Liu Bang the Emperor Gaozu of Han — 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 that came from a civilian family. 

His trusted generals and officials were mostly from humble families as well. Together, they overthrew the powerful Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) and built a new, unified empire in only 7 years. 

The empire that 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 Characters "Han Zi", were all named after this dynasty. 

Their legendary experiences showed people, for the first time, origin and family name don’t quite matter, talent and courage could triumph over social status, and no one is born noble or humble. 

Liu Bang the Emperor Gaozu of Han, Founder of the Han Dynasty

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 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 rich people there were invited.

He found it interesting, so he bragged that he would pay the most amount of cash, though he had nothing, as a gift. Soon, he got welcomed as one of the most respected guests and had a great time there.

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. He also married his daughter to Liu, even though many people tried and persuaded him that this man was not diligent nor reliable.

Finally, Liu Bang got his first wife Lv Zhi from this party when he was already 38 years old; 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

Green Glaze Pottery Pigsty of the Early Han Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

First Army and the Beginning of Rebellion 

Once, Liu Bang was transferring a group of criminals to another place, some of them escaped in the chaos. Seeing the big mistake that may have him punished, he set the rest 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 him, who started to live as a fugitive, but further expanded his first army.

Soon, he allied with his friends in his hometown Pei County, they defeated the leader of their town and occupied there as their first military base. 

This was his first force, which mainly consisted of fugitives, civilians, farmers, butchers, and a few junior officials in his town.

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 Liu Bang's Satellite Mausoleum

Pottery Figurine Infantry, Unearthed from Satellite Mausoleum of Emperor Gaozu — Xianyang Museum

Contention with the King Xiang Yu

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 firstly complied with King Xiang Yu, a powerful commander who came 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 Qin’s last king was killed by King Xiang Yu in 206 BC, uprising armies started to fight against each other.

Within 4 years, Liu Bang gained respect and support from many extremely intelligent 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, the king then committed suicide afterward. 

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)

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 having defeated the biggest enemy, Liu Bang established the unified Han Dynasty, and he was respected as the Emperor Gaozu of Han. 

After years of wars, this new dynasty was very poor; his emperor's carriage even couldn’t find four horses of the same color.

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 following emperors of the Han, until his great-grandson Emperor Liu Che.

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.  

Restoration Map of the Palace of the Han Dynasty — Wei Yang Gong

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)

Wars Between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu

During the time that the Empire Han was newly established, a king of the Xiongnu (or the Huns) defeated most of the nomadic clans and unified the Mongolian Plat. This large nomadic regime with aggressive cavalry troops kept expanding and constantly fighting against the Han.

When Emperor Gaozu was 55 years old, which was only 2 years after the Han Dynasty was established, a king of Han named Xin colluded with the Xiongnu and planned to invade the Han Empire with 400, 000 cavalrymen.

As the emperor, he then 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 Han then used lots of treasure to bribe the queen of Xiongnu, who persuaded her king to let Liu and his army go.

Then, he agreed to provide a large number of products to Xiongnu every year and to send a royal princess to their king. 

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia 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 on their own.

Years later, Liu Bang became suspicious about if those extremely smart 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". 

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 Liu’s clan could be entitled to kings.

He also set a strict rule for the Han Dynasty that only people with certain military achievements could get the title of nobility.

In the war against a powerful rebellion king, he got shot on the battlefield. After intense fights, he won and eliminated the last huge threat of his Han Empire, and passed away the next year because of the wound.  

Eared Lacquer Cup with Characters“Jun Xing Jiu” (Please Drink), Unearthed from Mausoleum of Prime Minister Li Cang of Changsha State — Hunan Museum

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)

Powerful Empress Lv Zhi and Her Governance

In the emperor's late years, he loved a beautiful concubine, Lady Qi, very much, and planned to nominate her as queen, and her son as the crown prince.

But the current queen, his wife Lv Zhi, was a very smart and ambitious woman.

Lv married Liu at a very young age and had experienced almost everything with him, from being a poverty peasant to the emperor of a big empire. 

Therefore, Lv was familiar with nearly all of the important generals and officials of the Empire Han and was very influential among them. 

After a long time of struggling, with Lv’s smart 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

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 who had planned to replace her with that Lady Qi.

So Lv shaved that 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 paramount centralized power in the history of China.

After Lv Zhi departed, nobles and officials chose Liu Bang’s other son that was mature and smart and supported him as the fifth emperor of the Han Dynasty. 

Copper Belt Hook Inlaid with Gold and Silver, Unearthed from Mausoleum of Liu Qi (188 BC — 141 BC)

Copper Belt Hook Inlaid with Gold and Silver, Unearthed from 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 Gao Zu of Han

Starting 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 common civilians. He successfully attracted the best generals and politicians, so he could finally perish the powerful Qin Dynasty, King Xiang Yu, and all the other strong uprising armies. 

The most controversial thing that he had been criticized for was for killing many people with great contributions, to reinforce the centralized power and eliminate possible rebels in the future. 

As a person, it was quite ungrateful and indecent to murder contributive people. 

As a monarch of a huge unified empire, however, it would be more controversial when 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

Mausoleum of Emperor Liu Bang (Chang Ling) in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province

It turned out that this behavior might not be quite 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, he was remembered and highly respected as one of the greatest emperors in the history of China, who made a good start for a prosperous dynasty and brought his people stable lives.

He also pioneered an era when commoners could achieve exceptional merits and paramount honors.