Biography (COB): Sun Jian (Wentai)

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Sun Jian (Wentai)Sun Jian (Wentai)
孫堅 (文台)

Comprehensive Officer Biography
Translated & Authored by

Place of Birth: Fuchun County, Wu Prefecture (Presently Fuyang, Zhejiang Province)
Lifespan: AD 155 – 192 (37 years)
Titles: Grand Administrator of Chang Sha, Marquis of Wucheng, Martially Glorious Emperor
Family: Lady Wu (wife), Sun Ce, Sun Quan, Sun Yi, Sun Kuang, Sun Lang (sons), Sun Shang Xiang (daughter), Two daughters (one married to Pan Mi, another married to Hong Zi) Sun Qiang (twin brother) Sun Jing (brother), Younger Sister (married to Xu Zhen) Sun Deng, Sun Lü, Sun He, Sun Ba, Sun Fen, Sun Xiu, Sun Liang (grand-sons), Sun Hao (great-grandson) Sun Ben, Sun Fu, Sun Hao, Sun Yu, Sun Jiao, Sun Huan, Sun Qian (nephews), Da Qiao, Lady Wang of Langya, Lady Wang of Nanyang, Lady Xu, Lady Xie, Lady Pan, Lady Bu, Lady Yuan (daughters-in-law) Yuan Shu (relative-in-law)

Sun Jian came from a poor family in the south and was presumably the son of a merchant (1). When his mother was pregnant, she dreamed that her intestines came out of her and wound up at the Chang Gate of Wu. She was frightened because she did not know whether it was a good sign or not. When Jian was born, he was a boy of no ordinary appearance; he was generous, intelligent and fond of unusual behavior (2).

When Sun Jian was a young man, he was appointed as junior civil officer in the county administration (3). When Sun Jian was seventeen, he accompanied his father on a trip to Qiantang, where a local pirate Hu Yu had taken control of the waterway. Sun Jian grabbed his sword and climbed up the bank towards the pirates. When he came in sight of the pirates, Wentai pretended to give orders to troops for deployment. This scared the pirates and they scattered, Sun Jian pursued and cut off one man’s head as evidence of his victory. Around this time (AD 171), a rebellion broke out in Kuai Ji lead by Xu Chang; a man who was said to have supernatural powers. Sun Jian raised troops in Wu county and was appointed as Major. During the battles, Sun Jian attracted the attention of the Imperial Protector of Yang, Zhang Min, who recommended Sun Jian to the court. Wentai was then appointed Assistant of Yandu County in Guangling Province (presently Yancheng in Jiangsu Province).

At this point in his life, Sun Jian was nineteen years old and married to the Lady Wu. The Lady’s family was originally from Wu County but migrated to Qiantang. Wentai was captivated by the Lady’s beauty and character and asked to marry her. The Wu family was reluctant, but Lady Wu was able to smooth things over and convinced them that it was her risk to take (4).

Sun Jian continued to serve as Assistant in three different counties, first in Yandu, then at Xuyi and later at Xiapi. Sun Jian remained in Xu Province to serve as Imperial officer. Wherever Sun Jian went, he gained a good reputation and the people loved him. Many of his old friends and young adventurers came to visit him, and Wentai treated them as family (5).

Ten years later (AD 184), Zhang Jiao of Julu county began a large scale uprising against the Imperial Han Court, known as the Yellow Turban rebellion. Among the people sent out to fight the rebellion was Zhu Jun, a man from Kuai Ji. Zhu Jun recommended Sun Jian’s appointment as Associate Major. Sun Jian once again raised troops in his region and marched out to join Zhu Jun’s army with a thousand soldiers under his command. Sun Jian followed Zhu Jun in all his battles and it was said that wherever he went, Wentai was always successful in his battles (6). Together with Zhu Jun, Sun Jian defeated the Yellow Turbans at Wan castle; which was the rebels’ last stronghold north of the Yangtze. At the end of the year, Sun Jian was memorialized several times to the crown as promoted to major With Separate Command.

Through the recommendation of Zhu Jun, Sun Jian then served Huangfu Song and later Zhang Wen as assistant (7). Though the Yellow Turbans had been defeated, a new uprising occurred in Liang Province, where Qiang tribes’ people and non-Chinese auxiliary forces rebelled against the crown and headed towards the ancient capital of Chang An. Together with Dong Zhuo; Sun Jian fought a hard battle against the northerners but were eventually very successfull (8). Upon his return to the capital, Wentai was promoted to Gentleman Consultant.

In the year AD 187, Sun Jian was sent south to serve as Grand Administrator of Chang Sha. Though prosperous, the region of Chang Sha was plagued by rebels and caitiffs. Sun Jian took command of the Prefecture, with his base in Linxiang, and successfully eradicated the rebels Ou Xing, Zhou Chao, Guo Shi and Guan Gu. Though Sun Jian was responsible for the military safety of Chang Sha, he had no business in defeating rebels in other prefectures. Wentai did not care much for these formalities and ensured the safety of all surrounding prefectures. The court approved of his attitude and granted him the title of Marquis of Wucheng (9).

Sun Jian remained as administrator for two more years and his success against the rebels justifies his position. Wentai was a valued supporter of the court and when civil war tore up the country in AD 189, he prepared an army to aid the Emperor in the north.

Along his way to the north, Sun Jian killed Wang Rui the Inspector of Jing, and Zhang Zi the Grand Administrator of Nanyang (10). Sun Jian joined Yuan Shu’s forces in Luyang and was appointed as Gentleman of the Household and recommended as Acting General Who Smashes the Caitiffs and Inspector of Yu Province. Sun Jian relinquished his title as Grand Administrator and accepted the authority of Yuan Shu. Sun Jian volunteered to take the vanguard in the attack against Dong Zhuo as Yuan Shu’s Chief Lieutenant.

Sun Jian’s success was enormous and even though he got no real support from the other lords, he was able to drive back Dong Zhuo’s attacks (11). But when Sun Jian wanted to advance further on Luo Yang, Yuan Shu cut off supplies when one of his officers hinted that Wentai might rebel if he takes the Capital. Sun Jian rushed back to Yuan Shu’s base at Luyang to reassure him. Dong Zhuo became desperate and sent men to bribe Sun Jian with promises of promotion. Sun Jian wanted nothing to do with Dong Zhuo and said, “Dong Zhuo has turned against the heavens and defies all law. He has destroyed the Imperial House and overturned its power. I shall not be able to rest until I have killed you and all your families, as a sign to the world. How can I make peace and alliance with you?”

Sun Jian pressed his advance and fought Dong Zhuo personally at Dagu Pass among the graves of the former Han Emperors. Dong Zhuo’s army was beaten and retreated to Mianchi. After one final skirmish with Lü Bu, Sun Jian’s forces were able to march into the capital (12). Among the ruins of the city, Sun Jian found the Imperial Jade Seal, the token of Han Legitimacy and a national heirloom. Abandoning the desolate capital site, Sun Jian went back to Yuan Shu in Luyang (13).

Sun Jian continued to fight under Yuan Shu and was sent to attack Zhou Yu in Yangcheng together with Gongsun Yue (14). Relations between Yuan Shu and Yuan Shao broke down and Shao made a strategic alliance with Liu Biao in the south. To deal with this new threat, Yuan Shu again appointed his most successful commander to lead the attack.

Sun Jian routed Huang Zu in Xiang Yang and sent his forces back over the Han River. However, Sun Jian was the victim of a surprise attack when leading a small contingent into the wilderness and was killed in battle (15).

Wentai’s body was taken in possession by the enemy, but was brought back to Sun Jian’s relatives by Huan Ji; a follower of Sun Jian during the latter’s time in Chang Sha. Sun Ben and Sun Jing gathered Sun Jian’s forces and went back to Yuan Shu. Sun Jian was buried at Qua in Danyang Commandery; the grave was called “Gaoling” or “The High Mound”.

Sun Jian, a brilliant military strategist and leader of his successful family, earned the respect of many by his continued excellence in the field of battle. His second son Quan eventually became an Emperor in AD 229, and Jian was memorialized as Martially Great Emperor.

(1) According to Sun Jian’s biography in SGZ, Sun Jian’s family was related to Sun Wu, the author of “The Art of War”. There is no good record of Sun Jian’s father in any of the historical scriptures, though an amusing anecdote about his farther is found in the 5th century composition Yi Yuan. <return>

(2) Quoting Rafe de Crespigny’s translation of SGZ Wu. When Sun Jian’s wife was pregnant of his sons she had similar dreams. From Shoushen Ji: She told Jian, “When I was pregnant with Ce, I dreamt of the Moon going into me. Now I dream again that the Sun goes into me. Why is that?” Jian said, “The Sun and the Moon are the essences of Yin and Yang, and signs of supreme honour. My descendents will surely flourish!” (From Lady Wu’s SGZ biography, translated by Lady Sun) <return>

(3) From Generals of the South, De Crespigny: Sun Jian’s family could not have been of the lowest class if he gained such a position at his age. His family had enough influence to get Sun Jian this position. <return>

(4) From Lady Wu’s SGZ biography, translated by Lady Sun. <return>

(5) SGZ Wu, quoting Jiangbiao Zhuan (江表傳). <return>

(6) A note to Sun Jian’s biography in SGZ by Pei Songzhi mentions that at one time, Sun Jian was shot by an arrow and his in the bushes while his men scattered. His horse went back to the camp and pawed at the ground impatiently. Sun Jian’s officers eventually came to his rescue. <return>

(7) Huangfu Song was already of considerable age during the rebellion and was replaced as Commander of the Imperial Forces in the East by Zhang Wen, the current Minister of Works at that time. <return>

(8) Dong Zhuo was Zhang Wen’s most successful military commander at that time, and his strategy to deal with the rebels was very much like the one Sun Jian presented in HHS. <return>

(9) Regarding his policy Sun Jian said in SGZ (Quoting Wu Li): “I have none of the civil graces. Warfare if my work. If I cross the border to attack some rebels, that is simply giving help to a neighbor. Even if I am committing a crime, why should I feel ashamed?” <return>

(10) Since the sources that tell the story of these incidents contradict each other I cannot give a full and clear explanation without showing bias for either side. <return>

(11) At Yangren, Dong Zhuo sent the veteran commander Hu Zhen together with Lü Bu and five thousand cavalry men to oppose Sun Jian. However, Wentai routed their forces without much trouble. <return>

(12) It was an empty victory for Sun Jian as Dong Zhuo had pillaged and burned the entire city of Luo Yang. According to SGZ Wu quoting Jiangbiao Zhuan, Sun Jian wept at the sight of the destroyed capital. <return>

(13) The stories relating to the Imperial Seal are exaggerated and difficult to judge when it comes to truthfulness. One story suggests that Yuan Shu kept the Lady Wu captive and demanded the Imperial Seal to be given to him. Logically speaking, anything that Sun Jian would find as war spoils were to be given to his Commander, in this case Yuan Shu. <return>

(14) The Zhou Yu mentioned here was a man from Kuai Ji who raised troops from Cao Cao and later joined Yuan Shao in the north. When Sun Jian was in Luo Yang, Zhou Yu was sent out to capture the city under Yuan Shao’s authority. <return>

(15) The sources that cover the death of Sun Jian suggest that he was either killed by an arrow or by a rock slide. Which is more truthful is unknown, but we can be sure that he was killed during a night raid. <return>

Copyright © 2002 – 2003
A Kongming’s Archives Exclusive Production
Major Sources: Zhongguo Lishizhu – Professor T.Chen (1965 Peking)
annotations from Wu Jianxiang dachen nianbiao and Wu Li
Generals of the South – Rafe de Crespigny