According to Han Dynasty tradition, the first emperor of that dynasty, Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195 BCE), wanted the majority of the kingdoms in China to remain firmly in the hands of the Liu imperial family. Therefore, by the end of Gaozu’s reign, the emperor’s sons, brothers and nephews ruled most of the empire’s kingdoms. The emperor was apparently so concerned about the rise of a rival family that he called his most important officials together in a meeting and had them swear to depose any new kings who were not from the Liu family.
The ministers and generals who were called forth to make this pledge were allegedly faced by an odd ceremony. According to the account of Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the emperor brought a white horse to his meeting with these courtiers. In front of the crowd, the emperor supposedly sacrificed the white horse and smeared some of the animal’s blood on the lips of his ministers. Then, with their lips reddened, the important officials made their pledge to depose any new king that was not from the Liu family.
In 180 BCE, the Liu nobles and other loyal vassals did, indeed, rise against a rival family. Their rival was the Lü family, the clan to which Emperor Gaozu’s wife belonged. From the time of Gaozu’s death in 195, to the time of her own death in 180 BCE, Empress Lü had feverishly worked in hopes of making her Lü clan equal or greater than her husband’s Liu family—she placed numerous members of the Lü family in positions as generals, marquises and kings. Yet, when the empress dowager died in 180 BCE, the Liu nobility and their followers quickly raised their forces, seized the capital city, and launched a systematic extermination of the whole Lü clan. In the end, it is possible that the story about the white horse could have simply been propaganda produced by the Liu family to justify their massacre of the encroaching Lü.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Marengo, painted by James Ward (1769–1859), [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.