Traditionally, Ma Teng and Han Sui are portrayed as being loyal subjects of the Han dynasty starting with the Ming novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the various media that has followed it. Ma Chao, Teng’s most famous son, is portrayed similarly.
Han Sui was an officer in modern Lanzhou at the time of the outbreak of the Liang Rebellion and joined the Qiang and Lesser Yuezhi mutineers of the Auxiliary of Loyal Barbarians in late 184. He quickly emerged as rebel leader alongside his colleague Bian Zhang. Ma Teng, half-Qiang himself, was a foot soldier in the government armies rising to major under Inspector Geng Bi by 187. He claimed descent from Ma Yuan, a famous general who helped establish the Later Han dynasty.
Following the inspector’s death in battle, Ma Teng switched sides and quickly caught attention. He styled himself a general under Wang Guo, the new rebel leader. When loyalist forces under Huangfu Song defeated Wang at Chencang during an attack on Chang’an and deposed in 189 Ma Teng took control of Longxi commandery, fighting the Qiang and Di. From there he exerted control over the middle Wei River as one of three main rebel commanders. Han Sui, holding Jincheng commandery, was another and commanded the majority of the Liang troops. Song Jian, who adopted the grandiose title “King of the Sources of the Yellow River, Pacifier of Han”, was the third and later set up an independent state from his base at Fuhan.
With the turmoil caused by the Han succession disputes and Dong Zhuo’s coup no one paid attention to events in Liang province. Dong, however, recognized the strength of Ma and Han’s armies and offered them pardon in return for service against the coalition of lords aligning against him in 190. They accepted and made imperial generals but stayed neutral in the war against Dong Zhuo.
Ma Teng and Han Sui both re-confirmed their loyalty after Dong made the move west to Chang’an. Two years later Dong Zhuo was assassinated by Lu Bu, and Li Jue and Guo Si seized power after a brief succession struggle. At first Ma Teng and Han Sui submitted to the new clique and were confirmed as generals for this submission. In reality they were just biding time, for Ma Teng wanted power for himself. Slowly, Ma extended his control east as far as Mei Castle on the northern bank of the Wei River. In 194 Ma Teng suddenly struck for Chang’an with Han Sui and Governor Liu Yan of Yi province supporting him. Northwest of the capital at Changping Slope Guo Si and Fan Chou defeated the Liang-Yi forces. Ma withdrew to Liang while Han, pursued more carefully, withdrew to Chencang. He reached an amicable agreement with Fan, his countryman and was able to return to Jincheng after that. Both men were subsequently pardoned and given new titles.
Failure at Changping Slope weakened the Liang rebels, allowing the central government to make gains at their expense. The commanderies west of the Yellow River were lost and reorganized as a new province, called Yong. The official government of Liang also began reasserting itself from the capital at Ji.
In 197 both Ma Teng and Han Sui acknowledged Cao Cao’s control over the Han dynasty. They dispatched hostages east, and Cao sent his agent, Zhong Yao, to them. Zhong sparked a falling out between the two leaders and Liang fell into civil war. Han emerged victoriously and killed Ma’s wife and some of his children in the process. Zhong Yao then brokered a peace agreement and Ma Teng withdrew to his home in Youfufeng commandery west of Chang’an and set his capital at Huaili. A few years later in 202 Cao Cao sent another agent, Zhang Ji, to conclude an alliance and ask for troops for his war with the sons of Yuan Shao.
Cao Cao came to depend upon on Ma Teng for his famed Qiang-style cavalry and used these forces for the remainder of his campaigns against the Yuans and northern unification. Ma Chao, Teng’s eldest, commanded the Liang cavalry and served with distinction. However this service only strengthened the ties between Ma Teng and Cao Cao, decreasing the former’s independence. Han Sui, on the other hand, remained steadfast in refusing any more contact with Cao Cao or his government then necessary.
In 208 Cao Cao, now paramount warlord, dispatched Zhang Ji a second time to Huaili. Ma Teng was compelled to come east and take up a post at Ye, Cao’s military capital. He was enfeoffed and given the exalted position of “Minister of the Guards” but was also a hostage along with his surviving sons, except Ma Chao.
Chao was given command of Liang province troops as a lieutenant-general and set up his command in Longxi. Meanwhile, Han Sui was forced conclude an alliance with Cao Cao in 209 and send his sons as hostages. The following year he invaded Yong province and destroyed Inspector Zhang Meng. Ma Chao by now had established an alliance with Han.
In 211 Xiahou Yuan marched into the Wei valley to attack Zhang Lu’s positions in Hanyang commandery. Unfortunately Ma Chao and Han Sui misinterpreted this as a preemptive strike against them and began building a western coalition to oppose Cao Cao. They expelled Xiahou’s army and forced Cao to appear himself that autumn. Blocked at Tong Pass, Cao Cao left a holding force behind and led his troops north, crossed the Yellow River upstream to the west, then marched south, intending to cross the Wei at Huaiyin. Han Sui requested a truce to negotiate and reminisce (the two were old friends), but only succeeded in arousing Ma Chao and the other western lords’ suspicions. The coalition was defeated at Huaiyin and driven back.
The following year, during the summer, Ma Teng and his entire household were executed because of Ma Chao’s rebellion. Chao, from his refuge in Longxi, gathered support for a renewed attack east. With Qiang, Di, and Zhang Lu of Hanzhong’s support he attacked Liang and Hanyang, conquering Ji in September, 212. Ma Chao proclaimed himself ruler of Liang and Bing, but his “reign” was short-lived. The next winter, 213, a local uprising evicted the Ma forces and forced them to take refuge in Hanzhong. Zhang Lu backed Ma Chao’s attempt to return in 214, but he was defeated by Xiahou Yuan and compelled to retreat. With Zhang refusing to support him, Ma fled to the Di where he would remain until Liu Bei invited him to join his attack on Liu Zhang of Yi province later that year.
Meanwhile, Han Sui was hard pressed. Xiahou Yuan expelled him from his forward positions in Hanyang and annihilated his army. Han fled back to Jincheng and then to modern Xining. Xiahou was turning his attention toward the Di and took Xingguo before pressing on to attack Song Jian. Zhang He, then serving under Xiahou Yuan, embarked on campaign independently over the Yellow River into the territory of the Lesser Yuezhi around Qinghai Lake. When Xiahou Yuan’s armies were recalled for the campaign against Zhang Lu in 215 Han Sui, then planning to flee into Yi, listened to the pleas of his advisors and raised fresh troops. With these and Qiang support he crushed the revolt of his son-in-law Yan Xing, now aligned with Cao Cao and died. That July the head was offered to Cao along with the submission of Han’s officers.
Content with mere recognition of his authority, Cao Cao left matters in Han Sui’s former territory alone. Only in Jincheng did he appoint his officer, Su Ze, as administrator. In late 217 government forces took Fuhan and executed Song Jian and his ministers. The following year the commanderies of Xining, Wuwei, Zhangye, and Jiuquan all fell into anarchy following a general war between their officers.
Peace was not restored until the very end of the Han and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms. In the summer of 220 Cao Pi, having succeeded his father, Cao Cao as King of Wei, appointed Su Ze as Protector of the Qiang. Su was charged, along with Zou Qi (inspector of the newly reconstituted Liang province), to restore order in the far west. The rebels raised their banner again and united under Huang Hua and Wang Zhao, joined the Qiang and Dingling. Su and Zou, aided by Inspector Zhang Ji of Yong and the Dunhuang chieftain Zhang Gong, emerged victorious a year later. In 222 the western trade reopened, marking the end of 50 years of turmoil.