In 129 BCE, general Li Guang of Han Dynasty China was captured by his foes during a campaign against Xiongnu nomads. Although he subsequently made a remarkable escape and returned to China, the consequences of his defeat and capture at the hands of the emperor’s enemies caused Li Guang to be arrested and imprisoned by his own government. He could have possibly been executed for his military failures, but the general was able to pay his own ransom. The ransom was more than just a monetary cost—in addition to money, Li Guang also had to relinquish his military command and all of his government titles.
Although he had been deprived of his command and was downgraded to the status of a commoner, Li Guang was still famous and apparently was followed by a band of loyalists even after he was released from prison. From what we know of Li Guang, it is easy to see why the man would draw followers—he was a legend in his own day, known for his great fighting prowess. His weapon of choice was a bow, with which he was said to be able to achieve consistent miraculous shots. As such, some of his favorite pastimes were hunting and various archery games, some involving alcohol. Li Guang was reportedly a clumsy speaker, but his lack of verbal charisma was made up for by his charitable nature and the aura of companionship that he cultivated with the men he led into battle. Many of these loyal friends and companions joined their former general as he lived in retirement at Lantian, in the Southern Mountains.
During his several-year retirement, Li Guang’s lifestyle did not change much. He continued to lead a band of followers out into the countryside, yet, instead of tracking enemies of China, the general now brought his troops on hunting trips. When he was not hunting, the former general could be found drinking with his friends at various scenic locations, such as meadows or fields. In such merriment, Li Guang and his friends were known to sometimes socialize until after sundown.
The former general’s drinking parties, however, would soon bring him into conflict with a by-the-book watchman who was stationed at Baling. As the story goes, the watchman spotted two men on horses trotting up the road after dark. The travelers happened to be Li Guang and one of his friends. The two had just departed one of the aforementioned social gatherings hosted by the former general. Yet, the two men’s pleasant evening stroll would soon be interrupted, for the region was under a curfew, and the watchman intended to enforce the law.
Out came the watchman from his station, shouting commands for the two travelers to stop. When Li Guang and his comrade complied with the order, the watchman announced that the men were violating curfew, and they would be detained at the watch station until morning. Upon hearing this, the companion of Li Guang tried to use his friend’s celebrity to their advantage, proclaiming, “This is the former General Li” (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 109). Yet, the unwavering watchman replied that not even generals currently on active duty could wander around after curfew, and proceeded to herd the two men into the station. Although Li Guang and his companion were able to continue on their journey the next morning, the incident apparently annoyed and humiliated the former general.
Unfortunately for the watchman, Li Guang was called back to active duty by Emperor Wu in 127 BCE. At the time of his reappointment, the general evidently still held a grudge against the poor official of Baling. As soon as he regained power, one of Li Guang’s first moves was to have the watchman transferred to be under his command. When the dutiful man arrived at the army’s camp, he was promptly put under arrest for some reason or other. Sadly, he was not released the next morning. Instead, Li Guang had the watchman mercilessly executed. After the execution was carried out, Li Guang sent a letter to Emperor Wu, apologizing for the self-serving act of vengeance. Interestingly, Emperor Wu reportedly forgave Li Guang and replied that he did not mind if his generals gained a merciless, fear-inspiring reputation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Qingming in peace, 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.