02 February 2010

First Emperor of the Han Dynasty in China: Liu Bang

Emperor Gao (256/247 BC – 1 June 195 BC), commonly known within China by his temple name, Gaozu (Chinese: 高祖; pinyin: Gāozǔ, Wade-Giles: Kao Tsu), personal name Liu Bang (Wade-Giles: Liu Pang), was the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, ruling over China from 202 BC to 195 BC. Liu Bang was one of the few dynasty founders in Chinese history who emerged from the peasant class (another major example being Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty). In the early stage of his rise to prominence, Liu was addressed as "Duke of Pei", with the "Pei" referring to his hometown of Pei County. He was also granted the title of "King of Han" by Hegemon-King of Western Chu Xiang Yu, when Xiang split the former Qin empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms, and he was known by this title before becoming Emperor of China.

Biography: Birth and early life
Liu Bang was born in a peasant family in Zhongyang, Fengyi, Pei County (沛縣豐邑中陽里; present-day Feng County, Jiangsu province). His parents' names were not recorded in history and they were referred to as "Liu Taigong" (劉太公; Old Sir Liu) and "Liu Ao" (劉媼[7]; Old Madam Liu). Before Liu Bang's birth, his mother was taking a nap one day when she dreamt of a divine being. Just then, there was lightning and thunder and the sky darkened. Liu's father went to see his wife and saw a dragon beside her. Shortly after that, Liu's mother became pregnant and gave birth to Liu Bang.

Liu had a high nose, nice whiskers and a beard, bearing some resemblance to a dragon in appearance. He had 72 dark spots on his left leg as well. The young Liu Bang was outspoken, charismatic and of great forbearance and tolerance. However, Liu enjoyed loafing, disliked reading and showed no interest in farming, hence his father often chided him as a "little rascal". Liu persisted in his idling ways and depended on his brother's family for food and lodging. When he grew older, he was appointed as a patrol officer and forged close relationships with the officials in the county office, earning himself a little reputation in his hometown. While having drinks with his friends in the local taverns, they would notice a silhouette of a dragon on him whenever he was drunk. The tavern owners felt that Liu Bang was an extraordinary person and provided him with drinks each time free of charge.

One day back in his hometown, a respectable man known as Lord Lü, who had recently moved to Pei County, was visited by the most famous men in town. Xiao He, who was in charge of helping Lord Lü collect the gifts from the visitors, announced, "Those who do not offer more than 1,000 coins in gifts shall be seated outside the hall." Liu Bang went there without bringing a single cent and said, "I offer 10,000 coins." Lord Lü saw Liu Bang and was impressed with Liu on first sight, that he immediately stood up and welcomed Liu into the hall to sit beside him. Xiao He told Lord Lü that Liu was not serious, but Liu ignored him and chatted with Lü. Lü said, "I used to predict fortunes for many people but I've never seen someone so exceptional like you before." Lord Lü then offered his daughter Lü Zhi's hand-in-marriage to Liu Bang and they were wed. Lü Zhi bore Liu Bang a son (future Emperor Hui of Han) and a daughter (future Princess Luyuan).

Biography: Insurrection against the Qin Dynasty
Once, Liu Bang was put in charge of escorting some convicts to Mount Li (驪山; in present-day Shaanxi province) to build the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. During the journey, many prisoners fled and Liu Bang feared for his life as allowing convicts to escape was a capital crime punishable by death at that time. Liu then released the remaining prisoners and became a fugitive, with some of the men he released voluntarily agreeing to follow him. In legend, they encountered a gigantic white serpent that killed some people with its poisonous breath. Liu killed the serpent that night and he encountered an old woman weeping by the roadside the next morning. When Liu's men asked her why she was crying, she replied, "My child, the son of the White Emperor, has been slain by the son of the Red Emperor.", and she disappeared mysteriously. After hearing the old woman's strange words, Liu Bang's men believed that he was destined to become a ruler in future and became more impressed with him. The event was called "Uprising of the Slaying of the White Serpent" (斬白蛇起義).

Liu Bang and his followers sought refuge on Mount Mangdang (芒砀山) near Pei County and lived in an outlaw stronghold there. Liu still maintained secret contact with his old friends, such as Xiao He and Cao Shen, in his hometown. In 209 BC, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang rose up in rebellion against the Qin Dynasty, known as the Daze Village Uprising. The magistrate of Pei County considered rebelling as well, so at the advice of Xiao He and Cao Shen, he sent Fan Kuai (Liu Bang's relative) to invite Liu and his followers back to Pei to support him. However, the magistrate changed his mind later and denied Liu Bang's party entry into the city. He was worried that Xiao and Cao might open the city gates for Liu so he intended to have them executed, but Xiao and Cao escaped and joined Liu. Liu Bang followed Xiao He's suggestion and ordered his men to send letters on arrows fired into the city, urging his townsfolk to surrender and help him. They responded to Liu's call and killed the magistrate, welcoming Liu back into the city. Liu was then addressed as "Duke of Pei" (沛公) or "Lord Pei" by his followers.

In 208 BC, during the reign of Qin Er Shi, the descendants of the royal families of the former Yan, Zhao, Qi and Wei states rose in rebellion against the Qin Dynasty in the name of restoring their states. In Wu (吳; in present-day Jiangsu province), Xiang Liang started an uprising as well and installed Mi Xin as King Huai II of Chu. Liu Bang went to join Xiang Liang and served under the Chu state for some time. After Xiang Liang was killed in action at the Battle of Dingtao, King Huai II sent Xiang's nephew Xiang Yu and Song Yi to lead an army to attack the Qin forces and help Zhao. Liu Bang was granted the title of "Marquis of Wu'an" (武安侯) by the king and put in charge of an army to attack Qin. The king promised that whoever managed to enter Guanzhong (heartland of Qin) first will be granted the title of "King of Guanzhong". In 206 BC, Liu Bang's army beat Xiang Yu's forces in the race to Guanzhong and arrived at Xianyang, the capital city of Qin. The last Qin ruler Ziying surrendered to Liu Bang and the Qin Dynasty ended. Liu issued rare, strict orders for his troops, forbidding them from killing innocent civilians and pillaging the cities they conquered. The peace and stability in Xianyang was restored temporarily while Liu Bang's army was stationed there.

Biography: Chu–Han contention
Xiang Yu was dissatisfied that Liu Bang had beat him in the race so he set a trap to kill Liu Bang, after being instigated by his advisor Fan Zeng and a defector from Liu's side, Cao Wushang. Xiang invited Liu to attend a banquet, known as the Banquet Feast at HongMen (Beautiful Gate), while secretly preparing to kill Liu during the feast. However, Xiang's uncle Xiang Bo, who was a close friend of Liu's strategist Zhang Liang, managed to persuade Xiang Yu to spare Liu's life. Fan Zeng then ordered Xiang Yu's cousin Xiang Zhuang to perform a sword dance during the feast and use the opportunity to kill Liu Bang, but Xiang Bo prevented him from doing so. Liu Bang lied that he needed to go to the latrine and escaped back to his camp. Liu Bang and his troops evacuated from Xianyang and retreated westwards later. Xiang Yu led his men into Xianyang and the city turned into a living hell when Xiang's soldiers plundered and pillaged the city, committing atrocities against civilians and destroying the Epang Palace by fire.

Xiang Yu proclaimed himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" and split the former Qin empire into Eighteen Kingdoms. The land of Guanzhong, rightfully Liu Bang's according to King Huai II's earlier promise, was granted by Xiang to three surrendered Qin generals instead. Liu Bang was relocated to Hanzhong in the remote Bashu region and granted the title of "King of Han" (漢王). While Xiang was away suppressing the rebellion in Qi, Liu Bang led his troops to seize Guanzhong and several lands, including Xiang Yu's capital city of Pengcheng (彭城; present-day Xuzhou) at one point. The forces of Western Chu and Han then engaged in a power struggle for supremacy over China for about five years, known as the Chu–Han contention, with victories and defeats for both sides in various battles.

Initially, Western Chu had an advantage over Han, but the tide turned in favour of the latter in 203 BC, after Xiang Yu and Liu Bang came to an armistice, known as the Treaty of Honggou, that divided China into east and west under their domains respectively. Liu Bang renounced the treaty and attacked Xiang Yu shortly afterwards, taking Xiang by surprise and scoring a series of victories in the following battles. Liu Bang's forces defeated Xiang Yu's at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BC and Xiang committed suicide. Western Chu surrendered and China was unified under Liu Bang's rule.

Biography: Establishment of the Han Dynasty
In 202 BC, Liu Bang became Emperor of China with support from his subjects, even though he had expressed some reluctance in taking the throne. Liu named his dynasty "Han", historically known as "Western Han Dynasty", and he became known as Emperor Gao (or Gaozu). He built his capital city in Luoyang and appointed Lü Zhi as his empress and his son Liu Ying as the crown prince.

The following year, Emperor Gaozu rewarded his subjects who had contributed to the dynasty's founding, but the process prolonged for a year as the subjects started fighting among themselves for the rewards. Gaozu felt that Xiao He's contributions were the greatest, so he granted Xiao the title of "Marquis of Zan" and the greatest amount of food storages. Zhang Liang was granted the title of "Marquis of Liu". Some of Gaozu's subjects expressed their objections because they felt that Xiao did not participate personally in battles so his contributions were not great. Gaozu replied that Xiao He was involved in the strategic planning so credit should be given to Xiao because he was the one who set the direction for them to go. Cao Shen was named as the greatest contributor on the battlefield. As for the other subjects, Gaozu rewarded them accordingly to their contributions.

Biography: Death
Emperor Gaozu was wounded by a stray arrow during the military campaign to suppress Ying Bu's rebellion. He fell seriously ill and remained in his inner chambers for a long period of time, ordering his guards to deny anyone entry. After several days, Fan Kuai barged into the chambers to see Gaozu and the other subjects followed behind him. They saw Gaozu lying on his bed with only a eunuch serving him. Fan said, "How glorious it was when Your Majesty first led us to conquer the empire and how weary we are now. Your subjects are worried when they learn that Your Majesty is ill, but Your Majesty refuses to see us and prefers the company of a eunuch instead? Have Your Majesty forgotten the incident about Zhao Gao?" Gaozu laughed after hearing that and got out of bed to meet his subjects.

Gaozu's health deteriorated later and Empress Lü hired one of the best physicians to heal him. When Gaozu enquired about his condition, the physician told him that his illness can be cured. However, Gaozu was displeased and he scolded the physician, saying, "Isn't it Heaven's will that I managed to conquer this empire in simple clothing and with nothing but a sword? My life is determined by Heaven, and it will still be useless even if Bian Que was here!" Gaozu refused to continue with his treatment and sent the physician away with some gold. Before his death, Gaozu said Cao Shen can be Chancellor after Xiao He dies, and Wang Ling may succeed Cao. Gaozu also said that Wang may be too young to take on his duties so Chen Ping may assist Wang, but Chen is also qualified to take on the responsibilities alone. Gaozu also named Zhou Bo as a possible candidate for the role of Grand Commandant. Emperor Gaozu died in Changle Palace on 1 June 195 BC and was succeeded by the crown prince Liu Ying, who became Emperor Hui of Han.

Reign: Reducing taxes and corvée
Emperor Gaozu disbanded his armies and allowed his soldiers to return home after becoming the emperor. He issued an order for those under the jurisdiction of his regional kings, stating that those who remained in Guanzhong will be exempted from taxes and corvée for twelve years, whereas those who returned to their respective fiefdoms will be exempted for six years and the state will provide for them for a year. Gaozu also granted freedom to those who had sold themselves into slavery to avoid hunger during the war. In 195 BC, Emperor Gaozu issued two imperial decrees, the first to officialize the lowering of taxes and corvée, and the second to fix the amount of tribute paid to the imperial court from the regional kings in the 10th month of every year. The land tax on agricultural production was reduced to a rate of one-fifteenth of crop yield.

Reign: Emphasis on Confucianism
In his early days, Emperor Gaozu disliked reading and placed Confucianism in low regard. After he ascended to the throne, he retained the same perspective towards Confucianism as before, until he was enlightened by the scholar Lu Jia. Lu wrote a twelve-volume book titled Xinyu (新語), stressing the benefits of governing the nation by moral virtue rather than by using coercive laws. Lu read each volume to the emperor after he had finished writing it, and Gaozu was deeply impressed. Under Emperor Gaozu's reign, the influence of Confucianism increased and gradually replaced Legalism, which dominated and prevailed in the previous dynasty. Confucian scholars, including Lu Jia, were recruited into Gaozu's government and Gaozu also introduced reforms to the legal system, lightening the harsh laws from the Qin Dynasty and reducing the severity of punishments. In 196 BC, after putting down Ying Bu's rebellion, Gaozu's army passed by Shandong (native land of Confucius), where Gaozu personally prepared for a ceremony to pay his respects to the late philosopher.

Reign: Dispute over the succession
In his later years, Emperor Gaozu began to show greater affection for Concubine Qi and paid less attention to Empress Lü Zhi. He felt that the crown prince Liu Ying (born to the empress), his oldest son and heir apparent to the throne, was too weak to be a ruler. Gaozu had the intention of deposing Liu Ying and replacing him with another son Liu Ruyi (born to Concubine Qi), Prince of Zhao. Empress Lü became worried and asked Zhang Liang to help her son retain his position. Zhang recommended four reclusive wise men, collectively known as the "Four Haos of Mount Shang" (商山四皓) to help Liu Ying.

In 195 BC, after Emperor Gaozu returned from suppressing Ying Bu's rebellion, his health worsened and he desired even more to change the crown prince. Zhang Liang tried to dissuade him but Gaozu ignored Zhang, so Zhang retired from state affairs on the excuse that he was ill. The crown prince's tutor Shusun Tong and Zhou Chang protested strongly against Gaozu's decision to replace the crown prince. Zhou said, "I'm not good in arguing, but I know that this is not right. If Your Majesty deposes the crown prince, I won't listen to your orders anymore."[8] Zhou was a straightforward man and he had a stuttering problem, which made his speech even more amusing and Gaozu laughed. After that, the four wise men appeared and Gaozu was surprised to see them because they had refused to serve him before. They promised to help Liu Ying in future if he became the emperor. Gaozu was pleased to see that Liu Ying now had the support of the four men, so he dismissed the idea of replacing the crown prince.

Reign: Military campaigns
After establishing the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gaozu appointed several regional kings to help him govern his empire and granted them fiefs spread throughout the land. There were seven of them; Zang Tu, King of Yan; Han Xin, King of Han; Han Xin, King of Chu; Peng Yue, King of Liang; Ying Bu, King of Huainan; Zhang Er, King of Zhao; Wu Rui, King of Changsha. However, Gaozu became worried later that the kings might rebel against him, because they were after all, not from his own clan. He had some of them framed and executed on charges of treason, such as Peng Yue, while others such as Ying Bu and Zang Tu did rebel against him later and were eliminated by him. Only Wu Rui and Zhang Er were left eventually.

During Qin Shi Huang's reign, the threat of the Xiongnu in the north was already present. Qin Shi Huang sent Meng Tian to lead an army to attack the Xiongnu and defend the northern border, while ordering the construction of the Great Wall to safeguard the Qin empire. Meng achieved success in driving the invaders back north. Following the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, the Xiongnu seized the advantage to advance south and raid the border again. In 201 BC, Han Xin (King of Han) surrendered to the Xiongnu and in the following year, Emperor Gaozu led his army to attack the Xiongnu. However, the Han forces were no match for the Xiongnu (led by Modu) and Gaozu's army was besieged at Baideng by 300,000 enemy cavalry. Gaozu left safely after he followed Chen Ping's suggestion to bribe Modu's wife with gifts and ask her to request for her husband to lift the siege. As an act of appeasement, Gaozu initiated the policy of Heqin, which was, to marry noble ladies from his royal clan and offer yearly tributes to the Xiongnu chieftains in exchange for peace between both sides. The policy lasted until Emperor Wu of Han's time.

In contrast with his rival Xiang Yu, usually depicted as a romantic man of noble origin, Liu Bang was often mentioned as a rogue or street ruffian. Xiang treated his subordinates and peers well even though he was ruthless and cruel towards his enemies. On the other hand, Liu appeared as a charismatic but shrewd leader, who manipulated his subjects for his own purposes while putting on an image of a benevolent and righteous lord. Liu Bang forbid his men from killing civilians and pillaging the cities he conquered, in order to win the support and trust of the people. In direct contrast, Xiang Yu was cruel and condoned the acts of brutality by his followers towards the common people, that accounted for his decline in popularity. Liu Bang's strengths include: his ability to make decisions based on advice from his subjects; making sound judgements when accepting others' views; performing acts that would win him the support of others and his personal charisma.

After the establishment of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang initially handsomely rewarded his subjects who helped him gain the throne, but he grew suspicious of them later and doubted their loyalties. Two of his subjects who contributed heavily to the dynasty's founding, Han Xin and Peng Yue, were killed on Empress Lü Zhi's orders and their clans exterminated as well. Despite his various character flaws, Liu Bang treated the people better than the Qin rulers and was a very popular monarch during his reign.

Personal information
  • Liu Taigong (literally: Old Sir Liu)
  • Liu Ao (literally: Old Madam Liu)
  • Empress Lü Zhi, mother of Liu Ying and Princess Luyuan
Major concubines:
  • Consort Cao, mother of Liu Fei
  • Consort Qi, mother of Liu Ruyi
  • Consort Wan
  • Consort Guan
  • Consort Bo, mother of Liu Heng
  • Consort Zhao, mother of Liu Chang
  • Consort Zhao Zi'er
  • Liu Fei, Prince Daohui of Qi
  • Liu Ying, Crown Prince, later Emperor Hui
  • Liu Jian, Prince Ling of Yan (instated 202 BC, d. 181 BC)
  • Liu Ruyi, Prince Yin of Zhao
  • Liu Heng, Prince of Dai, later Emperor Wen
  • Liu Hui, Prince of Liang, later Prince Gong of Zhao
  • Liu You, Prince of Huaiyang, later Prince You of Zhao
  • Liu Chang, Prince Li of Huainan
  • Liu Luyuan, Princess
  • Liu Xiang, Prince Ai of Qi, son of Liu Fei
  • Liu Zhang, Prince Jing of Chengyang, son of Liu Fei
  • Liu Xingju, Marquess of Dongmou, son of Liu Fei
  • Liu Qi, Crown Prince, later Emperor Jing, son of Liu Heng (Liu Bei would be born of this lineage)
Popular culture
Liu Bang is one of the 32 historical figures who appear as special characters in the video game Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI by Koei.

A somewhat negative telling of the story of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu (and their wives and followers) is available as a great Chinese movie (with English subtitles) in two parts: The Great Conqueror's Concubine Part A and The Great Conqueror's Concubine Part B.

Notes and references
  1. Was already Prince of Han (漢王) since March 206 BC, having been enfeoffed by the rebelled leader Xiang Yu. Liu Bang was proclaimed emperor on 28 February, 202 BC after defeating Xiang Yu.
  2. Name meaning "the youngest one". Liu Bang was the third son of his father, his oldest brother was called Bo (伯) , i.e. the "First one", and his second older brother was called Zhong (仲) , i.e. the "Middle one".
  3. Had his name changed into Bang, meaning "country", either when he was made Prince of Han, or when he ascended the imperial throne.
  4. Ji was the courtesy name according to Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian. It may be that Liu Bang, after he changed his name into Bang, kept his original name Ji as his courtesy name. However, some authors do not think that "Ji" was ever used as the courtesy name of Liu Bang.
  5. This is the birth year reported by Huangfu Mi (皇甫謐) (215-282), the famous author of acupuncture books.
  6. This is the birth year reported by Chen Zan (臣瓚) around AD 270 in his comments of the Book of Han (漢書) .
  7. Note that the Chinese character "媼" (ǎo) is not the personal name of Liu's mother. It was used as a formal way of addressing an old woman at that time.
  8. ^ 臣口不能言,然臣期期知其不可。陛下雖欲廢太子,臣期期不奉詔。
Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 2. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
Sima, Qian. Records of the Grand Historian (史記; Shiji), Biography of Emperor Gaozu (高祖本紀).

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