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Far East Kingdoms



Han Zhao / (Former) Zhao / Northern Han Kingdom (Sixteen Kingdoms China)
AD 304 - 329

The 'Sixteen Kingdoms' period of Chinese history was the result of internecine feuding very shortly after China had only just been reunified following the bitter, highly destructive wars of the 'Three Kingdoms' period. The division was largely caused by the 'Succession Civil Wars' between 301-307 and the increasing belligerence of two rival kingdoms, both of which claimed the imperial title kingdom from the ruling Western Jin dynasty.

In the face of increasing military conflict the Jin imperial regent became the supreme power in all but name. In 310 that regent, Sima Yue, abandoned both the capital of Luoyang and the emperor, such was his increasingly desperate focus on defending the dynasty from its enemies. However, beset on all sides by stronger enemies he fell ill and died the following year. Luoyang and Emperor Sima Chi were captured by rival Han Zhao forces in the same year. The final Western Jin emperor, Sima Ye, was also captured, in 316, and then executed. Prince Sima Rui inherited the Jin title and ensured the continuity of the dynasty by withdrawing south of the River Huai to survive as the Eastern Jin while Han Zhao governed a large swathe of the north.

The Han Zhao - or (Former) Zhao as it became in 319 - was a brief Xiongnu dynasty with an amazing total of six different capitals in that brief time. The use of 'former' was to distinguish it from the (Later) Zhao kingdom which was formed a few decades later. The Xiongnu (or Hsiung-nu in earlier twentieth century works) were a nomadic pastoral people who had formed a great tribal confederation at the end of the third century BC and who remained dominant in eastern Central Asia for more than half a millennium. China's wars against the constant threat to the northern frontier that the Xiongnu posed led the Chinese to explore and conquer much of East Asia.

Sixteen Kingdoms

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Origin of the Turks and the Turkish Khanate, Gao Yang (Tenth Türk Tarih Kongresi, Ankara 1986), from Türkiye halkının kültür kökenleri: Giriş, beslenme teknikleri, Burhan Oğuz (1976), from The Turks in World History, Carter Vaughin Findley (Oxford University Press 2005), from The Origins of Northern China's Ethnicities, Zhu Xueyuan (Beijing 2004), from Ethnogenesis in the tribal zone: The Shaping of the Turks, Peter Benjamin Golden (2005), from Shiliuguo Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals of the Sixteen Kingdoms), Cui Hong (Sixth Century Compiler, although not all of his work survives), and from External Links: Kidarites (Encyclopaedia Iranica), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

304 - 310

Liu Yuan

Xiongnu noble. Founded Han state.

304 - 306

Liu Yuan is the ruler of the Xiongnu people of northern Shanxi Province, having entered Western Jin China proper in 304 at the request of one of the imperial princes. The prince is engaged in a civil war known as the War of the Eight Princes. Liu Yuan conquers much of northern Shanxi by 306, before proclaiming himself to be emperor of a new Han dynasty (claiming continuity from the Han dynasty of three centuries earlier).

Li Xiong (the Jin governor) does the same for his own kingdom of Cheng. These two rival states are the first of the forthcoming 'Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians', and their formation marks the end of the Succession Civil Wars.

Emperor Wu Ti (Sima Yan)
As Emperor Wu Ti of the Western Jin, Sima Yan had been able to complete his father's work and reunite China under one ruler, but his descendants could not find unity amongst themselves and instead started a long-running civil war

309 - 311

The kingdom of Han Zhao has increasingly been disrupting Jin rule in the north. Cities and towns both there and in central China have been harassed and even captured. The successful Jin defence of its capital at Luoyang in 309 is one of its few successes. In 310 the dominant imperial regent, Sima Yue, abandons the capital and the emperor. However, beset on all sides by stronger enemies he falls ill and dies in 311. Luoyang and the emperor are captured by Han Zhao forces in the same year.


Liu He

Son. Killed during the attempted murder of his brothers.


Upon his succession the suspicious and badly-advised Liu He sends armies out against his brothers, generals in their own rights with forces of their own. Liu Cong is forewarned and is ready for a confrontation. While his brothers are killed off one by one he storms the palace and kills Liu He, replacing him as emperor of Han Zhao.

310 - 318

Liu Cong

Brother. Killed Liu He and succeeded him.


With the fall of the impoverished and poorly-defended town of Chang'an, Emperor Min of the Western Jin is captured by the forces of Han Zhao. He is briefly held captive before the decision to execute him is taken. Prince Sima Rui inherits the Jin title and ensures the continuity of the dynasty by withdrawing south of the River Huai. There it survives as the Eastern Jin while Han Zhao governs a large swathe of the north. The period of collapse and division known as the 'Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians' has begun.


Liu Can

Brother. Overthrown and killed by Jin Zhun.


Less than three months into his reign, Liu Can is overthrown by his own official and father-in-law, Jin Zhun. The new ruler of Han Zhao initially indicates his acceptance of Sima Rui as Emperor Yuan of the Eastern Jin, but before the emperor can send an army to support him he is swept away by the forces of Liu Yao. Han Zhao is secured against Jin interference.

Map of Sixten Kingdoms China AD 350
By the early fourth century AD China had fractured once again, with the north splintering into the 'Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians' and the Jin imperial dynasty having retreated south of the River Huai to retain their claim of imperial superiority in the form of the Eastern Jin (click or tap on map to view full sized)


Jin Zhun

Court official and usurper. Quickly defeated.

318 - 329

Liu Yao

General. Claimed throne. Retitled dynasty to (Former) Zhao.


General Shi Le declares the formation of the (Later) Zhao kingdom. Having served the Han Zhao kingdom until now he has conquered much territory in the name of that kingdom but has retained it under his own personal control. Now he breaks away and turns his conquered territories into a kingdom in its own right.

While Liu Yao renames Han Zhao to Zhao, it is noted as (Former) Zhao in contemporary records to differentiate it from its rival, although some Chinese writers combine the two kingdoms as a single Han Zhao state. Most western texts retain the separation but a few refer to both as Northern Han.


Liu Ze / Liu Xi

Crown prince.


Once brothers-in-arms against the enemies of Han Zhao, the former General Liu Yao is now captured by Shi Le of the (Later) Zhao kingdom. He is executed almost immediately, while his sons, including Crown Prince Liu Ze, are executed in the following year. The (Former) Zhao kingdom is also terminated, with its lands being absorbed into (Later) Zhao.

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