The Bizarre Relationship Between Emperor Gaozu And Confucian Scholars


During the short reign of the Qin Dynasty (c. 221-206 BCE), the philosophy of Confucius was pushed to the wayside in preference of legalism. Yet, when Emperor Gaozu became Supreme Emperor of China in 202 BCE, founding the Han Dynasty out of the ashes of the fallen Qin Empire, Confucianism was brought back to prominence. Nevertheless, although Emperor Gaozu ultimately reinstituted Confucianism as a central philosophy to his government, his relationship with the Confucian scholars in his court was surprisingly less than cordial.

Sima Qian, a court historian for the Han Dynasty who lived around 145-90 BCE, wrote that Emperor Gaozu, especially in his early years, despised Confucian scholars—the emperor did not like their uniforms, he loathed their lecturing tone, and he always took every oportunity to criticize the scholars in public. Worst of all, Emperor Gaozu supposedly had the horrible habit of snatching the hats off the heads of Confucian scholars and then urinating into the garments. According to Sima Qian, this was not a one-time thing for the emperor; for a long period of his life, the emperor allegedly urinated in the hat of any Confucian that came within his arms’ reach.

Nevertheless, during his bid to seize power and his reign as emperor, Gaozu gradually had a change of heart toward Confucianism, or at least toward specific followers of the philosophy. After achieving his title of emperor, Gaozu appointed a man named Shusun Tong, a Confucian scholar, to the court erudites and bequeathed him a noble rank as lord of Jisi. By 198 BCE, Shusun Tong had gained so much favor with the emperor that he was named Master of Ritual and Grand Tutor to the heir, the future Emperor Hui. Shusun Tong had a major impact during his role as Master of Ritual for Emperors Gaozu and Hui, as he organized the ceremonial rules, procedures and funerary rites for the Han Dynasty and did so based on his Confucian philosophy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Ancient painting from inside the tomb of Princess Yongtai, Xian, China, [Public Domain] via


  • 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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