According to the ancient historian Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), the first emperor of the Han Dynasty felt that Heaven was guiding his destiny. The unlikely man who became the first emperor had reason to feel that higher powers were guiding his fate—his rise to power was truly remarkable.
The founder of the Han Dynasty was born around the middle of the third century BCE in the small city of Feng, which falls within the larger district of Pei. He was a peasant from an unremarkable lineage, although propaganda later proposed that he might have been fathered or blessed by a dragon. The man’s name was Liu Bang, but Sima Qian and other Han scholars respectfully referred to him as Liu Ji, as they thought using his actual name was acting too familiar and therefore taboo.
When he reached adulthood, Liu Bang refused to join his parents in their simple lifestyle. Instead, he pursued a career as a government official under the Qin Dynasty. He started as the head of small villages in the vicinity of Pei, but when revolts began to erupt throughout China in 209 BCE, Liu Bang seized the opportunity and joined the rebels. When the rebellion spread to Pei, the local Qin magistrate was killed. With a power vacuum and an army laid before him, Liu Bang rallied local support and proclaimed himself to be the Governor of Pei.
Liu Bang coordinated with other rebellious leaders to topple the Qin Dynasty. The future emperor personally entered the Qin heartland in 207 BCE and accepted the surrender of the last Qin Dynasty ruler, Ziying. Nevertheless, Liu Bang was not the rebellion’s top dog—with the fall of the previous dynasty, all of the rebel leaders began to fight amongst themselves. The most likely contender to reunite China was Xiang Yu, the brilliant military leader who was the commander-in-chief of the various rebel forces. Over a span of years, the rebel leaders divided into the factions of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Although Xiang Yu was the better military strategist, Liu Bang was the more talented diplomat and administrator. In 202 BCE, Liu Bang and his allies finally defeated the military of Xiang Yu, prompting the fallen leader to commit suicide. On February 28, 202 BCE, Liu Bang assumed the title of Supreme Emperor and was thereafter referred to by ancient historians as Emperor Gaozu.
Although he had attained the highest power, Emperor Gaozu was plagued by rebellions and plots. Between 197-196 BCE, an uprising was organized by Qing Bu, the king of Huaiyin. By 195 BCE, Qing Bu’s rebellion was still ongoing. Although Emperor Gaozu had initially responded to the revolt by personally leading a force to crush the rebels, he decided to hand over control to his generals in 195 BCE and take a tour of Pei before returning to his capital at Chang’an. He probably decided to leave the campaign early because of a wound he received while fighting Qing Bu’s forces. According to Sima Qian, Emperor Gaozu had been hit by a stray arrow during one of the battles against the rebels. The wound apparently was healing fine while the emperor was in Pei, as he was lively enough to sing and feast with the locals, but by the time he returned to the capital, Emperor Gaozu had fallen severely ill.
Concerned about the emperor’s health, the empress summoned the most talented physician available to heal the ailing ruler. After evaluating his patient, the doctor apparently proclaimed that the emperor could indeed be cured. At this point, according to Sima Qian, the emperor looked back over his great fortune in life and decided to leave his fate not to a doctor, but to Heaven, which had elevated him from a lowly peasant to become Supreme Emperor of China. Therefore, the emperor paid the doctor, but refused to undergo any treatments. Unfortunately, Heaven decided that it was Emperor Gaozu’s time to die—the emperor succumbed to his wound on June 1, 195 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Medieval depiction of a Ming Emperor, [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.