Dream of a Third Han: Sichuan, the Cradle of Chinese Millennialism

Dream of a Third Han: Sichuan, the Cradle of Chinese Millennialism August 21, 2023

The Zhuo Ying bridge in Chengdu, Sichuan. (Courtesy of Philippe Lejeanvre at Getty Images)

As noted previously. Liu Bei’s realm was centered in the region of Sichuan and has become so identified with it that the two are often treated as contiguous, despite the fact that Shu-Han contained areas such as Hanzhong that are beyond the bounds of the modern province. But by the time Liu Bei settled in Sichuan and made the provincial seat of Chengdu his capital, both the city and the wider region had long been a hotbed of millennialist activity. Zhang Daoling is reputed to have founded the Celestial Masters sect in Chengdu before his grandson Zhang Lu moved their base of operations to Hanzhong. Nor was this the only millennialist sect to get going in the city at the time, as there are traces of similar sects operating around the same time, as well as a number of millennialist rebellions in the Sichuan and Hanzhong areas before the end of the Han Dynasty. Anna Seidel, in “The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Taoist Messianism” even argues that a first-century sage named Li Hong, who later “became a local paragon of virtue in the Chengdu area at the turbulent close of the second century” (Seidel 237), lent his name to the figure of the Taoist messiah.

Indeed, scholars such as Seidel and Seiwert regard Sichuan as the cradle of Chinese millennialist thought. As Seidel remarks, “All manifestations of this messianic current, in final analysis, seem to issue from the region of Shu” (233). The role of the region as China’s leading producer of messianic and millennial thinking continued throughout the Three Kingdoms period. Liu Zhang’s official, Wang Shang, instituted the worship of Li Hong in Chengdu and we have already looked at how the Celestial Master sect got caught up in the struggle between Liu Bei and Cao Cao for control of the region. There seems to be little information on these millennialist movements and their interaction with the government during the time of Shu-Han itself. But we know that they were still active, for they burst onto the historical scene again a little over a decade after Shu-Han’s fall. In 277 C.E., just three years prior to the fall of Wu and the end of the Three Kingdoms era, Jin officials in Sichuan found themselves dealing with a sect leader named Chen Rui who had proclaimed himself the new Celestial Master. Chen seems to have managed to win considerable support from local elites and the regional government before higher authorities stepped in to quash the movement, suggesting that millennialist ideas had long become engrained in Sichuan’s ruling class.

Chen’s execution and the reunification of the land under Jin did nothing to diffuse these millennialist impulses. Even after Zhang Lu and the leadership of the Celestial Master sect had decided to endorse Cao Cao instead of Liu Bei, adherents of the sect and others like it did not disappear from Sichuan. Instead, they became a continual headache for the succeeding Jin Dynasty. This proved particularly true forty years after Shu-Han’s fall when, at roughly the same time as Han-Zhao’s war on Jin in the north, a religious and millennialist rebellion broke out in Sichuan. Led by Li Te and then by his son Li Xiong, who declared himself Emperor of the Cheng Dynasty in 306, this rebellion successfully reestablished Sichuan’s independence and instituted a theocratic government based on the teachings and rituals of the Celestial Masters. Li Xiong even appointed a local sage, Fan Changsheng, as his prime minister, granting him the overtly mystical title of “Great Master of Heaven and Earth” (Siewert 66) and acknowledging him as his teacher. Seiwert observes, “The old Daoist motive of the enlightened ruler who moulds his government on the advice of a sage councilor shines through this constellation” (68). That paradigm had been cherished by Huang-Lao but also by the early Taoist millennialist movements, who believed that it held the key to the world’s utopian transformation.

The Cheng state eventually changed its name to Han. The Lis had no link to the Han imperial family, but they seem to have remembered that Han founder Liu Bang that Liu Bei’s Han state had been the last independent entity in the region. J. Michael Farmer, in “What’s in a Name? On the Appellative ‘Shu’ in Early Medieval Chinese Historiography,” notes that Chang Qu’s historical text, Huayang Guozhi, which discusses the reigns of Liu Yan, Liu Zhang, Liu Bei and Liu Shan alongside the Li emperors, “was begun under the Li family administration in Chengdu” (Farmer 56), suggesting that the Lis maintained some interest in Shu-Han. Alternately, they may have been tapping into the prophetic beliefs that assigned a messianic role to the Han Dynasty. Whatever their motives, their millenarian ambitions would go unfulfilled. Cheng-Han was reconquered by Jin in 347. Soon afterward, Fan Changsheng’s son, Fan Ben successfully reestablished the state with himself as Emperor until it fell to Jin again in 349, ending Cheng-Han’s independent existence. Even then, however, the millennialist movement of Li and Fan continued to be a thorn in Jin’s side, with self-proclaimed heirs of the Li emperors leading rebellions some twenty years later. One of these rebel leaders, who took the mystical title of “Holy King of the Dao,” (Siedel 235) even bore the messianic name of Li Hong.

Thus, it is safe to say that Sichuan was a tinderbox of millenarian thought and agitation from late Han times to the end of the Jin Dynasty. As Seiwert observes, “The sectarian tradition of the Five Pecks of Rice Sect was firmly established in the region, not only among the peasants and lower classes but also in the upper level of society” (Seiwert 67); meaning that millennialist beliefs were as widespread amongst the regional elite as they were among the lower classes. In addition, Sichuan seems to have been the source for millennialist beliefs and movements throughout China. Seiwert documents how a movement originating in Sichuan and tied to the Li family, invoking the name and character of a mystical figure called Li Eight Hundred, seeded millennialist beliefs throughout southern China and influenced the crucial developments in Taoism during the Liu-Song Dynasty and after. This leads him to conclude that “a sectarian tradition connected to the surname Li … may have originated in the Sichuan region from where it spread to the northern plain and there to the Southeast” (75). Anna Seidel even suggests that this movement was responsible for enshrining the name “Li Hong” as that belonging to Daoism’s future messiah, a belief that would remain current into the 1100s.

Thus, it is quite clear that Sichuan was awash with millennialist fervor at the time that Liu Bei established his Shu-Han state. Indeed, millennialist thought seems to have been the driving force of developments in the region during the era of division. Furthermore, the millennialist currents in Sichuan were so strong that ruling regimes ignored them at their peril. As we have seen, both Liu Zhang and Zhang Lu, Liu Bei’s predecessors in Shu and Hanzhong, attempted to utilize these energies for their own purposes. Meanwhile, the Jin Dynasty that ruled Sichuan after Shu-Han tried to stamp out these beliefs and, as a result, found its grip on the restive province continually shaken by millennialist rebellions. With millenarian convictions running rampant among both the populace and local elites, it is impossible to think that the Shu-Han government was not aware of them. And it is hard to believe, given Jin’s later experience in the region, that Shu-Han could have survived as long as it did without coopting those beliefs in some form.

Of course, Liu Bei already had the perfect means at his disposal to make Sichuan’s millennialist atmosphere work on his behalf. As noted above, the restoration of the Han Dynasty had already taken on millennialist and messianic connotations in popular prophecy. By taking on the mantle of the Han’s restorer, Liu Bei was transferring those messianic expectations onto himself. Doing so intentionally would serve to ingratiate him to the populace of Sichuan who were already expecting a messiah. By promulgating the more mystical side of Han restoration and casting himself as the fulfillment of its prophecies, Liu Bei could use the millennialist climate of the region to secure his rule and endear his dynasty to his new subjects. Since Liu-Song later did something similar, we know that it was a viable strategy for rulers who claimed descent from the Han. And the fact that Shu-Han appears to have faced no millennialist rebellions of its own—it did face other kinds of rebellion—suggests that something like this course was indeed adopted. Finally, if Shu-Han’s state ideology did include millennialist elements, it would help to explain why the next dynasty based in the region—one that was very openly millennialist—chose to look back on Liu Bei’s realm so favorably.

All of this lends further credence to my suggestion that Shu-Han’s claim to be restoring the Han Dynasty did indeed take on more of a millennialist and messianic bent than has been commonly realized. So far, however, this is all just speculation based on the millenarian ideas associated with Sichuan and Han restoration in general at the time. Is there any direct evidence from Shu-Han itself that its ideology had a millennialist element to it? I believe that there is. We shall delve into that evidence next time.


Farmer, J. Michael. “What’s in a Name? On the Appellative ‘Shu’ in Medieval Chinese Historiography.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 121.1 (2001): 44-59.

Seidel, Anna. “The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Taoist Messianism: Lao-tzu and Li Hung.” History of Religions 9.2/3 (1969-1970): 216-247. [I have continued the practice of rendering Seidel’s Chinese terms into their accepted Pinyin forms. However, in this entry, the only instance of this is Seidel’s “Holy King of the Tao,” which appears as “Holy King of the Dao” in my quotation of her work.]

Seiwert, Hubert. Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

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