Peng Yue—The Ancient Chinese Swamp Bandit Who Became A King And Ended Up In A Pickle Jar

 

Humble Beginnings

Few people have had or will have as many dramatic twists and turns in their life as Peng Yue, a man who lived in China around the turn of the 3rd and 2nd century BCE. Sima Qian (r. 145-90 BCE), the author of the Records of the Grand Historian, traced the place of Peng Yue’s birth to a region called Changyi. Not much is known about his early years, but by the time Peng Yue reached adulthood, he somehow relocated to the swamps of Juye, where a small troop of bandits pressured him to be their leader. Peng Yue, however, seemed to dislike leadership at that point in his life, and he spent most of his time fishing.

In the inaugural year of the Second Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (209 BCE), a commoner named Chen She began a rebellion in Chu, prompting numerous other disgruntled men throughout China to muster their own rebel armies. Chen She managed to place himself as a hegemon, or commander-in-chief, in charge of the loosely allied rebel forces, and his coalition proved to be more than a match for the Qin army. Peng Yue was still living in a swamp with his merry band of bandits at this momentous time, and the news sent thrills of excitement through the men living in his outlaw community. Still considering Peng Yue to be their leader, the bandits (maybe 100 in number) begged their reluctant commander to join the rebel cause. Peng Yue, however, refused their offer, claiming he would rather watch and wait as the powerful dragons fought among themselves.

It took over a year before Peng Yue was convinced to turn his band of robbers into a rebel army. When his mind was made up, Peng Yue called together his followers and told them that if they wanted to be an army they needed to start acting like soldiers. First of all, he needed to know if his troops could show discipline and follow commands. So, according to Sima Qian, he told the bandits that they would have a meeting at dawn in order to discuss the rebellion. Almost as an afterthought, Peng Yue added that anyone late to the meeting would be executed.

Of course, many of the bandits in the swamp did not believe the words of their unassuming leader, thinking that the comment was some sort of joke. When dawn arrived, ten men did not show up at the appointed meeting. Disappointed, Peng Yue watched as these tardy people trickled into the gathering, arriving at different hours, with the latest man joining the group as late as noon.

When the final latecomer arrived, Peng Yue mused aloud that he did not want to execute 10% of his small army, so he would have to make do with the person who had shown up last. At first, the bandits were still joking among themselves and complementing their leader on his newfound commanding tone, but their laughter and lightheartedness began to dim as Peng Yue purposefully approached the last straggler who had arrived at the meeting. Under the astonished gaze of his troops, Peng Yue dragged the unfortunate man to the front of the group and cut off his head. With that, the nonchalant leader of the swamp bandits was gone and a powerful rebel warlord was born.

War

With his 99 bandits in tow, Peng Yue started roaming the countryside, gathering recruits for his army as he traveled. Sima Qian was unspecific about when exactly Peng Yue joined the rebellion, but it could have been as late as after the deaths of the first two rebel hegemons, Chen She and Xiang Liang, who both died around 208 BCE. Still, Peng Yue had a stoke of luck when one of the more stable rebel leaders, Liu Bang (soon to be Emperor Gaozu), wandered into the region, looking to attack Changyi. Peng Yue, who had gathered a reported 1,000 soldiers by this point, aligned his troops with Liu Bang and aided in the attack on his birthplace. This first military campaign for the swamp warlord, however, was not an ideal debut experience—Changyi was stubborn in its defense and Liu Bang decided to continue his march to find a weaker target. Instead of following Liu Bang, Peng Yue decided to return to the lands surrounding his swamp at Juye in order to recruit more fighters.

In 206 BCE, the Qin Dynasty was toppled and the third hegemon of the rebel forces, Xiang Yu, distributed kingships to the most distinguished rebellion leaders. Sima Qian wrote that Xiang Yu named himself the Dictator King of Western Chu and crowned Liu Bang as the King of Han. Although Xiang Yu created or affirmed at least seventeen other kingdoms, Peng Yue was not given a noble title. Yet, not everyone respected Xiang Yu’s new divisions of land. Rebel kings quickly began fighting other rebel kings and a civil war for control over the new kingdoms erupted between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang. Peng Yue at the time had an estimated 10,000 soldiers at his command, but he had no land or taxes with which to sustain his army. Therefore, when Liu Bang offered Peng Yue a position as a general in the Han military, the swamp warlord accepted.

It was during the war between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang that Peng Yue really showed his military talents. Peng Yue’s first task was to lead an attack against the region of Chu. An army from Chu, led by a certain Lord Jue of Xiao, came out to confront the Han forces, but Peng Yue won a clear victory. By early 205 BCE, Liu Bang had sent other generals to spearhead the invasion of Chu, so Peng Yue moved his forces (apparently 30,000 in number) to reinforce his liege at Waihuang. Liu Bang was evidently pleased with Peng Yue’s achievements, for he promoted the man to the position of a regional prime minister and gave him authority to lead a campaign against Wei and Liang.

Peng Yue’s progress in Liang was hampered by military defeats sustained by Liu Bang’s own forces. The main Han army suffered a catastrophic defeat at Pengcheng (c. 205 BCE), resulting in so many casualties that the piles of bodies allegedly clogged a nearby river. Yet, Liu Bang had an admirable knack for surviving horrible defeats and rebuilding his troops. Even so, Liu Bang’s defeat was a great annoyance for Peng Yue. The disaster at Pengcheng, and the scattering of Liu Bang’s army, caused Peng Yue to lose most of his progress in Liang, so he took his band of soldiers and set up a headquarters in the region of Heshang. From there, the general carried out numerous guerilla operations against Xiang Yu’s loyalists in Liang.

Peng Yue apparently kept up his guerrilla tactics for much of 204 BCE, but he eventually resumed his conventional military campaign. In 203 BCE, he reportedly seized seventeen cities in the region of Suiyang and Waihuang. This prompted Xiang Yu to personally lead a force to recapture the lost cities. Xiang Yu did, indeed, retake the territory, but he could not pin down Peng Yue, who had withdrawn to the region of Changyi and captured over twenty more cities for the Han faction.

In 202 BCE, Liu Bang began pursuing the weakening forces of Xiang Yu, and he wanted his scattered generals to join the chase. Peng Yue at first ignored the requests for him to join the main Han forces, but when Liu Bang promised that Peng Yue would be crowned as the king of Liang, the warlord finally budged and regrouped with his liege. He arrived just in time to participate in the decisive Battle of Gaixia (202 BCE), in which the Han forces finally defeated and killed Xiang Yu. Not long after the battle, Liu Bang assumed the title of Supreme Emperor and was posthumously given the title of Emperor Gaozu. As promised, Peng Yue, the former bandit from the swamps, was crowned as the king of Liang.

Fall of a King

Peng Yue seemed to have a fairly good relationship with Emperor Gaozu, at least at the beginning. He traveled to see the emperor at the capital several times and even attended the funeral of the emperor’s father. Nevertheless, relationships between ancient emperors and their subservient kings were fickle.

The beginning of the end came in 197 BCE, when a man named Chen Xi started a rebellion in the region of Dai. As the reigning king of Liang, Peng Yue was expected to raise his troops and lead them to rendezvous with the emperor during the campaign to crush the rebellion. Yet, for whatever reason, Peng Yue decided to stay in his kingdom and instead sent one of his generals to bring the troops of Liang to the emperor. He pleaded illness as the cause of his staying behind, but the emperor was not pleased and sent an envoy to verbally reprimand the king. This caused some fear in Peng Yue, and the generals of Liang apparently began whispering among themselves that maybe it was time for their own rebellion. According to Sima Qian, Peng Yue did not listen to any of the treacherous advice that he received. Even so, there was a palpable atmosphere of worry in the kingdom of Liang.

According to Sima Qian’s portrayal of events, Peng Yue somehow became enraged at his master of carriage and threatened to execute the unnamed man. In fear of his life, the master of carriage fled to the emperor and gave a report of the paranoia and plotting that was going on in Liang. Emperor Gaozu, who had taken a disliking to Peng Yue ever since his failure to appear during the Chen Xi rebellion, quickly sent troops to arrest the suspected king. Emperor Gaozu found enough evidence against Peng Yue to have the man stripped of all his noble titles, but he allowed him to live in exile in the region of Shu.

While traveling westward toward his place of exile, Peng Yue happened to run into Empress Lü, who was traveling from the capital, Chang’an, to the city of Luoyang. She apparently stopped and talked with Peng Yue, and he begged her to ask the emperor to let him spend the rest of his days in the land of his birth, Changyi. Emperess Lü allegedly agreed to the proposal and allowed Peng Yue to accompany her on her way to Luoyang. According to Sima Qian, the cold and calculating empress then forged evidence implicating Peng Yue in another plot and sent the report to the emperor. Along with the evidence, she also gave advice suggesting that executing Peng Yue was much safer than letting him go free—after all, he had started his career as a simple bandit in a swamp. Who was to say he could not begin again while in exile? Whatever the truth may be, Peng Yue was arrested once more (in 196 BCE) and this time he was executed, along with three generations of his relatives.

The story of Peng Yue, however, did not end with execution. Sima Qian also wrote that Peng Yue’s flesh was pickled, jarred, and mailed to other nobles of questionable loyalty, serving as a warning from the emperor. The arrival of one those grisly containers was allegedly one of the reasons that prompted Qing Bu, another one of the old rebels-turned-kings, to launch an unsuccessful rebellion against Emperor Gaozu in late 196 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Two terracotta soldier miniatures photographed by Historian’s Hut Staff, on top of a Public Domain image of the Terracotta Army via maxpixel.net).

Sources:

  • Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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