A few months ago I made a video about the Jie, a possibly Yeniseic tribe who founded a short-lived dynasty in Northern China. I’d like to tell their story today, one which I hope you’ll agree is as dramatic as anything you’d see on TV or in a movie. So sit back and relax, and get ready for the epic story of the Jie!
China, third century CE--it was a time of chaos and savagery. The great Han Dynasty, which for centuries had ruled all under heaven, had fallen to internal strife and outside invasions. In its place emerged three kingdoms struggling for power. In the south, stretching from the Yangtze river to modern Vietnam, was the kingdom of Wu, led by the patient, diplomatically gifted Sun Quan. In the north, bordering the steppe tribes of the Xiongnu, was the kingdom of Wei. Although nominally led by the Han Emperor, the reins of power were tightly gripped by the cruel and devilishly clever Prime Minister Cao Cao. In the West—that is, modern-day Sichuan province—was the kingdom of Shu, led by the imperial scion Liu Bei, which struggled to rescue the emperor from his captivity and restore the Han to its former glory. After decades of civil war, a new dynasty—the Jin—rose from the ashes of Wei and conquered the other kingdoms. This complex and incredibly intriguing period of history can be read about in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I mention it because it forms the backdrop to our story today.
The Jin dynasty’s hegemony was not to last. By the 4th century, northern China had fallen to a succession of nomadic tribes—then known as the Xiongnu—who set up their own pseudo-Chinese dynasties. These were not unlike the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, or the Manchu Qing dynasty of the second millennium. Meanwhile the Jin had retreated south of the Yangtze, where they would remain another century.
One of these Xiongnu tribes referred to themselves as the “Han Zhao”—a name referring to the lineage of their leader, who claimed descent from the Han dynasty. Going so far to change his family name to that of the Han emperors, he claimed the imperial throne, despite the reality of being a minor steppe warlord. In order to expand his empire throughout China, the self-proclaimed emperor enlisted the help of his general, the ruthless Shi Le, who will become one of the main actors of our drama:
Watch out for this guy, he’s a badass. Even his name meant “Stone Strangler”. You might even say he was a…stone cold killer.
Shi Le was very much a product of these warlike and chaotic times. He was a man much in the vein of Conan the Barbarian—his greatest joy was to roam the earth, crushing his enemies, seeing them driven before him, and hearing the lamentations of their women. He belonged to a unique tribe within the larger Xiongnu group, known in modern Chinese as the Jie—however, in the Chinese of this ancient period this word would have been pronounced as *kiaet, or something approximating it. The Jie were a mysterious group that had emerged from the north, speaking a totally unique language and even having a different physical appearance from the other tribes around them. Shi Le—just like Conan, come to think of it—had been sold into slavery as a boy, but had risen through society by the might of his sword and ruthless pillaging tactics. By the year 310 or so, he was the most feared general in all of the Han Zhao army. Underneath the Han Zhao emperors, his army of ragtag badasses had conquered most of Northern China, even extending to the Yellow river itself, the ancient heartland of Chinese civilization:
But even this would not satisfy a man of Shi Le’s ambition. He didn’t want to be a simple general—he wanted to be the emperor of China itself. And so, in 319, he took up arms against the Han Zhao emperor and created his own state, the Later Zhao. Han Zhao, having lost its best general, could not hold for long, and by 329 had conquered the last pockets of Han Zhao resistance, and murdered the emperor.
Thus was Shi Le made the uncontested ruler of North China, despite he himself being *kiaet. The ethnically Chinese Jin dynasty continued in the south, but was really not much of a threat. And so, in 330, he declared himself Emperor of the Later Zhao dynasty—the Son of Heaven and ruler of all under it…that is, the emperor of China. But would his dynasty, won by the might of his sword, survive? Stay tuned, and find out!