Episode 49: Barbarians at the Gates

Following the bloody struggle between the eight princes, the Jin Dynasty lies in tatters. Into the void will step five non-Chinese tribes, initially led by the ancient enemy of China, the Xiongnu.

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2 thoughts on “Episode 49: Barbarians at the Gates

  1. Gee, the disorders of Wei and Jin, a period every middle school history teacher tries to gloss over. Safe to say that a lot more than half of college graduates have little idea what went on in this period. In fact, I believe that even dynasty and kingdom names in this period have never been required for at least half of contenders of the Chinese college admission exams. (For others who do not know, China’s high school students are forced to enter one of two distinct tracks, one heading into humanities, one into science and engineering. The two are considered absolutely diverging.) For me, my terribly cloudy impressions about this period all came from usually vague references in literature and philosophical commentary. Even looking at the dynasty chronicles commonly included in dictionaries, it isn’t all clear that “Wei, Jin, and the Sixteen Kingdoms” are not all that linear. Thanks for straightening story lines and time lines. That the line of Han Chinese is often drawn on cultural differences more than blood is also a shock to me, because in Chinese mind, “Han” (when not used as the dynasty’s name) is a strict ethnic concept, not a reference to nation state or citizenship like Roman and Romans.

    As the subject of “Hu-Han heqin” came up again in this episode, I’d like to verify one common notion. It is widely believed among Chinese that “princesses” sent to Xiongnu (and other barbarian tribes) were not royal by blood, but were court ladies, often royal concubine candidates. The most famous of whom was Wang Zhaojun. As folklore had it, a corrupt court painter painted her ugly for the emperor’s selection of “princess” offering because Zhaojun was too proud to bribe him. During the exit interview, the emperor discovered that she was the most beautiful of all court ladies (and desired to keep her for himself). But it was too late because her name had been announced to the ambassador. Hundreds, if not thousands of literature work must have accumulated in the following 2000 years, describing this as a romance. (Zhaojun, of course, is believed to have a crush on the Son of the Heaven. Until modern feminism creeped in, that is.) Is it true that those princesses were, if not wannabe concubines, at least object of desire of Han emperors?

    1. I certainly can’t say I’m surprised that most try to gloss it over… it is a confusing tangle, to be sure, and really took a fair bit of effort to work out who did the what where and when 😉 Suffice it to say, I’m glad that the eight princes are in my rearview mirror! I’ll take 16 kingdoms over that mess anytime!

      Ethnicity is always a… touchy(?)… subject, because it is so central to the individual and cultural identities of most of us. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the Han Chinese identity is any more (or less) a political/social construct than any other… simply that, as you say it’s often presented as far more blood-related than it really historically seems to be. It’s not super surprising, when looked at in a certain light. Chinese has pretty much always been about integrating and “sinicizing” its neighbors, be they Wu, Xiongnu, Vietnamese, or Joseon. Certainly the “People of the Yellow River Valley” didn’t single-handedly displace all those other peoples through colonization… they just, over a period of time turned “them” into “us.”

      As for the Heqin system, you bring up interesting points… and I have to admit, I’m really not sure how “princess-y” the supposed princesses really were. I remember reading that they tended to be the daughters of imperial princes… but they could well have been concubines. But for their purposes, I supposed what mattered to the Xiongnu Liu Clan was that, in their mind, they *were* descended from the legitimate imperial clan. One might again ascribe the argument to being one based more on the “idea” of blood ties than actual genetics, as we understand that 🙂

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