Emperor Gaozu and Empress Lü, the first royal couple in charge of the Han Dynasty, were a very formidable and competent pair. After Gaozu’s death in 195 BCE, Empress Lü showed her prowess by continuing to administer the empire (through her son, Emperor Hui, and other puppet rulers) until her own death on August 18, 180 BCE. Although Empress Lü had been a powerful asset to Emperor Gaozu while he lived, Empress Lü quickly became a hindrance to the emperor’s imperial Liu clan when she was left to rule on her own. Of the emperor’s eight sons, Empress Lü was only the mother of one (Emperor Hui), and she showed little-to-no maternal care for her seven pseudo-step-sons—in fact, she had one or two of them killed. When Emperor Hui died young in 188 BCE, Empress Lü virtually broke off all her ties to the imperial Liu family and devoted the rest of her life to raising her own Lü family to a state of power that was equal to or greater than that of the imperial Liu clan.
When Empress Lü died on August 18, 180 BCE, she left the Lü clan in a remarkably strong position. She had appointed many Lü men to kingships and even created a new hereditary Kingdom of Lü. As for the kingdoms that were already ruled by Liu family monarchs, Empress Lü had a knack for winning over the ministers working under her rival kings. She also arranged for women of the Lü family to marry powerful men from the Liu clan. These Lü brides and their attendants reportedly acted as spies and informants, constantly writing to Empress Lü about the actions of their husbands. Last of all, she gave the Lü clan a firm foothold in the Chinese capital city, Chang’an—Empress Lü’s kinsman, Lü Lu, was appointed Supreme Commander of the Army, and the garrisons in the capital city were sworn to generals loyal to the Lü clan. This was the state in which Empress Lü left her clan at the time of her death in August, 180 BCE. It was a strong hand that the empress developed for her clan, but now her kinsmen would have to play their cards and win the game.
Unfortunately for the late Empress Lü, her clan proved to be totally incompetent and they folded in only a single month. The Liu kings and pro-Liu ministers who had long been oppressed and outsmarted by Empress Lü did not wait long to strike at the late empress’ legacy. By early September, King Ai of Qi (Gaozu’s grandson) was mobilizing a revolt. King Ai’s pro-Lü prime minister, a man named Shao Ping, discovered the king’s plot around September 12 and preemptively besieged the palace of Qi. Nevertheless, in a scene that would keep repeating for Lü officials, Prime Minister Shao Ping proved to be a poor judge of allegiance. After he had surrounded King Ai in the palace, Prime Minister Shao Ping incredibly was convinced to hand over control of the troops to another officer named Wei Bo. Unfortunately for Shao Ping, Wei Bo was firmly on the side of the Liu faction and therefore promptly lifted the siege of the king’s palace. Wei Bo and King Ai arrested and executed Shao Ping, then proceeded with their rebellion.
When the Lü leaders in Chang’an heard of the growing rebellion, they dispatched an army under the command of Guan Ying to crush the rebel forces. Once again, however, the Lü administration was a poor judge of character. Guan Ying, indeed, led his forces out of the capital. Yet, when his troops were in the field, Guan Ying made a pact with the rebel leaders and refused to fight against the rebellion.
By September 26, 180 BCE, the Lü leadership in Chang’an was in a panic. Lü Chan, commander of the southern garrison had withdrawn into the capital’s palace and Lü Lu, the Supreme Commander of the Army and general of the northern garrison, was unsure how to respond to the rebellion. Sensing his indecisiveness, various pro-Liu ministers and advisors in Chang’an preyed upon Lü Lu. In particular, the Supreme Commander was influenced by a man named Li Ji, who apparently convinced Lü Lu that his life would be spared if he resigned from his military posts. Unbelievably, Lü Lu agreed to the suggestion and handed over his general’s seal to the grand commandant, Zhou Bo, giving the man control of the northern garrison and promoting him to the rank of Supreme Commander of the Army. Unfortunately for the Lü clan, Zhou Bo was a ruthless supporter of the Liu faction. Although Lü Lu was hoping for mercy, his decision to relinquish power ensured the bloody downfall of his clan.
Zhou Bo immediately rallied the forces of Chang’an to the Liu side when he received command on September 26, 180 BCE. There was, however, a slight obstacle—the southern garrison was still technically controlled by Lü Chan, who had earlier fled to the palace. Zhou Bo solved the problem by sending assassins to the palace, who murdered Lü Chan, as well as the colonel of the palace guards. After seizing control of the southern garrison, Zhou Bo then spent the next several days hunting down and executing all of the powerful members of the Lü clan. After the slaughter, Emperor Wen (Gaozu’s oldest living son) assumed the imperial throne. The historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) described the massacre that took place to clear the way for the new emperor:
“Then he [Zhou Bo] divided his men into groups and sent them out to arrest the men and women of the Lü family and, without distinction of age or youth, to behead them all. On the following day, xinyu (27 Sept.), he arrested and beheaded Lü Lu and had the empress dowager’s sister, Lü Xu, beaten to death. He also dispatched men to execute Lü Dong, the king of Yan, and remove Zhang Yan, the king of Lu, from his position.”
—The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji 9, Annals of Empress Lü) by Sima Qian, (trans. by Burton Watson, 1993).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (a lacquer painting over a four-panel wooden folding screen measuring 81.5 cm in height; from the tomb of Sima Jinlong in Datong, Shanxi province, dated to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD). [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji 9, Annals of Empress Lü) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.