For many people in ancient China, life under the early emperors of the Han Dynasty (starting with Emperor Gaozu c. 202 BCE) was a time of tranquility and peace. Yet, for the new Liu imperial family, court intrigue and political maneuverings made their lives much more stressful. Outside the palaces of kings and marquises, the common farmers were innocently planting their crops, but inside the courts and banquets of government, the politicians, lawyers and nobility were battling it out in the shadows. When Emperor Gaozu died in 195 BCE, his consort, Empress Lü, began skillfully and ruthlessly raising to prominence her brothers and cousins from the Lü clan. Yet, when Empress Lü died in 180 BCE, the Liu family brutally reasserted its authority by massacring the new Lü officials and placing Gaozu’s son, Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE), on the throne. Emperor Wen was generally a virtuous ruler who brought peace to both the commoners and the nobility. Taking advantage of the peace, however, the feudal kingdoms of China became extremely powerful. Emperor Wen’s successor, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), would obsessively dwell on the growing political and military strength of the feudal kingdoms.
The kingdom of Wu was one such powerful feudal domain in the Han Empire. Wu’s long-reigning king was Liu Pi, the nephew of Emperor Gaozu. King Liu Pi had been placed on the throne of Wu in 195 BCE after distinguishing himself in battle against a rebel army. During the decades that Empress Lü and Emperor Wen ruled the Han Dynasty, the kingdom of Wu thrived under Liu Pi’s leadership. He exploited copper mines and salt deposits in his realm to make the kingdom of Wu one of the wealthiest regions of China. Furthermore, the people of Wu seemed to have generally loved their king, for Liu Pi was generous with his wealth and gave ample gifts to his subjects as rewards and incentives for good deeds. The king was also politically savvy, and achieved a great deal of autonomy from the central government of the Han Dynasty. It was said that King Liu Pi even had enough power to refuse to hand over fugitives to agents of the emperor.
Although he was a mighty figure, Liu Pi had shown unceasing loyalty to the emperors for decades. Sometime during the reign of Emperor Wen, Liu Pi sent his son, the crown prince of Wu, to the Han capital, Chang’an. There, the crown prince was well received by Emperor Wen and the young nobleman was even brought into the entourage of the heir apparent, Jing. The future emperor and the crown prince of Wu became drinking buddies and often tested each other’s skill over the trendiest board games that were popular in the capital.
One day, after the imperial heir and the crown prince both had too much to drink, the pair began to play a board game that resembled chess. Apparently, the inebriated noblemen disagreed on the rules of the game and the argument became quite heated. The crown prince stubbornly gave no ground in the debate and showed no deference to the opinion of the imperial heir. Jing, who, even at a young age, resented the power of the feudal lords, was enraged by the insubordination of the prince. As the argument persisted and the tension boiled higher, Jing lost his composure and lashed out. In his rage, Jing grabbed the game board, sending the pieces flying, and used it to clobber the crown prince over the head. The board wielded by Jing was not one of the flimsy cardboard mats used by cheap tabletop game makers of today—instead, he was bludgeoning the crown prince with what can only be described as a solid plank of hefty wood. Unfortunately for ancient Chinese politics, Jing actually beat the crown prince of Wu to death with the game board.
When news of his son’s needless death reached the ears of powerful King Liu Pi, the otherwise loyal monarch began to question his allegiance. After the incident, Liu Pi held a grudge against the central government, especially Jing, and pointedly never ventured to the capital of Chang’an. When Jing became emperor in 157 BCE, the feud between the central government and the kingdom of Wu only deepened. Emperor Jing increased the tension when he and his legalist advisor, Chao Cuo, began systematically whittling away at the power of kings. In 156 BCE, the central government removed the region of Changshan from the control of King Liu Sui of Zhao and also deprived six districts from King Liu Ang of Jiaoxi. The carving up of kingdoms continued in 155 BCE, with King Liu Wu of Chu losing control of Donghai province and King Liu Pi of Wu, himself, being stripped of his authority in Yuzhang and Kuaiji.
As Liu Pi had loathed Jing since the death of his son, the land deprivation finally pushed him over his limit and he began to plot with other disgruntled kings against the emperor. In 154 BCE, Liu Pi was the leading figure in the so-called Revolt of the Seven Kingdoms. The revolt and its aftermath proved that both sides of the conflict were right in their assessment of their enemy—Emperor Jing was right about the kingdoms having too much power, but the kings were also correct in their fears that the central government wanted to reduce their political and military might.
Emperor Jing executed his advisor, Chao Cuo, in response to the rebellion, but he also quickly crushed the revolt and had King Liu Pi of Wu assassinated. The destruction of the rebellion was a great leap forward in Emperor Jing’s dream to dismantle the power of the feudal lords. On the relentless campaign of Emperor Jing and his successor, Emperor Wu, against the power of the Chinese kingdoms, historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) wrote, “The feudal lords were permitted nothing more than tax revenue from their lands, while the rest of their prerogatives were all taken away. In later years some of them grew so poor that they were obliged to ride about in ox carts” (Shi Ji, 59).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of men playing Go, c. Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.