Emperor Gaozu of Han

From New World Encyclopedia

Emperor Gao (256 B.C.E. or 247 B.C.E. – June 1, 195 B.C.E.), commonly known inside China as Gaozu (Chinese: 高祖; pinyin: Gāozǔ, Wade-Giles: Kao Tsu), personal name Liu Bang (Wade-Giles: Liu Pang), was the first Emperor of the Chinese Han Dynasty (漢朝). He ruled over China from 202 B.C.E. until 195 B.C.E., and, along with Zhu Yuanzhang of the Míng Dynasty (明朝), was one of only a few founders of dynasties who emerged from the peasant class. Before becoming an emperor, he was also called Duke of Pei (沛公), after his birthplace. He was also crowned as the Prince of Hàn by Xiang Yu, the Grand Prince of Western Chu (項羽; Wade-Giles: Hsiang Yü), following the collapse of Qín Dynasty (秦朝), and was called so before becoming emperor.

After defeating his rival, Xiang Yu, Gaozu centralized China under the Qin model. He gradually replaced the harsh Legalist administration of the Qin with a Confucian system that emphasized moderation and virtue, and restored Confucian scholarship to prominence. Under Gaozu’s reign, the Chinese imperial system assumed most of the characteristics that it retained until it was dismantled in the early twentieth century.

Early Life

Liú Bāng was born in 256 or 247 B.C.E. into a peasant family in Pei (present Pei County in Jiangsu Province, 江蘇). He relied on his brother's family for food. One anecdote about his youth relates that one day he brought many friends home to eat with the family. Even though there was more than enough food to feed everyone, his sister-in-law went into the kitchen and began to scrape the pots, causing his friends to think that the family was too poor to feed them, and leave. It is said that his sister-in-law's contempt for his roguish ways was what motivated Liú Bāng to consider studying and serving his country.

After he grew up, Liú Bāng served as a patrol officer, or police officer, responsible for the Sishui River under the Qin dynasty. Legend says that Liú Bāng was once responsible for transporting a group of prisoners to Mount Li in present Shaanxi (陝西) province. During the trip many of the prisoners escaped; fearful that he would be punished for their flight, Liú Bāng decided to flee himself, and released the remaining prisoners. The prisoners, running for their lives, met up with a cobra on the path and returned the way they had come, running into Liú Bāng. Hearing their story, he went and killed the cobra himself. From then on, the prisoners respected him and made him their leader, and Liú Bāng became the leader of a band of brigands. On one of his raids, he met a county magistrate who became impressed with his leadership skills and gave his daughter [[Empress Dowager Lü|Lü Zhi (Empress Lü Zhi, 呂雉), commonly known as Empress Dowager Lü (呂太后, pinyin: Lü Taihou) or formally as Empress Gao (高皇后, pinyin: Gaō Huánghoù), to him in marriage.

Insurrection against Qín

In 209 B.C.E., Chen Sheng (陳勝) led an uprising against Qin Dynasty (秦朝; Wade-Giles: Ch'in Ch'ao) and assumed the title "King of Great Chu." Pei was in old Chu (楚) territory. At the time that Liú Bāng released the prisoners he was to escort to Mount Li and then became a fugitive himself, Xiao He (蕭何) was serving as a secretary to the county magistrate of Pei County. When Chen Sheng (陳勝) started his rebellion, the county magistrate considered joining the rebellion, and on the advice of Xiao and Cao Can (曹參) (who was then a county police official), he sent Liú Bāng’s brother-in-law Fan Kuai (樊噲) to invite Liú and his company of bandits to come to Pei County to support the rebellion. Fan found Liú, but on their way back, the magistrate changed his mind and closed the city gates against them, and, afraid that Xiao and Cao would open the gates themselves, wanted to execute them. They jumped off the city wall and joined Liú. Liú Bāng, apparently at Xiao's suggestion, then wrote letters to city elders urging surrender, and tied them onto arrows which he shot into the city. The elders agreed, and they assassinated the county magistrate and opened the gates to let Liú in, offering him the title the Duke of Pei.

Liú Bāng served first as a subordinate of Xiang Liang and then, after Xiang Liang was killed in action, became a subordinate of Mi Xin, Prince Huai of Chu (Traditional Chinese: 楚義帝, sometimes 南楚義帝, literally "the Righteous Emperor of Chu"), who was also the nominal leader of the coalition of the rebel states. Prince Xin named Liú Marquess of Wu'an. It was about this time that he met Zhang Liang (張良), who became his chief strategist.

Prince Xin made a promise that whoever occupied Guanzhong (關中), which was the plain of Central Shaanxi, the Qín homeland, and the core of Qín Dynasty, should be awarded Guanzhong as his kingdom. He then sent Liú Bāng on this mission, partly because he considered Liú a kind and merciful man, and did not like Liú’s rival, Xiang Yu (項羽), whom he considered cruel and impetuous. While Xiang Yu was busy fighting the main force of the Qin Dynasty, Liú invaded Guanzhong with relative ease.

In December 207 B.C.E., the last Qín ruler, Ziying (子嬰; Pinyin: Zǐ Yīng), surrendered to Liú Bāng and his rebel army, and in 206 B.C.E., Liú entered the Qín capital Xianyang (咸陽). By that time, however, Xiang Yu had become the most powerful rebel, and he forced Liú Bāng to hand over both Ziying and Xianyang. Xiang Yu even considered killing Liú at a feast that would be later known as the Feast at Hong Gate (鴻門宴; Simplified Chinese: 鸿门宴; Pinyin: Hóngményàn), but decided to spare him.

Chu-Han contention

Now considering the whole former Qín Empire under his domination, Xiang Yu realigned the territories of not only the remaining parts of Qín but also the rebel states, dividing the territories into nineteen principalities. Xiang Yu did not honor the promise of Xin, Prince Huai of Chu, who was soon himself assassinated on Xiang's orders. Instead, he gave Guanzhong (關中) to the princes of three Qins. Liú Bāng was only awarded the Principality of Hàn (modern Sichuan (四川), Chongqing (重慶), and southern Shaanxi (陝西)).

In Hanzhong (漢中), Liú Bāng focused his efforts on developing agriculture to strengthen his economic base, and training an army, through which he reinforced his military power. Before long, Liú broke out of his principality, deposed the kings of three Qins and occupied Guanzhong, where he launched a war now known as the Chu-Han War (楚漢相爭 or 楚漢春秋), against Xiang Yu. He said in his biography, "Establishment of the Great," that "Those who earn their status by war are the most honorable of all."

Although Xiang Yu was far superior in military ability to Liú Bāng, he was at a political disadvantage. Xiang Yu kept defeating Liú in the battlefield, but each of his victories drove more people to support Liú. The war lasted five years (206–202 B.C.E.) and ended with Liú Bāng's victory. When Xiang Yu finally was defeated in the Battle of Gaixia ( 垓下之戰 in 202 B.C.E.), he committed suicide.

Having defeated Xiang Yu, Liú proclaimed himself emperor, made Cháng'ān (長安) (present city of Xi'an, 西安) his capital city, and established the Hàn Dynasty (漢朝) in 202 B.C.E. Liú became known in history as Emperor Gāo of Hàn.

Reign as the emperor

Liú Bāng consolidated his empire by subduing the unruly kings, and re-centralized China based on the Qín model. He soon annexed most of the kingdoms and established principalities, gradually replacing the original vassals with his sons and relatives as princes. Since the economy had been devastated by the war following the demise of the Qín Dynasty, he reduced taxes and corvée, developed agriculture and restricted spending. However, in response to what he saw as the decadence of Qín merchants, he levied heavy taxes on them and imposed legal restrictions on commerce.

The cultural repression of the Qin dynasty was reversed, and scholarship was revived. Scholars kept detailed records of the events of the Han dynasty. Under Gāozǔ's reign, Confucian (儒學) thought gradually replaced Legalist (法家) thought; Confucian scholars were welcomed into his government, while the harsh Legalist laws were amended. Confucian ideals emphasizing moderation and virtue served to mask the authoritarian policies of the regime. Emperor Gāozǔ's efforts laid a solid foundation for the over four-hundred-year reign of the Hàn Dynasty, which lasted longer than any other Chinese empire.

Gāozǔ also made peace with the Xiongnu (匈奴; Wade-Giles: Hsiung-nu). He first tried military solutions against the Xiongnu (匈奴; Wade-Giles: Hsiung-nu) but suffered defeats in the battlefield. He then appeased the Xiongnu by marrying ladies from the royal family to Chanyu (單于), the leaders of the Xiongnu, a policy which continued for about seventy years.

In the sixth century source, Xi Jing Za Ji, Liú Bang was said to have stumbled upon an entire musical orchestra set of mechanical puppets from the First Qin Emperor's treasury.[1] The book stated:

There were also twelve men cast in bronze, each 3 ft. high, sitting upon a mat. Each one held either a lute, a guitar, a sheng or a yu (mouth-organs with free reeds). All were dressed in flowered silks and looked like real men. Under the mat there were two bronze tubes, the upper openings of which were several feet high and protruded behind the mat. One tube was empty and in the other there was a rope as thick as a finger. If someone blew into the empty tube, and a second person (pulled down) the rope (by means of its) knot, then all the group made music just like real musicians.


Crown Prince Liú Ying (漢惠帝), the eldest son of Liú Bāng and Empress Lü (Empress Lü Zhi, 呂雉, commonly known as Empress Dowager Lü, 呂太后, or formally as Empress Gao, 高皇后), was the heir apparent of Liú Bāng. However, Liú Bāng considered Ying to be too weak as a ruler. His favorite son was Ruyi, Prince Yin of Zhao, by Lady Qi (戚姬, also known as Lady Qi or Consort Qi 戚夫人), one of his favorite concubines. Liú Bāng attempted to make Ruyi crown prince, but failed because most of his ministers remained loyal to Ying and his mother, Empress Lü.

Liú Bāng's affection for Lady Qi and Ruyi inflamed Empress Lü, and after her son's accession following Liú Bang's death, when she became empress dowager, she poisoned Ruyi and tortured Qi to death.


In historical accounts, Liú Bang was portrayed as the opposite of his rival, Xiang Yu. While Xiang Yu was normally depicted as a romantic and noble hero, Liú Bāng was often painted as a rogue. Xiang Yu was kind and gentle to his peers and subordinates, but ruthlessly cruel to his enemies and an inferior politician. Han Xin (韓信) described Xiang Yu as "having the kindness of women," meaning that, in his opinion, Xiang's "kindness" was petty and did not benefit either his regime or his people.

Xiang Yu also did not know how to utilize his talented subordinates, such as Han Xin, a soldier under Xiang who later defected to become commander-in-chief under Liú Bāng, and became extremely damaging to Xiang. Xiang was criticized for his deliberate cruelty in military campaigns, his inability to accept criticism and wise counsel, and his inability to delegate.

Liú Bāng, on the contrary, was bold and arrogant, and able to successfully manipulate his peers and subordinates. By generously giving glory and territory to his allies during his war with Xiang Yu, he won the hearty support of most of his peer princes and subordinates. However, once he became the emperor, Liú Bāng ruthlessly oppressed them and executed several of them, most notably Han Xin (韓信) and Peng Yue. Ying Bu, driven to rebellion by fear, was also destroyed. Liú Bāng's strengths were an uncanny ability to judge the wisdom of counsel given to him; his ability to make decisions based on counsel of others; his ability to delegate responsibilities; and his understanding of hw to motivate a person to follow him.

Liú Bāng commented on the reason why he was successful and Xiang was not:

The most important reason is that I know how to use people and Xiang Yu did not. As to being able to set out a strategy in a tent but determining success or failure in the events a thousand miles away, I am not as good as Zhang Liang (張良). As to guarding the home base, comforting the people, and supplying the army so that it lacked neither food nor supplies, I am not as good as Xiao He (蕭何). As to leading untrained large forces but always being successful whether battling or sieging, I am not as good as Han Xin (韓信). These three people are heroes among men, but I know how to use them, so I was able to conquer the lands under heaven. Xiang Yu only had one great adviser, Fan Zeng, but was unable to use him properly, and so was defeated by me.

An incident involving Ying Bu illustrates Liú Bāng's personality. Ying Bu was initially a subordinate of Xiang Yu's, and in reward for Ying's military capabilities, Xiang created him the Prince of Jiujiang. However, Xiang clearly began to distrust Ying. Once, when Ying was unable to lead a force on Xiang's behalf because of illness, Xiang sent a delegation to rebuke him and to monitor his illness, not believing his excuse to be genuine. Fearful for his life, and goaded by the diplomat Sui He (隨何), whom Liú Bāng had sent to Jiujiang to try to make an alliance with Ying, Ying rebelled against Xiang. His army was defeated by Xiang, and he fled to Liú Bāng's headquarters. When Liú Bāng received Ying, he was half-naked and washing his feet, and he greeted Ying in crude language. Ying, a great general in his own right and a prince, was so humiliated that he considered suicide. However, when Liú Bāng had Ying escorted to the headquarters that he had built in anticipation of Ying's arrival, Ying found that his headquarters were the same size, and had the same furnishings, same level of personnel staffing, and same security as Liú Bāng's own headquarters. Ying then perceived Liú Bāng's earlier slights as endearments, directed towards an equal and a brother in arms, and he became a key figure in Liú Bāng's campaign against Xiang.

Personal information

  • Father: Liu Zhijia (劉執嘉) (3rd son of)
  • Mother: Wang Hanshi (王含始)
  • Wife: Empress Lü, mother of Emperor Hui and Princess Luyuan
  • Major concubines:
    • Consort Cao, mother of Prince Fei—initially Emperor Gao's mistress
    • Consort Zhao, mother of Prince Chang
    • Consort Zhang
    • Consort Wei
    • Consort Qi, mother of Prince Ruyi
    • Consort Bo, mother of Emperor Wen
  • Children:
    • Ying (劉盈), the Crown Prince, later Emperor Hui
    • Ruyi, Prince Yin of Zhao (劉如意) (created 198 B.C.E., killed by Empress Dowager Lü 195 B.C.E.)
    • Heng (劉恆), the Prince of Dai (created 196 B.C.E.), later Emperor Wen
    • Fei, Prince Daohui of Qi (created 202 B.C.E., d. 195 B.C.E.)
    • Hui, Prince Gong of Zhao, initially Prince of Liang (created 196 B.C.E.) (created Prince of Zhao 180 B.C.E., committed suicide 179 B.C.E.)
    • You, Prince You of Zhao, initially Prince of Huaiyang (created 196 B.C.E.) (created Prince of Zhao 194 B.C.E., starved to death by Empress Dowager Lü 180 B.C.E.)
    • Chang, Prince Li of Huainan (b. 198 B.C.E.), created 196 B.C.E., deposed and died in exile 174 B.C.E., possibly by suicide)
    • Jian, Prince Ling of Yan (created 211 B.C.E., d. 181 B.C.E.)
    • Princess Luyuan


  1. Needham, Volume 4, 158.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • History of Warfare in China Antiquity Through the Spring and Autumn Period. Westview Pr, 2007. ISBN 978-0813321943
  • Loewe, Michael and Edward L. Shaughnessy. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C.E.. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521470307
  • Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 2. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd, 1986. ISBN 0521070600
  • Quian, Sima. Records of the Great Historian. Translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-231-08167-7
  • Twitchett, Denis Crispin and John King Fairbank. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978. ISBN 0521214475

Preceded by:
(dynasty established)
Western Han Dynasty
202 B.C.E.–195 B.C.E.
Succeeded by: Emperor Hui of Han
Preceded by:
Qin Er Shi of Qin Dynasty
Emperor of China
202 B.C.E.–195 B.C.E.


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