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.