Ma Teng, Han Sui, and the Liang Rebellion

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.

Sun Jian and the Alliance against Dong Zhuo

In 189 AD the Later Han 後漢 Emperor, Liu Hong (posthumous name: Han Ling di 漢靈帝), died, and a succession struggle erupted between the He 何 consort clan and the eunuch clique. In the chaos created by the fighting, the powerful western warlord Dong Zhuo 董卓 entered Luoyang and seized control. The following year Dong deposed the late Ling’s successor, Liu Bian (posthumous name: Prince of Hongnong 弘農王). He raised Prince Liu Xie (posthumous name: Han Xian di 漢獻帝) to the throne instead. Dong Zhuo soon proved to be a tyrannical and authoritarian dictator who heaped rewards on himself (including reviving the post of Chancellor of State 相國) while stifling all dissent with brutality.

This angered the powerful provincial lords on whom the Han had come to depend on for support. Among those angered by Dong’s excess was the dominant Yuan clan 袁 of Ru’nan1. In February, that same year a series of accusatory letters circulated in the provinces, drafted by the Grand Administrator of Dongjun, Qiao Mao 橋瑁. Yuan Shao 袁紹, Grand Administrator of Bohai and head of the Yuan clan, took the leadership position of a growing body of angry lords. This body was called the Guandong (East of the Pass2) Coalition 關東聯軍 better known by the familiar name of the Alliance against Dong Zhuo. Dong unexpectedly then gave fuel to the fire of rebellion when he murdered the former emperor and his mother the following month.

In this article, we will follow the actions of one of the most successful lords in the coalition, Sun Jian 孫堅.

Now about the time the alliance was formed Sun Jian was Grand Administrator of Changsha. He had been appointed to that position by the Han Court to take down the rebel Ou Xing 區星. Sun Jian had already proven to be a talented general through a career of good service to the throne. First against the Yellow Turbans (under General Zhu Jun 朱儁) and then against the Liangzhou rebellions (under Minister of Works 司空 Zhang Wen 張溫) Sun had propelled himself forward.

After Ou Xing had been crushed, the Han Court decided to post Sun Jian in the region more or less permanently with enfeoffment as Marquis of Wucheng 烏程侯. This did not work well as Marquis Sun often clashed with his nominal superior Inspector Wang Rui 王睿 of Jingzhou, who treated him rudely. During this time, Sun Jian expanded his active control to the neighboring commanderies of Lingling and Guiyang.

When news arrived in Jingzhou of Dong Zhuo’s coup and the formation of the Guandong Coalition the Marquis prepared to march north to aid to join the other lords. When he reached Hanshou to meet with Wang Rui Sun Jian discovered orders to execute the Inspector. The Grand Administrator of Wuling, Cao Yin 曹寅, had forged the orders out of fear of Wang. When Marquis Sun moved against his superior, the latter committed suicide. Sun Jian absorbed his army and continued marching north. At Nanyang the Grand Administrator, Zhang Zi 張資, refused the Marquis supplies because he thought he left his territory without authorization. In response Marquis Sun invited Zhang to his camp, killed him, and took over Nanyang. After absorbing the local troops, he continued north.

Soon afterward the army arrived in Luyang. Sun Jian’s plan had been to link with Yuan Shu 袁術, General of the Rear 後將軍, as the Luyang encampment was the closest of the Coalition bases to his territory. Yuan Shu was impressed by Marquis Sun and offered him court rank as General Who Smashes the Caitiffs 破虜將軍 and the post of Inspector of Yuzhou. Sun Jian accepted and began to settle his army in Luyang for winter quarters and training.

Dong Zhuo, who remembered Sun Jian from the fighting in Liangzhou (and respected him), then moved to dislodge the allies from Luyang. When the attack came, the Marquis kept his cool and made an orderly withdrawal into the citadel of Luyang. Dong Zhuo’s forces were amazed at the composure of the allied troops and began retreating to Chang’an (Luoyang having been razed earlier in the year, in April).

Early the following year, February 191, Yuan Shu moved to make the first serious offensive of the war, Sun Jian acting as his vanguard. Even though the former imperial capital was now a burnt-out shell, Dong Zhuo kept a notable garrison there. Dislodging this garrison would go a long ways to removing Dong himself from the government. However at Liang County the allied advance was halted when Dong general Xu Rong 徐榮 succeeded in surrounding Sun Jian. The Marquis managed to escape through trickery3 and regrouped his forces at Yangren in early March.

There the forces of the Coalition scored a great victory when Sun Jian exploited a rift between the Grand Administrator of Chenjun, Hu Zhen 胡軫, and Lu Bu 呂布 (Dong Zhuo’s adopted son and bodyguard). Hua Xiong 華雄, who held rank as Chief Controller, was captured in this battle and executed on the Marquis’ orders. This victory lifted Coalition morale, which had been flagging in the aftermath of Liang and the defeat of Wang Kuang 王匡 (Grand Administrator of Henei) at Meng Crossing.

At this point Yuan Shu, fearing Sun Jian’s success, withheld supplies from him. When Marquis Sun heard this, he raced to Luyang, over a hundred li, and swore his undying loyalty to the cause and the Yuan clan4. Yuan Shu was ashamed and resumed sending supplies to Sun Jian.

The fall of Dong Zhuo’s southern front changed the course of the war. Dong Zhuo, fearing Marquis Sun, tried to bribe him with a marriage proposal and government posts5. He furiously rejected the proposal. Sun Jian’s vanguard forces surged ahead and at Dagu Pass faced the forces of Dong Zhuo himself. Dong was routed and forced to fall back to Mianchi (on the Chang’an road), entrusting Luoyang to Lu Bu. Lu was in turn also routed, leaving the husk of Luoyang to the Coalition.

Sun Jian entered the city in triumph and soon set about attempting to repair the damage. During the razing of the city, Dong Zhuo had dug up the Han imperial tombs and ransacked them. The Marquis sealed the tombs and buried them again. During this time, Sun Jian may have found the Great Seal of State 傳國璽, more popularly known as the Imperial Seal.

File:Jade Seal.png

By The picture above is a print from a Qing Dynasty edition of Luo Guanzhongs Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Franz Kuhn: Die drei Reiche) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

However, records concerning this are confused and contradictory. The most likely sequence of events is that Sun Jian did indeed find the Great Seal of State in the Imperial Pottery Works, and without much further ado handed the object over to Yuan Shu. The Seal eventually returned to the Han when Yuan Shu fell in 199.

In any case, Sun Jian evacuated the city when he was sure he did enough and retired to Luyang. He could not do much else, as the rest of the Coalition was in no position to support him in Luoyang. Besides that, Dong Zhuo’s (who had completed his relocation of the capital) positions on the Chang’an road were too heavily fortified to assault.

Soon afterward the Guandong Coalition fell apart. Despite the success of Sun Jian, the other lords of the Coalition proved unable to act on the initiative and gradually the war ground to a halt. Infighting set in soon after. Yuan Shao had schemed against the Governor of Jizhou, Han Fu 韓馥 and manipulated the hapless man into giving up his territory in the summer/autumn of 191. Yuan Shu fell out with his elder brother in the aftermath, and open warfare resulted between them6.

Meanwhile Dong still held control of the central government, and his conduct worsened, dropping all pretense of restraint.In May 192 the dictator fell victim to an internal conspiracy within the Han Court led by Minister over the Masses 司徒 Wang Yun 王允 and was assassinated by Lu Bu7. The Guandong Coalition officially disbanded, but it had been fiction for months by then.


‘Generals of the South: Chapter 2: The Founder of the Family: Sun Jian’ as available at by Dr. Rafe de Crespigny.

‘To Establish Peace: Being the Chronicle of the Later Han dynasty for the years 189 to 200 AD as recorded in Chapters 59 to 63 of the Zizhi Tongjian of Sima Guang, Volume 1’ as available at by Sima Guang, translated by Dr. Rafe de Crespigny.

‘Sanguozhi: The Record of the Three States: Biography of Sun Jian’ as available at by Chen Shou, translated by Jack Yuan.

‘Three Kingdoms Comprehensive Biography: Sun Jian (Wentai)’ as available at by Jonathon Wu.

Author’s Notes:

1: At first Dong Zhuo attempted to appease the Yuan clan and keep them close to him. Dong reasoned that if a family with a century’s worth of prestigious service to the empire backed his regime, the rest would fall in line. However, when Dong attempted to depose Liu Bian he angered Yuan Shao. A heated argument broke out, recorded in Pei Songzhi’s notes to the Sanguozhi biography of Yuan, which resulted in him leaving the capital. When Dong went forward with his scheme, Yuan Shao fumed in exile (in Bohai) and was the first to respond to Qiao Mao’s call-to-arms. In response Dong Zhuo executed Yuan’s uncle and other family members living in the capital.

2: ‘East of the Pass’ here refers to Hangu Pass, the vital strategic gateway separating the center of government at Luoyang from the rest of China. The pass today is near modern Lingbao County. The gate itself was constructed in 361 BC by the State of Qin, to protect its heartland regions.

3: Sun Jian wore a distinctive wooly red headdress in battle to allow his men to identify him quickly in the field. While escaping from Xu Rong he gave the headdress to his trusted man, Zu Mao 祖茂. Zu then led off the majority of the pursuers down one road while Sun went down a less known path. The two men met up again later at Yangren, Zu Mao having escaped by ditching the red headdress onto a burning stick.

4: The Sanguozhi has the following speech after Sun draws out a line on the ground. “Above I am attacking a rebel in the name of the Emperor, below I am aiding the private vengeance of your clan, my general. This is the reason that I fight without consideration to my own safety, for the clans of Sun Jian and Dong Zhuo have no enmity. But you attend to the words of liars, and turn around with your unfounded suspicions.”

5: The Sanguozhi has the following attributed to Sun Jian in his reply, spoken to Li Jue 李傕: “Dong Zhuo opposes Heaven and is without morality; he has destroyed and overturned the Imperial clan. Now, unless I destroy you and your three generations as a sign to all within the four seas, I will not be able to close my eyes when I die. How can there be marriage relations between our clans?

6: Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu were half-brothers (and cousins by Shao’s posthumous adoption by their uncle, Yuan Cheng) and never got along. Both men were ambitious, and this put them at odds more often than not. Yuan Shu had flung the first shot by doubting his brother\cousin’s paternity and his status as a Yuan clansman. Yuan Shao, having taken over Jizhou around this time, was incensed. While Sun Jian was busy in Luoyang, Yuan Shao attacked his rear supply dump at Yangcheng through the Zhou brothers of Kuaiji, appointing one of them as Sun’s replacement as Inspector of Yuzhou. When Yuan Shu heard of it, he was angered, and counterattacked. He sent the younger cousin of his ally Gongsun Zan 公孙瓒 (General Who Suppresses Enemy Captives serving under Liu Yu 劉虞, Inspector of Bingzhou), Gongsun Yue 公孫越. While the Zhou brothers were repulsed, young Gongsun was killed and the elder launched a full-scale invasion of Yuan Shao’s territory. In response, Shao allied with Liu Biao 劉表, Wang Rui’s replacement as Inspector of Jingzhou. Yuan Shu sent Sun Jian to deal with the threat to his rear, leading to Sun’s death in battle against Liu Biao during the siege of Xiangyang City.

7: The incident forms the historical basis for the fictional story of Diaochan. Wang Yun’s fellow conspirators were Huang Wan 黃琬, Lu Xu 魯旭, Shisun Rui 士孫瑞, Xun Shuang 荀爽 (Xun supported the coup, but died before it went forward), Yang Zan 禓瓚, and Zhang Wen. All of these men were high ranking members of the Han government who could no longer abide Dong Zhuo’s autocratic and dictatorial rule. Lu Bu had joined the conspiracy because Dong had begun to mistreat him, and had attempted to kill him. There was also the matter of a chambermaid that Lu Bu had seduced, over which he felt guilty and was afraid of being found out. Dong was killed on May 22nd.