Liu Bang was a low-level official who rebelled against the Qin Dynasty to become king of Han (r.206-202 BCE) and ultimately the first emperor of the Han Dynasty (r. 202-195 BCE), thereafter gaining the name of Emperor Gaozu. As he had seen firsthand just how unstable an emperor’s position could be, Gaozu decided to entrust most of his empire’s noble feudal positions to members of his Liu family. As such, by the time of the emperor’s death in 195 BCE, only a single kingdom of China was ruled by a king who was unrelated to the imperial family.
Although Gaozu gave out kingdoms and other royal titles to his brothers, his sons, and his cousins, as well as to the descendants of all those listed above, the emperor oddly refused to hand out any title whatsoever to a certain unlucky nephew. His name was Liu Xin and he was the son of Gaozu’s deceased older brother, Liu Bo. Most family members of Liu Xin’s hereditary proximity to the emperor were given noble titles, yet Gaozu never considered the nephew for any feudal positions. Gaozu’s father, respectfully called the Venerable Sire or the Grand Supreme Emperor, apparently thought that Gaozu had simply forgotten about Liu Xin. When questioned, however, Emperor Gaozu reportedly stated that Liu Xin’s treatment was not a mistake, but a deliberate punishment. As explanation, the emperor told an odd story about his past.
In the time when Emperor Gaozu was still the commoner known as Liu Bang, he apparently had a bad habit of bringing groups of friends to the house of Liu Bo, his older brother. Even worse, Liu Bang and his companions always arrived at his brother’s house at meal times. Although Liu Bang had the ability to be a people-person when it suited him and he usually acted respectfully toward family, he also often had an insufferable attitude, accentuated by bouts of extreme rudeness. As such, on those days when Liu Bang arrived on his brother’s doorstep with a party of friends in tow, he was the type of person who fully expected to be fed and entertained at his brother’s expense. Despite Liu Bang’s wants, he was not yet a king or emperor, so Liu Bo’s wife naturally felt no obligation to feed her scavenging brother-in-law.
Liu Bo’s wife apparently had one go-to tactic that she used whenever Liu Bang arrived in search of sustenance. As the story goes, she would go over to her kettle where food was being prepared and then loudly rattle the ladle. Feigning sympathy with their hunger, she would lie that her family had already eaten and that there was nothing left in the kettle. Upon hearing the news, Liu Bang’s disappointed friends would shuffle out of the home and search for another place to eat. Yet, on one of these occasions, Liu Bang peeked into the kettle after his friends had left and, low and behold, there was still plenty of food left in the pot.
After recounting that story to his father, Emperor Gaozu explained that he had long held a grudge against Liu Bo’s wife because of her kettle rattling. Fortunately, the Venerable Sire, as a good father should, eventually convinced Gaozu that his nephew, Liu Xin, should not be punished because of the actions of his mother. As a result, the neglected nephew finally received a noble title—a very unique position, at that. The promotion, however, was likely not what the nephew or the Venerable Sire had expected. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Liu Xin was given the special title of Marquis Soup Rattle.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of the The Dahuting Tomb mural, c. 2nd-3rd century CE, [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.