Liu Shun was the son of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE) and a concubine named Madam Wang Erxu. Of Emperor Jing’s thirteen known sons, Liu Shun was reportedly the youngest. Shun was much beloved by the emperor, but he was not the heir apparent to the empire—that honor went to Shun’s half-brother, the future Emperor Wu (141-87 BCE). While Wu was prepared for imperial rule, Liu Shun was sent to become the king of Changshan in 145 BCE. Although distance and social hierarchy separated the brothers, the two seemed to remain close even after they took up their political duties. Their parents were likely a contributing factor in their unique sibling relationship, for besides having the same father, the mothers of Wu and Shun were also sisters.
King Liu Shun had a long and peaceful reign, ruling Changshan without incident from 145 to 113 BCE. He reportedly fathered four sons, Liu Zhuo, Liu Bo, Liu Ping and Liu Shang, all said to have been born from different women. Although Zhuo was the eldest of the brothers, King Liu Shun saw little promise in him and did not consider Zhou for succession. The king eventually named Liu Bo as his heir—yet, although Bo was the king’s favorite son, Bo’s mother, Queen Xiu, was Liu Shun’s least favorite of the palace women.
When King Liu Shun was on his deathbed, the dying king was not content with only his queen and heir being present at his side. To bring himself comfort in his final moments, the king asked for all of his favorite concubines to join with the queen in waiting by his bedside. Although the newly arrived women brought a sense of peace to the sickly king, the presence of the concubines also belittled and infuriated Queen Xiu. Instead of staying in the packed room with the concubines, the queen angrily stormed off and refused to leave her personal quarters unless the other women left the king’s bedside. Crown Prince Liu Bo apparently also left his fading father’s side for long periods of time in an attempt to comfort his distraught and bitter mother. Unfortunately for the crown prince and the queen, King Liu Shun died while both of them were away from his deathbed. For the crown prince, this was extremely bad optics, and, in an age where filial piety was of utmost importance, Liu Bo’s absence from his father’s side could be considered by Han officials to be criminal negligence.
Despite the scandal, Liu Bo succeeded in claiming the kingdom of Changshan after his father’s death, yet his grip on power was fragile. Once on the throne, King Liu Bo was allegedly swayed by his mother to disenfranchise his brothers (especially the eldest, Zhuo) from their wealth and influence in Changshan. The ministers and officials in Changshan did not agree with this policy, not to mention the new king’s spurned brothers.
Liu Zhuo was the brother most infuriated by Bo’s conduct. Zhuo, the eldest sibling, had always felt entitled to power, and if he could not have that, he at least wanted respect. As King Liu Bo was neither sharing power nor showing respect, Zhou decided to devote himself to undermining his little brother’s authority. Therefore, when an official from the central Han government arrived for the late King Liu Shun’s funeral, Zhuo reported to him every piece of damaging information, both fact and rumor alike, that he knew would bring harm to his brother. In consequence of Liu Bo not being at his father’s deathbed, he was charged with not testing the quality and safety of his father’s medicine—a serious allegation of criminal neglect. The Han official was also told that Bo had not mourned his father’s death for the adequate number of days, and was instead seen partying with mistresses in various locations around the kingdom.
When Emperor Wu received reports of these allegations, he launched an investigation into the conduct of his nephews, the princes of Changshan.
After about three months, Emperor Wu and his investigators had made their decision. The emperor decided that Liu Bo and Liu Zhou were both guilty of conduct unbecoming of nobility and therefore unfit to rule. Bo was stripped of his royal title and sent with his mother to live as commoners in Fangling. The exact fate of Liu Zhou was not recorded, but the emperor did not reward him with any wealth or land for testifying against his brother. Instead, Emperor Wu absorbed the region of Changshan under his own jurisdiction and then he gave new kingdoms to the least dramatic of the four brothers—Ping and Shang. While Bo and Zhuo dwindled into obscurity, Liu Ping became the king of Zhending and Liu Shang was appointed king of Sishui.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Household from a painting depicting Qingming in peace, c. Ming dynasty (1368–1644), [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.