Violence and cannibalism in the Five Dynasties



Violence and cannibalism in the Five Dynasties

When one begins to know the history of China, one concentrates its readings on its brilliant moments, on those great dynasties that expanded the territory, recreated surprising cultural forms and became the greatest political, economic and artistic centers of Asia, and sometimes of the world. Thus we are soon becoming familiar, at least superficially, with aspects of the Han, Tang, and more modern Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Then, one feels that this painting lacks something, that there are some jumps between some historical events and others, sometimes of several centuries, that it is necessary to investigate to understand a little more the history of China. One of those leaps, surprising for its contribution to Chinese culture, scarcely studied and understood in yet, are the centuries of the so-called «disunity», that succession of dynasties and kingdoms of short duration, which comprises from the last years of the Han dynasty to the reunification with the Sui. These were crucial years for the cultural development of China, since it was during this time that Buddhism and Chinese Taoism, their main artistic and literary currents, and a far-reaching cultural reworking emerged.

The history of those centuries is a hymn to freedom, to scarce centralization, to the development of human potential with surprising results. The other great period of disunity, of much shorter duration, the one between the end of the Tang Dynasty and the beginning of the Song, tells a very different story. A history of war and violence without limit, in which art, religion and culture were left aside in favor of weapons and war.

Cruelty and Violence in the Five Dynasties

In a recent publication Wang Hongjie[i] has produced a study on that time, its title: «Wolves Shepherding People – Cruelty and Violence in the Five Dynasties«, leaves no room for doubt about its content. As the author comments: «Monarchs of Five Dynasties all rose to power as military men. Surrounding themselves with doughty soldiers, they partitioned the country and proclaimed themselves kings. As rulers, they were like wolves shepherding the people.» (Wang 2017: 189).

One of the most powerful characters during the fall of the Tang dynasty was Zhu Wen, in those years the most influential warlord in northern China, based in the current province of Henan. Zhu Wen’s military successes were due in part to the iron hand with which he commanded his armies and the cruel punishments with which he punished his soldiers’ failures. One of his practices was called “Decapitating the Squadron,” involved the beheading of every soldier in a brigade that lost a captain in battle. To prevent desertion, he ordered that troops should have their faces tattooed with distinctive patterns». (Wang 2017: 189).

The actions of his troops were equally cruel. In 903 he ordered the massacre of all eunuchs serving at court, to take full control of the throne. The following year, he assassinated the Prime Minister and the Emperor. In 905, during the massacre known as the «White Horse Disaster» (白馬之禍), Zhu Wen massacred thirty Tang courtiers in one night and threw their mangled bodies into the Yellow River.

If Zhu Wen spared no violence in seizing power, neither did he to consolidate it. «During a military campaign against the rebellious troops of Weibo (today’s Hebei) in 906, he summarily ordered the massacre of more than seven thousand rebels, including children” (Wang 2017: 189).

The author tells us the stories of Liu Zhiyuan, the monarch who founded the Later Han dynasty, also remembered as a ruthless ruler, and that of Wang Jian, active at the end of the Tang dynasty, who instilled terror among the population by organizing scenes of cannibalism. » So many regional monarchs of the day shared a proclivity for brutality and harshness that this widespread phenomenon of the Five Dynasties might aptly be called a trademark of the age” (Wang 2017: 193).

More frightening is the story of Liu Yan of the Southern Han Dynasty (905-971), who «designed many brutal instruments of torture, such as long knives and saws to scrape human flesh. Every time he observed torturing and killing, sources report, the ruler “could not contain his pleasure in watching the victims die, unconsciously grating his jaw and drooling from a gaping mouth.” His son Liu Cheng inherited this streak of sadism, for he expanded his father’s repertoire of instruments of cruelty, creating a massive hive of hundreds of torture chambers known as “living hells” (生地獄)” (Wang 2017: 193).


Tuyu, a Khitan prince, «was known for his predilection for drinking human blood, a vampirism fed by stabbing the arms of his concubines and sucking directly from them”.  Liu Xin, Governor General of the Imperial Army of the Later Han, did not lag behind. «He once punished his underlings by torturing their wives and children in a horrendous manner—carving raw meat from their arms and legs and forcing them to swallow gobbets of their own flesh. The general then ordered music and wine, enjoying the spectacle and the bloodshed without showing the slightest hint of pity. The raving lunacy of Tuyu and Liu Xin offers but a glimpse at the pervasive culture of cannibalism, carnage, and cruelty» in that turbulent era.

Cannibalism did not seem to be considered something particularly unpleasant, as the story goes that the northern Chinese army led by Qin Zongquan ate human flesh, with the soldiers carrying portions of salted meat as rations. In the Fujian area, the ruler Wang Yanzheng ordered that the rebels he had defeated and killed during a campaign in 945 be processed into jerky, and then distributed the dried meat of more than eight thousand men to his troops. (Wang 2017: 193).

Cannibalism was not only practiced for survival, for revenge or as a punishment. There is also notices of the consumption of human flesh simply for pleasure. Like Chang Congjian, a famous later Tang general, known for both his heroic courage and extreme behavior, who is said to have whipped or killed his subordinates at the slightest provocation, and to have practiced cannibalism on children taken from the local population to whet his deviant appetites.

Another famous cannibal general, Gao Li, governor of Wu-Yue, is said to have ordered the capture of pedestrians passing near his mansion after sunset to be eaten. Gao Li’s disregard for human life even led him to discuss with his generals the possibility of «killing the people» living in his city, a project he only abandoned out of concern for losing his tax base.

Violence gives way to civilian governments

The brutal martial legacy of this era marked the intellectuals of the following dynasty. This explains that when Emperor Zhao Kuangyin founded the Northern Song Dynasty, he initiated an era that «exalted the civil and despised the military». And that this spirit remained as one of the guiding policies of the dynasty. This may help to understand that the Northern Song preferred to pay a tribute to the Kitan in exchange for peace, rather than reestablishing a defensive system that would leave the empire in the hands of the frontier generals, and that even generals as successful in defending the state as Yue Fei, later deified as a symbol of military loyalty, were looked upon with suspicion, and ultimately imprisoned and killed.

It is true that this mistrust of the Southern Song of everything military undermined the last resistance of their military to the definitive advance of Kublai Khan’s armies, but it must be recognized that in one way or another it allowed for 300 years of human and cultural development such as has not been seen again in the history of China.

[i] Hongjie Wang. “Wolves Shepherding the People”: Cruelty and Violence in the Five Dynasties. In N. Harry Rothschild and Leslie V. Wallace. Behaving Badly in early and Medieval China. 2017 University of Hawai‘i Press


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