Every kingdom in the world of Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess is based on a specific period of Chinese history. The Guer Empire, the nomadic invader from the west that threatens Shuyan’s kingdom of Nanfeng, is based on the multitude of small states that ruled northern China in the 4th and 5th centuries. Called the “Sixteen Kingdoms” period, this era gave rise to some of the most notorious rulers in Chinese history. Here are just a few:
1. Shi Hu
Shi Hu (295-349) was the third emperor of Later Zhao, a nephew of its founder Shi Le. Shi Hu grew up in military camps and was noted at a young age for his recklessness, aggression and precociousness. But he was also a skilled warrior who rose quickly through the ranks and helped.
After his uncle died he seized the throne from his weak-willed cousin. Once he had taken the throne he set the work squandering the realm’s finances on massive palace construction projects. After relocating the capital city he built a total of ten palaces and filled them with captured concubines. With the added burden of military conscription, the peasantry fell into economic destitution.
Shi Hu eldest son Shi Sui had a viscous streak that would make Joffrey from Game of Thrones blush. His favourite pastime seems to have been inviting concubines up to his room, dressing them in fancy clothes, beheading them, and then throwing pieces of their body in with a mutton stew. He would leave the head out on a platter and serve his courtiers the stew, asking them how they enjoyed the taste of human flesh.
If the crown prince was the favourite son then his father never showed it. Shi Hu abused and belittled Shi Sui in front of the entire court, and Shi Sui’s resentment grew so strong that he decided to assassinate the emperor. The plan was uncovered and Shi Hu offered to spare his son’s life if he apologized, but Shi Sui refused. This enraged the emperor so much that he executed not just the prince but also the prince’s wife and twenty-six children. They were all buried together in one enormous coffin.
Shi Hu’s next heir Shi Xuan fared little better, getting into a spat with his beloved younger brother that led to the latter’s murder. Shi Hu was so enraged that he ordered Shi Xuan dismembered, eviscerated and burned to death, and then had the rest of his clan executed for good measure. At one point during the ordeal Shi Hu found himself holding Shi Xuan’s infant son in his hands and decided he was going to pardon the boy, but before he could give the order an executioner snatched him away and killed him.
This seems to have been too much for the aging emperor to bear. Shi Hu had a mental break and grew desperately ill. Hoping to avoid the messy succession fights of the past he appointed his youngest son Shi Shi to be his crown prince. Within a year Shi Hu was dead and the rest of his family tore itself to shreds.
2. Ran Min
Into the power vacuum that followed stepped Shi Hu’s adopted nephew Ran Min (d. 352), who unlike the old Jie emperor was ethnically Chinese. He started by helping the young emperor Shi Shi’s older brother Shi Zun launch a military coup and seize the throne for himself. But when Shi Zun refused to adequately reward Ran Min, he turned around and installed another brother on the throne. That brother soon bristled against Ran Min’s rule and conspired to remove him from power. But his plot was discovered and Shi Min put him under house arrest.
The military elite of the state of Later Zhao, mostly ethnically Jie like the royal family, started to break away from the new regime and deserted to one of the last surviving sons of Shi Min. Fearing the dissolution of his powerbase, Ran Min issued one of the most brutal and heinous edicts in Chinese history: every single Jie person was to be killed. Any civil servant who delivered three severed Jie heads would be given a more prestigious position and every soldier who did the same would be promoted. All in all some 200,000 people are said to have died in the massacre — many of whom were Han Chinese people who had the misfortune of having somewhat Jie-like features.
Finally in the coup de grace he overthrew the puppet emperor and installed himself on the throne, changing the name of the state to Ran Wei. But the years-long turmoil that followed the end of Shi Hu’s reign had devastated his realm and weakened his army, and his rivals rose up to take advantage.
In the west the state of Former Qin broke away, while Murong Jun of Former Yan declared himself emperor and invaded from the east. Ran Min recklessly rode out to meet the Former Yan forces in battle and was led directly into an ambush. He was captured in battle when he fell from his horse and then brought to Murong Jun’s court. When asked to answer for his crimes, he insulted Murong Jun’s barbarian heritage. He was whipped hundreds of times and then executed.
3. Fu Sheng
Fu Sheng (335-357) was the son of Fu Jian, the first emperor of the state of Former Qin. He was blind in one eye, and from an early age he appeared quite troubled and aggressive. In one anecdote his grandfather teased him about his blind eye, and in response he stabbed it with a knife. He also enjoyed killing animals, often by boiling them alive or flaying them.
Needless to say, Fu Sheng was never anyone’s first choice to rule, but he became the crown prince when his father heard a prophecy that seemed to relate to his blindness. As soon as he became emperor, he outlawed the writing and speaking any words associated with blindness. This included common and innocuous words like “less” or “without” or “missing”, which made it quite difficult to speak around court without being punished.
And believe me, you did not want to be punished at Fu Sheng’s court. The emperor was notorious for killing his advisors, often in brutal ways and for completely arbitrary reasons. One was killed because of a portentous dream, another because astrologers predicted there would be a great funeral, another because he cautioned the emperor on a matter of protocol. One poor bastard was hosting an imperial feast when the emperor personally shot him with an arrow because he wasn’t getting people drunk fast enough. When one of his uncles stepped in and tried to tame his excesses, Fu Sheng took a hammer to his skull.
And with all of this bloodshed there was no time for matters of state. Fu Sheng had no interest at all in running his kingdom. He mostly ignored his bureacrats, but in the rare event he deigned to listen to their petitions he would make his decisions seemingly at random. The government and the realm rapidly fell into ruin.
Fu Sheng inspired absolute fear in everyone who had to deal with him. But fear was not enough to ensure loyalty. When the emperor’s cousins caught wind of the fact that Fu Sheng wanted to kill them, they marched on the capital with their armies and the resentful royal guards opened the city to them. After only two brutal years on the throne, Fu Sheng was deposed.
4. Helian Bobo
Helian Bobo (381–425) was a chieftan of the Xiongnu, an ancient nomadic people that may have been the ancestors of the Huns. His father had been killed in battle against the ascendant Northern Wei dynasty, which was on its way to uniting northern China. Emperor Yao Xing of Later Qin saw Helian Bobo’s thirst for vengeance and enlisted his help in his war against Northen Wei. But when Yao Xing turned around and made peace with the enemy, Helian Bobo was infuriated. He broke away from Later Qin and declared himself the Heavenly Prince of the new state of Xia.
Yao Xing’s brother had earlier said this of Helian Bobo: “[He] is arrogant toward his superiors and elders. He is cruel to his subordinates and associates. He is also greedy, treacherous, lacking in love, and inattentive to friendships.” That reputation was well-earned. Helian Bobo was utterly ruthless when it came to building up his forces. One of his favourite tactics was to order his metalworkers to make armor and arrows and then test them against one another. If the arrows could penetrate the armor, the metalworkers that made the armor would be killed. If not, the metalworkers that made the arrows would be killed. When the capital Tongwancheng was being built, he would test the city walls by trying to hammer an iron nail into them. If it went in, the workers that built that part of the wall would be put to death and the section would be rebuilt with their bodies inside.
The end result was a lot of dead workers but an exceptionally well-defended capital, albeit one with a terrified populace. The climate of fear also pervaded the court. Traditional Chinese historians also reported that Helian Bobo would gouge out the eyes of anyone who stared at him and cut off the lips of anyone who laughed too hard in his presence. His children were quite viscous themselves; when Helian Chang killed two of his elder brothers, the emperor was so impressed by his ruthlessness that he made him crown prince.
But Helian Chang was not ruthless enough to carry on his father’s legacy. While the new emperor was celebrating the winter solstice in 426, Northern Wei launched a sneak attack across the frozen Yellow River and took Tongwancheng by surprise. They were unable to close the gates in time and the capital was ransacked. The weakened Xia state limped on for a few more years and then fell to Northern Wei.