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  • James Houser

May 23, 192 - The Death of Dong Zhuo & China's Three Kingdoms Era

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 23, 192 AD. The warlord Dong Zhuo has dominated the court of the Han Dynasty for three years. Ousted from the capital by a coalition of his enemies, he is attempting to rebuild his power when he is assassinated by his adopted son Lu Bu. His death is the tipping point, as the Empire of Han China shatters into factions which will become known as the Three Kingdoms. The Empire, long united, must divide.

It is impossible to overstate the Three Kingdoms Period in Chinese literary, cultural and folk history. This long period of near-chaos in Ancient China has long been characterized by famous rivalries, love affairs, scandals and betrayals. This is in large part a function of the 14th-Century historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” written by Lao Guanzhong.

Part history, part legend, part myth, part fantasy, the “Romance” had the same impact on Chinese memory that Shakespeare’s plays have had in English-language memory. Just as Shakespeare’s histories permanently affected English perception of the Wars of the Roses, so too did “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” permanently affect Chinese perception of their own history, their values, and their destiny as a nation. Tropes such as Liu Bei – the honorable ruler, Cao Cao – the clever tyrant, and Zhuge Liang – the eccentric strategist, all became codified personality traits for men who did not always resemble their literary incarnations. Much like Caesar probably never said “Et tu, Brute?” when he was stabbed, Zhuge Liang probably didn’t persuade Zhou Yu to go to war with an eloquent poem. You wouldn’t know that from the movie versions, though. Some stories are too good not to have happened.

One of the most familiar lines in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is the first line of the novel: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever begin.” So our story will begin…with the empire dividing.

The Han Dynasty, founded by warlord Liu Bang in the 200s BC, was China’s great classical civilization. It existed at the same time as the Roman Empire in the west, and reached its peak in about the same era. The Han Empire was the first to unite most of what we now call China, and so ruled over a vast area of provinces and border regions with a truly massive population for ancient times. Nevertheless, just like the Roman Empire, its imperial court at Luoyang proved to be a den of vipers, with multiple factions swirling around the Emperor eager to gain advantage. It was these factions that would bring the Empire down.

From the 140s to the 180s AD, the Han dynasty entered a period of depression and decline. For various reasons, including the widespread famine and plague that weakened multiple empires, including Rome, instability and poverty rocked the realm. Many Emperors died before their time, leaving young and unprepared rulers on the throne. This caused actual power to lie with the Emperor’s family and various rings of court officials. These court officials were often eunuchs, men who had been castrated to allegedly advance their trustworthiness/keep them from establishing family ties and dynasties of their own. The eunuchs, though, had formed their own clique and power base, and after a certain period came to dominate the young and weak Emperors.

Many of China’s powerful noble families protested the oppressive influence of eunuchs, but were often met with suppression and execution. The eunuchs’ influence helped to calcify the workings of the Imperial government, and as disease and starvation spread throughout the Empire the government began to break down. This was a chance not only for local nobles and leaders to assert their own power and take over the provinces, but opened the floodgates for rebellion.

Imperial China functioned on a Confucian political philosophy known as the “Mandate of Heaven.” As long as Emperors ruled justly and fairly, they could expect Heaven to smile on them, and the Empire would flourish. If the Emperors fell into decadence, wickedness, and unrighteousness, Heaven would withdraw its support. In this case, the Emperor had lost the “Mandate of Heaven,” and Heaven would voice its displeasure through ill luck, natural disaster, and pestilence. By the 180s, not only nobles but common folk perceived that the Han had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

In 184, three brothers who led a Taoist sect in Shandong Province, centered on faith healing in this time of plague, led their followers in a rebellion against the Han government. This movement was called the “Yellow Turban Rebellion,” and soon gained enormous support from the disaffected and frustrated people of rural China. Soon their rebellion had spread across northern China, and Han Emperor Ling dispatched several generals to root out the rebellion. It is at this point that “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” begins.

With all the uproar over the Yellow Turban movement, Emperor Ling was forced to delegate much of his authority to local leaders so they could raise their own armies to suppress the rebels. As a result, many local warlords gained virtual autonomy and power within their own provinces, which eroded the Emperor’s authority. Some of these warlords were good and honorable, and some were cruel and tyrannical, but all looked out for their own interests. Soon the Governor of Yi Province, Liu Yan, severed any connections with the Han court, followed by many others.

In 188, with the Yellow Turbans still roaming the country, Emperor Ling died. He left behind two surviving sons – Liu Bian and Liu Xie – but due to his indecisive and timid nature, had left it unclear who was to succeed him. The leader of the Chinese nobles, General He Jin, supported Liu Bian, while the chief eunuch Jian Shuo supported Liu Xie. When Liu Bian took the throne and assumed the Imperial name Emperor Shao, the eunuch Jian Shao plotted to kill General He and replace the new emperor. When General He learned of this, he began his own plot to remove and execute the eunuchs. In 189, he called on another General, Dong Zhuo, to come help him fight the powerful eunuch faction.

The eunuchs learned of He Jin’s plot, however, and had him assassinated before Dong Zhuo’s forces could arrive. He Jin’s troops, led by the General Yuan Shao, stormed the palace and began to massacre the eunuchs. The factions were at war, and the capital of Luoyang was soon aflame as the court factions engaged in bitter civil strife and turmoil. As Dong Zhuo’s troops approached, Emperor Shao escaped from the capital, losing the Imperial Seal in the process. Soon after Dong Zhou’s forces took control of the capital, they captured Emperor Shao and brought him back.

The new reality soon set in. Dong Zhuo was the power in the capital. Power could not have fallen to a less worthy individual. Obsessed with power, he coopted all the rest of the armies around the city. One army under the general Ding Yuan refused to join him; Ding was murdered by his subordinate, Lu Bu, who immediately joined Dong Zhuo. This gave Dong Zhou total control over the armies near the capital. He declared himself Chancellor of the Han Empire, a powerful title that had not existed for 200 years, and assumed supreme power, keeping the Emperor as a puppet.

Dong Zhuo soon grew impatient with the young Emperor Shao and his refusal to cooperate, and replaced him with his younger brother Liu Xie, now the Emperor Xian. The warlord’s behavior grew bullying, oppressive, and bloody; soon he had the former Emperor Shao, along with his carping mother, executed and assumed still more power to himself. Dong Zhou’s reign was a “rule of terror,” where the only law that mattered was the capricious whim of the Chancellor.

Dong Zhou’s dictatorship finally incited a reaction. In 190, a large group of local warlords formed a grand coalition under the leadership of Yuan Shao to overthrow and defeat Dong Zhuo. Among these men were the clever and cruel Cao Cao, the brave but impulsive Sun Jian, and the noble but weak Liu Bei. No one knew it at the time, but these were the three men who would rule what would become known as the Three Kingdoms.

China erupted into open civil war. Soon Sun Jian’s cavalry vanguard was advancing towards Luoyang, and defeated Dong’s subordinate Lu Bu in battle near the city gates. Dong Zhuo, alarmed by the coalition arrayed against him, decided to abandon the capital and flee for the ancient city of Chang’an. He ordered his soldiers to loot and pillage Luoyang of anything valuable before departing. The city was evacuated; anyone who refused to leave was killed on the spot. Under Dong’s orders, Lu Bu led troops to rob and plunder the imperial tombs of all their fineries and treasures, defiling the graves of the Han Dynasty’s noble ancestors. After the evacuation the city of Luoyang, along with anyone who had refused to leave, was burned to the ground; countless civilians died in the sacking.

Cao Cao’s cavalry tried to catch Dong Zhou, but suffered defeats while Dong continued his withdrawal to the west. Dong’s pleas for a truce went unanswered; Yuan Shao, infuriated by Dong’s tyranny, had any messengers executed. He sent Sun Jian to scout out and restore the destroyed city of Luoyang and defeat any of Dong Zhou’s forces. Sun Jian led a remarkably successful and brilliant campaign, and reoccupied Luoyang with his army. Sun Jian soon found an unexpected treasure – the Imperial Seal, abandoned at the bottom of a well. Without reporting it to his boss, Sun Jian kept the Seal for himself.

With Dong Zhou’s puppet government holed up in the mountains at Chang’an, the grand coalition began to splinter apart. Distrust began to fester between the major factions of the anti-Dong coalition, partially based on who would be Emperor after Dong was defeated. Yuan Shao’s attempts to enthrone a minor official, distantly related to the Han Dynasty, cost him the leadership of the coalition; soon Cao Cao and Sun Jian had both gone their own ways. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms were truly initiated when Yuan Shao, learning that Sun Jian had the Imperial Seal in his possession, attacked his former subordinate. Sun Jian won the battle but set out south to secure an independent power base. The alliance that had formed to defeat Dong Zhuo’s tyranny had begun to turn in on itself. The Han Empire was gone. Long united, must divide.

As the coalition members began to fight amongst themselves, Dong Zhou was left alone to fester at Chang’An. He soon descended into paranoia and suspicion, keeping only Lu Bu by him as a bodyguard. He often abused his ally, screaming at him and throwing weapons at him, but Lu Bu dodged the abuse and attacks. Dong became fond of his young protégé and declared him an adoptive son. Though outwardly Lu Bu was pleased, inwardly he bore a grudge against Dong for the abuse and maltreatment.

As China descended into chaos in the heartland to the east, Dong Zhou regressed into his tyranny. Any official who said something slightly unpleasant would be killed instantly. He promoted the interests of his own family, even making his infant sons the governors of imaginary provinces he no longer controlled. Finally, even his own inner circle turned on him.

On May 23, 192 AD, Dong Zhuo was riding through the streets on his chariot when an assassin rode up and stabbed him. Dong shouted and grabbed at Lu Bu to protect him, but as he looked at his adoptive son, Lu Bu drew his own weapon and stabbed his mentor to death. (In "Romance", Lu Bu is seduced into killing Dong by his lover Diaochan, who incited jealousy by laying a love triangle between them.) As Dong’s corpse was left to rot in the streets of Chang’an, his relatives were hunted down and executed. Legend states that an officer guarding the corpse put a wick in Dong’s navel and lit it, and the flame burned for days from the fat of the corpse.

With Dong Zhuo’s death, his own followers fell into bickering and infighting. Already the warlords of China were lining up and taking sides. The legendary series of romances, betrayals and backstabbings had already begun. Everything I recounted above is enough for a novel on its own, but it was only the beginning. From here, the violence would spiral out and forge a new series of legends, characters, famous moments, plot twists, and exciting climaxes that would last for decades.

The Han Empire, so long united, had to divide. Eventually it would unite again…but not for a long time. With Dong Zhou out of the picture Cao Cao, Sun Jian, and Liu Bei would assemble their own power blocs. There are side characters (SO MANY – Lu Bu alone is his own book or two), love triangles, great battles, interventions by Heaven, drama and scheming to match anything in Western literature.

I will come back to this story, there’s just too much good to talk about…so keep an eye out, if you will, for the next installment of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

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