, or apparently this period in China.

Despite my History degree, there was a giant lack of Chinese History classes when i was in college, and the ones that were there simply surveyed the subject, and pretty broadly also painted most emperors as figureheads. If they don't get a name, like Han Gao Zu, Wu Di, Guang Wu, Li Yuan, Li Shimin, Wu Zetian, XuanZong, Zhao Kuangyin, and so up, they weren't studied.
Does show why the man gets to write in the Cambridge History though.

The first comment is because the novel's sequencing has him arrive in the capital without any appearance of controlling the official appointments, though the notes say he already had two of the Three Elder Lords offices. We're only told he has these offices, so my mistake then.

Novel doesn't depict any Emperor as potent at all,and always attributes Emperors that had true authority to the likes of Han Gao Zu, Wudi and Guang Wu, even perhaps Sima Yan.

I don't really see the whole constitutional system thing trying to be painted, perhaps i'm making a hindsight error, even if the author does show it quite well. I just don't get where thats coming from considering i've never heard anyone except here call it constitutional. China's dynastic governments always seemed like a "thats just how things are run" acceptance by the vast majority of commoners, there may be important official houses, offices etc. But the Yellow Turbans don't seem to show that things were really being balanced to well towards the end of the dynasty, maybe earlier on this worked. But giving regional control to the regional governors,(problem in the Han, problem in the Tang, problem in the Roman Empire) seems to really be what messed things up.
The eunuchs seem to be keeping things together on a knife edge to me, orderly is basically, as best as can be called "orderly".
The dynasty would have fallen faster had there been no eunuchs, perhaps, if one thinks how quickly the Wei dynasty was undermined by the Sima family, then yes. So balanced, sure, tedious, sure, making the empire live on borrowed time, yeah.
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