Liu Bang the Emperor Gaozu of Han — the First Civilian Emperor in Chinese History and the Founder of the Han Dynasty
Liu Bang (256 BC — 195 BC), respected as Emperor Gaozu of Han, was the first Chinese emperor from a civilian family.
His trusted generals and officials were mainly from humble families as well.
Together, they overthrew the powerful Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) and built a new, unified empire in only seven years.
The kingdom they established, the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), was one of the most prosperous empires in the history of China and an era of extraordinary civilians.
The major ethnic group in China, the "Han people" and the Chinese Character "Han Zi", were all named after this dynasty.
Their legendary experiences showed people, for the first time, that origin and family name don't quite matter; talent and courage could triumph over social status, and no one is born noble or humble.
Peasant Liu Bang and His Idle Early Life
Liu Bang was born into a peasant family but never liked doing farm work. On the contrary, he enjoyed roaming around and making many friends as a swordsman.
His laziness had bothered his father for a long time, but it also got him a job as an ordinary officer in his hometown Pei County.
Years later, a landlord, also a good friend of the governor of the local county, moved to his hometown and held a big party to which all the powerful and wealthy people were invited.
Liu Bang found it interesting, so he bragged that he would pay the most cash, though he had nothing, as a gift.
Soon, he was welcomed as one of the most respected guests and had a great time there.
Gold Ingot Unearthed From Mausoleum of Marquis of Haihun (Haihunhou) of Han Dynasty — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
His confident and fearless personality impressed this landlord, who was also good at physiognomy and believed that this bragging young man would be very successful in the future.
Hence, this lord married his daughter to Liu, even though many tried to persuade him that this man was neither diligent nor reliable.
Finally, Liu Bang got his first wife, Lv Zhi, at this party when he was already 38 years old.
Since then, they lived a normal life together until many uprising armies started to fight against the Empire Qin.
Green Glaze Pottery Pigsty of the Early Han Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Beginning of Rebellion and Liu Bang's First Army
One day, Liu Bang was in charge of transferring a group of criminals to another place, and some escaped in the chaos.
Seeing the big mistake that may have him punished, he set the rest criminals free and decided to escape as well.
Many of the rest of the criminals were touched by his generosity and soon pledged their loyalty to Liu, who then started to live as a fugitive while further expanding his first army.
Soon, he allied with his friends in his hometown Pei County, and together they defeated the leader of their town and occupied there as their first military base.
This was his first force, mainly consisting of fugitives, civilians, farmers, butchers, and a few junior officials.
Liu Bang officially announced that they would join the rebel army and try to overthrow the Qin Dynasty as well, and now he was 48 years old.
Pottery Figurine Infantry, Unearthed from Satellite Mausoleum of Liu Bang — Xianyang Museum
Defeating Powerful King Xiang Yu in Chu-Han Contention
In the beginning, Liu Bang wasn’t very famous for his military skills, and his army wasn’t the strongest at that time either.
So, he first complied with King Xiang Yu, a powerful commander from a noble family of the former Kingdom Chu.
Allied with other uprising armies, they perished troops of the Qin Dynasty together.
After Qin had perished and King Xiang Yu killed Qin’s last king in 206 BC, different forces of the allied uprising armies started to fight against each other.
Within four years, Liu Bang gained the respect and support of many brilliant people.
With the assistance of those exceptional generals and remarkable strategists, he made some commanders of King Xiang Yu surrender and then alienated the relationship between the king and his most intelligent and trusted prime minister.
In their final war, Liu and his army defeated the last 100,000 soldiers of Xiang Yu, and the king then committed suicide.
Eaves Tile of the Early Han Dynasty to Memorize the Victory Against King Xiangyu, With Inscriptions of "Han Rules the Whole Nation" (Han Bing Tian Xia) — National Museum of China
Establishment of the Han Dynasty
After defeating the biggest enemy, Liu Bang established the unified Han Dynasty and was respected as Emperor Gaozu of Han.
After years of wars, this new dynasty was very poor. They couldn't find four horses of the same color for his emperor's carriage.
To recover and develop the economy, Taoism and its conception of the "Doctrine of Inaction" was highly respected and strictly applied by Liu and the successive emperors of the Han until his great-grandson Emperor Liu Che.
Restoration Map of the Palace of the Han Dynasty “Wei Yang Gong” (About Five Square Kilometers Large) — Constructed in 200 BC, Destroyed In the Late Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)
As Emperor Gaozu of Han, he focused on rehabilitative policies and abolished some harsh laws from the Qin Dynasty, reduced taxes, released many slaves, and gave them farmland.
Since then, people have lived in peace again.
He also commanded all the nobles of former kingdoms and powerful clans to move and live near him so that he could have them under strict surveillance.
But he didn’t humiliate or give them hard times.
Moreover, horse breeding became an important and highly encouraged priority in the Han Dynasty.
Jade Box of Han — Museum of the Western Han Mausoleum of the Nanyue King (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Wars Between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu
When the Han Empire was newly established, a king of the Xiongnu (or the Huns) defeated most nomadic clans and unified the Mongolian Plat.
This extensive nomadic regime with aggressive cavalry troops kept expanding and constantly fighting against the Han.
When Emperor Gaozu was 55 years old, only two years after the Han Dynasty was established, a king of the Han, Xin, colluded with the Xiongnu and planned to invade the Han Empire with 400,000 cavalrymen.
Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
As the emperor, Liu Bang led 320,000 infantry soldiers to fight back.
However, after several intense battles, his army was isolated and enclosed by Xiongnu’s army for over a week because of one of his wrong decision.
An official of the Han then used lots of treasure to bribe the queen of the Xiongnu, who persuaded her king to let Liu and his army go.
Then, Emperor Gaozu agreed to provide a large number of products to Xiongnu every year and to send a royal princess to their king.
Blue Glaze Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Eliminating Kings of Feudal States
At the beginning of the Han Dynasty, counties and feudatory states coexisted.
Kings of those states were people with remarkable contributions to building up the Han Dynasty.
Their independent states occupied big cities, collected taxes, and kept armies independently.
Years later, Liu Bang became suspicious about if those brilliant kings with such strong forces would stay loyal forever.
Therefore, with the help of his queen Lv, he demoted and executed some kings whose family names weren't the "Liu".
Lacquer Cup with Characters“Jun Xing Jiu” (Please Drink), Unearthed from Mausoleum of the Prime Minister Li Cang of Changsha State, Who Contributed to Emperor's Final War in Defeating the Rebellion King — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
For those powerful kings that initiated rebellion wars, he led Han’s army and defeated them by himself.
Then, the emperor commanded that only people from the House of Liu could be entitled to kings.
He also set a strict rule for the Han Dynasty that only people with specific military achievements could be awarded the title of nobility.
In a war against a powerful rebellious king, Liu Bang got shot on the battlefield.
After intense fights, he won and eliminated the last massive threat to his Han Empire and passed away the following year because of the wound.
Unearthed Brocade Barcer of Han — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Powerful Empress Lv Zhi and Her Governance
In Emperor Gaozu's late years, he loved a beautiful concubine, Lady Qi, very much and planned to nominate her as the new queen and her son as the new crown prince.
But the current queen, his wife Lv Zhi, was brilliant and ambitious.
Lv married Liu at a very young age and experienced almost everything with him, from being a poverty peasant and dangerous fugitive to countless live-and-death moments during Chu-Han Contention and to the founder of an enormous empire.
Therefore, Lv was familiar with nearly all the important generals and officials of the Han Empire and was very influential among them.
After a long struggle, with Lv's intelligent strategies and the assistance of those powerful officials, she kept her queen's title, and her son stayed as the crown prince.
Imperial Jade Seal of Queen Lv Zhi — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
After the emperor passed away, Lv became the empress dowager and her son the next emperor.
She was still sad and angry about her husband's plan to replace her with that Lady Qi.
So Lv shaved Lady Qi's hair, cut her limbs, and let her crawl in silt to death. She also imprisoned nearly all of Liu's other concubines and murdered their sons.
After Lv's son passed away at a young age, she supported two other puppet emperors and reigned the empire well, which made her the first empress with supreme centralized power in the history of China.
After Lv Zhi departed, nobles and officials chose Liu Bang's other son, who was mature and intelligent, and supported him as the fifth emperor of the Han Dynasty.
Copper Belt Hook Inlaid with Gold and Silver, Unearthed from the Mausoleum of Liu Qi (188 BC — 141 BC), The Grandson of Liu Bang and The 6th Emperor of the Han Dynasty — Hanyangling Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Legacy of Liu Bang the Emperor Gaozu of Han
From a peasant with no property and power in his 40s to a widely admired and respected emperor that built a prosperous empire, Liu Bang used only seven years.
He was extremely good at gaining people’s support, no matter they were intelligent ministers or ordinary civilians.
After successfully attracting the best generals and politicians, he could finally perish the powerful Qin Dynasty, King Xiang Yu, and all the other strong uprising armies.
The most controversial thing he had been criticized for was killing many people with significant contributions to reinforce the centralized power and eliminate possible rebels in the future.
As a person, it was pretty ungrateful and indecent to murder contributive people.
As a monarch of a substantial unified empire, however, it would be more controversial regarding removing potential threats of a newly founded kingdom and maintaining the stability of the society.
Mausoleum of Emperor Liu Bang (Chang Ling) in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province
It turned out that this behavior might not be entirely wrong.
Besides the king who had surrendered to the Xiongnu, decades after his departure, seven kings of those feudal states allied and initiated a big rebel war over the power, which almost overthrew the Han Dynasty.
Though they were defeated and eliminated later, this war did cause chaos and destruction to the country.
Anyway, Liu Bang was remembered and highly respected as one of the most extraordinary emperors in the history of China, who made a brilliant start for a prosperous dynasty and brought his people stable lives.
He also pioneered an era in which commoners could achieve exceptional merits and paramount honors.
Painting "Han Dian Lun Gong Tu" about Emperor Gaozu and Officials Discussing Their Contributions, by Court Artist Liu Jun of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Metropolitan Museum of Art
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