Barbarian Invasions: The Migration Southwards of Han Chinese People

When the fourth century AD just started, the Jin (晋) Dynasty of China was going to disintegrate. In the past decades, with the encouragement of the imperial government, many nomadic tribes moved to the regions inside the Great Wall. However, the empire never truly respected those tribes. The tribes suffered from heavy taxation and slave trade. Meanwhile, the tribes encroached on the farms of Han Chinese and caused many people to leave their hometowns. The chiefs of the tribes tried to separate the areas from the empire. In 299, after a big rebellion was suppressed, an official named Jiang Tong (江统) felt very worried about the conditions, and then wrote an article to urge the imperial government to move all the tribes out of the empire’s territory. But the imperial government was in internal strife, and no one was interested in the advice, which seemed not to be practicable. In the first several years of the fourth century, the princes of the empire fought bitterly against each other for the imperial power. In order to win the war, they tried to organize and arm nomadic tribes, and exposed the weakness of the empire. In 304, Liu Yuan (刘渊), the leader of the Huns (匈奴), publicly condemned the Jin Dynasty, and announced the beginning of his regime. His regime gave a great chance to an ambitious and indomitable man named Shi Le (石勒), who was from a tribe of the Jie (羯), once became a slave and later led a group of people including not only brutal warriors but also resourceful tacticians. The bloody unrest would continue for three centuries.

The northern ruling of the Jin Empire disintegrated quickly. Because of hatred and ambitions, those nomadic peoples brought untold sufferings to Han people. So we can see it is very important and necessary for the future of a people to respect other ethnic groups and treat them equally.

The troops of Jin were defeated continuously. A prince of Jin led more than one hundred thousand people including troops, nobles and their families to leave the capital Luoyang (洛阳) and move to the east. But they were caught and all of them were shot by Shi Le’s horsemen. The Huns started to attack Luoyang. Jin Huai-Emperor (晋怀帝), the emperor of the Jin Dynasty, asked other cities for aid and told them, “Now you have a chance to save me, but later even if you want but you can’t.” However, few troops relieved the capital. In AD 311, the Huns captured Luoyang. Thirty thousand people were killed by the Huns, and the prosperous city was laid in ruins. After two years, the Huns forced Jin Huai-Emperor to dress like a prisoner and toasted. A minister of Jin wept sadly. Liu Cong (刘聪) who was the son of Liu Yuan was very angry, and he killed Jin Huai-Emperor. Jin Huai-Emperor was a young wise man who was interested in literature and collection. If he lived in a peaceful time, he could have been an excellent scholar and a wise emperor. But cruel situation destroyed his dreams and life.

In Chang’an (长安), the former capital of the Western Han Dynasty which was a great and powerful dynasty, many ministers organized an army and beat back the enemy. In 313, they set Jin Min-Emperor (晋闵帝) up on the throne. The conditions of Chang’an were very poor. In 316, Chang’an was captured by the Huns. The next year, the Huns insulted and killed Jin Min-Emperor because Jin’s ministers and people all wept for their emperor.

In 317, a prince Sima Rui (司马睿) who was Langya-King (琅邪王) ascended the throne in Jiankang (建康, modern-day Nanjing), and he was Jin Yuan-Emperor (晋元帝). The dynasty was called the Eastern Jin (东晋). In order to recover lost land, the Eastern Jin Empire waged a lot of northern expeditions. In the last days of the dynasty, it recaptured all territory of the south of the Yellow River. But later in the Southern Dynasties, northern enemy became very strong, and captured the territory of the north of the Yangtze River. In 589, Chen (陈), the last southern dynasty, was annexed by the Sui Dynasty, which was built by Yang Jian (杨坚) who was once the prime minister of the Northern Zhou (北周) Dynasty. During the three turbulent centuries, Chinese culture was much influenced by northern nomadic peoples and had a lot of changes.

We can’t forget a tragic hero, Liu Kun (刘琨). He was the minister of the Western Jin Dynasty, and the military mainstay of the last days of this empire. He persisted in strong resistance in Bingzhou (并州) where was in modern-day Shanxi Province. The life was very hard, and he had to get support from some tribes of the Xianbei (鲜卑). These tribes were loyal to the Jin Empire and gave much support to Liu Kun. But when Liu Kun organized resistance with his whole heart, Duan Pidi (段匹磾) who was a noble of Xianbei believed a calumny and mistrusted him. When Liu Kun himself went to clarify matters, Duan Pidi detained him and killed him at last. He had a last poem, and this poem showed his eternal regret. After the death of Liu Kun, those tribes were subdued one after another by the Huns and the Jie.

Since the last days of the Western Jin Dynasty, innumerable Han people migrated southwards. And it is called “Migration Southwards of Yongjia Years” (永嘉南渡). “Yongjia” (永嘉) was the title of the years when Jin Huai-Emperor was on the throne from AD307 to 313. This migration was the first large-scale migration of the Han Chinese people. The roads were full of blood and tears. Countless people were killed by hunger, cold, diseases and invaders. During an expedition of the Eastern Jin, more than two hundred thousand people of the north responded to the southern army. The people crossed the Yellow River. But the Jin’s army suddenly withdrew, and then the people lost the support of army. All of them were massacred by ferocious invaders.

Victims were not only Han people. Ran Min (冉闵), who once followed the Jie’s regime, led his Han troops to kill the Jie’s emperor. Jie people felt very frightened and tried to leave. Revengefully, Ran Min ordered his troops to kill two hundred thousand Jie people. The Jie disappeared in later history. Northern Han people once delightedly went to the country of Ran Min for shelter. They dreamed that they returned the times of the Wei (魏) and Jin Dynasties. But the brutal policy of Ran Min didn’t bring peace to his people. Opposing peoples fought against each other every month, and no one farmed. A large number of nomadic people were expelled, and most of them died on the road. Ran Min was eventually captured by his enemy in a battle. When a chief of the Xianbei (鲜卑) denounced him why he dared to call himself the son of Heaven, Ran Min said, “You, barbarians, tried to usurp the throne. I am a hero of the times, why can’t I get the throne!” Ran Min was killed, and his country was destroyed.

The Huns, the Jie, the Di (氐), the Qiang (羌) and the Xianbei were called five “Hu” (胡, which means foreign people from the west or the north). Wars brought heavy sufferings to all peoples including the Han and so-called five “Hu”. What can we learn from history? We should not devote ourselves into nationalism, but become aware of the importance of respect, equality and mutual benefit.

Yike Jiang avatar