Emperor Wu of Jin

emperor wu of jin, (simplified chinese: 晋武帝; traditional chinese: 晉武帝; pinyin: jìn wǔ dì; wade–giles: chin wu-ti; 236 – may 17, 290), personal name sima yan (chinese: 司馬炎; pinyin: sīmǎ yán), style name anshi (安世), was the grandson of sima yi and son of sima zhao. he became the first emperor of the jin dynasty (265-420) after forcing cao huan, last ruler of the state of cao wei, to abdicate to him. he reigned from 265 to 290, and after conquering the state of eastern wu in 280, was the emperor of a unified china. emperor wu was known for his extravagance and sensuality, especially after the unification of china; legends boasted of his incredible potency among ten thousand concubines.

emperor wu was commonly viewed as a generous and kind, but also wasteful, ruler. his generosity and kindness undermined his rule, as he became overly tolerant of the noble families' corruption and wastefulness, which drained the people's resources. further, when emperor wu established the jin dynasty, he was concerned about his regime's stability, and, believing that the predecessor state, cao wei, had been doomed by its failures to empower the princes of the imperial clan, he greatly empowered his uncles, his cousins, and his sons with authority including high military ranking. this ironically led to the destabilization of the jin dynasty, as the princes engaged in an internecine struggle known as the war of the eight princes soon after his death, and then the wu hu uprisings that nearly destroyed the jin dynasty and forced its relocation to the region south of the huai river.

life before establishment of the jin dynasty

sima yan was born to sima zhao and his wife wang yuanji, daughter of the confucian scholar wang su (王肅), in 236, as their oldest son. at that time, sima zhao was a mid-level official in the government of cao wei and a member of a privileged clan, as the son of the general sima yi. after sima yi seized power from the regent cao shuang in 249 in the incident at gaoping tombs, sima zhao became more influential in the state. after his father's death in 251, sima zhao became the assistant to his brother, the new regent sima shi. after sima shi died in 255, sima zhao became regent and the paramount authority in the wei government.

sima yan's first important appearance in history was in 260, when forces loyal to his father, led by jia chong, defeated an attempt by the wei emperor cao mao to take back power and killed cao mao. at that time, as a mid-level army general, he was commissioned by his father to escort the new emperor cao huan from his dukedom to the capital Luoyang. after his father was created the duke of jin in 263 in light of the army's conquest of shu han, he was named heir. however, at times sima zhao hesitated as to whether sima yan or his brother sima you would be the more appropriate heir — as sima you was considered talented and had also been adopted by sima shi, who had no biological sons of his own, and sima zhao, remembering his brother's role in the simas' takeover of power, thought it might be appropriate to return power to his branch of the clan. however, a number of high level officials favored sima yan, and sima zhao agreed. after he was created the prince of jin in 264 (thus reaching the ultimate step before usurpation), sima yan was created the crown prince of jin.

in 265, sima zhao died without having formally taken imperial authority. sima yan became the prince of jin. later that year, he forced cao huan to abdicate, ending the state of cao wei and starting the jin dynasty

as emperor of jin

early reign: establishment of the jin political system

emperor wu immediately sought to avoid what he saw as cao wei's fatal weakness—lack of power among the imperial princes. in 265, immediately after taking the throne, he made princes of many of his uncles, cousins, brothers, and sons, each with independent military commands and full authority within their principalities. this system, while it would be scaled back after the war of the eight princes and the loss of northern china, would remain in place as a jin institution for the duration of the dynasty's existence, and would be adopted by the succeeding southern dynasties as well.

another problem that emperor wu saw with cao wei's political system was its harshness in penal law, and he sought to reform the penal system to make it more merciful — but the key beneficiaries of his changes turned out to be the nobles, as it quickly became clear that the mercy was being dealt out in an unequal manner. nobles who committed crimes often received simple rebukes, while there were no meaningful reductions in penalties for commoners. this led to massive corruption and extravagant living by the nobles, while the poor went without government assistance. for example, in 267, when several high level officials were found to have worked in conjunction with a county magistrate to seize public land for themselves, emperor wu refused to punish the high level officials while punishing the county magistrate harshly.

emperor wu faced two major military issues almost immediately — incessant harassment from the rival eastern wu's forces, under emperor sun hao, and xianbei and qiang rebellions in qin (秦) and liang (涼) provinces (modern Gansu ). most officials were more concerned about the xianbei and qiang rebellions and also with another non-han people — the xiongnu, who had settled down in modern Shanxi after the dissolution of their state by cao cao in 216 under the watchful eyes of chinese officials, and were feared for their military abilities. these officials advised emperor wu to try to suppress the xianbei and the qiang before considering conquests of eastern wu. under the encouragement of the generals yang hu and wang jun and the strategist zhang hua, however, emperor wu, while sending a number of generals to combat the xianbei and the qiang, prepared the southern and eastern border regions for war against eastern wu throughout this part of his reign. he was particularly encouraged by reports of sun hao's cruelty and ineptitude in governing eastern wu; indeed, the officials in favor of war against eastern wu often cited this as reason to act quickly, as they argued that eastern wu would be harder to conquer if and when sun hao was replaced. however, after a major revolt by the xianbei chief tufa shujineng (禿髮樹機能) started in 270 in qin province, emperor wu's attention became concentrated on tufa, as tufa was able to win victory after victory over jin generals. in 271, the xiongnu noble liu meng (劉猛) rebelled as well, and while his rebellion did not last long, this took emperor wu's attention away from eastern wu. in 271, jiao province (交州, modern northern vietnam), which had paid allegiance to jin ever since the start of his reign, was recaptured by eastern wu. in 272, the eastern wu general bu chan (步闡), in fear that sun hao was going to punish him on the basis of false reports against him, tried to surrender the important city of xiling (西陵, in modern Yichang, Hubei ) to jin, but jin relief forces were stopped by the eastern wu general lu kang, who then recaptured xiling and killed bu. in light of these failures, yang took another tack — he started a détente with lu and treated the eastern wu border residents well, causing them to view jin favorably.

when emperor wu ascended the throne in 265, he honored his mother wang yuanji as empress dowager. in 266, he also honored his aunt yang huiyu (sima shi's wife) an empress dowager, in recognition of his uncle's contributions to the establishment of the jìn dynasty. he made his wife yang yan empress the same year. in 267, he made her oldest living son, sima zhong crown prince — based on the confucian principle that the oldest son by an emperor's wife should inherit the throne — a selection that would, however, eventually contribute greatly to political instability and the <jin dynasty's decline, as crown prince zhong appeared to be developmentally disabled and unable to learn the important skills necessary to govern. emperor wu further made perhaps a particularly fateful choice on crown prince zhong's behalf — in 272, he selected jia nanfeng, the strong-willed daughter of the noble jia chong, to be crown prince zhong's princess. crown princess jia would, from that point on, have the crown prince under her tight control. before empress yang died in 274, she was concerned that whoever the new empress would be would have ambitions to replace the crown prince, and therefore asked emperor wu to marry her cousin yang zhi. he agreed.

in 273, emperor wu would undertake a selection of beautiful women from throughout the empire — a warning sign of what would eventually come. he looked most attentively among the daughters of officials, but he also ordered that no marriages take place in the empire until the selection process was done.

middle reign: unification of the chinese empire

in 276, emperor wu suffered a major illness — which led to a succession crisis. crown prince zhong would be the legitimate heir, but both the officials and the people hoped that emperor wu's capable brother, sima you, the prince of qi, would inherit the throne instead. after emperor wu became well, he divested some military commands from officials that he thought favored prince you, but otherwise took no other punitive actions against anyone.

later that year, yang hu reminded emperor wu of his plan to conquer eastern wu. most of the officials, still concerned with tufa's rebellion, were opposed, but yang was supported by du yu and zhang. emperor wu considered their counsel seriously but did not implement it at this time.

also in 276, pursuant to his promise to the deceased empress yang, emperor wu married her cousin yang zhi and made her empress. the new empress yang's father, yang jun, became a key official in the administration and became exceeding arrogant.

in 279, with the general ma long (馬隆) having finally put down tufa's rebellion, emperor wu concentrated his efforts on eastern wu, and commissioned a six-pronged attack led by his uncle sima zhou, wang hun (王渾), wang rong, hu fen (胡奮), du yu, and wang jun, with the largest forces under wang hun and wang jun. each of the jin forces advanced quickly and captured the border cities that they were targeting, with wang jun's fleet heading east down the yangtze and clearing the river of eastern wu fleets. the eastern wu chancellor zhang ti (張悌) made a last-ditch attempt to defeat wang hun's force, but was defeated and killed. wang hun, wang jun, and sima zhou each headed for jianye, and sun hao was forced to surrender in spring 280. emperor wǔ made sun hao the marquess of guiming. the integration of former eastern wu territory into jin appeared to be a relatively smooth process.

after the fall of eastern wu, emperor wu ordered that provincial governors no longer be in charge of military matters and become purely civilian governors, and that regional militias be disbanded, despite opposition by the general tao huang (陶璜) and the key official shan tao. this would also eventually prove to create problems later on during the wu hu rebellions, as the regional governors were not able to raise troops to resist quickly enough. he also rejected advice to have the non-han gradually moved outside of the empire proper.

late reign: setting the stage for disasters

in 281, emperor wu took 5,000 women from sun hao's palace into his own, and thereafter became even more concentrated on feasting and enjoying the women, rather than on important matters of state. it was said that there were so many beautiful women in the palace that he did not know whom he should have sexual relations with; he therefore rode on a small cart drawn by goats, and wherever the goats would stop, he would stop there, as well. because of this, many of the women planted bamboo leaves and salt outside their bedrooms — both items said to be favored by goats. empress yang's father yang jun and uncles yang yao (楊珧) and yang ji (楊濟) became effectively in power.

emperor wu also became more concerned about whether his brother prince you would seize the throne if he died. in 282, he sent prince you to his principality, even though there was no evidence that prince you had such ambitions. prince you, in anger, grew ill and died in 283.

as emperor wu grew ill in 289, he considered whom to make regent. he considered both yang jun and his uncle sima liang the prince of ru'nan, the most respected of the imperial princes. as a result, yang jun became fearful of sima liang and had him posted to the key city of xuchang. several other imperial princes were also posted to other key cities in the empire. by 290, emperor wu resolved to let yang and sima liang both be regents, but after he wrote his will, the will was seized by yang jun, who instead had another will promulgated in which yang alone was named regent. emperor wu died soon thereafter, leaving the empire in the hands of a developmentally disabled son and nobles intent on shedding each other's blood for power, and while he would not see the disastrous consequences himself, the consequences would soon come.


Sima Zhao, Prince Wen of Jin, posthumously honored as Emperor Wen of Jin, son of Sima Yi


Princess Wang Yuanji (王元姬)


Empress Yang Yan (created 266, d. 274), mother of Prince Gui, Emperor Hui, and Prince Jian, and Princesses Pingyang, Xinfeng, and Yangping

Empress Yang Zhi (created 276, d. 290), cousin of Empress Yang Yan, mother of Prince Hui


Sima Gui (司馬軌), died early, posthumously created Prince Dao of Piling (289)

Sima Zhong (司馬衷), the Crown Prince (created 267), later Emperor Hui of Jin

Sima Jian (司馬柬) (b. 262), initially the Prince of Ru'nan (created 270),
later the Prince of Nanyang (created c. 276), later Prince Xian of Qin (created 289, d. 291)

Sima Jing (司馬景), Prince Huai of Chengyang (created 269, d. 270)

Sima Wei (司馬瑋) (b. 271), initially created the Prince of Shiping, later Prince Yin of Chu
(created c. 289, executed by Empress Jia Nanfeng 291)

Sima Xian (司馬憲), Prince Shang of Chengyang (created 270?, d. 273?)

Sima Zhi (司馬祉) (b. 271), Prince Chong of Donghai (created and d. 273)

Sima Yu (司馬裕) (b. 271), Prince Ai of Shiping
(created and d. 277)

Sima Yǎn (司馬演) (note different tone than his father and brother),
Prince Ai of Dai (created 289)

Sima Yun (司馬允) (b. 272), initially Prince of Puyang (created 277),
later Prince Zhongzhuang of Huainan (created 289, killed by Sima Lun 300)

Sima Gai (司馬該) (b. 272), Prince Huai of Xindu (created 277, d. 283)

Sima Xia (司馬遐) (b. 273), Prince Kang of Qinghe (created 289, d. 300)

Sima Mo (司馬謨) (b. 276), Prince Ai of Ruyin (d. 286)

Sima Ai (司馬乂) (b. 277), Prince Li of Changsha (created 289, demoted to Prince of Changshan 291, restored 301, killed by Sima Yong 304)

Sima Ying (司馬穎) (b. 279), initially the Prince of Chengdu (created c. 289), later the Crown Prince (created 304), later demoted back to Prince of Chengdu (304, forced to commit suicide 306)

Sima Yàn (司馬晏) (b. 283) (note different tone than his father and brother), Prince Xiao of Wu (initially created 289, demoted to Prince of Bingtu 300, later created Prince of Dai, restored to Prince of Wu in 301, killed by Han Zhao forces 313)

Sima Chi (司馬熾), initially the Prince of Yuzhang (created 290), later the Crown Prince (created 304), later Emperor Huai of Jin

Sima Hui (司馬恢) (b. 283, d. 284), posthumously created Prince Shang of Bohai

Princess Changshan

Princess Changguang

Princess Pingyang

Princess Xinfeng

Princess Yangping

Princess Wannian

Princess Xiangcheng

Princess Wu'an

Princess Yingyang

Princess Rongyang

Princess Fanchang

Eight other sons who died early without being created princes

Last update 01-04-2012

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