Interregnum, Restoration & Division
Xin, Later Han & Three Kingdoms
Interregnum, Restoration and Division
Dragon and Phoenix / Emperor and Empress
The Dragon & the Phoenix
Power Struggles in the Imperial Court
The instabilities and conflicts of Han dynasty politics were often the results of one of the basic difficulties of a hereditary monarchy. Sometimes it would produce a child sovereign or an adult one who was not a very capable or energetic ruler. Who would control the imperial institution in those circumstances? Frequently it would be the dead emperor’s widow, the dowager empress, and her male relatives. This domination of the court by “outside relatives” (wai qi) was one of the most persistent difficulties of Han politics, and it plagued many later dynasties as well. ...
Han Wudi with Imperial Consorts
Han Wudi with Huo GuangIn the last years of the reign of Emperor Wu the families of two of his consorts, Wei and Li, intrigued and occasionally fought in the streets. The old emperor responded by leaving neither of them in a position to exercise outside-relative power after his death, naming an infant related to neither as his heir, and leaving the highly capable senior official Huo Guang in charge as regent. “I want my youngest son set up, with you to act the part of the duke of Zhou.” Huo controlled the court in cooperation with Sang Hongyang and other generals and officials until 80, then accused them of plotting to depose the emperor and install one of the regional kings, and exterminated them and their families. In 74 a successor was installed who seemed to be in the hands of the Li family, outside relations from the reign of Emperor Wu. Amid repeated references to Yi Yin (the minister who deposed the first ruler of the Shang dynasty) and the duke of Zhou, Huo Guang secured the consent of the dowager empress (his own fifteen-year-old granddaughter) and the capital officials in deposing this emperor and putting a child on the throne. Highly competent and ruthless, little interested in the supernatural or in Confucian moral platitudes, Huo dominated the court unchallenged until his death in 68. His relatives were driven from power and exterminated in 66. (MOF, 74)
Imperial Power Relationships
Outside relatives won choice assignments as generals and provincial officials, were given noble titles and large estates in the provinces, and used their influence to secure appointments, tax exemptions, and so on for lesser men who followed their lead and served their interests. For the idealistic Confucian, the power of the outside relatives was a deplorable violation of the ideals of selection and promotion of officials on the basis of merit and of decision making based on principled discussion of the issues. A more distant and more cynical observer might conclude that it was at least a kind of solution to the inherent problems of hereditary monarchy and was to a degree inherently self-limiting. As an emperor came to adulthood, his empress and her relatives would form a faction of their own. Sooner or later the dowager empress would die, her relatives would lose their ultimate source of support within the palace, and the relatives of the present empress would have a chance to expel and replace them. Thus a kind of circulation of outside relative cliques followed the passing of the generations. (MOF, 74-75)
Interregnum: Wang Mang and the Xin Dynasty
Icon for the Xin Dynasty
Wang Mang on the Throne
Wang Mang rose to power as an outside relative of an empress, the mother of Emperor Cheng, who reigned from 33 to 7 B.C.E. The Dowager Empress Wang was the center of power in her son’s reign, since Emperor Cheng was not much interested in the hard work of ruling the empire. One after another of her brothers and cousins was appointed marshal of state and general in chief and effectively controlled the central administration. The dowager empress was not involved in the details of government, but her position was the ultimate source of her relatives’ power. Her contribution was simply to be there, to stay alive; she died in 13 C.E. at the age of eighty-four, her long life having made possible the rise of Wang Mang through many twistings and turnings to his ultimate seizure of the imperial throne. ... From beginning to end, Wang Mang’s public life was full of demonstrations of his humility and selflessness, and also of ambition, political skill, and ruthlessness. We have to come to terms with this mix of personal traits if we are to understand his actions, his appeal to the people of his times, and his ultimate failure.
Wang Mang Usurps the Throne
Ban Gu
Our efforts are considerably complicated by the biases of the most important source on his career, a long chapter in the History of Han by Ban Gu, written in the first century C.E. Ban Gu was a member of an extremely devoted and eminent family of ministers of the Later Han, which rose out of the collapse of Wang Mang’s regime. A Confucian moralist explanation of the fall of Wang Mang and the success of Later Han had to show that Wang was brought down by his own moral failings, not by bad luck or events beyond his control. Ban Gu’s account presents, very skillfully and insidiously, a picture of Wang as a power-hungry hypocrite. It records Wang’s many selfless deeds very matter-of-factly, and it is only gradually that Ban Gu argues that none of Wang’s acts of selflessness were sincere, that all were calculated to make the best possible impression and to advance his career. (MOF, 77-78)
A White Pheasant
The Duke of ZhouIn 1 B.C.E. envoys from a foreign people came to the capital and presented a white pheasant. It was an auspicious sign; foreigners had presented a white pheasant to the duke of Zhou. In 1 C.E. various courtiers proposed that the grand dowager empress should grant him new honors, including the title “Duke Who Brings Peace to the Han” (An Han gong). Wang declined repeatedly, insisting that others were more worthy than he. After his closest associates all had been granted lesser honors, he finally accepted and was given full power to control the government and make decisions on behalf of the boy emperor. In 2 C.E. the elaborate process was begun that would lead to the selection of a wife for the boy emperor. Wang Mang firmly and repeatedly refused to have his daughter included among the young women considered, but hundreds of officials urged that she be selected, and finally he gave in. Now if the boy lived to adulthood there would be a new Empress Wang, and the family’s power as the ultimately successful outside relatives would be unchallengeable.
       The normal Han practice was to grant the father of a new imperial wife a large amount of land and gold; emperors, after all, were supposed to set an example of filial piety and generosity to their relatives. Wang Mang accepted these gifts, but lived much more frugally than most of the great men of his time. He abstained from meat and rich dishes at any time when there was a food shortage in the empire, advised the grand dowager empress to dress more simply, and made large contributions of money and land to relief of the poor and hungry. Many other great men, it was said, followed his example in making such contributions. Wang also used his own funds to support large numbers of scholars at the capital, which enhanced his reputation for generosity and put some of the best talent in the empire at his disposal. (
MOF, 79-80)
Definition of "Usurpation"
It is not easy to explain Wang Mang’s decision to abandon his declared intention to return power to the Han prince some day and to take the throne himself. The grand dowager empress was still alive as the ultimate guarantor of his power. In 9 C.E. he had the Han prince married to one of his granddaughters, setting the stage for a still longer continuation of outside-relative power. Perhaps Ban Gu is right, and usurpation had been his goal all along. Perhaps there were weaknesses in his position that we cannot see from our limited sources that impelled him to this step. We do know that at the end of 8 there was a great rush of reports of portents that Wang should become emperor. Messengers from Heaven appeared to various people in their dreams. As a message on a stone was being examined, a wind arose, and when the cloud of dust subsided there was a pattern of silk on the ground that was interpreted as another message from Heaven. An official proposed a reinterpretation of the abortive prophecies of 5 B.C.E. to mean that a regent would change the reign period.
The Metal Box
Finally, a metal box was presented to the ancestral temple of Emperor Gao, founder of the Han, in which there were two documents, one reporting that the Lord of Heaven was sending a seal to Wang Mang, the other reporting that the Red Emperor, Emperor Gao, was transmitting the mandate to the Yellow Emperor. When this was reported to the court, Wang Mang rushed to the temple of Emperor Gao and declared that he finally was convinced that he no longer could evade Heaven’s command that he should take the throne and found a new dynasty. The name of his dynasty, in fact, was to be New (Xin). (MOF 84)
Wang Mang
The Ceremonies of Zhou
[The Ceremonies of Zhou] is the perfect expression of a strand in Chinese political culture of what might be called bureaucratic idealism, which envisions a realm in which all major facets of human life are organized according to neatly nesting hierarchies of bureaucratic terms, boundaries, and practices. The result is not totalitarian repression but social equity, spontaneous good order and generosity, and ceremonies maintaining proper order among men and between the cosmic and human orders. (MOF, 81)
Son of Heaven's Global Influence
It was to the Ceremonies of Zhou and other real and imagined Zhou precedents that Wang now turned to guide a series of far-reaching policy initiatives. ... Several different kinds of coins, some of them replicating the knife and spade shapes of some of the late Zhou states, were instituted and made compulsory for certain transactions; it seems clear that the proportion of valuable metal in some of the new coins was lower than in the previous Han coinage, and that this was in fact a debasement of the coinage. Most people refused to accept the new coins, and the policy was widely resented. ...
Spade Coins of the Xin Dynasty
Most important of all was his proclamation that henceforth there would be no private landholding; all land would be known as the king’s fields and would be subject to confiscation and redistribution. Immediately, rich families having more than one hundred mou (about thirty-three acres) of land were to distribute the excess over that amount to their distant relatives or neighbors. Slaves were not freed, but it was forbidden to buy or sell them. Wang justified these measures as first steps toward the restoration of the well-field system, which he said had been inhumanely destroyed by the Qin.
The Well-Field System of Taxation
Little is known about what measures were taken to enforce this remarkably sweeping change. We are told that the buying and selling of slaves was pretty effectively disrupted. It also is clear that these measures aroused the opposition of the entire landed elite. Wang was forced to rescind them in 12 C.E. (MOF, 85)
Wang Mang's Tyranny
Ban [Gu]’s account of Wang’s last years shows an increasingly tyrannical government, arresting thousands of people for violating the monopoly on minting coins, conducting executions the year round (in gross violation of the harmony of Heaven and humanity, which restricted them to autumn, the season when the natural world dies). Wang is shown as more and more out of touch, not wanting to hear about rebel advances, but refusing to allow his commanders to mobilize or move their troops on their own initiative. Pursuing the lore of omens and correspondences that had justified his seizure of power, in 21 he ordered a wide search in the empire for women to enter his household: “Because the Yellow Lord had 120 women, he became an immortal.” He also sent men to violate the temple of Emperor Gao of the Han, chopping up its doors and windows, whipping its walls with the whips used to whip criminals. He spent vast sums on splendid ceremonies at the temples of his ancestors; he had come a long way from the times when he did not eat meat if there was hunger anywhere in the empire. Even in these late years, however, Ban records one case in which Wang paid attention to a comprehensive denunciation of his policies and followed one part of its recommendations. The monopolies were abolished, but at the end of 22, much too late. (MOF, 88)
Icon for the Later Han Dynasty
Map of Warlord and Peasant Forces at the Beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty
A massive flood of the Yellow River delivered the fatal blow to [Wang Mang’s] short-lived government. ... The river’s original course had been south of the Shandong peninsula, reaching the sea near what is now the modern city of Tianjin. But during the floods the river formed two arms, one flowing south of the Shandong peninsula and the other flowing north. The resulting flooding displaced thousands of peasants who rose up against the central government. Because the rebels painted their foreheads red in hopes of gaining the increased energy of red blood, they were called the Red Eyebrows. A loose coalition of powerful landowning families joined together to suppress the rebels, and after they had defeated both the rebels and the imperial troops, they agreed to place a distant heir of the Han founder on the throne. The coalition forces killed Wang Mang in 23 C.E., but they gained full control only in 25 C.E., when the new emperor ordered the capital moved to Luoyang, which served as the capital until 190 C.E.
The newly restored dynasty was able to govern only with the cooperation of influential families who had supported its return to power. Accordingly, it took no measures against the families who amassed enormous estates and who regularly placed their sons in office, often by recommending them to local officials. As the Han dynasty entered its third and fourth centuries in power, eunuchs came to play an increasingly important role. Apprehensive about the eunuchs’ influence in the Qin dynasty, the early Han emperors had largely succeeded in keeping them from exercising power for the first two centuries of the dynasty. This pattern changed in 92 C.E., however, when the reigning emperor enlisted the support of a eunuch against a powerful faction, and eunuchs often appear as major players in the political intrigues of the second century. (OE, 126-127)
The Yellow Turban Rebellion
The Yellow Turban Rebellion
184 CE

Cao CaoThe minimal information known about the Yellow Turbans reflects the point of view of official historians who saw these Daoists as dangerous insurrectionists, named for the yellow cloths they tied around their heads. The Yellow Turbans shared many practices with the Five Peck Daoists. Both groups considered illness a sign of wrongdoing, and both encouraged the confession of sins. ... They claimed to inaugurate a new age, which they called the “Era of Great Peace (taiping)” ... [and] found support at different social levels, spanning the peasants in the countryside, whose crops had been damaged by recent flooding of rivers, and eunuchs within the palace. The Yellow Turbans planned their rebellion for the third month of 184, but government officials discovered their plot ahead of time. The arrest of one adept, who had been in communication with some palace eunuchs, prompted all the adherents to rebel ahead of schedule. One source reports that three hundred sixty thousand insurgents from eight provinces joined the movement. The central government dispatched its own imperial troops, and it recruited the armies of several independent generals, including a former chancellor named Cao Cao (155-220). The Daoist rebels proved no match for the combined forces, who captured and killed all the important leaders by the end of 184. ...
Imperial Power Relationships
The Yellow Turban uprisings rattled the palace leadership. Emperor Huan was the last emperor to act on his own, and his decision to use eunuchs to attack the consort family of the Liangs ushered in decades of conflict between eunuchs and consort families in which the child emperors played no role at all. After Emperor Huan died in 168, three more emperors came to the throne, but each one was placed there by powerful consort families, who challenged the eunuchs at their peril. ... In 192, Cao Cao, the general who had suppressed the Yellow Turbans, became regent. General Cao Cao went on to become one of the most famous generals in Chinese history and one of the leading protagonists of the great Chinese novel, Three Kingdoms (written in the fifteenth or sixteenth century), yet he never gained control of more than one-third of the empire. When Cao Cao died in 220, the Han-dynasty puppet-emperor was still in place, but he was forced to abdicate by Cao’s son, who proclaimed himself the founder of a new dynasty. Three centuries of disunity ensued. (OE, 135-136)
Icon for the Three Kingdoms Period
Time Lapse Map of the Late Han and Three Kingdoms Periods
[I]f we want to understand the place of the Three Kingdoms in the Chinese sense of the past, we must focus not on the historical record but on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which follows a historically verifiable outline but leaves out much that can be known and adds elaborate and wonderful stories that have little or no foundation in sources available to us. As so often happens in historical fiction or drama, institutions, trends, and complexities are slighted, the focus on individual character and action becomes stronger, and there is a tendency to clearer distinctions between heroes and villains than can usually be found in political reality. But there still is plenty of room for portrayal of conflicts between private and public commitments, for heroes laid low by the faults of their virtues or by the faults of those whom they are bound by ties of sworn brotherhood. (MOF, 103-104)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The Heroes
Liu BeiIn the long, complex development of the novel, the characters of the heroes are gradually revealed. Liu Bei, by his membership in the imperial family the “elder brother” and eventual claimant of the Han succession, is shown to be a paragon of conscientiousness, scruple, and generosity, who would have been truly sagely as the third emperor of a great dynasty but lacks the guile and ruthlessness required to rebuild the fortunes of the Han. Zhang Fei is the first of a long line in Chinese fiction of short-tempered, loud-mouthed, good-hearted warriors who will cause a great deal of trouble for their associates if not carefully watched; for the reader or hearer, he is good for a laugh, a release of fantasies of uncontrolled anger, yelling and fighting, instant and guileless redress of wrongs. Guan Yu, by far the most interesting of the three, is another warrior, fearless in battle, more controlled and a better counselor than Zhang, above all a man who will defend his own honor and will honor at all costs his obligations to others. His red-faced, beautifully bearded statue stands today in many temples and house shrines; he has become Lord Guan (Guan Di, Guan Gong), the God of War in Chinese popular religion. (MOF, 105)
Zhuge Liang
Liu Bei’s General & Daoist Master of Nature

Liu Bei and his sworn brothers now set out to find men who can advise them how to strengthen their position in the middle Yangzi. They are told repeatedly of a mysterious person named Zhuge Liang, whose main concern is the Daoist pursuit of immortality and the secrets of nature, but who also is wonderfully well versed in the great strategists of the Warring States period. Twice they go to the small thatched house where the great man lives, only to find that he is off in the mountains somewhere. When they come a third time, he is at home but is taking a nap. Liu Bei stands respectfully waiting for him to awaken, while Zhang Fei becomes livid with rage and suggests awakening him by setting fire to his thatched roof. When Zhuge Liang finally awakens he is all politeness and apology. He appears to be “singularly tall, with a face like gleaming jade, a plaited silken band around his head. Cloaked in crane down, he had the buoyant air of a [Daoist] spiritual transcendent.”
Map of the Three Kingdoms Period
Soon he and Liu Bei settle down to serious discussion of strategy. Zhuge Liang has a map, which shows the importance of taking Jingzhou as a strategic base and the possibility of moving from there up the river into Shu. Liu Bei is delighted, and Zhuge Liang abandons his spiritual pursuits to become Liu’s strategic adviser. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei remain suspicious, especially as it becomes clear that Zhuge Liang will devise his strategies from a tent at headquarters and will not lead troops into battle. Liu explains that “For brains I have Kongming [the courtesy name frequently used for Zhuge Liang in the Romance], for courage you two. They cannot be interchanged. ... Plans evolved within the tent decide victory a thousand leagues away.”
Zhuge Liang vs. Zhou Yu
Zhou Yu [minister of Wu in the south] now is committed to resistance against Cao Cao [ruler of Wei in the north] but is repeatedly astonished by Zhuge Liang’s ability to see through complicated situations, anticipate what would happen next, and stay three steps ahead of his rivals in his plans. Finding him too dangerous a rival for power in the new alliance, he seeks a way to do away with him without incurring the wrath of Sun Quan [ruler of Wu] and Liu Bei [ruler of Shu Han]. He asks him if he can provide 100,000 arrows for the coming battles. Zhuge Liang replies, astonishingly, that he can do so within three days, and would accept the death penalty if he did not fulfill his promise. Then he asks another commander to provide “twenty vessels with a crew of thirty each.
Video Clip: Zhuge Liang Gets Arrows for Zhou Yu
Lined up on either side of each vessel I want a thousand bales of straw wrapped in black cloth. But if you tell Zhou Yu this time my plan will fail.” On the third night there is a thick fog on the river which Zhuge Liang, master of natural lore, has anticipated. He has the ships pass Cao’s camp in single file, the crews shouting and beating the drums as loudly as they can. Cao’s archers shoot as rapidly as they can at the sources of the menacing sounds in the fog. As the fog lifts in the morning, the vessels pass again at a greater distance, their crews shouting their thanks to Cao Cao for donating such a fine supply of arrows to his enemies. (MOF, 108)
Zhuge Liang Sends Fire Ships to Destroy Cao Cao's Navy
The Sun-Liu alliance, its forces inferior in numbers and arms, now prepares large numbers of ships full of wood, straw, and explosives to be sent drifting down into Cao’s anchored ships. To make sure that the Cao fleet cannot get away, they send a double agent to Cao, who advises that he can deal with the seasickness his northern soldiers are suffering on their ships by chaining the ships together so that they will not move so much in the water. The double agent, something of an artist with his three inches of limber tongue, convinces Cao. Cao knows of the fireships being prepared southeast of his base, and at that time of year the prevailing winds are from the north and west.
Video Clip: Zhuge Liang Uses Daoist Ritual to Change the Direction of the Wind
Now it is time for Zhuge Liang to demonstrate his mastery of the secrets of summoning the powers of nature. He has a three-tiered altar built. On the bottom tier are twenty-eight flags for the twenty-eight solar mansions, on the next sixty-four flags for the hexagrams of the Yi jing, on the top four men dressed in the colors appropriate to the four directions. In the robes of a Daoist priest, barefoot, long hair loose down his back, Zhuge Liang ascends and descends his altar, in silent prayer. Soon a wind begins to rise out of the southeast. The fire ships are lit and set adrift. They bear down on Cao’s base like flaming arrows. It is too late to try to loosen the chains that fasten all the ships. The fire spreads rapidly from one to another, and all are lost. (MOF, 110)
Video Clip: Zhuge Liang Destroys Cao Cao's Navy with Fire Ships
Liu Bei dies , and Zhuge Liang manages the peaceful succession of his son. He tries to do the best he can pursuing the Han cause in face of the isolation of the Shu Han regime and the mediocrity of the successor. He makes some progress in the Han River valley, but has to retreat to the city of Hanzhong after a serious defeat. Seeing vastly superior Wei forces approaching, he has the main gates of the city opened and twenty men placed at each to sweep the road. Zhuge Liang himself puts his white scarf around his head, his crane feather cloak around his shoulders, and sits on the city wall with two boys, playing a qin, a stringed instrument. The Wei general, convinced that Zhuge Liang never takes chances and knowing his skill in setting traps, looks at this astonishing spectacle and orders a general retreat. Zhuge Liang drives on into Wei River valley, but an attack on the enemy using burning wheels sent rolling down hillsides to block a pass fails when a sudden rainstorm puts the fires out. Heaven is turning against him.
       Zhuge Liang is exhausted from trying to make all the plans and decisions. His vitality is at low ebb. He has soldiers with black flags stand around his tent while he prays to the Northern Dipper, asking that his life be prolonged for the sake of the Han cause. If the lamp in his tent stays lit for seven days, he may have gained a year of life. But on the sixth night a soldier dashes in, accidentally kicks over the lamp, and it is extinguished. Zhuge Liang now dictates his deathbed memorial to his emperor:

“I humbly beg that Your Majesty keep an honest mind and limit your desires, disciplining yourself and caring tenderly for the people. Serve the late Emperor in a spirit of filial piety; show humane generosity throughout your kingdom. Promote those not in the public eye to advance the cause of true excellence; deny access to the vicious and depraved to strengthen the moral tone of the realm.”
Zhuge Liang Wins One Last Battle After His Death
He also orders that after his death there is to be no outcry of mourning, for the enemy will be watching. He has had a life-size figure of himself carved of wood; it is to be put in a chariot and sent out the next day at the head of the Shu Han army. After his death, his orders are followed. The Wei forces see his figure in the chariot, think he is still alive, and flee. (MOF, 111-112)
The novel continues to the Jin reunification of 280, ending with a repetition of its first sentence about the alternation of unity and disunity, but it seems to me that Zhuge Liang’s last trick, his cheating of death itself, is the real conclusion of the story, and one of the finest evocations in Chinese literature of the power of fame, of a great name, to outlive death and even to turn the tide of war. (MOF, 112-113)
Is this History? Literature? Both?
Icon for the Three Kingdoms Period
Zhuge Liang