(DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE – continued)

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DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE (12 of 13)

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The Xiongnu conquer the North and the Jin Dynasty moves South

In 308, Xiongnu nobles along China's northern border met and chose one among them as their leader: Liu Yuan. He had acquired Chinese culture and claimed to be related to China's old Han royalty through marriage. And Liu Yuan claimed the heritage of his ancestors: Han family rule. But it was Liu Yuan's son, Liu Cong, who acted on his father's claim. Liu Cong had been brought up at the royal court. He had become a scholar, but he still had the vigor and strength of a Xiongnu warrior.

With the disintegration and weakness that had returned to China, Liu Cong saw opportunity. In 311 his army, supported by Chinese rebels, arrived at the capital, Luoyang, without warning. Liu Cong's army sacked the city and murdered more than thirty thousand people, including the Jin dynasty's crown prince. Luoyang's royal palace was burned. Imperial tombs were looted. The Jin emperor was carried off and forced to become a cupbearer, until Liu Cong had him executed.

In 316, Xiongnu cavalry passed through the city of Chang'an, and amid the ruins there another prince of the Jin family declared himself emperor. But before the year was over the Xiongnu returned, and the city surrendered. The newly declared Jin emperor was made to serve Liu Ts'ung as had his predecessor by rinsing cups during feasts, until he too was executed.

The remainder of the royal Jin family sought refuge south of the Yangzi River. There, in 317, in the city of Jiankang (modern Nanjing), a military commander who was a member of the royal family proclaimed the renewal of Jin rule and declared himself emperor, calling himself Jin Yuandi. Meanwhile, the Xiongnu invasions into northern China inspired millions of people to migrate to the south. Most of the north's Confucian scholars were among them. With the migrants were Taoist communities under the leadership of Taoist masters. Entire clans of northern Chinese migrated south, as did sixty or seventy percent of northern China's gentry. They brought with them what wealth they could while they believed that their stay in the south would be temporary.

The arrival of great numbers from the north was resented by indigenous southerners, and they refused to cooperate with the new government at Jiankang. But Jin Yuandi was patient. His regime avoided interfering with the privileges of the south's elite families, and eventually Jin Yuandi's regime persuaded this elite to cooperate with it. The regime at Jiankang also benefited from the wealth, experience and technical skills of the refugees. It set up administrative provinces for their settlement.

The government at Jiankang did not interfere with commerce, and in the south an unprecedented prosperity arose. For wealthy aristocrats an easy life emerged. Gentlemen remained elegantly inactive and are said to have grown weak in their limbs unlike the warrior aristocrats of former times. An advanced period of culture began – in art, literature, philosophy and religion. With Confucianism having been discredited, some of elegantly inactive acquired an interest in the philosopher Mozi of the 400s BCE. Some were interested in Legalist ideas, with its belief in tough policies for establishing law and order. And some among them became interested in the legendary founders of Taoism: Laozi and Zhuangzi.

The so-called barbarian rulers in the north were destined to adopt civilized ways. Some Xiongnu chieftains had realized that it was more profitable to tax farmers than to kill them. Lacking tradition in governing agricultural regions, they needed advice and help from their Chinese subjects. They were suspicious of those Confucianist scholars who had remained in the north, seeing them as likely supporters of previous Chinese rulers. They found what they considered more trustworthy men among Buddhist and Taoist intellectuals. Buddhist monks were trusted because they were unmarried, without loyalty to a family or clan and, therefore, more dependent upon the chieftain for favors. Buddhism became the favored religion among the chieftains, and its popularity among the masses there increased.

The dominant Xiongnu chieftain in northern China, Liu Cong, died in the year 318, and his family was overthrown by one of his former lieutenants,  Shi Liu Shi – who was illiterate but enjoyed having Chinese classics explained to him. Shi Liu Shi was succeeded by a nephew, Shi Hu, called Shi the Tiger, who ruled from 334 to 349. Shi Hu was unrestrained by scruples and delighted in what he could acquire. He drafted 260,000 farmers to build a palace for himself, and he is reported to have had a harem of around 50,000 women. According to legend he served beautiful women for cannibalistic dinners. His son tried to assassinate him, and he had his son executed. Then, like some others who filled themselves with licentiousness, Shi Hu had a religious conversion: a Buddhist saint is said to have reformed him. But Shi Hu was remembered with revulsion. When he died, one of his generals ordered all gates of the royal city closed, and he had all those related to Shi Hu slaughtered.

After Shi Hu came Xiongnu rulers such as Fu Jian, a pious Buddhist and humane administrator, who ruled the entire north from 357 to 385. The good works of Fu Jian were undone as parts of the north were overrun by other tribes. In the first hundred years of non-Chinese rule in northern China, five tribes established sixteen different kingdoms, with conquering chieftains killing and burning, sometimes for the fun of it. Chieftains established their own feudal estates, and whole tribes of non-Chinese were installed in areas that had been depopulated.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.