Shi Hong was helpless. In fear, he offered the throne to Shi Hu. Shi Hu, acting after the example of Cao Cao, sarcastically declined and said something along the lines of “No, you’re the crown prince after all, go ahead and take it, but I ‘strongly suggest’ that you make me the prime minister and the King of Wei—and give me the nine bestowments while you’re at it.” Note that these are the same titles that Cao Cao took! Poor Shi Hong must have seen what was happening.
Now, again, if I had been Shi Hong, I would have said something awesome like “Golly gosh Shi Hu, who was my dad again? Oh yeah! He was the emperor! And he’s dead! So…wait a minute! That…that makes me…the emperor! And…and you’re not the emperor! Off with your head!” As you can tell, I spend a lot of time fantasizing about this. Perhaps, you would say, he knew he would’ve been killed if he said that, but surely there must’ve been some faction loyal to him. He could’ve even drawn his sword and made a heroic last stand with his bros. But he didn’t, and allowed the situation to get worse.
Anyway, Shi Hong for whatever reason didn’t do this, nor did he take a lesson from the story of Cao Cao. Instead he asked his mom, the empress dowager, for help. This was the same lady who had saved Shi Hu when he was in danger! She tried to enlist another prince to attack Shi Hu, but the plan failed. Shi Hu, emulating his old hero Cao Cao, had her killed. Imagine the nerve of this guy! Shi Hu was by rights the empress dowager’s subject, and he had her executed as if she was a common criminal! I can only imagine the language he must have used to have her executed—for he could not have done so without the emperor’s ostensible permission. It must’ve been something along the lines of “Your majesty, this woman has threatened the security of your royal person and must be punished, I ask you to order her death.” Something like that. Imagine doing that with a straight face! What a bastard. And he did this to his very aunt, who had previously saved his life! What a savage twist of irony.
So let’s look at Shi Hong—that was the emperor, remember. These names all sound alike, at least to me, because I don’t speak Chinese. Understandably dismayed at being forced to approve his mom’s death, he couldn’t stand it anymore. Talk about a golden cage! This guy was—supposedly—the Son of Heaven, and the ruler of all beneath it, but he was basically the captive of Shi Hu, and had to go along with it. So what did he do? He decided to make one last plea for humane treatment. He must have known it wouldn’t work, since his cousin was a psychopath that made the Joker look like Gandhi. At any rate, however, Shi Hong made his way one night to Shi Hu’s palace, carrying the emperor’s jade seal, and said something along the lines of “the mandate of heaven has passed to you. For the preservation of the dynasty, please take the throne and rule all under heaven!”
That’s right, Shi Hong offered the throne to Shi Hu again! Imagine having to do that to the man who had your mom killed! What agony poor Shi Hong must have gone through. But Shi Hu, in true psychopath fashion, said something dripping with sarcasm, like “Oh, I am only your lowly servant, I would not dare take the throne from Your Highness.” Poor Shi Hong had to return to the palace to await his fate. Of course everyone, Shi Hong included, knew that Shi Hu wanted to be emperor, and this was as good a time as any, but of course he had nothing better to do than insult and torment Shi Hong first.
By now Shi Hong had been “ruling” for about a year. Not long afterward, Shi Hu made an announcement. He said that Shi Hong had violated the mourning customs regarding his father—which he hadn’t. As a result Shi Hong was “strongly advised” to abdicate the throne. Poor Shi Hong by now seems to have been completely despairing of his fate. He made no attempt to resist. In fact, he probably thought that by not resisting he would escape with his life—which he didn’t. Not long after being deposed, Shi Hong was executed—which by rights should’ve happened to Shi Hu, if only Shi Hong had had the courage to try. Poor Shi Hong never got the justice he deserved in this life, but we can hope that he found rest in the hereafter.
But, as the ever-quotable Gandalf the Grey said, many that die deserve life, and some that live deserve death. Shi Hu’s first act as emperor was to change the era name, following an ancient Chinese custom where not only emperors have names, but their reigns too. He named his reign period “jian-wu”, which appropriately enough means “establish militarism”. He even lived in a palace called Tai-Wu, or “excessively militaristic”. The two decades that followed were an orgy of bloodshed and chaos to the people of Northern China. His atrocities I have already described, and the common people of China were forced into slave labor to build an extravagant series of palaces, where Shi Hu ate, drank, and made merry with his concubines until he died in 349.
As a side note, as if killing his cousin weren’t bad enough already, he also murdered his own son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. While doing this, he even claimed to be a Buddhist—I suppose much the same way that the Spanish Inquisition was Catholic. Maybe he thought he was helping his victims by speeding them on to their next incarnations. More likely he saw Buddhist missionaries from an Inner Asian perspective: as shamans with weird powers, and therefore to be respected and feared.
Of course, the inevitable fate of tyranny is downfall, and though Shi Hu seems to have died a natural death, his empire was not to last. Three emperors were enthroned and deposed in two years, and the realm descended into even worse chaos than before—I am sorry to say that this tragic story ends with nothing short of an ancient genocide.
As we’ve discussed, Shi Hu and company were not actually Chinese, ethnolinguistically speaking. They ruled and terrorized a Chinese population, and took on the trappings of Chinese emperors, but were themselves Jie. Apparently, the Jie language was completely different from Chinese, and even from other Xiongnu languages. The Jie people even had a different appearance from their neighbors.
It is a sad reality that very often, an entire ethnic group suffers for the terrible actions of a few of its members. The Jie were one of these groups. Following the overthrow of the Later Zhao dynasty, the Jie people were completely hunted down and killed. This included everyone of the ethnic group, even those who had nothing to do with the dynasty’s reign of terror—women, children, whatever. Escape or blending into the Chinese population was impossible, since the Jie seem to have had such distinct features. It was horrible. Even though Shi Le and Shi Hu were bad guys, I’m sure there were lots of nice Jie people too, and like Shi Hong, they had to suffer despite having done nothing wrong. Racism is bad.
As a matter of fact, along with the Jie, other Xiongnu were killed and the survivors driven from China. Could this have been the beginning of the migration of nomads that would end a hundred years later at the gates of Rome? Maybe! The “Xiong” in “Xiongnu” sounds kind of like “Hun” after all, don’t you think?
This genocide was so thorough and complete that as a result, we don’t even know who the Jie were! All that remains of their language is a single sentence transcribed by a passing monk. What was this sentence? Does it contain the key to unlocking the mystery of the Jie people—who they were, where they came from? Probably, because otherwise there would be no material for a video! At any rate, we’ll talk about it next time.