As was proper in ancient China, Emperor Gaozu showed great respect to his father, known only as the so-called “Venerable Sire” or “Sir Liu”. In fact, according to the historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the emperor made sure to visit his father at least once every five days as a sign of his filial devotion. Yet, Emperor Gaozu had begun life as a peasant, and therefore his father was also a peasant. As such, after becoming the king of Han around 206 BCE and achieving the rank of Supreme Emperor by 202 BCE, the disparity of social status between Gaozu and his father had grown massively. Nevertheless, the emperor was determined to continue showing respect to his father.
Despite Gaozu’s resolve, the optics of an emperor continually expressing deference to an aging peasant was so troublesome that even the Venerable Sire’s household attendants began to worry about the situation. According to Sima Qian, a steward brought up the issue with the Venerable Sire—he suggested that when the emperor paid his next visit, the Venerable Sire should carry a broom with him while he met with his son. This action, the steward believed, would remind the emperor that the Venerable Sire was a member of the working class, far beneath the status of the imperial throne. When Emperor Gaozu saw his father, broom in hand, he understood the point. The emperor then paid the steward 500 catties of gold and went to work finding a loophole around social customs.
In the end, the emperor allegedly came up with an interesting plan to continue expressing his devotion to his father. As Gaozu, himself, was the “Supreme Emperor,” he proclaimed that his father would henceforth be given the titular title of “Grand Supreme Emperor.” Of course, the rank of Grand Supreme Emperor granted no real responsibilities or authority, but it did give the Venerable Sire enough status that Emperor Gaozu’s visits no longer seemed improper.
The lords of China understood the message: the emperor’s father was a man who deserved respect. When the so-called Grand Supreme Emperor died in 197 BCE, several of the kings who served Emperor Gaozu attended the funeral.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Song Dynasty Painting of three men of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, [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.