Emperor Gaozu was said to have had eight legitimate sons—of these, Liu Ying, Gaozu’s child with Empress Lü, was named heir apparent, while the rest of the sons (from different consorts of the emperor) were appointed as kings of various regions in the empire. Perhaps, Emperor Gaozu had hoped that his sons would all have prosperous lives. Little did he know, however, that after his death in 195 BCE, political turmoil between Emperor Gaozu’s Liu family and the Lü clan of the empress would directly or indirectly lead to the early deaths of half his sons.
Liu You was one of the ill-fated sons fathered by Emperor Gaozu. At the time of the emperor’s death, Liu You was the king of Huaiyang. The following year, however, he was transferred by Empress Dowager Lü to rule the kingdom of Zhao, which had been left leaderless after the murder of Liu Ruyi, one of Liu You’s royal half-brothers. Along with the throne, Empress Dowager Lü also sent Liu You a woman from the Lü clan to be his wife. Although Liu You and his new wife did not get along, the king’s reign in Zhao was calm enough to keep his name out of the historical records for over a decade.
Outside of Zhao, however, the rift between the Liu and Lü families was becoming increasingly wide. On September 26, 188 BCE, Emperor Hui (formerly the heir apparent Liu Ying) died at the young age of twenty-three after allegedly falling fatally ill from heavy drinking and other bad habits. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), proposed that the young emperor turned to these unhealthy vices because of depression and mental strain caused by the empress dowager. In any case, after Hui’s death, Empress Dowager Lü retained control of the empire by placing two subsequent young puppet emperors on the imperial throne. Then, secure at the head of government, she began to shift the power structure of China by putting an increasing number of Lü family members in powerful positions as generals, marquises and kings.
King Liu You of Zhao returned to the historical record in 181 BCE. By this point, he and his Lü family bride had a complete falling out. The king apparently favored a concubine over his wife, and the Lü woman was so infuriated by this that she returned to the Han Dynasty’s capital of Chang’an, where she complained about her husband to the matriarch of the Lü family, the empress dowager. In particular, the scorned wife spread a rumor that Liu You, like many of the Liu family nobles, was grumbling about the Lü clan’s recent rise to power. She allegedly also told the empress dowager that the king of Zhao was considering an attack on the new Lü nobles at some point in the future. This news was too much for the empress dowager to let go unanswered.
In early 181 BCE, Empress Dowager Lü summoned Liu You to the city of Chang’an. As soon as the king arrived in the city and entered his state residence there, the building was surrounded by the empress dowager’s soldiers and besieged. For several weeks, the empress dowager refused to allow any provisions to be brought to the king. Sima Qian even claimed that several officials were arrested while trying to smuggle supplies to Liu You. During his days of worsening hunger and thirst, the king was said to have spent his time writing poetry about the abuses of the Lü family and the peril facing his own Liu clan. After wasting away inside his besieged residence, King Liu You died from lack of food and water on February 21, 181 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Ancient Chinese exhibit in the Sichuan University Museum (四川大学博物馆) – Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Photography was permitted in the museum without restriction. [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.