Around the year 135 BCE, Tang Meng, an envoy from the Han Empire, visited the kingdom of Southern Yue (or Nanyue, in the Chinese-Vietnamese borderlands), where he was fed a meal that piqued his interest. The main course of the dish is not known, but whatever the mystery meal might have been, it was coated with a special ju berry sauce. Tang Meng had tasted the sauce before—it was sold by certain merchants in the Han capital city of Chang’an, although the envoy could not remember where these merchants were from when he was tasting the sauce in Southern Yue. Intrigued, Tang Meng asked King Zhao Mo of Southern Yue (r. 137-122 BCE) how he came into possession of the ju berry sauce. His response was somewhat vague, simply telling the envoy that he had shipments of it brought down a river (called the Zangge) to Panyu, the capital of Southern Yue. The envoy accepted this explanation, and began his return trip to the Han capital. Yet, he remained determined to discover the trade route that was bringing the ju berry sauce to Southern Yue.
Once back in Chang’an, Tang Meng sought out the merchants for information about the sauce. People in the market told the envoy that the ju berry sauce he was describing was only produced in the area of Shu. Although the region was one of China’s more southern provinces, it was still a great distance from Southern Yue, with neutral and hostile territory acting as a buffer between the two locations. These realizations caused Tang Meng to become even more curious about how the sauce was reaching its exotic destination in Zhao Mo’s realm.
After some interviews and inquiries, Tang Meng discovered that merchants of Shu had created a trade agreement of sorts with a neighboring power—the independent marquisate or chiefdom of Yelang. Through this trade deal, the Shu merchants were able to move their products into Yelang, where they were able to link up with the Zangge River, and thereby gain access to Southern Yue, where they found a market for their ju berry sauce. Having discovered this route, Tang Meng prepared a report to submit to the emperor.
Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) ruled the Han Empire at the time. As this ruler was the most expansionist emperor, by far, that the Han Dynasty had produced up to that date, Tang Meng tailored his report to suit Emperor Wu’s war interests. He wrote down how the ju berry sauce trading route could be transformed into a path for a future military invasion of Southern Yue. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the envoy’s report stated:
“Over 100,000 first-rate soldiers could be recruited from the region of Yelang. If these were transported down the Zangge River in ships and deployed against the king of Southern Yue while he was unprepared, it would be an excellent way to bring his territory under control. With the strength of the Han forces and the wealth of Ba and Shu to support the undertaking, it would be an easy task to open up communications with Yelang and establish officials in the region” (Shi Ji 116).
This plan of action won Emperor Wu over with ease, and Tang Meng was sent off with troops and resources to bring his vision into fruition. Entering Yelang, he struck up negotiations about annexation with the then ruler, Duotong. The talks went surprisingly well—arranging silk trade, promising infrastructure upgrades, and assurances that Duotong’s family would remain in power as Yelang’s governors, allowed the Han Empire to annex the region without much difficulty. Encouraged by this success, Emperor Wu sent a certain Sima Xiangru on a mission to expand the province of Shu through similar diplomatic tactics; he reportedly succeeded in adding over ten districts to Shu.
Emperor Wu would eventually utilize the war strategy that Tang Meng drew up in his aforementioned report. In 112 BCE, the emperor sent several armies to attack Southern Yue from different directions. One of the armies involved in the campaign was supplied by troops from Ba, Shu, and Yelang. This force was then transported by ship on the Zangge to reach Southern Yue’s capital city of Panyu, which fell to the Han forces in 111 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the scroll painting, Qingming in Brief, dated to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), [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.