Given the barrage of names, let’s review: Shi Le is the aging emperor who established the dynasty, Shi Hong is the heir apparent, and Shi Hu is a jealous cousin. Their dynasty is known as the Later Zhao. They belong to the Jie ethnic group, which was one of many tribes known to Chinese historians by the umbrella term “Xiongnu”.
Before long, Shi Le’s health began to fail, and he died, leaving the empire in the somewhat unsteady hands of Shi Hong. The tragedy that followed can be described as comparable to something you’d see in Ancient Greek Theater, but to understand it we have to go back a hundred years to the early third century, to the time of the Three Kingdoms. So again, from the fourth century, we’re going back to the early third century, to a completely different cast of characters.
One hundred years before the Later Zhao, China had been split up into three warring factions. In Northern China, the Emperor reigned in name, but was in truth nothing more than the plaything of Cao Cao, a brutal warlord who filled court with his henchmen and tormented the poor emperor day and night. While Cao Cao paid lip service to the emperor, he actually kept the emperor as a virtual prisoner, going so far as to have the emperor’s two wives executed when they crossed him. One happened to be pregnant at the time, which means that, in effect, Cao Cao murdered the child of the emperor of China. But even this was not far enough for Cao Cao. To add insult to injury, Cao Cao then forced the emperor to marry his daughter, as a vacancy had been created.
Cao Cao then “strongly suggested” that the emperor make him the Prime Minister, as well as the King of Wei, a region in north China. On top of that, Cao Cao got what were called the “Nine Bestowments”, which were in theory a reward given by emperors for good service. Remember, this is after killing the emperor’s wives and unborn child. Can you imagine the agony this poor emperor must have gone through?
The whole affair was an absolute farce. When I read “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” reading about the way Cao Cao treated the emperor made me so angry that I used to throw the book across the room, and then go for a walk to cool off!
That said, the emperor was partially at fault:
Here, we see the emperor’s wife being arrested, with the poor emperor looking helplessly on—that’s him in the chair. The guy with the sword is Cao Cao. Remember, he’s daring to draw his sword before the emperor of China! At any time, the emperor could have stood up and said, “You know, Cao Cao, I don’t recall this being a constitutional monarchy. Off with your head.” But he never did, because he was too afraid. Even when his wife was executed, and she asked him to save her life, all he could do was mumble something about not even being able to protect himself. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but I always like to daydream that if I were the emperor, I wouldn’t have any of Cao Cao’s nonsense. But this guy, it seems, was just too much of a spineless coward.
The one thing that Cao Cao never dared to do was claim the throne for himself, but that kind of actually makes sense, because he knew that if he did, his descendants would one day fall into the position of the poor emperor that he so tormented. His son, however, was less intelligent, and soon after he died, “strongly suggested” that the emperor abdicate in his favor.
With this in mind, let’s return to the Later Zhao a hundred years later. Shi Hu—remember, that’s the envious cousin—looked at Cao Cao as a personal hero. He even lived in a palace that Cao Cao had built. But Shi Hu, while being even more evil than Cao Cao, could not match him for brains. All he could do was look to the past and try to imitate his predecessor. So, when Shi Le died and the gentle, studious Shi Hong ascended the throne, Shi Hu muscled his way into the palace and staged a coup—in this case at least, the sword proved mightier than the inkbrush.