An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Yue 越, Baiyue 百越, Shanyue 山越

Aug 17, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Yue 越 was an ancient term referring to the Non-Chinese inhabitants of the southeast and far south of China. They are thought to be Austro-Asiatic people, relatives to and ancestors of the modern Vietnamese. The southernmost Yue are also written Yue 粵, a character that is an alternative name of the city of Guangzhou and the province Guangdong.

During the Spring and Autumn period (Chunqiu 春秋) the Yue in the area of Mount Guiji 會稽 (modern Shaoxing 紹興/Zhejiang) founded the kingdom of Yue 越 that was able to conquer the neighbouring kingdom of Wu 吳 (also Non-Chinese, capital around modern Suzhou 蘇州/Jiangsu) but was vanquished by the state of Chu 楚 in 306. Yue people settling the north of modern Jiangsu were called Yang-Yue 揚越, the other many tribes were subsumed under the term Baiyue 百越 "The hundred Yue", Yue tribes more to the west and south were called Oumin 甌閩 (living in Zhejiang, Fujian), Nanyue 南越 (Guangdong), Xiou 西甌 (Guangxi), and Luoyue 雒越 (Fujian).

The territory of modern Fujian was conquered by Qin 秦 and later by Han 漢, but was never really controlled by the Chinese bureaucracy. The Yue chieftains Wuzhu 無諸 and Yao 搖 were kings of the area of Fujian in a realm called Ouluo 甌雒. The mountainous territory of modern Guangxi is inhabited by Non-Chinese tribes until today.

At the beginning of the Han peiod, Zhao Tuo 趙佗 founded the empire of Southern Yue (Nanyue 南越) in the area of Guangdong that was autonomous from the Han court until 112 BC.

Emperor Han Wudi 漢武帝 conquered these areas as well as the north of modern Vietnam (Chinese Yuenan 越南, “The South of the Yue”) and installed Chinese commanderies (jun 郡). Although many Yue tribes still roamed the now unified territory of China, and appear in the historical sources until the end of Han, there are only few Yue people left in China today (e.g. Palyu “Lai”, Bugan “Hualuo or Huazu”, Bit, Bulang, Hu, Kemu, Khuen, Wa etc.). Their main heritage is northern Vietnam, an area that was settled by the Yue when they withdrew from the Chinese pressure.

Shanyue 山越 "Mountain Yue" was the name of the native tribes living in the mountain regions of the modern provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Fujian. With the increasing colonisation by Chinese migrants of these southern regions, the native Yue tribes withdrew to mountain areas where Chinese settlers did not prefer to go to. The reasons for their withdrewal to the mountains was not only the enforced occupation of fertile lowlands by Chinese, but also to escape taxation. The imperial government registered households from which taxes were levied and corvée labour was required, which constituted quite a harsh burden for all families.

Among the mountain peoples (shanmin 山民), there were therefore also many Chinese trying to evade registration and taxation. The mountain tribes lived mainly of agriculture. They settled in small villages that relied upon self-defense. The Mountain Yue were therefore a belligerent people that in many cases organised larger armies composed of the male population of the mountain villages. They produced their own bronze and iron weapons and were commanded by a supreme leader (shuai 帥) who defended the native villages against the colonisation by the imperial government at the end of the Han period.

The military uprisings continued after the foundation of the Wu dynasty 吳 (222-280) in Jiankang 建康 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu). In some cases the tribal leader of the Yue were instigated by the political enemies of the Wu dynasty. Even before the actual foundation of the dynasty, Yuan Shu 袁術 stirred up rebellion of the Yue tribes of Danyang 丹陽(modern Xuancheng 宣城, Anhui) against his opponent Sun Ce 孫策. The latter's brother and founder of the Wu dynasty, Sun Quan 孫權 (Emperor Wu Dadi 吳大帝, r. 222-252), began a military campaign against Huang Zu 黃祖, a naval commander of Liu Biao 劉表 in 203.

The Mountain Yue used this chance to begin a large-scale rebellion against the Chinese and destroyed Sun Quan's lines of supply. Back in Jiankang, Sun Quan decided to wipe out the Mountain Yue. He ordered Lü Fan 呂范 attacking Poyang 鄱陽 (modern Boyang 波陽, Jiangxi), Cheng Pu 程普 attacking Le'an 樂安 (modern Dexing 德興, Jiangxi), and Taishi Ci 太史慈 attacking the Yue of Haihun 海昏 (modern Yongxiu 永修, Jiangxi). Their armies were supported by the local magistrates, Huang Gai 黃蓋, Han Dang 韓當, Zhou Tai 周泰 and Lü Meng 呂蒙, and put down the rebellion of the Yue tribes.

In 217 Lu Xun 陸遜 suggested to first pacify the unruly mountain tribes before engaging in larger operations against the enemies of Shu 蜀漢 (221-263) in the west and Wei 曹魏 (220-265) in the north. Sun Quan appointed Lu Xun supreme commander of a army sent out to supress the martial activities of the Yue tribes in Guiji 會稽 (modern Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang), Danyang and Xindu 新都. The Sun government used the captives of the Yue tribes to staff its armies with several ten thousand troops of a naturally belligerent people.

In 234 Zhuge Ke 諸葛恪 was appointed General for Appeasing the Yue (fu Yue jiangjun 撫越將軍) and was made governor (taishou) of Danyang. He began a brutal extinction campaign by burning the crops, devastating the fields and destroying the fenced villages of the natives. Captures males were massacred and the population of the mountains systematically starved out. Yue soldiers were forcibly recruited as "cannon fodder" for the mass armies in the fight against the armies of Wei and Shu.

The surviving population was resettled in lowlands where they were better to be controlled, were registered and taxes, or became tenant farmers of those Chinese landowners who had occupied the lands formerly owned by the natives. Chinese historians today praise the "usefulness" of the enslaved mountain tribes for the growth of the economy in southern China from the 3rd century on, and stress the "peaceful" mixing of the Yue with the Chinese to one people.

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