Emperor Wǔ was commonly viewed as a generous and kind, but also wasteful, ruler. His generosity and kindness undermined his rule, as he became overly tolerant of the noble families' corruption and wastefulness, which drained the people's resources. Further, when Emperor Wǔ established the Jìn Dynasty, he was concerned about his regime's stability, and, believing that the predecessor state, Cao Wei, had been doomed by its failures to empower the princes of the imperial clan, he greatly empowered his uncles, his cousins, and his sons with authority including high military ranking. This ironically led to the destabilization of the Jìn Dynasty, as the princes engaged in an internecine struggle known as the War of the Eight Princes soon after his death, and then the Wu Hu uprisings that nearly destroyed the Jìn Dynasty and forced its relocation to the region south of the Huai River.
Life before establishment of the Jìn Dynasty
Sīmǎ Yán was born to Sima Zhao and his wife , daughter of the Confucian scholar Wáng Su , in 236, as their oldest son. At that time, Sima Zhao was a mid-level official in the Cao Wei government and a member of a privileged clan, as the son of the renowned general Sima Yi. After Sima Yi from the regent Cao Shuang in 249, Sima Zhao became more and more important. After his father's death in 251, Sima Zhao became the assistant to his brother, the new regent Sima Shi. After Sima Shi died in 255, Sima Zhao became regent and the paramount authority in the Cao Wei government.
Sīmǎ Yán's first important appearance in history was in 260, when forces loyal to his father, led by Jia Chong, defeated an attempt by the Cao Wei emperor Cao Mao to take back power and killed Cao Mao. At that time, as a mid-level army general, he was commissioned by his father to escort the new emperor Cao Huan from his dukedom to the capital Luoyang. After his father was created the Duke of Jìn in 263 in light of the army's conquest of Shu Han, he was named heir. However, at times Sima Zhao hesitated as to whether Sīmǎ Yán or his brother Sima You would be the more appropriate heir -- as Sima You was considered talented and had also been adopted by Sima Shi, who had no biological sons of his own, and Sima Zhao, remembering his brother's role in the Simas' takeover of power, thought it might be appropriate to return power to his branch of the clan. However, a number of high level officials favored Sīmǎ Yán, and Sima Zhao agreed. After he was created the Prince of Jìn in 264 , Sīmǎ Yán was created the crown prince of Jìn.
In 265, Sima Zhao died without having formally taken imperial authority. Sīmǎ Yán became the Prince of Jìn. Later that year, he forced Cao Huan to abdicate, ending Cao Wei and starting the Jìn Dynasty.
Early reign: establishment of the Jìn political system
Emperor Wǔ immediately sought to avoid what he saw as Cao Wei's fatal weakness -- lack of power among the imperial princes. In 265, immediately after taking the throne, he made princes of many of his uncles, cousins, brothers, and sons, each with independent military commands and full authority within their principalities. This system, while it would be scaled back after the War of the Eight Princes and the loss of northern China, would remain in place as a Jìn institution for the duration of the dynasty's existence, and would be adopted by the succeeding Southern dynasties as well.
Another problem that Emperor Wǔ saw with Cao Wei's political system was its harshness in penal law, and he sought to reform the penal system to make it more merciful -- but the key beneficiaries of his changes turned out to be the nobles, as it quickly became clear that the mercy was being dealt out in an unequal manner. Nobles who committed crimes often received simple rebukes, while there were no meaningful reductions in penalties for commoners. This led to massive corruption and extravagant living by the nobles, while the poor went without government assistance. For example, in 267, when several high level officials were found to have worked in conjunction with a county magistrate to seize public land for themselves, Emperor Wǔ refused to punish the high level officials while punishing the county magistrate harshly.
Emperor Wǔ faced two major military issues almost immediately -- incessant harassment from the rival Eastern Wu's forces, under emperor Sun Hao, and Xianbei and Qiang rebellions in Qin and Liang Provinces . Most officials were more concerned about the Xianbei and Qiang rebellions and also with another non-Han people -- the Xiongnu, who had settled down in modern Shanxi after the dissolution of their state by Cáo Cāo in 216 under the watchful eyes of Chinese officials, and were feared for their military abilities. These officials advised Emperor Wǔ to try to suppress the Xianbei and the Qiang before considering conquests of Eastern Wu. Under the encouragement of the generals Yang Hu and and the strategist Zhang Hua, however, Emperor Wǔ, while sending a number of generals to combat the Xianbei and the Qiang, prepared the southern and eastern border regions for war against the Eastern Wu throughout this part of his reign. He was particularly encouraged by reports of Sun Hao's cruelty and ineptitude in governing Eastern Wu; indeed, the officials in favor of war against Eastern Wu often cited this as reason to act quickly, as they argued that Eastern Wu would be harder to conquer if and when Sun Hao was replaced. However, after a major revolt by the Xianbei chief Tufa Shujineng started in 270 in Qin Province, Emperor Wǔ's attention became concentrated on Tufa, as Tufa was able to win victory after victory over Jìn generals. In 271, the Xiongnu noble Liu Meng rebelled as well, and while his rebellion did not last long, this took Emperor Wǔ's attention away from Eastern Wu. In 271, Jiao Province , which had paid allegiance to Jìn ever since the start of his reign, was recaptured by Eastern Wu. In 272, the Eastern Wu general Bu Chan , in fear that Sun Hao was going to punish him on the basis of false reports against him, tried to surrender the important city of Xiling to Jìn, but Jìn relief forces were stopped by the Eastern Wu general Lu Kang, who then recaptured Xiling and killed Bu. In light of these failures, Yang took another tack -- he started a détente with Lu and treated the Eastern Wu border residents well, causing them to view Jìn favorably.
When Emperor Wǔ ascended the throne in 265, he honored his mother Wang Yuanji as empress dowager. In 266, he also honored his aunt an empress dowager, in recognition of his uncle's contributions to the establishment of the Jìn Dynasty. He made his wife empress the same year. In 267, he made her oldest living son, crown prince -- based on the Confucian principle that the oldest son by an emperor's wife should inherit the throne -- a selection that would, however, eventually contribute greatly to political instability and the Jìn Dynasty's decline, as Crown Prince Zhong appeared to be and unable to learn the important skills necessary to govern. Emperor Wǔ further made perhaps a particularly fateful choice on Crown Prince Zhong's behalf -- in 272, he selected , the strong-willed daughter of the noble Jia Chong, to be Crown Prince Zhong's princess. Crown Princess Jia would, from that point on, have the crown prince under her tight control. Before Empress Yang died in 274, she was concerned that whoever the new empress would be would have ambitions to replace the crown prince, and therefore asked Emperor Wǔ to marry her cousin . He agreed.
In 273, Emperor Wǔ would undertake a selection of beautiful women from throughout the empire -- a warning sign of what would eventually come. He looked most attentively among the daughters of officials, but he also ordered that no marriages take place in the empire until the selection process was done.
Middle reign: unification of the Chinese empire
In 276, Emperor Wǔ suffered a major illness -- which led to a succession crisis. Crown Prince Zhong would be the legitimate heir, but both the officials and the people hoped that Emperor Wǔ's capable brother, Sima You the Prince of Qi, would inherit the throne instead. After Emperor Wǔ became well, he divested some military commands from officials that he thought favored Prince You, but otherwise took no other punitive actions against anyone.
Later that year, Yang Hu reminded Emperor Wǔ of his plan to conquer Eastern Wu. Most of the officials, still concerned with Tufa's rebellion, were opposed, but Yang was supported by Du Yu and Zhang. Emperor Wǔ considered their counsel seriously but did not implement it at this time.
Also in 276, pursuant to his promise to the deceased Empress Yang, Emperor Wǔ married her cousin Yang Zhi and made her empress. The new Empress Yang's father, , became a key official in the administration and became exceeding arrogant.
In 279, with the general Ma Long having finally put down Tufa's rebellion, Emperor Wǔ concentrated his efforts on Eastern Wu, and commissioned a six-pronged attack led by his uncle Sima Zhou, Wang Hun , Wang Rong, Hu Fen , Du Yu, and Wang Jun, with the largest forces under Wang Hun and Wang Jun. Each of the Jìn forces advanced quickly and captured the border cities that they were targeting, with Wang Jun's fleet heading east down the Yangtze and clearing the river of Eastern Wu fleets. The Eastern Wu prime minister Zhang Ti made a last ditch attempt to defeat Wang Hun's force, but was defeated and killed. Wang Hun, Wang Jun, and Sima Zhou each headed for Jianye, and Sun Hao was forced to surrender in spring 280. Emperor Wǔ made Sun Hao the Marquess of Guiming. The integration of former Eastern Wu territory into Jìn appeared to be a relatively smooth process.
After the fall of Eastern Wu, Emperor Wǔ ordered that provincial governors no longer be in charge of military matters and become purely civilian governors, and that regional militias be disbanded, despite opposition by the general Tao Huang and the key official . This would also eventually prove to create problems later on during the Wu Hu rebellions, as the regional governors were not able to raise troops to resist quickly enough. He also rejected advice to have the non-Han gradually moved outside of the empire proper.
Late reign: setting the stage for disasters
In 281, Emperor Wǔ took 5,000 women from Sun Hao's palace into his own, and thereafter became even more concentrated on feasting and enjoying the women, rather than on important matters of state. It was said that there were so many beautiful women in the palace that he did not know whom he should have sexual relations with; he therefore rode on a small cart drawn by goats, and wherever the goats would stop, he would stop there, as well. Because of this, many of the women planted bamboo leaves and salt outside their bedrooms -- both items said to be favored by goats. Empress Yang's father Yang Jun and uncles Yang Yao and Yang Ji became effectively in power.
Emperor Wǔ also became more concerned about whether his brother Prince You would seize the throne if he died. In 282, he sent Prince You to his principality, even though there was no evidence that Prince You had such ambitions. Prince You, in anger, grew ill and died in 283.
As Emperor Wǔ grew ill in 289, he considered whom to make regent. He considered both Yang Jun and his uncle Sima Liang the Prince of Ru'nan, the most respected of the imperial princes. As a result, Yang Jun became fearful of Sima Liang and had him posted to the key city of Xuchang. Several other imperial princes were also posted to other key cities in the empire. By 290, Emperor Wǔ resolved to let Yang and Sima Liang both be regents, but after he wrote his will, the will was seized by Yang Jun, who instead had another will promulgated in which Yang alone was named regent. Emperor Wǔ died soon thereafter, leaving the empire in the hands of a developmentally disabled son and nobles intent on shedding each other's blood for power, and while he would not see the disastrous consequences himself, the consequences would soon come.
* ''Taishi'' 265-274
* ''Xianning'' 275-280
* ''Taikang'' 280-289
* ''Taixi'' January 28, 290-May 17, 290
** Sima Zhao, Prince Wen of Jin, posthumously honored as Emperor Wen of Jin, son of Sima Yi
** Empress Yang Yan , mother of Prince Gui, Emperor Hui, and Prince Jian, and Princesses Pingyang, Xinfeng, and Yangping
** Empress Yang Zhi , cousin of Empress Yang Yan, mother of Prince Hui
* Major Concubines
** Consort Zuo Fen
** Consort Hu , daughter of Hu Fen , mother of Princess Wu'an
** Consort Zhuge Wan
** Consort Shen, mother of Princes Jing, Wei and Ai
** Consort Xu, mother of Prince Xian
** Consort Gui, mother of Prince Zhi
** Consort Zhao, mother of Prince Yu
** Consort Zhao, mother of Prince Yǎn
** Consort Li, mother of Princes Yun and Yàn
** Consort Yan, mother of Prince Gai
** Consort Chen, mother of Prince Xia
** Consort Zhu, mother of Prince Mo
** Consort Cheng, mother of Prince Ying
** Consort Wang, mother of Emperor Huai
** Consort Xie Jiu , later concubine of Emperor Hui
** Consort Zhao Can
** Sima Gui , died early, posthumously created Prince Dao of Piling
** Sima Zhong , the Crown Prince , later Emperor Hui of Jin
** Sima Jian , initially the Prince of Ru'nan , later the Prince of Nanyang , later Prince Xian of Qin
** Sima Jing , Prince Huai of Chengyang
** Sima Wei , initially created the Prince of Shiping, later Prince Yin of Chu
** Sima Xian , Prince Shang of Chengyang
** Sima Zhi , Prince Chong of Donghai
** Sima Yu , Prince Ai of Shiping
** Sima Yǎn , Prince Ai of Dai
** Sima Yun , initially Prince of Puyang , later Prince Zhongzhuang of Huainan
** Sima Gai , Prince Huai of Xindu
** Sima Xia , Prince Kang of Qinghe
** Sima Mo , Prince Ai of Ruyin
** Sima Ai , Prince Li of Changsha
** Sima Ying , initially the Prince of Chengdu , later the Crown Prince , later demoted back to Prince of Chengdu
** Sima Yàn , Prince Xiao of Wu
** Sima Chi , initially the Prince of Yuzhang , later the Crown Prince , later Emperor Huai of Jin
** Sima Hui , posthumously created Prince Shang of Bohai
** Eight other sons who died early without being created princes
** Princess Changshan
** Princess Changguang
** Princess Pingyang
** Princess Xinfeng
** Princess Yangping
** Princess Wannian
** Princess Xiangcheng
** Princess Wu'an
** Princess Yingyang
** Princess Rongyang
** Princess Fanchang