In the 130s BCE, the kingdom of Minyue (approximately Fujian Province, China) ran afoul of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE). Although Emperor Wu was, himself, a prevalent conqueror, he did not appreciate that the kingdom of Minyue was independently launching attacks against its neighbors. In 138 BCE, the king of Minyue attacked the kingdom of Donghai, but before the war was concluded, Emperor Wu sent troops to break up the fight and enforce peace. After being thwarted in Donghai by the emperor, the king of Minyue scoured the political landscape for another victim to invade. In 135 BCE, Minyue prepared an attack against Southern Yue, a kingdom where the Han Empire had long been trying to make diplomatic inroads. As the kingdom of Minyue was about to threaten Han foreign policy toward Southern Yue, Emperor Wu intervened once again, sending troops to stop the invasion and to punish the king of Minyue.
Minyue was ruled by King Zou Ying at the time of this second intervention by the emperor’s forces. Zou Ying was said to have plotted rebellion at this point, sending his own forces to block the passes and roads into his kingdom. The prospect of war with Emperor Wu’s imperial army understandably frightened the officials of Minyue, and a conspiracy soon formed to assassinate the king in hopes of alleviating the emperor’s wrath. At the head of the cabal was an unlikely assassin—the king’s own brother, Zou Yushan.
After Zou Yushan had gained the confidence of the kingdom’s officials and the military, he murdered his brother, King Zou Ying, while the two traveled. He reportedly slew the king with a spear and sent his brother’s head to the Han army. When the assassination became known, Emperor Wu spared the kingdom and placed on the throne Zou Chao, a weak and malleable member of Minyue’s royal family. Zou Chao, despite his imperial backing, was not the real powerbroker in Minyue. After the killing of King Zou Ying, it was the assassin, Zou Yushan, who became the shadow ruler of the region.
Zou Yushan’s influence could not be kept a secret forever, and Emperor Wu eventually decided to bring the shadow ruler out of the darkness. Zou Yushan was proclaimed king of Eastern Yue, while Zou Chou was named king of Yao. Under the leadership of Zou Yushan, Minyue was able to coexist with Emperor Wu for years. The peace, however, would not last, and Zou Yushan would soon find himself in a similar situation to that of the brother he had assassinated.
The downfall of Zou Yushan came in 112 and 111 BCE, when Emperor Wu stepped up his diplomatic and military pressure against Southern Yue. King Zou Yushan was put in an awkward situation by the conflict, as the monarchy in Southern Yue was said to have been a distant branch of Minyue’s own Zou royal family. As such, Zou Yushan was conflicted about the campaign and ultimately withheld his support from Emperor Wu’s conquest of Southern Yue, which occurred in 111 BCE. This hesitancy and lack of support did not go unnoticed by the Han army, and the generals who had attacked Southern Yue now pressured the emperor to let them punish Zou Yushan in Eastern Yue. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Emperor Wu was not interested in a punitive campaign against Eastern Yue at that time, and did not give the generals a green-light to attack. Nevertheless, Zou Yushan heard of the army’s displeasure and the calls to attack his kingdom. The news made the king of Eastern Yue paranoid, and his paranoia eventually drove him to rebellion.
Following the same path of his brother before him, Zou Yushan declared a rebellion at the first sign of imperial military pressure, real or imagined. He sent his troops to block the roads and passes into his kingdom, and also appointed a general-in-chief to command the kingdom’s forces against a Han invasion. Emperor Wu indeed responded to the rebellion, and did so quickly in late 111 BCE, invading Eastern Yue on multiple fronts.
The war went poorly for Eastern Yue, and the general-in-chief of the kingdom was slain on the battlefield by Han forces. King Zou Yushan’s popularity in Eastern Yue fell as the Han forces pushed onward, and the officials of the kingdom grew less and less confident of their king’s abilities. From such an atmosphere, a plot inevitably formed among the officials and commanders to assassinate the king in hopes of winning back the confidence of the Han emperor. Once again, the assassin proved to be family, as Zou Yushan was killed by his kinsman, Zou Jugu. When the grim deed was done, the conspirators seized control of the kingdom and quickly surrendered to the Han forces.
Upon the surrender, Emperor Wu reportedly spared the lives of the people of Eastern Yue, but he did take the opportunity to implement drastic steps to decrease the threat posed by the rebellious kingdom. According to Sima Qian, the emperor “commanded the army officials to lead away all the inhabitants of the region and resettle them in the area between the Yangtze and Huai rivers, leaving Eastern Yue a deserted land” (Shi Ji 114).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Photograph of Qin Terracotta Soldiers from Shaanxi Museum, photographed by Gary Todd, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.