Jia Nanfeng (賈南風) (257–300), nickname Shi (時), was a Chinese empress consort. She was the daughter of Jia Chong and first wife of Emperor Hui of the Jin Dynasty (265–420) and also the granddaughter of Jia Kui. She is commonly seen as a villainous figure in Chinese history, as the person who provoked the War of the Eight Princes, leading to the Wu Hu rebellions and the Jin family’s loss of northern and central China.
With the rise of Jia Chong’s popularity, a lot of Dynasty Warriors fans have taken more of an interest in his life and the Jin dynasty in general. This has, of course, led them to hear about Jia Nanfeng. And quite frankly, I get kind of sick of people who don’t actually know anything about her, her life, or the situation in which she lived reading from a Wikipedia article at me telling me she was a horrible person.
She’s got a pretty evil reputation. Some of it she earned, but a lot of it is nonsense.
So here’s some background information. Jia Nanfeng was the daughter of Jia Chong. Jia Chong was a very influential minister under Sima Shi, Sima Zhao, and Sima Yan. He has a pretty nasty reputation of his own, but we’ll get to that some other day. Her mother, Guo Huai (no, not that one, you silly goose) also has a pretty bad reputation. Again, we’ll get into that some other day.
[This information mostly comes from Rafe de Crespigny’s essay “The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin: A history of China in the Third Century AD”]
The Jin dynasty was established around the end of 265, with Sima Yan as its first emperor. Over the next decade or so, two political factions emerged, led by Jia Chong and Zhang Hua. In order to cement his position, Jia Chong arranged for his daughter to marry Sima Yan’s son, Sima Zhong.
It is generally accepted that Sima Zhong was mentally retarded, and based on what I’ve read that seems to be correct. Sima Zhong was never really intended to rule. See, Sima Zhong allegedly had a son named Sima Yu. This child was the daughter of one of Sima Yan’s concubines, Lady Xie. It is highly likely that Sima Yu was actually Sima Yan’s son. In any case, there was an unspoken agreement in the Jin court: as soon as Sima Yu was old enough, he would take control so the dynasty did not have to deal with Sima Zhong for very long.
Because of Sima Zhong’s mental state, there were many ministers who argued – with good reason – that another child should be selected as the heir. Thus, Sima Zhong was under constant pressure to maintain his position, something he was incapable of understanding. It was through Jia Nanfeng’s efforts that he remained as Crown Prince. The Book of Jin tells the story of a time when Sima Yan posed a question to Sima Zhong that required a written response. Jia Nanfeng had a scholar draft an answer; and while that answer was very good nobody would ever believe it came from Sima Zhong. Instead, Jia Nanfeng crafted a simpler reply and had Sima Zhong write it down himself, thus passing the exam. While this story may be a parable intended to display Jia Nanfeng’s deceptive nature, it actually succeeds in exhibiting her great intelligence instead.
Sima Yan died in 290 and that caused a few problems. Sima Yu wasn’t old enough to take control yet, so they had to make Sima Zhong emperor. In order to keep everything in order, Sima Yan appointed his uncle Sima Liang and father-in-law Yang Jun as the chief ministers to guide the country. However, Yang Jun did not want to share power and hid Sima Yan’s edict. Then he took advantage of Sima Yan’s deteriorating mental state to make him write another one giving power solely to Yang Jun.
This presented a window of opportunity for Jia Nanfeng. Everyone in the palace knew that Yang Jun had stolen power that was supposed to be shared. Jia Nanfeng rallied the palace guards and ministers around this fact and, in 291, she staged a coup d’état and took control of the capital (much like Sima Yi in in 249). She then invited Sima Liang and Wei Guang into the capital to take control of the government.
Three months later, the situation got pretty sticky. Another Sima prince, Sima Wei, arrived in the capital and wanted a share of the power. Jia Nanfeng saw an opportunity here and gave him the authority to execute Sima Liang and Wei Guang. However, after Sima Wei did the dirty work, Jia Nanfeng turned on him and executed him as a traitor for the murders of Sima Liang and Wei Guang. With this maneuver, Jia Nanfeng gained complete control over the capital and the court.
Jia Nanfeng continued to rule with absolute authority for several years. Using Sima Zhong’s authority, she controlled the Jin dynasty. And you know what? She actually a damn good job of it. There were no major disasters or rebellions or invasions during her reign. The commoners didn’t suffer from any particular hardship and the various ministers were actually pretty fine with the way she was running everyone. And those who did have any issues with Jia Nanfeng just had to keep in mind that as soon as Sima Yu got old enough, he would be the new emperor and her authority would be vastly reduced.
The great historian Rafe de Crespigny himself describes Jia Nanfeng’s reign in generally positive terms. “…though the regime has been described as a usurpation, it was not incompetent. There were substantial problems on the frontiers, but they were coped with, and despite the military potential of their local powers the Sima princes appear to have accepted the destruction of Sima Liang and Sima Wei, and the somewhat cavalier treatment of Sima Yong, without great concern and certainly without taking action. In fact, the struggles at the capital had little effect upon arrangements in the provinces provided that the imperial title remained in proper hands.”
So while she was in charge, Jia Nanfeng was actually a damn good ruler. This is something that most of her critics like to ignore. Though she came to power through deception and treachery, she used it well and ruled the empire far better than any of her immediate successors. Whatever there is to say about her methods and/or personal conduct, Jia Nanfeng was a strong, skilled ruler that the Jin dynasty needed.
But you probably know that didn’t last forever. In the year 300, Jia Nanfeng deceived Sima Yu into signing a treasonous letter. She then used this as justification to execute him. That really set off the various Sima princes, who had expected power to be shifted once Sima Yu took control of the empire. Now they had no particular reason to believe that Jia Nanfeng’s reign would end with anything less than her death, so they decided to kill her.
In the year 300, Sima Yi’s son Sima Lun gathered forces in the capital and overthrew Jia Nanfeng’s regime. He imprisoned and eventually killed her. Sima Lun took power after that, but his actions inspired other Sima relatives, who believed that they could take power the same way. Late in the year 300, Sima Yun tried to kill Sima Lun and take control, but was himself killed in the attempt.
Sima Lun reasserted his family’s dominance in the government and defended his position. Had he stopped there, everything might have been fine. But Sima Lun was too ambitious for his own good. In 301, he deposed Sima Zhong and declared himself emperor, an act that upset the nobility even more than Jia Nanfeng’s killing of Sima Yu.
That was when the War of Eight Princes began. In 301, Sima Ying, Sima Ai, and Sima Jiong joined forces and killed Sima Lun, reinstalling Sima Zhong as emperor. Sima Jiong then took control of the capital through his military forces and ruled the government. In 302, the situation grew even worse because Sima Yu’s sons died, meaning that there was no longer a clear heir to Sima Zhong’s authority. Sima Ying hoped to be nominated as the heir and joined forces with Sima Yung to oppose the powerful Sima Jiong, who was now their enemy and the one most likely to take the position. Sima Ai joined their cause and defeated Sima Jiong.
Sima Ai actually behaved like a decent person. He spent all of his time with Sima Zhong and consulted him on all matters of government even though the emperor could not understand what was going on. He tried his hardest to enforce Sima Zhong’s will while preventing the country from dissolving from poor decisions. He was a good man, and if he had been able to maintain control things might have turned out for the best. But there was only so much Sima Ai could do. Because of all the problems in the central government, the local leaders began to disregard the imperial authority and rule independently. (This is just like what happened when Dong Zhuo took control of the capital.)
Things only got worse and worse after Sima Ai was killed in battle. But that’s all another story and Jia Nanfeng’s part in matters was long finished by then. While Jia Nanfeng is often considered the cause of this war (the War of Eight Princes) that really doesn’t seem to be an accurate assessment. Certainly her actions – particularly the killing of Sima Yu – contributed to the dissolution of the government, but it really looks like Sima Lun and Sima Ying should bear more responsibility. During Jia Nanfeng’s reign, the empire was united and run with competence and efficiency. They coped with all of their difficulties and were united under strong leadership. It was only after Jia Nanfeng’s death that the nation fractured.
[Most of this comes from A Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui (1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E).]
As my primary source points out, the depiction of Jia Nanfeng presented in the Book of Jin is extremely biased. On this, it reads, “It uses extremely pejorative language, describing her as “jealous and power hungry,” a “butcher,” and a “tyrant,” and seems to have been designed to accentuate Jia Nanfeng’s faults, presenting abbreviated anecdotes and often omitting significant information contained elsewhere in the [Book of Jin] or in other historical accounts. In short, the [Book of Jin] presents Jia Nanfeng as the stereotypical “tyrannical usurping empress,” following the model of the Historical Records (Shi ji) account of Han Empress Lü and portraying her as violent, cruel, and licentious. Many of the details of Jia Nanfeng’s life presented here may therefore have been colored by the exaggerated and prejudiced nature of the original sources, especially, but not limited to, the [Book of Jin].”
That is not a very strong endorsement of the historical records, but it is one that I believe to be accurate. The historical records go to great lengths to level petty insults at her, describing Jia Nanfeng as “ugly, short, and dark”. These were furthered by later commentators, who described her as “incomparably ugly”. Whether such a description is true or not, it is of absolutely no relevance to her personal conduct, her ability to lead and rule, or her value as a person. It is a petty insult, nothing more.
Jia Nanfeng was said to be very jealous of other women in the court and “is said to have strangled several women with her bare hands and to have thrown halberds at pregnant rivals, ‘causing their sons to fall to the floor along with the blades.’” The story continues to say that Sima Yan considered imprisoning her but various officials argued on her behalf. One said, “Consort Jia is young, and a wife’s nature is to be jealous. When she grows up, she will get over it.”
Let’s read this story again, shall we? Jia Nanfeng strangles several women to death and throws halberds at pregnant women, aborting their babies. Sima Yan considers punishing her but decides not to because, as one of his officials said, women are just jealous! She’ll grow out of it.
Again: In this story, Jia Nanfeng kills several women and babies because women are just jealous like that, but Sima Yan decides to let it grow because she’ll just grow out of it.
Does any of that sound believable to you? No? Good. Moving on, then.
Historians have criticized Jia Nanfeng for her alleged sexual misconduct. The most prominent story regarding this, according to my Biographical Dictionary, “would be more at home in a novel than in an official history.”
Supposedly, a petty official was found with clothing and other pretty things that he could not possibly afford and was accused of robbery. When questioned about this, the official said that “a short, dark woman” had taken him to a fancy palace where she had feasted with him for several days and given him the gifts before sending him on his way. Those who heard the story realized that he had been spending quality time with Jia Nanfeng and also said that others who had enjoyed a similar experience had been killed by her.
Note that this story never mentions the name of the official. Also keep in mind that this story comes from the same people who say that Jia Nanfeng was indescribably hideous. As such, it seems rather illogical to believe that she would spend so much time seducing random men. And the additional detail of her killing such men when she is done with them is almost too laughable to be too believe. One would think that – were such a story true – the Jin historians might have thought it prudent to name some of these men. The fact that nobody in this story is ever identified makes it a very difficult to credit.
To summarize, there are many negative stories about Jia Nanfeng, her behavior, and her appearance. However, there are very sound reasons to doubt most of these stories. I am certainly willing to admit that there may be some basis for these stories. After all, Jia Nanfeng had four daughters and it does not appear that Sima Zhong was mentally capable of procreation, so she was probably sleeping with other men. And I have no doubts that she was ruthless in driving away women who might seek to supplant her as Sima Zhong’s consort and empress. But it seems clear that her actions were exaggerated by Jin historians in order to slander her.
I really can’t summarize this any better than the Biographical Dictionary already did:
“The [Book of Jin] portrays Jia Nanfeng in a negative light as jealous, cruel, licentious, and a usurper of imperial authority, choosing to ignore her achievement in managing to hold the Jin empire together during the rule of an incapable emperor. She protected her husband’s position on the throne from the families of the late [Sima Yan’s] empresses, from various imperial relatives, and from plotting officials. Without question, Jia Nanfeng was also protecting her own position and power, but her actions may also be viewed from the perspective of the filial daughter-in-law honoring the wishes of her husband’s deceased father, particularly with regard to succession to the throne. Moreover, as empress she employed able and loyal officials to oversee the administration. That the dynasty fell apart immediately following her death speaks to her political talent. However, the notion of a female ruler ran against the sensibilities of traditional historians, so that the compilers of the [Book of Jin] went to great lengths to emphasize the immorality of Jia Nanfeng. They spoke of her in pejorative terms and emphasized her sexual affairs in order to focus on the scandalous nature of her life, rather than the benefits to the state afforded by her rule.”
To that, I can only add that Jia Nanfeng is often blamed as the cause of the War of Eight Princes, and that’s really not an accurate assessment. While her own actions were certainly a contributing factor, Sima Lun is far more to blame blame. He was, after all, the one who tried to depose Sima Zhong.
Oh, and as a note to the self-appointed tag-police: I don’t care if she’s not in Dynasty Warriors, I’m tagging it anyway. You’ll survive.
From Archlich – Let’s talk about Jia Nanfeng