The term “rumour” is generally understood as widely disseminated fake news or false information among the public. In Chinese history, rumours often took the form of gossip, fake news, false information, and prophecy. They had a great influence upon politics, military affairs, and society at crucial moments. As the saying goes, “rumours fly everywhere”, the “Splendid Chinese Culture” has set up a special topic explaining some features of rumours and revisiting 12 rumours that have influenced ancient Chinese history. While amusing, they are also thought-provoking.
What Is a Rumour?
The nature of rumours and the reasons for their widespread dissemination are explored through the study of the history of ancient and modern China and foreign nations, and other perspectives including psychology and sociology.
Stopped by the wise? Rumours that defamed the Duke of Zhou and its impact
There is a saying, “Even the Duke of Zhou (周公) fears the day when rumours spread.” After King Wu of Zhou (周武王) died, Guan Shu (管叔), Cai Shu (蔡叔), Huo Shu (霍叔), Wugeng (武庚), and the people of the Eastern Yi (東夷, the lower reaches of the Yellow River Basin) spread rumours that the Duke of Zhou, who was assisting the government, was being harmful to King Cheng of Zhou (周成王)’s ascension. They used it as a pretext to incite an armed rebellion, but was suppressed by the Duke of Zhou in his expedition to the East. Stability was thus restored .
All Is Fair in War—Qin’s fabricated rumor Wins the Battle of Changping
In the late Warring States period, the State of Qin (秦國) and the State of Zhao (趙國) were deadlocked in Changping (長平). In order to bring the war to a quick end, Qin sent spies to spread rumours in Zhao, claiming that Zhao’s main general Lian Po (廉頗) was easy to handle, and Qin only feared Zhao Kuo (趙括). This tricked the King of Zhao into replacing Lian with Zhao, a mere armchair strategist, to lead the army. As a result, the Zhao army was completely annihilated, losing 450,000 soldiers.
A Prophecy fulfilled - Who really overthrew the Qin dynasty?
After unifying China, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) saw a prophecy, saying that the downfall of the Qin dynasty would come from “Hu”. Believing that “Hu” referred to the Xiongnu (匈奴) tribe, the emperor ordered a campaign against it and a major construction of the Great Wall. However, after Qin Shi Huang’s death, his youngest son, Huhai (胡亥) came to the throne. He engaged in brutal policies, allowing the influential minister Zhao Gao (趙高) to get his hands on power and intensify the tyranny. It eventually brought the rapid collapse of the Qin dynasty when other powers started to rise. The prophecy that Qin would be overthrown by “Hu” indeed came about, but “Hu” was the son of the dynasty’s founder, rather than the Xiongnu.
Spreading lies to rebel Against Qin - The rise of Chen Sheng, King of Chu
Chen Sheng (陳勝), the leader of the first uprising during the late Qin dynasty, inserted a silk cloth marked with the words “Chen Sheng Wang” (陳勝王, “Chen Sheng will be the king”) into a fish belly to raise support for the uprising. He also sent someone to imitate the sound of a fox and speak human words, saying “Great Chu (楚國) will rise, and King Chen Sheng will reign”. The cloth in the fish belly and the rumour from the fox made superstitious people believe that Chen might be the true son of heaven.
Founding myth - The character of Liu Bang, Emperor Gaozu of the Han dynasty
There is a legend associated with Liu Bang (劉邦) founding the Han dynasty (漢代). One day, he encountered a huge snake blocking his way and chopped it in two with his sword. Later, he heard an old woman crying, “My son was the son of “Baidi” (白帝, the “White Emperor”) that turned into a snake and was lying in the middle of the road. Today, he was killed by you, the son of “Chidi” (赤帝, the “Red Emperor”).” Liu’s followers then revered him as the Red Emperor’s son and respected him even more.
Falsehoods that do not bewilder the masses - Emperor Xuan of the Han dynasty’s escape from prison
Emperor Xuan of the Han dynasty (漢宣帝), formerly named Liu Bingyi (劉病已), was imprisoned as a baby due to the witchcraft scandal. At that time, there was a rumour that the aura of the emperor was in Chang’an (長安) prison. Emperor Wu (武帝) therefore ordered the execution of all prisoners in the capital’s prisons. Fortunately, Liu was saved by Bing Ji (丙吉), the Inspector of Law Enforcement. Another rumour circulated was that Liu would become the Han dynasty’s next emperor. Later in history, Liu did in fact ascend the throne, turning the rumour into a fulfilled prophecy.
“Great Floods Will Engulf the Capital” - A Little Girl Almost Enters the Imperial Palace
During the reign of Emperor Cheng of the Han dynasty (漢成帝), a nine-year-old girl Chen Chigong (陳持弓) heard a rumour that great floods would soon engulf Chang’an the capital and then confidently walked into the heavily guarded Weiyang Palace (未央宮). Later, the rumour of the flooding approaching Chang’an spread more widely, and people became more panic. The rumour of flooding was eventually proved to be false, but the spread of the rumour mirrored the people’s anxiety about and fear of natural disasters.
A Perfect Storm - Rumours, Drought, and Solar Eclipse
During the reign of Emperor Ai of the Han dynasty (漢哀帝), there was a rumour claiming that anyone who carried seedlings or firewood blessed by the Empress Dowager of the West would not get ill or die. The public continually sent these objects to their friends and relatives, and the rumour spread across the Han dynasty’s 26 “Jun Guo” (郡國, a historical administrative division). This superstition, together with droughts and solar eclipses, created a storm of rumours which forced Emperor Ai to appoint prestigious ministers and dismiss some favoured ones to appease public opinion.
A Prophetic Dream—Gongsun Shu's Personal Ambition
Different powers rose after the fall of Wang Mang’s (王莽) regime, one of which being Gongsun Shu (公孫述). He had a prophetic dream, believing that he could be an emperor for 12 years, and thus established himself as the emperor in the State of Shu (蜀國). Later in his regime, a children’s song began to circulate in Shu: “A yellow ox with a white belly, and Wuzhu coins (五銖錢) should return”. The song may express the Shu people’s dissatisfaction with Gongsun’s governance. In the phrase “Wuzhu should return”, Wuzhu referred to the coin circulated during the West Han dynasty, which also implies that the Han dynasty could be restored. 12 years after the establishment of Gongsun’s regime, it was overthrown by the Eastern Han dynasty , fulfilling his prophetic dream.
Unbelievable - A Xiongnu person as Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty’s descendant?
After the fall of Wang Mang’s regime, Liu Wenbai (劉文白), who claimed to be a great-grandson of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (漢武帝) with a lineage from a noble family of the Xiongnu, established himself as the emperor in the north with the Xiongnu’s support. However, Liu, whose original name was Lu Fang (盧方), was merely taking advantage of a tradition of Han-Xiongnu intermarriage, and people’s desire to return to the Han dynasty to establish the legitimacy of his claim to the throne.
A Children’s Song Leads to Death - The Collapse of the Northern Qi
During the Northern and Southern dynasties, Hulu Guang (斛律光), a bold and powerful Northern Qi (北齊) general, posed a great threat to the Northern Zhou (北周). The Northern Zhou court then spread a children’s song in Northern Qi, “A hundred measures rise to the sky, the bright moon shines over Chang’an (長安). The tall (“高” as “Gao”, referring to the regime of the Gao family) mountain collapses without being pushed, the oak tree (“斛” as “Hu”, referring to Hulu Guang) lifts itself without being helped”). It implied that Hulu would replace the Gao family’ imperial power in Northern Qi. The Northern Qi monarch fell for the trick and exterminated the Hulu clan. Shortly afterwards, however, Northern Qi was defeated by the Northern Zhou.
Female Emperor - Wu Zetian Uses Prophecy to Her Advantage
During the regime of Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty (唐太宗), it was prophesised that a female with the character “Wu” (武) in her name would ascend the throne. Empress Wu Zetian (武則天) did emerge as the prophecy had foretold. Wu’s ascension to the throne was not solely based on the prophecy, but it undoubtedly help to strengthen her legitimacy and her imperial power, as well as increasing her acceptance among the officials and the people