Liu Bang


Liu Bang / Gaozu

The end of the Qin Dynasty

China’s first imperial dynasty was the (g) Qin Dynasty. (b,c) The dynasty was very short, (f,g) lasting only from 221 (g,k) to 206 (k) OR 207 (g) BC after being established by the self-styled first emperor, (i) Qin (d,g) Shihuang (d) OR Huangdi (g) OR Shi Huangdi (i) OR Shihuangdi (j) advised by Li Ssu. (i) The Qin unified (g,j) the Chinese Warring States by conquest. (g) Shihuangdi, was the first to unify China. (j) With the help of a new Canal from present-day Hunan, South China was conquered from the Toy and Miao tribes as far as the southern mountains and Canton. (i) There were economic reforms, such as the standardization of weights and measures and axle lengths to facilitate Interstate commerce. (i) Use was made of roll silk as a writing material: this led the improvement of the hair brush attributed to General Ming Tien, who died in 220. (i) Li Ssu simplified Chinese writing, and old characters were quickly forgotten. (i) Ramparts were linked by convict labour to form the Great Wall against the Turkish threat from the north. (i) New roads were built and wholesale transportation of families, especially of criminals, was organised to strengthen defences and weaken particularism. (i) In 213, books used by the emperor’s enemies were proscribed. (i) An exception was made for all scientific works and for those in the hands of 70 official scholars. (i) The Qin Dynasty became unstable after the death of the First Emperor (d,g) in 210 B.C. (d) The regime was cruel (k) and there was a mass revolt (h) against its repressive policies (i,f) in 210 BC. (h)

Liu Bang Origins

Liu (b,c) Bang (b,f) OR Pang, (c,l) (Pang is the old Wade-Giles version) was born in about (l) 256 BC (j,l) at the small village (m) of Peixian,(j) OR Fenyu (n) Zhongyang Township, Feng Town, Pei County in the state of Chu, (n) now in Jiangsu province, (j,m) on the eastern coast of (m) China. (j,m) during the late years of the Warring States period. (n) Jiangsu province was home to canals, fisherfolk and small-hold farmers, a peripheral region relatively far from the centers of power at Xi’an and the North China Plain. (m) It is still a watery coastal region, famed for its canals since ancient times. (m) Today, what stands out about Liu Bang’s story is not only his immense importance as a founder of famous dynasty and shaper of Chinese culture, but also his humble origins: Liu Bang was (m) of humble birth, (f,j) of a peasant family. (j,m)


As with many dynastic founders, it is difficult to separate the truth about Liu Bang from the legendary tales about his life and character that proliferated in posthumous histories of his reign. (m) This process of myth-making was initiated by Liu Bang himself upon his ascension to the Dragon Throne. (m) In imperial Han myth, Liu Bang was a descendant of the mythical Emperor Yao, who descended from the Yellow Emperor. (n) It was a common practice among many ancient Chinese noble families to claim descent from the mythical Yellow Emperor, in order to proclaim divine ruling legitimacy. (n) Little is known about his parents. (m) Even their names are unknown, although they were granted respectful titles upon his coronation (m) ‘Liu Taigong’ and ‘Liu Ao’ (n) meaning (‘Sir Liu’) (m) OR ‘Old Sir Liu’(n) and ‘Madam Liu’ (m) OR ‘Old Madam Liu’.(n) His parents were farmers, working the rice paddies that stretched out from the Yellow River northward over the low swamplands of Jiangsu. (m) Liu Bang was his personal (j) OR given (k) name (xingming). (j) From the chronicles (m) OR ‘according to legend, before Liu Bang’s birth, his mother was caught in a rainstorm and took shelter under a bridge. (n) At that moment, lightning struck and the sky darkened. (n) Liu Bang’s father went to fetch his wife home and saw (n) a glowing (m) dragon (m,n) hovering above her (n) as a harbinger of his greatness. (m) She became (n) OR ‘was’ (m) pregnant (m,n) and later gave birth to Liu Bang. (n)


Few details about his life before becoming emperor exist. (m) Whereas his great rival for the throne, Xiang Yu, was high-born, Liu was an unknown. (m) From the chronicles of his reign, we learn that he had a ‘dragon-like’ face, sported an auspicious pattern of moles on his left thigh. (m) Sources differ on Liu’s temperament as a child: he is variously described as good-natured, mediocre, (m) ‘coarse’, (j,l) (he once urinated into the formal hat of a court scholar to show his disdain for education) (j) outspoken, of great generosity and forbearance, (n) slothful (m,n) and charismatic. (m,n) He disliked reading, showed no interest in farming and manual labour and frequently ran into trouble with the law, hence his father often called him a ‘little rascal’. (n) Liu Bang persisted in his idling ways and depended on his brother’s family for food and lodging. (n) Liu Bang was once sent for labour service in the capital Xianyang, and encountered the First Emperor going on an inspection tour around the nation. (n) Awed by the majestic sight of the royal convoy, he exclaimed, ‘Wow, this is how a great man should be! (n)


In his late twenties, Liu improved his condition by passing the civil service exam: high marks on government tests were a powerful engine of upward mobility in China, then and today. (m) When he grew older, he became a good friend and live-in companion of a former retainer of Lord Xinling named Zhang Er, who, at the time, was the magistrate of the nearby Waihuang County. (n) After Qin conquered Chu, Zhang Er went into hiding, and Liu Bang returned to his own home town. (n) He began his career (j) as a police officer (j,n) OR a minor official (k,l) ORminor patrol officer’ (n) OR (as a village headman) (l) OR as the local sheriff (n) under the Qin dynasty, (j) having been recommended and appointed at Sishui Pavilion in the neighbouring Pei County, working under the supervision of his close friends Xiao He and Cao Shen, who often helped cover up his delinquent behaviours. (n) He forged close relationships with most of the local county bureaucrats, and earned himself a small reputation in the district. (n) One day, Lü Wen (also called Lü Gong), (n) a wealthy and influential member of the gentry (n,m) from Shanfu County, who had recently moved to Pei County, was putting on a feast to host the local elites. (n) Xiao He, who was in charge of helping Lü Wen collect gifts from the visitors, announced that ‘those who do not offer more than 1,000 coins worth of gifts shall be seated outside the hall’. (n) Liu Bang had turned up without any money and said, ‘I offer 10,000 coins’. (n) Lü Wen saw Liu Bang and was so impressed with him on first sight, that he immediately stood up and welcomed Liu into the hall to sit beside him, despite Xiao He telling him that Liu Bang was not being serious. (n) By this time, it would seem, his personal qualities were becoming apparent. (m) Lü Wen chatted with Liu Bang, and said, ‘I used to predict fortunes for many people but I have never before seen someone so exceptional as you’. (n) He then offered his daughter Lü Zhi’s hand in marriage to Liu Bang. (m,n) This was a match well above his social station. (m) Lü Zhi bore Liu Bang a son Liu Ying (the future Emperor Hui) and a daughter (the future Princess Yuan of Lu).

Becomes a rebel

By his forties, Liu seems to have become a popular local political figure, noted for his magnanimous nature. (m) But he was not a particularly powerful man. (m) There were thousands like him, local magistrates whose tax-collecting and governance allowed the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, to sustain his rule. (m) His position as village headman led to his initial revolt. (j,1) after the death of the Qin emperor. (j) One of his roles as headman was to guard prisoners being taken (l,m) to Mount Li (n) to work on the First Emperor’s massive tomb:(1,m) the vast (m) mausoleum (m,n) of terracotta warriors for which Emperor Qin is best known today. (m) When some (n) OR many (l) prisoners escaped (m,n) during the journey, (n) Liu Bang feared for his life because allowing convicts to escape was a capital offence under Qin law. (m,n) OR By this time, the harsh (l) misrule of Qin’s (l,m) feckless son (m) which was one of the reasons for its collapse (l) had resulted in widespread peasant revolts. (m) Liu decided to take common cause with his own prisoners, (m) releasing those who remained and (n) becoming an outlaw and rebel himself. (l,m) ORpolitical chaos’ caused this. (n) Some (l,n) ten (l) of the convicts he released (l,n) were so touched they (n) joined him on their own accord. (l,n) In legend, they encountered a gigantic white serpent which killed some people with its poisonous breath. (n) Liu Bang, while drunk, slew the serpent that night and encountered an old woman weeping by the road the next morning. (n) When Liu Bang’s men asked her why she was crying, she replied, ‘My child, the White Emperor’s son, has been slain by the son of the Red Emperor’. (n) She then disappeared mysteriously. (n) After hearing the old woman’s strange words, Liu Bang’s followers believed that Liu was destined to become a ruler in the future and became more impressed with him. (n) This event is known as the ‘Uprising of the Slaying of the White Serpent’ (n) Liu Bang and his followers took refuge on Mount Mangdang; in present-day Yongcheng, Shangqiu, Henan); they lived as outlaws in a stronghold there. (n) Liu Bang’s band eventually grew into a large army. (l) He still maintained secret contact with his old friends such as Xiao He and Cao Shen in Pei County. (n) In 209 BC, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang started the Dazexiang Uprising to overthrow the Qin dynasty. (n) The magistrate of Pei County considered joining the rebellion as well, so, acting on 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 County to support him. (n) However, he changed his mind later and denied Liu Bang entry into the county. (n) He was worried that Xiao He and Cao Shen might open the gates for Liu Bang so he intended to kill them, but Xiao and Cao escaped and joined Liu. (n) Liu Bang followed Xiao He’s suggestion and ordered his men to write letters, wrap them around arrows, and fire the arrows into the county. (n) In the letters, he urged the townsfolk to help him. (n) They responded to his call by killing the magistrate and welcoming him back into Pei County. (n) Liu Bang styled himself the ‘Duke of Pei’ and became known to others by this title. (n) 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 rebelled against the Qin Empire in the name of restoring their states, which had been conquered by Qin in a series of wars about two decades earlier. (n) In Wu (in present-day Jiangsu), Xiang Liang (n) a man from an ancient family of patrician military leaders, (m) started an uprising as well and installed Xiong Xin as ‘King Huai the Latter’ on the throne of the former Chu state. (n) Liu Bang became a key part of the rebel alliance that overthrew the Qin dynasty. (1)

Chu-Han War 206-202 BC

The Race to Guanzhong

Liu Bang joined Xiang Liang and served in Chu for some time. (n) After Xiang Liang was killed in action at the Battle of Dingtao, King Huai II sent Xiang Liang’s nephew, (n) a young nobleman (m) from Chu called (g) Xiang (b,f) OR Hsiang (e) Yu, (e,f) OR Ji, (k) and Song Yi (n) to lead (l,n) OR nominally lead (j) an army to reinforce the Zhao state, which was under attack by Qin forces. (n) Xiang was the most able of the rebel military leaders; (l) he was a warlord (h,j) general, (k,l) and widely predicted to become the next emperor. (m) The story of how Liu gained the throne is incredibly complex, and involves a series of double-dealings between him and Xiang Yu. (m) He was not the only one in the quest for power. (k) General (c) Liu Bang was by then an important rebel leader. (j,l) He had been granted the title ‘Marquis of Wu’an’ by the king and tasked with leading an army to attack Qin. (n) Despite their vastly different upbringings, Xiang and Liu had much in common: both scorned books, learning and historical precedent, and both were wildly ambitious. (m) ‘Books are only useful in helping me remember my name,’ Xiang had boasted as a youth. (m) ‘Mastering swordsmanship allows me to face only one opponent, so it’s not worth learning. (m) I want to learn how to defeat 10,000 enemies.’ (m) Liu, a ‘rude warrior and administrator’, (e) appears to have shared this sentiment, and the two rebel leaders were initially friends and allies. (m) The rebel forces won a number of victories. (m) Xiang briefly (h) seized power (h,j) by defeating the Qin armies. (j) The king promised that whoever entered Guanzhong (the heartland of Qin) first would receive the title ‘King of Guanzhong’. (n) Xiang and Liu were in competition to do this. (n) Liu was successful, occupying the Qin capital (l,n) Xianyang (n) in 206 BC, and capturing (l,n) Ziying, (n) the last member of the dynasty. (1,n) Liu Bang then issued strict orders to his men, forbidding them from killing innocent civilians and pillaging the cities they conquered. (n) Peace and stability were temporarily restored in Xianyang while Liu Bang’s forces were stationed there. (n) Xiao He also ordered all the legal documents in the Qin palace and government facilities to be collected and safely transported away. (n) Friendly relations soon changed, however, (j,m) as the former allies soon turned against each other. (j) Xiang Yu was dissatisfied that Liu Bang had beat him in the race to Guanzhong. (n)

Liu escapes assassination

By the time they were encamped outside Xi’an, the Qin capitol, a tense stand-off took place between the supporters of Xiang and Liu. (m) On a dramatic night worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy, the two men and their supporters held an elaborate banquet known as the Feast at Hong Gate at which both had made plans to execute the other. (m) Xiang Zhuang intended to assassinate Liu Bang by pretending to do a sword dance. (n) Instigated by his advisor Fan Zeng and Cao Wushang, an informer from Liu Bang’s camp, he decided to set a trap to kill Liu Bang. (n) He pretended to invite Liu Bang to a banquet, while secretly planning to assassinate Liu during the feast. (n) However, Xiang Yu’s uncle, Xiang Bo, was a close friend of Liu Bang’s strategist Zhang Liang, and managed to persuade his nephew to not personally order Liu Bang’s execution on the feast. (n) Frustrated by Xiang Yu’s indecisiveness, Fan Zeng then ordered Xiang Yu’s cousin Xiang Zhuang to pretend performing a sword dance and use the opportunity to kill Liu Bang, but Xiang Bo volunteered to join the dance and blocked his nephew every time he thrust his sword towards Liu Bang. (n) Seeing Liu Bang was in mortal danger, Zhang Liang sneaked outside and summoned Liu Bang’s brother-in-law and personal bodyguard Fan Kuai, who then crashed the party clad in full armor and scolded Xiang Yu for the sinister plot. (n) Embarrassed by Fan Kuai’s accusation, Xiang Yu ordered the sword dance to stop and rewarded Fan Kuai for his bravery. (n) Liu Bang then pretended to go to the latrine and used the chance to escape Xiang Yu’s camp unannounced. (n) Liu Bang thus narrowly avoided his own assassination and fled (n,m) west (n) with his army. (n,m)

Xiang creates the 18 Kingdoms

Xiang Yu led his forces into Xianyang, where they plundered and pillaged the city and burnt down the Epang Palace. (n) Records of the Grand Historian recounts an event during this conflict, an event omitted from the emperor’s own biography but present in the biography of Xiang Yu, where he pushed his own children out of his carriage to lighten it in a desperate attempt to escape in a chase from Xiang Yu’s men. (n) After occupying Xianyang, Xiang Yu proclaimed himself ‘Hegemon-King of Western Chu’ and split the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms. (n) Xiang Yu’s plan (l,n) as the de facto chief of the rebel forces (n) was now to split the empire (1,n) OR ‘it fissured (g) into 18 (g,n) OR 19 (l) kingdoms. (g,l) He would restore the pre-Qin feudal system, reinstate many of the former nobles and divide the land among his generals. (j) He would be king of Chu and over-king, with eighteen sub-kingdoms under his authority. (1) Liu Bang was expecting to be rewarded with the post of King of Qin as a reward for capturing the area. (l) The Guanzhong area, (n) the Qin heartland, (l) was rightfully his according to King Huai II’s earlier promise. (n) Instead (g,h) it was split into three kingdoms and (l) given to three former Qin generals. (1) Liu was offered Hanzhong in the poor and remote Bashu region (n) to the south of Qin (1) (parts of present-day Sichuan (j,n) and Chongqing (n) OR southern Shaanxi (j) with the title King of Han (g,h), When a rebellion broke out in the Qi kingdom in late 206 BC, Xiang Yu left Western Chu to suppress the revolt. (n) Within a year, Liu Bang had broken out with his army and conquered the Three Qins. (n)

The Chu-Han Contention, 206-202

Civil war (d,e) known as the Chu–Han Contention (l,n) followed, with Liu Bang rebelling against Xiang Yu. (d,e) OR The main conflict was between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, (l) but this wasn’t the only war to break out as various forces battled for supremacy over China. (l,n) Each of the eighteen kingdoms lined up behind either Xiang or Liu. (g) There was an epic struggle between them. (e,i) Liu Bang used the opportunity to invade and conquer Guanzhong and then attack several Chu territories, including the capital Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu). (n) From 206–202 BC, Liu Bang engaged Xiang Yu in a power struggle for supremacy over China, while simultaneously attacking and subjugating the other kingdoms. (n) We are told that Xiang Yu captured Liu Bang’s father and sent a final warning to Liu Bang, assuring that his father would be boiled alive unless Liu Bang surrendered. (k) Liu Bang’s answer suggests that he did not get along very well with his father: ‘Send me a cup of the soup’, he replied. (k) In the end, Liu Bang’s father was not turned into soup. (k) Although Xiang Yu proved to be a capable commander, (g,j) militarily brilliant (j) and a better general than Liu Bang (l) he was politically less able, (j.l) and Liu Bang had the better subordinates, most notably Han Xin. (1) Despite a series of battlefield victories Xiang Yu’s position was slowly weakened, and late (1) in 203 BC Xiang Yu and Liu Bang came to an armistice. (l,n) This was the Treaty of the Hong Canal. (l,n) It divided China into east and west along the Hong Canal under the Chu and Han regimes respectively. (n)

Battle of Gaixia

Liu (l,n) almost immediately (l) OR ‘a few months later’ (n) broke the treaty. (l,n) In 202 BC, at the Battle of Gaixia, (g,l) near Suzhou (HN) in modern-day Anhui, (g) Liu defeated Xiang. (g,l) Liu’s peasant shrewdness led him to victory. (j) He had thereby defeated the last rebellion against him. (k) OR there were a number of (h) revolts against him as emperor. (h,n) OR Some accounts say Xiang was defeated in battle, while others tells us he was never defeated in battle but was gradually undermined by the popular support for Liu Bang. (k) Xiang Yu took his own life (j,k) in 202 BC. (g,j) Chu surrendered to Han, (n) and China was reunited. (b,c) This brought the civil war to an end (b,c) within four years, (g) (206 (g,l) – 202 BC). (h,g) Liu Bang had unified much of China under his control by then, (n) and he (b,c) assumed the title of emperor (f,g) (huangdi) (g) at the urging of his followers, (g,n) even though he expressed reluctance to take the throne, (n) 2231 years ago, on the 28th of February (m) 202 BC. (f,g) He is known to History by his posthumous temple name, (e,f) Gaozu (f,g) OR His courtesy name was (zi) Ji, posthumous name (shi) Gaohuangdi, (j) of which the Wade-Giles Romanization was (j,l) Han (e) Kao-Tsu (e,j) OR Liu took the name Emperor Gaozu. (h,n) OR ‘Emperor Gao’. (n) ‘The two most far-sighted and influential political figures in the history of mankind,’ wrote the British historian Alfred Toynbee, ‘are Caesar, who founded the Roman Empire, and Liu Bang, who founded the Han Empire.’ (m) Historians today are less hasty to ascribe such influence to individual leaders. (m) We are more likely to follow the lead of Toynbee’s contemporary, the French historian Fernand Braudel, who likened events and individuals to mere ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.’ (m) Yet it is undeniable that some individuals do change the course of history through sheer force of will – not to mention a remarkable degree of luck. (m) Such a person was Liu Bang, who rose from obscurity to be crowned emperor of China. (m) He reigned until 195 BC. (f,g)

Foundation of the Han dynasty under Gaozu

Liu named his dynasty ‘Han’. (n) The Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was one of the longest of China’s major dynasties. (k) It is divided into two major periods, (d) the Western (a,c) OR Former (b,c) Han Dynasty which was founded in 206 BC (a,b) OR 207 BC (g) and lasted until 9 A.D., (d,f) and the Eastern or Later Han (d) (25 (d,f) OR 24 AD (b) – 220 AD). (a,d) Liu Bang was the first Chinese emperor who was originally a commoner, (k,l) and one of only two peasants1 who rose to become Emperor (the other being the founder of the Ming dynasty). (1) In the popular imagination in the West, the present-day People’s Republic tends to be regarded as antithetical to the imperial system that preceded it. (m) Yet it is interesting to reflect on the continuities in leadership and culture that persisted across revolutions and upheavals – and on the fact that the founder of China’s greatest imperial dynasty was, like Mao, a commoner. (m) The dynasty provides a classical illustration of the typical Chinese dynastic pattern. (e) In terms of power and prestige, the Han Dynasty in the East rivalled its almost contemporary Roman Empire in the West. (k) With only minor interruptions it lasted a span of over four centuries and was considered a golden age in Chinese history especially in arts, politics and technology. (k) All subsequent Chinese dynasties looked back to the Han period as an inspiring model of a united empire and self-perpetuating government. (k) It established many features of Chinese life that lasted until the revolutions of the twentieth century (j,1) in 1911/12. (j)


Liu established (h) the Han capital (b,c) in one of the few surviving palaces of the Qin Dynasty (h) at Chang’an, (b,c) along the Wei River. (h) OR at Luoyang (later moved to Chang’an). (n) It is in the present-day Shaanxi Province. (d) 3 km northwest of modern Xi’an. (k) OR It IS Sian, (b) It was chosen due to its strategic importance: it not only had a central position (all major roads converged in Chang’an), but it would also become the eastern end of the Silk Road. (k) The city turned into the political, economic, military, and cultural centre of China and by 2 CE its population was nearly 250,000. (k) It was a monumental urban centre laid out on a north-south axis with palaces, residential wards, and two bustling market areas—was one of the two largest cities in the ancient world (Rome was the other). (d) The period of time where Chang’an served as the capital of the empire is known as the Western Han Dynasty. (h)

Foreign Relations

Events under the Qin

During this time there was expansion (a,b) of the Chinese Empire east into Korea (b) and west (a,b) OR north (l,n) into central Asia. (b) There were incessant campaigns against the (b) Xiongnu nomads (Hsiung-nu) (e,1) OR Huns, (b) who had been a threat since the Qin dynasty. (n) They had established the first Turkish empire in Mongolia during the preceding decade. (e) The First Emperor had sent general Meng Tian to oversee the defences on the Qin Empire’s northern border and ordered the construction of the Great Wall to repel the invaders. (n) He sent a major expedition against them, but this had backfired when the able leader Modu Chanyu (or Maodun) (r. 209-174 BC) took power and reorganised the clans, making them a more serious threat. (1) Meng Tian achieved success in deterring the Xiongnu from advancing beyond the border, (n) but, after the Qin dynasty collapsed, the Xiongnu seized the opportunity to move south and raid the border again. (n)

Liu’s campaign against the Xiongnu

Liu’s conduct of foreign affairs was a skilful combination of diplomacy and the use of force. (j) In 201 BC, the King of Hán, Hán Xin, defected to Modu Chanyu. (n) In 200 BC (n) Liu Bang led a campaign against the Xiongnu, (l,n) but despite winning a number of victories (l) he was besieged (e,l) OR trapped and defeated (n) at Baideng (200 BC). (1,n) The siege only lasted for seven days, and was ended by trickery or bribery (probably involving Modu Chanyu’s wife). (1) Acting on Chen Ping’s advice, he bribed Modu’s wife with gifts and got her to ask her husband to withdraw his forces. (n) Modu did so. (n) Liu Bang abandoned the idea of a military campaign against the nomads, and instead agreed a peace treaty. (1) After returning to the capital, Emperor Gaozu (n) initiated the policy of heqin. (l,n) By this the Han paid annual tribute in the form of (l,n) gifts of rice, silk and wine, (l) and sent noble ladies to marry the Xiongnu leaders in exchange for a de jure peace between the Han Empire and the Xiongnu. (n) In this particular instance Modu Chanyu received a Han ‘princess’ as a bride (this was originally to be a daughter of Liu Bang and the Empress Lu, but the empress objected and so a different girl was sent). (l) Hequin marriage alliances lasted until the end of the Imperial system). (1)


By his death, the empire had become one of the largest in history up to that point. (m) The boundaries established by the Qin and maintained (d) OR expanded (m) by the Han have more or less defined the nation of China up to the present day. (d) Liu was a world-historical figure, as Toynbee noted, and his larger importance stems from the enormous historical changes his reign set in motion. (m) At its greatest extent, the Han empire pushed westward into the Turkic and Iranian western steppes of Asia, a world that we usually regard as separate from China. (m) It was in this time that the Roman empire became aware of China, calling it ‘Seres,’ the land of silk (the Chinese called Rome ‘Da Qin,’ and seem to have regarded it as a sort of western mirror of the Middle Kingdom). (m) Lu Biang’s reign initiated the cultural connections and long-distance trade that brought about Silk Road and, at a more distant historical remove, our own contemporary era of globalization. (m)

Social Policy

Gaozu was a pragmatic and flexible ruler (j) who recognized the need for educated men at court. (j,l) He overturned the Qin attempts to destroy most culture. (1) There were great achievements in literature and learning. (b) The study of number theory continued. (e) Concepts including negative numbers, fractions and rules for measurements were contained in a treatise that dates from 120 BC. (e) The first maps also date from the Han Dynasty and in astronomy the sundial was introduced and the first observations of sunspots were made in 28 BC. (e) Disarmament was achieved by melting down weapons. (i) Liu Bang also became the symbolic father of the Han people. (m) One fifth of the world’s population now self-identifies as ‘Han Chinese. (m) ‘


The production and export of silk was expanded and paper was invented. (c) The building of an extensive canal system began. (c) He revived the rural economy and lowered the tax burden on the peasants (j,1) and, by a decree dated 195 BC. the corvée. (n) He encouraged peaceful trade. (m) He disbanded his armies and allowed the soldiers to return home. (n) He gave an order stating that the people who remained in Guanzhong were exempted from taxes and corvée for 12 years while those who returned to their respective native territories were exempted for six years and that the central government would provide for them for a year. (n) He also granted freedom to those who had sold themselves into slavery to avoid hunger during the wars. (n), the emperor issued two decrees: the first officialised the lowering of taxes and corvée; the second set the amount of tribute to be paid by the vassal kings to the imperial court in the 10th month of every year. (n) The land tax on agricultural production was reduced to a rate of 1/15 of crop yield. (n) He also privatised the coinage. (n)


He installed his official spouse Lü Zhi as the empress and their son Liu Ying as the crown prince. (n) To be sure, Liu was by no means a perfect ruler. (m) Intrigues surrounding him and his numerous family members have been memorialized in a number of sordid stories, the worst of which involve the infighting between his consorts and children at court. (m) At first his position was somewhat unsteady. (1) In 202 BC, thirteen centrally controlled commanderies—including the capital region—existed in the western third of the empire, while the eastern two-thirds were divided into ten semi-autonomous kingdoms. (g) Like Xiang Yu (l) Gaozu immediately recognized a number of kingdoms (h,l) and, to placate his prominent commanders from the war with Chu, enfeoffed some of them as kings. (g) The process dragged on for a year because they could not agree on the distribution of the rewards. (n) The emperor thought that Xiao He’s contributions were the greatest, so he awarded Xiao the title ‘Marquis of Zan’ and gave him the largest amount of food stores. (n) Some of the others expressed objections because they thought that Xiao He was not directly involved in battle so his contributions should not be considered the greatest. (n) Emperor Gaozu replied that Xiao He should receive the highest credit because he planned their overall strategy in the war against Xiang Yu. (n) He named Cao Shen as the person who made the greatest contributions in battle and rewarded him and the others accordingly. (n) He was generally humane in civil matters, (j) and reformed the legal system by relaxing some laws inherited from the Qin regime and reducing the severity of certain penalties. (n) Like Xiang Yu he faced revolts during his reign. (h) After establishing the Han dynasty, Emperor Gaozu appointed princes and vassal kings to help him govern the Han Empire and gave each of them a piece of land. (n) There were seven vassal kings who were not related to the imperial clan: Zang Tu, the King of Yan; Hán Xin, the King of Hán; Han Xin, the King of Chu; Peng Yue, the King of Liang; Ying Bu, the King of Huainan; Zhang Er, the King of Zhao; Wu Rui, the King of Changsha. (n) However, later, the emperor became worried that the vassal kings might rebel against him because they after all had no blood relations with him. (n) Han Xin and Peng Yue were (falsely) accused of treason, arrested and executed along with their families. (n) Ying Bu and Zang Tu rebelled against him but were defeated and killed. (n) Only Wu Rui and Zhang Er were left. (n) He spent much of the rest of his life (m) dealing harshly with those who threatened his reign from within China, (j) among many other actions (n) suppressing (l,n) a number of (h) revolts (h,n) in distant frontier regions to the north and west of the Han heartlands (m) by the lords of non-Liu vassal states. (n) Unlike Xiang Yu he was successful in overcoming each of them. (l) He systematically replaced many of these kings, (h) and by the end of his reign most of the original sub-kings had been replaced by members of the Imperial family. (h,1) The idea of appointing family members to other kingdoms was to prevent rebellions, but the Liu family kings often caused problems to Emperor Gaozu by their own ambitions. (h) He copied the highly centralized Qin administrative structure, (f) ‘a huge (c) salaried (f) state (c) bureaucracy’, (c,f) in which promotion was based primarily on merit. (f) They divided the country into a series of administrative areas ruled by centrally appointed officials. (f) As emperor, Liu cannily played upon his identity as a farmer and common man, and became famed for his earthy and rustic ways. (m) ‘Make it simple,’ he was famously said to have ordered his chamberlain, when asked about the implementation of courtly etiquette. (m) In his later years, Emperor Gaozu favoured Concubine Qi and neglected Empress Lü Zhi. (n) He thought that Liu Ying, his heir apparent (born to the empress), was too weak to be a ruler. (n) Thus, he had the intention of replacing Liu Ying with another son, Liu Ruyi, who was born to Concubine Qi. (n) Lü Zhi became worried, so she asked Zhang Liang to help her son maintain his position. (n) Zhang Liang recommended four reclusive wise men, the ‘Four Haos of Mount Shang’ (Shāng Shān Sì Hào), to help Liu Ying. (n) In 195 BC as Emperor Gaozu’s health started to worsen, he desired even more to replace Liu Ying with Liu Ruyi as the crown prince. (n) Zhang Liang tried to dissuade him but was ignored, so he retired on the excuse that he was ill. (n) Shusun Tong (the crown prince’s tutor) and Zhou Chang also strongly objected to the emperor’s decision to replace Liu Ying with Liu Ruyi. (n) Zhou Chang said, ‘I am not good in arguing, but I know this is not right. (n) If Your Majesty deposes the Crown Prince, I won’t follow your orders any more.’ (n) Zhou Chang was outspoken but he had a stuttering problem, which made his speech very amusing. (n) The emperor laughed. (n) After that, the Four Haos of Mount Shang showed up in the court. (n) Emperor Gaozu was surprised to see them because they had previously declined to join the civil service when he invited them. (n) The four men promised to help Liu Ying in the future if he were to remain as the crown prince. (n) The emperor was pleased to see that Liu Ying had their support so he dismissed the idea of changing his heir apparent. (n)

Religion and Ideas

In his early days, Emperor Gaozu disliked reading and scorned Confucianism. (n) After becoming the emperor, he still held the same attitudes towards Confucianism as he did before until he encountered the scholar Lu Jia (or Lu Gu). (n) Lu Gu wrote a 12-volume book, Xinyu, which espoused the benefits of governing by moral virtue as opposed to using harsh and punitive laws (as it was under the Qin dynasty). (n) Lu Gu read each volume to the emperor after he finished writing it. (n) The emperor was deeply impressed. (n) Under Emperor Gaozu’s reign, Confucianism flourished and gradually replaced Legalism (of Qin times) as the state ideology. (n) Confucian scholars, including Lu Gu, were recruited to serve in the government. (n) Buddhism was introduced from India. (1) In 196 BC, after suppressing a rebellion by Ying Bu, he passed by Shandong, the birthplace of Confucius, and personally prepared for a ceremony to pay respect to the philosopher. (n) After his death (h) the Han (f,h) unlike the Qin, (f) royalty (h) adopted a Confucian ideology (f,h) in around 135 BC during the early reign of Emperor Wu, (h) which triumphed as the state orthodoxy. (b,c) Confucianism emphasized moderation, virtue, and filial piety and thereby masked the authoritarian policies of the regime. (f)

After Liu Bang

The death of Liu Bang

Emperor Gaozu was wounded by a stray arrow in 195 BC (n) while campaigning during one of the revolts; (l,n) (the one against Ying Bu). (n) He visited his hometown in Pei County after suppressing Ying Bu’s rebellion. (n) He prepared a banquet and invited all his old friends and townsfolk to join him. (n) He composed a song called ‘The Song of the Great Wind’ and after some drinks, Liu Bang played the guqin and sang it: (n) “A great wind came forth, the clouds rose on high. (n) Now that my might rules all within the seas, I have returned to my old village. (n) Where will I find brave men to guard the four corners of my land?” (n) He became seriously ill and remained in his inner chambers for a long period of time and ordered his guards to deny entry to everyone who tried to visit him. (n) After several days, Fan Kuai barged into the chambers to see the emperor and the other subjects followed behind him. (n) They saw Emperor Gaozu lying on his bed and attended to by a eunuch. (n) Fan Kuai said, ‘How glorious it was when Your Majesty first led us to conquer the empire and how weary we are now. (n) 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. (n) Has Your Majesty forgotten the incident about Zhao Gao?’ The emperor laughed and got out of bed to meet his subjects. (n) Emperor Gaozu’s health deteriorated later so Empress Lü Zhi hired Bian Que, a famous physician, to heal him. (n) When Emperor Gaozu enquired about his condition, Bian Que told him that his illness could be cured, but the emperor was displeased and he scolded him, ‘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. (n) It is useless even if Bian Que is here!’ He refused to continue with the treatment and sent Bian Que away. (n) Before his death, he said that Cao Shen could succeed Xiao He as the chancellor after Xiao died, and that Wang Ling could succeed Cao Shen. (n) He also said that Wang Ling might be too young to perform his duties so Chen Ping could assist Wang, but Chen was also qualified to assume the responsibilities of a chancellor all by himself. (n) He also named Zhou Bo as a possible candidate for the role of Grand Commandant. (n) He died in Changle Palace on 1st June, (n) 195 BC (g,k)

The Empress Lu

He was succeeded by (l,n) his son, Liu Ying, who became historically known as Emperor Hui. (n) OR by three minors in turn, with real power held by his widow, the Empress Lu. (1) Following Gaozu’s death, the Empress (h,j) Lu (h) OR Lü (k,m) Zhi (h,k) OR Gaohou(j) OR Lü Hou (k) made an attempt to take control (h) and confiscate the empire for her own family. (k) Her methods show a firm determination: (k) she murdered (h,k) a few (h) OR several (k) of Gaozu’s sons (h,k) by concubines, (k) and her mother. (h) One particularly appalling, and perhaps apocryphal, account holds that (m) she mutilated his favourite mistress (h,k) Lady Qi (h) by amputating her limbs (m) and had her thrown into a latrine (h,k) OR forced her to wallow in a pigsty) (m) before showing the body off to visitors. (h) She became the first female ruler of China, reigning from 188 BC (j) until 180 BC. (h,j) She replaced with her own relatives many of the loyal generals and members of Liu Bang’s family who ruled the fiefdoms. (k) The power struggle lasted for 15 years (h,k) until finally the Liu Bang clan regained control of the empire. (k)

Dynasty resumes

Gaozu’s son (h,k) Wan (h) OR Wen (k) became Emperor. (h,k) re-establishing the broken lineage. (k) The imperial wrath was ruthless: the Lius (k) OR Wan (h) OR Wen (k) killed every single member of Lü Zhi’s clan (h,k) they managed to find. (k) Liu Bang’s descendants continued the process of consolidating and expanding the empire. (j) Eleven of them followed in his place as effective emperors until 6 CE. (f) OR there was a gradual weakening of the dynasty. (e) In 25 (d,f) OR 24 AD (b) OR round 23 AD there was a Renaissance of the Liu family under a strong successor: (c,e) the authority of the Han dynasty was reaffirmed by Liu Xiu (posthumous name Guangwudi), (f) OR Wu Di ‘the martial emperor’, (c) who reigned as Han emperor until 57 AD. (f) OR In 9 CE (d,f) the dynastic line was challenged by Wang Mang, who established his own regime under the title of Xin, (a 12th Liu family member briefly occupied the throne as a puppet). (f) Thirteen of his descendants maintained the dynastic succession until (f) 220 AD), (a,d) when the dynasty finally dissolved. (e) It is a tribute to the stability of the system that Liu Bang had put in place that his new dynasty survived such a vulnerable period, and lasted with a short break for the next 400 years. (1)


  1. A Penguin Concise Encyclopaedia
  2. B 67 Chambers Dictionary of World History
  3. C 81 Chambers Biographical dictionary
  4. D 117 Met Museum
  5. E 148 Langer World History
  6. F 200 Britannica Han
  7. G 212 Wiki Han
  8. H 221 History
  9. I 338 Langer Langer World History
  10. J 349 Britannica
  11. K 510 A Hist Enc
  12. L 838 History of War
  13. M 1330 Origins:
  14. N 4550 Wik:


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