Zhang Ao was the son of Zhang Er, a politician and general who helped Emperor Gaozu (King of Han c. 206 BCE, emperor r. 202-195 BCE) seize power after the fall of the Qin Dynasty. For his role in Emperor Gaozu’s rise to power, Zhang Er was rewarded with the crown to the kingdom of Zhao, which, of course, was still subservient to the Han emperor. When Zhang Er died in 202 BCE, his son, Zhang Ao, succeeded to the throne of Zhao. His power and prominence increased even further when he married Princess Yuan of Lu, the daughter of Emperor Gaozu and Empress Lü.
Zhang Ao’s relationship with his powerful father-in-law, however, was in no way ideal. Emperor Gaozu did not seem to particularly like the man that his little girl had chosen to spend her life with, so the emperor apparently went out of his way to pick on the king of Zhao. The Han historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), wrote that Emperor Gaozu would rudely laze about in the palace of Zhao, publicly showing his disapproval and indifference toward his son-in-law. King Zhang Ao, for his part, tried to remain as humble as possible, apparently even going to the extent of dismissing his servants and personally serving meals to the emperor.
The sight was so pitiful that even the ministers and generals of Zhao sympathized with their abused king. According to Sima Qian, a group of around ten powerful men, led by Prime Minister Guan Gao, met with Zhang Ao and offered to support the king if he wished to rebel. They also proclaimed that they were willing to hire an assassin to send after the emperor. Sima Qian alleged that Zhang Ao chastised the conspirators and sent them away without granting his blessing, but somehow the conspiracy reached the ears of Emperor Gaozu and the emperor ordered Zhang Ao and his advisors to be arrested.
Sima Qian hinted that many of the Zhao conspirators committed suicide, but at least Zhang Ao and Guan Gao were captured alive. When their king was arrested, several members of the court of Zhao who were not a part of the conspiracy decided to travel to the capital in Chang’an with their heads shaved and dressed like slaves, so that they could show support for their imprisoned liege.
Guan Gao apparently testified that Zhang Ao was innocent, saying that while the conspirators had indeed plotted against the emperor’s life, the king of Zhao had vehemently disapproved of the plan. The Prime Minister of Zhao’s speech convinced the interrogators and the emperor, resulting in the release of Zhang Ao. For his truthfulness, Emperor Gaozu allegedly also pardoned Gauan Gao, yet when the prime minister received confirmation that Zhang Ao had been freed, he committed suicide.
Although Zhang Ao did not face any serious punishment, he was apparently removed from the throne of Zhao. Sill, the husband of the emperor’s daughter could not be left landless. As such, after his release from jail, Zhang Ao was quickly named as the Marquis of Xuanping and his descendants with Princess Yuan became the Kings of Lu.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (A Chinese garden gathering painted by Xie Huan, circa 1437, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.