The Blood of Belshazzar — Archetypal Cursed Gem, Part Seven: The Hiung-Nu Barbarians and The Yellow Turbans

The hellish crimson gem that a doomed diver had brought from a sunken city in the Persian Gulf had caused rivers of blood to flow wherever it went, maddening those who held it with a lust for conquest and slaughter. Its origins seem to have been definitely pre-human, perhaps in the strange southern civilization whose existence is hinted in the annals of King Kull. It was the diver’s bequest to that equally doomed Babylonian prince, Belshazzar. In the west it was named for him. For generations its presence haunted the Persian kings. It briefly passed through the hands of Alexander the Great, who took it into India and lost it there. From India it travelled further east in the hands of a thief, and eventually arrived in China.

The terrible first emperor, Shi-Huangdi, possessed it, as did the bloody rebel Xiang Yu. The fiendish Grand Dowager Empress, Lu Zhi, was more cruel than either of them, and the ruby – which became known in China as the “Demon’s Joy,” according to the Buddhist chronicler Fa Hsien – was buried with her in 180 BCE. All sensible men and women hoped it would remain there until the world ended. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Her tomb was despoiled of the cursed gem after a mere four decades.

No Chinese did that. According to Fa Hsien, whose “Account of the Ruby” is the only detailed source for what became of it in the far Orient, an ambassador from the barbarous Hiung-nu carried out the robbery, under instructions from his ruler. The Hiung-nu, or Xiongnu in the fashionable modern spelling, may have been essentially the same people as the Huns who menaced the late Roman Empire. Their most famous leader – here in the west, anyhow — was the dreaded “Scourge of God,” Attila.

In the third century BCE, the Hiung-nu were a group of central Asian tribes a lot like the later Mongols. Even the language they spoke is in considerable dispute among scholars. What is certain is that their first great leader known, Modu, was born about 234 BCE. From a very young age he’s said to have been outstanding for courage and skill. After killing his father Touman and taking over the tribes Touman ruled, at the age of twenty-five, he set out on a path of conquest, subdued and united all the Hiung-nu tribes (much as Genghis Khan did centuries later), creating a vast empire centered on the Gobi – one of the largest that then existed. It rivaled the Chinese and Persian Empires; it was greater, in extent at least, than the Maurya Empire of India.

His story deserves to be told at greater length, but since he never owned the “Blood of Belshazzar” it’s irrelevant to the history of the gem. He was known as Modu Chanyu; his full title, “Chengli Gutu Chanyu” means “Son of the Endless Sky.”  He died in 174 BCE and was succeeded by his son Juzhi, known in China as Laoshang.

While Modu reigned, he fought a three-year war with the newly established Chinese Han Empire. He outfought the Han and compelled them to pay a humiliating yearly tribute to the Hiung-nu. When the Emperor Gao-tsu (formerly known as Liu Bang, a rebel warlord of peasant origins) led an army forty thousand strong against the Hiung-nu in 200 BCE, he was besieged and defeated at Baideng. After that, a still more humiliating peace settlement included the condition that Chinese princesses be given regularly in marriage to the Chanyu of the nomads. This was called heqin, which means “harmonious kinship.”  It wasn’t so harmonious in the eyes of the Han, who considered the Hiung-nu uncouth barbarians. In any case they didn’t send true “princesses,” but daughters of this or that emperor by subordinate concubines, and such girls might number dozens. Nevertheless, the Han viewed the arrangement as degrading.

The Han emperor Wudi ascended the throne in 140 BCE. An embassy from the nomad empire came to his court at once, supposedly to settle details of tribute and trade agreements. The true purpose was to loot the tomb of Lu Zhi of the Blood of Belshazzar. The Chanyu of the nomads at that time was Gunchen, who had been reigning for twenty years. Gunchen had not achieved much in those twenty years, certainly nothing to compare with the creation of his immense empire by Modu, and he had become tired of being a little man trying to fill his forebear’s big shoes. He credited the superstition that the Blood of Belshazzar brought victory and conquest. It didn’t always. It inspired bloodlust, obsessive purpose and sometimes outright madness.

The nomad ambassador successfully looted the Grand Dowager Empress’s opulent grave. Before the desecration was discovered he’d returned home, but he was ambushed and killed by a lesser ambitious chieftain, who took the accursed ruby. Gunchen Chanyu never saw it. For the last fifteen years of his reign, chief after ambitious chief attacked his rivals, won or lost, slaughtered their tribes or had his slaughtered, formed alliances and treacherously broke them, while the ruby changed hands with the fortunes of war. No holder of the ruby actually became supreme lord of the Hiung-nu in that time, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Gunchen had other problems, too, as when he was lured into Chinese territory in 133 BCE and almost caught in an ambush by 300,000 Chinese soldiers. He escaped only because a traitorous Chinese officer sent him warning. After that the Chinese emperor abrogated the heqin arrangement, trade relations collapsed, and Hiung-nu caravans to China were attacked without regard for treaties.

Gunchen’s younger brother Ichise became Chanyu in 126 BCE. Ichise reigned for twelve years, during which Hiung-nu disunity increased and the Chinese had a number of victories over them. Chinese commanders actually penetrated deep into Hiung-nu lands on their campaigns, and in 123 BCE nearly 20 thousand Hiung-nu were killed or captured. According to the Chinese records, over five years they killed or captured 300,000 Hiung-nu.

The Blood of Belshazzar, now called the “Demon’s Joy” by the Chinese, remained north of the Great Wall in Hiung-nu.

territory for another hundred and fifty years. It was all but forgotten in the Middle Kingdom. Then Pan Ch’ao, a great Han Dynasty general, had a distinguished career marked by many successes in Central Asia. He repelled the Hiung-nu more effectively than any Chinese soldier before him had done, and gained control over the Tarim Basin. In over thirty years of constant fighting, outnumbered for most of that time, he played with great skill on the disunity among his opponents. ( The ruby’s influence without doubt had a lot to with that.)  He brought the most important city-states of the Silk Road, such as Khotan, under his emperor’s authority. Among his famous sayings was, “Unless you enter the tiger’s den, you cannot capture the tiger’s cub.”

He also captured the ruby from a chieftain who, under its baleful influence, had become more than troublesome. This warlord had attacked a Tarim Basin city which refused him tribute, destroyed it, and made a mound of the inhabitants’ heads while it burned. In his capacity as Protector General of the Western Regions, Pan Ch’ao defeated him, caught him alive, and had him wrapped in red-hot chains.

This occurred in about 95 A.D. Pan Ch’ao took the ruby back to China with him when he retired at the age of seventy. Shortly afterwards, in the capital of Luoyang, he died – in 102 A.D. Three years later the young Emperor He, who had come to the throne as a prepubescent boy, died too, and was succeeded by a baby who lived less than a year. The next emperor, An, was hardly an improvement. At first he was controlled by yet another hard-nosed Dowager Empress. After her death he paid much attention to women and wine, little to running the empire, which he left to corrupt eunuch officials. The ruby passed through the flabby hands of more than one of these creatures, and while their atrocities were many, they were generally carried out in secret. The Eastern Han Empire went on declining amid debauch and the intrigues of eunuchs. Emperor An died in 125 A.D. at the age of thirty-one.

Matters went from bad to worse over the next sixty years. The monk Fa Hsien, in his “Account of the Ruby” (if he really wrote it, and not a lesser person using his name for its prestige) holds that when General Pan Ch’ao brought it back to the Middle Kingdom, he brought a devastating curse with it. Immediately after An’s death in 125, there was a succession of child emperors with brief reigns. The next emperor, Huandi, came to the throne at the age of 14 and lasted twenty-two years.

For a while he feared that he wouldn’t last one. A powerful and ruthless official, Liang Ji, the brother of yet another meddling dowager empress, had wrested the ruby from the palace eunuchs. (He had been Grand Marshal of China since 141.)  He was a violent autocrat who poisoned the child-emperor who preceded Huandi. Naturally enough, Huandi dreaded meeting the same fate, and while a young boy he was terrified of Liang Ji. As he grew older and stronger, he resolved to get rid of Liang Ji and his entire family. Ironically, it was Liang Ji himself who had gone against the wishes of other key officials and installed Huandi on the throne, with the connivance of his sister. When the empress dowager died in 150, far from being diminished, Liang Ji’s power increased if anything, until it was almost absolute. He freely demonstrated how prepared he was to kill or have killed anybody who crossed him, so that he was feared even by the powerful palace eunuchs. They also, wisely enough, feared the Liang Ji’s wife, Sun Shou, is described in Chinese histories as a natural harlot, remembered for the outrageous costumes she wore and the menage-a-trois relationship she and her husband had with a bisexual servant. We can probably add her name to the long list of women who surrendered their honor for the ruby. Her influence over Liang Ji was considerable, and so was her hunger for power.

Liang Ji fell through giving way to the boundless arrogance and power-lust the ruby inspired. In the year 151 he broke a stringent imperial regulation, that weapons were not to be worn in the emperor’s audience hall. He strode in wearing his sword. Despite his all but unassailable position, he was nearly impeached, and did suffer a heavy fine and public humiliation. After that, he insisted on having the regulations changed for him alone, so that he could walk at his ease to the emperor’s meeting hall instead of moving at a fast trot as etiquette required, carry his sword, and keep his shoes on his feet, all in the emperor’s presence.

He went much too far, though, when he plotted to kill the empress’s mother so that the empress, lacking her support, would be controllable by Liang Ji and his wife. The powerful eunuch Yuan She foiled the assassins. The Emperor Huandi, now 27 years old, a man and not a boy, was enraged. He engineered a coup against Liang Ji in a dire secret pact with the five most powerful palace eunuchs. Soldiers surrounded Liang Ji’s mansion, and the ruthless marshal found that he couldn’t counter-attack; the palace was too well guarded. The emperor and the eunuchs had made their preparations well. Liang Ji and the salacious Sun Shou realized they were quite out of options, and committed suicide together.

Their entire clans, and a number of Liang Ji’s closest associates, were killed in the bloodbath that was the usual sequel to such affairs.

The people were overjoyed that Liang Ji and his wife were gone. Sadly, the five palace eunuchs who had planned the coup with the emperor, basking in his favor, engaged in corruption on an immense scale and used China as their personal hog trough, gaining vast fortunes. After Eunuch Dan died, a popular song about the other four declared:

Zuo can reverse heaven’s decision. Ju sits by himself without match. Xu is a lying wolf. Tang’s power is as prevalent as the falling rain.

The emperor himself, who now held the Blood of Belshazzar, was corrupt and intolerant of any criticism. Those who offered it risked death. His name, and that of the emperor who followed him, became bywords for bad government and arbitrary punishments. There was a devastating earthquake in 151 and a fearful locust plague two years later, leading people to believe heaven was angry with the emperor. Huandi had three empresses in succession. None gave him heirs. The first died, the second was divorced by him for drunkenness and evil sorcery, and the third became yet another powerful, meddling dowager empress after Huandi died in 168. She received the Blood of Belshazzar, or so the “Account of the Ruby” says, and appointed the new emperor, Lingdi, who began his reign a a twelve-year-old.

Of course the dowager and the eunuchs were in control from the beginning. Twenty years of eunuch rule followed, corruption and nepotism ran wild, the administration collapsed, and the people did the suffering. An efficient relief system no longer existed, so with each new drought or flood the number of landless, desperate peasants grew.

Then a leader – and alleged sorcerer – named Zhang Jiao appeared in the commandery of Julu, which lay in the east of China, in what is today Pingxiang County. He features in the fictional Romance of the Three Kingdoms, appearing in Chapter One. He’s said to have been a Taoist by religion, and to have been gathering healing herbs in the mountains when a supernatural spirit appeared to him in the form of an old peasant man. He led Jiao to a nearby cave and presented him with a three-volume work of sorcery which he charged him to use to save mankind, but warned that if he failed in dedication the consequences to himself would be dreadful. Whether Jiao really obtained the book in that way or not, he mastered its contents and became able to control the elements, the lightning, wind and rain.

Working in secret, he created a sect or society called the “Taiping Dao.” He wandered about, seemingly with no hidden motives, as a harmless healer. Gaining respect by curing diseases no other man could effectively treat, he added recruits to his secret society wherever he went. He even gained members in the imperial court at Luoyang. With these clandestine allies, and his magic, he was able to steal the ruby – his single greatest mistake. He should never have touched it.

With his brothers Bao and Liang, he led the peasant rebellion that became known as the Yellow Turban Revolt. It began in 184 A.D., taking its name from the color of the scarves the rebels wore around their heads. The Taiping Dao came into the open, shouting the slogan, “The whole country will be blessed!”  But the conspirators in the Luoyang court had been betrayed , arrested and executed. The peasant rebels were on their own.

The well-intentioned man of peace Jiao perhaps had been at first, no longer existed. The cursed ruby blazed on his headdress as it had shone on the persons of the Tiger of Ch’in and the rebel warrior Xiang Yu. The effect on his personality was similar. He summoned his followers and all the disaffected peasants of several provinces. Over 350,000 men joined him – and tens of thousands died of hunger, exposure or accident before they even reached his main encampment. That, however, was the beginning. Organized into 36 divisions, the Yellow Turban rebels looted towns and villages, destroyed government offices and lynched or drove away the emperor’s functionaries in their districts. The Grand Administrator of Nanyang was among those killed, and the Grand Administrator of Runan met inglorious defeat.

The rebels considered they were sure to triumph. The three Zhang brothers gave themselves flowery titles … Lord of Heaven for Jiao himself, Lord of Earth and Lord of Man for his juniors. But it takes more than titles, and the Han administration, for one in such corrupt, inefficient decline, reacted promptly. The eight mountain passes around the capital had their garrisons strengthened and the fortifications increased. Three armies were sent out against the rebels. Lu Zhi, General of the North, engaged Jiao’s forces.

Jiao proved to be no general, even if he was a formidable sorcerer. Lu Zhi beat him in battle after battle. Thousands of his men were killed and he was forced into retreat, despite his ability to summon storms and heal the wounded. Lu Zhi’s victories weren’t appreciated, however. A corrupt eunuch official sent out to inspect his progress gave a highly negative report because he hadn’t been welcomed with rich enough gifts, and the general was lucky to avoid beheading.

He was replaced by another, and far lesser, soldier. This man pursued Jiao and met him in battle. Jiao was badly wounded, but Jiao’s brother Liang took over, fought the Han general (Dong Zhuo) to a draw, and may even have forced him into retreat. Still, Yellow Turban losses were fearful and the wounded Jiao fell ill amid the stench of tens of thousands of corpses.

Although he had effected many remarkable cures, he couldn’t cure himself. He died before battle was joined again. His brother Liang was next to die, in battle with a Han general. The Yellow Turban rebels had vast numbers and a sense of outrage and injustice, but their weakness was poor organization. They couldn’t keep in touch with their various hordes in different parts of the country, or co-ordinate their rising adequately. One brother was left, Bao.

There are different stories about his finish. One version says that he made ever more reckless decisions in his desperation, until his own men murdered him. Another has him being trapped at modern Jinzhou (then called Xiaquyang) by the imperial general Huang-fu Song, in partnership with the Grand Administrator of Julu. Bao, like Jiao, was a sorcerer, and summoned a thunderstorm, in the gloom of which an army of dark phantom warriors appeared – but the illusion wasn’t enough for the rebels to prevail. Huang-fu Song and his army slaughtered them until the mud of the battlefield was crimson. Bao died with them.

That ended the Yellow Turban movement. The fragmented remnants of it turned into bandit groups led by minor warlords all over the country. One of them possessed the ruby, though which one is unknown. China’s economy had been left in ruins, military leaders and local governors seized power for themselves, and the Eastern Han Empire went on breaking apart.

Still, the Yellow Turban revolt and the secret society behind it, the Taiping Dao, were remembered by the downtrodden peasants of China for centuries. More than once, when their sufferings grew too great to bear, popular movements inspired by the legends turned into mass revolt. The Taiping Rebellion of the nineteenth century, chronicled by Victorian black sheep and charlatan Harry Flashman in Flashman and the Dragon, was one.

Once the Zhang brothers had perished, the ruby came into the hands of a major warlord named Dong Zhuo, after having been held by a few lesser ones in succession. Guided by it, he discovered the sword of the great rebel warrior Xiang Yu, who had possessed the Blood of Belshazzar in former times. Dong Zhuo had been defeated by the Yellow Turban rebels while Jiao, their leader, carried the crimson gem, so he believed absolutely in its power to bring victory. After all, he reasoned, how could a gang of miserable peasants beat him otherwise?

When Emperor Lingdi died in 189, Dong Zhuo broke the power of the palace eunuchs by the simple method of taking his troops into the capital and driving them out. They escaped because they took the new emperor hostage. Zhuo pursued, killed the eunuchs and brought the emperor back to the palace, but in the next year he deposed him and created a puppet emperor through whom he could rule. When one opulent city in the kingdom rebelled, he sacked and burned it on the pretext of putting down the revolt, ordering all the male inhabitants butchered.

That was too much. Various high-ranking officials and warlords formed a coalition against him, determined to bring him down. It took courage to fight against him, though. Zhuo made a custom of wrapping captured enemy soldiers from feet to neck in tallow-soaked cloth, then setting fire to them from the feet up, enjoying the contortions and shrieks of their exposed faces. He tortured victims in even more disgusting ways as entertainment at state banquets, while he fondled the ruby. Thousands of public servants were wrongly accused and killed while he held power, which of course made efficient administration even more difficult than it had been.

Under the ruby’s influence, when his temper grew short (it happened often) he would even hurl swords or spears at the man he needed most, Lu Bu, his adopted son and bodyguard. The quick and adroit warrior always dodged, but came to harbor an increasing grudge over this treatment. (He was nicknamed the “Flying General” for his speed at ducking.

Finally, in the year 192, he agreed to assassinate Zhuo at the instigation of the Interior Minister. With the help of a dozen reliable men, the “Flying General” carried out the murder one morning at the palace gate, briskly and efficiently. Zhuo’s body was exposed under degrading conditions in the street for days. Another monster created by the ruby had perished. It had become known in China as the “Demon’s Joy,” and in the bloody  aftermath of the Yellow Turban rebellion it was also called – by Taoists in particular – the “Heart of Hell.”

The reign of the last Han emperor, Xiandi, was like a Chinese version of Macbeth or King Lear. Warlords and would-be usurpers ravaged the country, while the imperial court became so impoverished that high officials starved to death in the palace itself. A minor warlord, Cao Cao, took advantage of the chaotic situation to install himself as the emperor’s puppet master. He also seized the Heart of Hell and thereafter behaved like the others who had owned it. He had one imperial consort executed while she was pregnant, denying all pleas for mercy. He even had the empress deposed and killed, with her two sons, and forced the emperor to make Cao Cao’s own daughter the new empress.

Cao Cao died, un-mourned, in 220. The cause is said to have been a head disease. His son Cao Pi forced the emperor Xiandi to abdicate, and so the Han Dynasty came to its inglorious end. The malign ruby remained at large in China, though, and all the harm it had done theretofore was to seem like nothing compared with what was to follow. It would glitter and blaze with its crimson fire through the time of the Three Kingdoms, the Jin Dynasty, the War of the Eight Princes, and the Wu Hu invasion. When these events were over, the very population of China would be horrifically reduced.

The Middle Kingdom would be blessed, though, by the fact that the “Demon’s Joy” had departed the country.

Read: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six