Let them eat meat
The Chinese version of ‘Let them eat cake’ (Qu’ils mangent de la brioche) and how it turned out to be one of the darkest periods for China
While it is uncertain now which grande princesse Rosseau was referring to in his Les Confessions, the Chinese version has a clear record in the historical archives.
In the Book of Jin, a paragraph describes such an episode with the Emperor Hui of Jin, Sima Zhong — a famine had spread in the whole country and the ministers reported that “the country is in chaos and the people are starving to death”. To which Sima Zhong replied, “why don’t they just eat meat?”.
About Sima Zhong
Sima Zhong probably had an excuse to be oblivious to the sufferings of the common folk. The nobility had been flaunting wealth since the reign of his father, Emperor Wu, by engaging in childish show-off competitions like vying to line the roads with the best silk for kilometres. But this was not his only misstatement or gaffe, and the ministers, as well as Emperor Wu, were getting very concerned.
The tradition in ancient China was to install the eldest son or the eldest legitimate son (born of an Empress) as the Crown Prince and breaking this tradition could be deadly due to the high stakes involved. Sima Zhong, born of Empress Yang, was the next-in-line after the early death of his elder brother. The Empress’ family, the Yangs, had long been a prominent and powerful clan. On top of that, Sima Zhong had married Jia Nanfeng (due to the friendly terms between Empress Yang and Jia’s mother), a daughter of the powerful long-serving minister, Jia Chong.
Both the Yangs and the Jias ensured that Sima Zhong would remain in his position — Empress Yang* vehemently defended the Crown Prince whenever Emperor Wu had doubts, while Jia Nanfeng was the ghost writer when her husband was given a test. She had even been clever enough to make it not “too perfect”. Emperor Wu, comforted by “his son’s answer”, concluded that though Sima Zhong might not have been brilliant, things should still be manageable until the throne was passed on to Sima Yu — his favourite grandson, and Sima Zhong’s only son. After all, he had named many “capable regents” in his will.
Fight between the in-laws
But things didn’t turn out the way Emperor Wu had hoped for. Immediately after his passing in May 290 AD, the Yangs faked an edict and made themselves the only regent. In retaliation, Jia Nanfeng — now Empress Jia — joined hands with a few Dukes from the Sima clan, and accused the Yangs of treason in early 291 AD. Several ministers from the Yang clan were executed along three degrees of their families, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. In the spring of 292 AD, Empress Yang — by then Empress Dowager Yang — was demoted to a commoner and left alone in prison. She died of starvation within days.
With the Yangs gone, Empress Jia proceeded to plant her own family and affiliates in important positions, effectively controlling the entire court for the next decade. It was said that in the ten years that she was in power, the country was in relative peace.
Death of the heir
But this peace would not last and things quickly took a turn when Empress Jia attempted to replace Crown Prince Sima Yu (born of Concubine Xie) with her nephew (not from the Sima clan). At the end of 299 AD, Sima Yu was framed of treason and imprisoned along his sons, while his birth mother was executed.
But Sima Yu had been popular and this move enraged many people. By the following year, ministers were already planning to remove Empress Jia and restore Sima Yu as the Crown Prince. They tried to convince Sima Lun, a grand-uncle of Sima Zhong to join their cause. But Sima Lun had his own agenda — he leaked the news to Empress Jia and convinced her to kill Sima Yu instead. The Crown Prince was murdered in early 300 AD.
Almost immediately after Sima Yu’s death, Sima Lun turned around and brought his army against Empress Jia, under the excuse of avenging the Crown Prince’s death. Empress Jia was executed only a few months after Sima Yu’s murder.
Happy with himself for bringing “justice”, Sima Lun proceeded to install himself as the new Emperor by “abdication”. The original Emperor, Sima Zhong, was made a puppet and placed under house arrest.
But Sima Lun was not a capable ruler either, and his claim to the throne was not legitimate. Very quickly, other dukes and princes in the Sima clan rose against Sima Lun. He was killed in 301 AD, barely a year after he had executed Empress Jia.
The whole nation in turmoil
This was the beginning of the War of the Eight Princes (291 to 306 AD) when the various Sima princes repeated the insane pattern of killing one another under the excuse of revenge or justice. This devastation would become the prelude to the Invasion of the Five Barbarians — the darkest period for the Chinese when the country was torn apart and almost annihilated. The country would remain divided until its reunification in 589 AD by the Sui Dynasty.
Ironically, Sima Zhong outlived many of his kin as he was repeatedly captured by them and used as the front to justify their revolts and “regency”. He died in AD 307.
*This Empress Yang was a cousin of Sima Zhong’s birth mother. The first Empress Yang had died of illness in 274 AD.
The same chapter in the Book of Jin ends with the phrase “Emperor Wu (Sima Yan) does not know his son”. But perhaps, more importantly, he did not know the people who surrounded his son. Why did he assume that everyone would loyally serve someone less capable than themselves?
Thank you for reading this article! The events are cross-referenced across multiple sources, but please let me know if there are errors.
If you had enjoyed the story, do check out my earlier article: The story behind “baka”.