In 195 BCE, Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Han Dynasty, was returning to his capital city of Chang’an in order to recover from an arrow wound he had received while fighting the forces of a rebel king named Qing Bu. While on the road, the emperor decided to make a detour to the region of Pei. It was a special place for Emperor Gaozu—Pei was where the emperor began his bid for power when he was still a peasant.
When he reached the city of Pei, Emperor Gaozu hosted a feast for the townspeople and gave his old friends and the city’s elders places of honor during the festivities. Between feasts, the injured Emperor Gaozu was said to have given singing lessons to a chorus of 120 local children. During the practice sessions, the emperor had the children learn a very special song. According to the historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), it was a piece allegedly composed by the emperor, himself.
At the climax of one of the feasts in Pei, the emperor reportedly was handed a lute and gave a solo performance of his song. After he completed his rendition, the emperor had the 120 children file in and accompany him for another round of the song. Sima Qian recorded (or possibly invented) a single stanza from the song, a poem about a triumphant ruler returning to his roots. The historian made no comment on the song’s melody or the emperor’s lute playing, but the people of Pei would have been wise to applaud the performance, whether it was masterful or abysmal.
Feeling gracious, Emperor Gaozu named the city of Pei as a bath-town. While the title may sound insulting to modern readers, it was actually a great honor. As a bath-town, Pei was exempt from paying taxes to the capital, although regional authorities could still collect money for local projects. Before leaving, the emperor also promoted the Marquis of Pei, Liu Pi, to the throne of Wu.
Although Emperor Gaozu was healthy enough to feast and sing in Pei, his health quickly declined after returning to the capital. On June 1, 195 BCE, Emperor Gaozu died in his grand Palace of Lasting Joy. Upon the death, Gaozu’s son, Hui, ascended to the throne. In a loving gesture to his father, Emperor Hui had all the regional rulers of China create funerary temples to the late Emperor Gaozu. The second most important of these, only bested by the capital, was the temple housed in the city of Pei. There, Emperor Hui allegedly employed the musical talents of the 120 children that Emperor Gaozu had recently instructed in singing. According to Sima Qian, Emperor Hui made the singing troupe of Pei into a lasting institution and left instructions that new singers be brought in if any of the 120 musicians decided to leave the group.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Paintings on the north wall of Xu Xianxiu’s Tomb of Northern Qi Dynasty, [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.