Former Zhao
漢 (304–319)
趙 (319–329)
Han-Zhao before split, c. 317, northern China
Han-Zhao before split, c. 317, northern China
Han-Zhao (Former Zhao) after split, c. 326
Han-Zhao (Former Zhao) after split, c. 326
CapitalLishi (304–305)
Liting (305–308)
Puzi (308–309)
Pingyang (309–318)
Chang'an (318–329)
Shanggui (329)
Tengriism, Buddhism
• 304–310
Liu Yuan
• 310
Liu He
• 310–318
Liu Cong
• 318
Liu Can
• 318–329
Liu Yao
• 329
Liu Xi
• Established
• Liu Yuan's claim of imperial title
2 November 308[1][2]
• Name change from Han to Zhao
• Liu Yao's capture by Shi Le
21 January 329[3][4]
• Disestablished
316[5]2,000,000 km2 (770,000 sq mi)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Jin dynasty (266–420)
Later Zhao
Today part ofChina

The Han-Zhao (simplified Chinese: 汉赵; traditional Chinese: 漢趙; pinyin: Hàn Zhào; 304–329 AD), or Former Zhao (simplified Chinese: 前赵; traditional Chinese: 前趙; pinyin: Qián Zhào), was a dynastic state of China ruled by the Liu (Luandi) clan of Xiongnu ethnicity during the Sixteen Kingdoms period of Chinese history.[6] In Chinese historiography, it was given two conditional state titles, the Northern Han (北漢; Běi Hàn) for the state proclaimed in 304 by Liu Yuan, and the Former Zhao (前趙; Qián Zhào) for the state proclaimed in 319 by Liu Yao. The reference to them as separate states should be considered misleading, given that when Liu Yao changed the name of the state from “Han” to “Zhao” in 319, he treated the state as having been continuous from the time that Liu Yuan founded it in 304; instead, he de-established his imperial lineage from the Han dynasty and claimed ancestry directly from Modu Chanyu.

The reason it is also referred to as "Former Zhao" in historiography is to distinguish it from the similarly-named dynasty founded by Shi Le in 319, which was also known officially as "Zhao" (labeled "Later Zhao" in Chinese historiography). Since both the Former Zhao and Northern Han were ruled by the same family, the Chinese scholars often conditionally combined them into a single Han-Zhao regime. Numerous Western texts refer to the two states separately; others referred to the Han state as the “Northern Han”, a confusing nomenclature given that the term also refers to the Northern Han state of the later Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.



Following the break-up of the Xiongnu Empire in the 1st century, the Southern Xiongnu branch submitted to the Han dynasty and were resettled into the border commanderies. By the 280s, a huge number (approximately 400,000) of Xiongnu herdsmen resided in the Ordos Desert and Bing province after Cao Cao moved them there and split them into "five departments" (五部). The Xiongnu continued their nomadic lifestyles of the steppes with horse breeding and to some extent agriculture.[7]: 14–15  Sinicization was evident, especially among the elite; Liu Yuan, a head of the Left Department (左部, pinyin Zuǒbù), was educated in Luoyang, the Western Jin capital, and was proficient in the Chinese-Confucianist classics. He was even considered the post of the Jin forces commander for the conquest of Eastern Wu but was later dropped because of his Xiongnu ethnicity.

Nonetheless, among the Xiongnu elite and herdsmen, a keen sense of separate identity from the Chinese was retained. Most herdsmen still kept their horseback raiding and combat skills. Discontent against the Jin rule and of their subordinate position prompted them to seek an independent or self-governing Xiongnu entity. As one of the elite adequately put it, "since the fall of Han Dynasty, the Wei and the Jin dynasties have risen one after the other. Although our Xiongnu king (Shanyu) had been given a nominal hereditary title, he no longer has a single foothold of sovereign territory."

During the Cao Wei period, Liu Yuan's father, Liu Bao briefly unified the five departments before they were gradually forced back into five by the imperial court. Xiongnu revolts also broke out under the Western Jin, but were swiftly dealt with. The Xiongnu's insurbordination made Bing province an area for concern among some ministers, who suggested that they, along with the various tribes living in northwestern China, be resettled outside the frontier, although their proposals were rejected.

Han (304–319)

Developments in the War of the Eight Princes finally favored the Xiongnu, as infighting between the Jin princes over control of the developmentally-disabled Emperor Hui led to civil wars and widespread famines in northern China. In 304, the Xiongnu elites contacted Liu Yuan, who was serving as a general under the Prince of Chengdu, Sima Ying at Ye, and offered him to become their rebellion's leader. Liu Yuan agreed and took advantage of a commission from the desperate Sima Ying who was just being driven out of his base to gather 50,000 Xiongnu warriors. At Lishi, Liu Yuan declared himself the Grand Chanyu.

Liu Yuan proceeded to proclaim himself the "King of Han," the same title used by Emperor Gaozu of Han. According to official history, Liu Yuan was the grandson of Yufuluo, the penultimate chanyu of the Southern Xiongnu, and therefore a member of the royal Luandi clan. Liu Yuan depicted his state as a restoration of the Han dynasty, as his ancestors were married to Han princesses through heqin. However, discrepancies in the records have led to some modern historians suggesting that Liu Yuan was of the Tuge branch (屠各), who were not related to the chanyus, but were very influential during his time. Regardless, Liu Yuan's framing granted him the legitimacy he needed and a way to win over the support of the Han Chinese. Liu Yuan honored the emperors of Western, Eastern and Shu Han, and in 308, he elevated himself to Emperor of Han.

To bolster their numbers, Liu Yuan welcomed other rebelling Han Chinese and non-Xiongnu tribes such as the Xianbei and Di to join his ranks. Two key people to attach themselves with his state were the Han Chinese bandit, Wang Mi and the Jie former slave, Shi Le. The two had previously led popular rebellions on the North China Plain that failed, but after joining Han with their followers, they were given high ranks and held full control over their own armies. While this practice strengthened their forces, the Han court also had very little power to restrain these generals, essentially making them warlords.

In 308, Han conquered and later shifted their capital to Pingyang, bringing them closer to Luoyang. In 309, Han forces led by Liu Yuan's son, Liu Cong attacked Luoyang but were repelled on both occasions. These attacks, along with the famine affecting Luoyang, led to Jin's paramount authority, Sima Yue leaving the capital with the imperial army to camp at Xiang county (項縣; in present-day Shenqiu County, Henan). Emperor Huai was left behind with Luoyang defenseless.

Liu Yuan died in 310 and was succeeded by Liu He. Paranoid that his brothers may overthrow him, He initiated a purge before Liu Cong retaliated and killed him just a week into his reign. Liu Cong initially offered the throne to his half-brother, Liu Ai, since Ai was the son of Liu Yuan's empress, but he refused, so Cong took the throne for himself while making Ai his Crown Prince. Soon after, Cong intensified his attack on Luoyang. In 311, Shi Le annihilated the Jin imperial army at the Battle of Ningping, depriving Jin of its main force in the north. Han forces led by Wang Mi, Huyan Yan and Liu Yao then descended upon Luoyang, capturing the city and Emperor Huai in an event known as the Disaster of Yongjia.

Despite a symbolic victory at Luoyang, Jin forces continued to resist in northern China, with Emperor Min being installed at Chang'an in 312. More concerning, Shi Le had Wang Mi assassinated and absorbed his army. Liu Cong, fearing that Shi Le may rebel, did not punish him. With Wang Mi dead, Shi Le controlled the eastern parts of the empire, with only Cao Ni in Shandong to keep him in check. Liu Cong entrusted his cousin, Liu Yao, to lead the campaign against Emperor Min. In 316, Liu Yao captured Chang'an, ending the Western Jin dynasty, though the imperial Sima family would reestablish itself as the Eastern Jin at Jiankang in 318. Both Emperor Huai and Min suffered similar fates; they were forced to serve as cupbearers for Liu Cong before they were executed out of fear they would rebel.

When Liu Yuan established the Han, he retained most of the imperial Chinese government offices such as Grand Marshal, Minister of Works and Minister Over the Masses while mixing a few Xiongnu-influenced titles like the Grand Chanyu, who was second to the emperor. In 314, while reorganizing the government, Liu Cong introduced a dual administrative system between the Han Chinese and "Hu" people that would influence future states of the Sixteen Kingdoms. He created the offices of the Left and Right Director of Retainers to manage the 200,000 Chinese households along with the Left and Right Assistant Chanyu to govern the 100,000 tribes.

Within the Han court, Liu Cong was also at odds with his own ministers. Records depict him as an indulgent ruler with a violent temperament, but restrained himself under pressure from his officials during his early reign. In his later reign, he had the unusual practice of having three empresses at a time, and he entrusted political affairs to his eunuchs and consort kins, which severely divided the court. He also began empowering his eldest son, Liu Can, threatening Liu Ai's position as Crown Prince. This all culminated in a brutal purge in 317 orchestrated by Liu Can and Liu Cong's consort kins, during which Liu Ai and many key ministers were killed.

Liu Cong died in 318 and was succeeded by Liu Can. Not long after, a powerful consort kin, Jin Zhun, began a coup, massacring Liu Can and the rest of the imperial family in Pingyang. Jin Zhun declared himself Heavenly King of Han and invited the Eastern Jin court to assist him, but was ignored. Meanwhile, Liu Yao and Shi Le combined their forces to quell his rebellion. During the campaign, Han officials fleeing from Pingyang acclaimed Liu Yao as the new Emperor of Han. Soon, Jin Zhun was assassinated by his followers and his family was massacred.

Former Zhao (319–329)

With the rebellion crushed, tension arose between Liu Yao and Shi Le. As Shi Le had cultivated a powerful base on the North China Plain, Liu Yao was convinced that he would take advantage of Han's vulnerability to launch a surprise rebellion. When Shi Le sent his envoy to congragulate him, Liu Yao had him executed, which prompted Shi Le to declare independence. The empire was thus divided into two, with Liu Yao controlling the west and Shi Le controlling the east. As Pingyang was too devastated by the rebellion, Liu Yao shifted the capital to his base in Chang'an.

Unlike his predecessors, Liu Yao distanced the state away from the framing of Han restoration and appealed more to his Xiongnu ancestry. He renamed the state to Zhao (since one of Liu Yao's previous title was Prince of Zhongshan, and Zhongshan was in the ancient state of Zhao), and honoured his ancestor, Modu Chanyu, but still saw his state as a continuation of Liu Yuan's Han. Soon after, Shi Le also named his state Zhao, leading to historiographers to distinguish the two states as Former Zhao and Later Zhao.

In his early reign, Liu Yao expanded westwards while Shi Le dealt with his own matters in the east. In Longxi, he defeated the forces of Sima Bao, the last claimant to the Jin throne in the north, and later survived a major tribal rebellion by the Di and Qiang, leading to the relocation of nearly 200,000 of their people to Chang'an. Liu Yao then defeated Chen An, a warlord in Longxi who nominally submitted to Former Zhao, before going on to force the Former Liang into submission and invading Chouchi by 323. At its prime, the Former Zhao's army reportedly numbered at around 285,000 strong. Despite the state's new positioning, Liu Yao maintained interest in integrating with Chinese culture, as evident by his opening of an Imperial University in Chang'an taught by Confucian scholars.

War was inevitable between the two Zhaos, and in 328, Liu Yao led his forces to secure the Henan region from Later Zhao. Liu Yao and Shi Le's forces came head to head at the Battle of Luoyang, and during the battle, Liu Yao, supposedly drunk, fell off his horse during a retreat and was captured by Later Zhao soldiers. He was then executed as his Crown Prince, Liu Xi, hastily succeeded him in Chang'an. In 329, Liu Xi was driven out of his capital and finally killed at Shanggui by Later Zhao forces. The Han-Zhao dynasty was at its end, and the Later Zhao would rule most of northern China for the next 20 years.

Rulers of Han and Zhao

Temple name Posthumous name Personal Name Duration of reign Era names
Han 304–319
Gaozu Guangwen Liu Yuan 304–310

Yuanxi (元熙) 304–308
Yongfeng (永鳳) 308–309
Herui (河瑞) 309–310

Liu He 7 days in 310 None
Liezong Zhaowu Liu Cong 310–318

Guangxing (光興) 310–311
Jiaping (嘉平) 311–315
Jianyuan (建元) 315–316
Linjia (麟嘉) 316–318

Yin Liu Can a month and days in 318 Hanchang (漢昌) 318
Former Zhao 319–329
Liu Yao 318–329 Guangchu (光初) 318–329
Liu Xi 329 None

Note: Liu Xi was Liu Yao's crown prince who was thrust into the leadership role when Liu Yao was captured by Later Zhao's emperor Shi Le, but he never took the imperial title.

Rulers' family tree

See also


  1. ^ "中央研究院網站".
  2. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 86.
  3. ^ "中央研究院網站".
  4. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 94.
  5. ^ Rein Taagepera "Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 600 B.C. to 600 A.D.", Social Science History Vol. 3, 115–138 (1979)
  6. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 56–57. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9.
  7. ^ Taskin V.S. "Materials on the history of nomadic peoples in China. 3rd – 5th cc. AD. Issue 2. Jie", Moscow, Oriental Literature, 1990, pp. 14–15, ISBN 5-02-016543-3