The Han Empire, the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history, was finally toppled after 409 years of rule.
Ancient China went through the divisive Three Kingdoms period,
and a brief reunification during the Western Jin Dynasty, before the Sima clan started a war to fight for power.
Zhang Gui, a central government official, volunteered to be transferred to Wuwei in the Hexi Corridor.
The family of Zhang were known for their studies of Confucianism.
After moving to Wuwei, Zhang Gui recruited 500 students and started a government school. He sent invited famous scholars to give talks or teach at the school.
The Xiongnu, Xianbei, Qiang, Di, and Jie tribes formed an alliance and launched large-scale attacks against the Central Plain.
The cities of Luoyang and Chang’an both fell.
This was the “Disaster of Yongjia” (during which the emperor of Western Jin was captured, and over thirty thousand civilians were massacred).
After that, ancient China was thrown in chaos and bloodshed, entering the long and dark period of 300 years of war and division.
Population in the north dropped drastically due to war and massacres.
Ethics, morality, and literature were cast aside. Scholars and families of renown had difficult choices to make.
Some migrated southward, near the Yangtze River. The Eastern Jin Dynasty was established in the south.
Some migrated to the northwest, crossed the Yellow River, and reached the Hexi Corridor.
The Hexi Corridor had transformed into a place with abundant agricultural and commercial resources after 400 years of management under the Han Empire. Due to its remote location, it wasn’t affected as much by the war, making it an ideal place for a quiet life.
Many clans and families settled down at the city of Zhangye.
Guo Yu, a youngster from Dunhuang, arrived at Zhangye at the foot of Mount Mati.
The mountain is located in the middle section of the Hexi Corridor.
The snow-capped mountain has lush greenery,
and a river flowing through a valley below.
It was the ideal location for scholars who wanted to focus only on their work.
Guo Yu was looking for scholar Guo He, who might have come here after the Disaster of Yongjia.
Guo He came from a family famous for their studies of Confucianism. Guo He himself was a scholar who excelled in historical books.
Guo Yu found the scholar, and became one of his students.
Guo He’s renown had also attracted another type of attention.
At that time, the Hexi Corridor was under the rule of Zhang Zuo, who was the king of Former Liang, one of the sixteen states formed after the end of Western Jin Dynasty.
Zhang Zuo’s envoys brought expensive gifts to visit Guo He, and wanted him to accept a position to oversee education in the entire state.
Guo He declined the offer politely. He said he only wanted to focus on his studies, and that not being an official was a rule in his family.
Zhang Zuo didn’t give up. He sent more envoys to visit Guo He.
Eventually, Guo He accepted the offer.
He left for Wuwei, the capital of Former Liang.
Zhang Zuo was the great-grandson of Zhang Gui, who came to Wuwei in 301 CE.
The Zhang family had a tradition of respecting Confucian scholars.
However, Zhang Zuo was different. He had just obtained the kingship through dishonourable means (he had an affair with the empress dowager, who was the mother of his half-brother, and he killed the son of his half-brother, who was supposed to be king). He didn’t really care much about education, nor scholarship. (Luckily he was only king for two years.)
Guo He was more than eighty years old when he accepted the offer and travelled to Wuwei. He didn’t get to supervise the official school set up by Zhang Gui many years ago. Instead, he was kept in the palace as a scholar companion for the crown prince.
Song Qian was another scholar who had been forced to take up the same position as a scholar companion.
Song Qian had set up a school in Nanshan, Jiuquan to teach Confucianism. Legend has it that he had more than 3,000 students.
Song Qian had tried to resign many times, but Zhang Zuo refused to let him go.
He chose to maintain a scholar’s integrity by starving himself to death.
Guo He became dispirited by the tragedy. He submitted his letter of resignation, and Zhang Zuo approved.
Shortly after returning to Mount Mati, 84-year-old Guo He passed away.
Guo Yu buried his teacher, and mourned him for three years.
After the mourning period, Guo Yu moved deeper into the mountain to get further away from the anarchic world outside.
He incorporated Guo He’s teachings, and wrote two books, one about the Spring and Autumn period, and the other one about Classic of Filial Piety.
While the rest of the country was plunged into war and chaos, Confucianism flourished in Hexi.
The Confucian Temple in Wuwei is the third largest Confucian temple in China. It’s believed to have been built during the Former Liang period.
Ten years passed by.
Students visited Guo Yu, much like how he’d come here to look for his own teacher years ago.
Guo Yu followed his teacher’s example, and taught students to the best of his ability.
He also led his students to carve out shallow caves in Mount Mati. These caves, intended to be simple living spaces, became an important place for Buddhist statues sometime later.
Guo Yu wanted to focus only on his teaching and scholarship.
But the king of Former Liang, Zhang Tianxi (younger brother of Zhang Zuo), sent envoys to find him.
Zhang Tianxi tried to recruit scholars, like his predecessors had done.
But Guo Yu wasn’t moved.
He had learned from his teacher Guo He’s experience.
Besides, Zhang Tianxi came to power by usurping the throne, something that a Confucian scholar would not be able to condone.
Zhang Tianxi tried again, and sent a letter to Guo Yu. He quoted the Confucian principle of “helping the world”, and accused Guo Yu of shirking responsibilities as a Confucian scholar.
Guo Yu pointed to the birds in the sky, and said to the envoy, “How can a bird like that be caged?”
His reply irked the envoy, who ordered his men to capture Guo Yu’s students.
Guo Yu sighed, “I’m only trying to avoid taking up an official position. I’m not a criminal. Living in seclusion is not a crime. How dare you harm my students?”
Guo Yu had no choice but to accept the offer, but he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Not long after he arrived at Wuwei, Zhang Tianxi’s mother passed away suddenly.
Amid all the chaos, Guo Yu returned to Mount Mati.
Zhang Tianxi surrendered to Fu Jian, the king of Former Qin, another one of the sixteen states formed after the end of Western Jin Dynasty.
The Hexi Corridor came under the control of Former Qin.
Fu Jian ordered the local officials to select 300 Confucian students, who would study under Guo Yu.
Guo Yu took in the students.
Confucian scholars in other areas also started to establish schools and recruit students.
Soon, Guo Yu had over 1,000 students.
One day, Guo Yu set up an empty seat in front of the students, and told them that his daughter was looking for a husband. He would marry her to the one person who could take this seat.
A student immediately stepped forward.
His name was Liu Bing.
He left Dunhuang at the age of 14 in search of knowledge.
He was one of Guo Yu’s favourite students.
Liu Bing’s confidence impressed Guo Yu.
Guo Yu often reflected on the Confucian principle, “If you’re a nobody, improve yourself. If you’re a somebody, improve the world.”
He had managed to improve himself and stay away from the chaos in the outside world, but how would he go about improving the world?
Fu Jian’s troops attacked Eastern Jin, but suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Fei River.
The country of Former Qin was severely weakened.
Fu Jian was killed.
Conflicts erupted in Former Qin.
Zhang Dayu, the son of Zhang Tianxi, revolted against Former Qin.
Wang Mu, an officer of Former Qin, also took up arms in Jiuquan.
Wang Mu asked for Guo Yu’s help.
Surprisingly, Guo Yu agreed readily.
His student, Liu Bing, was puzzled.
Guo Yu said the request came from an old friend, and the situation was dire. He had to help.
Though Guo Yu had a lot of students, they were not soldiers.
He went to Suo Gu, member of a powerful local clan, and they soon recruited 5,000 soldiers.
Wang Mu appointed Guo Yu as a military advisor.
But the mistrustful Wang Mu started to suspect that Suo Gu would turn against him. He sent troops to attack Suo Gu.
Not wishing to see infighting, Guo Yu said to Wang Mu that killing your own men before the war was won would only lead to your defeat.
Wang Mu refused to listen, and killed Suo Gu anyway.
Guo Yu left the camp, starved himself for seven days, and died in Jiuquan.
Lv Guang, of the Di people, seized the opportunity and attacked Wang Mu.
Wang Mu lost, and was killed.
Lv Guang established the state of Later Liang at Liangzhou.
Liu Bing, after witnessing the death of his father-in-law, returned to the mountains and carried on teaching and writing.
Several decades later, Liu Bing became the leader of the Hexi intellectuals.
Incessant invites came his way, wanting him to take up this position or that.
He refused all of them.
Until one day, a man named Li Hao came to visit.
Li Hao was reputed to the descendant of the famous general Li Guang of Han Dynasty. (Li Bai, the poet of Tang Dynasty, claimed to be the descendant of Li Hao.)
Li Hao used to be the magistrate of Dunhuang.
He established the state of Western Liang.
Following the Han tradition, Li Hao advocated Confucianism and promoted education.
He personally conducted interviews with scholar-officials and gave them positions based on their abilities.
Li Hao himself was good at literature and art. He composed dozens of poems and proses, one of which expressed his desire to unify the Hexi Corridor, and assist the imperial family of Jin to reunify the Central Plain.
He also wrote that his personality was more suited for a scholar than a politician. He preferred studying traditional culture and classical literature to seeking fame or fortune.
But he had no choice, when so many refugees rushed to the Hexi Corridor seeking safety, and the Central Plain was plunged into chaos.
His prose moved Liu Bing.
His humble attitude, in coming to visit Liu Bing personally, touched Liu Bing.
Liu Bing agreed to serve as the official in charge of education.
Li Hao passed away before he could realise his ambitions.
The state of Western Liang was annihilated by Northern Liang, a state founded by Xiongnu.
Liu Bing continued his teaching and writing under the Norther Liang regime.
He wrote more than 120 scrolls of work, becoming the most prolific scholar during the Five Liang period.
During the last years of Northern Liang, 154 scrolls of classical work were presented to the Eastern Jin government, including the works by Liu Bing.
Northern Wei army, led by the Tuoba clan, destroyed Northern Liang.
The northern areas of ancient China were re-unified.
In order to win support for their rule, Tuoba leaders advocated Confucianism.
They relocated 30,000 households of eminent families as well as prominent craftsmen from the Hexi Corridor to the capital Pingcheng (modern-day Datong City, Shanxi Province).
Almost all the Hexi scholars, including Liu Bing’s students, moved to Pingcheng.
Liu Bing, who was over eighty years old, stayed in Hexi.
Liu Bing documented the events in the Hexi Corridor in his books, Records of Dunhuang and Book of Liang.