An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Liu Kun 劉琨

Jan 16, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Liu Kun 劉琨 (271-318), courtesy name Yueshi 越石, was a general and poet of the late Western Jin period 西晉 (265-316). He hailed from Weichang 魏昌 in the commandery of Zhongshan 中山 (today's Anguo 安國, Hebei) and was educated with Daoist writings (Lao-Zhuang zhi xue 老莊之學), and known as an excellent representative of the "pure-talks" (qingtan 清談) discussions among literati.

In his youth he was befriended to Zu Ti 祖逖 (d. 321), who eventuall< became the most famous general of the early Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420). Later on he was appointed *Aide of the Metropolitan Commadnant (sili congshi 司隸從事) and made the acquaintance of Jia Mi 賈謐 (d. 300), a younger brother of Empress Jia 賈后. Jia Mi patronized him and people like Shi Chong 石崇 (249-300), Ouyang Jian 歐陽建 (d. 300) and Lu Ji 陸機 (261-303) as the group of the "Twenty-four friends of Jingu Garden" (Jingu ershisi you 金谷二十四友). Liu then became a client (yuanshu 掾屬) of Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉) Wang Tai 王泰, and then editorial director (zhuzuolang 著作郎), erudite (boshi 博士) in the National University (taixue 太學), and gentleman in the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu lang 尚書郎). During the rebellion of the eight princes, he served the one or other of them, like Sima Lun 司馬倫 (249-301), Prince of Zhao 趙, Sima Jiong 司馬冏 (d. 302), Prince of Qi 齊, and finally Sima Yue 司馬越 (d. 311), Prince of Donghai 東海.

In 306, Liu Kun took over command over an army suppressing the rebellion of Shi Chao 石超 (d. 305) and Lü Lang 呂朗, and contributed to the securing of the throne for Emperor Hui 晉惠帝 (r. 290-306). He was therefore ennobled as Marquis of Guangwu 廣武侯. A year later he was appointed regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Bingzhou 并州.

Under the rule of Emperor Min 晉愍帝 (r. 313-316), Liu Hui was appointed General-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) and given supreme command over all troops in the provinces of Bingzhou, Jizhou 冀州, and Youzhou 幽州 and was granted the title of Minister of Works (sikong 司空). He was known for his loyalty to the Jin dynasty and his generous support of the refugee population (liumang 流亡) that fled from the regions where "barbarian" leaders like Liu Cong 劉聰 (ruler of Former Zhao 309-317) or Shi Le 石勒 (ruler of Later Zhao 319-333) disturbed the peace. Liu even concluded a military alliance with the leader of the state of Dai 代, Tuoba Yilu 拓跋猗盧 (r. 315-337), against Liu Cong.

Liu Kun's army tried to relieve the city of Pingle 樂平 (Xiyang 昔陽, Shanxi) which was besieged by Shi Le, but he was heavily defeated by Shi. Liu decided to seek the protection of the regional inspector of the northeastern province of Youzou, Duan Pidi 段匹磾 (d. 321), who was of Xianbei 鮮卑 descent. The two commanders decided to continue the fight against Shi Le. In 317, when Prince Sima Rui 司馬睿 (the eventual Emperor Yuan 晉元帝, r. 317-322)) founded the Eastern Jin dynasty in Jianye 建業 (Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), Liu Kun, Duan Pidi, and Murong Hui 慕容廆 (ruler of Former Yan 前燕 307-334), decided to send Wen Jiao 溫嶠 (288-329) to the south to declare their loyalty to the new dynasty.

Yet Duan Pidi's younger brother Duan Mobo 段末波 was bribed by Shi Le and disrupted the joint army of the two generals. Not long thereafter, Liu Kun, whose friendship with Duan Pidi was under stress, was assassinated by the machinations of the powerful Wang Dun 王敦 (266-324).

The collected writings of Liu Kun had the title Liu Yueshi ji 劉越石集. The imperial bibliography Jingji zhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 lists the 9-juan long Liu Kun ji 劉琨集, and a 12-juan long supplement [Liu Kun] bieji [劉琨]別集. Yet not much has survived of his works – the remainders were collected in Zhang Pu's 張溥 (1602-1641) Liu Zhongshan ji 劉中山集.

Of the preserved writings it can be seen that Liu's style changed drastically during the turmoils of the time. The "pure elegance and clear beauty" (danya qingli 淡雅清麗) of the writings of his early days transformed into a "serious profundity" (ningzhong shenchen 凝重深沉). Three of his writings are preserved, namely Fufeng ge 扶風歌, Da Lu Chen 答盧諶 (in combination with a letter), and Chongci Lu Chen 重贈盧諶. In these, Liu's loyalty can be seen as well as his sorrows for the inability of the ruling elite to cope with the new challenges. Zhong Rong's 鐘嶸 (d. 518) poetry critique Shipin 詩品 says on Liu Kun's poems that they were "good in [descibing] miserable and sad [situations] with a loft and pure spirit" (shan wei qi li zhi ci, zi you qing ba zhi qi 善為凄戾之詞,自有清拔之氣). Liu Xie 劉勰 (c. 465-521), author of the critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍, judged Liu Kun's writings as "elegant and strong, with much spirit" (ya zhuang er duo feng 雅壯而多風). Quite interestingly, the anthology Wenxuan 文選 includes Lu Chen's 盧諶 (285-351) responses to Liu Kun's letters, namely the poem Ci Liu Kun and the letter Ci Liu Kun shu 贈劉琨書.

Huang Banghe 黃邦和, Pi Mingxiu 皮明庥, ed. (1987). Zhong-wai lishi renwu cidian 中外歷史人物詞典 (Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe), 130.
Li Hua 李華 (1986). "Liu Kun 劉琨", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 447.
Wu Chengguo 吳成國 (1992). "Liu Kun, Shi Le zhi zhan 劉琨﹑石勒之戰", in Chen Xiansi 陳顯泗, ed. Zhong-wai zhanzheng zhanyi da cidian 中外戰爭戰役大辭典 (Changsha: Hunan chubanshe), 76.
Yang Qingwang 楊慶旺, Ha Hua 哈鏵 (ed. 1987), Zhongguo junshi zhishi cidian 中國軍事知識辭典 (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe), 312.
Yang Tingfu 楊廷福 (1992). "Liu Kun 劉琨", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 608.
Yi Xingguo 衣興國, ed. (1988). Shiyong Zhongguo mingren cidian 實用中國名人辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 261.