King Liu Chang of Huainan was the son of Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195) and the half-brother of emperors Hui (r. 195-188 BCE) and Wen (r. 180-157 BCE). The king was born around 198 BCE, after his mother—a concubine from Zhao—was imprisoned because of a conspiracy that had been discovered in the court of Zhao. Liu Chang was born while his mother remained in prison, and she died soon after his birth. Her death is a matter of debate. Perhaps, she died during childbirth, or maybe she committed suicide or was executed after having her son. Whatever the case, Liu Chang was a newborn infant when his mother passed away. Emperor Gaozu took his motherless son from the prison and gave the boy to his wife, Empress Lü, for rearing. A few years later, the imperial couple appointed the child as king of Huainan. His tragic childhood and his upbringing in the intrigue-filled heyday of Empress Dowager Lü (r. 195-180 BCE) undoubtedly left a mark on Liu Chang. He turned out to be a violent, haughty and presumptuous king. Around 177 BCE, Liu Chang killed a confidant of his late mother who had failed to speak against her imprisonment, and by 174 BCE, Liu Chang was accused of plotting with the Xiongnu and Minyue against Emperor Wen. It was at this point that Emperor Wen decided to strip Liu Chang of his titles and to send him into exile. Unfortunately for the deposed king, the exile turned out to be a death sentence, for Liu Chang died in his prison cart on the road.
Circumstances around the death of Liu Chang were strange, to say the least. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) recorded two stories of how the king died in his text, Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji). The first, recorded in an annal of Emperor Wen’s reign, claimed that “before Liu Chang reached his place of exile he fell ill and died along the way” (Shi ji 10). Sima Qian’s second account of the death appears in a much later section filled with biographies about the kings of Huainan and Hengshan. In this secondary version of the story, Liu Chang did not succumb to a random illness, but instead starved to death. Curiously, Sima Qian (who was employed by Emperor Wen’s grandson) was clear to state that the officially-recognized cause of death was suicide, for Liu Chang reportedly stopped taking food and drink. Yet, the historian also felt the need to add an intriguing line that stated, “As the king was passed along from district to district, the attendants were all too terrified of him to break the seals on his prison cart and open it up” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 118). If the minders sent to accompany the deposed king were not checking in on their ward, perhaps they were not feeding him either; and if he was given no food, he would have had no choice but to starve to death.
Emperor Wen’s response to the death of his brother was curious. He gave Liu Chang the posthumous title of King Li, or “Cruel King,” which does not display much brotherly love. Yet, on the other hand, Emperor Wen was also said to have mourned for his brother and sought vengeance against the prison wardens who had neglected Liu Chang’s health. Sima Qian wrote that Emperor Wen “ordered the chancellor and the imperial secretary to arrest and examine the attendants in the various districts along the king’s route who had failed to open his cart and urge him to eat. All were condemned to be executed and their corpses exposed in the market place” (Shi ji 118). Perhaps that was a true campaign of vengeance over his brother’s death, but the skeptic might say that Emperor Wen could as easily have been cleaning up witnesses to an assassination. After all, making the death look like a suicide would be what the emperor would want if he was trying to escape the taboo of fratricide.
Emperor Wen, however, was known for being a generally good-willed and benevolent ruler. He did resort to violence at times, such as a wide-spread purge of Empress Dowager Lü’s encroaching kinsmen at the start of his reign, but terror and prevalent assassinations were not a dominant factor of Emperor Wu’s reign. Even if Emperor Wen did not order the assassination of Liu Chang, there were many other high-ranking members of the Han government and the imperial family who would have wanted the emperor’s brother dead. As told by Sima Qian, “Empress Dowager Bo [Wen’s mother], the heir apparent [Emperor Jing r. 157-141], and the various high officials were all terrified of Liu Chang” (Shi ji 118). Whether or not it was orchestrated, Liu Chang’s mysterious death on the road saved the emperor and his successor from worries about possible schemes in exile from an intimidating and allegedly rebellious half-brother of the emperor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Dahuting/Tahut’ing tomb mural from the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, was excavated in 1960-1961, [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.