Dong Zhuo: The Tyrant?

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Dong Zhuo was the archetypal usurping tyrant. He was brutal, bloodthirsty and incompetent – blown by the winds of fortune into absolute power. His rule was oppressive and brought to an end the Han ‘golden age’ of China, which had lasted 400 years and, at its height, rivalled the Roman Empire in its wealth, power and population.

This caricature is a creation of later historians who scorn Dong as the man who delivered the coup de grace to an ailing empire and a golden age that existed in name only. In truth, Dong Zhuo was a beloved, brilliant general and ruthless politician, who rose to power on his own merit, despite the best efforts of his opponents. He never ruled in a time of peace, however, and whilst it is difficult to know what sort of ruler he was, the few indications he gave do not suggest tyranny.

Dong Zhuo was born in the early A.D. 140s in Liang province, a north-western frontier province where violence was common. The Xiongnu, a nomadic Turkic tribe from the steppes to the north, often raided the province and the Qiang people (the ethnic minority native to the province) frequently rebelled against Han rule. 

Due to the omnipresence of war, rebellion and violence in Liang, Dong Zhuo was raised in a highly militarised environment. He excelled at sword fighting, archery and horseback riding from an early age. By 20, he had led local militias to victory over Qiang rebels many times and had gained a reputation as a great military leader. In light of his achievements, in A.D. 165 Dong was recommended to join the prestigious Guard of the Feathered Forest as a cadet, and he moved to the Later Han (A.D. 25—220) capital of Luoyang for training. Even among the elite military prospects there, he was exceptional, ascending in only two years to the rank of major.

For his first posting, Dong was sent to his home province, Liang, in A.D. 167, to suppress yet another Qiang rebellion. Through his knowledge of the terrain and of the opponents, he provided an invaluable contribution to victory. For his success, Dong Zhuo was rewarded with 9,000 rolls of silk by the Emperor himself. Dong understood the importance of cultivating loyalty, and so he distributed his prize among his men. The faithfulness of his soldiers held far more value to him than silk, and, given silk’s rarity and financial value in Han China, it was a gesture that won his troops’ adulation and made him a local legend for years to come.

Following this first triumph, Dong was moved to civil administration. The Confucian tradition upheld the scholar-administrator as the highest class in Chinese society, so his appointment to the civil service supposedly increased his status: in reality, it stunted his burgeoning power. He held various minor positions as a magistrate, briefly returning to the military in the frontier provinces, before once again moving to the administration as an Inspector (reporting on the governance of a region to the Emperor) and later an Administrator.

Dong Zhuo was finally recalled to the military to help crush the Yellow Turban Rebellion in A.D. 184. The rebellion was inspired by supposed divine retribution against the Han, in the form of a flood and famine, for their high taxation and corruption. 350,000-strong, the rebellion captured swathes of central China. Dong fought their main force near Julu, Hebei. As he was unsuccessful, he was transferred to fight the rebellions in Liang, his home province, as second-in-command to Huangfu Song. Even after Huangfu was moved elsewhere, Dong was still not trusted to command an army again, and Zhang Wen, a career civil servant with little military experience, was promoted over Dong. He was incensed by this insult: nonetheless, he was the driving force behind the defeat of the rebels in A.D. 185. For this he earned the moniker ‘The General Who Smashes the Cowards’. 

Dong’s tactical prowess was best exemplified by the battle of Meiyang and its aftermath. Fighting had been deadlocked for three months, until a shooting star is supposed to have landed in the rebel camp. Dong, independent of his superiors, struck suddenly amidst the confusion, winning a major victory.

What followed highlighted the incompetence of Zhang Wen and the brilliance of Dong. Zhang, after the decisive win, pushed his luck, sending Dong and another general to pursue the retreating rebels with a force of 30,000 each. Both generals were surrounded and cut off from their supply lines, deep in enemy-occupied territory. The other general managed to escape, but with only a minority of his original army.

Meanwhile, Dong was surrounded on three sides, with his back to a river. There was a single point at which the water was shallow enough to wade across, but if the crossing was attempted overtly, it would surely provoke attack. He ordered a dam built downstream of the crossing, seemingly to allow his forces to fish for food, arousing no suspicion. Under the cover of darkness, his entire army escaped across the shallow river crossing, and by morning the only crossing point was too deep for the enemy to follow.

Many sources, particularly historical Chinese sources, try to discredit the importance of Dong Zhuo to these campaigns and victories. They variously attribute victories to either his subordinates or his superiors, even when Dong was the consistent factor, and his few defeats are squarely his to bear. The Record of the Three Kingdoms, one of the best-known sources on this period but written about 100 years later, contains a tract explaining the crimes of Dong Zhuo on this campaign. It is quite absurd: for example, that one of his crimes is listed as “delaying the army” when this was the prudent tactical decision. It was even suggested that he be executed for this offence. This is characteristic of Chinese histories written after the time, which perceive Dong as a tyrant and aim to show the signs of his ‘evil’ early, and entirely ahistorically.

The aim of Dong’s deployment in the northwest had been to prevent the rebels reaching Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the ancient capital of the Former Han (202 B.C.—A.D. 9) and China’s most populous city. Once this was achieved, with the rebels retreating to the west, the majority of the Imperial force was withdrawn, but Dong instead remained in Liang province with his loyal contingent of troops.

Dong Zhuo was immensely popular with the people in Liang and the northwest. He was a beloved figure who had crushed Qiang revolts since his youth. In fact, Zhang Wen, his hated superior, said that without him, “[the Imperial army] shall have no support … in the west.” In such a far-flung part of the Empire, the local hero and his troops held far more power than the central government ever could.

Crucially, these troops were fiercely loyal to him. The Liang troops commanded by Dong Zhuo were the strongest and most brutal troops in the Empire, hardened by entire careers on the frontiers. Dong was legendary for his devotion to his troops, such as with his gift of silk after his first campaign. He fed his troops and he paid their wages. The aforementioned escape from encirclement whilst keeping his entire force intact showed both his brilliance and his commitment to leave no man behind. This personal relationship of a commander with his troops was more important than any loyalty to an Empire that, on the frontier, was little more than an abstract concept.

The growing power of Dong Zhuo concerned the Han government. Therefore, they re-used an old trick: in A.D. 188, they summoned him to civil office. He was ordered to take up the position of Minister Steward, one of the highest positions in the government, and one which formally constituted a promotion. 

However, this time, Dong refused to abandon his troops. Leaving his army, and his home province, would mean leaving behind his power base. Defying imperial command was punishable by death, but Dong was so powerful on the frontier, and the Han so weak, that he could ignore their orders. So great was the imperial government’s desperation to remove him from command, they did not reprimand him, but instead offered him another position. Again, Dong declined. Dong Zhuo taking such drastic action, in open disobedience of an imperial order, suggests that he had designs on greater power than the imperial government could offer him. These designs would bear fruit in short order.

In A.D. 189, the Emperor Ling fell critically ill. His heirs, Liu Ban (16) and Liu Xie (8) were both minors and so there would be a regency when Liu Ban came to the throne. He Jin, the commander-in-chief of the Empire’s military, anticipated a power struggle with the eunuchs. For a century, the corrupt palace eunuchs had run a shadow government. Many Emperors would grow up with eunuchs as their closest friends and advisors, and these eunuchs used this connection to gain greater and greater power: effectively, they were given the Emperor’s power of the executive over the educated mandarin civil servants, while the Emperors led lives of debauchery. They gained a stranglehold over the Han dynasty: corruption was rife, and the financial problems they created caused the government’s decline in power.

He Jin wanted to wipe out the eunuch faction once and for all to restore the former glory of the Han. To this end, he enlisted the help of various powerful generals and warlords to remove the threat posed to him by the palace factions. One of those he called upon was Dong Zhuo.

Dong pitched his camp in a park a kilometre outside the Luoyang city walls. He waited for further instruction. No instruction would come, however, and on 22 September flames rose high over Luoyang. The eunuchs had uncovered He Jin’s plot to dispose of them and had struck first, assassinating him, and fighting had broken out in the city. Dong was patient: he did not charge into the melee but instead remained outside the city walls with his force intact.

His patience paid dividends: the mandarin ministers appealed to him for help, and he was able to intercept two eunuchs fleeing Luoyang with the now-Emperor, Liu Ban, and his younger brother. Dong entered the capital city with the Emperor in tow, commanding the largest force remaining in the area. He Jin’s men flocked to join his army, including Lu Bu, known as the greatest warrior in the Empire, and Dong’s future second-in-command. All the other members of the anti-eunuch coalition lacked the strength to take over. Dong Zhuo appointed himself Chancellor of State and he was thus the most powerful minister in Han China and effective head of government.

Reform was clearly on Dong Zhuo’s agenda when he first took power. Most high governmental appointments, both in Luoyang and the provinces, went to known reformers, while his own supporters received minor offices, in contrast to the corruption and venality of the eunuchs. He empowered the educated mandarins, as had been the way of the Han in previous centuries.

But Dong was also not interested in diminishing his own power and acted to consolidate it by deposing Liu Ban for his younger brother, Liu Xie. An older Emperor, more independent and with a shorter regency, was less useful to Dong. Within 6 months, Liu Ban was poisoned. As a possible figurehead for rebellion, he represented a threat to Dong’s stability. Whilst this was cruel and immoral, it was necessary for Dong to maintain peace and secure his own position.

However, Dong very quickly became embroiled in conflict. Despite his apparent intentions on his accession, it was obvious his power was ultimately contingent on military strength. Yuan Shao, another one of the powerful warlords who came to Luoyang, had initially accepted Dong’s rule, but it was clear this was only because he had not brought as large a force to Luoyang as Dong.

Yuan quickly returned to his base in Ji and raised an army. One by one, other warlords followed his lead. Each warlord argued that Dong Zhuo was a usurper who had removed the rightful Emperor Liu Ban, and they were taking up arms as the defenders of the Han dynasty. There is an element of hypocrisy in this claim, as each of these power-hungry warlords, given the opportunity that was presented to Dong, would have undoubtedly followed the same path. Moreover, it was clear that Dong coming to power was merely the pretence for a civil war long in the making. As imperial power declined, individual warlords grew in power and ambition, until it became inevitable there would be a conflict for control of China. Dong Zhuo taking control of the imperial government burst the proverbial dam. In fact, some of the warlords who had declared their opposition to Dong Zhuo never contributed to the campaign against him and only fought each other.

By early A.D. 190, the situation was untenable. Dong Zhuo may have brought the largest force to Luoyang—3000 men—but, even with new recruits, this was a fraction of his army in the northwest or the armies that would soon descend upon the capital. Luoyang was 400km from Chang’an and 1000km from Liang province, Dong’s major support bases. Therefore, in February, Dong moved the centre of government back to Chang’an in the west. He followed a scorched earth strategy as he retreated, including looting Luoyang, melting down statues and turning them into copper cash.

Throughout the civil war, Dong Zhuo continued to show his martial capabilities. He beat back Yuan Shao’s army and that of his brother for over a year. Even when one of the finest military commanders in the Empire, Sun Jian, brought fresh forces to the campaign, Dong won a resounding victory near Luoyang. His army was only driven back to Chang’an in March A.D. 191. Even so, Dong provided an optimistic assessment: “If things go well, I shall be master of the empire. But even if I fail, I can hold out here in comfort and die of old age.”

While Chang’an was a suitable military base, as Dong could draw willing conscripts from the population and he was familiar with the terrain, its surroundings were not very resource-rich. The army thus had to resort to raids and pillaging to secure necessary supplies. With this, Dong’s troops became more disorderly and difficult to command.

Dong Zhuo also abandoned his reformist zeal when he arrived in Chang’an, replacing the accomplished mandarins in key posts with his loyal lieutenants. This should not be interpreted as meaning his initial effort was disingenuous, but rather that, in a time of war, reform was secondary to victory. Regardless, this led to disquiet among the demoted ministers who had travelled with Dong Zhuo to Chang’an.

Chief among the disaffected was the de facto mayor of Chang’an, Wang Yun. He was troubled by Dong’s erratic and unpredictable conduct and began to plot a coup. The key man he coaxed into the conspiracy was Lu Bu, the second-in-command of the military. Lu Bu was notorious for betraying two of his previous superior officers, and, after a heated disagreement on strategy early in A.D. 192, Lu was no longer sure he was safe from Dong. On 22 May A.D. 192, Lu Bu and a group of conspirators assassinated Dong Zhuo. On this, a final, defamatory, rhetorical flourish in the Record of the Three Kingdoms says that a wick was placed in Dong Zhuo’s navel, and he was supposedly so fat that he burned “as bright as the sun” for three days.

History has condemned Dong Zhuo as a savage and a tyrant. In reality, he was a man from the very edge of Han civilisation who rose through the ranks on merit alone. He faced constant attempts to deprive him of his power and prestige, and yet through his martial excellence and the loyalty he inspired in his soldiers, he was able to ascend to ultimate power. While he was far from an enlightened despot, he made an earnest, if brief, attempt to root out corruption, before succumbing to the demands of civil war realpolitik. Perhaps he would be best remembered in a similar vein to Caesar: a brilliant general who upset the decaying established order, rising to power unseen in generations, but plunging their empire into civil war. He was neither a hero nor a villain, but a great and morally neutral man.

Chen Shou, Records of the Three Kingdoms.

de Crespigny, R., 2017. Fire Over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD. Brill.

de Crespigny, R.,2007. A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD). Brill.

Fairbank, F. & Reischaeur, E., 1989. China: Tradition and Transformation. Allen & Unwin.