An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zu Ti 祖逖

Feb 15, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Zu Ti (d. 321), courtesy name Shizhi 士稚, was a high general of the early Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) who is famous for his desire to conquer back north China from the hands of the "barbarian states" (see Sixteen States). He hailed from Qiuxian 逎縣 in the commandery of Fanyang 范陽 (today's Laishui 淶水, Hebei) from an eminent family and received a military and civilian education. Zu was befriended with Liu Kun 劉琨 (271-318), who was eventually also a famous general.

Zu Ti was *military clerk (da sima yuan 大司馬掾) of Sima Jiong 司馬冏 (d. 302), Prince of Qi 齊, and then became *aide in the secretariat of the Heir Apparent (taizi zhongsheren 太子中舍人) in the central government, was then appointed *military supervisor (dianbing canjun 典兵參軍) of Sima Yue 司馬越 (d. 311), Prince of Donghai 東海, and governor (taishou 太守) of Jiyin 濟陰. When his mother died, he quit public service.

In 311, the Xiongnu 匈奴 leader Liu Yao 劉曜 (ruler of Former Zhao 318-329) conquered the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (Henan) and took Emperor Huai 晉懷帝 (r. 306-311) as a hostage. Zu Ti decided to raise a private army (buqu 部曲) with which he advanced southwards to escape the turmoil of the day. Prince Sima Rui 司馬睿, Prince of Langye 瑯邪 (the eventual Emperor Yuan 晉元帝, r. 317-322), the only remaining powerful leader of the imperial house, made Zu Ti regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Xuzhou 徐州. Soon afterwards he was made *libationer-advisor of the army (junzi jijiu 軍咨祭酒) and resided in Jingkou 京口 (Zhenjiang 鎮江, Jiangsu).

Upon his own request, Sima Rui gave Zu Ti the title of General Fighting with Authority (fenwei jiangjun 奮威將軍) and made him regional inspector of Yuzhou 豫州, and allowed him to wage war against the barbarian states, yet without giving him sufficient supplies. Zu Ti recruited fresh troops by himself and organized their weapons. The core of his small army then crossed the Yangtze northwards and swore "not to return southwards if not able to conquer the Central Plain". Arrived in Huaiyin 淮陰, he took measures to gradually enlarge his corps. From his headquarters in Yongqiu 雍丘 (Qixian 杞縣, Henan), he sent out messengers to local leaders and urged them to participate in the war against the barbarian leader Shi Le 石勒 (ruler of Later Zhao 後趙 319-333).

Zu Ti's first success was the conquest of the city of Qiaocheng 譙城 (Bozhou 亳州, Anhui) that was the stronghold of the magnates Zhang Ping 張平 and Fan Ya 樊雅. He then defeated the local magnate Chen Chuan 陳川 and redistributed the wealth and people he had assembled. Chen Chuan fled to Shi Le, who sent out general Shi Hu 石虎 (ruler of Later Zhao 334-349) with no less than 50,000 troops. With a kind of guerilla tactic, the cavalry of Zu Ti harassed Shi Hu, but had to retreat to the east.

Zu's territorial gains were well received at the Jin court and among the nobility of the north like Li Ju 李矩, Guo Mo 郭默, Shangguan Si 上官巳 (Shanguan Ji 上官己 or Shangguan Yi 上官已), or Zhao Gu 趙固. Not only was Zu Ti able to conquered the land south of the Yellow River, but he was also famous for the discipline of his army from which the local population profited much. The army was supplied from local agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田).

The military success of Zu Ti nourished hope among the magnates in north China with the result that many of them secretly informed the Jin general of Shi Le's military operations. Shi Le finally accepted diplomatic contact and requested the opening of border trade between the Jin empire in the south and his own empire of Later Zhao in the north.

In 321, serious conflicts at the Jin court disturbed Zu Ti's further plans. Wang Dun 王敦 (266-324), who dominated the court, suggested to Emperor Yuan to appoint Dai Yuan 戴淵 (271-322), a dignitary from the south, General conquering the west (zhengxi jiangjun 征西將軍), which gave him the command over the armies of six provinces, in order to check the military power of Zu Ti. Not long thereafter, Wang Dun and Diao Xie 刁協 (d. 322) rose in rebellion, and Zu Ti died from chagrin, as historiography says. His death was bemoaned widely.

Most territories liberated by Zu Ti were re-occupied by Shi Le in the following years.

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