Disasters of the Partisan Prohibitions

The Disasters of the Partisan Prohibitions (黨錮之禍) refers to two incidents in which a number of Confucian scholars who served as officials in the Han imperial government and opposed to powerful eunuchs, and the university students in the capital Luoyang who supported them (collectively referred to by the eunuchs as "partisans" (黨人, dangren), were imprisoned. Some were executed; some were released but lost their civil rights. The first incident (in 166) was largely bloodless, but the second incident (in 169), which came after the Confucian scholars Dou Wu (the father of Empress Dowager Dou) and Chen Fan were defeated by eunuchs in a physical confrontation, saw a large number of the partisans lose their lives. The restrictions on civil liberties imposed on the surviving partisans were not lifted until 184 when Emperor Ling was concerned that the partisans would join the Yellow Turban Rebellion.

First Disaster of the Partisan Prohibitions

The root of the first Disaster of the Partisan Prohibitions came perhaps in 159, when, with the support of five powerful eunuchs, Emperor Huan was able to overthrow the yoke of the domineering Liang Ji,[1] the brother of both his former regent Empress Dowager Liang and his wife Empress Liang Nüying, in a coup d'état. He put the five eunuchs and their associates into powerful positions,[2][3] and these eunuchs and their supporters became extremely corrupt.[4] As a result, a number of Confucian officials who served in the imperial administration began a conscious effort to form a coalition to drive out the influence of the eunuchs.[5] In the realm of public opinion, they were supported by university students in the capital, who admired them greatly and adored them as heroes against eunuch domination. For several years, there was somewhat of balance and counterbalance of power at court; at times the officials would successfully accuse the eunuchs of wrongdoing, and those accused eunuchs would lose power; at times the officials would be unsuccessful and instead be driven out of government by the eunuchs.[6]

The matter came to a head in 166 over a murder case. Zhang Cheng (張成), a fortuneteller in Luoyang, had foretold that a general pardon would be forthcoming, and he therefore instructed his son to commit a murder.[7] Li Ying (李膺), one of the foremost Confucian scholars in government who was serving as the governor of the capital province, arrested the Zhangs, but indeed at this time a general pardon was issued.[8] Li, in anger, disregarded the pardon and executed the Zhangs anyway.[9] However, Li did not anticipate that eunuchs friendly to Zhang would then accuse Li and the other officials of encouraging university students to criticize government and the emperor. Emperor Huan became extremely enraged, and while Chen Fan, who was then the commander of the armed forces, opposed drastic actions, Emperor Huan disregarded his opposition and went ahead and arrested Li and two ministers, Du Mi (杜密) and Chen Xiang (陳翔), as well as some 200 university students.[10] Emperor Huan also issued an arrest order for other university students—and it was this arrest order that coined the term "the partisans." Chen Fan continued to protest, and was removed from his post.[11]

The next year (167), Dou Wu submitted a humble petition requesting leniency for the partisans and tendering his resignation.[12] Another official, Huo Xu (霍謣), also submitted a similar petition.[13] Further, the eunuchs became concerned that the university students' interrogation logs often mentioned their own younger family members, and therefore also wanted to investigation to end. Therefore, under their urging, Li, Du, Chen, and the university students were released and exiled back to their original home commanderies.[14] Their civil liberties were stripped for life.

Restoration of rights under Empress Dowager Dou's regency

Early 168, Emperor Huan died without an heir.[15] Empress Dou became empress dowager and regent, and her father Dou Wu and Chen Fan became the leading officials at court.[16] They selected Liu Hong (劉宏), the 12-year-old Marquess of Jieduting, as the new emperor (as Emperor Ling). Empress Dou continued to serve as regent. Under the advice of her father and Chen, she restored the rights of the partisans, and in fact made many of them imperial officials.

Later in 168, concerned that the eunuchs were exerting too much influence with the young emperor and the empress dowager, Dou Wu and Chen entered into a plan to exterminate the leading eunuchs. When word got out, the eunuchs instead incarcerated Empress Dowager Dou to get her seal and mobilized the imperial guards and had Chen arrested and executed. Dou Wu resisted, but was defeated after a short campaign in and near the capital, and he committed suicide.[17] The eunuchs immediately removed the partisans from government and again suspended their civil liberties.

Second Disaster of the Partisan Prohibitions

The eunuchs were not content with just removing the partisans from government. In 169, they persuaded the 13-year-old Emperor Ling that the partisans were intent on rebellion.[18] The leading partisans, including Li, Du, Fan Pang (范滂), were arrested and executed. Overall, about 100 people lost their lives. Many partisans hid, with the assistance of an underground network who largely renamed anonymous even later, but included such eventually-important figures as Yuan Shao and Kong Rong. The partisans who were not on the arrest rolls had their liberties further restricted.


In 184, after the start of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, one of the eunuchs who sympathized with the partisans, Lü Qiang (呂強), persuaded Emperor Ling that if he did not pardon the partisans, they might join the Yellow Turban Rebellion and inflict great damage on the imperial administration.[19] Emperor Ling therefore granted the partisans a full pardon and restored their civil liberties.[20] (As a result, though, Lü himself would become a victim of the wrath of his fellow eunuchs, and he was falsely accused of conspiring to depose the emperor later that year. He committed suicide.)[21]



  1. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Ling Part 2" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Then Ju Yuan led [a party of] grooms from the imperial stables, Rapid Tiger and Feathered Forest guards, and Warriors with Swords and Lances of the Captains at the Capital,30 a thousand men altogether, to join the Colonel Director of Retainers Zhang Biao and surround Liang Ji's lodgings. The Superintendent of the Imperial Household, Yuan Xu, was sent in with the Staff of Authority to take away Liang Ji's seal and ribbon as Generalin-Chief,31 and to transfer his fief to the marquisate of the chief district of Bijing.32 Liang Ji and his wife Sun Shou both committed suicide on that same day. Liang Buyi and Liang Meng had died earlier. All other members of the Liang and Sun clans, both inside and outside, were arrested and sent to the imperial jails, and they then suffered public execution. No consideration was given to age or youth. Of others who were implicated, excellencies, ministers, colonels, provincial inspectors and other senior officials, scores of them died.33 M The Grand Commandant Hu Guang, the Minister over the Masses Han Yan and the Minister of Works Sun Lang were all found guilty of subservience to the Liang clan and of failing to protect the throne. They were detained at the Hostel of Long Life,34 then sentenced to the death penalty remitted by one degree, and were dismissed to become commoners.35 N More than three hundred of [Liang Ji's] former subordinates and clients were dismissed.36 The court was empty.
  2. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 2" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. An edict proclaimed rewards for the successful destruction of Liang Ji. Shan Chao, Xu Huang, Ju Yuan, Zuo Guan and Tang Heng were all made marquises of counties. Shan Chao had the income from twenty thousand households, while Xu Huang and the others each had more than ten thousand households. They were known by the people of the time as "the five marquises." Zuo Guan and Tang Heng were also appointed Regular Palace Attendants. The Prefect of the Masters of Writing Yin Xun and six other men became marquises of villages.38
  3. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 2" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. As a result of this, power and authority was concentrated in the hands of the eunuch officials. EE The "five marquises" [Shan Chao, Xu Huang, Ju Yuan, Zuo Guan and Tang Heng] were particularly greedy and lawless, and the repercussions [of their abuse of power] were felt both at the capital and in the provinces.
  4. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 2" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Many disasters and portents appeared at this time.
  5. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 2" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. "The women of the harem, however, are now more than a thousand; can their numbers be reduced? The horses in the stables are in the tens of thousands; can their numbers be diminished? The attendants of the Emperor are powerful and oppressive; can they be removed?" 1750 All replied, "That is not possible." Then Wei Huan sighed and said, "So you are asking that I go alive [to the court] and come back dead [because I would be compelled to speak out against abuses and would inevitably meet with execution for making such criticisms]. What is the point?" So he went into hiding and he would not appear again in public
  6. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 2" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Li Yun of Ganling, the Prefect of Boma [in Dong commandery], sent in an open memorial, with a copy to the offices of the Three Excellencies, saying, "Though Liang Ji had arrogated power and usurped authority for himself, and his tyranny extended throughout the empire, the punishment for his crimes was carried out by a few servants of the [imperial] household upon orders issued for his arrest and execution [so it was not a particularly complex and dangerous affair]. "Since then, however, several enfeoffments have been granted to assorted eunuchs, each valued at ten thousand households or more. Had Emperor Gaozu heard of this, he would never have approved.55 And the generals of the northwest must surely be disturbed.56 "Confucius said, 'To be an emperor is to be a judge.'57 But at the present time, official positions are mistaken and confused; petty men gain advancement through flattery; wealth and property are publicly misused, and every day the good influence of government is brought further into decline. When the documents [of imperial decrees] one foot long are issued without proper care,58 this shows that the Emperor does not want to act as a judge!"
  7. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 3" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Zhang Cheng of Henei67 was an expert at divination by the wind. He calculated that there was going to be an amnesty, and so he told his son to kill a man.
  8. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 3" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. The Colonel Director of Retainers Li Ying immediately ordered [the son's] arrest, but then the amnesty came and he was allowed to escape punishment.
  9. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 3" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Li Ying was still more angry and resentful, and in the end he found out the full situation and had the man killed.
  10. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 3" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Zhang Cheng had earlier had contact with the eunuchs on account of his magical techniques, and the Emperor had also shown interest in his divinations. The eunuchs instructed Lao Xiu, a disciple of Zhang Cheng, to send in a letter saying that, "Li Ying and others have been protecting the vagabond students of the University, they have a network of contacts throughout the provinces, and they have formed a faction. They slander and abuse the court, and they cause doubt and confusion among the customs [of the people]." At this, the Emperor was shaking with rage. He sent orders to the commanderies and kingdoms that they should arrest all the men of faction, and he had proclamation made to all the empire that his wrath should be known and the cause of his anger understood.
  11. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. After Chen Fan was dismissed, all the ministers at court became frightened, and none now dared to speak in favour of the men of faction.
  12. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Dou Wu sent in a letter, saying, "I have heard of no period of good government since the time that your majesty came to the throne. The Regular Attendants and the officials of the Yellow Gates conspire to deceive and mislead you, and appointments are given irresponsibly to quite unworthy people. "If you think back to the days of the Western Capital [under Former Han], it was through false ministers seizing power that the empire was brought to ruin.7 And now, if you do not take warning from the failures of the past, but instead continue on the same track, then I fear the difficulties of the Second Emperor [of Qin] will certainly come again, and the treachery of Zhao Gao may re-appear at any moment.8 "Quite recently, your wicked subject Lao Xiu sent in an accusation of faction. As a result the former Colonel Director of Retainers, Li Ying, and others have been arrested and put to the question, and the matter now involves several hundred people. The case has now been under investigation for a whole year, but not a single piece of firm evidence has been discovered. "I am quite convinced that Li Ying and the others are men of the most certain loyalty and steadfast honesty, with all ambitions centred upon your imperial house. Truly, these are the ministers who might serve your majesty like Hou [Ji], [the Minister over the Masses] Xie, Yi [Yin] and Lü [Shang].9 Yet now they are falsely and wrongly accused by a criminal gang of wicked subjects. The empire is chilled at heart, and all within the seas are disappointed in their hopes. "If only your majesty would pay heed, and apply your clear intelligence. Then everything would be brought to light, and the anxious feelings of both men and spirits would be allayed.10 "Now the new officials of the terrace and doors, the Masters of Writing Zhu Yu, Xun Kun, Liu You, Wei Lang, Liu Ju and Yin Xun are all worthy men of the state and good servants of the court.11 The Gentlemen of the Masters of Writing Zhang Ling, Gui Hao, Yuan Kang, Yang Qiao, Bian Shao and Dai Hui are all men of the finest literary culture, with clear understanding of the laws. There is a host of talented men suitable for appointment to positions either inside the capital or outside. And yet your majesty has entrusted authority to inexperienced officials, and you have given responsibility to creatures like the Taotie.12 Outside, they control the provinces and commanderies, inside they manage the personal affairs of your palace. You should dismiss each and every one of them, investigate their crimes and subject them to punishment. "Give your trust to the loyal and honourable men, and make fair judgement between good and bad, so that right and wrong, praise and blame are each given their appropriate place. It is the golden rule that you should consider only the public interest, and that you make your judgements purely on the question of who is best, not upon personal favour. In this way, bad omens can be averted and you may expect to receive the favour of heaven. 1799 "There have lately been reports that the Auspicious Grain and the Zhi Plant have appeared,13 and also a yellow dragon.14 Now the beginnings of good fortune certainly depend upon a man being lucky, but their fulfilment in prosperity requires that he shall then prove to be of excellent character. If virtue is present, then we have the beginnings [of good fortune]; but if virtue is not present, those are signs of disaster. If your majesty's actions do not accord with the will of heaven, you cannot count these omens as a cause for rejoicing."15
  13. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Huo Xun also sent in a memorial to plead for the prisoners,16 and the Emperor became a little less angry.
  14. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. All the men of faction, more than two hundred of them, were sent back to their home territories. Their names were written down at the offices of the Three Excellencies, and they were barred from appointment for the rest of their lives.21
  15. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. At this time, just after the Emperor's death, and when the succession to the throne had not yet been decided, the Masters of Writing were frightened and anxious, and many of them made excuses of illness and did not come to court.
  16. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Before this, when the Empress-Dowager had been established [as Empress in 165], Chen Fan had played a considerable role.42 Now that she held the regency she consulted Chen Fan on every question of government, large or small. Chen Fan and Dou Wu were in complete agreement and co-operation with one another to support the imperial house. They recommended famous and worthy men from every part of the empire, such as Li Ying, Du Mi, Yin Xun and Liu Yu. All of them took place at court and shared in the affairs of government.43
  17. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Between dawn and the time of the morning meal67 almost all Dou Wu's men changed sides. Dou Wu and Dou Shao fled, and the whole army chased after them and surrounded them. Then they both committed suicide, and their heads were displayed at the Capital Hostel of Luoyang. Dou Wu's kinsmen, clients and relatives by marriage were arrested and executed, and the Palace Attendant Liu Yu and the Colonel of the Garrison Cavalry Feng Shu were also killed, with all their clans.68
  18. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. for this reason. "Moreover, the former Grand Tutor Chen Fan gave all his strength for your imperial house, but then he was suddenly attacked by a horde of evil men and was cruelly and unlawfully destroyed. This was such a shock as to affect all the empire. And now his students and former subordinates are also suffering proscription. As the man himself is gone, another hundred lives cannot redeem him.16 You should permit the return of his family and dependents, and you should release the bonds of proscription. "Now the chief ministers are extremely important, and the fortunes of the state depend upon them. Among the four excellencies at the present time, only the Minister of Works Liu Chong is completely honest and worthy.17 All the rest of them are false, men who encourage rebellion and who draw their stipend without working for it. Inevitably, they 'break the tripod of the cauldron and overturn the gruel'.18 They should be dismissed on account of the ill omens. If you summon the former Minister of Works Wang Chang, and the Privy Treasurer of the Palace of Prolonged Joy Li Ying, they are both worthy to guide the affairs of state, and this medley of disasters and dangers will cease. The prosperity of the state may be established for a long time to come."
  19. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 6" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. The Emperor asked the Regular Palace Attendant Lü Qiang what he thought of the proposal, and Lü Qiang replied, "The proscription has been maintained for a long time and the people [affected by it] have been made angry and resentful. Unless they are given a pardon, they could quite easily
  20. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 6" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. The Emperor was frightened and accepted his policy.
  21. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling Part 4" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 1 May 2012. Zhao Zhong, Xia Yun and some others made false reports against Lü Qiang, saying that he had discussed affairs of state with the men of faction, that he had read and re-read the biography of Huo Guang,13 and that he and his brothers spread dirt and corruption everywhere they went. The Emperor sent some Palace Attendants of the Yellow Gates, bearing arms, to bring Lü Qiang to the court. When Lü Qiang received the Emperor's summons, he was angry and said, "When I die, disorder is come. If a man gives all his loyalty to the state, why should he have to answer to a jailer?" He killed himself.
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