In ancient Chinese history, people often died in unusual ways and because of odd circumstances, but the fate of King Wu Chen had a peculiarity that made it stand out from other downfalls during his age. According to Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), author of the Records of the Grand Historian, King Wu Chen lost his life because his sister behaved impolitely on a road.
Wu Chen lived in one of the most chaotic times of ancient Chinese history. In 209 BCE, a commoner named Chen She began a rebellion against the Qin Dynasty. After years of suffering under the Qin regime’s strict oppression, the Chinese people were immediately drawn to Chen She’s movement. Revolts popped up in numerous Chinese regions and Chen She was able to position himself as a hegemon, or arch-rebel, acting as the leader of the resistance against the Qin Dynasty. Wu Chen, the man mentioned at the start of the article, was one of Chen She’s early followers.
After earning the arch-rebel’s admiration and trust, Wu Chen received from Chen She an army of 3,000 men, plus some advisors, and was ordered to seize control of the Zhao region. The advisors served Wu Chen well, and they convinced him to try a policy of leniency to win over Zhao. By letting Qin officials keep their titles and status, Wu Chen was reportedly able to take over thirty cities by talking them into joining the rebel cause.
Wu Chen had several skilled and ambitious advisors with him, most notably Zhang Er and Chen Yu, who would both become kings at some point in the rebellion. As the advisors liked Wu Chen more than Chen She, they argued that Wu Chen should not give away land in Zhao to another man, but rather that he should keep it all for himself. After some thought, Wu Chen agreed with his advisors and proclaimed himself to be the king of Zhao. Chen She grudgingly recognized Wu Chen’s title, but still expected the upstart king to follow the orders of the rebellion’s high command.
The king of Zhao once again consulted with his advisors on what to do. They advised Wu Chen to ignore Chen She’s demands and to focus on expanding his kingdom, thereby helping himself while also aiding the rebellion. Agreeing with his advisors, Wu Chen sent out generals to seize control of the regions of Yan, Shangdang and Changshan.
The man in charge of taking Changshan was Li Liang, perhaps one of the Zhao king’s most competent generals. While the expedition to Yan embarrassingly ended in mutiny and Wu Chen being momentarily captured, Li Liang contrastingly subjugated the region of Changshan without much fuss or issue. Pleased with the general’s results, the freed Wu Chen sent Li Liang to capture another swath of territory, this time asking him to take Taiyuan. When Li Liang arrived at his location, he realized that Qin reinforcements had already secured the area, so he headed back to Zhao to get more troops. Despite there not being any major battles, the Qin forces somehow recognized Li Liang, possibly because of military service prior to the rebellion. Whatever the case, Li Liang soon received a letter from a Qin official, claiming that if the general switched sides in the war, he would be pardoned for his part in the rebellion and would receive a good position in the Qin regime.
According to Sima Qian, Li Liang was not swayed by what he read. He continued back toward Handan, the capital of Zhao, intending to strengthen his army for the Taiyuan campaign. Even so, the letter showed Li Liang that he had another option, even if the realization was only made subconsciously.
As Li Liang neared the city of Handan, he noticed a carriage, accompanied by 100 horsemen, that was heading up the road. As the carriage was flying the royal colors of Zhao, Li Liang thought that King Wu Chen was approaching. To show deference and respect, Li Liang and his officers dismounted from their horses and bowed by the side of the road as the carriage rolled past.
Little did Li Liang know that the king was not in the carriage. Actually, it was the king’s sister, who, according to Sima Qian, was still drunk from a drinking party that she had recently attended. Not recognizing the soldiers, or noticing the high status of the their commanding general, the king’s sister only sent one of her horsemen to acknowledge Li Liang with a generic statement of royal thanks. Li Liang took this gesture to be a personal insult and even worse, he believed he had been humiliated and disgraced in front of his army and officers.
The carriage incident prompted Li Liang to rebel against the kingdom of Zhao. Both the general’s staff and common soldiers apparently sympathized with their leader, so Li Liang’s army followed him into rebellion. Li Liang sent assassins after Wu Chen’s sister and then marched the rogue army against Handan, laying siege to the city while the king was still inside. He successfully captured Handan and executed King Wu Chen. After taking the capital, Li Liang attempted to confront another Zhao army, commanded by Chen Yu, but this time he was defeated. After his defeat, Li Liang fled and joined the Qin army.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A section from the Silk Princess painting from Dandan-oilik (Place of Houses with Ivory), a Buddhist sanctuary in Khotan; from Xinjiang, China, 7th-8th century AD. [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.