The final decade of the 3rd century BCE and the first decade of the 2nd century BCE were times of heavy state building in Asia. China’s Qin Dynasty collapsed because of widespread revolt between 209 and 206 BCE. The warlords who toppled the Qin regime subsequently fought against each other in a free-for-all. Emperor Gaozu emerged victorious from this power struggle in 202 BCE, declaring the supremacy of the new Han Dynasty. As a new emperor of a fledgling dynasty, Gaozu had an inwardly-focused reign in which he was much more concerned about enforcing his authority on his subjects than on launching campaigns to expand the empire outside of the Chinese heartland. Emperor Gaozu’s philosophy was shared by his immediate successors, a trend which gave China’s neighbors a few precious decades of peace in which to thrive. To the north and west of Gaozu’s lands, the Xiongnu nomads greatly expanded their influence under the leadership of Shanyu Maodun (ruled approximately from 209-174 BCE). Northeast of the Han empire, the warlord Wei Man created a kingdom for himself in northern Korea, beginning his rise to power around 195 BCE. Finally, in the south, a former official of the Qin Dynasty by the name of Zhao Tuo united the China-Vietnam borderlands into the kingdom or empire of Southern Yue, also known as Nanyue.
Zhao Tuo reportedly ruled Southern Yue for a remarkable period of about seventy years, approximately from 209/206-137 BCE. During his successful reign, he developed a state policy of calculated deference and flattery to keep the Chinese emperors both happy and unimposing. Among his favorite moves in his foreign relations playbook were delay tactics, the skillful ability to negotiate any Han offer of vassalage into a non-aggression pact, and a strict code of never, ever, visiting Han territory in person. Unfortunately, Zhao Tuo’s diplomatic mastery would be made all the more apparent by just how quickly his realm fell apart after his death.
Zhao Tuo’s successors in Southern Yue attempted to continue their predecessor’s model of foreign policy, but the new rulers could not keep up the precarious balance of independence and deference as effectively as Zhao Tuo had done. King Zhao Mo of Southern Yue (r. 137-122) sent his son and successor, Zhao Yingqi (r. 122-113), to the Han capital of Chang’an, where Yingqi met and married a Chinese princess. When Zhao Yingqi’s father grew ill around 122 BCE, he successfully broke free of the Han court and returned to Southern Yue. He brought his Chinese bride with him, and they eventually had a son named Xing.
Despite Zhao Yingqi’s close ties to China, once he assumed the throne in 122 BCE, he quickly assumed the model of foreign policy laid out by his predecessors and cut off any further personal contact with the Han government. The new king’s continuance of the difficult balancing act of independence and deference came as a great relief to an official named Lü Jia—he was a member of the Southern Yue old guard who had likely first come to prominence at the end of Zhao Tuo’s reign. Lü Jia went on to become prime minister for Zhao Mo and Zhao Yingqi, and his family became one of the most well-connected clans in Southern Yue through marriage contracts and powerful friendships. With Lü Jia as his advisor, Zhao Yingqi was able to maintain Southern Yue’s record of deferring just enough to China to stay safe from invasion, while also retaining enough independence to remain a sovereign state. Zhao Yingqi’s past would come back to haunt the state, however, when he died unexpectedly around 113 BCE. He was succeeded by his young son, Zhao Xing, and, as the boy was still a child, it was the king’s Chinese mother who became the realm’s main advisor. Lü Jia, for his part, was reappointed as Prime Minister of Southern Yue and he immediately set about trying to counteract the queen dowager’s pro-Han influence.
In an epic tug-of-war, with the king of Southern Yue in the middle, the queen dowager and Prime Minister Lü Jia battled for influence over the ruler, with the former wanting to bring her son closer into Han imperial circles, while Lü Jia was pressing for the status quo of carefully maintained independence. Naturally, young Zhao Xing was swayed more by his mother than by the old minister. Yet, Lü Jia remained a persuasive and influential individual, and although the queen dowager had the advantage at that time, the whims of rulers can easily shift. Therefore, the queen dowager and her pro-Han allies deemed Lü Jia to be a threat that needed to be handled as quickly as possible. With this in mind, the queen dowager invited Lü Jia to attend a banquet with her and some Han diplomats. Instead of discussing diplomacy, the pro-Han individuals at the banquet tried (unsuccessfully) to assassinate the prime minister. The queen dowager, herself, was said to have personally tried to take a stab at the minister during the chaotic party. Despite the queen dowager’s best efforts, Lü Jia had suspected a trap from the beginning and managed to escape the banquet without suffering any significant injuries. After this attempt on his life, the prime minister abandoned his hopes of winning over the king and instead called together his long list of pro-independence kinsmen, friends and allies to plot a revolt against the queen dowager and her puppet king.
When the queen dowager learned of the prime minister’s intrigues, she reached out to Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE) for assistance. The emperor, not yet committing to a full invasion of Southern Yue, responded to her plea by sending a small band of 2,000 warriors to support the queen dowager. When this force crossed into Southern Yue, Lü Jia used the inflammatory occasion as an opportunity to launch his rebellion. Moving quickly, the rebels attacked the palace, executed the queen dowager, deposed King Zhao Xing, and replaced him with Zhao Jiande, a pro-independence member of the royal family. After completing this regime change, Lü Jia’s army then turned against the 2,000 approaching Han warriors and massacred them on the road in a successful ambush.
Unfortunately for Lü Jia, the rebellion he launched in hopes of saving Southern Yue from Han influence instead proved to be the beginning of the end for the realm’s independence. When Emperor Wu had received a request for help from the late queen dowager, he had only sent 2,000 warriors. Yet, once the emperor subsequently learned that these troops had been massacred, he took the attack personally and decided to send the full weight of the Han military against Southern Yue. In 112 BCE, Emperor Wu sent multiple armies on a multi-pronged campaign to avenge the deaths of the 2,000. By 111 BCE, Southern Yue was conquered, its capital city was burned, and Lü Jia and Zhao Jiande were captured.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Photographed Longzhong Plan pattern painted at Long Corridor of Summer Palace, [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.