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Wang Dun 王敦

Jun 24, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Dun 王敦 (266-324), courtesy name Chuzhong 處仲, was a high minister and rebel during the Eastern Jin period. He hailed from Linyi 臨沂 in the princedom of Langya 瑯琊 (today in Shandong) and was a cousin of Wang Dao 王導 (276-339), one of the most important figures of the early Eastern Jin. His wife was Princess Xiangcheng 襄城公主, a daughter of Emperor Wu 晉武帝 (r. 265-290), the founder of the dynasty.

Wang Dun began his career as gentleman attendant at the palace gate (jishi Huangmen shilang 給事黃門侍郎), but was recommended for promotion by Wang Yan 王衍 (256-311), and appointed regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Qingzhou 青州. Wang participated in the intra-dynastic war against Sima Lun 司馬倫 (249-301), the Prince of Zhao 趙, and was therefore rewarded with the title of Cavalier attendant-in-ordinary (sanji changshi 散騎常侍).

The regent Sima Yue 司馬越 (d. 311), Prince of Donghai 東海, transferred him to the province of Yangzhou 揚州. During these years, he held the title of General spreading martiality (guangwu jiangjun 廣武將軍 and acted as Secretarial Supervisor (zhongshu jian 中書監).

During the turmoils in the 310s, Sima Rui 司馬睿, Prince of Langya (known as Emperor Yuan 晉元帝, r. 317-322), re-founded the Jin dynasty and established its capital in Jianye 建業 – then renamed Jiankang 建康 (today's Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu). Wang Dun was made *libationer-advisor of the army (junzi jijiu 軍咨祭酒, i.e. junshi jijiu 軍師祭酒) in 311 succeeded Liu Tao 劉陶 (dates unknown) in the office of regional inspector of Yangzhou in combination with the title of General to the Left (zuo jiangjun 左將軍), who held the command over all offensive armies (dudu zhengtao zhujun shi 都督征討諸軍事). In this function, he first fought against regional inspector Hua Yi 華軼 (d. 311), regional governor (mu 牧) of Jiangzhou 江州, who opposed Sima Rui, and later brought down the peasant rebellion of Du Tao 杜弢 (d. 315) in central China.

In 315, Wang Dun was named General-in-chief defending the east (zhendong da jiangjun 鎮東大將軍), an office giving into his hands the command over the armies of six provinces, and the title of regional inspector of the province of Jiangzhou 江州.

When Sima Rui founded the Eastern Jin in 317, Wang Dun and his cousin Wang Dao belonged to his ardent supporters, particularly in relation to securing the dynasty's position towards the local nobility. Wang Dun was General-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) and regional inspector of Jingzhou 荊州, and so controlled military affairs of the middle Yangtze region. In addition to that, he held the title of Commander Unequalled in Honour (kaifu yitong sansi 開府儀同三司) and was ennobled as Marquis of Han'an 漢安侯. He was so powerful that he controlled virtually all civilian and military offices, even if he was not officially regent of the Jin empire.

Emperor Yuan therefore both feared and hated Wang Dun and tried to build up a group of ministers who would be able to balance the power of Wang Dun. They were mainly Vice Censor-in-chief (yushi zhongcheng 御史中丞) Liu Wei 劉隗 (273-333) and Left Vice Director of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu zuo puye 尚書左仆射) Diao Xie 刁協 (d. 322), Zhou Yi 周顗 (269-322) and Dai Yuan 戴淵 (271-322). Liu Wei was given command over the northern armies as General defending the north (zhenbei jiangjun 鎮北將軍), while Dai Yuan was General attacking the west (zhengxi jiangjun 征西將軍). It thus seemed as if they were preparing an attack on the Xiongnu 匈奴 leader Shi Le 石勒 (274-333) in the north, while in reality, they made themselves ready to charge Wang Dun.

As a particular measure, Emperor Yuan liberated all dependent households (tongke 僮客, see dianke, yinke) in the province of Yangzhou and ordered them to create milita.

In 322, Wang Dun, being aware of the challenge, rose in rebellion (Wang Dun zhi luan 王敦之亂) on the pretext of fighting against Liu Wei, an "evil minister". He was supported by the majority of the landed nobility of southeast China, for instance Shen Chong 沈充, the chamberlain (neishi 內史) of the Princedom of Xuancheng 宣城. Marching from his seat in Wuchang 武昌 (today's Ezhou 鄂州, Hubei), Wang Dun conquered the capital Jiankang and killed Dai Yuan, Zhou Kai, and Diao Xie, and many other courtiers. His troops plundered the city and marauded through the countryside.

Liu Wei fled to the north and offered Shi Le - meanwhile ruler of the Later Zhao dynasty 後趙 (319-350) - his services. The court appointed Wang Dun Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) and regional governor of Jiangzhou, and bestowed on him the title of Commandery Duke of Wuchang 武昌郡公. Wang returned to Wuchang, from where he controlled the court.

In the same year, Emperor Yuan died and was succeeded by Emperor Ming 晉明帝 (r. 322-325), who leaned on Wang Dun as the imperial regent. The regent moved his seat from Wuchang to Gushu 姑孰 (Dangtu 當涂, Anhui), and managed the appointment of his cousin Wang Dao to the post of Minister of Education (situ 司徒). Wang Dun himself was regional governor of the province of Yangzhou. Historiographers assume that Wang Dun planned to replace the Jin dynasty by his own.

Not long thereafter, he fell ill, and the court took this chance to declare war to him. Wang Dun's older brother Wang Han 王含 (dates unknown) took over command and marched with an army of 30,000 (Yang 1992) or even 50,000 (Qu 1999) troops against Jiankang. The Emperor himself, supported by Wang Dao and Wen Jiao 溫嶠 (288-329) commanded the six metropolitan armies to defend the capital. When Wang Dun died, his army disintegrated.

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