Emperor Wen’s Path To Power Was Greatly Helped By His Mother’s Unambitious Lifestyle


King Liu Heng of Dai was the son of Lady Bo and the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Gaozu (king of Han 206-202 BCE, emperor 202-195 BCE). According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c.145-90 BCE), Liu Heng was appointed as king of Dai by Emperor Gaozu in 196 BCE. After Gaozu’s death in 195 BCE, the heir of the empire, Emperor Hui, ascended to the throne and his mother, Empress Dowager Lü, became the power behind the throne. Once in power, the Empress Dowager began terrorizing the other concubines of the late emperor and undermining the sons of these rival women. Many concubines were imprisoned or executed and Empress Dowager Lü directly had Gaozu’s sons, Liu Ruyi and Liu You, killed by poison and starvation, respectively. Furthermore, the empress dowager tried to increase the power of her Lü family at the expense of the imperial Liu clan, especially after Emperor Hui’s death in 188 BCE left her position vulnerable.

Fortunately, the king of Dai and his mother, Lady Bo, were spared from the wrath of Empress Dowager Lü. Lady Bo was apparently able to escape imprisonment and execution because she was not one of Gaozu’s favorite concubines and he saw her rarely during his time as emperor. As for Lady Bo’s son, the king of Dai, he stayed alive largely because he could keep a low profile. He kept his criticism and outrage to himself while his half-brothers were being assassinated and his clan was being stripped of power, and instead focused on cultivating a reputation of kindness and generosity.

When Empress Dowager Lü died in 180 BCE, the Liu clan rallied their allies in the government and the military to launch a purge of the Lü clan. Two of the most prominent leaders in the overthrow of the Lü were Zhao Bo (a friend of Lady Bo’s family), who brought the garrison of Chang’an, the capital city, over to the Liu side, and King Ai of Qi (Gaozu’s grandson), who mustered a multi-kingdom army against the enemies of the Liu. After Liu loyalists were sent out “to arrest the men and women of the Lü family and, without distinction of age or youth, to behead them all,” the kings of Dai and Qi became the most likely successors to the throne (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 9 (Empress Lü)).

Both claimants had a good argument. King Ai of Qi had been a leader of the Liu rebellion against the Lü and was the heir of Emperor Gaozu’s oldest son.  It also didn’t hurt that King Ai had a large army in the field.  The other claimant, the king of Dai, was the oldest living son of the late Emperor Gaozu. Though he had developed a widespread reputation for kindness and generosity, he did not attempt to halt or criticize the massacre of the Lü family. In addition, he had the support of Zhou Bo—a family friend of the king of Dai—who held the empire’s capital city of Chang’an, as well as the forces garrisoned inside. In picking which of these two men they wanted to support, the great ministers of the empire had a difficult decision to make.

The debate over who should be the next emperor was apparently so fierce, arguments among the ministers even shifted to the topic of the mothers of the claimants. After surviving the reign of Empress Dowager Lü, the ministers were loath to give support to a man who had an overly ambitious and conniving mother. Considering this angle, the ministers decided that Lady Bo, the mother of the king of Dai, would be the safer choice for a future Empress Dowager. Of course, Zhou Bo’s presence at the head of the forces in Chang’an, the city in which this debate was taking place, may have swayed a few ministers into siding with Lady Bo and the king of Dai. Whatever the case, the ministers threw their support behind the king of Dai, prompting King Ai of Qi to disband his army and return home. To the relief of the ministers, when the king of Dai became Emperor Wen in 180 BCE, his mother, Empress Dowager Bo, dabbled very little in politics besides encouraging her son to incorporate Daoism into his rule.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Chinese painting The Nymph of the Lo River, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, 12th-century copy of a painting traditionally attributed to the 4th-century artist Gu Kaizhi, [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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