Ch 2 - Tales of Three Kingdoms
Decline of the Han Dynasty
The fabled Silk Road and wondrous scientific advances were no match for the administrative weakness, financial corruption and heavy taxation that led to the emergence of powerul warlords who accelerated the internal collapse of a once vibrant Han Dynasty.
The Han Dynasty's economic recovery begun by Emperor Guang Wu continued under his son, Emperor Ming. China's trade reached new heights in an atmosphere of rising prosperity, and education took on a new importance. The newly formed Imperial University in Luoyang attracted thousands of students, many of whom attended history lectures given by the emperor himself. The successful Silk Road made silk a familiar commodity to people as far away as the Roman Empire and brought the Chinese glass, jade, horses, precious stones, tortoise shell, and fabrics.
The disappearance of the Xiungnu as a direct threat to China diminished the strategic importance of holding the northeastern frontier and made it possible for China turn its attention westward. With China's attention directed elsewhere, two new threats emerged in the northeast, each with the potential to threaten Chinese hegemony over the Manchurian Plain and the Liaodong River valley: the Xianbei nomads and the growing power of the Kingdom of Koguryo.
The threat to China from Koguryo became even more real in 53 AD, when King Taejo ascended the throne and permanently secured the right to rule for the Ko house of the Kyeru lineage . Under his rule, Koguryo mounted repeated attacks against the Liaodong and Xuantu commanderies, eventually forcing the Han government to move its administrative headquarters even further west. Taejo's warriors swept across the entire northeast coast of the Korean peninsula and subjugated the tribes of Okcho and Eastern Ye. The military campaign not only secured a power base at Taejo's rear, it also gave him meaningful material support to further his territorial expansion.
Taejo allowed native chieftains to retain their local authority and through them he assessed tribute from the local population; cloth made by the Yemaek, salt, fish and other seafood, and hand-crafted goods. The people of Okcho carried Taejo's tribute on their backs 200 to 300 miles to the Koguryo capital at Kungnae-song. They also sent their most beautiful women to Taejo's capital as servants and concubines, where they were always treated as slaves.
Taejo's aggressive pursuit of territorial expansion intensified the growing conflict between Koguryo and China and made open warfare between them inevitable. Taejo's raids became such a serious threat that the Chinese governor of Liaodong and other officials in the northeast territories organized a large-scale military expedition against Koguryo in 121 AD. The campaign had marginal success, but it enraged King Taejo to the point of seeking retaliation. He secured his northern frontier through an alliance with the Xianbei tribes in Manchuria and within a year further strengthened Koguryo's position against China. With Chinese troops scattered away from their bases, a combined force of Xianbei and Koguryo cavalry swept across the Liaodong countryside in a major assault against the capital garrison of the Xuantu Commandery. The Chinese escaped annihilation only by the timely intervention of Puyo's crown prince, whose army of horsemen severely defeated Taejo's warriors.
King Taejo died not long after this defeat and circumstances compelled his successor to make peace with China. Beginning with King Taejo and continuing under the banners of a succession of kings down to the reign of Kogukch'on, the young warrior kingdom pursued a policy of expansion that inevitably came at China's expense. Koguryo repeatedly attacked Chinese commanderies in the Liao and Taedong river basins, all the while further centralizing its governing structure, strengthening the ruling authority of its king, and making and breaking alliances with neighboring states to suit its own ambitions.
Beginning with Emperor Zhang in 76 AD, all Han emperors took the throne as adolescents, some as young as 2 years old. Most began their reign with their mother, the Dowager Empress, serving as regent. These women remained isolated in the palace and dependent upon men, usually their male relatives. As an emperor grew to adulthood, if he rejected his mother's relatives as advisors he often turned to the only other males with whom he had contact - the eunuchs - and appointed them to high positions as a counter to his mother's influence. The court of Emperor Ho (85 to 105 AD) reflected China's new prosperity by growing in both size and luxury to equal the courts of previous Han emperors. Ho Di brought a great many eunuchs to his court to guard and attend his hundreds of wives and concubines. Family consorts and eunuchs, many of whom had the ear of the emperor, soon acquired a great deal of influence.
By the 2nd century AD, Han Chinese science and technology had caught up with, and in some ways actually surpassed Europe and the Near East. The use of paper was becoming common. Horse collars and stirrups were in widespread use. China had a machine that sowed seeds, a machine for husking grain, water pumps and, unlike the Roman civilization, it had the wheel barrow. Chinese doctors were improving their use of herbal medicines, learning more about human anatomy and the diagnosis of physical disorders, using minor surgery and acupuncture, and learning the significance of a good diet. China had a water clock with an accuracy unknown to Europeans until the next millennium. In 132 AD, the Chinese invented a seismograph, a massive bronze instrument that measured eight feet across. Chinese astronomers observed sun spots, which would not be seen by Europeans until Galileo. They charted the positions of 11,520 stars, measured the elliptical orbit of the moon, and had a lunar calendar that would be consulted well into the twentieth century.
Despite China's great achievements however, peasant life under the reign of Emperor Shun (126 to 144 AD), remained harsh. The government still took too much from them in taxes and had not stored enough grain for natural disasters. The peasants still had to endure forced labor once a month for the emperor and still suffered harsh punishments. People were executed for traveling down the center of a highway, an area reserved for the emperor alone. Rumors began spreading among China's peasants that the Han emperors had again lost the Mandate of Heaven and scattered peasant revolts began to reappear across the empire.
When the Dowager Empress died in 159 AD, the palace eunuchs sensed an opportunity to eliminate rival political influence and arranged the extermination of her entire clan. That left the young emperor totally dependent on the eunuchs, to whom he delegated a great deal of power. They soon filled government positions with their kinsmen, obliging every official or general they appointed to pay for the favor in gold. China's Confucianist aristocracy, who favored law and order and good government, considered the eunuchs an uneducated lot and not long after twelve-year-old Emperor Ling came to the throne, a major clash occurred between the two groups triggered by the prophecy of a Daoist magician. The magician prophesied that soon the government would decree a general clemency. To prove his confidence in such a claim, he had his own son murder someone. Well, the man's son happened to be a henchman of the eunuchs, who immediately stayed the magician's execution. Nevertheless, the provincial governor executed the son for murder. The angered eunuchs accused the governor of violating an imperial decree and conspiring with students and scholars to form an illegal alliance against the government.
The general decline in respect for authority spread through the provinces as local magistrates and governors lost their authority to local wealthy aristocrats, men who used bribery to gain special influence with the palace eunuchs. These same aristocrats used their wealth to hire armed mercenaries to protect their special interests. At the same time, army generals commanding troops in the provinces with the blessings of the court's eunuchs were growing evermore independent. Between 168 and 170 AD, warfare erupted between the eunuchs and the Confucian bureaucrats, who felt that the eunuchs had usurped their rightful position of influence in government. The entire organization of Han China's economic and political system began falling apart in much the same way the Roman Empire began to disintegrate at approximately the same time. Neither empire could effectively adjust to its increased population, manage the growth of its wealth, or even control the complex institutions that centralized state rule had made possible. Despite repeated attempts by China's central government to build an efficient bureaucracy based on merit, far too many officials achieved their positions through inheritance, patronage, bribery, or the open manipulation of appointments by those in charge.
The roots of this decline were deeply embedded in China. The great aristocratic families had consolidated their hold on large private estates during the late first century BC, and by the time of the Later Han period, the position of these great landowners was quite secure. Private land owners paid insignificant land taxes and could easily protect their wealth by holding a high government position. In creating the centralized state rule of the Later Han period, the government found it had to make a greater compromises with large private land owners than had the emperors of the Earlier Han Dynasty. The great officials of China's centralized government proved to be their own worst enemy. They were unendingly greedy in rewarding huge grants of land, peasants and slaves in perpetuity to outstanding generals, administrators, bureaucrats, relatives, and themselves.
Something much more profound than a mere administrative breakdown occurred in China. The near constant need to mount an effective military defense against nomadic raids demanded manpower, food, horses, and weapons. To maintain itself, the central government imposed increasingly heavy taxes on the peasants in the north. The growing power of China's private land owners however, brought a dramatic drop in the number of tax-paying peasants, particularly in North China and the northern frontier regions. Eventually, the tax burden became unbearable. Many peasants fled south where taxes were lower, or moved onto the estates of the great land owners, where rent was a far less crushing burden than the taxes paid by free peasants. The inevitable result of this population shift was a dwindling number of tax-paying peasants in the north. The government persisted in its demands for money, imposing an ever-increasing tax burden on a diminishing tax base. Hard-pressed peasants faced the choice of turning to banditry or open revolt, either of which further weakened the dynasty's finances. Once this downward spiral began, nothing would stop it.
The decline of the Later Han Dynasty accelerated toward the end of 2nd century, yet the Chinese government took no effective measures to control the disintegration of its empire. While Chinese bureaucrats spent much of their time redistributing the empire's wealth among themselves, the collapse of the tax-paying peasantry ruined both the forced manual labor system and the peasant draft army. China's professional armies generally became the private forces of the rich land-owning generals who commanded them. These private armies grew in both size and power until the generals became virtually independent warlords, men too powerful to be curbed by the central government. Soon, these warlords completely overshadowed the central Chinese government; in fact, they controlled it.
As things went from bad to worse, a Daoist named Zhang Jue, calling himself "The Good Doctor of Great Wisdom," traveled the countryside offering a magical healing he called the "Way of the Highest Peace," a way to convert mankind and bring peace and order to all. He based his teachings largely on ideas contained in the "Books of Higher Peace," texts that emperors and the aristocracy had long considered subversive because of their numerous denunciations of the greed and egoism of emperors, and their claim that society was for common people. Some of these books proclaimed that peace and equality would be established by heavenly intervention. One book, known as the Taiping jing, envisioned a world where arms and armor were thrown away and people lived forever in peace.
In his fight for improved living conditions, the faith-healer Zhang Jue claimed the Han rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and he predicted their imminent fall. Within ten years, hundreds of thousands of devout believers identified themselves as followers of Zhang Jue. The symbol of their devotion to Zhang was a bright yellow turban, which gave the sect its name; the Yellow Turbans. With such a large following and the pervasive atmosphere of discontent among the peasants, Zhang Jue decided to accelerate the collapse of the Han Dynasty by force. He chose the fifth day of the third moon in the year 184 AD as the time for a general uprising, but after the court got word of the impending revolt and executed local rebel leaders, Zhang quickly changed plans. He called for an immediate uprising, urging his followers to burn official residences and loot the towns. Yellow Turbans from all corners of the empire began a rampage of arson, robbery and murder as they swarmed toward the capital at Luoyang.
The eunuchs and intellectual bureaucrats in Luoyang soon put aside their differences in mutual fear and opposition to the Yellow Turbans. The court ordered fortifications built around Luoyang and authorized provincial governors to organize their own armies to combat the rebels. As wealthy land owners organized armies to defend themselves against the onslaught, governors and local magistrates fled to escape death. Town after town fell to the Yellow Turbans as the rebellion spread its devastation across eight Chinese provinces. Ironically, the mysticism at the core of this Daoist revolt was also the cause of its eventual destruction. The Yellow Turbans believed their gods had elected them as a force for good, that they were invulnerable and did not even need weapons - a view not conducive to effective military operations. They were no match for the Chinese Imperial Army, which cut them down one after another with remorseless efficiency. Zhang Jue's rebellion died out in less than a year. Sporadic revolts continued for another five years, but little by little peasant supporters of the Yellow Turbans faded into the vast numbers of disappointed commoners and returned to tedious work to survive. Their only consolation was the hope of a coming paradise in the afterlife.
Self-absorbed with internal problems at home, China turned inward and virtually ignored the domestic affairs of its outlying frontier territories. Over the years Chinese administrators of the Lolang Commandery in Korea became so ineffective that the governor of Lolang could not even prevent Korea's petty chieftains from warring against one another. The Chinese could do little beyond investing various native chieftains in Okcho and Eastern Ye with titles and the perquisites of office. The collapse of Luoyang's administration left Chinese settlers in the Lolang Commandery completely cut off from communications with China. Relations between the Chinese in Lolang and the southern tribes of the Samhan states gradually deteriorated to the point where southern tribes regularly raided the colonial district, looting villages and taking Chinese settlers as slaves. During one particular raid, tribal raiders captured some fifteen-hundred Chinese men, women and children while they were out cutting wood. Raids of this nature forced many Chinese to flee into remote and inaccessible areas to escape enslavement.
China's severe financial and administrative weakness handicapped its ability to control the Liaodong Peninsula. Amidst all this chaos, Xiungnu raiders reappeared along the northern frontier and Koguryo's mounted warriors increased their pressure against Chinese rule on the peninsula. The death of thirty-three-year-old Emperor Ling in 189 AD left real power in China divided among the various military governors, or warlords. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Chinese warlord General Dong Zhou moved from his base along the northeastern frontier and seized control of the Lolang Military District in Korea almost without opposition. He defended his conquest by sending Gongsun Tu, the son of a minor Xuantu official, into Liaodong to hold the outlying districts. Gongsun Tu not only took control of the territory, but after a few years of effectively exploiting the anarchy in the region, he became a warlord in his own right. He created the Daifang Commandery in 196 AD to stabilize the rebellious population of central Korea, and governed Korea's southernmost provinces from a site near the modern city of Seoul. He marshaled so much power that Koguryo's King Kogukch'on and Puyo's King Mayo, acknowledged his regional authority as the independent ruler of Liaodong and the Xuantu Military District.
Meanwhile, in Luoyang, the Dowager Empress' half-brother, a popular army general, began scheming to assert his leadership at the palace. To increase pressure on the eunuchs and their supporters, he invited General Dong Zhou and his northern army to the capital. Before General Dong arrived however, murderous fighting broke out in the palace. Almost as soon as it started, a eunuch murdered the Empress' half-brother, which sent his allies into a rage. They burned the palace and killed every eunuch they could catch, even men who "looked" like a eunuch because of their lack of a beard. More than two thousand died in and around the royal palace.
When General Dong Zhou arrived in Luoyang, he quickly executed the newly installed Emperor Shao and the Dowager Empress and installed a nine-year-old prince on the throne as a front for his own brief reign of terror. As General Dong swaggered about the court with his sword drawn, terrorizing anyone and everyone in sight, his troops, many of whom were Xiungnu warriors, ran wild through Luoyang, pillaging and murdering as they pleased. With his thirst for blood satisfied, Tung Cho left Luoyang to do battle with rival generals in the north. The child-emperor Hsien-di and his ineffective palace militia put Luoyang to the torch and began a long journey westward to the former Han capital at Changan. It is said that over one million citizens of Luoyang followed the royal party west, and that most of them died of starvation or exhaustion along the way.
General Dong Zhou's short temper, thirst for blood, and complete lack of concern for the hearts and minds of the people finally turned against him in 192 AD, when his own generals assassinated him and tossed his corpse to a mob that hated him. Just four years later, in 196 AD, General Cao Cao located the child Emperor Xian in Changan and took control over the boy, declaring himself the "Imperial Minister" and protector of the empire. A bright and vigorous leader with a talent for poetry, General Cao drafted a new army in the name of Xian Di, an army said to have numbered as many as one million men. He then fought numerous bloody battles across northern China, defeating warlord after warlord until order was finally restored.
Koguryo's King Kogukch'on died in 204 AD without leaving a male heir. When the men of Koguryo rejected the king's older brother, Palgi, as being an unworthy successor, the throne went to Kogukch'on's younger brother, Yon-u, who reigned as King Sansang. This struggle between the king's two brothers over the matter of royal succession triggered a civil war in Koguryo. That same year, the Chinese warlord Gongsun Kang succeeded his father and sent troops into the Lolang Military District to reestablish control over the area and resettle thousands of Chinese refugees. Shortly thereafter, he invaded Koguryo and devastated the countryside in an apparent attempt to punish the kingdom for harboring his enemies among Koguryo's northern tribes.
Palgi and a group of some 30,000 people including the entire leadership of the Yonnubu clan surrendered to Gongsun, who resettled them in a new buffer state in the Liaodong region. General Gongsun's intervention in the Lolang District forced King Sansang to move his capital back to the Kungnae-song fortress, where it remained for the next two hundred years. Although Gongsun Kang's military campaign dealt Koguryo a serious blow, it had a negligible effect on the tributary relations Koguryo still maintained with the Okcho and the Eastern Ye tribes in northeast Korea. It was from these areas that Koguryo later rebuilt its power base.
In 208 AD, General Cao Cao, "Protector of the Dynasty," marched south in a campaign to reunify China. Gradually, a three-way division of power developed among China's leading warlords. From his capital at the modern site of Nanjing, General Sun Quan commanded the vast State of Wu, a region that included the entire south coastal region below the Yangtze River and extended well into Southeast Asia. To the west in Chengdu, General Liu Bei, a member of the Han royal family, lorded over the State of Shu Han, which included the region of Sichuan Province in east central China. General Cao Cao controlled the largest of the three kingdoms, Wei, which encompassed all of north China, the Liaodong Peninsula, and the Lolang Commandery in Korea.
Shortly after Cao Cao's death in 220 AD, the last puppet emperor of the Han Dynasty officially ceded the throne to Cao Cao's son, who became the heir to an empire and the first ruler of the Wei Dynasty. The complete collapse of the Han Dynasty split China split into three separate empires, each more or less at the mercy of its own great families and generals. Shu Han in the south, Wu in the west and Wei in the north. This division of China exemplified little more than a formal recognition of the fact that a truly unified central government was no longer possible.