Rafe de Crespigny

A Short History of the Later Han Dynasty

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


In 9 AD, as Wang Mang took the imperial throne and proclaimed his new dynasty of Xin, he had a degree of acquiescence among the political class, not necessarily accompanied by great enthusiasm or trust. The imperial lineage of the Liu family, however, had been greatly weakened by the failure of Emperors Cheng and Ai to leave heirs, and the death of Liu Jizi, Emperor Ping, in 6 AD, meant that there were no surviving descendants of Emperor Yuan, who had died in 33 BC. Wang Mang's puppet replacement, Liu Ying, traced his ancestry back to Emperor Xuan, who had died in 49 BC, but that was a long way away. Wang Mang backed his choice with favourable portents, while in 6 AD and in 7 he crushed rebellions in favour of a more senior nominee. His manoeuvrings thereafter, and his establishment of a new, usurping regime, were largely unchallenged by Liu loyalists. 2

By 15 AD, however, there were signs of trouble from several different quarters. The Yellow River had burst its banks in 11 AD, flooding much of the North China plan, and there were also plagues of locusts. As the central government could offer no adequate assistance, many people were driven from their homes and formed into bands, first for self-protection and then for plunder. By the early 20s, as the refugees were numbered in the tens of thousands, they challenged and destroyed the structures of local power, and in 22 the main horde, now known as the Red Eyebrows, was strong enough to defeat imperial armies.

During this same period, Wang Mang's ambitions and aggression on the frontier had led him into dispute with the Xiongnu, nominal tributaries of Han. By 19 AD he was engaged in a major quarrel with the Shanyu Yu, setting up a rival government and gathering a great army along the frontier. Though the enterprise came to nothing, the troops remained on station in the north, a drain upon the economy and a distraction from troubles within the empire.

As disturbance along the Yellow River spread south to the Yangzi, more bandit groups were formed. Among them, the so-called Troops from the Lower Yangzi moved west into the middle basin of that river, while two other bands arose in Jiangxia. From there, they were recruited to an alliance with the Liu clan of Nanyang, dispossessed kinsfolk of the former imperial lineage, and these Han loyalists added their own attacks on the weakened power of Wang Mang.

In itiative for the movement to restore the Han came from Liu Bosheng, member of a cadet branch of the clan. His enterprise was not uniformly successful, but in the summer of 23 a Han army gained major victory at Kunyang in Yingchuan, and a few days later the capital of Nanyang was taken by siege. The insurgents now proclaimed their own emperor, their armies continued to advance, and in the winter Chang'an was taken and Wang Mang was killed.

The new sovereign of Han, however, was not Liu Bosheng, but his cousin Liu Xuan, known from his reign-title as the Gengshi Emperor. Liu Bosheng had been rejected by the commoner Troops, and soon after Liu Xuan assumed the imperial title he had his rival killed.

Establishing his regime at Chang'an, Liu Xuan sent commissioners to the provinces to proclaim his government and to establish local authority. One of these, sent north into Ji province, was Liu Xiu, younger brother of Liu Bosheng. Liu Xiu had taken part in the success at Kunyang, and he had assured the new ruler of his loyalty, but he was fortunate to receive such an independent command. In the winter of 23 he was threatened by the rebellion of Wang Lang in Zhao, but by the summer of 24 his troops had destroyed the pretender and Liu Xiu held a strong position in the north.

In the mean time, the chaotic forces of the Red Eyebrows continued to move to the west. By the latter part of 24 they were approaching Chang'an, and in the autumn they took the city. Liu Xuan was captured and killed, but Liu Xiu had already taken the imperial title for himself. 3


Predictably, the Red Eyebrows proved incapable of maintaining themselves at Chang'an: by the end of 27 their strength was exhausted and they were compelled to surrender to Liu Xiu. Elsewhere in the empire, a number of local and regional leaders sought to establish independent regimes, and some took the imperial title, but with territory extending in a broad band to the northeast Liu Xiu was comparatively well placed to extend his authority. By the end of 25 he had received the surrender of the Gengshi troops in Luoyang and established his capital there, and over the next few years he eliminated his rivals across the North China plain and in Jing province. With the support of the warlord Dou Rong he held the northwest under control, and Wei Ao, his major opponent in that region, was destroyed in 33. A last campaign into present-day Sichuan removed the claimant emperor Gongsun Shu, and by the middle 30s Guangwu and his restored dynasty of Han were unchallenged in China.

The frontiers

The lands and people south of the Yangzi played little part in the civil war, and though there was endemic trouble with the non-Chinese of Wuling in the middle Yangzi basin the only major rebellion, that of the Cheng [Tr'ung] sisters in present-day Vietnam, was firmly settled by the Han general Ma Yuan in 42. The north, however, remained a source of concern. The Xiongnu Shanyu Yu had supported Guangwu's rival Lu Fang, and even after Lu Fang's defeat the Xiongnu maintained a presence and expand control. By the mid-40s they occupied large tracts of imperial territory, and their raiding parties reached the North China plain and the Wei River near Chang'an.

The death of the Shanyu Yu in 46, however, was followed by a succession dispute, while the steppe was affected by locusts and drought. Taking advantage of confusion among their enemies, imperial agents encouraged the prince Bi, unsuccessful claimant to the throne, to establish a separate state in the Ordos region, and in 50 this Southern Shanyu was confirmed as an ally and a tributary of Han. As Chinese control was re-established, the former inhabitants were able to return to the north. Not all of them did so, and occupation of these frontier regions was less intense and effective than it had been during Former Han., but for the time being the situation was stabilised by the division of the Xiongnu and Chinese alliance to the Southern party.

The decline of population in the north was matched by an increase in the south. In a process which continued through the dynasty, settlers spread beyond the Yangzi, notably into Changsha and Lingling, the south of present-day Hunan, and into Yuzhang, present-day Jiangxi. The histories tell of frequent rebellions by non-Chinese; but these may better be regarded not so much as evidence of the inherent aggression of the native people but rather as their natural reaction to the steady pressure of alien new-comers from the north. By the middle of the second century the balance of demography within the empire had substantially changed.


The government of Emperor Guangwu restored most of the structures and systems of Former Han. In the empire at large, some surplus counties were abolished, but the territories of the provinces and commanderies were essentially the same, and previous arrangements for local administration were maintained. There were two major changes: control of salt and iron was removed from the central government and given to local authorities; and the Former Han system of conscription and military training was ended for all except the commanderies of the frontier. Though men could be called up for emergency service, they were not formally skilled in weapons. The threat of internal rebellion was thus reduced, but conscripts from the interior of the empire were now of limited value in dealing with foreign incursions. Henceforth the defence of China would rely chiefly upon professional fighting men, paid for by scutage, aided by non-Chinese auxiliaries from the Xiongnu, Wuhuan and Qiang.

At the court and capital, the system of ministries, offices and secretaries was modelled upon that of Former Han, but the highest level of government was no longer controlled by a single Chancellor responsible to the emperor. Instead, following an initiative from the end of the Former dynasty, there was now a triumvirate of three Excellencies, each with rough equivalence of power. For a strong and active ruler, this was convenient and practicable, but it was not so successful when the throne was occupied by a man less competent or interested. The Imperial Secretariat, moreover, which had the authority to receive reports and prepare decrees and orders, gained greatly from its access to the sovereign; though substantially lower in rank, an energetic Director of the Secretariat could exercise influence comparable to that of an Excellency.


A notable aspect of the restoration was the continuity of power among men of family. Though the fall of Wang Mang came from widespread popular revolt and was followed by more than a decade of warfare, most regions of the empire suffered only passing disturbance, and the structures of local society were left largely intact. Landed families held onto their properties, and they maintained their position throughout the dynasty: manorial estates controlled tenant farming and were supported by profitable trade, while local power was enforced on occasion by gangs of retainers. 4

Such local gentry provided the vast majority of the officials who governed the empire. Social status and economic power ensured that men of family received the education which qualified them for clerical positions in the county, commandery or provincial administrations, and they could likewise be nominated for commissioned office in the imperial service. The magistrates, administrators and inspectors who controlled the major units of local government were commissioned officials, appointed by the capital from regions other than the one that they ruled, but of similar background and interest. So there was understanding and sympathy between the heads of government in the provinces and the gentry leaders of their communities, and the imperial government made repeated and generally unsuccessful efforts to interrupt this natural alliance. Even at the beginning of the dynasty, Emperor Guangwu had great difficulty in establishing a proper land survey for taxation purposes, 5 largely due to the reluctance of local officials to enforce regulations against men of their own class and kind, and the situation did not improve over the years.

Over time, some families produced a series of individuals who rose to high office, and many subjects of biographies are described as coming from good or well-established official families, with members who served as administrators of commanderies or held ministerial and other high ranks at the imperial capital. During the course of the dynasty, the Yang family of Hongnong and the Yuan of Runan each had the remarkable record of four Excellencies, the highest position in the civil service, but many others, such as the Cui of Boling, the Li of Runan, the Lu of Kuaiji, the Sima of Henei and the Zhou of Lujiang, held substantial posts throughout the empire. 6 Such families had personal links through clients and colleagues across the empire, and could wield great influence in the broader spheres of government, but they generally retained links to their various homelands. Their instincts were largely conservative, and their moral attitudes were not always favourable to the pretensions and ambitions of the central government.

In some contrast, a few families gained power through direct contact with the imperial throne. In the early years of the dynasty several cliques rivalled one another for influence, associated either with leading supporters of Emperor Guangwu or connected to the imperial house by marriage. Bielenstein has identified three major factions: one group from Nanyang, home country of the emperor, and two from the northwest, led respectively by the leading general Ma Yuan and the north-western warlord Dou Rong. 7 Both included allies from other clans of different regions, and all sought to confirm their favoured position by marriage into the imperial clan. Guangwu's first empress, the Lady Guo Shengtong, came from the north at a time when he needed support in that region; his second, Yin Lihua, was a woman of; Nanyang. The Ma family suffered severe eclipse after the death of Ma Yuan; they were restored to favour when his daughter became the consort of Emperor Ming, but soon after her death they were driven from power by the rival Dou.

In the long term, only a few great clans, the Deng, Dou and Ma, together with the Liang, formerly of Anding, and some others such as the Geng and the Song of Youfufeng, were accepted as suitable for marriage with the imperial house. Of thirteen empresses from the early first century to the end of the second, eleven came from these aristocratic families. The short-lived Empress Yan of Emperor An had relied for support upon the Geng family of the emperor's mother, and the political position of the Empress, later Dowager, He of Emperor Ling and her brother the General-in-Chief He Jin was weakened by their poor social standing.

The contest at court and in the harem could be dangerous, and loss of imperial favour could be fatal, but when they did hold power the prestige of lineage, their contacts and patronage, gave these distant relatives of the imperial house status and influence far beyond even the highest official families of the empire. Their view of the world, moreover, was quite different: long removed from local origins, they were chiefly concerned with the authority of the imperial government and the extension of its power. Loewe has defined the attitude as "Modernist," and well contrasted it to that of the "Reformists," who sought to limit the force of the state and relied upon moral example and good conduct to guide the empire.

In practical terms, the dichotomy between the two approaches to government was strongly displayed towards the end of the first century, in debate between the "forward party" which planned to conquer the Northern Xiongnu on the steppe, and the regular officials who saw no need for such aggression, but rather danger in such excessive ambition. 8 Later again, through the second century, there was endemic conflict between the men of the capital and the imperial eunuchs, who sought to maintain power, and the more ideal Confucianists who opposed corruption and wanted to reform the machinery of government.


Liu Zhuang, Emperor Ming, was thirty when he came to the throne at the death of his father. He had replaced the previous Heir, his half-brother Liu Qiang, and though they remained on good terms the new emperor had some uncertainty about the loyalty of his other siblings. In 70 Liu Ying the King of Chu was accused of treason and died, and a fierce persecution of all who had been associated with him brought the death or exile of several senior officials and imperial kinfolk.

Such problems affected primarily the upper classes, however, and the general tenor of Emperor Ming's reign was one of consolidation based upon the prosperity and security bequeathed by his father. Notably, the dykes on the Yellow River and the Vast Canal, broken in the time of Wang Mang, were now repaired, while the accretion of the Ailao people in the far southwest saw the territory of the empire extended to the borders of present-day Burma.

Further north, there was conflict with the Qiang on the frontiers of Liang province, and the Northern Xiongnu became troublesome enough to inspire a punitive expedition. This had limited effect, but a secondary campaign revived Chinese interest in the Western Regions and produced a short-lived establishment there.

Like his father, Emperor Ming sponsored New Text Confucianism, both as symbol and as support for of his authority. Where Guangwu had restored the Imperial University, however, Emperor Ming engaged in ritual at the Hall of the Circular Moat, maintaining the ceremonies of Great Archery and Serving the Aged, and Ploughing the Sacred Field. He also presided at a series of annual discussions, culminating in an official commentary evidently based on the Hong fan chapter of the Classic of History and emphasising the Five Powers.

Though Emperor Zhang succeeded his father at the age of only nineteen sui, he was formally of full age. He thus required no regency, and after a short period of tutelage under the Dowager Empress Ma, his titular mother, he governed for himself. He travelled widely in the empire, and had some success in presenting an appearance of benevolent government. Interested in ritual and scholarship, moreover, and with a revisionist concern for Old Text Confucianism, in 79 he sponsored the celebrated conference at the White Tiger Hall; it was intended to open up discussion, but the arguments of the emperor and his protégé Jia Kui were largely disregarded, and the records of the debate became a manifesto for the New Text.

At the very beginning of his reign, the government of Emperor Zhang had been faced with a heavy defeat and costly withdrawal of troops from the Western Regions. Almost as an afterthought, however, the envoy Ban Chao was allowed a free hand to operate among the oasis states in the south of the territory, and from a small beginning he established a Chinese hegemony which rose to the height of its power and influence in the following reign.

Closer to home, there was trouble with the Qiang tribes led by Miyu and then Mitang on the frontier of Liang province, but the Northern Xiongnu, affected by drought and concerned by the Xianbi to their east, sought a rapprochement and peaceful trade. This was approved by the court, but the Southern Xiongnu plundered the Northern caravans, while the "forward" group at court argued against any restraint of their allies. The matter was partially resolved by a compromise, leaving no party content, and the auguries for long-term peace were not good.

Emperor Zhang's domestic situation also boded ill. His first Heir, Liu Qing, was born to a Lady Song, protégée of the Dowager Ma, but his Empress Dou had the Song and the Ma families disgraced, and Liu Qing was dismissed. The Empress Dou had no children, but she first arranged that the son of a Lady Liang should be named as Heir, then had the Liang removed in turn. As a result of these intrigues, when Emperor Zhang died in 88 at the age of just thirty-three, his young son Liu Zhao was left in the care of a regent Dowager who had destroyed his true mother and who had a group of male relatives eager for their place in the sun.


In 88 the new emperor Liu Zhao, known posthumously as Emperor He, was aged ten sui. He would prove to be the first, but by no means the last, sovereign of Later Han to come to the throne as a minor; indeed not one of his successors until the end of the dynasty began his reign at full age.

In this situation, there was constitutional precedent from Former Han that power of regency was held by the Empress, now Dowager, of the previous ruler. She attended court and issued edicts in the new emperor's name, but she commonly took advice from her male relatives, who received high official ranks. So the government of Emperor He was controlled by the Dowager Dou and her family.

The destruction of the Northern Xiongnu

The conduct of the Dowager's brothers, notably that of the eldest, Dou Xian, was arrogant and embarrassing, but an opportunity soon appeared by which he might cover this poor conduct with military glory. The Dou family had been leaders of the forward party in debate about Xiongnu policy during the previous reign, and in 88 the Southern Shanyu proposed a joint expedition to destroy his rivals. The Northern Xiongnu had been heavily defeated by the Xianbi in the previous year, and they were currently experiencing famine, so the signs were propitious. Dou Xian was enthusiastic, and the Dowager over-ruled all opposition at court. In 89 the armies advanced into the steppe.

The campaign was a thorough success, and by 91 the Northern court had been driven away to the west, into the region of present-day Dzungaria, north of Urumqi. The Southern government, however, proved quite incapable of establishing a unified regime in the Mongolian steppe, and the Southern Xiongnu refused to accept their former enemies. As fighting broke out between the two groups, the Chinese intervened in clumsy fashion, and within a few years the Southern state had been weakened and divided. By the early part of the second century its rulers were variously in abortive rebellion against the Han, or dependent upon Chinese support to maintain a position against the Xianbi.

The situation on the open steppe was still more serious, for the vacuum created by the destruction of the Northern Xiongnu state was filled, not by the Southern Xiongnu, but by the erratic tribes of the Xianbi. By the 120s, these people had acquired their first war-leaders, and the northern frontier of China became vulnerable to their widespread attack. Though Dou Xian's campaign of 89 to 91 had been an immediate success, but it proved a long-term disaster.

Emperor He, Emperor An and the Dowager Deng

The twelve-year-old Emperor He took the cap of manhood in 91, so there was no longer any formal requirement for a regency, and in the following year, soon after Dou Xian had returned in triumph from the north, the young ruler carried out a successful coup to free himself of the over-powerful family. He was aided by eunuchs of the imperial harem, who appear for the first time in a major political role, then governed on his own account for the next several years. He died, however, in 106, aged less than thirty, and though he had sired two sons, both were children and neither had been proclaimed as Heir.

In these circumstances, an Empress-Dowager of Han became even more important. Not only did she act as regent, she was authorised to decide the successor to her late husband. Emperor He's Empress Deng, a woman of strong personality, rejected the older boy, Liu Sheng, on the grounds that he was unwell, and established the younger Liu Long, just a few months old. When the infant died soon afterwards, the Dowager again passed over his brother, and chose Liu You, son of the former Heir Liu Qing, to take his place. It may well be that Liu Sheng was incapacitated, either physically or mentally, but this was a dramatic example and confirmation of a Dowager's power.

It was not unreasonable that the Lady Deng chose the son of a formerly designated Heir, but she continued to hold power even after her nominee, Emperor An, had formally come of age in 109, and she maintained her position until her death in 121. This was well beyond the bounds of tradition and expectation, but the Lady Deng was probably the most competent and effective ruler of the second century; Emperor An was certainly less impressive.

During her period of government the Dowager Deng kept her male relatives under firm control and limited their powers, but despite this restraint Emperor An destroyed her family soon after he gained power for himself. There was a rumour that the Dowager had been dissatisfied with his ability and thought of removing him. This gave him an excuse to act, but the new ruler's own conduct could have justified such a decision.

Emperor An was interested in ritual, but even more concerned with portents, and he relied heavily upon personal favourites, including his maternal uncle Geng Bao, his former wet-nurse and some palace eunuchs, while he was also strongly influenced by his Empress Yan, a woman of low-born family. With her encouragement – and despite protests and a demonstration from many officials – Emperor An dismissed his only son and Heir, Liu Bao. He made no alternative provision, and when he died in the following year, 125, at the age of thirty-two, he left an empty place at the head of the state.

The Lady Yan, now Dowager, used her authority to place an imperial cousin, aged five, upon the throne. The only justification for choosing such a junior cadet would be the expectation of a long period of regency, but the Yan party's plans were disrupted by the death of the boy a few months later, and they were destroyed by a coup led by the eunuch Sun Cheng. Liu Bao, Emperor Shun, thus came to the throne through the initiative of palace eunuchs and against the intrigues of a distaff clan.


During the thirty years from the early 90s to the early 120s the dynasty faced major difficulties. The campaigns of Dou Xian against the Northern Xiongnu had produced contradictory results: the enemy was destroyed, but the Southern state was weakened and divided, while the Xianbi became increasingly troublesome. The cost of the war, moreover, placed great strain upon the resources of the court.

There is a good deal of evidence to indicate that from the end of the first century the imperial government was in serious financial straits. There was certainly money in private hands, but the traditional system of land tax and the effective abolition of state monopolies meant that the government found it increasingly difficult to gain access to the real wealth of the nation. Many poor farmers commended themselves to a powerful family in order gain protection from official imposts, and the great land-owners were in a strong position to protect themselves against such exactions. As a result, the central power had reduced capacity to deal with the responsibilities of government, and the Dowager Deng initiated several measures of economy: restricting the food at her own table, limiting some extravagant ceremonies, and rationalising some offices at the capital.

The Great Qiang Rebellion

The situation was made worse by the rebellion of the Qiang in Liang province. The trouble began in 107, when the overstretched government was faced with rebellion in the Western Regions and resolved to withdraw from the position which had been established by Ban Chao. As this sign of military weakness was accompanied by some confusion and uncertainty, a local mutiny among non-Chinese auxiliaries became the trigger for an outburst of rebellion across the whole of north-western China. Though the rebellion was eventually put down in 118, it had lasted more than ten years and devastated the region. Fighting reached as far as Chang'an, raiding spread across the north, and at one stage the Southern Xiongnu joined the enemy alliance.

Following the abolition of universal conscription at the beginning of the dynasty, the lack of trained men within the empire restricted the government's capacity to deal with rebellions and incursions on the frontier. It was at one stage proposed that the whole of Liang province should be abandoned, and although this was formally defeated in debate at court, the situation on the ground was much the same as if the policy had been approved. As great numbers of people were driven from their homes, many took refuge within China proper or migrated further south. The 120s saw some attempt at reconstruction, but former settlers were reluctant to return, and their forebodings were justified when renewed turmoil broke out in the early 140s.

Besides the direct cost of the war, which was enormous, taxation from the territories of the northwest was seriously reduced, and the shortfall could be recouped only by increasing revenue from other provinces. For a traditional economy, such a process was difficult, disruptive and of limited success. The history of the last century of Later Han may be better understood if it is recognised that the central government was functionally bankrupt.

The confidence of the gentry

Its failure to collect adequate revenue meant that the imperial court could no longer offer any substantial assistance in time of misfortune, and its authority was consequently reduced. At the same time, local landed families throughout the empire were gaining in prosperity and self-confidence. Two manifestations may be observed through the second century: the number and quality of grave-goods recovered by modern archaeologists from gentry tombs; and the development of local histories and the production of stele, both of which increased markedly at this time.

A less attractive aspect of this process was an increase in violence, feuding and petty warfare. There are several accounts of how men of family bullied the countryside with their bands of retainers, and many tales of vendetta, including the celebrated Su Buwei, while Cui Shi's guide to the management of a manorial estate, Simin yueling, refers to the need to keep weapons in order in case of attack. Below the surface of imperial order, the towers and walls of private strongholds were signs of frequent conflict and threat.

At the same time, the self-confidence of the prosperous gentry class was reflected in its members'attitude towards service to the state. Men who rose to high rank were generally respected, but there was a growing tendency for junior officers and nominees to choose whether they wished to be associated with a particular superior, and on a number of occasions a nomination would be turned down, or an officer would resign his post, if the patron was regarded as a man of inferior morality: feiqi ren 非其人. In effect, this meant that an individual's personal standing was considered more important than his public duty, a development which did not bode well for the coherence and prestige of the imperial government.


Ten years old at the time of his accession, Liu Bao shared his father's tendency to be influenced by favourites, including his former wet-nurses and the eunuch Zhang Fang, while he showed small gratitude to Sun Cheng who had brought him to power. As the court was divided into cliques, some members of the Imperial Secretariat, notably Yu Xu and Zuo Xiong, took advantage of the situation to introduce reforms. Their concerns related primarily to corruption, to the selection of officials, and to Confucian governance, and the first half of the reign of Emperor Shun was an exceptional period when scholar-officials were able to take substantial initiatives.

One success of the Confucianists in the early 130s was the restoration of the Imperial University, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair and decline for quarter of a century. The long-term future of reform, however, depended on the personal commitment of the ruler, but Emperor Shun had neither a stable policy nor any great interest in effective action, while many officials and other men of influence had small relish for major change to a system which served them well. A special commission of eight was sent out in 142, with wide powers of investigation, but it achieved very little, and served rather as a swan-song for the reform movement.

By this time, indeed, effective power had been transferred to the Liang family of the Empress. Member of an established family, which had earlier produced the mother of Emperor He, the Lady Liang Na entered the harem in 128 and was chosen as Empress in 132. Her fine lineage was a significant factor in the choice, and her father Liang Shang appears to have become a senior and trusted adviser and mentor to the emperor. He became General-in-Chief in 135, ranking with the Excellencies at the highest level of the bureaucracy, and after his death in 141 he was succeeded by his son Liang Ji; between them they dominated the government for more than twenty years.

The death of Emperor Shun in 144, aged thirty, was followed a few months later by that of his only son, another infant emperor. To replace him, the regent Dowager Liang and her brother Liang Ji chose the boy Liu Zuan, a great-grandson of Emperor Zhang, but in just over a year he too was dead. There was suspicion he had been murdered, for he had commented unfavourably on the power of Liang Ji, but nothing was proved and the Liang were free to choose again. This time they selected Liu Zhi, Emperor Huan, aged fifteen, who was promptly married to the Dowager's younger sister Liang Nüying. Though Liu Zhi came of age in 148 he continued under tutelage, and even after the death of the Dowager in 150 he remained under the control of his own Empress and her brother Liang Ji.

The Dowager had claimed to keep power because the state was facing difficulty, and this was certainly true. During the 120s, under the inspiration of Yu Xu, the government had begun to restore the ravaged northwest, but there were damaging raids from the Xianbi further east, and the northern frontier was vulnerable and unstable. In the Western Regions Ban Chao's son Ban Yong had restored an imperial position in the 120s, but he was withdrawn after just a few years, and Han never regained full authority over those distant lands. More significantly, a rebellion of the Southern Xiongnu in 140 was joined by the Qiang of Liang province, and the work of reconstruction was destroyed. In the early 140s the headquarters of several frontier commanderies were withdrawn, and though their territories remained nominally subject to Han, Chinese control was in reality very weak.

The histories describe Liang Ji as extravagant and cruel, and tell how he persecuted opponents. There is no doubt truth in this, but the hegemony of the Liang family was widely accepted, and few senior ministers were willing to stand against him; one who did, Li Gu, was eliminated very early. When the Empress Liang Nüying died in 159, however, the loss of his immediate link to the inner palace made Liang Ji's position insecure. He wanted to adopt the Lady Deng Mengnü, Emperor Huan's choice for his consort, but he was opposed by her family, and when he tried to resolve the problem by assassination the emperor became fearful for his own life. So Emperor Huan sought the aid of the palace eunuchs, the one group which he could trust, and they led a coup which destroyed the Liang family and their associates.


At the time of his coup, Emperor Huan was some twenty-seven years old. He had long accepted the dominance of his relatives by marriage, and he was probably more interested in his extensive harem than in matters of government. Once forced into an active role as ruler, he relied heavily upon his eunuch allies and favourites, but these became a focus of hostility for the scholars and officials of the empire. Not only were such deformed creatures anathema to Confucian principles of family piety, but in practical terms the eunuchs and their relatives began to seek position in their family homelands, and there they came into conflict with established local gentry. There were acts of aggression and atrocities on both sides, and men such as the local officer Zhang Jian and the Administrator Huang Fu became heroes among students at the capital for their firm dealings with the newcomers.

We are told that with sponsorship from the Liang family the University had grown until it had as many as thirty thousand students, but traditional teachings were largely discredited and there was minimal opportunity for direct entrance to the imperial service. So Luoyang contained a host of young men seeking only to acquire a patron or to make a name which might gain them prestige and promotion at home. Among their methods were the composition and chanting of rhyming slogans, and the circulation of lists of men whom they admired, both among officials and from their own number. In general terms, they were inspired by a sense of Confucian morality and opposed corruption, and they gave high praise to senior ministers such as Chen Fan and Li Ying, known as enemies of the eunuchs, and to private exemplars such as Guo Tai.

Bolstered by these populist guardians of virtue, Chen Fan, Li Ying and others carried out a series of political attacks on the eunuch favourites, and Emperor Huan was eventually persuaded against some individuals. By 165 the last of his supporters in the coup had been dismissed and disgraced, while Deng Mengnü was also dismissed as Empress and died soon afterwards. Her place was taken by the Lady Dou Miao, chosen again for her good family background, and her father Dou Wu showed himself an energetic advocate of the Confucianist and anti-eunuch party. As the emperor himself was attacked for his personal extravagance and the size of his harem, he sought to regain some ground by sponsoring official worship of Huang-Lao 黄老, a deity combining attributes of the Yellow Emperor and the legendary sage Laozi. The initiative, however, went no further, and when Emperor Huan died in 168 at the age of thirty-six, he left no son to succeed him. Power came once more into the hands of the consort clan, the Dowager Dou and her father Dou Wu.

The Proscription

During the political struggles of the previous year, the eunuchs had persuaded the emperor to punish and proscribe their more ostentatious opponents, but the new regime promptly reversed the decree, and Dou Wu, aided by the respected Chen Fan, brought reform Confucianists such as Li Ying back to high office. To succeed the late ruler, the Dowager and her father chose the twelve-year-old Liu Hong; he was a cousin of Emperor Huan, but from a distant and junior cadet lineage. It appeared a self-serving choice, for Liu Hong's chief quality was his youth, foreshadowing a longer regency, but few of the reformists objected, for they were only too pleased to see their patrons in power.

To consolidate their position, Dou Wu and Chen Fan now planned to purge the harem eunuchs, but the Dowager objected and the eunuchs struck first. Taking the young emperor with them, in the autumn of 168 they had the Secretariat issue orders to dismiss their opponents, and when Dou Wu sought to raise troops they brought the frontier general Zhang Huan to face him. Dou Wu's men deserted him and he killed himself, while Chen Fan and others were arrested and died. One year later the eunuchs confirmed their power by a renewed purge: hundreds of their opponents were killed, and the Great Proscription of the would-be reformers was maintained for fifteen years until 184. 11

Brought up under eunuch influence, Emperor Ling gave them total trust and had limited respect for his regular officials. Frivolous and greedy, he instituted a system of purchase or fines for even the highest offices; this might have been justified by the straitened circumstances of the imperial treasury, but in fact he transferred the funds to his own purposes and allowed his favourites to embezzle vast amounts. The authority of the emperor was still not questioned, but the bonds of allegiance, particularly with the Confucianist gentry, were seriously weakened.

Rebellion and the frontier

Outside the capital, there were rebellions in the 160s about Taishan and in Jing province, but the northern frontier was held comparatively well, thanks to the skills and energy of the generals Huangfu Gui, Zhang Huan and the ferocious Duan Jiong. In 168 Duan Jiong received approval for a campaign of extermination against the Qiang, and his success left a desert in Liang province. By the 170s, however, the Xianbi of the steppe had found a war-leader, Tanshihuai, and his raids became increasingly fierce. In 177 a major punitive expedition was despatched, but the imperial army was cut off and destroyed on the steppe, the first such catastrophe since the time of Former Han, and the Chinese were now firmly on the defensive. While the death of Tanshihuai in 181 gave some respite, the next threat to the dynasty came from within the empire.


For the second half of the second century AD Chinese histories contain increasing references to epidemics 大疫, beginning in the first years of Emperor Huan and rising to a peak in the 170s and early 180s under Emperor Ling. Contemporary with the Antonine plague of the Roman empire, this series of inflictions may represent the appearance of a new disease among humanity, and it no doubt had effect both on the economy and upon popular sensitivity.

There are many references to religious sects about this time, commonly associated with Huang-Lao. The doctrines of Huang-Lao had been well-known since Former Han and were not necessarily opposed to the government – Emperor Huan had incorporated the worship into his state ritual – but they could inspire popular rebellion. Probably influenced by the frequent manifestations of sickness, a number of sects offered cures by faith-healing, through charms and drugs and the confession of sins. Several are recorded in the far west, in the region about Chang'an, and in the southeast by the mouth of the Yangzi, but the most widespread was that of Zhang Jue of Zhuo commandery in the north; by the early 180s his Way of Great Peace 太平道 had disciples and adherents as far away as Nanyang and Yingchuan, and even at the capital and in the court.

Local authorities were reluctant to oppose such a popular movement, and warnings by the Excellency Yang Ci and other officials were ignored. Zhang Jue, however, planned a millennial rebellion for 184, first year of a new cycle, and although his intentions were at last discovered and the rising had to be called piecemeal and ahead of time, it was nonetheless devastating. The rebels wore yellow cloth about their heads as sign of the Heaven that was to come, and both they and the imperialists raised armies ad hoc. It took several months of desperate fighting before Zhang Jue and his followers were destroyed, and some of the most populous regions of the empire suffered widespread slaughter and ruin. The major disturbance was ended within a calendar year, but the effect of the Yellow Turbans for the people of the time must have been comparable to that of the Taipings in the nineteenth century, and large groups of bandits remained, notably in Qing province, who kept the title alive.

The Yellow Turbans did not destroy the dynasty, and indeed the response and swift success of the government is impressive. The turmoil of rebellion, however, brought further disorder and banditry: in the winter of 184 a mutiny and rebellion in Liang province effectively removed that territory from the control of Han, while the Black Mountain bandit groups of the southern Taihang Mountains rose to such power that they were granted effective autonomy. Yet more serious in the longer term, the mass mobilisation to defeat the rebellion left a vast number of men trained in the use of arms. Not only did future warlords such as Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Jian gain early experience in fighting the Yellow Turbans, so too did their future followers.

The usurpation of Dong Zhuo

The great Proscription was ended in 184, lest disaffected gentry give support to the rebels, but the tenor of government was little changed and Emperor Ling continued his life of extravagant pleasure. He had two recorded sons, one by his Empress He and one by a concubine, the Lady Wang, whom the Empress promptly murdered. The He family was not well-born, but they naturally acquired high position at court, and the Empress's brother He Jin became General-in-Chief. When Emperor Ling died in 189, aged thirty-three, the Lady He and her brother placed her son Liu Bian upon the throne and prepared for another period of regency.

He Jin, however, came under pressure from Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu and other men of family, that he should destroy the eunuchs of the palace: they had held too much influence for long, and many of the troubles of the empire could be laid at their door. Impressed by these men of fine lineage, He Jin was persuaded to put their blood-thirsty proposals into action, but the Dowager opposed him, and as disagreement continued the eunuchs took matters into their own hands. On 22 September they waylaid He Jin and killed him. They then sought to have their own nominees appointed to critical posts but, unlike the coup of 159, they could claim no formal support from the emperor. The Yuan brothers led troops to storm the gates of the palace, and as flames lit the sky the eunuchs were slaughtered. A small party fled with the emperor and his brother, but they were chased and killed, and the imperial children were brought back.

At this point, the scenario changed. The frontier general Dong Zhuo, who had earlier been called to Luoyang to support He Jin, was camped outside the capital. As he saw the fires in the city he brought his troops forward and took over power. He proclaimed a new era of government, but when he deposed Liu Bian in favour of his brother Liu Xie, Yuan Shao and other leaders fled to the east and raised armies against him. By the beginning of 190 the empire was divided between Dong Zhuo and the "loyal rebels" who opposed him, and as the eastern alliance splintered soon afterwards, provincial and local chieftains contended for power.

Unable to hold Luoyang, Dong Zhuo withdrew the court to Chang'an. He was assassinated there in 192, but a group of his officers seized control of the nominal government. with Liu Xie, Emperor Xian, as their helpless puppet. In 195 the young emperor managed to escape, and he returned to the former capital in the following year. Luoyang, however, now lay in ruins, and a few weeks later Emperor Xian was persuaded to accept the protection of the warlord Cao Cao. As the court was transferred to Xu city in Yingchuan, the emperor entered a life-long captivity. Orders were issued in his name, and the dynasty formally survived another twenty-five years, but between Dong Zhuo and Cao Cao the rule of Han was ended.


While the nominal sovereign was held captive at Luoyang, Chang'an or Xu city, his empire became a gigantic battleground. Liu Biao in Jing province and Liu Zhang in Yi province, each with title as Governor, maintained comparatively stable states, but the open country of the North China plain saw complex conflict between a variety of contenders. By 200, after ten years close fighting, Cao Cao had defeated, destroyed or driven away Yuan Shu, Lü Bu and Liu Bei and held the south of the plain. To the north he faced Yuan Shao, and at the battle of Guandu he defeated him. Yuan Shao died soon afterwards, and by 207 Cao Cao had eliminated his quarrelling sons and controlled the whole of eastern China.

After Liu Biao died in 208, Cao Cao was able to take over Jing province, but as he moved south he was defeated at the battle of the Red Cliffs on the middle Yangzi by remnant loyalists under Liu Bei and an allied army sent by Sun Quan, warlord of the southeast. Cao Cao was forced to retreat, but he still held a line in the valley of the Han. In 211 he defeated an alliance of minor warlords of the northwest, and in 215 he received the surrender of the Taoist theocrat Zhang Lu in Hanzhong. He then sought to move into Yi province, but Liu Bei now held that territory, and in 219 Liu Bei defeated Cao Cao's army and drove his men back across the Qin Ling ranges. He took title as king and later emperor of Shu-Han.

Later in the same year, Liu Bei's general Guan Yu embarked on a major offensive in Jing province. He gained initial success, but as he was still engaged to the north he was attacked from behind by the army of Sun Quan of Wu. Guan Yu was destroyed, Sun Quan gained control of both the middle and the lower Yangzi, and Wu maintained its independence for another sixty years. Though Cao Cao's state of Wei was the most powerful, and his son Cao Pi replaced the dynasty of Han in 220, China was divided into three rival powers, the Three Kingdoms (三國 Sanguo) and unity was restored only briefly by Western Jin in the late third century.

Many traditional historians blamed Cao Cao for his failure to restore a unified empire, and there is certainly a contrast with the period after the fall of Wang Mang, when a dozen years of conflict followed but Emperor Guangwu was able to re-establish central power.

Cao Cao was certainly the most effective and successful military commander of his time, but he had two great difficulties. Firstly, the civil war itself, and notably the period from 190 to 200, saw a total breakdown of government and society. In a process which began in the aftermath of the Yellow Turbans, vast numbers of people were driven from their homes by banditry, warfare and famine. While some set up small self-defence units, others sought security by attaching themselves to a warlord, and the armies of the time became barely-organised masses, cutting swathes across the landscape, and destroying the old structures in their path. In such circumstances, it is impressive that the state of Wei and its rivals were able to establish even a minimal base of coherent government and return the people to some level of settled and profitable agriculture; there were limits to their effective reach over wide distances and in the longer term.

Added to these problems of administration, a second new factor was the changing demography of the empire. At the beginning of Later Han, Guangwu's success in the north had allowed him to take control of the south without major opposition, but the balance of power changed during the next two centuries, with increasing Chinese migration into the south and growing weakness in the north and northwest. By the middle of the second century Chinese settlers had withdrawn from much of the northern frontier, but several regions of the south had gained greatly. South of the lower Yangzi, numbers increased by up to 50% between 2 and 140 AD, while in present-day Jiangxi and southern Hunan the registered population multiplied three or four times. The process continued through the rest of the second century, and once Sun Quan had gained a breathing space after the victory at the Red Cliffs his officers embarked on an energetic process of colonisation, both to gain new land and to conscript troops for service against the north. Wu was defended by the line of the river, and in the west, after the capture of Hanzhong, Shu-Han was sheltered by the rugged barrier of the Qin Ling, but the two states were made viable by the numbers of men they could place under arms, and their successful defiance of the north meant the effective end of imperial unity for four hundred years.

1 The first century of Later Han is discussed by Bielenstein in Chapter 3 of CHOC, Bn 86.

2 On Wang Mang's seizure of power, see Chapter 9 of Loewe 74, and on his life and reign QHX: 536-545, also Dubs 55. On the early and unsuccessful rebellions of the Liu, see Bn 54:87-92.

3 Liu Xiu is best known to history by his posthumous title Guangwu.

4 The Simin yueling of Cui Shi, compiled in the mid-second century, describes an active enterprise, trading in grain and other products, and well prepared for defence. It may represent a later development of the system, but the basic structures had been established for many years.

5 See, for example, the entry for Liu Zhuang, future Emperor Ming, describing the contretemps of 39-40; Bn 79:136-137 and 158.

6 See, for example Ebrey 78, and sub Li Xian, Lu Xu et al., Sima Fang and Zhou Yi.

7 The factions, and the marriage alliances described below, are discussed in Bn 79:93-127.

8 In his conclusion to the Account of the Xiongnu in Former Han, Ban Gu contrasted the scholar-officials who sought alliance and peace with the military men who spoke only of war, and observed that the debate continued through his own dynasty of Later Han: HS 94B:3830. Ban Gu himself, an adherent of Dou Xian, died in the coup which destroyed his faction in 92.

9 The middle period of Later Han is discussed by Loewe 86, Chapter 4 of CHOC.

10 A chronicle history from 157 to 189 is given by deC 89.

11 In HHS 67/57, Fan Ye devotes a chapter to the Proscribed Party, commonly known as 黨錭 danggu.

12 The fall of Han is discussed by Mansvelt Beck in Chapter 5 of CHOC, MBeck 86. A chronicle history from 189 to 220 is given by deC 96.

13 DeC 91A and B offers a general history of the third century, and a more detailed account of the civil war, with emphasis on Sun Quan's state of Wu, is given by deC 90.

Rafe de Crespigny