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Emperor Gao of Han
A portrait of Emperor Gao in Sancai Tuhui.
Preceded by none
Succeeded by Liu Ying, Emperor Hui
Personal details
Born 256 BC[1]
247 BC[2]
Died 1 June 195 BC
(aged c. 60-61 / c. 51–52)
Spouse(s) Empress Lü Zhi
Religion Taoism[3]
Liu Bang
Traditional Chinese 劉邦
Simplified Chinese 刘邦
Chinese 高祖

Emperor Gaozu (256 BC or 247 BC – 1 June 195 BC), commonly known by his temple name Gaozu, personal name Liu Bang, courtesy name Ji, was the founder and first emperor of the Han dynasty. He ruled China from 202–195 BC. He was one of the few dynasty founders in Chinese history who emerged from the peasant class. Liu Bang initially served as a minor patrol officer in his hometown, Pei County (in present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu), under the Qin dynasty. Sometime in the 210s or 200s BC, he rebelled against the Qin government by releasing a group of convicts he was supposed to escort to Mount Li to construct Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum, after which he and his followers took refuge as outlaws on Mount Mangdang. In 208 BC, when rebellions erupted throughout China to overthrow the Qin dynasty, Liu Bang formed his own army and participated in the insurrection. He was titled "Duke of Pei" and was one of the most prominent rebel leaders. After the fall of Qin in 206 BC, Xiang Yu, the de facto chief of the rebel forces, divided the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms. He declared himself the king of Western Chu and appointed 17 of the former rebel leaders, including Liu Bang, as the rulers of the other kingdoms. Liu Bang was the "King of Han" and his domain was in the remote Bashu region (parts of present-day Sichuan). Later that year, Liu Bang led his forces out of Bashu and attacked and conquered the Three Qins, three of the Eighteen Kingdoms which were nearest to his domain. From 206–202 BC, Liu Bang engaged Xiang Yu in a long power struggle, historically known as the Chu–Han Contention, for supremacy over China, while concurrently invading and subjugating the other kingdoms. In 202 BC, the war concluded with victory for Liu Bang, who succeeded in unifying most of China under his control. Liu Bang established the Han dynasty and was proclaimed Emperor that year. During his reign, Liu Bang reduced taxes and corvée, promoted Confucianism, and suppressed revolts by the rulers of some vassal states, among other things. He also initiated the policy of heqin to maintain peace between the Han Empire and the Xiongnu after he lost to the Xiongnu at the Battle of Baideng in 200 BC. Liu Bang died in 195 BC and was succeeded by his son Liu Ying (Emperor Hui).

Birth and early life[edit | edit source]

Liu Bang was born in a peasant family in Zhongyang Village (中陽里), Feng Town (豐邑), Pei County (沛縣), which is in present-day Feng County, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. His parents' names were not recorded in history and they were simply referred to as "Liu Taigong" (劉太公; lit. "Old Sir Liu") and "Liu Ao" (劉媼;[4] lit. "Old Madam Liu"). In legend, before Liu Bang's birth, his mother was caught in a rainstorm and took shelter under a bridge. Just then, there was lightning and thunder and the sky darkened. Liu Bang's father went to fetch his wife home and saw a dragon hovering above her. Liu Bang's mother became pregnant and gave birth to Liu Bang later.[5]

Liu Bang was said to be a descendant of the mythical Emperor Yao, who descended from the Yellow Emperor.[6] Many Chinese noble families also claimed descent from the Yellow Emperor.[7]

Liu Bang had a high nose, whiskers, and a beard, which made him resemble a dragon in appearance. He had 72 dark spots on his left leg.[5] The young Liu Bang was outspoken, charismatic, and of great forbearance and tolerance. However, he enjoyed loafing, disliked reading, and showed no interest in farming, hence his father often called him a "little rascal". Liu Bang 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 minor patrol officer and forged close relationships with the officials in the county office, earning himself a little reputation in his hometown. When he had drinks with his friends in the local taverns, they noticed a silhouette of a dragon over him whenever he was drunk.[5] The tavern owners felt that Liu Bang was an extraordinary person and provided him with drinks free of charge.

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

Insurrection against the Qin Dynasty[edit | edit source]

Once, Liu Bang was tasked with escorting a group of convicts to Mount Li to build Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum. Some prisoners escaped during the journey, causing Liu Bang to fear for his life because allowing convicts to escape was a capital offence under Qin law. Liu Bang eventually released the remaining prisoners and became a fugitive. Some of the convicts he released joined him of their own accord. In legend, they encountered a gigantic white serpent which killed some people with its poisonous breath. Liu Bang slew the serpent that night and encountered an old woman weeping by the road the next morning. 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." She then disappeared mysteriously. 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. This event is known as the "Uprising of the Slaying of the White Serpent" (simplified Chinese: 斩白蛇起义; traditional Chinese: 斬白蛇起義; pinyin: zhǎn bái shé qǐyì).

Liu Bang and his followers took refuge on Mount Mangdang (芒碭山) near Pei County and lived as outlaws in a stronghold there. Liu Bang still maintained secret contact with his old friends such as Xiao He and Cao Shen in Pei County. In 209 BC, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang started the Dazexiang Uprising to overthrow the Qin dynasty. 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. However, the magistrate changed his mind later and denied Liu Bang's party entry into the city. He was worried that Xiao He and Cao Shen might open the gates for Liu Bang 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 write letters, wrap them around arrows, and fire the arrows into the city, urging the townsfolk to help him. The people responded to Liu Bang's call by killing the magistrate and welcoming Liu back into Pei County. Liu Bang was titled "Duke of Pei" (沛公) and became known to others by this title.

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 dynasty in the name of restoring their states. In Wu (in present-day Jiangsu), Xiang Liang started an uprising as well and installed Mi Xin as "King Huai II" on the throne of the former Chu state. Liu Bang went to join Xiang Liang and served in Chu for some time. After Xiang Liang was killed in action at the Battle of Dingtao, King Huai II sent Xiang Liang's nephew Xiang Yu and Song Yi to lead an army to reinforce the Zhao state, which was under attack by Qin forces. Liu Bang was granted the title of "Marquis of Wu'an" (武安侯) by the king and was tasked with leading an army to attack Qin. The king promised that whoever entered Guanzhong (the heartland of Qin) first would receive the title of "King of Guanzhong". In 206 BC, Liu Bang beat Xiang Yu in the race to Guanzhong and arrived at Xianyang, the Qin capital. Ziying, the last Qin emperor, surrendered to Liu Bang, bringing an end to the Qin Dynasty's existence. Liu Bang issued strict orders to his troops, forbidding them from killing innocent civilians and pillaging the cities they conquered. Peace and stability were temporarily restored in Xianyang while Liu Bang's army was stationed there.

Chu–Han Contention[edit | edit source]

Xiang Yu was dissatisfied that Liu Bang had beat him in the race to Guanzhong so he set a trap to kill Liu after being instigated by his advisor Fan Zeng and Cao Wushang (曹無傷), a defector from Liu's side. In 206 BC, Xiang Yu invited Liu Bang to a banquet (historically known as the Feast at Hong Gate) while secretly planning to assassinate Liu during the banquet. Xiang Yu's uncle Xiang Bo, who was a close friend of Liu Bang's strategist Zhang Liang, managed to persuade his nephew to spare Liu's life. Fan Zeng then ordered Xiang Yu's cousin Xiang Zhuang to pretend to perform a sword dance and use the opportunity to kill Liu Bang, but Xiang Bo blocked Xiang Zhuang's attempts. Liu Bang lied that he needed to go to the latrine and seized the chance to escape. Liu Bang and his troops evacuated from Xianyang and retreated west later. Xiang Yu led his forces into Xianyang, where they plundered and pillaged the city and burnt down the Epang Palace.

After occupying Xianyang, Xiang Yu proclaimed himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" and split the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms. The Guanzhong area, which was rightfully Liu Bang's per King Huai II's earlier promise, was given by Xiang Yu to three former Qin generals instead. Liu Bang was relocated to Hanzhong in the remote Bashu region (in present-day Sichuan) and received the title of "King of Han" (漢王). When a rebellion broke out in the Qi kingdom in late 206 BC, Xiang Yu left his domain in Western Chu to suppress to revolt. Liu Bang used the opportunity to invade and conquer Guanzhong and then attack several territories in Western Chu, including the capital Pengcheng (彭城; present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu). From 206–202 BC, Liu Bang engaged Xiang Yu in a power struggle, historically known as the Chu–Han Contention, for supremacy over China, while simultaneously attacking and subjugating the remaining kingdoms. In 203 BC, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang came to an armistice, known as the Treaty of Hong Canal, which divided China into east and west along the Hong Canal under Chu and Han respectively. A few months later, Liu Bang renounced the treaty and attacked Xiang Yu again. In 202 BC, Xiang Yu was defeated by Liu Bang at the Battle of Gaixia and he committed suicide, after which Chu surrendered to Han. Liu Bang had unified much of China under his control by then.

Establishment of the Han Dynasty[edit | edit source]

In 202 BC, Liu Bang was enthroned as the Emperor with support from his subjects, even though he expressed reluctance to take the throne. He named his dynasty "Han" and was historically known as "Emperor Gao" (or "Emperor Gaozu"). He established the capital in Luoyang (later moved to Chang'an) and instated his official spouse Lü Zhi as the empress and their son Liu Ying as the crown prince.

The following year, Gaozu rewarded his subjects who had contributed to the founding of his dynasty, but the process dragged on for a year because they could not decide on the distribution of the rewards. Gaozu felt that Xiao He's contributions were the greatest so he granted Xiao the title of "Marquis of Zan" and gave him the largest amount of food stores. Some of Gaozu's subjects expressed objection because they felt that Xiao He did not fight on the battlefield so his contributions should not be the greatest. Gaozu replied that Xiao He should receive the highest credit because he drafted their overall strategy in their war against Western Chu. He named Cao Shen as the person who made the greatest contributions on the battlefield and rewarded Cao and the others accordingly.

Reign[edit | edit source]

Reducing taxes and corvée[edit | edit source]

Gaozu disbanded his armies and allowed his soldiers to return home. He also issued an order for those under the jurisdiction of his vassal kings, which stated that those who remained in Guanzhong were exempted from taxes and corvée for 12 years while those who returned to their respective kingdoms were exempted for six years and the imperial court would provide for them for a year. He granted freedom to those who had sold themselves into slavery to avoid hunger during the wars. In 195 BC, Gaozu 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 lunar month of every year. The land tax on agricultural production was reduced to a rate of 1/15 of crop yield. Gaozu also privatised the coinage.

Emphasis on Confucianism[edit | edit source]

In his early days, Gaozu disliked reading and regarded Confucianism with contempt. After he ascended to the throne, he retained the same perspective towards Confucianism as before until he was enlightened by the scholar Lu Gu. Lu Gu wrote a 12 volume book titled Xinyu (新語), stressing the benefits of governing the nation by moral virtue rather than by using coercive laws. Lu Gu read each volume to the emperor after he finished writing it. Gaozu was deeply impressed. Under Gaozu's reign, Confucianism flourished and gradually replaced Legalism (which dominated the Qin dynasty) as the state philosophy. Confucian scholars, including Lu Gu, were recruited to serve in the government. Gaozu also introduced reforms to the legal system, relaxing some of the laws inherited from the Qin dynasty and reducing the severity of certain penalties. In 196 BC, after suppressing Ying Bu's rebellion, Gaozu passed by Shandong, where Confucius was born, and personally prepared for a ceremony to pay respect to the philosopher.

Dispute over the succession[edit | edit source]

In his later years, Gaozu showed greater affection for Concubine Qi and neglected Empress Lü Zhi. He felt that Liu Ying, his heir apparent who was born to the empress, was too weak to be a ruler, so he had the intention of deposing Liu Ying and replacing him with another son, Liu Ruyi, who born to Concubine Qi. Lü Zhi became worried so she asked Zhang Liang to help her son maintain his position. Zhang Liang recommended four reclusive wise men, collectively known as the "Four Haos of Mount Shang" (Chinese: 商山四皓; pinyin: Shāng Shān Sì Hào), to help Liu Ying.

In 195 BC, after 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 stop him but was ignored, so Zhang retired from state affairs on the excuse that he was ill. Shusun Tong (the crown prince's tutor) and Zhou Chang strongly objected to Gaozu's decision to replace Liu Ying with Liu Ruyi. Zhou Chang 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 follow your orders anymore."[8] Zhou Chang was outspoken but he had a stuttering problem, which made his speech amusing. Gaozu laughed. Following that, the Four Haos of Mount Shang showed up in the court. Gaozu was surprised to see them because they had earlier declined to serve in his government. The four men promised to help Liu Ying in the future if he were to remain as the crown prince. Gaozu was pleased to see that Liu Ying had their support so he dismissed the idea of changing his heir apparent.

Military campaigns[edit | edit source]

After establishing the Han dynasty, Gaozu appointed several vassal 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; Hán Xin, King of Hán; 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, later, Gaozu became worried that these kings might rebel against him because they were not from his own clan. Han Xin and Peng Yue were accused of treason and were executed by him. Ying Bu and Zang Tu did rebel against him but failed in their attempts and were killed. Only Wu Rui and Zhang Er were left in the end.

The Xiongnu in the north had posed a threat to China since the Qin dynasty. Qin Shi Huang had sent Meng Tian to lead the defence of the Qin Empire's northern border and oversee the construction of the Great Wall to repel the invaders. Meng Tian achieved success in deterring the Xiongnu from advancing beyond the border. However, after the Qin dynasty collapsed, the Xiongnu used the opportunity to move south and raid the border again. In 201 BC, Hán Xin (King of Hán) surrendered to the Xiongnu leader Modu. In the following year, Gaozu led an army to attack the Xiongnu but was besieged and trapped by the enemy in Battle of Baideng. Acting on Chen Ping's advice, Gaozu bribed Modu's wife with gifts and asked her to request her husband to lift the siege. Modu did so. After returning to his capital, Gaozu initiated the policy of heqin, which involved sending noble ladies to marry the Xiongnu chieftains and paying annual tribute to them in exchange for peace between the Han Empire and the Xiongnu.

Death[edit | edit source]

Gaozu was wounded by a stray arrow while he was attacking Ying Bu. He became seriously ill and remained in his inner chambers for a long period of time and ordered 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, accompanied by only a eunuch. Fan Kuai 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. Has 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 so Empress Lü Zhi hired a well-known physician to heal him. When Gaozu enquired about his condition, the physician told him that his illness could be cured, but Gaozu was displeased and he scolded the physician, "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. It is useless even if Bian Que was here!" Gaozu refused to continue the treatment and sent the physician away with some gold. Before his death, Gaozu said that Cao Shen could succeed Xiao He as the after Xiao died, and that Wang Ling could succeed Cao Shen. 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 by himself. Gaozu also named Zhou Bo as a possible candidate for the role of Grand Commandant. He died in Changle Palace (長樂宮) on 1 June 195 BC and was succeeded by Liu Ying, who became known as Emperor Hui.

Song of the Great Wind[edit | edit source]

The Song of the Great Wind was a song composed by Liu Bang in 195 BC when he visited his hometown in Pei County after suppressing Ying Bu's rebellion. He prepared a banquet and invited all his old friends and townsfolk to join him. After some drinks, Liu Bang played the guqin and sang the Song of the Great Wind.[9]


Song of the Great Wind


A great wind came forth,
the clouds rose on high.


Now that my might rules all within the seas,
I have returned to my old village.


Where will I find brave men
to guard the four corners of my land?


Family[edit | edit source]

  • Parents:
    • Liu Taigong (lit. "Old Sir Liu")
    • Liu Ao (lit. "Old Madam Liu")
  • Siblings:
  • Spouse:
  • Major concubines:
    • Consort Cao, bore Liu Fei.
    • Consort Qi, bore Liu Ruyi.
    • Consort Wan
    • Consort Guan
    • Consort Bo, bore Liu Heng.
    • Consort Zhao, bore Liu Chang.
    • Consort Zhao Zi'er
  • Children:
    • Liu Fei, Prince Daohui of Qi.
    • Liu Ying, Crown Prince, later Emperor Hui.
    • Liu Jian, Prince Ling of Yan.
    • 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.
    • Princess Yuan of Lu (personal name unknown)

Modern references[edit | edit source]

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.

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes and references[edit | edit source]

  1. This is the birth year reported by Huangfu Mi (皇甫謐) (215–282).
  2. This is the birth year reported by Chen Zan (臣瓚) in around 270 AD in his comments in the Book of Han.
  3. 梁, 一鳴; 葉, 小兵; 王, 耘. "夏的興亡and商的興亡" (in Traditional Chinese). 互動中國歷史. 1 (3rd ed.). Hong Kong: Manhattan Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-988-208-391-2. 
  4. Note that the Chinese character "媼" (ǎo) was not the personal name of Liu's mother. It was used as a formal way of addressing an old woman at the time. See the dictionary definition of 媼.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Translation of Sima Qian's Shiji.
  6. Patricia Buckley Ebrey (2003). Women and the family in Chinese history. Volume 2 of Critical Asian scholarship (illustrated ed.). Psychology Press. p. 171. ISBN 0-415-28823-1. http://books.google.com/?id=oJbpoEwvQzcC&pg=PA171&dq=huangdi+family+tree#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 4-1-2012. 
  7. Fabrizio Pregadio (2008). Fabrizio Pregadio. ed. The encyclopedia of Taoism, Volume 1 (illustrated ed.). Psychology Press. p. 505. ISBN 0-7007-1200-3. http://books.google.com/?id=MioRmEq2xHUC&pg=PA505&dq=huangdi+family+tree#v=onepage&q=huangdi%20family%20tree&f=false. Retrieved 4-1-2012. 
  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。)
  9. (Chinese) 大风歌
  10. John Minford; Joseph S. M. Lau (2000). Minford, John. ed. An Anthology of Translations Classical Chinese Literature Volume I: From Antiquity To The Tang Dynasty. Columbia University Press. p. 415. ISBN 978-0-231-09676-8. http://books.google.com/?id=8PMehCCKZ7QC. 
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 2. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
  • Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 8.
  • Ban Gu et al. Book of Han, Volume 1.

External links[edit | edit source]

Emperor Gaozu of Han
House of Liu
Born: 256 BC Died: 1 June 195 BC
Regnal titles
New title King of Han
206 BC – 202 BC
Merged in the Crown
Preceded by
Hegemon-King of Western Chu
Emperor of China
Western Han
202 BC – 195 BC
Succeeded by
Emperor Hui of Han

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