The Sweet Dew incident (Ganlu incident, Chinese: 甘露事變 or 甘露之變) was an incident on 14 December 835, in which Emperor Wenzong of the Chinese Tang dynasty, angry about the power that the eunuchs had, conspired with the chancellor Li Xun and the general Zheng Zhu to slaughter the eunuchs.
The plot failed, however, when the eunuchs realised what was happening and counterattacked with soldiers under their command. Li Xun, Zheng, as well as many of their associates and other officials were slaughtered, and thereafter, the eunuchs had an even firmer control over Emperor Wenzong and his government than before.
Both Li Xun (then named Li Zhongyan) and Zheng Zhu were associates of the powerful eunuch Wang Shoucheng initially, and it was Wang who introduced both to Emperor Wenzong. Nevertheless, as, over the years, Wenzong showed signs of resentment toward the eunuchs, Li Xun and Zheng, particularly because they were not suspected by the eunuchs due to their association with Wang, began plotting with Wenzong to destroy the powerful eunuchs. As of summer 835, Li Xun and Zheng had persuaded Wenzong with a detailed plan that included a three-phase plan for him to pacify the empire – first destroying the eunuchs, then recovering the lands lost to the Tibetan Empire, and then destroying the warlords north of the Yellow River.
In the summer of 835, the plan began to go into action. Wenzong first diverted some of Wang’s power by giving the command of one of the two Shence armies, under eunuch control, to Wang’s rival, fellow eunuch Qiu Shiliang, and taking it away from another eunuch, Wei Yuansu (韋元素). Then, as Wei and the directors of palace communications (also eunuchs) Yang Chenghe (楊承和) and Wang Jianyan (王踐言) were also in conflict with Wang Shoucheng, to placate Wang Shoucheng and to eliminate Wei, Yang, and Wang Jianyan, Wenzong had Wei, Yang, and Wang Jianyan sent out of the capital Chang’an to serve as eunuch monitors of three different circuits, and later ordered them to commit suicide. Also as part of the plan, Zheng was sent out of Chang’an as well to serve as the military governor (Jiedushi) of Fengxiang Circuit (鳳翔, headquartered in modern Baoji, Shaanxi), so that Zheng could gather troops to use against the eunuchs. Li Xun and Zheng also had six eunuchs who had conflicts with Wang Shoucheng previously, Tian Yuancao (田元操), Liu Xingshen (劉行深), Zhou Yuanzhen (周元稹), Xue Shigan (薛士幹), Sixian Yiyi (似先義逸), and Liu Yingchan (劉英, final character not in Unicode) to be sent out of Chang’an to survey six remote circuits, planning to eventually send edicts drafted by the imperial scholar Gu Shiyong (顧師邕) to the six circuits to order them to commit suicide later.
Meanwhile, in the winter of 835, under the advice of Li Xun and Zheng, Emperor Wenzong sent poisoned wine to Wang Shoucheng, as part of a plot to kill him. Under the next part of Li Xun’s and Zheng’s plan, as Wang was set to be buried on December 20, Zheng would bring his personal guards back to Chang’an to attend the funeral, which the eunuchs were all expected to be attending. Zheng’s guards would then catch the eunuchs by surprise and slaughter them. However, Li Xun, who by this point was a chancellor and who actually had become jealous of Zheng, had different plans – as he felt that this plan would in fact cause Zheng to receive all the credit for the plot. He thus decided to act before Zheng. To that end, Li Xun had Guo Xingyu (郭行餘) made the military governor of Binning Circuit (邠寧, headquartered in modern Xianyang, Shaanxi); Wang Fan (王璠) made the military governor of Hedong Circuit (河東, headquartered in modern Taiyuan, Shanxi); Luo Liyan (羅立言) made the acting mayor of Jingzhao; and Han Yue (韓約) made a general of the imperial guards; he had the four of them gather troops to be ready to act against the eunuchs. It was said that only Li Xun, Guo, Wang Fan, Luo, Han, Li Xiaoben (李孝本) the deputy chief imperial censor, and fellow chancellor Shu Yuanyu were aware of Li Xun’s plans.
Initial Launching Stage by Li Xun and His Allies
On 14 December, Wenzong was hosting an imperial meeting at Zichen Hall (紫宸殿) with the imperial officials. Han Yue, who was the general of the Left Jinwu Corps (左金吾), instead of giving the customary report that everything was well that the Left Jinwu and Right Jinwu generals were to give, instead stated that the night previous, there was sweet dew (甘露, ganlu in Chinese) that descended on a pomegranate tree outside the Left Jinwu headquarters. He bowed to Wenzong, and the chancellors immediately led the other officials in congratulating the Emperor (as sweet dew was considered a sign of divine favour). Li Xun and Shu Yuanyu suggested that Wenzong go observe the sweet dews himself so that he could receive the blessings from heaven. Wenzong agreed, and the officials proceeded to Hanyuan Hall (含元殿), near the Left Jinwu headquarters. Wenzong himself took a litter to Hanyuan Hall.
Once the Emperor and the officials arrived at Hanyuan Hall, Wenzong ordered the chancellors, as well as officials of the examination bureau (門下省, Menxia Sheng) and legislative bureau (中書省, Zhongshu Sheng) to examine the sweet dews at the Left Jinwu headquarters. After they did so, Li Xun returned and announced, “After we took our examinations, it appeared to me that those were not real sweet dews. This should not be announced immediately; otherwise, the empire would prematurely congratulate you.” Wenzong expressed surprise, and ordered Qiu Shiliang and fellow Shence Army commander Yu Hongzhi (魚弘志) to lead the other eunuchs to examine the sweet dews.
After the eunuchs left Hanyuan Hall, Li Xun immediately summoned Guo Xingyu and Wang Fan to Hanyuan Hall and stated, “Be ready to receive the edict.” Wang was fearful, and he did not proceed into Wenzong’s presence, but Guo did and knelt before the Emperor. Meanwhile, it was said that Wang and Guo had several hundred soldiers with them; initially, the soldiers stood outside Danfeng Gate (丹鳳門), outside Hanyuan Hall. Li Xun had them summoned inside Danfeng Gate to receive the edict, but only Wang’s soldiers went in, and Guo’s soldiers did not.
Meanwhile, Qiu and the other eunuchs were at the Left Jinwu headquarters. Han, however, had become fearful and was nervous and sweating. Qiu began to sense that something was wrong. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew up a screen, and Qiu saw many armed soldiers and heard the sounds of clanging weapons. Qiu and the other eunuchs were surprised and quickly ran outside. The guards at the Left Jinwu headquarters were about to close the gate to close them in, but Qiu yelled at them, and they, surprised, were unable to close the gates. Qiu and the other eunuchs ran back to Hanyuan Hall, preparing to report to Wenzong what was happening.
Battle at Hanyuan Hall
When Li Xun saw the eunuchs running back to Hanyuan Hall, he yelled at the Jinwu guards for them to protect the emperor and promised them rewards. The eunuchs, however, yelled that there was an emergency and the emperor must return to the palace at once. They grabbed Emperor Wenzong’s litter, put him on it, and ran north through the roped screen behind Hanyuan Hall (breaking the screen in the process) toward the palace. Li Xun ran after the litter and grabbed it, yelling, “I have not finished my report, and Your Imperial Majesty should not return to the palace!”
At this time, the Jinwu guards were in Hanyuan Hall, along with the Jingzhao Municipal government police under Luo Liyan and office of imperial censors’ guards under Li Xiaoben, attacking the eunuchs. More than 10 eunuchs were killed or injured, but this attack was unable to prevent the eunuchs from carrying Emperor Wenzong’s litter through Xuanzheng Gate (宣政門), into the palace. Li Xun, who was still holding on to the litter, urged Emperor Wenzong to stop, but Emperor Wenzong yelled at him to stop yelling. The eunuch Chi Zhirong (郗志榮) battered Li Xun’s chest, and Li Xun fell onto the ground. The litter then entered Xuanzheng Gate, and the gate was closed. The eunuchs were cheering. The officers lined up at Hanyuan Hall paused for a moment, and then fled. Li Xun, knowing that he had failed, put on a green uniform belonging to his staff members, got onto a horse, and fled, stating loudly on the road, “What crime did I commit that I am exiled?” No one on the road suspected him of being Li Xun. Meanwhile, Shu Yuanyu, along with other chancellors Wang Ya and Jia Su returned to the office of the chancellors, and believed that soon Emperor Wenzong would summon them to deal with the aftermath. When the officials under them came to inquire what had occurred, they told those subordinates to keep working and not to worry.
Slaughter of the Officials
Meanwhile, by this point, Qiu Shiliang and the other eunuchs had realized that Emperor Wenzong was complicit with this plot, and they were openly cursing the emperor in his presence. It was said that Emperor Wenzong was so fearful that he was unable to speak. Meanwhile, Qiu and the other eunuchs sent the Shence Army officers Liu Tailun (劉泰倫) and Wei Zhongqing (魏仲卿), with 500 soldiers each, armed with swords, to attack those they considered to be associates of Li Xun and Zheng Zhu.
At that time, Wang Ya and the other chancellors were ready to have their regular lunch conference. A staff member informed them, “Soldiers are coming out of the palace and killing everyone they were meeting!” The chancellors, unable to get on horses quickly, fled on foot. The officials of the legislative and examination bureaus, and the Jinwu soldiers, numbering over 1,000 people, were also trying to flee, but they were bottlenecked at the gate to the office of the chancellors, and eventually, the gates were closed with some 600 of them still trapped inside, and the Shence Army soldiers slaughtered them. Qiu and the other eunuchs also sent Shence Army soldiers to close all gates to the imperial city and enter various governmental offices to attack the officials. It was said that the officials and their guards, and civilians who happened to be in the offices, were all slaughtered – over 1,000 people. Various files, seals, books, and other equipment owned by the government were destroyed in the process. The eunuchs also sent cavalry soldiers outside the imperial city to try to capture those who had fled.
Shu Yuanyu was captured after he changed into civilian clothes and got on a horse to flee out of Anhua Gate (安化門). Wang Ya, who was in his 70s, walked to a tea shop at Yongchang District (永昌里), and was captured there. The soldiers took Wang to the Left Shence Army headquarters, where he was tortured. Wang, unable to stand the pain, falsely confessed that he and Li Xun were planning to overthrow Emperor Wenzong and support Zheng as the new emperor. Wang Fan fled back to his mansion at Changxing District (長興里), and ordered the soldiers of Hedong Circuit to guard his mansion. When Shence Army officers arrived, they yelled out to him, “Wang Ya committed treason. The Emperor wants you to take over as chancellor, and Commander Yu wanted me to come give regards.” Wang Fan, believing them, exited his mansion, and the officers began to give him mock congratulations. Only then did Wang Fan realize that he had been tricked. The Shence Army soldiers also captured Luo Liyan at Taiping District (太平里), and also captured Wang Ya’s relatives and household servants, imprisoning all of them. Li Xun’s cousin Li Yuangao (李元臯) was killed.
Meanwhile, the Shence Army soldiers were also pillaging wealthy households under the guise of searching for Li Xun’s associates and the chancellors. For example, because Hu Zheng (胡證), the former military governor of Lingnan Circuit (嶺南, headquartered in modern Guangzhou, Guangdong), was extremely wealthy, the Shence Army soldiers used the excuse of searching for Jia Su to enter his mansion, and they killed his son Hu Yin (胡溵). Similarly pillaged were the households of the officials Luo Rang (羅讓), Hun Hui (渾鐬), and Li Zhi (黎埴). It was said that many street hoodlums also used this opportunity to take vengeance and to pillage.
Executions of Li Xun, His Associates, and other Chancellors
The morning of 15 December, when the surviving officials were to enter the palace for the routine imperial gathering at Zichen Hall, the Jianfu Gate (建福門) was not opened until the sun rose, and the Shence Army soldiers guarding the gates allowed each official to only bring one attendant with them each. None of the chancellors or imperial censors was attending the meeting, and many other positions at the imperial gathering were also missing. When Emperor Wenzong inquired why the chancellors were not there, Qiu Shiliang responded, “Wang Ya and the others committed treason, and they have been arrested.” Qiu showed Wang Ya’s confession to Emperor Wenzong, and further showed them to the Pushe (僕射, heads of the executive bureau (尚書省, Shangshu Sheng)) Linghu Chu and Zheng Tan. Emperor Wenzong became saddened and angered when he read Wang Ya’s confession and asked Linghu and Zheng whether this was Wang Ya’s handwriting. When Linghu and Zheng confirmed that it was, Emperor Wenzong responded, “Then not even execution is enough for their crimes.” He issued an order that Linghu and Zheng take over at the office of the chancellors and handle the matters there, and that Linghu draft an edict to explain what had occurred (i.e., to declare the guilt of Wang Ya and the other chancellors). However, although Linghu did so, Linghu wrote the edict in dull language when describing Wang Ya’s and Jia Su’s alleged treason, thus angering Qiu. As a result, while, eventually, Zheng was made chancellor, Linghu was not.
Meanwhile, the pillaging on the streets were continuing. The eunuchs ordered the Shence Army officers Yang Zhen (楊鎮) and Jin Suiliang (靳遂良) to take 500 soldiers each and take over security over the key streets of Chang’an. The soldiers beat drums to warn the hoodlums, and after killing some 10 hoodlums, the situation calmed down.
Jia had changed into civilian clothes and hidden among the people, but after one night, he came to believe that there would be no way that he would be able to flee. He changed into mourning clothes and rode a donkey to Xing’an Gate (興安門), informing the guards at Xing’an Gate that he was Jia, and asking to be delivered to the Shence Armies. The guards delivered him to the Right Shence Army. Meanwhile, Li Xiaoben changed into a green uniform (as Li Xu did), but continued to have on a gold belt. He covered his face with a hat and tried to ride a horse to flee to Fengxiang. When he was just west of Xianyang (咸陽, in modern Xianyang), he was captured by the Shence Army soldiers.
On 16 December, Zheng Tan was named chancellor.
Meanwhile, Li Xun had fled to the Zhongnan Mountain (終南山) to try to seek refuge with the Buddhist monk Zongmi, with whom he was friendly. Zongmi wanted to give Li Xun a tonsure and disguise him as a monk, but Zongmi’s followers urged him not to accept Li Xun. Li Xun thus exited Zhongnan Mountain and tried to flee to Fengxiang. He was, however, intercepted on the way by the defender of Zhouzhi (盩厔, in modern Xi’an), Song Chu (宋楚), who arrested him and had him delivered to Chang’an. When Li Xun’s escort reached Kunming Pond (昆明池), Li Xun, fearful that the eunuchs would torture and humiliate him, told the officer escorting him to decapitate him so that the Shence Army soldiers could not seize him and take the glory themselves. The officer agreed and decapitated Li Xun, delivering the head to Chang’an.
On 17 December, Li Shi, who had been displaced by Luo Liyan as mayor of Jingzhao, was named chancellor as well as the director of finances.
On the same day, a grand procession was held for the executions of the chancellors and the key associates of Li Xun. 300 soldiers from the Left Shence Army, holding Li Xun’s head high in front of the procession, escorted Wang Ya, Wang Fan, Luo, and Guo Xingyu. 300 soldiers from the Right Shence Army escorted Jia, Shu Yuanyu, and Li Xiaoben. The officials were taken to the imperial ancestral shrines and the shrines to the gods of earth, and they were presented as if they were sacrificial animals. They then were paraded at the eastern and western markets of Chang’an. With the imperial officials ordered to oversee the executions, they were executed by being cut in half at the waist, and then their heads were cut off and hung outside Xing’an Gate. Their relatives, no matter how distantly related, were executed, including children, and some who had somehow initially escaped death were confiscated to be government slaves. It was said that during these few days, none of the decisions being made in Emperor Wenzong’s name were actually made by Emperor Wenzong himself (or even known by him); rather, Qiu and Yu Hongzhi were making all of these decisions.
On 18 December, Gu Shiyong was arrested, even though the edicts that he had drafted ordering that the six eunuchs sent out to survey the circuits be forced to commit suicide were ignored by the six circuits receiving the edicts.
Meanwhile, Zheng Zhu, unaware of Li Xun’s actions and still acting on the original plan, had taken his guards and departed Fengxiang. When he got to Fufeng (扶風, in modern Baoji), the magistrate of Fufeng County, Han Liao (韓遼), became aware of Zheng’s plan, and therefore refused to supply him and fled to Wugong (武功, in modern Xianyang). When Zheng received news that Li Xun had failed, he returned to Fengxiang. His subordinate Wei Hongjie (魏弘節) suggested to him that he kill the eunuch monitor of Fengxiang, Zhang Zhongqing (張仲卿), as well as a number of officers, but Zheng, terrified, did not know what to do. At the same time, Qiu had an edict in Emperor Wenzong’s name delivered to Zhang ordering Zhang to act against Zheng. Zhang initially also was not sure how to act, but under suggestion from the officer Li Shuhe (李叔和), Zhang invited Zheng to a feast. Li Shuhe gave Zheng’s guards food and drink, and then, at the feast, while Zheng was not paying attention, killed and decapitated him. He then had Zheng’s guards, Zheng’s household, as well as a large number of Zheng’s staff members, slaughtered. Zhang had Li Shuhe deliver Zheng’s head to Chang’an, and Li Shuhe arrived there on 20 December – where, on 19 December the eunuchs had readied the troops in case of an attack by Zheng, causing much panic in the people of Chang’an. Only after Zheng’s head was hung on Xing’an Gate was it said that the people were calmed somewhat. Also on 20 December, Han Yue was captured, and on 21 December, Han was executed.
Aftermath and Legacy
After the incident, the eunuchs, led by Qiu Shiliang and Yu Hongzhi, controlled the political scene completely for some time. When the six eunuchs who were almost forced to commit suicide returned to Chang’an, Tian Yuancao claimed that he was ready to slaughter the officials, and this led to another major panic at Chang’an. Only after Li Shi and the general Chen Junshang (陳君賞) remained calm were the people calmed.
In spring 836, the military governor of Zhaoyi Circuit (昭義, headquartered in modern Changzhi, Shanxi), Liu Congjian, submitted a harshly worded accusation against the eunuchs, claiming that the chancellors were innocent and that the eunuchs were guilty of grievous crimes. The eunuchs initially tried to placate Liu by having him bestowed with high honors, but he continued to submit accusations against them, particularly against Qiu. It was said that only after Liu’s accusations did the eunuchs become somewhat apprehensive and allow Emperor Wenzong, Li Shi, and Zheng Tan some ability to govern. Still, it was said that after the Sweet Dew Incident, for almost the rest of Tang dynasty’s history, the eunuchs were in firm control of the government, determining the successions of emperors.