Shi Le

Shi Le

Shi Le (石勒) (274-333), courtesy name Shilong (世龍), formally Emperor Ming of (Later) Zhao ((後)趙明帝), was the founding emperor of the Chinese/Jie state Later Zhao. In young age, he was sold as a slave by Jin Dynasty (265-420)'s ethnically Han officials, but he later helped start a rebellion and eventually became a powerful general for the Xiongnu state Han Zhao, conquering most of northern China in Han Zhao's name but holding the territory under his own control. In 319, after a dispute with the Han Zhao emperor Liu Yao, he broke away from Han Zhao and formed his own state, Later Zhao, and in 329 he captured Liu Yao and conquered Han Zhao, adding western China to his empire as well.

Shi Le was known as a brilliant general, but was criticized by historians for excessive cruelty during his campaigns. He also put too much power in the hands of his ambitious and even more ferocious nephew Shi Hu who, after Shi Le's death, seized power from Shi Le's son Shi Hong.

Early life

Shi Le was born in 274 -- but was not named Shi Le, and certainly not with the family name Shi, as it appeared that the Jie did not use family names at the time. (His likely original name is not available in Unicode and therefore is unavailable online; one other possible original name was Fule (匐勒).) His grandfather, named Yeyiyu (耶奕于), and his father, named Zhouhezhu (周曷朱), were minor Jie chiefs, and their tribe traditionally lived in Bing Province (并州, modern Shanxi). Shi grew up in Wuxiang (武鄉, in modern Jinzhong, Shanxi).

In 303 or 304, Bing Province suffered a major famine, and the Jie tribes were seriously affected. Shi Le's tribe spread out and became refugees. Shi and many other Jie and Xiongnu men were captured by Jin officials and sold as as slaves. Eventually, he was sold to a man named Shi Huan (師懽), but Shi Huan freed him after becoming impressed with his talents. Eventually, he became a leader of bandits, and at one point he befriended one of Sima Ying the Prince of Chengdu's military commanders, Ji Sang (汲桑). Sima Ying was then stationed at Yecheng and was the most powerful of the Jin imperial princes.

After Sima Ying briefly served as crown prince in 304, he was forced to flee with his brother Emperor Hui to the capital Luoyang and was deposed by Sima Yong the Prince of Hejian. Many of his subordinates, including Ji and Gongsun Fan (公孫藩), deserted, and Gongsun eventually started a rebellion with the stated goal of restoring Sima Ying. Ji and Shi both joined the rebellion -- and it was only at that time that Ji gave his friend the family name "Shi" and personal name "Le." After Gongsun was subsequently defeated and killed, Ji became leader of the rebellion and made Shi his key general -- now with the goal of avenging Sima Ying, who was forced to commit suicide in 306. However, their rebellion, while briefly successful in capturing Yecheng in 307 and killing Sima Teng (司馬騰) the Prince of Xincai, ultimately was defeated in the winter of that year, and Shi instead joined Liu Yuan, an ethnically Xiongnu former Sima Ying subordinate who had by now declared independence from Jin and established his own state Han Zhao. Liu Yuan made him a general.

As Han Zhao general

As commander of a roving army

For the next few years, Shi led his roving band, which he appeared to have largely recruited himself, throughout central China, losing few battles but largely interested in pillaging and not in holding territory. From the beginning, though, Shi showed willingness to accept learned men into his army to serve as advisors and officers, unlike many other agrarian revolt leaders, and he gained many followers, mostly from the Jie and other non-Han ethnicities, but including some Han as well. After Liu Yuan's death in 310, Shi continued to submit to the authority of Liu Yuan's son and successor Liu Cong.

In summer 311, Shi's prestige and power increased greatly when he was able to utterly defeat the largest Jin force remaining in central China. The Jin regent Sima Yue the Prince of Donghai had died earlier that year, and the large force that he commanded was trying to escort his funeral train back to his principality of Donghai (roughly modern Linyi, Shandong). Shi Le intercepted them at Ku (苦縣, in modern Zhoukou, Henan), and while the Jin force was much larger than his, Shi's force was mostly cavalry, and it surrounded and disrupted the procession of the Jin force that it stampeded itself into oblivion. The many Jin princes and officials were captured by Shi, and Shi executed them all. Shi, from that point on, became a feared general.

In summer 311, several major Han Zhao generals, including Shi, Huyan Yan (呼延晏), Liu Yao, and Wang Mi (王彌), converged on the Jin capital Luoyang, which had been left defenseless by Sima Yue. Without major resistance, the capital fell, and Emperor Huai of Jin was captured and later executed. Later that year, Shi captured the powerful Jin general Gou Xi (苟晞) and assassinated fellow Han Zhao general Wang, merging their forces with his own. As Shi's army grew, he increasingly trusted his young distant nephew Shi Hu as a general, and under the violent but talented Shi Hu, Shi Le's army became known for its cruel treatment of civilians but was also whipped into shape, rarely losing battles.

In spring 312, though, Shi Le, preparing to have his army cross the Yangtze River to attack Jianye, then under the control of the Jin general Sima Rui the Prince of Langye, encountered difficulties as his army was trapped in the rain. Fearful that Jin forces were going to attack, Shi's key advisor Diao Ying (刁膺) suggested promising to submit to Sima Rui. Another advisor Zhang Bin disagreed, noting that Shi had dealt Jin too much damage previously to be able to submit to them. Instead, he advised Shi to retreat north -- noting that Jin forces were so fearful of him that they would not likely attack -- and that he should capture a defensible city to serve as headquarters so that he could start to hold and increase his territory. Under Zhang's advice, Shi, later that year, captured Xiangguo (襄國, in modern Xintai, Hebei) and made it his headquarters. He became increasingly reliant on Zhang for advice, and he respected Zhang so much that he no longer referred to him by name.

After settlement in Xiangguo

In early 313, Wang Jun (王浚), the Jin governor of You Province (幽州, modern Beijing, Tianjin, and northern Hebei), allied with the Xianbei Duan chief Duan Jilujuan (段疾陸眷) the Duke of Liaoxi, made a major assault on Xiangguo, the defense of which had not yet been completed. Shi's general Kong Chang (孔萇), however, made a surprise attack against Duan forces, capturing Duan Jilujuan's cousin Duan Mopei (段末柸). Most of Shi's generals wanted to execute Duan Mopei, but instead Shi treated Duan Mopei with courtesy and returned him to Duan forces. The Duan then withdrew and began to disassociate themselves from Wang. Subsequent to this battle, Shi began to use Xiangguo as a base of operations and gradually took increasingly larger pieces of territory under his control -- still under Han Zhao's name, but acting independently. As it became increasingly clear that Liu Cong, who was talented but violent and wasteful, had become distracted by sensual pleasures and was not able to make Han Zhao into an efficient state, Shi began to act even more independently.

In early 314, Shi considered plans to destroy the still powerful Wang. Knowing that Wang long had dreams of becoming an emperor, since he believed that his name was prophesied as one for an emperor, Shi pretended to be ready to submit to him and offered him the imperial throne. Wang, trusting Shi's intentions, no longer defended against him. Several months later, Shi, under the guise of offering tribute, made a surprise attack on Wang's headquarters in Ji (薊縣, in modern Beijing), capturing and executing Wang. (However, at this time Shi was unable to hold You Province permanently, and it fell into the hand of the Duan chief Duan Pidi (段匹磾), still loyal to Jin.) In fall 315, Liu Cong officially granted Shi imperial authority in the eastern empire, formalizing Shi's hold on his domain.

In early 317, Shi defeated the Jin governor of Bing Province, Liu Kun (劉琨), who had previously posed a major threat to Han Zhao, and took Bing Province under his control, forcing Liu to flee to You Province to join Duan.

In 318, Liu Cong died and was succeede by his son Liu Can. Shortly after, however, Liu Can was killed by his father-in-law Jin Zhun in a coup, and Jin slaughtered all members of the imperial Liu household in the capital Pingyang (平陽, in modern Linfen, Shanxi). Both Shi and Liu Yao, a cousin of Liu Cong, led their armies against Jin Zhun. Liu Yao declared himself emperor, and Shi decided, at that time, to submit to Liu Yao's authority. Liu Yao created him the Duke of Zhao. Subsequently, Jin Zhun, with his forces under pressure from two sides, was assassinated and succeeded by his cousin Jin Ming (靳明), who abandoned Pingyang and surrendered to Liu Yao. Shi entered the capital but did not occupy it. With the capital heavily damaged by the coup and the subsequent battles, Liu Yao moved the capital to Chang'an.

In early 319, Shi sent a delegation to pay tribute to Liu Yao. Liu Yao was very pleased, and created Shi the Prince of Zhao. However, subsequently, Liu Yao became suspicious that Shi was about to rebel, killed his lead delegate. Shi became angry, and later that year declared independence under the title of Prince of Zhao. (Because Liu Yao, also in 319, changed the formal name of his state from Han to Zhao, Shi's state became known as Later Zhao.)

Independence and reign as Prince of Zhao

For the first several years of his independence, Shi concentrated on annexing remaining pockets of Jin power in northern and central China. Later in 319, he attacked and defeated Duan Pidi, seizing You Province, and Duan was forced to flee to join Shao Xu (邵續) the Jin governor of Ji Province (冀州, normally referring to central Hebei, but now only with control of northwestern Shandong). In 320, Shi Le sent Shi Hu and Kong Chang against Shao, capturing him. For a while longer, Duan served as the leader of the Jin forces remaining in Ji Province, but in 321, Shi Hu captured him as well. The only remaining point of Jin power north of the Yellow River became the Xianbei chief Murong Hui the Duke of Liaodong, who claimed Jin vassal status but was acting fairly independently in controlling the modern Liaoning. Shi, however, reached a stalemate to the south with the Jin governor of Yu Province (豫州, modern eastern Henan and northwestern Anhui) Zu Ti (祖逖), and eventually the sides reached an informal détente with the Yellow River serving as the border, leading to peace and trade relations. After Zu's death in 321, however, Later Zhao forces began to again attack Jin, gradually capturing Jin territory between the Yellow River and the Huai River.

In 322, Zhang Bin died -- and Shi lamented at the time that Zhang's death might prevent him from completing greater things.

In 323, Shi Hu attacked Cao Ni (曹嶷) -- a general occupying modern Shandong who vacillated between being a Jin vassal and a Han Zhao vassal but acting independently -- capturing him and annexing his domain into Later Zhao control.

In 324, Later Zhao and Han Zhao began actively engaging each other, and for the next several years, they would wage war against each other bitterly, fighting over both their border territory and the parts of territory near the Yellow River still under Jin control. In 325, Shi Hu would defeat the Han Zhao general Liu Yue (劉岳), seizing the entire Luoyang region, which had previously been under split Jin and Han Zhao control, for Later Zhao.

In 328, however, Han Zhao fought back, and forces under Liu Yao's personal command defeated Shi Hu's forces and surrounded Luoyang. Shi Le personally led his force to aid Luoyang, engaging Liu Yao in battle and capturing him. He initially treated Liu Yao with some respect and ordered Liu Yao to order his crown prince Liu Xi to surrender, but when Liu Yao refused, Shi executed him. Liu Xi, in fear of Later Zhao forces, abandoned the Han Zhao capital Chang'an and retreated to Shanggui (上邽, in modern Tianshui, Gansu) with his brother Liu Yin. In fall 328, Liu Yin tried to lead Han Zhao forces to recapture Chang'an, but Shi Hu defeated him, and subsequently marched on Shanggui, capturing it and killing Liu Xi, Liu Yin, and the other Han Zhao nobles, ending Han Zhao. The former Han Zhao territory became Later Zhao possessions.

As emperor

In 330, Shi Le assumed the title "Heavenly Prince" ("Tian Wang") and created his wife Lady Liu princess and his son Shi Hong crown prince; he granted another son, Shi Hong (石宏, note different character) the Prince of Qin the title "Grand Chanyu", as official leader of the Wu Hu under his rule. This drew secret ire from Shi Hu, who felt that as the general who contributed the most to Shi Le's campaign successes, he should have been crown prince or at least Grand Chanyu and was not satisfied with his title as the Prince of Zhongshan. Later that year, Shi assumed the title of emperor and created Princess Liu empress.

Shi Le, not realizing Shi Hu's intentions, still trusted Shi Hu greatly, despite warnings from his advisors Cheng Xia (程遐) (the brother of Crown Prince Hong's mother Consort Cheng) and Xu Guang (徐光), who advised him to gradually strip Shi Hu's powers and transfer them to Shi Hong. In 332, Shi Le did transfer some of Shi Hu's authorities to Shi Hong and the eunuch Yan Zhen (嚴震), but this only served to aggravate Shi Hu.

In 333, Shi Le grew ill, and Shi Hu, during Shi Le's illness, began to put his sons in command of armies, preparing for a coup. When Shi Le died in the fall, Shi Hu immediately seized power in a coup, killing Cheng and Xu. Apparently pursuant to Shi Le's directions, he was secretly buried at a location unknown publicly, and an empty casket was instead buried in a grand ceremony at an imperial tomb. Shi Hu made Shi Hong take the throne, but would depose Shi Hong in 334 and seize the throne himself. Shi Le's descendants would all die at Shi Hu's hands.

Era names

* "Zhaowang" ("Prince of Zhao") (趙王 zhào wáng) 319-328
* "Taihe" (太和 taì hé) 328-330
* "Jianping" (建平 jiàn píng) 330-333

Personal information

* Father
** Zhouhezhu (周曷朱), also named Qiyijia (乞翼加), minor Jie tribal chief
* Mother
** Lady Wang
* Wife
** Empress Liu (created 330, killed by Shi Hu 333)
* Major Concubines
** Consort Cheng, sister of Cheng Xia (程遐), mother of Crown Prince Hong
* Children
** Shi Xing (石興), the original heir apparent, died sometime before 330
** Shi Hong (石弘, note different character from his brother), the Crown Prince (created 330), later emperor
** Shi Hong (石宏, note different character from his brother), the Prince of Qin (created 330, executed by Shi Hu 334)
** Shi Hui (石恢), the Prince of Nanyang (created 330, executed by Shi Hu 334)


* "Book of Jin", vols. 104, 105 [] .
* "Book of Wei", vol. 95 [] .
* "Zizhi Tongjian", vols. , , , , , , , , , .
* "Spring and Autumn Annals of the Sixteen Kingdoms", .

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