The Morbid Loyalty of King Tian Heng’s Followers


Tian Heng was one of many unlucky kings of ancient Qi. His family had successfully rebelled against the Qin Dynasty during the widespread rebellions of 209 BCE, and they had managed to stake their claim to the region of Qi even though the powerful hegemon of the rebel forces, Xiang Yu, tried to take the kingdom away from the Tian clan and hand it over to another prominent rebel.

In the struggle to keep Qi independent, Tian Heng lost several kinsmen. King Tian Rong, the first Tian king of Qi, was defeated by Xiang Yu in a battle at Chengyang around 205 BCE. Power then passed to Tian Guang, but his land was quickly invaded by the Kingdom of Han in 204 BCE. King Tian Guang was captured and executed by the general, Han Xin, and Han forces consequently occupied the kingdom of Qi during 203 BCE. Tian Heng assumed power after the fall of his kinsmen and tried to push the Han forces out of Qi. Nevertheless, he was defeated by a Han Army at Yingxia and was forced to flee from his kingdom.

Tian Heng received shelter from Peng Yue, another rebel warlord who was trying to keep his claim to Liang intact during the civil war between the king of Han (future Emperor Gaozu) and the king of Chu (Xiang Yu). When Tian Heng learned that the forces of Han had defeated and killed Xiang Yu in the battle of Gaixia (202 BCE), he fled to an island off the coast of Peng Yue’s domain, as he feared that Emperor Gaozu would label him an enemy of the state. Just over 500 loyal followers reportedly journeyed with Tian Heng to stay with him on his island refuge.

According to the Han historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Emperor Gaozu eventually sent a messenger with a pardon to the island, clearing the refugee king of any wartime transgressions. Tian Heng did not believe the pardon—during his heyday, he had once participated in the boiling alive of a Han diplomat—and he refused to leave the island. When Emperor Gaozu heard of Tian Heng’s reservations, he sent the messenger back to the island with even more incentives to lure the king out of hiding. Tian Heng was told that the emperor’s pardon was genuine and that he could expect to be granted the noble title of marquis. The messenger also hinted that the Emperor might even have been willing to restore Tian Heng as king of Qi.

The messenger finally coaxed Tian Heng to leave the island refuge, but the king of Qi had no intention of acknowledging Emperor Gaozu as his ruler. Accompanied by two loyal followers, Tian Heng traveled by carriage to meet the emperor at Luoyang. He halted his carriage, however, when he was still a short distance away from the city. As the story goes, Tian Heng pulled his two followers aside and instructed them to bring his head to the emperor. After giving them their orders, the fallen king of Qi proceeded to cut his own throat.

After the deed was done, the two followers finished the job of removing Tian Heng’s head and brought the macabre trophy to Emperor Gaozu. The emperor, for his part, was apparently moved by Tian Heng’s final actions. The two followers who delivered the head were promoted to the rank of colonel in the Han Army. Furthermore, Emperor Gaozu tasked 2,000 soldiers with constructing a kingly burial mound for Tian Heng. The two followers who had brought the head watched as their king was entombed, and, once the funeral was complete, they allegedly dug two holes in the side of the mound. When the holes were complete, the followers supposedly killed themselves so as to stay with their leader.

Later on, Emperor Gaozu sent another envoy to Tian Heng’s island, thinking that if the rest of the followers were like the two who had brought the head, then the island would be a treasure trove of worthy men. Unfortunately, Emperor Gaozu had correctly predicted that the men on the island would have the same resolve as the two that had accompanied Tian Heng. When the emperor’s envoy arrived on the island, he allegedly discovered that news of Tian Heng’s death had already reached the island and that all of the 500 refugees living there had committed suicide.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image from “An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China,” c. 1797, [Public Domain] via Flickr and Creative Commons).


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

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