Dong Zhuo
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Dong Zhuo
Dong Zhuo
Dong Zhuo Qing Dynasty Illustration.jpg
A Qing dynasty illustration of Dong Zhuo
Grand Preceptor ()

189 (189) - 22 May 192 (22 May 192)
MonarchEmperor Xian of Han
Chancellor of State ()

189 (189) - 189 (189)
MonarchEmperor Xian of Han
General of the Vanguard ()

188 (188) - 189 (189)
MonarchEmperor Ling of Han /
Emperor Shao of Han
Personal details
Min County, Gansu
Died(192-05-22)22 May 192[1]
Xi'an, Shaanxi
  • Niu Fu's wife
  • at least two sons
MotherLady of Chiyang
FatherDong Junya
  • Dong Zhuó (brother)
  • Dong Min (brother)
  • Lü Bu (foster son)
  • Dong Huang (nephew)
  • Dong Bai (granddaughter)
  • at least one grandson
OccupationGeneral, warlord
Courtesy nameZhongying ()
PeerageMarquis of Mei ()

Dong Zhuo (About this soundpronunciation ) (died 22 May 192),[1]courtesy name Zhongying,[a] was a military general and warlord who lived in the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. He seized control of the capital Luoyang in 189 when it entered a state of turmoil following the death of Emperor Ling of Han and a massacre of the eunuch faction by the court officials led by General-in-Chief He Jin. Dong Zhuo subsequently deposed Liu Bian (Emperor Shao) and replaced him with the puppet Emperor Xian of Han. Dong Zhuo's rule was brief and characterized by cruelty and tyranny. In the following year, a coalition of regional officials (cishi) and warlords launched a campaign against him. Failing to stop the coalition forces, Dong Zhuo sacked Luoyang and relocated further west to Chang'an (morden Xi'an, Shanxi province). He was assassinated soon after in 192 by his subordinate Lü Bu in a plot orchestrated by Interior Minister Wang Yun.[3]

Early life

According to historical records, Dong Zhuo was born in Lintao, Longxi Commandery in the early 140s. He was perceived as a chivalrous youth who was physically strong and excelled in horseback archery in his early days. In the meantime, Dong Zhuo travelled around the Qiang region and befriended many men of valor.[3]

Dong Zhuo returned and started farming in countryside in his adulthood, where he incidentally discovered a blade which had obscure inscription fading from it, reading "slash the kings like logging." This sabre was appraised by a scholar called Cai Yong, the latter claimed that it was the blade of the Hegemon-King of Western Chu, Xiang Yu.[4]

Around 165, Dong Zhuo proved to be a member of the Feathered Forest corps (Branch of the Imperial Guard) in the capital. And in 166, he served under Zhang Huan's northern campaign to suppress an uprising by the rebel leader Qiang. He was rewarded with 9,000 rolls of fine silk for his performance, all of which he distributed to his colleagues and subordinates. He eventually became a county magistrate in the Yanmen Commandery, a divisional commandant in the Shu Commandery, the Wu and Ji Colonel in the Western Regions, Inspector of Bing Province, and Administrator of the Hedong Commandery.[3]

Dong Zhuo was sent to quell the Yellow Turban Rebellion in the early 180s after a few subsequent promotions but he was defeated by the rebels and demoted. When the Liang Province Rebellion occurred and the barbarians rebelled with local gentries Han Sui and Bian Zhang, Dong was reinstated and sent to suppress the rebels. During a battle with the Qiang tribes, Dong Zhuo's outnumbered army was driven to a river which sealed his escape. To prevent his army from being routed by the enemy, Dong ordered his troops to dam the river and pretend to fish in the artificial reservoir. When they escaped enemy notice, he sent his men to cross the drained lower stream and break the dam in order to thwart any subsequent pursuits by the enemy. Despite failing to defeat the rebels, Dong's unit was the only one which escaped unscathed.

Dong Zhuo was given the title General Who Smashes the Caitiffs in 185, and General of the Van in 188. He was promoted to be the Governor of Bing Province, but he refused to take up his new post as he was unwilling to leave his men.[3]

During the turbulent situation, power of the Han dynasty was waning.[5] Under such circumstances, Dong Zhuo settled in Liang Province and built up his power. At the time, a Han military officer, Sun Jian, suggested to his superior that Dong's arrogance and insubordination to the court warranted a death sentence, but his advice went unheeded.

Rise to power

Following the death of Emperor Ling of Han in 189, General-in-Chief He Jin ordered Dong Zhuo to lead troops into Luoyang to aid him in eliminating the eunuch faction known as the Ten Attendants. Before Dong could arrive, He Jin was assassinated by the eunuchs and the capital city fell into a state of turmoil. The eunuchs took Liu Bian (Emperor Shao) hostage and fled from Luoyang. Dong Zhuo's army intercepted the eunuchs and brought the emperor back to the palace.[3]

At the same time, He Jin's half-brother, General of Chariots and Cavalry He Miao (), was killed by his subordinates after they accused him of colluding with the eunuchs.

After arriving in Luoyang, Dong Zhuo realized that his 3000 men were unequal to the numerous troops in and about the capital. Dong ordered some of his army to march out at night and re-enter the city at dawn, thus making it seem as though he was receiving reinforcements. Dong then took command of the leaderless forces of He Jin and He Miao, convinced Lü Bu to join his ranks, and made himself Excellency of Works.[3]

In 189, Dong deposed Emperor Shao and replaced him with the Emperor Xian of Han. Dong declared himself Chancellor, and became the head of court in Luoyang. However, in the words of Rafe de Crespigny, Dong Zhuo's "conduct towards the court and the imperial officials was bullying, oppressive and frequently bloody." This prompted Yuan Shao to form an army in opposition to Dong Zhuo's military authority.[3]:456-459

Coalition against Dong Zhuo

Dong Zhuo retreats to Chang'an

Map showing the major warlords of the Han dynasty in the 190s, including the territories controlled by Dong Zhuo and his subordinates Li Jue and Guo Si

In the same year, regional officials and warlords around the country formed a coalition force and launched a punitive campaign against Dong Zhuo. In response, he sent a detachment to intercept the coalition vanguard led by Sun Jian, and ordered his son-in-law, Niu Fu, to supply the fortress of Mei with 30 years' worth of rations. After his subordinates Hua Xiong, Hu Zhen, and Lu Bu were defeated by Sun Jian at Yangren, Dong Zhuo sent Li Jue to propose a marriage between Sun's son and Dong's daughter, and split the empire between the two families. Sun Jian refused and prepared to attack Luoyang.

Dong evacuated everyone in Luoyang and moved them to Chang'an in the west. Before the relocation, Dong ordered his troops to ransack the tombs of the late Han emperors for treasures, seize valuables from the wealthy residents in Luoyang, and burn down the palaces and anything that might be useful to the coalition.[3]:460-461

Then the chancellor assembled his forces in the city and personally led them to ambush the approaching army. Dong's ambush failed and he was driven back by Sun Jian.[6] He ordered Lu Bu to lead a cavalry force back to the city to halt Sun's progress before he took flight for Mianchi. Sun Jian broke through one of the eastern gates and defeated Lu Bu, taking the city.[7]

Defeat of the coalition

Despite taking Luoyang, the city was so heavily damaged that Sun Jian chose to retreat rather than to try to hold it.[3]:465

Dong Zhuo then sent his generals Li Jue, Guo Si, and Zhang Ji to the frontline against the eastern warlords. By this time the coalition had already fallen into disarray and internal bickering. The only ones who actively opposed Dong were the senior imperial officer, Zhu Jun and his old friend, Tao Qian.[8] Tao, despite having a general alliance with Dong, sent 3,000 elite troops from Danyang to aid Zhu in the battle with Dong's forces at Zhongmu. Zhu was defeated. Li Jue and his comrades then raided the surrounding area around Chenliu and Yingchuan for slaves.[9] Morale among the allied soldiers were low due to news of the ways in which Dong Zhuo would torture captives. Apparently he would have them tied up with fat-soaked clothes and start a fire from their foot. He left their heads unbound so he could enjoy their screams and watch their expressions while being tortured.[10]

Rule of terror

Map showing major events of Dong Zhuo's life.

Two months after he moved the capital, Dong Zhuo revived the title of Grand Master, an antiquated title once reinvigorated by Wang Mang, but scrapped in Eastern Han. He appointed his younger brother Dong Min as General of the Left and gave official posts to several of his kin.

Dong Zhuo threw lavish banquets during where torture would be performed on captured enemies, such as the severing of limbs or removal of tongues and eyeballs or being burnt alive. His audience were said to have experienced a high degree of discomfort.[11]

For Yuan Shao's role as leader of the coalition against him, Dong Zhuo had the entire Yuan clan in Luoyang wiped out. Within two years, thousands of public servants were wrongly accused and executed, and numerous commoners were kidnapped or killed. In order to purchase materials for further development of the Mei citadel, he had bells and bronze statues, among which were nine of the Twelve Metal Colossi,[12] melted and recast into coins. The coins did not weigh the same, however, resulting in all copper cash being devalued.[3]:463

Downfall and death

Dong Zhuo kept Lü Bu as a personal bodyguard, and swore an oath as father and son. However, after an argument, Dong threw a hand-axe at Lü Bu, who dodged the weapon. Lü Bu's relationship with Dong Zhuo was also weakened when he established an affair with one of Dong's harem.[3]:466

In 192, with encouragement from Interior Minister Wang Yun, Lü Bu made his decision to kill Dong Zhuo. One morning, Lü greeted Dong at the palace gate with a dozen trusted men led by Cavalry Captain Li Su. Li stepped forward and stabbed Dong. Dong cried out for Lü Bu to save him, but Lü merely answered, "This is an imperial order," after which he delivered a fatal blow to Dong. It was recorded that Dong's corpse was left on the streets with a lit wick placed on his navel. The wick burned for several days on the fat of the corpse. It was said that the light from the flame was comparable to the brilliance of the sun.[13] A special order stated that anyone who went forth to collect the body would be killed. However, three officials, including Cai Yong, still challenged the order and were executed. Meanwhile, all affiliates of the Dong clan, including Dong's 90-year-old mother, were put to death.[14]


After Dong Zhuo's death, several of his loyalists, such as Li Jue, Guo Si, Zhang Ji and Fan Chou, escaped on the belief that their allegiance to him would be considered treason. Wang Yun, who had taken control of the government, heard their appeal for pardon and said, "Of all those who should be forgiven, they are the exceptions." The four then planned to relinquish their positions and go into hiding. However, an advisor named Jia Xu suggested they should take this opportunity to launch a strike at Chang'an since the Liang faction was practically unscathed. The four then roused several-thousand core followers to attack Chang'an. Wang sent Xu Rong and Hu Zhen (former members of the Liang faction) to fight the Liang force en route, but Xu was killed in the first encounter and Hu joined the rebels, inflating the size of their army to 100,000 when they surrounded the capital. Lü Bu attempted to break the siege, but was defeated outside the city gate, and thus Chang'an fell into the hands of Dong Zhuo's followers. Emperor Xian was taken hostage and power in the court fell into the hands of the Liang faction once again.


  • Father: Dong Junya (died 181)
  • Mother: Lady Dong (103-192), titled Lady of Chiyang, executed
  • Younger brother: Dong Min (died 192) - After Dong Zhuo backed Emperor Xian, Dong Min was appointed to the rank of Left General. After Lü Bu killed Dong Zhuo, Dong Min was labeled an accomplice and executed, and his head was put on public display
  • Nephew: Dong Huang (died 192) - born in Lintao County, Gansu, fathered by Dong Zhuó (, note different character than his own) elder brother of Dong Zhuo, executed
  • Sons: Dong Zhuo had some infant sons who were enfeoffed and later presumably executed, and at least one son of his was born 171 but died earlier than 190
    • Granddaughter: Dong Bai (), born after 178, titled Lady of Weiyang. She was given her passage to adulthood ceremony and a grand title and lands at an unceremoniously young age despite a 50-year-old Zhu Jun's protests. For the grand ceremony, a platform was built to be five to six che -about 116 cm (3'10") or 139 cm (4'7") in modern conversions- and she rode in a blue-covered golden carriage as thousands of soldiers marched behind her. Dong Huang was said to have given her the seal personally. Dong Bai was presumably executed.
    • Grandson: born 186, executed
  • Daughter: married Niu Fu
  • Foster Son: Lü Bu

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th-century historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, was a romanticization of the events that occurred before and during the Three Kingdoms era. Because the real-life Dong Zhuo was already much of a cruel and treacherous character, the novel probably could do little more to accentuate that treachery and cruelty. It did, however, on two occasions deviate from the history.

Dong Zhuo and the three sworn brothers

Dong Zhuo first appeared as early as late in Chapter 1. Being sent to quell the Yellow Turban Rebellion, Dong Zhuo was defeated by the rebel leader Zhang Jiao and the battle was turning into a rout.

The three newly sworn brothers, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, happened to be nearby. They then led their forces out to Dong Zhuo's rescue. Suddenly met with this new opposition, the rebels were swept off their feet and had to retreat.

After returning to camp, Dong Zhuo asked the three brothers what offices they currently held. And they replied that they held none. Dong Zhuo harrumphed and then ignored them. This angered Zhang Fei so much that he grabbed his sword and wanted to kill Dong Zhuo. He was however stopped by his two brothers, who suggested taking their service elsewhere. Thus was Dong Zhuo's life spared and the three brothers went their own way.

Dong Zhuo and Diaochan

Dong Zhuo welcomes Diaochan to his home
Diaochan complains to Lü Bu about Dong Zhuo
Li Ru tries to stop Lü Bu from killing Dong Zhuo
From a Peking opera performance by Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company on September 16, 2015, in Tianchan Theatre, Shanghai, China. In the Peking opera tradition, a Jing role with his face painted white indicates an evil character.

Perhaps the most popular story about Dong Zhuo was the fictional love triangle involving Dong Zhuo, Lü Bu and Diaochan, which eventually led to the death of Dong Zhuo in the hands of his own adoptive son, Lü Bu.

After Dong Zhuo moved the capital to the more strategically sound Chang'an, Interior Minister Wang Yun started to contemplate a plot to assassinate the tyrant by using the petite Diaochan, a song girl who was brought up in his household but whom he had been treating like his own daughter, to plant the seed of dissension between Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu.

Inviting Lü Bu over one night, Wang Yun asked Diaochan to serve wine to the guest. Lü Bu was immediately seized by the girl's beauty. Well aware of this, Wang Yun then promised to marry Diaochan to the mighty warrior.

A few days later, however, Wang Yun laid a feast for Dong Zhuo and repeated the feat. Like Lü Bu, Dong Zhuo could not lift his eyes off Diaochan, who also displayed her prowess in song and dance. Dong Zhuo then brought Diaochan home and made her his concubine.

When Lü Bu heard about this early the next morning, he headed for Dong Zhuo's bedroom and peeped in through the window. There he saw Diaochan sitting up grooming her hair while Dong Zhuo was still asleep. Aware of Lü Bu's presence, Diaochan put up a sorrowful expression and pretended to wipe tears off her eyes with a handkerchief.

A similar incident recurred about a month later, but this time Dong Zhuo woke up in time to see Lü Bu staring fixedly at Diaochan. Lü Bu was then thrown out and forbidden to come into the house.

Then one day, while Dong Zhuo was holding a conversation with Emperor Xian, Lü Bu stole to his foster father's residence and met with Diaochan in the Fengyi Pavilion (). Weeping, Diaochan pleaded with Lü Bu to rescue her from Dong Zhuo. Placing his halberd aside, Lü Bu held Diaochan in his arms and comforted her with words.

Right then, Dong Zhuo returned to find the duo in the pavilion. The startled Lü Bu turned to flee. Dong Zhuo grabbed the halberd and gave chase. Being too slow, Dong Zhuo could not catch up with the agile Lü Bu. He then hurled the halberd at Lü Bu but the latter fended it off and got away.

After the incident, Lü Bu became increasingly displeased with Dong Zhuo. The displeasure was further inflamed by Wang Yun, who suggested subtly that Lü Bu kill Dong Zhuo. Lü Bu was eventually persuaded.

The conspirators sent Li Su to fetch Dong Zhuo from his castle in Meiwu () under the pretense that the emperor intended to abdicate the throne to the warlord. The overjoyed Dong Zhuo then came to the palace gate, where his troops were barred from entering. As Dong Zhuo's carriage neared the palace building, soldiers loyal to Wang Yun escorted Dong Zhuo to the trap they set. Then suddenly a general stabbed Dong Zhuo.

Injured only in the arms, Dong Zhuo then cried out for Lü Bu to save him. Lü Bu walked over and impaled Dong Zhuo's throat with his halberd, proclaiming, "I have an imperial decree to slay the rebel!"

In popular culture




See also


  1. ^ The 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms uses Zhongjiong () as his courtesy name.[2]


  1. ^ a b de Crespigny (2007), pp. 157-158.
  2. ^ (?,,,) Sanguo Yanyi ch. 2.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k de Crespigny, Rafe (2017). Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD. Leiden: Brill. p. 419. ISBN 9789004324916.
  4. ^ :",,?,?,?,:
  5. ^ De Crespigny, Rafe (2002). South China under the Later Han Dynasty. Australian National University, Faculty of Asian Studies. ISBN 0731509013. Retrieved 2020.
  6. ^ (,) See Book of the Later Han, Volume 72.
  7. ^ (,?,) See Book of the Later Han, Volume 72.
  8. ^ Fan Ye. Book of the Later Han, Biography of Zhu Jun.
  9. ^ Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 6, Biography of Dong Zhuo.
  10. ^ (?:,,?,?,) According to the Annal of Emperor Xian, Dong Zhuo would carry out his horrible and complicated punishments once he captured a soldier from the eastern warlords.
  11. ^ (?,?,,?,,,,?) Dong Zhuo had very specific treatment for those who betrayed him with punishments even more severe than the ones applied to enemy captives. The betrayers would experience prolonged suffering during the process.
  12. ^ ?
  13. ^ (,?,?,) According to the Annal of Heroes, the light from his corpse could be compared to that of the sun!
  14. ^ (,"?!") See Annal of Heroes.
Preceded by
Chancellor of China
Succeeded by
Cao Cao

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