The description left by the chroniclers says he was very tall (over two meters), strong, handsome, intelligent, ingenious, eloquent… but also arrogant, violent, ungrateful, cruel, and despotic. Such is the portrait that has come down to us of Helian Bobo, also known as Wulie of Xia, the Xiongnu emperor who proclaimed himself a descendant of the first hereditary Chinese dynasty. Bobo, creator of the state of Hu Xia, unified northern China between the 4th and 5th centuries AD, during the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms, although that achievement only lasted seven years.

There are several explicit testimonies about such a singular character that clearly demonstrate this bifrontal personality, from the overwhelming text with which he impressed an ambassador of Emperor Wu of Song (apparently improvised, but actually commissioned from a literati of his court as if it were his own) to the tower he erected with the human skulls of enemies defeated in battle, and the stories told about his brutality towards those who offended him, blinding those who dared to look him in the face or cutting the lips and tongue of those who contradicted him.

On the other hand, Emperor Wenhuan of Qin and his brother, General Yao Yong, presented a more nuanced image in a conversation about the advisability of hiring him. Faced with the misgivings expressed by the military man, Wenhuan said that Bobo has the talent to help the world. I want to bring peace to the world with him, so why should we avoid him? To which the other replied, He is arrogant with his superiors and elders. He is cruel to his subordinates and associates. He is also greedy, treacherous, loveless, and inattentive to friendships. He changes his attitude quickly and abandons things quickly. If you trust and favor this type of person too much, it will surely cause a disaster. Yao Yong was absolutely right because, indeed, Bobo would end up invading the kingdom of Qin.

China during the Warring States period
China during the Warring States period. Credit: Yug / Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

Bobo belonged to the Tiuefu, a Xiongnu tribe (a confederation of nomadic peoples from the steppes, which we already dedicated an article to) from which his great-grandfather had been a leader. Liu Hu, as this ancestor was called, was defeated by the Dai and passed command to his son Liu Wuhuan, who reorganized the Tiuefu and restored their strength.

It was the last stage of the Warring States period, and Zhao, the Chinese state bordering the Xiongnu, had exercised a kind of vassalage over them that confirmed the mentioned family in power.

That situation did not change much when another state, Qin, conquered Zhao because Liu Weichen, Bobo’s father, then leading his people, declared himself a vassal of Qin to the detriment of the state of Dai; and when this was conquered by Fu Jian, the emperor of Qin, Liu Weichen was rewarded with the confirmation of his status as chanyu (the title of leader among the Xiongnu).

China during the Sixteen Kingdoms period, just before Liu Bobo took center stage
China during the Sixteen Kingdoms period, just before Liu Bobo took center stage. Credit: SY / Wikimedia Commons

But Qin began to collapse under continuous rebellions, which allowed Liu Weichen to seize Shuofang in 383, a vast territory stretching from Inner Mongolia, south of the Yellow River, to Shaanxi in the northwest.

In practice, it was an independent kingdom strong enough to subjugate the states of Yao Qin (Later Qin) and Western Yan. Feeling invincible, Liu Weichen launched a conquest campaign against Emperor Daowu of Northern Wei, but he not only repelled the attack but counterattacked, crossed the Yellow River, and captured Yueba (present-day Ordos), the capital of Liu Weichen, who was forced to flee in haste. He did not get very far, as his own men murdered him while the clan was massacred.

Liu Weichen had several sons. One of them, Liu Zhilidi, led the failed invasion and ended up a prisoner of Daowu; another was Liu Bobo, whom we know better today as Helian Bobo. Born in 381, he was barely ten years old when he managed to escape the massacre, although it probably left a deep mark on him that would explain the evolution of his character. He found refuge in the Xuegan tribe, whose chief, Taixifu, resisted Emperor Daowu’s urgent demand to hand him over.

Statue of Daowu, emperor of Northern Wei
Statue of Daowu, emperor of Northern Wei. Credit: TAOZIlovewiki / Wikimedia Commons

Instead of doing so, Taixifu placed him under the protection of Moyigan, the leader of the Xianbei tribe, who married him to his daughter Podoluo. Daowu was not satisfied and launched a campaign against the Xuegan, causing another slaughter; Taixifu narrowly escaped by seeking protection in Later Qin, and Moyigan also chose to withdraw there with his family, including his son-in-law. The Xianbei did not suffer as much as the others because they did not usually live concentrated in cities but scattered in small groups across the steppes.

The following years are obscure; it is not known how Liu Bobo’s life unfolded until, in 407, those positive qualities mentioned at the beginning caught the attention of Yao Xing. He was the emperor of Later Qin who, as we said, is known to posterity as Wenhuan and wanted to put him at his service despite the contrary opinion of his brother Yao Yong.

The idea was for him to lead the army that was supposed to curb Northern Wei’s expansionism, thinking he would have an extra personal motivation. And, indeed, he appointed him general and lord of Wuyuan, entrusting him with the defense of the aforementioned Shuofang command.

Yu the Great, the semi-legendary founding king of the Xia dynasty, of whom Liu Bobo claimed to be a self-proclaimed descendant, depicted in a 13th century engraving
Yu the Great, the semi-legendary founding king of the Xia dynasty, of whom Liu Bobo claimed to be a self-proclaimed descendant, depicted in a 13th century engraving. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Wei of the North proved to be too tough a nut to crack, so Wenhuan changed strategy and opened negotiations with Emperor Daowu. Bobo was not pleased with this, interpreting it as a betrayal, and considered their commitment of loyalty broken. Seizing the eight thousand horses that the Rouran Khaganate sent to Later Qin as a tribute, he turned his army against his father-in-law, Moyigan, defeated him, and incorporated his soldiers into his own troops. He then took control of part of the state, already weakened by internal struggles.

The territory that fell into Bobo’s hands was named Xia, after the first Chinese dynasty established by the eponymous tribe two millennia earlier (considered semi-legendary by current historians). Why did he do this? Because, despite the dynasty having long been extinct (lasting from about 2070 to 1600 B.C.), he proclaimed himself a descendant of Si Wen Ming, better known as Yu the Great, the founder, and assumed the titles of Tian Wang (Heavenly King) and Grand Chanyu.

As mentioned earlier, Wei of the North was too powerful to confront, so Bobo focused on seizing northern territory from the progressively declining Later Qin. Realizing he still lacked the strength for an open conquest, he employed a tactic of quick raids thanks to the powerful cavalry he had assembled, moving from place to place to prevent the enemy from gathering forces in one spot. For that reason, he avoided capturing cities he would later have to defend, limiting himself to attacking and plundering them.

Meanwhile, he had to show greater aspirations, or no one would take him seriously. Thus, he attempted to negotiate his marriage to the daughter of Tufa Rutan, the Prince Jing of Southern Liang, also of the Xianbei tribe. However, the offer was rejected, which Bobo took as an affront and acted accordingly, ravaging the southern part of that state and killing tens of thousands of people and livestock. Rutan marched to meet him but fell into an ambush, trapped in a narrow canyon, losing three-quarters of his army and barely escaping with his life.

The new kingdom of Xia and its neighboring states
The new kingdom of Xia and its neighboring states. Credit: SY / Wikimedia Commons

That happened in 408, and that same year the army of Later Qin finally mobilized against Bobo, who nevertheless defeated his enemy and continued to seize territory until he controlled almost the entire north. The following year, Wenhuan suffered another defeat and had to abandon that front to assist the neighboring state of Southern Yan, with which he maintained an alliance, being attacked by the Jin Empire (which ultimately prevailed in 410).

The war then continued between Xia and Later Qin, but the latter was in inexorable decline; the growing scarcity of means to continue fighting was compounded by the fact that everyone perceived its weakness and tried to take advantage, declaring themselves free from vassalage. Although there were back-and-forth skirmishes, by 413 Bobo was fully established and could afford to construct a capital, which he named Tongwan, meaning Union of Ten Thousand States; it was the first concept of a unified China.

The work on the perimeter wall exemplified Bobo’s proverbial cruelty: if an iron wedge could penetrate the structure, he ordered the gap filled with the bodies of the workers assigned to that section. Similarly, blacksmiths whose armor could be pierced by an arrow (or arrow makers whose arrows could not penetrate the armor) were executed. Thus, Tongwan became an impregnable city, spectacularly decorated with gold sculptures, reflecting the splendor it experienced.

Tongwancheng Ruins
Tongwancheng Ruins. Credit: Caitriana Nicholson / Wikimedia Commons

Such was this splendor that Bobo changed his surname to Helian, linking him to Heaven, and did the same with the nobles, who went from being Tiefu to Tiefa, alluding to the hardness of iron. He also named his second wife, Liang (it is unknown what happened to the first, the aforementioned Poduoluo, whether she died or they divorced), Heavenly Princess, and his son Helian Gui as Crown Prince, distributing aristocratic titles among his other offspring (he had sixteen, thirteen sons and three daughters).

Meanwhile, the conflict between the Jin Empire and Later Qin continued, now governed by a new emperor, Yao Hong (Yuanzi), son of the previous one. Bobo decided to take advantage of the turmoil and seized its western part; he calculated that the fall of Later Qin was imminent and that afterward, he could confront the Jin in a favorable situation. Indeed, Later Qin was definitively defeated in 417, and the great architect of the Jin victory, General Liu Yu, took advantage to stage a coup. This plunged the conquered territory into a civil war, an opportunity Bobo did not miss.

Accompanied by the Crown Prince, he marched against the contingent that Liu Yu had left garrisoning the capital of Northern Qin, Chang’an, under the command of his son Liu Yizhen. The latter was only an eleven-year-old child unable to impose authority among his generals, who fought each other for his favor. Yizhen managed to escape, but his father’s troops were massacred, and the victors built a tower of skulls with them, despite which the inhabitants of Chang’an welcomed the victors with joy because the others had looted them before fleeing.

The kingdom of Xia at its peak, with the new capital and its neighboring states at their peak
The kingdom of Xia at its peak, with the new capital and its neighboring states at their peak. Credit: SY / Wikimedia Commons

Bobo proclaimed himself emperor in Bashang (in Shaanxi province) and changed his name to Yuang Changwu. Although his ministers recommended moving the capital to the newly captured Chang’an, he preferred to keep it in Tongwan because it would have been weakened, and consequently, the northern frontier would become an appealing target for his neighbors, especially Wei of the North. What he did was leave his heir, Helian Gui, in Chang’an as viceroy.

However, something serious happened in 424 between father and son because there were rumors that the former planned to depose the latter and transfer the right of succession to the next son, Helian Lun. As expected, the disfavored son was not willing to accept this and rose in arms against his brother, whom he defeated and killed in battle.

He could not enjoy his triumph for long, as a third brother, Helian Chang, in turn, defeated him, ended his life, and restored order, becoming the designated successor and ascending to the throne the following year, upon the death of their turbulent father.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 10, 2024: Helian Bobo, el turbulento emperador xiongnu que exigía a sus herreros armaduras invulnerables y flechas que las atravesaran

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