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In Defense of Zhong

Yuan Shu’s name has become synonymous with arrogance, and with good reason. In 197 he arbitrarily declared himself the first emperor of the newly-created Zhong Dynasty. This was certainly  the epitome of his foolishness and is often regarded as one of the single worst decisions made by any leader of the age. The course of historical events provides more than sufficient evidence to support this perspective. It gave Yuan Shu’s faltering allies, ambitious subordinates, and demoralized soldiers ample justification to turn against him. In one stroke, Yuan Shu’s arrogance stripped him of all true power, relegating him to an ineffectual petty tyrant for the brief remainder of his life. With the perspective of hindsight, it’s easy to see Yuan Shu’s decision for the colossal blunder that it was.

But without that knowledge of history, do Yuan Shu’s actions really seem so unreasonable?  Let’s look at Yuan Shu’s situation from a different perspective and, perhaps, reevaluate our opinions.

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The mere fact that Yuan Shu went so far as to declare himself an emperor is often treated with ridicule and incredulity. It shouldn’t be. A number of different men attempted to establish themselves as false emperors during Yuan Shu’s lifetime, even before Han’s implosion in 189.

In the final months of 172, there was a rebellion led by a man calling himself Xu Chang. Based in Juzhang in Kuaiji, Xu Chang declared himself Emperor of Yangming. Yang’s provincial inspector Zang Min and Administrator of Danyang Chen Yin led a large army in campaign against him. Xu Chang was finally defeated and killed late in 174, two full years after naming himself emperor. (The young Sun Jian fought against Xu Chang’s rebellion, and his distinguished service sparked his formal career.)

Around autumn of 187, another false emperor arose. Zhang Chun and his countryman Zhang Ju, both of Yuyang, revolted against Han. They joined forces with the Wuhuan chieftain Qiuliju and commenced raids all across the north, killing a number of significant officials. Zhang Ju named himself emperor, with his base at Feiru. The frontier general Gongsun Zan was tasked with quelling this rebellion (with assistance from Liu Bei), but although he had some initial success he was ultimately unsuccessful. The matter was only resolved in 189, when the new Inspector of You Liu Yu persuaded Qiuliju to turn on the false emperor and his general.

In 188, the Inspector of Ji Wang Fen engaged in a conspiracy to replace Emperor Ling. He intended to kidnap Emperor Ling, kill the palace eunuchs, and place the emperor’s distant relative, an unnamed Marquis of Hefei, on the throne. This plot never came to fruition, and when Wang Fen’s plans were discovered, he killed himself.

September of 189 saw a successful effort to replace the emperor. After Emperor Ling died, factions within the court vied for power. He Jin supported Emperor Ling’s eldest son, Liu Bian, while his rivals attempted to install Emperor Ling’s younger son Liu Xie. After Dong Zhuo took over the court, he deposed Liu Bian in favor of Liu Xie and executed the former emperor soon afterwards.

In 191, Yuan Shu’s colleagues in the eastern coalition attempted to establish Liu Yu as emperor in opposition to Liu Xie. Yuan Shu himself opposed this plan, though his objections were disregarded. For better or worse, Liu Yu himself rejected the proposal, so nothing came of it.

193 saw one more false emperor. Que Xuan of Xiapi led a a bandit force in western Xu province, raiding Yan with Tao Qian’s blessings. In 193, he named himself an emperor. This prompted Tao Qian to break with Que Xuan and kill him.

In addition to these formal false emperors, some of Yuan Shu’s colleagues suggested imperial ambitions of their own. Both Liu Yan and Liu Biao - warlords of Yi and Jing - were criticized for copying certain elements of the imperial regalia for their own use. While they never sent so far as to claim thrones of their own, their actions suggested that it was not outside the realm of their ambitions. And this is to say nothing of the various rebels and warlords who named themselves kings and claimed other imperial prerogatives.

Yuan Shu’s decision to make himself an emperor is not unique. Attempts to set up a rival dynasty had been made repeatedly during Yuan Shu’s lifetime, and with increasing frequency as Han crumbled. What makes Yuan Shao’s case special is not that he acted on such ambitions - it was that of all these would-be dynastic founders, he alone had some ability to enforce his claim. Xu Chang and Zhang Ju both held influence over fringes of the empire, far away from any real centers of power. They presented no significant challenge to Han’s authority. Yuan Shao, commanding a seasoned army and holding territory within striking distance of the capital, had a very real chance of overthrowing the Han emperor.

Yuan Shu’s ascension to his own throne also makes more sense when viewed within the context of the complex network of shifting alliances that dominated the politics of the land. From 189-191, central China was dominated by warfare between two factions: the Han forces under Dong Zhuo and the coalition against him led by Yuan Shao. This situation was dramatically changed by the end of 191. Dong Zhuo had been driven into Chang’an through the efforts of Yuan Shu’s general Sun Jian. This removed Dong Zhuo as an immediate threat and greatly enhanced Yuan Shu’s prestige. Without the pressure of Dong Zhuo keeping the coalition together, Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu went to war.

Yuan Shao controlled Ji province, and the officials of Yan (eventually ruled by Cao Cao) and Qing acted as his subordinates, acknowledging him as their superior. He was also allied on more or less equal terms with Liu Biao in Jing. To combat this threat, Yuan Shu aligned himself with Gongsun Zan in You and Tao Qian in Xu. From 191-196, the two hegemonies competed for power in the heartland of the fragmented empire. During the early fighting, Yuan Shu’s faction gained the upper hand, but this advantage did not last.

By 196, the tide had turned against Yuan Shu’s hegemony. Gongsun Zan was driven out of You and forced into a defensive stance at Yi in Hejian. Tao Qian was dead and his successor Liu Bei had no ties or loyalty to Yuan Shu. Yuan Shao’s personal control stretched across all the north, encompassing You, Bing, Ji, and Qing. Cao Cao controlled Yan, as well as portions of Sili and Yu. Liu Biao was firmly entrenched in Jing. Yuan Shu had recently enjoyed an expansion into southern Yang province, via his general Sun Ce, but he was very much on the defensive. Midway through 196, Cao Cao came into possession of the Han emperor, which greatly enhanced his cause. He named Yuan Shao Grand General and formalized his control over the northern provinces, while Cao Cao himself acted with the full authority of the emperor.

In the face of this overwhelming threat, Yuan Shu’s attempt to establish himself as an emperor is, once again, not so strange. Yuan Shu was bereft of allies and driven into a corner. He needed some way to turn the tide of the war and a way to push back against the authority that possession of the Han emperor gave Cao Cao. Trying to make himself an emperor in his own right was certainly a desperate move, but Yuan Shu’s situation was a desperate one.

Yuan Shu’s situation was not so different from those of Liu Bei and Sun Quan two decades later. When Cao Pi dethroned Liu Xie and made himself Emperor of Wei, both men were obliged to take imperial titles for themselves in order to keep pace. When Cao Cao unexpectedly gained the benefit of imperial authority, Yuan Shu needed to respond in kind,  just as the coalition attempted to do with Liu Yu during the conflict with Dong Zhuo. Lacking a suitable puppet, taking the title for himself was perhaps the only option.

The principal reason Yuan Shu’s scheme seems so laughable to a modern observer is how quickly and disastrously it ended. Naming himself Emperor of Zhong provided Yuan Shu’s allies and subordinates a chance to forsake him on the grounds of Han loyalty, and they did so in droves. This maneuver cost Yuan Shu the bulk of his territory and he was never able to regain what he once had. Although such mass desertions now seem inevitable, perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that Yuan Shu so badly misjudged his own strength and the loyalty of his men.

At the time of his ascension, Yuan Shu’s military ambitions were focused on Xu and Yang provinces. While he had some ultimate aims to reclaim the portions of Yu lost to Cao Cao, his immediate objectives were expansion north and south. In both of these theatres, an expectation of success was not unreasonable.

Until 195, Xu province was in the hands of Yuan Shu’s ally Tao Qian. Although Tao Qian left control of the province Liu Bei, Liu Bei’s own comments on the matter show that there was a strong current of support in Yuan Shu’s favor. Within Xu, the sentiment that Yuan Shu should be master of the province was well established. Not long after Liu Bei succeeded Tao Qian, Yuan Shu named himself Lord of Xu and sent forces to claim the province. Understandably, Liu Bei refused to relinquish power, so conflict ensued.

During his war with Liu Bei, Yuan Shu gained the upper hand through subversion and subterfuge. Lü Bu and his vagabond army had recently come under Liu Bei’s patronage, so Yuan Shu persuaded Lü Bu to strike Liu Bei from behind while the bulk of his forces were engaged against Yuan Shu in southern Xu. Liu Bei lost control of the province and was forced to submit to Lü Bu. Yuan Shu expected that Lü Bu would kneel to him, but he misjudged the situation. Lü Bu refused to cede control to Yuan Shu. After a failed attempt to assassinate Lü Bu, Yuan Shu agreed to an alliance instead.

Yuan Shao’s idea that he could overcome Lü Bu through military force or shunt him into a subordinate position was not entirely the fantasies of arrogance. Lü Bu himself, though a valiant fighter, had a poor record as a commander. And the independence exercised by Xu’s commandery heads under his rule suggest that Lü Bu enjoyed only limited control beyond his base in Xiapi. Given that there was a friendly sentiment towards Yuan Shu among the officials of Xu province, it wasn’t unreasonable for Yuan Shu to believe he could exert control over Lü Bu, through force or negotiation. The two had a tumultuous relationship filled with shifting alliances and broken promises. However, Lü Bu was ultimately the only one of Yuan Shu’s allies to return to his side after he declared himself Emperor of Zhong. Yuan Shu’s idea that he could control Lü Bu and, by extension, Xu province, was no simple delusion.

The most critical factor in Zhong’s failure, though, was the loss of the Sun group. In 193, Yuan Shu sent Sun Ben to take control of Danyang and expand his sphere of control south of the Yangzi. They soon ran into opposition from Liu Yao, appointed as inspector by Li Jue’s regime in Chang’an. Sun Ben was nearly driven out of Danyang by the end of 194, and efforts to reestablish his position met with no success. In 195, the young Sun Ce took command of the family forces. He quickly defeated Liu Yao, driving him out of Danyang and into Yuzhang commandery. Over the next year, he expanded into Wu and Kuaiji, giving Yuan Shu a wide swath of territory in the south.

Yuan Shu began discussing his plans in 196, to which Sun Ce voiced his objections. When Yuan Shu named himself Emperor of Zhong in 197, Sun Ce broke off from him. Guarding the strategic crossings of the Yangzi, he cut himself off completely from Yuan Shu and welcomed deserters to his territory. As a result, Yuan Shu lost his best commanders, a significant portion of his military strength, and the geographical majority of his territory. In the face of these losses, Yuan Shu was sapped of all significant power. He was reduced to control of only the commanderies of Jiujiang, Lujiang, and portions of Runan.

The desertion of the Sun group is now viewed as an inevitability. Sun Ben’s personal motivation when he was dispatched to Danyang in 193 was to establish a foothold for the family outside of Yuan Shu’s direct control. Sun Ce furthered this ambition by his aggressive expansion in the far south. This desire was fueled in part by the slights Yuan Shu paid to Sun Ce. Twice he promised to make Sun Ce a commandery administrator - first of Jiujiang, then of Lujiang - but he went back on this promise both times. Insulted and overlooked by Yuan Shu and desirous of independence, it seems only natural that the Sun group would use Yuan Shu’s declaration as an opportunity to cut ties.

From Yuan Shu’s limited perspective, though, the situation must have looked very different. Yuan Shu had a long association with the Sun family. He was joined by Sun Jian in 190 and the Sun family fought in Yuan Shu’s service ever since. Yuan Shu treated Sun Ce like a member of his own family, even going so far as to wish his children were as capable as Sun Ce. Indeed, the friendship between their clans was such that when Yuan Shu died, his children fled to Sun Ce for protection. Yuan Shu’s son served with distinction under the Sun regime. His daughter became one of Sun Quan’s concubines and was even offered the chance to become Empress of Wu. Given this close affection, even after their split, Yuan Shu had reasonable grounds to suppose that the Sun family would remain loyal to him.

One must also take note regarding Yuan Shu’s mystical claims. When he named himself an emperor, Yuan Shu cited an old prophecy regarding the fall of Han in the stated belief that it applied to himself. It was, in fact, the same prophecy that motivated Xu Chang some 25 years earlier. Runan commandery was home to a large contingent of Yellow Turban remnants, chiefly under the leadership of one Liu Pi. Yuan Shu had a close association with these mystic-warriors. They fought on his behalf in several campaigns, and Yuan Shu may have had some genuine leanings towards their mystical ways. It should also be said that Yuan Shu came into possession of the famed Imperial Seal, passed from Qin to Han, and that he did so in an unlikely manner. His subordinate Sun Jian found it by accident among the ruins of Luoyang, quite against all odds.

If he was prone to superstition as the above evidence suggests, Yuan Shu may very well have viewed this as a sign that Heaven supported his ambitions. Of course, it is equally likely that Yuan Shu leaned on these elements as a pretext for his rule or that he believed whatever it suited him to believe at the time.

These arguments, of course, assume that Yuan Shu’s motives in declaring himself Emperor of Zhong were purely or primarily rational, his response to the shifting political and military landscape of his time. It should be noted that Yuan Shu’s obscene arrogance and extraordinary ambitions are a matter of record. His ego and desire for glory were certainly motivating factors, perhaps even the prime motivators of his actions. Even so, there were logical reasons to support these ambitions.

History, of course, presents its own counterargument. Yuan Shu badly misread the situation and made a fatal error in taking the throne. Far from strengthening his position, Yuan Shu’s actions dealt a killing blow to his prospects for domination. Such open defiance of Han custom gave his disgruntled subordinates ample justification to turn their backs on him and cast him definitively as a rebel and would-be usurper. Even those who wished to oppose Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, despite their control of the Han government, had no wish to be associated with the false dynasty of Zhong. Capable men fled in all directions and refused to have anything to do with his scheme. In one move, Yuan Shu lost all hope of future expansion. Under the weight of these losses and his own mismanagement, Yuan Shu’s small territory soon collapsed, and Yuan Shu along with it.

All things in context, Yuan Shu’s decision to make an emperor of himself doesn’t seem so unreasonable. Others men had done so in the preceding years and Yuan Shu had far more realistic hopes of actually supplanting the puppet Han emperor than any of his spiritual predecessors. From his limited perspective, Yuan Shu possessed a respectable army, with wide swaths of territory above and below the Yangzi and reasonable ambitions along all of his borders. And the fact that his chief rivals had recently come into possess of the Han emperor presented Yuan Shu with the pressing need to respond in kind. Such assumptions were always made with the pretext of mystical omens and portents, and Yuan Shu was able to cite several favorable to him. Certainly he misjudged the situation and made a critical blunder, but when one traces the path that led him to the decision, it no longer seems quite foolish. The Zhong dynasty was dead upon arrival and never had any real hope of success, but one can see how Yuan Shu was able to deceive himself.

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