In 221 BCE, King Zheng of Qin completed his family’s multigenerational conquest of China and became the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. Yet, his dynasty had difficulty adapting to peace. Qin’s advantages in times of war—eradication of feudalism, extreme autocratic rule, and the promotion of legalism over religion or moral philosophy—quickly became irksome to the Chinese people when there was no more war to distract the mind. In the end, it was primarily the First Emperor’s fearsome reputation that kept the unhappy population subdued. As a result, in 209 BCE, only one year after the emperor’s death, widespread rebellions sprung up throughout the empire in a mass movement to oust the Qin Dynasty. The rebels succeeded in seizing the Qin capital city by 207 BCE, and the last monarch of the Qin Dynasty (who had demoted himself to the rank of king) was executed by 206 BCE.
The rebellion against the Qin Dynasty was a time of incredible social mobility. It was an age when former nobles and generals were deposed or executed while peasants and swamp bandits became the new generation of kings. Although the Qin emperors had been overthrown and China had been shattered back into a patchwork of kingdoms, few of the new kings could forget the idea of imperial rule. The new kingdoms began to fight amongst themselves, jostling for power in the new order. Eventually, two of the kings—Liu Bang in Han and Xiang Yu in Chu—began to dominate post-Qin China, forcing the other kingdoms to choose a side in an inevitable civil war.
A certain man named Lord Ding chose to fight on the side of Xiang Yu. To the people living in that age, without the benefit of hindsight, Xiang Yu would have, indeed, seemed like a great choice. He had been the commander-in-chief of the rebel forces, and he was the one who granted or affirmed the kingships of the other rebels-turned-monarchs. He was even the one who placed Liu Bang on the throne of Han in 206 BCE. In addition, Xiang Yu was a brilliant military strategist and a warrior with a fearsome reputation. He was also reportedly much more polite and respectful than Liu Bang. Nevertheless, Liu Bang had a clear advantage in one important aspect of rule. Whereas Xiang Yu liked to do everything himself, Liu Bang was adept at recruiting wise advisors and deputizing his followers to accomplish important tasks.
From 205-202 BCE, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu wrestled for supremacy in China. During these years, the king of Han was battered by many defeats as a result of Xiang Yu’s military prowess. In 205 BCE, Liu Bang suffered what was perhaps his most devastating loss, in a battle near Pengcheng, which took place along the Sui River. After the battle, there were so many Han dead in the river that the water reportedly stopped flowing. In the aftermath of the battle, Liu Bang’s family was also captured.
At the time of this catastrophic battle, Lord Ding was an officer in Xiang Yu’s army. He led his force in pursuit of the remnants of Liu Bang’s force, which was retreating back to the west. He reportedly intercepted the fleeing king, or, at least, had the ability to block Liu Bang’s escape. Yet, when he had the defeated king in his grasp, Lord Ding had a change of heart—he was convinced that Liu Bang was a worthy man, so Lord Ding decided to withdraw back to Xiang Yu and allowed the king of Han to slip away and rebuild.
Years later, after Xiang Yu was killed at the decisive Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, Lord Ding went to see the man he had spared at Pengcheng. By then, King Liu Bang had become Supreme Emperor and would later be given the posthumous name of Emperor Gaozu, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. If Lord Ding had been imagining a warm reception with rewards and titles for his past act of mercy, then he must have been quickly disappointed.
Perhaps, if Lord Ding had defected to Liu Bang’s side while the civil war was still ongoing, his fate would have been kinder. Yet, as it was, Emperor Gaozu was now the monarch of a new imperial regime and he had important precedents to set. As such, the emperor was faced with a dilemma when Lord Ding arrived. By rewarding the man, he would in effect be applauding the disloyalty of a vassal to his liege. As a new emperor, Gaozu needed to stamp out any hint of disloyalty or insubordination, even if it had been directed at his old rival, Xiang Yu. Therefore, Emperor Gaozu reportedly had Lord Ding arrested and beheaded as an example of what happens to disloyal nobles.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Fresco of two men from a Han dynasty tomb in Sian, Shensi. Housed in the Xi’an University of Technology. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.