Lu Wan—A Childhood Friend Of Emperor Gaozu Who Abandoned The Han Dynasty And Became A Nomadic Ruler


Lu Wan hailed from the village of Feng, in the region of Peixian (modern Jiangsu province), near the eastern end of central China. Lu Wan’s father was a close friend of the so-called Venerable Sire—the name given to the father of Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Han Dynasty. The friendship between the two fathers passed on to their sons, with Gaozu and Lu Wan becoming inseparable friends. Legend even claimed that the two boys were born on the same day, something that the villagers thought was significant.

Although Gaozu (known then as Liu Bang) was destined to become an emperor and Lu Wan a nobleman, the two began their lives as peasants. The friends began their upward mobility during the reign of the Qin Dynasty (222-206 BCE). The pair studied together and Gaozu succeeded in qualifying for a position as a village official. Lu Wan presumably did not fair as well as his friend in the examination, for he did not seem to receive a local government post and he instead followed Gaozu wherever the future emperor went. Gaozu eventually moved to Pei, where he married the daughter of Master Lü, a friend of the region’s magistrate. It was there that Gaozu and Lu Wan would begin their great rise to power.

In 209 BCE, rebellions erupted against the Qin Dynasty throughout China, and the people of Pei shared the rebellious spirit. The magistrate of Pei was unfortunately indecisive on whether to join the rebellion or to stay loyal to Qin, and his indecision ultimately led to his execution at the hands of local rebels and the elders of Pei. Gaozu emerged as the leader of the Pei rebels, and he assumed the title of Governor of Pei. Lu Wan was one of his first followers.

Although Lu Wan never showed as much promise as many of Gaozu’s other companions, the future emperor cherished the man’s long friendship. When Gaozu became the King of Han in 206 BCE, after the Qin Dynasty was officially toppled by the coalition of rebel leaders, he gave Lu Wan various positions in his regime, such as that of general and grand commandant. He also elevated Lu Wan to the nobility by naming him the marquis of Chang’an.

Although the Qin Dynasty was defeated in 206 BCE, peace was not yet reached. The new rebels-turned-kings feuded among themselves, with two main rulers dominating the rest—Gaozu, king of Han, and Xiang Yu, king of Chu. The Han forces finally defeated and killed Xiang Yu in 202 BCE, at the battle of Gaixia. With all of the other kings either subjugated or killed, Gaozu assumed the title of Supreme Emperor.

After becoming emperor of the newly formed Han Dynasty, Gaozu made Lu Wan the king of Yan. The promotion was more for friendship and loyalty than for strategic or military skill, as Lu Wan had not gained much of a reputation for martial skill during the rebellion or civil war. Lu Wan’s lack of military skill would prove problematic in his position as King of Yan, as it was one of the northern kingdoms more prone to attacks by the nomadic Xiongnu people.

The friendship between Gaozu and Lu Wan was strong, but not unbreakable. The Han era historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), alleged that when the region of Dai rebelled (c. 197-195), Lu Wan conspired with the rebels, who were adjacent to his own realm, and also tried to broker peace between his kingdom and the Xiongnu. These accusations found their way to the emperor’s ear in 195 BCE, after a captured rebellion leader confessed to seeing one of Lu Wan’s associates meeting with important people in a rebel camp. Emperor Gaozu immediately summoned his childhood friend to explain these charges, but the accused pleaded illness and refused to travel. Lu Wan’s behavior after the summons did not inspire confidence in his innocence—he became reclusive, refusing to leave his capital city, and his advisors and associates supposedly scattered into hiding. When Lu Wan continued to refuse the emperor’s summons, Gaozu eventually sent an army to invade Yan and arrest the suspicious king.

Upon hearing of the approaching Han army, Lu Wan gathered his family and headed to a position near the Great Wall with several thousand loyal cavalrymen. Sima Qian wrote that Lu Wan attempted to repair his relationship with the emperor, sending messengers with offers of apologies and appeals for forgiveness. Before Gaozu could reach a decision on what to do with his old friend, the emperor died on June 1, 195 BCE, of a bad arrow wound or a fatal illness. When Lu Wan heard that the emperor was dead, he chose not to try his luck with the widowed Empress Lü, and he passed beyond the Great Wall to seek shelter among the Xiongnu.

The Xiongnu apparently treated Lu Wan well. Sima Qian reported that they humored his status as a king, supposedly calling him King Lu, and they let him start a new life on the eastern edge of their territory. Despite his good fortune of being able to escape the wrath of the angered imperials, Lu Wan was said to have been constantly homesick, and he died not long after joining the Xiongnu.

Life among the Xiongnu was not enjoyable for many of the family members that Lu Wan had dragged north. His wife and many of his children returned to Han territory just before the death of Empress Lü in 180 BCE. Some of his sons, however, apparently decided to stay behind and try their luck with the Xiongnu—Lu Wan’s grandson, Tuozhi, returned to the Han lands as late as 144 BCE, and he exchanged his title as King of the Eastern Barbarians for a position as the marquis of Yagu.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (14th Century painting of Mongol cavalrymen by Sayf al-Vâhidî, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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