|Ma Yuan statue|
Ma Yuan came from a famous family in northwestern China. Civil war raged in China after the death of the usurper Wang Mang in 23 c.e. A powerful general in the Wei River region, he joined the newly proclaimed emperor Guangwu (Kuang-wu), founder of the Eastern Han dynasty (23–220 c.e.) with these words: "In present times, it is not only the sovereign who selects his subjects.
The subjects also select their sovereign". At about the same time, another regional leader, and rival of Ma, named Dou Rong (Tou Jung), also joined Emperor Guangwu’s cause. The Ma and Dou factions would be rivals for years to come.
Ma Yuan distinguished himself in campaigns against tribal people along several frontiers. The first was against the Qiang (Chiang), proto-Tibetans living in the northwest. After defeating the Qiang he settled many of them in the territory of the Han empire.
This policy was motivated by several factors: to prevent them from joining forces with the Xiongnu (Hsiungnu), the primary nomadic foe of the Han for two centuries; to put them under direct Chinese administration for ease of assimilation; and to alleviate the pressure of population growth of the Qiang by settling them in new lands.
Ma Yuan next distinguished himself in the southern part of the empire, in present-day Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Guangxi (Kwanghsi) Provinces in modern China, and in northern Vietnam. This region had been conquered and annexed during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty in 110 b.c.e.
Chinese administration and immigration (initially limited mainly to exiled prisoners) led to gradual assimilation. But a serious rebellion broke out in the Red River region in modern Vietnam in 40 c.e., led by two women known in Vietnam as the Trung sisters (Zheng, or Cheng, in Chinese transliteration). Ma Yuan was appointed commander-in-chief of the imperial forces, 10,000 strong in 42 c.e.
The revolt was quickly put down, and the sisters were executed. The Trung sisters became heroines in later Vietnamese folklore for attempting to gain autonomy for their people, and Ma Yuan, in the folklore among southern Chinese, for his military exploits.
In 48 c.e. there was a serious rebellion by aboriginal tribes in Wuling (Wu-ling) commandery in presentday Hunan Province. Ma Yuan volunteered to command troops to suppress the rebellion; his rivals in the Dou camp managed to insert their men among his staff, with the goal of sabotaging him.
Despite Ma’s complete victory against the revolt, the Dou supporters among his staff sent a secret report to the emperor accusing him of incompetence. Ma died while he was being investigated.
His death emboldened his opponents in their attack, with the result that he was posthumously degraded from the rank of marquis to commoner, and the faction he headed fell from power. His rehabilitation began in 52 c.e. when one of his daughters was chosen as consort for the heir apparent but was not complete until the emperor Guangwu’s death in 57 c.e. and the accession of his son, Emperor Ming.