Shih Le (274-333) was the founder of the Latter Chaoempire and is an example of a man of the humblest social origins who, during troubled times, rose to the highest position of ruler of almost all of North China.
Shih Le was a Chieh, a Hsiung-nu tribe which seems to have spoken a Turkic language. He came from southeastern Shansi, and although his biography says he was descended from small-tribe chief-tains, his early life shows him to have been very poor indeed. In 285 he went to Lo-yang, the capital, accompanying a merchant from his native place. Shih reached the lowest point in his fortunes when he was sold into slavery to a Chinese in Shantung. He then joined, and eventually became the leader of, a group of bandits. At this time he took the Chinese name of Shih Le.
After some striking victories, in 307 Shih threw in with the self-styled king of the barbarian "Han" dynasty, Liu Yüan, and remained, ostensibly at least, in the service of that "dynasty" until he founded his own kingdom in 319. In the intervening years he piled up victory upon victory, invading the Pei-ho Basin down to the Yellow River in 308, ambushing and killing Wang Yen, close to 50 members of the imperial Chin family, and 100,000 troops in eastern Honan in 311, the year Lo-yang was burned and sacked by Liu Yüan's successor, Liu Ts'ung.
By killing two of his allies and annexing their armies that same year, Shih became an independent force; and when he, counseled by his wise Chinese adviser, Chang Pin, took Peking by ruse from the rebel Chin general, Wang Chün, in 314, he became the de facto ruler of eastern China. When Liu Ts'ung died in 318, Shih Le became vice-regent of the "Han" empire with Liu Yao; but a palace revolution which occurred that year forced him to break with Liu Yao, and the two barbarian leaders set up rival capitals: Liu Yao in Ch'ang-an, and Shih Le in Hsiang-kuo, southern Hopei.
Since both took the name Chao for their kingdoms, historians have called Liu Yao's dynasty "Former Chao" and Shih Le's "Latter Chao." In 328, after 5 years of intermittent warfare, Liu Yao occupied Lo-yang (about midway between the two capitals). The next year Shih Le personally led his troops against his rival, taking the ancient capital and capturing Liu Yao (who was dead drunk at the time). Thus in 329 Shih Le was the ruler of almost all of North China, and in March-April 330 he assumed the imperial throne of the Latter Chao, although, with modesty that was unique among his barbarian peers, he refused the title of emperor, contenting himself with "Heavenly Prince of the Great Chao."
Illiterate, having received no schooling whatsoever in his indigent youth, Shih Le was by no means lacking in intellectual curiosity. He was an admirer of Chinese culture and of Buddhism, the patron of the great monk Fot'u-teng, and the builder of splendid monasteries in his capitals. It is true that the histories seem only to remember his interest in the magical aspects of Buddhism, his belief in and fear of Fo-t'u-teng's power to see the future and to work miracles, but they also tell us that late in life "he liked to listen to scholars read to him and when, from time to time, he was wont to discourse on the faults and virtues of men of ancient and modern times, all those who heard him assented with delight." His imperial status was short-lived, for he fell seriously ill in 333 and died on August 17.
Shih Le was an astute and, according to the standards of the age, a humane leader. He strove to Sinicize and bring racial harmony to his realm, but he was unable to achieve real prosperity. The incessant warfare that characterizes his entire reign was, of course, the main reason, but his complete reliance on the semifeudal regional Chinese Great Families made it impossible for him to institute centralized civil administration with power to protect the peasants and keep the bitter racial animosities between the Chinese and barbarians in check. The result was that 2 years after the death of his nephew and successor, Shih Hu, in 349 (a ruler as ruthless as his uncle had been benign), the empire, torn by internal strife, simply collapsed.
Further Reading on Shih Le
There is no work on Shih Le in English. A background study which discusses him is William Montgomery McGovern, The Early Empires of Central Asia: A Study of the Scythians and the Huns and the Part They Played in World History (1939).