Extermination of the Wu Hu and the Merciless Policies of General Ran Min
Great diversity was not uncommon in the history of Ancient China. In such a vast nation, many ethnicities co-existed, and were instrumental in the shaping of its history. However, diversity did not always mean peace in China. There was a lot of animosity too, a lot of fingers pointed at those that did not belong to the core of the Chinese ethos. Such animosity often spilled into violence. In the mid 300’s AD, during the era of the Sixteen Kingdoms, the Chinese Emperor of the short-lived state of Ran Wei, called Ran Min, committed a terrible genocide against a neighboring Caucasian-looking tribe - causing a terrible loss of life.
The Chinese Massacre that Shocked the World
In Chinese history, there was often rivalry and war between smaller neighboring kingdoms. The period of the Sixteen Kingdoms is perhaps the most chaotic of all, and lasted from 304 to 439 AD. China was fragmented into a series of small, short-lived dynastic states, and war was waged all over the land. The different ethnicities living in China at the time only made the war worse, as hatred now took hold of everyone’s senses. Most notable was the long-lasting enmity between traditionally Han Chinese, and the Wu Hu peoples. The Wu Hu were the so-called “Five Barbarians”, non-Han people living in Northern China.
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Map of Northern China in 350 AD. (SY/CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Wu Hu likely had diverse origins. These five tribes were called by the Chinese as: Di, Qiang, Jie, Xiongnu, and Xianbei. Their identities are not certain. It is thought that Xiongnu and Xianbei were nomadic tribes from the steppes in the north. The Di and Qiang were herdsmen who spoke Sino-Tibetan or Turkic languages, while the Jie could have had Yeniseian origins, from Siberia. Either way, they were a stark contrast to the Han Chinese. Great numbers of these “barbarians” migrated into China during the Eastern Han era, and subsequently overthrew the Western Jin dynasty, creating their own kingdoms. This eventually led to the Sixteen Kingdoms period.
During the 4th century AD, these Wu Hu tribes - particularly the Jie people - opposed the rule of the powerful general Ran Min, who was quickly rising as the most powerful figure in the Sixteen Kingdoms conflict. The Jie in particular were at odds with him: this tribe helped the formation of the Later Zhao dynasty, whose eventual fall at the hands of Ran Min led to the war. The war, however, went into the favor of Ran Min, who won a big victory at the Battle of Xiangguo in 352 AD.
Han dynasty battle scene. (schmeeve/CC BY-SA 2.0)
A Desperate Measure from a War-Crazed Han General
During the war, in an intense political struggle where alliances were switched on a whim, Ran Min counted on his ability to persuade some of the Wu Hu (barbarians) to fight on his side, and betray the Jie people. However, the moment came when he realized that such a thing was not possible, so Ran Min adopted a terribly radical approach - he issued a nation-wide order that all Jie were to be exterminated. He proclaimed that it was a duty of every Han person to kill the Jie whenever possible - indiscriminately. The Jie differed from the Chinese in appearance, they had distinctly high nose bridges, and bushy thick beards, which made them an easy target for the Asiatic Han.
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A great genocide quickly ensued. Men, women, children, the old and the infirm, all were massacred simply because they belonged to the Jie tribe. Ran Min gave the order: for each severed Jie head that a Han person brought, an immense reward was offered. Great wrath was unleashed. As Ran Min’s armies moved further into the territories of the Five Barbarians, death was rained upon not just Jie, but the other Wu Hu tribes as well. Any persons with high nose bridges and bushy beards were killed outright. Many ethnic Chinese were massacred as well, simply because their appearance was similar to that of Jie.
A Loss of Life of Incredible Proportions
During this Chinese massacre of the Wu Hu, over 200,000 people were killed mercilessly. This was a near total genocide, as virtually all of the Jie people in China were brutally murdered. Great mass graves were dug, and heaps of bodies unceremoniously buried there. The Chinese did not differentiate: not even children were spared. The majority of the victims were beheaded, as the Jie heads were required to claim the rewards.
It was a terrible “no prisoners” policy, a desperate measure by the power-hungry general Ran Min who would stop at nothing to rid himself of the foreigners in China. And not only were the Wu Hu massacred, but millions of them fled from the terror and migrated into Mongolia and elsewhere. Ran Min’s military successes, however, did not last. His terrible deeds caught up with him, as he was eventually defeated in battle, captured, and executed after being whipped 300 times.
Top image: A representation of an ancient Chinese battle scene. Stunning stone carved architecture. Source: Igor/AdobeStock
Cha, T. Mong China History and Heritage. Young Adult Nonfiction.
Holzwarth, L. 2019. 18 Massacres of the Ancient World. Available at: https://historycollection.com/18-eliminatations-of-the-ancient-world/10/
Xiong, V. C. 2009. Historical Dictionary of Medieval China. Rowman & Littlefield.