Many of the rebel leaders that participated in toppling the Qin Dynasty of China were commoners who began as mere militia leaders and village officials. The future first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gaozu, was no exception. He was born with the name, Liu Bang, near the city of Feng, in the region of Peixian (modern Jiangsu province). He was a smart man who eventually qualified to become the leader of a village along the Si River. Yet, he was still common enough to be selected as an unpaid laborer sent to work in the Qin capital of Xianyang. Nevertheless, in times of chaos, titles of nobility can also be attained through strength. Therefore, when widespread rebellions broke out in 209 BCE, Liu Bang first seized the governorship of Pei, then became the king of Han and, finally, was proclaimed Emperor Gaozu, founder of the Han Dynasty.
Compared to the long noble line of the Qin kings and emperors, many ancient Chinese people could or would not believe that a commoner could become an emperor. Possibly to assuage these concerns, a rumor soon spread that the emperor had been no mere commoner. Even though Emperor Gaozu had mortal parents, dubbed the “Venerable Sire” and “Dame Liu” by the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), rumor and propaganda spread that the new Han emperor had a very unnatural birth. Like many rulers across the globe, Emperor Gaozu was said to have disseminated the idea that his father was not a mortal, but actually a mystical being of great power.
As the story goes, Emperor Gaozu’s mother, Dame Liu, was napping beside a pond one day when, in her dream-state, she was visited by an entity she could only define as a god. Dame Liu’s husband, the Venerable Sire, was, at the time, walking to the pond. He supposedly witnessed clouds condense and darken, releasing bolts of lighting. When he finally arrived where his wife was napping, he was said to have seen a red-scaled dragon, later identified as the “Red Emperor,” leaving the scene.
Not long after this draconic encounter, Dame Liu became pregnant with Emperor Gaozu. According to Sima Qian, the emperor’s own appearance added credence to the tale, for he supposedly had a face that remarkably resembled a dragon. As if the birth was not special enough, Sima Qian noted that Emperor Gaozu had on his left thigh seventy-two moles, which was considered a mystical number. Sima Qian also claimed that Emperor Gaozu made his banners red to honor the Red Emperor, the dragon alleged to have been his father.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A portrait painting of Emperor Gaozu of Han (Liu Bang), from an 18th-century Qing Dynasty album of Chinese emperors’ portraits, in front of a Red Dragon by Tsange, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.