Encyclopedia: Liu Yuan

Liu Yuan (Yuanhai); Liu Yüan (Yüan-hai); 劉淵 (元海)

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Liu Yuan (Yuanhai) 劉淵 (元海)

Lived: AD 250–310

None Available

Served: Miscellaneous

Grandson of the Xiongnu chief Yufuluo. Founded the Han-Zhao dynasty.

Officer Details

Wade-Giles: Liu Yüan (Yüan-hai)
Simplified Chinese: 刘渊 (元海)
Pronunciation: Liu2 Yuan1 (Yuan2hai3)
Cantonese (Yale): Lau Yun (Yun-hoi)
Cantonese (Jyutpin): Lau Jyun (Jyun-hoi)

Birthplace: Xinxing
(Presently Xinzhou, Shanxi Province)

Rank and Titles

Prince of Han (AD 304; Self-proclaimed); Emperor of Han-Zhao (AD 308; Self-proclaimed)

Family and Relationships

Yufuluo (Grandfather); Liu Bao (Father); Huchuquan (Uncle)

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Historic (Confirmed)

Following the death of Sima Yan (also called Emperor Wu), the Jin dynasty plunged into chaos. Various princes vied with one another to achieve supremacy. The so-called War of the Eight Princes, a tumultuous Jin dynasty civil war, left North China in tatters.

Amidst this turmoil, several non-Chinese tribes sought to take advantage of the situation. One of the most powerful of these tribes was the Southern Xiongnu. During the Three Kingdoms period, Cao Cao defeated the Xiongnu and thereafter moved them to Bing province (see Yufuluo and Huchuquan for reference). Here, the Xiongnu grew in population and began to take up some Chinese habits. Their leader, Liu Yuan, received an education in Confucian and other Chinese classics (Graff 48). Liu Yuan claimed to be the son of Liu Bao and grandson of Yufuluo. The latter had been an earlier shanyu (chieftain) of the Southern Xiongnu (De Crespigny, 1020)

In AD 304, one of the participants in the ongoing War of the 8 Princes asked for the assistance of Liu Yuan and his followers. In response, Liu Yuan gathered a force of several thousand troops. Shortly afterward, however, he declared himself Prince of Han. He offered sacrifices to the spirits of the Emperors of the Han dynasty and performed other Han rituals. Liu Yuan based his self-declaration on the notion that the Han and Xiongnu royal families had earlier intermarried (hence the name “Liu”). From then on, Liu Yuan and his successors began a conquest of the North in opposition to Jin. Liu Yuan was able to establish a massive following (Graff 49). In AD 308, Liu Yuan declared himself Emperor of Han (Xiong 330).

Liu Yuan died shortly afterward, however, and before the Xiongnu had taken the Jin capital of Luoyang. A succession struggle emerged after his death that weakened the dynasty he created. The last ruler of his short-lived state changed the dynasty name from Han to Zhao and finished the conquest of the Western Jin dynasty by sacking Chang’an. Unfortunately, the Han-Zhao state fell apart as quickly as it had risen. One of the major generals of the Han-Zhao state, Shi Le, revolted and overthrew the last Han-Zhao ruler (Xiong 328).

The Jin dynasty that succeeded the Three Kingdoms had meanwhile moved to the Southeast of China, formerly the territory of Wu. In the North, the Jin dynasty had proven incapable of ruling. Rife with petty squabbling among the Sima family princes and unable to deal with the rising non-Chinese threat, Jin hegemony in the North completely fell apart. From the time of Liu Yuan’s conquests onward, thus, unstable barbarian states dominated Northern China. Liu Yuan stands apart from the Jin and other barbarian rulers, though, due to his ostensible goal of restoring the Han to power and legitimacy.


Xiong, Victor. The A to Z of Medieval China. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2009. Print.

Graff, David. Medieval Chinese Warfare 300–900. Abingdon: Routledge-Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. Print.

De Crespigny, Rafe. A Biographical Dictionary of Later-Han to the Three Kingdoms (AD 23–220. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Print.



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April 10, 2023