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Prince’s death: window into late Three Kingdoms

By Xue Haibo | 2014-08-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Site of Yecheng, capital of the Eastern Wei and the Northern Qi 


The Prince of Lanling (541―573), born Gao Su but known by the cour­tesy name Gao Changgong, was the fourth son of Gao Cheng, who was posthumously honored as Emperor Wenxiang by the Northern Qi Dynas­ty. He is most famous for his actions in battle at Mangshan Mountain in Henan Province, where he won great renown for himself when he broke the siege of Jinyong with a force of only 500 cavalry.


The coup in 560

In 557, Gao Changgong got his start in politics as an adviser to the emperor. In 560, he was appointed by Gao Yin, Emperor Fei of the Northern Qi (545–561) as a high-ranking military officer of the Impe­rial Guards.


When his grandfather Gao Huan (496–547) established the Eastern Wei, he relied strongly on support from his relatives in the Gao clan and the Xianbei ethnicity, a nomadic Mongolic people who lived in what is now eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Northeast China. More importantly, behind Gao Huan were fellow nobles from his birthplace Huaishuo as well as more than 100,000 soldiers from six towns.


After the establishment of the East­ern Wei, the private Xianbei armies were disbanded, and most of their members became civil officials with no real power in the imperial court in Eastern Wei’s capital Yecheng. Later, Gao Yang, Gao Changgong’s uncle, overthrew the Eastern Wei, establish­ing the Northern Qi state.


During the period, the unshak­able reign of the dynasty rested on the foundation built by an alliance between the Gao clan, representing the dominant military force, and the Huaishuo nobles, the political power brokers of the region. The struggles for imperial power throughout the history of the Northern Qi unfolded mainly among the Northern Qi emperors, the Gao clan and the Huaishuo nobles, with the Xianbei ethnicity and other puppet groups playing supporting roles.


In 560, Gao Yin began maneuvers to curb the authority of his uncles Gao Yan and Gao Zhan with the help of Yang Yin, a top aid of the Han eth­nicity, and other Xianbei ministers. The move posed a threat to the bal­ance of power among the emperor, the princes of the Gao clan and Huaishuo nobles.


In response, Gao Yan, Gao Zhan and their Huaishuo allies, staged a coup in the Department of State Affairs, killing Yang Yin and other assisting ministers. They then fought their way into where Gao Yin lived and deposed him. As a military of­ficer of the Imperial Guards, Gao Changgong stood on Gao Yan’s side, facilitating the takeover and earning him the title Prince of Lanling. Hav­ing gained Gao Yan’s trust, he was given military and political power.


Siege of Jinyong

During Gao Zhan’s reign, the Northern Qi was nearly surrounded by enemies — the Turkic Khaganate to the north, the Northern Zhou to the west and the Southern Chen to the south. In 564, the Northern Zhou made an alliance with the Turkic Khaganate to attack the Northern Qi.


To defend against attacks from different sides, the nobleman Duan Shao divided the infantry and cav­alry into three forces. Hulü Guang, a noted general of the Northern Qi, led one force against the Northern Zhou army. Duan Shao personally took charge of another while Prince Lan­ling took the third to break the siege of Jinyong. Soon, the Northern Zhou army was defeated. To celebrate the victory, the soldiers composed a famous song and dance titled “Prince Lanling in Battle”.


The Mangshan Mountain triumph was a result of the coalition between the Gao clan and the Huaishuo no­bles. Duan Shao was the command­er-in-chief, Hulü Guang fulfilled the important task of covering the flank, while Prince Lanling played a key role in breaking the siege of Jinyong. After the battle, Gao Zhan promoted Duan and Hulü to higher positions and Prince Lanling to a slightly lower ranking than the two nobles. Thanks to the victory, Prince Lanling was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Northern Qi army, behind only Duan and Hulü.


Mystery of Prince Lanling’s death

According to some records, Gao Wei reprimanded Gao Changgong about the risks he took in the battle at Jinyong, saying: “You penetrated too deeply into the formation. If you had suffered a defeat, it would have been too late to fall back.” Gao Chang­gong replied, “I am responsible for our family affairs, so I did it without considering the consequences.” Some speculated that the emperor, upon hearing his reference to “family affairs,” became suspicious of Gao Changgong’s ambitions and poi­soned Prince Lanling to death. How­ever, this seemed unlikely because when the Mangshan Mountain battle took place, Gao Wei was only 9 years old and had not yet taken the throne. Other records indicate that Prince Lanling was afraid to go to war again, so he was poisoned to death in 573. If these accounts are true, why would Prince Lanling be reluc­tant to go to war again and why Gao Wei killed him when the Northern Qi was under the attack of Southern Chen? These questions speak to the complexity of the circumstances sur­rounding his death.


After he arose to the throne, Gao Zhan intended to use the Han people to contain the power of the other Gao princes. However, because of the coup in 560, Han officials became overly cautious, leaving Gao Zhan no choice but to put loyal subordinates, such as He Shikai, in important posi­tions. These subordinates, out of pri­vate interest, attempted to win the favor of the emperor by turning him against the princes. Prince of Henan Gao Xiaoyu and Prince of Hejian Gao Xiaowan, Gao Chagngong’s brothers, both met their end in this way. Gao Zhan died of illness in 568, igniting a power struggle among the various factions of the Northern Qi. He Shikai controlled the Yecheng government, Gao Yan held military power inside and outside of Yecheng while the Gao clan and Huaishuo nobles were in charge of the military base at Jin­yang.


In 571, Gao Wei’s younger broth­er Gao Yan (different tone from his uncle Gao Yān) altered the imperial decree and killed He Shikai and all other allies. The move was backed by Prince of Ande and Prince of Guangning, Gao Changgong’s broth­ers. For this reason, some historians have argued that Gao Changgong may have also taken part in the coup.


At the critical moment, Hulü Guang, who was also father of the empress, led the Jinyang army to support Emperor Gao Wei for fear that his family interests would be damaged if Gao Yan overthrew the emperor. Gao Yan’s army feared the Jinyang army’s might, so they fled instantly and Gao Yan himself was caught and killed. In the end, Hulü Guang’s reputation and influence over the main force of Jinyang army made Gao Wei so suspicious that he trapped him in the imperial court and killed him in 572. Just one year before Hulü Guang’s death, Duan Shao had died of illness, leaving Prince Lanling as the sole command­er of the late Northern Qi.


In 572, the Southern Chen dis­patched a strong military force of 100,000 soldiers to invade the Northern Qi, inflicting heavy casual­ties after a number of victories. The only way to reverse the situation seemed to be to call upon the galva­nizing leadership of the prestigious Prince Lanling.


However, the emperor recognized that if he were successful, Prince Lanling’s popularity could soar, prompting other Gao princes and Huaishuo nobles to support his rise to the throne, given the climate of dissatisfaction. In that case, Gao Wei’s reign would be threatened. But if he chose to kill Prince Lanling, which would be quite easy for the careless emperor, the cost would just be a fraction of territory and one compe­tent official. This was supposed to be the root cause for the death of Prince Lanling who had never committed any crime.


Hu-Hu contradictions

Prince Lanling was a typical rep­resentative of the Gao clan. He shed blood in battle and devoted himself to national affairs to defend the Northern Qi. The Gao clan, Huaishuo nobles and over 100,000 Xianbei soldiers constituted the bulwark that held up the reign of the Eastern Wei and the Northern Qi.


In the simple ideology of Xianbei tribes, property and power should be shared. However, the emperors of Northern Qi observed the practice of primogeniture followed by the Han people. To shore up the power of the crown prince, it was necessary to weaken the power of competing Gao clan princes and the Huaishuo nobles and to seize control of Jinyang army, which intensified the tensions among emperors, the Gao clan and Huaishuo nobles, leading to tragedies of fratri­cide while bringing decay to the once powerful Northern Qi.


Previously, Hu-Han(Hu referred to an ethnicity to which the Xianbei tribes belonged) contradictions were used by the academic commu­nity to describe the political history of the Northern Qi. Yet, there were shortcomings in this paradigm. In fact, the internal conflicts within the Hu ethnicity itself have pro­vided reasonable explanations for significant historical problems in the Northern Qi, paving the way for the thrilling later era of the Three Kingdoms.


Xue Haibo is from the Department of History at Jiangsu Normal University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 609, June 18, 2014.  

The Chinese link is:


Translated by Ren Jingyun