top of page

Liu Xiu the Emperor Guangwu of Han — Extraordinary Revenge Emperor on Back of Cattle and His Love Triangle

Liu Xiu (5 BC — 57 AD), courtesy name Wenshu, respected as Emperor Guangwu of Han, was the founder of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220). 


He was a lucky person that married the love of his life, an invincible general that had never failed on battlefields, a well-educated scholar, a benevolent monarch, and one of the greatest emperors in the history of China that ended wars and chaos and brought people stable, wealthy lives.

Portrait of Liu Xiu the Emperor Guangwu of Han, By Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

Portrait of Liu Xiu the Emperor Guangwu of Han, By Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Boston Museum of Fine Arts

A Royal Living in Poverty 

Liu Xiu was a descendant of Emperor Liu Bang (256 BC — 195 BC), the founder of the Han Dynasty. 

But after generations of cutting power from the non-emperor branches, Liu Xiu’s father was only a governor of a small town and passed away at a young age. 

Hence, Liu Xiu and his siblings were raised by their uncle, he then worked as a farmer for a living.

Later, he went to the capital city and studied at the school that Emperor Wang Mang established; after graduation, he went back to his hometown. 

At that time, Liu Xiu’s dream was to become an official in his town and marry a beautiful girl named Yin Lihua, a beautiful girl whom he met and fell in love with when he was a teenager.

Painted Pottery Building of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Painted Pottery Building of the Eastern Han Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Compelled to Join the Rebel Army


However, a close friend of his big brother committed some crimes, which also involved the innocent Liu Xiu and made him stay in prison for a while.

Afterward, his big brother and some friends started to rebel against Emperor Wang Mang who usurped the throne and ended the Han Empire. Liu Xiu, whose many close relatives were all rebelling, had to join their army as well.

In Liu Xiu’s first battle, he couldn't even afford a warhorse. So he rode on cattle to fight and later was known as the emperor on the back of the cow. 

He fought bravely and soon joined a bigger rebel army together with his big brother.

Soon, Wang Mang sent about 400, 000 well-trained soldiers to attack the military site that Liu Xiu was garrisoning in, an important city that had a few thousand soldiers defending.

Printing Plate of An Imperial Edict of the Xin Dynasty that Wang Mang Built After He Usurped the Throne

Printing Plate of An Imperial Edict of the Xin Dynasty that Wang Mang Built After He Usurped the Throne — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Calm, Insightful Analysis by Liu Xiu

Almost everyone in their army planned to escape separately.

Liu Xiu, an ordinary officer that barely talked before, this time, stood out and insisted to fight back.  

He analyzed geography, military tactics, and soldiers’ morale, and concluded that fighting back was their only choice. 

Afterward, he was assigned to search for reinforcement, while others stayed and were defending this city. 

He led a few soldiers to break out of the enemies’ encirclement, rushed into another city, gave them an inspiring speech, and finally made people there decide to help him.

Then, Liu Xiu came back with around 10,000 warriors and joined the intense fight.

Inlaying Gold and Silver Bronze Crossbow (Nu Ji) of the Han Dynasty

Inlaying Gold and Silver Bronze Crossbow (Nu Ji) of the Han Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Magical, Undefeated General Liu Xiu

From that time on, Liu Xiu started his magical lucky journey.

Liu Xiu rushed into Wang Mang’s huge troop and killed over a dozen enemies, which inspired and encouraged most of his warriors that followed him and fought bravely.

That night, large numbers of aerolites fell into Wang Mang’s troops’ campsites and took thousands of lives away. 

The next day, when Wang’s troop was fighting against Liu Xiu, a huge dark cloud appeared above the head of Wang Mang's army, which looked quite oppressive.

These unusual phenomena scared and depressed most of Wang Mang’s warriors.

Soon, Liu Xiu achieved great success and led his army to chase Wang’s collapsing troops.

Unexpectedly, when Wang Mang’s soldiers were trying to escape, suddenly, big rain and scary thunder struck them and again took away countless lives. 

Afterward, nearly everyone believed that Liu Xiu had magical power and the support of heaven. 

This war made Liu Xiu famous and perished the main force of Emperor Wang Mang, who was assassinated three months after this magical battle. 

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Dingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Happy Marriage and Sudden Separation

But this made the king of the rebel army feel threatened, so he killed Liu Xiu’s big brother, who was more powerful at that time.

Liu Xiu, then, gave up all of his military positions and power and tried his best to stay humble and alive. 

During this seclusion time, Liu Xiu finally married the love of his life Yin Lihua, the girl that he fell in love with, at first sight, several years ago.  

Only a few months after his happy marriage, the king of the rebel army commanded Liu Xiu to go to a province alone and summon troops there to surrender.   

Everyone knew this was an impossible mission, a complete conspiracy that the king used to set up, banish, and even kill Liu Xiu.

Liu Xiu had to send his beloved wife back to her family, a very rich clan that was the descendent of Guan Zhong, the famous minister who had assisted Overlord Lv Xiaobai.

A Political Marriage in Exchange for Power

Soon, Liu Xiu set off to the big province that was full of different rebel forces.

Surprisingly, some powerful lords there supported Liu Xiu, because of his talent, ability, and “magical power”. They believed that Liu Xiu was the monarch chosen by heaven.

They also introduced Liu Xiu to the most powerful lord there, who obtained a very strong army.   

To make their alliance stable, Liu Xiu needed to marry Guo Shengtong, the niece of this powerful lord.

With the strong army of Guo’s clan, Liu Xiu kept winning and expanding. Soon, he established his regime, and named it “Han”.

This new empire is called the Eastern Han Dynasty in history.

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Liu Xiu’s New Empire and Queen

Liu Xiu married two wives in one year, one was the result of true love, another was a purely political marriage. 

After his new empire was stable, he sent people and welcomed his beloved first wife Yin  Lihua back to him.

When Liu Xiu left Yin Lihua, he was a commoner, with an empty title and full of the possibility to be killed. Three years later, he came back as a monarch of an empire but also was the husband of another woman and father of their children.

Liu Xiu wanted to nominate Yin as his queen but she refused, for not being helpful in his career and having no children.

So Guo became the queen of Liu Xiu’s empire, and her first son was the crown prince. Yin  Lihua stayed as an imperial concubine.

Jade Comb with Gold Decoration of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Jade Comb with Gold Decoration of the Eastern Han Dynasty — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Reestablishment of the Unified Empire

In the following years, Liu Xiu’s army kept winning.

Because of his “magical” power, as long as he was the commander, his army would win, no matter how difficult those battles used to be, or how strong were their enemies.

As expected, Liu Xiu unified the whole of the nation, reestablished a centralized government, and became the Emperor Guangwu of Han.

Decades of wars caused large-scale destruction nationwide, so the priority of his new empire was to recover agriculture and the economy.

Great Reign of Emperor Guangwu

Emperor Guangwu of Han freed slaves, lowered taxes, and applied a strict registration system of farmland and population while weakening big landlords’ power.

Another noteworthy policy was that he strictly limited powerful clans and expanded his centralized power, trying to avoid a second usurper like Wang Mang.

Then he rewarded those contributive generals with a large amount of money and honorable titles, after having retrieved their military power. 

Besides, he regained respect for Confucianism and educational colleges and combated corruption. 

Soon, the Xiongnu further divided up and fell into chaos, but Liu Xiu refused to initiate any other wars against them, even though that was a very good opportunity at that time.

Under his reign, people lived in stability and peace again. 

Unearthed Pottery Sheepfold Model of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Unearthed Pottery Sheepfold Model of the Eastern Han Dynasty — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Liu Xiu’s Love Triangle and Changing of the Queen

After Liu Xiu’s new dynasty was stable and everything was under control, he removed the queen's crown from Guo Shengtong. 

During that period, Yin Lihua’s mother and younger brother were murdered by some robbers; to some gossip, it was possibly under Guo’s command out of jealousy.

Liu Xiu sent Guo and her sons to their fief and respected Guo as empress dowager of that state.

This time, finally, he gave the queen’s throne to Yin (Empress Guanglie), the love of his life.

Years later, the current crown prince, the first son of Guo, resigned himself as heir; then the first son of Yin Lihua was nominated as the new crown prince. 

This was a famous love triangle that involved true love and a political alliance.

Unearthed Painted Ivory Ruler of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Painted Ivory Ruler of the Eastern Han Dynasty — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Though they all had their discomforts, in the end, all achieved what they had expected at the beginning: political power, love, and accompany. 

Yin Lihua, the love of Liu Xiu's life, was a beautiful, considerate, and virtuous woman, who constantly loved her husband and carefully raised their children.

After Liu Xiu passed away, she and her sons obtained absolute power, they still had a very good relationship with Guo and her sons.

Guo and her sons were rewarded with a great deal of money and honor; together they made a warm and happy big family.

As for Guo, it was a little bit difficult to define whether she and Liu Xiu were ever in love or just a purely political alliance. But she did do a good job as a helpful and decent queen.

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty —  Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Legacy of the Successful Emperor Guangwu of Han

Liu Xiu, Emperor Guangwu of Han had a legendary, almost perfect, life.

He saved his nation from chaos and endless wars, glorified his family name, completed vengeance against his political enemy (usurper Wang Mang), and finally rebuilt his ancestors’ reign.  

After he became emperor, he kept his kindness and modesty and worked diligently.

His favorite hobby was discussing literature or Confucianism with knowledgeable officials in his palace.

Under his reign, the population quadrupled, productivity increased and prosperity was brought back.

Liu Xiu left the world when he was old, peacefully, surrounded by his beloved family, loyal officials, and friends.

His son and grandson were two excellent emperors as well; their ruling period was a famous, prosperous era in the history of China.

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Golden Belt Buckle of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Turquoises

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Golden Belt Buckle of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Turquoises — Shouxian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

bottom of page