Episode 37 Companion: The Center Cannot Hold

We pick back up our narrative thread with Emperor Huan of Han (漢桓帝, Hàn Húan Dì) “The Diligent”

née: Liu Zhi

Born: 132 CE

Death: 168 CE (Age: 36)

Reign: 146-168 (22 years; age at ascension: 13)

Huan managed to defeat his power-mad uncle and remain in power with the help of five eunuchs, and his gratitude ushered in the era of eunuch-marquis and, ultimately, the downfall of his dynasty.

Emperor Huan of Han



Emperor Ling of Han was Huan’s successor, though not his son.  Since Huan did not have a suitable heir, his distant cousin was selected by his wife, the Empress Dowager Dou.

née: Liu Hong, Marquis of Jieduting

Born: 156 CE

Death: 189 CE (Age: 32-33)

Reign: 168-189 (21 years; age 12-13 at time of ascension)

He took all of Huan’s bad ideas and turned them up to 11….



The Yellow Turban Rebellion

(184-205 CE)

Beginning as anew sect of Daoism called 太平道 (taiping dao), meaning The Way of Great/Eternal Peace, the sect has led by the trio of brothers, Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao, and Zhang Liang.  Zhang Jue, the eldest brother would come to the fore of the movement as its’ “Great Teacher”, urging his followers to spread his message.


Zhang Jue supposed receives his books of divine knowledge from an immortal saint.

His thoroughly apocalyptic message would find a wide audience in the tumultuous and corrupt late Eastern Han society, and spread far and wide, all anticipating the Time of the Yellow Sky




In 184, ahead of schedule, the Yellow Turban Rebellion was launched against imperial authorityYellow Turban Rebellion


It spread across huge areas of northern and central Han China, requiring enormous imperial efforts to contain and counteract


in yellow, regions controlled or contested by the Yellow Turbans at its greatest extent.

Leading the charge against the rebels was the Imperial officers Cao Cao (曹操) a brilliant commander who would be instrumental in grinding down the religious sect’s rebellion and restoring the Han Dynasty’s hegemony.  He will be the father of Cao Pei, the eventuaFirst Emperor of Wei, and posthumously honored as Emperor Wu of Wei.

(155-220; age: 65)




With Emperor Ling’s death in 189, his two sons Liu Xie and Liu Bian existed in the eye of swirling conspiracies over which would succeed their father.  It would wind up being the younger brother, Liu Bian would would become…

Emperor Shao, The “Little Emperor”


aka the Prince/King of Hongnong

But he would last less than a year, poison by his savior-turned-murderer, the power-hungry General Dong Zhuo


seen below hurling a spear at his adopted son and bodyguard Lü Bu, in the middle of a temper tantrum…



“dodge, duck, dip, dive, and…dodge!”
“Worst. Game. Ever. Dad.”


Lü Bu – Dong Zhou’s top soldier… adoptive son… spear target… and betrayer…


He would be the one to bring the mad warlord’s reign to an end in 192…


“dude… teamkiller… not cool, man.”


5 thoughts on “Episode 37 Companion: The Center Cannot Hold

  1. You could use a little more imagination than sticking to the traditional narrative. Try putting youself in Huan & Ling’s shoe and it’s easy to see why they trusted the eunuchs. There were enough blames to distribute all around for the collapse of Eastern Han, including the inherent systemic weakness.

    1. Interesting. I’ve tried to be as understanding to Huan and Ling’s particular positions as possible… they were that being said, though, trying to get “inside the head” of someone 1800 years old is a difficult exercise even with their own writings… much less when the histories are almost uniformly written after the collapse of the Dynasty, by those with a strong imperative to justify its collapse, as with Chinese annals.

      As for why they trusted the eunuchs, yes it’s easy to see why they might have trusted them: Huan owed them his position and life. Ling, by all accounts, was far too preoccupied with liquor and women to do anything as dull as govern, and clearly found it much easier to simply let the Ten Attendants do their thing… their thing being “run roughshod over the populace.” And no matter how much one wishes to sympathize their positions, selling government offices – and extending lines of credit to do so – was begging for trouble, especially considering the rough patch the Han Emperors had been going through for the previous .

      I agree there’s plenty of blame to go around… the eunuch-marquis’, the Empresses’ clans constant bloodsport for power, the Yellow River just not playing nice and being, well, the Yellow RIver… but ultimately when someone heads an absolute theocratic monarchy, the buck stops there.

      1. For much of Eastern Han, power rested in the hand of the in-law’s family. Deng, and then Liang installed successive young and weak emperors with the intention to control them. The in-laws come from gentry stocks, and for the most parts, they were supported by their own class (as clients). This is not to say that all the gentry supported the entrenchment of power of the in-laws, or all the in-laws abused power, for that matter, but they formed a power-block and controlled access to the emperor so tightly that for the emperors that attempted to wrest power back from the in-laws, they had no one but the eunuchs to rely on.

        Now, traditionally, the eunuchs have had terrible rep of abusing power and tolerating their relatives abusing power at the local level. Given the long history of despotism of China, there’s no reason to doubt any of that. The thing is abuse of power is a by product of despotism. What made what the eunuchs did appearing so much worse than “the norm” because a. history was recorded by the gentry class, and b. the gentry class were offended by what they saw as encroachment into what they thought were exclusively theirs (officialdom and its privileges).

        After all, we’re talking about Eastern Han, whence the central government wasn’t that strong and local gentry by and large had the final say on local matters. They held to right to nominate people to be appointed high officials by the court (xiaolian, mouzai, et al). So one can also see why the ascension of eunuchs caused so much hatred and resentments.

        As for Ling’s weakness for woman and wine was one of the causes for the fall of Han, I’ve never bought into that “last bad emperor” Confucianism mumbling jumbling cliche. There were just so much headache beyond his (and arguably anyone’s) ability to rectify and he did what most people would: linger on and kick the can down the road.

      2. Well put! I agree, the emperors – especially since they tended to skew so young and die so early – very often found themselves between a rock and a hard place between their moms’ families and the other other power avenue they might turn to, their regional lords. And the *supposedly* trustworthy ex-criminals-you-punitively-castrated…. how did they not see betrayal coming…again…and again… and again…

        Absolute power corrupts absolutely… yes. Feudal China really is a great example of that truism in action. And I agree, by the time Ling took power any resistance to the collapse would’ve been all-but spitting into the wind… but it still is noteworthy, I think, that he – like Nero – fiddled while Han burned, figuratively at least.

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