The collapse of the Qin Dynasty between 209 and 206 BCE was a time of remarkable social mobility. Governors, minor officials, and even bandits were able to seize the moment to achieve the ranks of marquise, king, and emperor. In the anti-Qin rebellion that turned into a rebel warlord free-for-all, power was up for grabs to whoever could take and keep it. A certain Liu Bang was the big winner of the upheaval, claiming for himself first the kingdom of Han (in 206 BCE), and then the imperial throne (in 202 BCE), announcing himself to be Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Han Dynasty in China. Yet, to the south of Emperor Gaozu was another leader born out of the fragmented Qin Empire—it was Zhao Tuo, the self-proclaimed emperor of Southern Yue.
When the rebellions that would prove fatal to the Qin Dynasty broke out in 209 BCE, Zhao Tuo was said to have been a relatively minor magistrate in a province called Nanhai, located in the vicinity of Guangdong, China. His power skyrocketed, however, when he fortuitously managed to become the military commander of Nanhai just as the anti-Qin rebellion was beginning to take off. At first, Zhao Tuo was said to have played both sides in the war. On the one hand, he rallied his troops to set up defenses against potential attacks by rebel warlords, yet he did this while also ridding the province of officials and commanders who were too close to the Qin Dynasty or any particular rebel faction. Through such methods, Zhao Tuo consolidated the local military around himself and formed a regime that sought out the interests not of the Qin government or the rebels, but of their own local region in Southern Yue.
While the Qin army and the rebels fought their war, Zhao Tuo focused on conquering two frontier provinces that were adjacent to Nanhai. By the time the Qin Empire finally fell and the rebel leaders were divvying up kingdoms amongst themselves in 206 BCE, Zhao Tuo had enough land and might to proclaim himself to be the King of Southern Yue. In the aftermath of the Qin Dynasty’s fall, Zhao Tuo apparently maintained his defensive and isolationist policy, going out of his way not to interact with the rebel kingdoms. This, however, worked out in his favor when two rival warlords, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, forced all of the other rebel kings to choose sides and fight another civil war. As Zhao Tuo had not been interacting with the various rebellion leaders of China, he was able to steer his own kingdom of Southern Yue on a stance of strict neutrality in the war between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. By the time Liu Bang emerged victorious in 202 BCE and proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozu, Zhao Tuo and his kingdom of Southern Yue had successfully maintained autonomy, whereas the kingdoms involved in the civil war, including both Gaozu’s enemies and allies, started to increasingly feel the weight of imperial authority pressing down on their freedom.
As Emperor Gaozu came to power after years of rebellion and civil war, his reign as emperor was mainly inward-focused, with his immediate goals being the consolidation of imperial power in the empire and the preservation of his fledgling imperial house. Such a mindset from the Chinese emperor was beneficial to Zhao Tuo in Southern Yue, as Gaozu was more likely to spend his resources suppressing dissent or rebellion in his own realm, rather than mobilizing troops to conquer new territory. To minimize the possibility of stoking the Han Empire’s ire, Zhao Tuo developed a state policy of calculated deference and flattery to keep the Chinese emperors both happy and unimposing.
As Zhao Tuo had been a former official of the Qin Dynasty in charge of Qin-conquered territory, many in Emperor Gaozu’s court believed that Zhao Tuo’s kingdom still belonged to the empire, even if the ruling dynasty had changed. Yet, because of Zhao Tuo’s neutrality during the civil war between the rebel factions, Emperor Gaozu did not hold a grudge against the king of Southern Yue and did not seek to punish him at that time. With Emperor Gaozu not pressing the issue and Zhao Tuo doing everything in his power to avoid the question, the Han Empire and the kingdom of Southern Yue coexisted without any formal deals or treaties until 196 BCE, when Emperor Gaozu finally sent a diplomat named Lu Jia to broach the subject of vassalage. Lu Jia arrived at his destination expecting to see a typical Chinese governor or nobleman, yet he found Zhao Tuo pointedly dressed in the regional garb of Southern Yue instead of the average clothing of imperial China. Zhao Tuo’s assimilation of his kingdom’s culture was one of several mind games he would play on the Han Empire and its diplomats.
While Lu Jia was visiting with Zhao Tuo, the king of Southern Yue agreed to accept a seal of kingship from Emperor Gaozu, which was a symbol of vassalage. Yet, after showing the Han envoy that the Kingdom of Southern Yue had a formidable army and a well-stocked treasury to fund said army, Zhao Tuo was able to turn the negotiations more into the direction of a non-aggression pact. In the end, Zhao Tuo apparently agreed to pretend to be a vassal of the Han Empire (while still retaining complete autonomy) as long as trade continued between their realms, with special importance placed on iron. Emperor Gaozu, for his part, was evidently fine with this agreement as long as his southern border was secure. This quasi-vassal status no doubt caused some complaints and irritation from the Han envoys sent to meet with King Zhao Tuo. Yet, according to Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Zhao Tuo could appease any grumbling Han stickler for court etiquette by saying, “I have lived among these barbarians for so long that I have lost all sense of manners and propriety” (Shi Ji 97).
By pretending to be a vassal, while really only agreeing to a non-aggression pact, Zhao Tuo maintained peace with the Han Empire for years. The harmony between the two states was threatened, however, when Emperor Gaozu died in 195 BCE. Gaozu’s son, Emperor Hui, officially assumed control of the empire, but Hui’s mother, the capable Empress Dowager Lü, was the real power behind the throne. Empress Dowager Lü was reportedly more open to the idea of sending Han troops to attack the empire’s neighbors than her late husband had been. In one incidence of this, she reportedly urged her generals to attack the Xiongnu nomads, after the Xiongnu leader, Maodun, had mailed her an embarrassing marriage proposition. The generals talked her out of the attack, but the debacle showed that she, personally, had no qualms against attacking neighbors.
Although Empress Dowager Lü had been dissuaded from attacking the Xiongnu, she would have more luck in persuading her ministers and generals to move against the long-reigning King Zhao Tuo of Southern Yue. In an attempt to weaken her neighbor to the south, Empress Dowager Lü halted the flow of iron and metal goods into Southern Yue. This blockade had a peculiar effect on the usually agreeable king. In a rare display, Zhao Tuo completely shed his finely-crafted facade of deference and ignorance, instead letting his darker, more ferocious side leak out into the open. In response to the halt on iron, Zhao Yue martialed his forces and invaded the southern portion of the Han Empire, capturing several towns and cities along the border. To crown his victories, Zhao Tuo proclaimed himself Emperor of Southern Yue, before withdrawing his troops back to more defensible lands in his domain.
Empress Dowager Lü reportedly sent an army under the command of general Zhou Zao to respond to the aggression from Southern Yue. The Han army, however, was shocked by the heat, humidity and disease that it encountered in the southern climate, and its progress fizzled. By the time that Empress Dowager Lü died in 180 BCE, the Han army had not fought a single battle against the forces of Zhao Tuo, nor had it ever invaded into the heartland of Southern Yue. Upon Empress Dowager Lü’s death, the unsuccessful Han army was recalled and the attack against Southern Yue was canceled.
Emperor Zhao Tuo of Southern Yue calmed down after the passing of Empress Dowager Lü. He slipped back into his facade of deference and ignorance as he waited for the new leader of the Han Empire to reach out to Southern Yue. Emperor Wen, a son of the late Gaozu, ascended to the throne after Empress Dowager Lü’s death in 180 BCE, and eventually sent a diplomat to meet with Zhao Tuo. The envoy, once again, was Lu Jia, who had previously traveled to Southern Yue in 196 BCE, during the reign of Emperor Gaozu. Lu Jia was pummeled once again by Zhao Tuo’s carefully aimed deflections and humble excuses. The self-proclaimed emperor of Southern Yue slathered the new leader of the Han Empire with praise, made the usual show of deference, and claimed that his unsavory actions during the reign of Empress Dowager Lü were due to old age. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian, Zhao Tuo even sent a letter to Emperor Wen, apologizing for the fact that “your aged subject, to gratify a whim, presumed in his delusion to call himself ‘emperor’” (Shi Ji 113).
Lu Jia reportedly returned to the court of Emperor Wen thinking that he had finally brought the long-independent ruler of Southern Yue into the feudal fold. Zhao Tuo had apparently promised the envoy that he would abandon his imperial ambitions and henceforth act as a proper feudal king in service of the Han Emperor. Yet, once again, the carefully negotiated terms of this agreement really only rose to the level of a non-aggression pact, allowing Zhao Tuo to run his realm as usual. As stated by Sima Qian, “he continued secretly to use the designations ‘emperor’ and ‘edict’ the same as before within his kingdom, and only referred to himself as ‘king’ and used the other terms appropriate to a feudal lord when he sent envoys to the rulers of China” (Shi Ji 113).
Although Zhao Tuo had claimed to have been an old, delusional man around 180 BCE, he must have been exaggerating—after all, he was incredibly healthy and would go on to live for over four more decades after Empress Dowager Lü’s death. He reportedly had little trouble coexisting with Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) and Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE). Zhao Tuo, still an autonomous monarch, also witnessed the ascendance of the famous Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). Yet, as the 130s BCE arrived, Zhao Tuo’s long and peculiar reign was coming to a close. Zhao Tuo, the self-proclaimed Emperor of Southern Yue, was said to have died in 137 BCE, after having reportedly ruled for an unbelievable reign of around seventy years.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Jade Burial suit of King/Emperor Zhao Mo of Southern Yue (d. 122 BCE), in front of Qin Terracotta Warriors, from Pit 1, both photographed by Gary Todd, [Public Domain] via worldhistorypics.com and Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.