King Liu Chang of Huainan was a son of Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195 BCE) and an unnamed concubine from the kingdom of Zhao. His childhood, however, was quite complicated. The concubine became implicated in a conspiracy against the emperor around 198 BCE, and she was thrown in prison. Before her imprisonment, she had become pregnant with the emperor’s child, but her pregnancy did not spare her. No pardons came, and she eventually gave birth to a son, Liu Chang, while still in prison. Not long after the birth, the unnamed concubine unfortunately died. The circumstances behind her death are vague, and a difficult birth, poor conditions, suicide or execution are all possible. Whatever the case, she died almost immediately after Liu Chang’s birth, at which point Emperor Gaozu recognized the infant as his son and tasked the boy’s upbringing to his wife, Empress Lü. The imperial couple soon after gave Liu Chang a noble title, making him the child-king of Huainan in 196 BCE. (For more on the circumstances behind the death of Liu Chang’s mother, click HERE).
Liu Chang and his adopted mother, Empress Lü, reportedly had a warm relationship, but as the young king grew older, he was said to have become obsessed with learning about the circumstances of his real mother’s death. Although he had been a newborn infant at the time of his mother’s demise, Liu Chang was able to piece together the sad tale of what happened through whatever sources and witnesses he had at his disposal. As the king was gathering information about his mother’s final days, he came across a name to which he could pin all of his anger. A certain Marquis Shen Yiji of Biyang, the king learned, had been a confidant of Liu Chang’s mother before her imprisonment. After she was imprisoned, however, Shen Yiji did very little to help the king’s mother get out of her predicament. Rightly or wrongly, the king came to believe that his mother could have been saved if Shen Yiji had spoken up more fervently on her behalf.
As Liu Chang grew to maturity and began to embrace the power of his noble title, he apparently started to dream of seeking revenge against Shen Yiji. The king’s dark thoughts started to consolidate into a plan of action by the time Liu Chang’s older half-brother, Emperor Wen, took the throne in 180 BCE. After years of contemplating revenge, the king finally brought about his long-awaited dream of confrontation in 177 BCE. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) recorded the tale, writing, “He went to call on Shen Yiji, the marquis of Biyang, and requested an interview, and when Shen Yiji appeared, he smashed him over the head with an iron mallet which he had concealed in his sleeve. Then he ordered his attendant Wei Jing to cut off Shen Yiji’s head” (Shi Ji 118). After committing the murder, Liu Chang reportedly turned himself in to Emperor Wen and explained why he had done the crime. The emperor pardoned his younger brother in this instance, but it was the beginning of the end for Liu Chang.
Although the emperor decided not to pursue charges, other highly influential people in government began to watch Liu Chang with suspicion after the murder. Sima Qian elaborated on the contrasting perceptions that the emperor and his court had toward the king’s actions, saying, “Emperor Wen, moved by the resolution Liu Chang had shown in avenging his mother’s death, did not punish him but pardoned his offense. At this time Empress Dowager Bo, the heir apparent, and the various high officials were all terrified of Liu Chang” (Shi Ji 118). Those who now feared the young king would soon begin to look for ways to reduce his power. As critics of Liu Chang included Emperor Wen’s mother and children, it became hard for the emperor to ignore the outcry against his younger brother.
King Liu Chang’s downfall occurred in 174 BCE, when Han officials accused the king of courting the forces of Minyue and the Xiongnu, a charge which hinted at rebellion. The accusation soon began to snowball, as the prosecutors started bundling every criticism and suspicion that had ever been recorded about the king. Haughty behavior, presumptuous conduct, and the aforementioned killing of Shen Yiji were all brought up in the case that was presented before the emperor. The officials were said to have suggested that Liu Chang be executed for his crimes, but the emperor disregarded this recommendation. Liu Chang, however, did not receive a second pardon. Instead, Emperor Wen stripped Liu Chang of his lands and ordered him into exile. The deposed king, unfortunately, was said to have died on the road from suicide or illness.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (lacquer painting from a four-panel wooden folding screen measuring 81.5 cm in height; from the tomb of Sima Jinlong in Datong, Shanxi province, dated to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD). [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.