Long United, Must Divide: The Fall of Han

Home | Forum | SimRTK | History | Games | Graphics | Writing | Products | Links | Site Map

Long United, Must Divide
Corruption, Rebellion and the fall of the Han Dynasty

Authored by Jiang Zhi (Moses Kong)

“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” (1) This quotation, taken from the classic literary work by Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, best summarizes the cycle of dynastical rise and fall in China. Although the final years of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period that proceeded it is often idealized in many Chinese dramatic and literary works, the reality of the period was much less romantic. The imperial court of Han was plagued with corruption. Much of the blame for the downfall of the dynasty in Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms was placed on the influence of the eunuchs but there were more factors that came into play. One such factor was the excessive powers held by certain families at court. Their influence was just as great as that of the eunuchs and played a strong role in diminishing the authority of the Son of Heaven—the Emperor. Also, a disgruntled peasantry suffering from natural disasters that befell the empire in 183 CE led to a large-scale uprising. Because of a weak central government, military leaders and local warlords became more powerful as a result of the rebellion. Thus, although the corruption of the eunuchs contributed to the decline of the Han Dynasty, the major reasons behind the dynasty’s collapse are the overwhelming influence held by powerful clans, the natural disasters that befell a disgruntled peasantry and the disintegration of central authority within the empire.

1: Luo Guanzhong, trans. Moss Roberts, Romance of the Three Kingdoms Vol. 1, (Beijing: Beijing Foreign Press, 2001), p. 1.

The Conflict Within: Court Corruption in the Later Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty was the longest imperial dynasty, lasting which lasted for more than four hundred years. The story of the dynasty’s foundations began with a struggle between Liu Bang (劉邦) and his rival Xiang Yu (項羽) after the collapse of the Qin Dynasty. Despite being a man of military prowess and from a noble family, Xiang Yu lost the conflict to a man of lower social status—Liu Bang. After the fall of the Qin Dynasty, a divided empire was reunited in 206 BCE (2) under the rule of the Han Dynasty.

2: Burton Watson, “The Founding of the Han Dynasty,” Records of the Grand Historian, (Hong Kong: Columbia University Press, 1961), xxvi.

While the Han Dynasty saw much technological and cultural advancement (3), it could not prevent its decay from within the court in much of the latter half of its reign. During this period, especially during the rule of Emperor Huan (桓帝) between 146 to 168 CE, there was an ongoing power struggle between the palace eunuchs and the court officials. While the court officials obtained their office by merit, the palace eunuchs gained their influence through their close relationship with the emperor. One of the most notable events in the rule of Emperor Huan was his persecution of civil and military officials while placing his trust on the palace eunuchs. This substantially weakened the central government and increased the corruption within the court. When Emperor Huan finally passed away in 168 CE and the new Emperor Ling (靈帝) ascended to the throne, the court officials hoped that they could save the Imperial court from certain catastrophe by removing the influence of the eunuchs. However, they were unsuccessful and the officials were arrested, executed or proscribed from office (4). Thereafter, the eunuchs became so influential that the emperor acknowledged that he looked up to them as he would parents (5). This contributed greatly to the events that followed.

3: Rhoads Murphey, East Asia: A New History 4th Edition, (New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2007), p. 68.
4: Rafe de Crespigny, “The Last Years of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1, (Canberra: Australia National University, 1996), xxix & xxx.
5: Sima Guang, trans. Rafe de Crespigny, “Chronicle of Later Han”, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling.

In the final years of the Han Dynasty, those who held the highest positions in the military were not necessarily men of merit but men with the correct bloodline. During the rule of Emperor Ling, two important families held the highest military posts of General-in-Chief (大將軍), General of Agile Cavalry (驃騎將軍) and General of Chariots and Cavalry (車騎將軍)—the Dong (董) and the He (何) (6). These two families were related to the Imperial family by marriage and, along with the eunuchs, played a central role in the eventual downfall of the Han Dynasty through jealousy and rivalry between the clans. After the death of Emperor Ling, there was a war of succession between Empress He (何后) and the Empress-Dowager Dong (董太后). Both wanted the descendants of the two respective families to be the next rulers of the Han Dynasty. Although Empress He claimed victory for a short while by placing Emperor Shao (少帝) on the throne, later events caused him to be deposed and his half-brother, Emperor Xian (獻帝) from the Dong clan, was placed on the throne.

6: Rafe de Crespigny, “An Outline of the Military Organisation of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1, (Canberra: Australia National University, 1996), xviii & xix.

Yellow Storm: Natural Disasters & Rebellion

According to the Chronicles of the Later Han (資治通鑒), the final years of the Han Dynasty were plagued with many natural disasters. The empire was especially beleaguered in the two years preceding a large-scale peasant uprising. For two summers in a row, drought was recorded. The autumn of 183 CE equally as difficult for the peasants as flooding of the Yellow River further added to their misery (7). In addition to the natural disasters, the peasantry was heavily taxed from unsuccessful ventures against foreign nomadic tribes. In 177 CE, an entire army was defeated and destroyed in a major military expedition against the Xianbi tribes of the north (8). With this added burden on the peasantry, the stage was set for a large-scale revolt in the volatile rural areas of China.

7: Sima Guang, “Chronicle of Later Han”, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Vol. 1, 171-174.
8: Rafe de Crespigny, “The Last Years of Later Han”, xxx.

Although there was continual unrest and minor uprisings in the last century of the Han Dynasty, there was none as significant and as devastating as the Yellow Turban Rebellion (黃巾之亂). It began with the spiritual leader Zhang Jiao (張角) establishing a secret religious sect named “Taiping Tao” (Doctrine of Justice). He rapidly rose in popularity with the peasantry by spreading his teachings all over northern China and through his spiritual healing of the sick. He claimed that the “Blue Heaven” (the Han government) was dead and a new era for the “Yellow Heaven” had begun. He called for an uprising to overthrow the Han court and to establish a peasant regime (9).

9: Bai Shouyi, An Outline History of China, (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2002), 144.

Rebellion erupted in the second month of 184 CE. Yellow Turban rebels all over China rose up in revolt of the dynasty while burning government offices and looting towns and villages. Immediately, He Jin (何進), brother to the empress, was made General-in-Chief and was charged with the task of defeating the rebels (10). Although initial operations against the rebels resulted in setbacks and defeat, the uprising was quelled and the major leaders killed within nine months. However, the Han military and the power of the state were severely weakened. Many properties were destroyed and the loss of life on both sides was immense (11). Over the course of the uprising, the wealth of the eunuchs accumulated as did their power and control over the state because of the absence of government officials (12).

10: Sima Guang, “Chronicle of Later Han”, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Vol. 1, 177.
11: Bai Shouyi, 145.
12: Sima Guang, “Chronicle of Later Han”, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Vol. 1, 179.

Because of the weakened Han military, the Yellow Turban Rebellion also caused the Han government to desperately recruit men to fight for their cause. However, charismatic leaders managed to form their own paramilitary groups and join the Han army to deal with the uprising. An example of this can be seen in the first chapter of Romance of the Three Kingdoms where the emperor issues a call for volunteer fighters against the rebels. The protagonist, Liu Bei (劉備), decides to recruit his own army instead of joining up with the government forces (13). Another example deals with a volunteer army recruited from Southern China to deal with the rebels. According to Sun Jian’s (孫監) biography in the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (三國志), the young military officer, Sun Jian, gathered recruits from his home district and joined up with the Han army to fight against the Yellow Turban rebels (14). While the central government decayed, these paramilitary groups grew in strength.

13: Luo Guanzhong, 6.
14: Rafe de Crespigny, General of the South, (Canberra: Australia National University, 1990), 93.

Heroes of State: Decentralization and the Rise of Warlords

Although the rulers Cao Cao (曹操), Sun Quan (孫權) and Liu Bei have near-legendary status in folklore and in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdom, their rise to prominence was greatly facilitated by the collapse of the central government after the Yellow Turban Rebellion. After the death of Emperor Ling in 189 CE and the ascension of Emperor Shao, General-in-Chief, He Jin, immediately took action to rid the dynasty of the eunuchs and by summoning a provincial governor, Dong Zhuo (董卓), to the capital to deal with them. Unfortunately, it was the eunuchs who struck first and assassinated He Jin before the plan could be put into motion. In retaliation, one of He Jin’s subordinates and future warlord, Yuan Shao (袁紹), broke into the palace with soldiers and killing more than two thousand eunuchs (15). During the chaos that ensued, Dong Zhuo managed to seize power of the capital, deposing Emperor Shao in the process and setting up Emperor Xian as his puppet. This military interference was not welcomed by the rest of the empire and in the winter of 190 CE, all of the provinces east of the capital rebelled against Dong Zhuo. Leading this opposition was Yuan Shao who rallied a collective group of local officials and their provincial armies against the capital (16). Despite their successes against Dong Zhuo that led to his assassination, bickering among these officials took hold of the fragile alliance between them, thereby dissolving it. With little guidance, the central government soon fell into disarray while China descended into a state of anarchy (17).

15: Sima Guang, trans. Rafe de Crespigny, “Chronicle of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1, (Canberra: Australia National University, 1996), 17.
16: Sima Guang, “Chronicle of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1, 36.
17: Rafe de Crespigny, “The Last Years of Later Han”, xxxi.

A contributing factor that led to this state of anarchy was the weakening of the capital and the growing power possessed by the provincial armies. After the Yellow Turbans Rebellion, a reform swept across the provinces whereby provincial “inspectors” were replaced by “governors”. Prior to the revolt, the role of inspectors was only to supervise those who ran the province and to raise armies in times of crisis. However, after the reform, governors were granted executive authority over the province (18). Therefore, the governors not only had power over the civil decisions of the province, but they also became the military leaders. The initial intention was to quickly raise armies and local militia in the provinces in case of further uprisings (19). However this had an adverse effect on the weakened central government for power had now been decentralized. As the incidents of 190 CE show, a collective group of governors were able to launch an uprising against the central government, then led by Dong Zhuo. It was this same group of governors that decided to use their military power against each other, thus beginning an age of warlords in the last decades of the Han Dynasty.

18: Rafe de Crespigny, “An Outline of the Military Organisation of Later Han”, xxxvi.
19: Rafe de Crespigny, “An Outline of the Military Organisation of Later Han”, xxxvi.

Balance of Power: The Three Kingdoms & Conclusion

Three warlord states emerged victorious from this age of anarchy, establishing their boundaries from their conquered lands. The wise Cao Cao, a government official under He Jin, rose to prominence during the warlord period. He defeated his rivals one after the other including Yuan Shao, despite being heavily outnumbered and outsupplied. Eventually, he was the only remaining ruler of the vast and populous northern and central plains (20). Liu Bei, a distant relative to the Imperial House of Han, vowed to uphold the Han Dynasty. He sought to establish a base to restore the dying empire and after many setbacks, he eventually occupied the mountainous and resourceful regions of Ba Shu (巴蜀, modern Szechuan province). Lastly, the descendants of Sun Jian—sons Sun Ce (孫策) and Sun Quan—spent much of the warlord period battling local warlords and the southern barbarian tribes. They managed to unite the territories south of the Yangtze River, thus becoming the third contending warring state (21).

20: Sima Guang, “Chronicle of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1, 271-292.
21: Rafe de Crespigny, General of the South, Chapters 3 & 5.

Following Cao Cao’s death, his son Cao Pi (曹丕) would usurp the throne from Emperor Xian in 220 CE and establish the Wei Dynasty (魏). Liu Bei, a loyalist to Han, followed by proclaiming himself Emperor of the Shu-Han Dynasty (蜀漢). While Sun Quan was the last to declare himself Emperor of the Wu Dynasty (吳), China would experience a period called the Three Kingdoms. For several decades to come, regardless of the many battles between them, the borders of these kingdoms would remain relatively static (22). Each of the kingdoms established their own customs and government systems. They became three autonomous dynasties that succeeded the four centuries of dominance by the Han Dynasty.

22: Rafe de Crespigny, “The Last Years of Later Han”, xl-xli.

Despite its previous glory, the Han Dynasty was plagued by corruption, resulting in its deterioration. Although the internal struggle between the eunuchs and the government officials played a large role in the fall of the empire, there were other crucial factors at work as well—powerful family clans, natural disaster and decentralization. The increasingly weakening government eventually plunged the empire into a state of anarchy that led to the period of the Three Kingdoms. However, this era too will end with the reunification of the empire under the Jin Dynasty. Thus, the cycle continues—the empire, long united is divided but long divided, must unite.


Bai Shouyi. An Outline History of China. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2002.
de Crespigny, Rafe. “An Outline of the Military Organisation of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1. Canberra: Australia National University, 1996.
de Crespigny, Rafe. General of the South. Canberra: Australia National University, 1990.
de Crespigny, Rafe. “The Last Years of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1. Canberra: Australia National University, 1996.
Luo Guanzhong, trans. Roberts, Moss. Romance of the Three Kingdoms Vol. 1. Beijing: Beijing Foreign Press, 2001.
Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History 4th Edition. New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2007.
Sima Guang, trans. de Crespigny, Rafe. “Chronicle of Later Han”, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Vol. 1. Canberra: Australian National University, 1989.
Sima Guang, trans. de Crespigny, Rafe. “Chronicle of Later Han”, To Establish Peace Vol. 1. Canberra: Australia National University, 1996.
Watson, Burton. “The Founding of the Han Dynasty,” Records of the Grand Historian. Hong Kong: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Copyright © 2006 Jiang Zhi (Moses Kong)