Zhou Bo was a decorated military officer and political official who served under the first emperors of the Han Dynasty. He came from humble origins, supposedly working as a silkworm rack manufacturer and a part-time musician in Pei. Yet, when widespread rebellions against the Qin Dynasty erupted in 209 BCE, Zhou Bo joined the rebels as a crossbowman and eventually became a follower of the distinguished rebel leader, Liu Bang.
Zhou Bo’s fortunes rose with the political ascendance of Liu Bang. Between 209 and 206 BCE, the rebels demolished the Qin Dynasty and began to restructure China into new kingdoms led by rebel leaders. The power vacuum allowed commoners like Liu Bang and Zhou Bo to rise to amazing heights. When Liu Bang became a marquis, he brought Zhou Bo along as a magistrate. In 206 BCE, when Liu Bang became the King of Han, Zhou Bo was appointed as one of his marquises. Finally, when the king of Han defeated his rebel rivals in 202 BCE and became known as Emperor Gaozu, the victorious emperor granted Zhou Bo even more land and bequeathed upon him the title of Marquis of Jiang.
Zhou Bo was not a particularly flashy general, but he was definitely dependable. According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), Zhou Bo crushed two armies, sieged three cities, conquered five provinces and successfully captured many distinguished prisoners during his career, including four prime ministers/chancellors and four generals (Shi Ji 57). As a result of his dependability, he became one of Emperor Gaozu’s favorite generals and was eventually promoted to the rank of grand commandant around 189 BCE, during the reign of Gaozu’s successor, Emperor Hui (r. 195-188 BCE).
Zhou Bo remained the grand commandant even after the premature death of Emperor Hui in 188 BCE. From 188-180 BCE, Hui’s mother, Empress Dowager Lü, continued to rule in China through puppet child-emperors. Although her reign was peaceful for the common masses, it was a time of bloody intrigue among the nobility. The empress dowager championed the Lü family in an attempted overthrow of her late husband’s Liu family. By the time of Empress Dowager Lü’s death in 180 BCE, several Liu princes had been assassinated and numerous Lü family members had become kings, marquises, generals and politicians. Yet, without Empress Dowager Lü at the helm, her family was totally incapable of maintaining power.
Only one or two months after the death of Empress Dowager Lü, the suppressed Liu family and their supporters came back with a vengeance, murdering the child puppet-emperor and assassinating virtually every member of the Lü family. Zhou Bo was a pivotal member of the conspiracy against the Lü clan—using his position as grand commandant, he seized the military garrison of the capital city, Chang’an, and it was his troops that carried out most of the executions of prominent Lü officials. Zhou was also a friend of the Bo family, and, perhaps, because of his influence, the son of Lady Bo and Emperor Gaozu was chosen as the next emperor. This prince, known as Emperor Wen, reached the capital city to assume the throne on November 14, 180 BCE.
As a reward for Zhou Bo’s loyalty to the Liu family, Emperor Wen rewarded the grand commandant by adding 10,000 households to his feudal domain and granted him a large amount of gold. Zhou Bo was also appointed as a chancellor of the Han Dynasty. He was at the height of his power, yet Zhou Bo interestingly becoming more and more paranoid. According to Sima Qian, Zhou Bo was a firm believer in the idea that those who rise too quickly to prominence are sure to fall just as quickly and dramatically. Zhou Bo had surely seen many instances of that phenomenon during his lifetime—many of Gaozu’s contemporary rebel leaders and companions had met violent ends after the Liu family became an imperial power. Zhou Bo had been able to stay alive because he had little ambition of becoming anything greater than a marquis or a state politician loyal to the Liu family. His conduct earned him powerful friends, including Empress Dowager Bo (Wen’s mother) and the Bo family. Nevertheless, Zhou Bo apparently had a feeling of impending doom and he abruptly decided to quit while he was ahead.
According to Sima Qian, Zhou Bo resigned from his position as chancellor after only one month in office. He also took a portion of the lands granted to him by Emperor Wen and gave them as a gift to the emperor’s uncle, Bo Zhao. Yet, although Zhou Bo was trying to distance himself from power, the emperor called him back to the office of chancellor around 178 or 177 BCE. For unclear reasons, Emperor Wen only kept the old warrior around for ten months before relieving Zhou Bo of his duties and instructing him to return to his fiefdom.
Not long after he was sent home, Zhou Bo fell victim to his paranoia. Fearing the backlash of karma against his success over the last decades, the old general habitually wore his arms and armor wherever he went. He also armed his staff and kept a personal army of bodyguards. Ironically, Zhou Bo’s attempts to fight off misfortune directly led to the most dire period of his life—when Zhou Bo’s private army and odd behavior was reported to Emperor Wen, the imperial court became extremely concerned. Fearing that the old general was building a rebel army, Emperor Wen and his ministers decided to arrest Zhou Bo and brought him in for questioning.
Zhou Bo must have felt that his worst fears were coming true, and, according to Sima Qian, the general’s paranoia and nervousness made him a poor self-advocate. Yet, as the interrogators were beginning to doubt their captive’s innocence, Zhou Bo’s powerful friends came to his rescue. The Bo family, especially, rushed to his aid. Even Empress Dowager Bo, who usually kept away from politics, spoke up in his defense, explaining that if Zhou Bo was disloyal, he would have proclaimed himself (or another claimant) emperor when he had occupied Chang’an in 180 BCE instead of throwing his support behind Emperor Wen. Thankfully for the prisoner, Emperor Wen heeded the advice of his mother, and released Zhou Bo. The old warrior, unlike many of his powerful contemporaries, survived to reach retirement and died peacefully in 169 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Terracotta warrior, [Public Domain] via maxpixel.net and Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.