George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation Game of Thrones has become notorious for its complex political machinations, memorable characters, and truly unpredictable plot twists. Martin has made no secret of his liberal borrowing from various parts of European culture and history in the construction of Westeros and his stories. But what many might be surprised is that many elements of the series actually have counterparts in Chinese history. And in most cases, these real-life versions are more shocking, brutal, and bloody than anything Martin has yet to put on the page. Here are ten times that Chinese history out-Game-of-Thrones Game of Thrones.
Two quick notes. First, one of the primary sources for this article was Bamber Gascoigne’s illuminating book The Dynasties of China. When I use information or a quote from this book, I will include next to it a citation page number such as (G.B. 43).
Second, this article involves seriously SPOILERS!!
10. The Wall
Let’s kick off this list with one of the most recognizable and memorable pieces of ASOIAF lore: the Wall. 700+ feet high and 300 miles long, the Wall is a gigantic barrier of ice that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the peoples and creatures who live in the frozen North. The Wall is manned by the Sworn Brothers of the Night’s Watch, a military order stretching back for thousands of years composed of men from each of the Seven Kingdoms, who occupy nineteen fortresses along its length.
Chinese Counterpart: The Great Wall of China
Martin has reported that the inspiration for the Wall was Hadrian’s Wall, a 118-km-long wall built on the northernmost border of the Roman province of Britannia. But both Hadrian’s Wall and the Wall itself are dwarfed by the awesome size and scale of what is colloquially known as the Great Wall of China. Stretching a mind-blowing 20,000 kilometers (approximately 12,427 miles), the Great Wall is actually a series of different walls, interconnected fortresses, and watch towers. The Great Wall was constructed in different phases for almost 2,000 years, beginning in the 3rd century BCE under the orders of Qin Shi Huang, the legendary first Emperor of China, and ending in 1644 when the very invaders that it was built to defend against overwhelmed it and conquered China, thereby establishing the Qing Dynasty. Its length and magnitude are all the more impressive when you consider that, unlike the Wall from ASOIAF, it wasn’t built with the aid of magic.
9. The Targaryen War of Conquest
One of the defining moments in the history of Westeros was its conquest at the hands of Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys from 2BC to 1AC. Armed with three dragons, House Targaryen managed to conquer and unite six of the Seven Kingdoms under his rule. One of the most notable parts of the War of Conquest was that House Targaryen were outsiders in Westeros. Ruling over the island-fortress of Dragonstone, the Targaryens were not of Westerosi heritage but of Valyrian. So the ultimate narrative of the War of Conquest can be summarized as such: with the aid of animal super-weapons, a group of outsiders conquered their divided neighbors to create a single kingdom.
Chinese Counterpart: The Qin Conquest of China
During the Zhou Dynasty (1045-221 BCE), the centralized rule of the state of Zhou deteriorated over the centuries to the point where China was divided into seven smaller states that paid the Zhou lip service as their rulers while in effect they were locked into a period of near-constant warfare for supremacy. That is, until one of the states known as the Qin managed to conquer all six of their neighbors. The Qin were “a buffer state between the civilisation in the northern plain of China and the nomads to the north-west…[who were] at first regarded by the Chinese at the centre as semi-barbarian…[and] took no part in the occasional conferences held by the Six [sic].” (G.B. 37-38) But it’s not just significant that, like the Targaryens, they were outsiders who conquered six rival kingdoms. Additionally, they were able to overwhelm their enemies thanks to a weapon that was practically unheard of among the peoples of China: riders on horseback.
8. The Perpetual Warfare between the Free Cities of Essos
The Nine Free Cities are the central hubs of geopolitical power on Essos, the continent to the east of Westeros. Eight were former colonies of Valyria that had been given the right of self-rule while the ninth, Braavos, was secretly founded by groups of escaped slaves. Though they share many similarities, each Free City has developed their own cultural practices and identities. As such, they have been locked in near constant warfare with each other in some shape or form for centuries after the Doom of Valyria in 102BC.
Chinese Counterpart: Multiple Eras of Instability
There were several periods of ancient Chinese history when the disintegration of the centralized state due to political instability, peasant uprisings, or dynastic shifts led to the dissolution of the empire into multiple competing kingdoms. If we associate the destruction of the dynastic model with the Doom of Valyria, then the associated kingdoms that sprang up in its wake can easily be seen as the equivalent of the Free Cities of Essos. One of the most notable examples of this dynamic was the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE) when the downfall of the Zhou Dynasty created a power vacuum that was filled by the establishment of ten smaller fiefdoms which evolved into full-fledged states boasting significant military power. These kingdoms spent hundreds of years battling for supremacy before they were united once again by the brutal conquest of the state of Qin which led to the founding of the Qin Dynasty. Another example was the Three Kingdoms era (220–280 CE) when the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu arose from the ashes of the Han Dynasty and waged sixty years of war that left an astonishing 34 million people dead.
7. The Faith Militant Uprising
Sparked after many long years of royal abuse, the Faith of the Seven revolted against the Iron Throne in 41 AC, sparking a cataclysmic period of unrest known as the Faith Militant uprising. The resulting conflict left countless dead and was countered by King Maegor I Targaryen with such brutality (at one point he bestowed cash rewards on anyone who brought the head of an enemy combatant) that he was forever referred to as Maegor the Cruel. The Uprising was finally ended when King Jaehaerys I Targaryen offered complete amnesty for rebel fighters in exchange for the disbanding of the Faith Militant.
Chinese Counterpart: Daoist Secret Society Uprisings
During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) secret Daoist societies sparked peasant uprisings during times of political instability. Two of the most prominent were the Red Eyebrows and the Yellow Turbans. The Red Eyebrows succeeded in 18 CE in ousting the Emperor Wang Mang, but they failed to enact any lasting change as political power was quickly seized by other members of the former imperial family. The Yellow Turbans were a group of faith-healers who in 184 CE managed to shake the foundations of China so greatly that, while the Han Dynasty was eventually able to regain control over the empire, it was doomed to collapse in a few decades to army generals who used their forces to establish the Three Kingdoms. (G.B. 72) Like the Faith Militant Uprising, both of these faith-based real-life peasant uprisings were eventually put down by the very imperial families they sought to depose.
6. Robert Baratheon
The next few entries are going to focus on individual characters from ASOIAF who have disturbingly accurate parallels in Chinese history. We’ll begin with Robert Baratheon, the man responsible for the rebellion which deposed House Targaryen from the Iron Throne. After securing the throne for himself, he quickly proved himself to be an ineffective king by squandering the realm’s finances, siring multiple bastards with possible claims to the Iron Throne, and generally letting the kingdom begin to fall into disrepair.
Chinese Counterpart: Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi
Robert Baratheon’s contempt for the business of ruling as king and his great fondness of alcohol was matched, if not surpassed, by Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi. Though a formidable and brilliant military commander who succeeded in establishing the Northern Qi Dynasty, he soon plunged into alcoholism and became a cruel and ineffective leader. The great Chinese historian Sima Guang wrote that he “drank heavily and lived immorally, carrying out cruel and barbarous acts at his own whim. Sometimes he sang and danced day and night…Sometimes when it was warm, he would be naked to bask in the sun, but even in the coldest winter, he would strip naked as well and run around.” He died of alcoholism in 559 CE.
5. Cersei Lannister
Making her first appearance on this list, Cersei Lannister is one of the most notorious characters in ASOIAF. Cunning, cruel, and manipulative, she is a murderous megalomaniac who, through the course of the series, manages to seize power as Queen Regent over the Seven Kingdoms until her son, King Tommen Baratheon, comes of age. Her rule, detailed in the fourth book of the series entitled A Feast for Crows, is noted for her increasingly erratic and paranoid decisions which ultimately lead to her own arrest and deposition from the throne. Essentially using her son as a puppet, she brings the Seven Kingdoms to the brink of collapse through her own vanity and incompetence.
Chinese Counterpart: Empress Dowager Cixi
The Chinese imperial line survived for 2,132 years. On one end was Qin Shi Huang, the unifier of China and founder of the Qin Dynasty. At the other was the Empress Dowager Cixi. Entering the palace at sixteen years old as a concubine, Cixi became a dowager empress ten years later when her five-year-old son assumed the throne. Her reign was a series of unmitigated disasters. Opposing badly needed reforms, she squelched China’s finances with lavish personal excesses such as one incident where she diverted funds for the creation of a modern navy in order to build a lavish lakeside palace (which included a massive marble pavilion shaped like a Mississippi paddle-steamer). Predictably, soon afterwards China’s antiquated navy was annihilated by the Japanese. Even worse, she officially sponsored the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-foreigner uprising which Cixi saw as an opportunity to regain control of China from foreign influence. Instead, the Rebellion was squashed by an alliance of Western countries after the Boxers attacked the International Legations in Beijing. In response, the Forbidden City was looted and Cixi had to flee from the capital disguised as a peasant. By the time she returned sixteen months later, China was further in debt to Western powers than ever before. Though she tried to enact last-minute reforms (some of which had been initially suggested by her emperor nephew years earlier, an act of rebellion against Cixi which led to his being arrested and imprisoned on an island), the writing was on the wall. China was incapable of defending itself against warlords and revolutionary groups. Four years after her death the Qing Dynasty collapsed with such force that the 2000+ year imperial line was severed. (G.B. 180-184)
4. Aegon IV Targaryen
More popularly referred to as Aegon the Unworthy, Aegon IV Targaryen was known primarily for two things: having an insatiable sexual appetite and siring a great number of bastards. A corrupt and incompetent man, he not only neglected his duties as king, he spent his days and nights having sex with as many women as he wanted. Under his rule, people began to joke that the words of House Targaryen were “Wash her and bring her to my bed.” But his worst act as king was the legitimization of many of his bastards on his deathbed, leading to the Blackfyre Rebellion and open civil war in Westeros.
Chinese Counterpart: Zhengde Emperor
Even Aegon the Unworthy might have told the Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhengde to tone things down when it came to his sexual pursuits. He decreed that his inner palace as well as his occasional places of residence by permanently staffed with “a substantial number of serving-women.” Many of these women were taken unwillingly from the general population via draft campaigns. Even worse, Zhengde was either incapable or uninterested in maintaining his massive harems. Many of them died of hunger and illness every day. Also like Aegon the Unworthy, his death led to a crisis of succession. But unlike Aegon, the crisis was caused by his having no legitimate heirs.
3. Joffrey Baratheon
Oh yes, Chinese history has its very own Joffrey Baratheon. That’s quite a claim considering that Joffrey is one of the most despised and hated characters not only in ASOIAF but in all of modern fiction. He has a stunning laundry list of abuses and atrocities to his name including, but not limited to: the murder of Eddard Stark (an act which leads to Robb Stark declaring himself King in the North and waging open war on the Iron Throne), the frequent humiliation and torture of Sansa Stark, the gleeful murder of starving townsfolk, and the abuse of his uncle Tyrion Lannister. He was finally murdered via poisoned wine during his wedding feast to Margaery Tyrell. He was mourned by nobody save his mother Cersei.
Chinese Counterpart: Liu Ziye
In 465 CE, Liu Ziye assumed the throne of the Liu Song Dynasty when he was seventeen years old. About a year later he was assassinated. Seemingly predisposed to psychotic acts of violence, Liu Ziye was so kill-crazy that “all officials, whether inside the court or outside, were in danger of losing their heads.” He would frequently have high officials and family members killed. Also, in a move that would make Joffrey’s mother proud, he had incestuous relationships with his sister and aunt.
2. The Reynes of Castamere
“The Rains of Castamere” is a popular song in the universe of ASOIAF which tells the story of Tywin Lannister’s destruction of House Reyne of Castamere following their rebellion against House Lannister. The Reynes had risen alongside the Tarbecks of Tarbeck Hall after judging their liege lord Tytos Lannister to be too weak to stop them. But his son Tywin exterminated every member of both houses. The aforementioned song has become synonymous with no-quarter-given warfare and the ruthlessness of the Lannisters, so much so that its performance is a psychological weapon potent enough to sway the hearts and minds of those considering rebelling against them.
Chinese Counterpart: The Yangzhou Massacre
The Yangzhou Massacre may never have gotten its own popular song that would later be covered by Sigur Rós, but like the destruction of the Reynes of Castamere it involved the mass murder of innocent people in retaliation for the rebellious acts of their leaders and superiors. In 1645 an armed force loyal to the recently deposed Ming Dynasty were defeated by Manchu soldiers representing the newly founded Qing Dynasty in the city of Yangzhou. The Manchus then proceeded to lay waste to the population of the city, killing, looting, and raping with extreme prejudice. One source reported some examples of the slaughter:
“Babies lay everywhere on the ground. The organs of those trampled like turf under horses’ hooves or people’s feet were smeared in the dirt, and the crying of those still alive filled the whole outdoors. Every gutter or pond that we passed was stacked with corpses…the canals, too, had been filled to level with dead bodies.”
The massacre was a crucial stepping stone in the destruction of dissent against the Qing Dynasty. Apparently, the message to the Chinese people had been received.
1. Queen Cersei versus Margaery Tyrell
It may seem odd to end this list with a struggle between two women, especially after previous entries have featured massacres and centuries of warfare. But Cersei Lannister’s struggle for dominance against Margaery Tyrell during the fourth book of the ASOIAF series, A Feast for Crows, has such a shocking and repulsive real-life parallel that my discovery of it was what led me to write this list in the first place. Following the death of Tywin Lannister, Cersei became Queen Regent for her son King Tommen I.In desperate need of financial and military support, Tommen is married to Margaery, solidifying the alliance between the Iron Throne and House Tyrell. A cold war begins between Cersei and Margaery for influence over Tommen. Cersei finally triumphs when she frames Margaery for adultery and treason. The tables are unexpectedly turned on Cersei and both women are currently imprisoned awaiting trial in the as yet unreleased six book of the series, The Winds of Winter. Whether Cersei will eventually succeed in destroying Margaery is unknown at the time of this article being written. But the same cannot be said for…
Chinese Counterpart: Lady Lü and Her “Human Pig”
The rules of succession to the imperial line were a bit different in ancient China when compared to medieval Europe. The position of emperor was hereditary, but with each emperor having a veritable army of wives and concubines, picking exactly which heir would succeed his father was not always an easy task. Additionally, the position of empress was awarded to whomever was the mother of the current heir. If an heir fell out of favor, a new heir could be picked and a different woman would become the empress. Struggles for the emperor’s favor could become life-or-death situations. Perhaps the best example of this took place in the Han Dynasty between Empress Lü and one of Emperor Gaozu’s favorite concubines Lady Qi. The two conspired and plotted, machinated and schemed against each other for years all so that their sons would become the next Emperor of China. In the end, Gaozu died and Empress Lü emerged the winner. What happened next can best be described by Mr. Gascoigne:
“After [the Emperor’s] death the empress had no further need of polite methods. Lady Qi’s son was poisoned, and any girl within the royal household of whom Gaozu had been unusually fond was killed. The fate of Lady Qi herself was particularly gruesome…the empress cut off Lady Qi’s hands and feet, gouged out her eyes, burned her ears, gave her a potion which made her dumb, and threw her into the lower part of the privy and brought visitors to see the ‘human pig.’” (G.B. 50)
Martin may have a reputation for being gruesome and shocking, but it isn’t hard to imagine that even he would be taken aback at the thought of a crippled Margaery Tyrell wallowing in feces as Cersei Lannister triumphantly looked on.