A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23 – 220 AD) Online

Rafe de Crespigny

Dong Zhuo 董卓

A Biographical Dictionary of later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD)

Dong Zhuo 董卓 [Zhongying 仲潁 often miswritten as 仲潁 ] (d.192); Longxi. Dong Zhuo's father Dong Junya came from Lintao county in Longxi, but at the time Dong Zhuo and his brother Min were born he was serving as a county commandant in Yingchuan 潁川; he therefore included the character ying in their styles.

In his youth Dong Zhuo had dealings with the Qiang people, gained reputation as leader of fighting men, and distinguished himself on the frontier. Braver and stronger than other men, he carried a bow at each side and was skilled with both of them. About 165 he was recommended as a cadet in the Feathered Forest guard, then became a major under Zhang Huan.

In the winter of 167 Dong Zhuo and his colleague Yin Duan defeated rebel Qiang in Hanyang, killed their leaders and forced their surrender. Dong Zhuo was rewarded with silk, which he distributed among his troops, and he was appointed a gentleman cadet for civil office. He then became a county magistrate in Yanmen, a divisional commandant in Shu, and Wu and Ji Colonel in the Western Regions; leaving the last office on account of some wrongdoing. In the late 170s he became Inspector of Bing province and in the early 180s he was Administrator of Hedong.

In the summer of 184 Dong Zhuo was sent as General of the Household of the East with the Staff of Authority to take over operations against the Yellow Turbans led by Zhang Jue in Julu. He was not successful, however, and in the autumn he was dismissed. Soon afterwards, as rebellion broke out in Liang province and Chang'an came under threat Dong Zhuo was sent to the west as a subordinate general, first under Huangfu Song and then under his replacement Zhang Wen.

After almost a year of indecisive engagement, in late 185 the main body of the enemy were defeated by Dong Zhuo and Bao Hong at Meiyang in Youfufeng: it is said the rebels were demoralised by a shooting star which appeared to fall in their camp. They nonetheless withdrew in good order, and when Dong Zhuo and Zhou Shen were sent to follow them into Hanyang they were both compelled to fight their way out. In accounts of the campaign we are told how Dong Zhuo extricated his force from a siege by the Qiang and other non-Chinese: pretending that he wanted to catch fish to alleviate the problems of his men under siege, he dammed a river and then used it to protect his line of retreat, while he had also kept a large reserve force to threaten the enemy and restrict their manoeuvre. He later claimed that he had urged Zhou Shen to act as spearhead while he himself waited in reserve, but that Zhou Shen refused to co-operate and so both forces got into difficulties. His victory at Meiyang, the only success achieved by imperial forces, earned Dong Zhuo a district marquisate.

In 188 a new coalition of rebels laid siege to Chencang in Youfufeng. Dong Zhuo, now General of the Van but under the command of Huangfu Song, joined operations against them, and the enemy were defeated and driven away. It is said that Huangfu Song rejected his advice on two occasions, first in not hastening to relieve the city and then attacking the rebels as they retreated; on both occasions his decisions proved successful. Though Dong Zhuo may have been embarrassed, he was promoted in fief and appointed Governor of Bing province with both civil and military authority. Though ordered to leave his troops under the command of Huangfu Song, he refused to do so, and when he was called to the capital as Minister Steward he claimed that his men would not allow him to leave.

There are several stories about Dong Zhuo's arrogance, his insubordination, and his military failures. He is said to have lacked energy against the Yellow Turbans [see sub Guo Dian], he refused to respect Zhang Wen [see sub Sun Jian] and he gave mistaken advice to Huangfu Song. Some tales may have been true, but many were surely written in the light of his later reputation as the traitor who destroyed the Han; there seems no doubt of his victory at Meiyang in 185.

After the death of Emperor Ling in 189 the General-in-Chief He Jin planned to eliminate eunuch power from the court, and he called in Dong Zhuo to place pressure on his opponents. Dong Zhuo came with threats against the wrongdoers at the capital, but while he was in camp outside Luoyang the eunuchs killed He Jin and were then slaughtered themselves by guards at the capital. Dong Zhuo saw flames in the sky and led his men forward. On 25 September he took possession of the young emperor Liu Bian and his brother Liu Xie, then entered Luoyang to establish his own regime. When the senior ministers protested, he replied that the killing and burning and the flight of the ruler from the capital displayed their failure, and the time for reform had come. His army at the capital, which terrified the inhabitants with ill-disciplined ravages, provided all the authority he needed.

At one level, Dong Zhuo did attempt to restore the government. He held ceremonies to honour Chen Fan, Dou Wu and the men of Faction, he appointed scholars and reformers to high office at court and in the provinces, and he restricted his own favourites to middle-rank military commands. On the other hand, as a fighting general from the uncouth northwest, Dong Zhuo had no right to his authority and no acceptance among the gentlemen from central China who controlled the bureaucracy. Though he revived for himself such titles as Chancellor of State 相國 and Grand Master 太師, and raised his fief to a county marquisate, he held his position by military force and only another army could remove him: that way led to civil war and the end of Han.

Dong's Zhuo's conduct ensured massive opposition. On 28 September, three days after entering the capital, he forced Liu Bian to abdicate in favour of his younger half-brother Liu Xie, Emperor Xian. Two days later the Dowager He died, and she was duly followed by Liu Bian. Both deaths were the work of Dong Zhuo. Regardless of their faults and irrespective of claims for reform, there was no justification for such brutality, and by the spring of 190 the leaders of eastern China had joined in "loyal rebellion" to remove the usurper and restore the Han.

Dong Zhuo's men were at first successful in holding the passes which led to Luoyang, but his regime had lost authority over the greater part of the empire, and in the spring and summer of 190 the court was withdrawn west to Chang'an. The civilian population was driven away, and Luoyang became a centre for military defence, with wholesale plundering of the city, the imperial tombs and the treasures of the dynasty. Dong Zhuo also destroyed the traditional coinage, melting down statues to cast new money, and bringing massive inflation.

Dong Zhuo made some attempt to come to terms with his enemies, but he had embarked upon a personal feud with Yuan Shao, leader of the allies, by executing Yuan Wei, his own former patron, and other senior members of the clan. So the gentlemen he sent on embassy were killed without compunction. In the spring of 191 the general Sun Jian in the service of Yuan Shu forced his way into Luoyang from the south, and in the summer Dong Zhuo completed the retreat to Chang'an, where his government was based upon raiding abroad and terror within, with banquets accompanied by torture. Despite his initial restraint of office-holding among his supporters, Dong Zhuo now granted honours and fiefs to the most junior members of his family, and stored treasure and supplies at his fortified fief city of Mei, west of Chang'an.

Wang Yun, Excellency over the Masses appointed by Dong Zhuo, planned his assassination, notably with Lü Bu, who had sworn an oath to Dong Zhuo as son to father, and served as his bodyguard. On 22 May 192, as Dong Zhuo called upon the emperor, Lü Bu and his associates killed him, and they followed up the coup by the massacre of his family and supporters at the capital and at Mei. We are told Dong Zhuo was vastly fat, and as his corpse lay exposed someone placed a wick in the belly and lit it: he burned like a candle for several days.

The coalition of Wang Yun and Lü Bu was swiftly overthrown by former officers of Dong Zhuo, led by Li Jue and Guo Si, and the regime at Chang'an fell into utter confusion.

In traditional history, Dong Zhuo is reviled for destroying the dynasty of Han, and the accusation is not unfair. Given the chaos at Luoyang in 189, the task of restoration and reform was perhaps impossible, but Dong Zhuo was quite unsuited and inadequate to the task, and he confirmed the collapse of imperial government. -HHS 72/62:2319-32*, XC 4:12b; SGZ 6: 171-79*.

Rafe de Crespigny


Citation
Dong Zhuo” in: A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23 – 220 AD), edited by: Rafe de Crespigny. Consulted online on 28 Oct 2020 <> First published online: 10 2017