The Flamboyant Tale Of King Liu Duan Of Jiaoxi


Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE) and the concubine Lady Cheng had three sons named Liu Yu, Liu Fei and Liu Duan. All three brothers were quickly appointed as kings after their father’s ascendance to the throne. Liu Yu and Liu Fei were given kingdoms in 155 BCE and Liu Duan followed close behind with his appointment as the King of Jiaoxi in 154 BCE. Lady Cheng’s sons were generally well behaved when it came to respecting the authority of the emperors—they never rebelled and they had largely tranquil reigns. Liu Yu and Liu Fei both died after twenty-five or twenty-six years of rule, which had been tame and peacefully absent of drama. Liu Duan, however, who lived to rule twice as long as his brothers, quickly became the oddball of the family.

Liu Duan set up his regime in Jiaoxi like any other king. He hired an entourage of ministers and attendants to help govern his kingdom, and he also took in several concubines who would hopefully provide him with an heir to the kingdom. Yet, Liu Duan and his ministers quickly began to feud. The main point of dissent, according to Han historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), was the relationship between the king and his concubines—or lack thereof. Apparently, Liu Duan was strictly homosexual and used every trick in the book to avoid time with his palace women. His favorite ploy was to plead illness, a tactic that allowed him to escape his concubines for months at a time.

Although the king and his harem of women had a cold relationship, Liu Duan was quite affectionate toward a certain young man who worked in the palace. The attendant, left unnamed by Sima Qian, was either accepting of or nonresistant to the king’s interest and the two were alleged to have begun a passionate relationship. Yet, unlike Liu Duan, the palace attendant fancied women as much as he did men, and, when he became smitten with one of the king’s scorned concubines, a classic love triangle was formed.

While not attending the king, the handsome courtier found ways to spend time with the palace lady who had caught his eye. His advances were apparently reciprocated and the two began an affair behind the back of the king. Yet, the couple became horrified when the concubine entered that state which couples receive with both excitement and anxiety—she was pregnant. To the relief of the illicit lovers, Liu Duan liked to keep his palace women out of sight and out of mind. The king reportedly had so little interest in the women of his harem that he was totally oblivious to the pregnancy of the concubine. It was only after the child was born that gossip reached the ears of Liu Duan. When the truth was discovered, the heartbroken king reportedly had the palace attendant, the concubine and even their newborn child all executed.

During the time that King Liu Duan was not hiding from his palace women, he usually was immersed in legal intrigue against his ministers and other imperial officials. It was apparently a life-long battle, but the king proved himself to be a worthy and dangerous opponent. Sima Qian wrote, “The chancellors and the 2,000 picul officials would no sooner attempt to bring charges against him than they would find that they themselves had become entangled in the Han Laws” (Shi Ji 59). It was a testament to Liu Duan’s political skill that he won most of his legal battles during his lengthy forty-seven-year reign as king of Jiaoxi. Yet, with the king and the officials distracted by a never-ending feud, the kingdom suffered from neglect. Sima Qian wrote, “His storehouses began to leak and fall into ruin, and the goods in them, valued at millions of cash, rotted away until they could not even be moved from the spot” (Shi Ji 59). Along with the storehouses, the kingdom’s tax collection system and the flow of payment to guards and the military also suffered from poor management. The officials used the tattered state of the kingdom to their advantage. Sima Qian stated, “The officials then requested that his kingdom be reduced in size, and he was deprived of over half of his domain” (Shi Ji 59).

As the king grew older, he apparently took his security much more seriously. Likely in consequence of the unstable pay of his guards and military, the king became more reclusive, reportedly spending most of his time holed up in his palace with those he trusted most. He may have also feared assassination, as he was said to have used disguises and false names whenever he traveled on roads that left him vulnerable to attack. Nevertheless, Liu Duan was a survivor and lived until his peaceful death in 107 BCE, after nearly a half-century of rule in Jiaoxi. At the time of his death, the king still had no children, and the kingdom was consequently brought under the direct jurisdiction of Emperor Wu’s central government.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (figures from a tomb mural of Prince Zhanguai (c. 706) and a woman from a Sung Dynasty tomb mural (c. 960-1279), both [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.

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