History has long hinted that absolute power can tempt even virtuous leaders into corruption. Yet, what happens when the one who gains power was never virtuous in the first place, but instead had murderous fantasies and psychopathic tendencies. This horrific second option reportedly became reality in China during the 2nd century BCE, when Liu Pengli became the king of Jidong. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), was a contemporary of the infamous king and wrote a short description of the dark events that supposedly occurred in Jidong during Pengli’s reign. The killer king was seemingly a figure that the Han Dynasty wanted to forget about, and consequently Sima Qian only devoted one measly paragraph to describing Pengli’s life. Nevertheless, the brief information that the Grand Historian packed into those few sentences was terrifying.
Unfortunately for the people of ancient China, Liu Pengli was extremely powerful and incredibly well connected. He was the grandson of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) and the nephew of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE). Pengli’s own father, King Xiao of Liang (brother of Emperor Jing), ruled one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Han Empire and was even a top contender to become the imperial heir before Emperor Jing finally nominated his son, the future Emperor Wu, as his definitive successor. When the disgruntled King Xiao of Liang died in 144 BCE, his wealthy kingdom was divided among his five sons, one of whom was Liu Pengli.
Before becoming king of Jidong around 144 BCE, Liu Pengli apparently had a spotless record, or, at least, his crimes were subtle enough to escape notice. If anything, he only had a reputation for being uncouth and arrogant. Yet, when he became a king, Liu Pengli’s behavior was said to have grown exponentially worse. He surrounded himself with people of ill repute and developed into a ruthless tyrant. Tragically, Liu Pengli would be given nearly three decades in power to spiral into depravity.
Make no mistake, all of the emperors and kings of Liu Pengli’s day were mass killers—uncounted scores of people died in their wars and were executed by their legal systems. They were not necessarily murderers, but their hands were undoubtedly stained with blood. Yet, something separated Liu Pengli from his powerful peers. Other nobles killed to uphold law, to protect their country and family, or simply for political or personal gain. Contrastingly, Liu Pengli reportedly did not kill for any of these reasons; instead, according to Sima Qian, he simply enjoyed “murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport” (Shi Ji 58).
It is unknown how quickly Liu Pengli’s alleged killing spree began, but by the end of his rule, the people of Jidong were living in a nightmare. According to Sima Qian, Liu Pengli recruited a band of around twenty or thirty like-minded disciples from the questionable courtiers that flocked to his kingdom. At some point in his reign, Pengli and his devoted cult of followers began skulking through the kingdom at night in search of random victims to rob and kill. The accumulating numbers of deaths sparked a panic in the kingdom and the people of Jidong eventually took to barricading themselves indoors at night so they would not be murdered. Over a long period of time, evidence began to grow against the king, and uneasy officials in Jidong started to suspect Pengli of perpetrating the killings. Even among the commoners of the kingdom, rumor spread that it was their king who was responsible for the wave of deaths. Yet, what could they do—Liu Pengli was Emperor Jing’s nephew and Emperor Wu’s cousin.
Fortunately for the people of Jidong, a letter accusing Liu Pengli of mass murder finally reached Emperor Wu around 116 or 115 BCE, the twenty-ninth year of Pengli’s reign. The emperor took the accusation seriously and launched an investigation into his cousin’s conduct. According to Sima Qian, the Han detectives discovered that the king had murdered over one hundred people without any just reasoning. The killings were done simply for the king’s pleasure, or, as Sima Qian stated earlier, as a sick form of sport.
Unbelievably, Emperor Wu was said to have spared his murderous cousin’s life. Liu Pengli was stripped of his nobility and was ultimately banished to live like a commoner in the region of Shangyong—an oddly light punishment for a convicted mass-murdering serial killer. That being said, it may be possible that Liu Pengli was framed. Emperor Wu and his father made serious efforts to divide and weaken the feudal kingdoms of ancient China, similar to the way Emperor Jing had divided the powerful kingdom of Liang into five more manageable domains. After Liu Pengli was stripped of power, his kingdom of Jidong was dissolved and the land was brought under the direct jurisdiction of the central Han government. In the scheme of things, Liu Pengli was one of several kings whose kingdoms were absorbed by Emperor Wu’s government after criminal trials. Nevertheless, because of the vague evidence left behind, we shall never know for certain if Liu Pengli was the victim or the victimizer.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (painting from the wall of Xu Xianxiu’s Tomb of Northern Qi Dynasty, [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.