King Liu Chang of Huainan was reportedly born under tragic circumstances in a prison. His mother was a concubine sent to Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195 BCE) by the vassal king, Zhang Ao of Zhao. Unfortunately for the concubine (whose name has been lost to history), the kingdom of Zhao became embroiled in a conspiracy soon after she was sent to join the emperor. In 198 BCE, King Zhang Ao of Zhao was stripped of his kingly title, and officials such as the Prime Minister Guan Gao of Zhao were executed after a plot to assassinate the emperor was discovered. After the discovery of the conspiracy, the concubine from Zhao was arrested and imprisoned because of suspicions that she might have been involved in the plot. The unfortunate concubine had not been with the emperor for long before her imprisonment, but it was long enough for her to become pregnant.
During her pregnancy and imprisonment, the concubine pleaded for mercy, trying to use as leverage the fact that her unborn child had been fathered by the emperor. Her petitions, however, could not dissipate the suspicions that Emperor Gaozu had toward the concubine after the plot in Zhao was discovered. Therefore, she remained in prison and it was there that she gave birth to a son—Liu Chang. What happened next is vague. Perhaps it was a difficult birth, or maybe she lost the will to live. There is also the possibility the concubine was executed after she gave birth. Whatever the case, the unnamed concubine died shortly after Liu Chang was born. Thankfully, the newborn was not left alone for long. Emperor Gaozu quickly recognized the boy as his son and he gave his wife, Empress Lü, the task of raising the infant as her own child. A few years later, in 196 BCE, Liu Chang was appointed as the child-king of Huainan by Emperor Gaozu.
Fortunately for the young king, Empress Lü apparently developed a motherly bond with him. It was quite a feat for the child, as after the death of Emperor Gaozu in 195 BCE, Empress Lü became quite hostile to the sons that her husband had fathered with other women—the empress even had several of these sons executed. Liu Chang’s anomalously-warm relationship with Empress Lü allowed him to survive the empress’ complicated reign until her death in 180 BCE. By then, only one other son of Emperor Gaozu survived: Liu Chang’s older half-brother, King Liu Heng of Dai, who succeeded to the throne as Emperor Wen (r.180-157 BCE).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Palace Children Playing, painted during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), [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.