In our last video we talked about the rise of Shi Le and his establishment of the Later Zhao dynasty in 4th century China. I want to begin by reviewing names, since this can be confusing, especially to people like me who don’t speak Chinese.
I’d like to start by reviewing that, in the year 220, the mighty Han Dynasty split into three kingdoms. The strongest of these was called Wei, led by the wily and devious Cao Cao. However, Wei’s hegemony was not to last. It was replaced by the Jin Dynasty, which reunited China for several decades at the end of the 3rd Century. Soon, however, trouble began with a loose confederation of tribes in the north, called the Xiongnu. They invaded northern China, pushed the Jin into South China, and established their own Sinicized dynasties.
The Xiongnu were not ethnically homogenous! “Xiongnu” is a catch-all term for a group of tribes. One of these tribes was called the Jie, led by the warlord Shi Le. Shi Le conquered most of northern China, and declared himself emperor. His dynasty was called the Later Zhao, having supplanted a dynasty called Han Zhao—not to be confused with the Han dynasty of 100 years earlier. Shi Le established his capital in what is now northern Shandong province, in the very shadow of the Tai Shan, China’s holiest mountain:
He may very well have even climbed this mountain, as many emperors have done, to symbolize the legitimacy of his dynasty. Even Chairman Mao did this, an interesting move for someone who claimed to be the elected leader of a “People’s Republic”. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes very well.
Shi Le was a barbarian who had no sense of honor or mercy. All that mattered to him was plunder and power. However, having established his dynasty, he seems to have cooled off in his old age. In fact he even became a Buddhist. As one of the first emperors to convert to Buddhism, he played a key role, though largely unrecognized, in the early spread of Buddhism in China.
Having established his claim to the Imperial throne, Shi Le attempted to arrange for the continuance of his dynasty after his death. There were two primary candidates for the succession: first, the bookish, mild-mannered and popular Shi Hong, his son. Even though Shi Le was a ruthless and often cruel warlord, his son seems to have been a pretty decent guy. He was by all accounts a compassionate and all-around good-natured person who spent his time studying the Confucian and Buddhist classics. The second candidate was the psychopathic Shi Hu, a nephew of the royal house who had accompanied Shi Le on his conquests.
Shi Hu was a real bastard. It’s really impossible to overstate how bad of a person he was. He was famous for having his own men—even his own sons—beaten to within an inch of their lives. Even worse—by the way, if you’re eating right now I recommend you pause the video until you’re finished—it’s said that he had his armies cannibalize local people, as a form of both psychological warfare and saving on provisions. Even Shi Le’s hardened crew of badasses trembled in fear at the mention of his name.
Shi Le, who was himself no Mother Teresa, found his nephew’s shenanigans disturbing to say the least. He wanted to have him killed, but was dissuaded by his wife. According to her, “before a bull grows up, it breaks the cart”, preemptively quoting the Bard in Much Ado.
But alas, this savage bull did not bear the yoke, and taking this advice was arguably the worst decision of Shi Le’s career, and could be said to have doomed his dynasty—and, in an ironic twist worthy of Sophocles, doomed Shi Le’s wife. But more on that later. Instead of having this psychopath killed, Shi Le simply disenfranchised Shi Hu in favor of his son, Shi Hong. This only served to irritate Shi Hu, who felt that he should be the heir, as he did most of the work of conquering the empire.