A Dragon Sighting Allegedly Ended The Political Career Of A Han Dynasty Chancellor


Zhang Cang was one of the longest serving officials in the early years of the Han Dynasty. He had joined the founder of the dynasty, Liu Bang, during the massive rebellion against the Qin regime, which took place from 209-206 BCE. While Liu Bang was fighting against rival rebels to become the new emperor, a process that took place between 206-202 BCE, he gave Zhang Cang various government positions in his growing realm, such as governor and prime minister. There were, however, even greater appointments in store for Zhang Cang in the coming years. It was after Liu Bang secured the title of Supreme Emperor, thereafter becoming known as Emperor Gaozu, that Zhang Cang would really start to ascend through the Han Dynasty social ladder.

Zhang Cang was granted the title of marquis of Beiping in 201 BCE and a few years later, in 196 BCE, he was also named as the marquis of Huainan. Zhang Cang also became the master of calculation, and, during the reign of Gaozu’s successor, Emperor Hui, he was promoted to the lofty government position of imperial secretary in 193 BCE. He also survived the deadly years of palace intrigue under Empress Dowager Lü (a span of time from 195-180 BCE) to be appointed as chancellor by Emperor Wen in 177 BCE. In short, Zhang Cang was a long-serving government official who had been respected by several generations of emperors. While many other powerful members of the Han court had been removed from power, exiled or executed, Chancellor Zhang had instead achieved decades of steady success. He had such job security that only an otherworldly force could dislodge him from his good fortune. Unfortunately for Zhang Cang, that is exactly what reportedly happened.

One of Zhang Cang’s jobs was to determine how the Han Dynasty aligned with the universe. With this in mind, he had to make findings such as which element the Han Dynasty corresponded to and which color should be honored by the new line of emperors. After studying these matters, Zhang Cang concluded that the Han Dynasty was aligned with the element of water and that the color black should be revered.

In the later part of the chancellor’s career, still during the reign of Emperor Wen, a scholar from the region of Lu published a rebuke against Zhang Cang’s findings in the matter of the Han Dynasty’s element. The scholar, a certain Gongsun Cheng, stated that the Han Dynasty did not correspond to water, but instead was more in line with earth. When Emperor Wen heard of this opposing view, he asked Zhang Cang to look into the matter. Chancellor Zhang, of course, humored the emperor, but quickly denounced Gongsun Chen’s findings to be erroneous and false.

Gongsun Chen, however, had one last finding to publish. He declared that, in proving the validity of his views, he could predict that a dragon would soon be spotted in China. He even specifically proposed that the color of the dragon would be yellow. When the claims reached the capital city, Zhang Cang disregarded these predictions just as he had the others.

Not long after the publication of these statements, Zhang Cang received terrible news. A dragon had reportedly been seen flying above Chenji and, as Gongsun Chen had predicted, it was said to have been yellow in color. When this rumor reached Emperor Wen, he immediately invited Gongsun Chen to join the court and appointed him as a member of the advisory erudite counsel. Once Gongsun Chen entered the government, he began to revise Zhang Cang’s earlier findings, adjusting the calendar and regulations, but doing so with the element of earth as his foundation, instead of water.

The dragon incident dealt an irreparable blow to Zhang Cang’s influence. After Gongsun Chen’s arrival at court, Chancellor Zhang began to distance himself from government life and he finally retired completely around 162 BCE. Even after his departure from government, however, Zhang Cang continued to have good fortune. He spent his peaceful retirement on his estates in the company of hundreds of concubines. He supposedly lived to be over a hundred years old and lost all of his teeth by the end of his life, requiring him to get most of his nutrition from milk. The long-lived marquis breathed his last in 152 BCE, during the reign of Emperor Jing.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Recreation of a Qing dynasty flag (1889-1912), 1889. Details based on Flags of maritime nations. United States. Navy Dept. Bureau of Equipment 1899, [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.

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