Liu Ci came from controversial roots and would continue the family drama into his own personal life. He was a grandson of the Han Dynasty’s founder, Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195), through the emperor’s son, Liu Chang. It was a troubled branch of Gaozu’s large family from the start, for Liu Chang had allegedly been born from an imprisoned concubine, and he later died in custody while being sent into exile during the reign of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE). Liu Ci and other sons of Chang were given noble titles and lands after their father’s mysterious death on the road. Emperor Wen installed Liu Ci as the marquis of Zhouyang around 172 BCE, and later promoted him to become the king or prince of Lujiang around 164 BCE. Although the family had a questionable reputation, Liu Ci and his brothers did not join the unsuccessful Rebellion of Seven Kings that fought against Emperor Jing in 154, and therefore they retained their lands and titles. It was sometime after that rebellion that Liu Ci’s brother, Bo, died from natural causes. Following the death, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE) transferred Liu Ci away from Lujiang to take over the lands that Bo had been ruling in Hengshan. This new domain would be where Liu Ci would spend the rest of his life.
Liu Ci had a chaotic reign in Hengshan, troubled by infighting among his family and squabbles with local officials. On the family front, Liu Ci had multiple ambitious women in his life. His first queen was a woman named Chengshu, who provided Liu Ci with two power-hungry sons named Shuang and Xiao, as well as a head-strong daughter named Wucai. Ranked under Queen Chengshu were two prominent concubines, named Xulai and Jueji, who together provided six more children for Liu Ci. Of these six other children, only the name of one is known—Guang, the eldest son of Xulai. It was a cutthroat family environment, with the women plotting against each other for the king’s attention, while their sons similarly competed for the position of crown prince in their father’s realm.
Liu Ci and his family had the misfortune of living during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), a ruler whose policy was to restrict, diminish and dissolve the empire’s vassal kingdoms and princedoms whenever a chance happened to arise, so as to reform the land into centrally-controlled provinces. Liu Ci managed to stay under the proverbial radar for a time, but his luck eventually ran out. In 129 BCE, the central government investigated Liu Ci’s realm because of an argument between the king and his internal secretary. As the story goes, Liu Ci had wanted an official in his realm to be charged with a crime, but the internal secretary dismissed the case, at which point Liu Ci brought charges against the insubordinate secretary. When the central government investigators arrived to settle the issue, Hengshan’s internal secretary lodged a counter-complaint against Liu Ci. The central authorities did not find any real crimes committed by the king, but to justify their time and to follow with the emperor’s centralization policies, the Han court used the moment to seize for itself the ability to choose which people held government appointments in Hengshan.
Deprived of their ability to pick and choose lower officials in the realm, the members of the royal household in Hengshan now had even more time to plot against each other. The machinations became even worse when Queen Chengshu died sometime in the first half of the 120s BCE. Xulai, one of the king’s concubines, became the new queen, igniting a new competition for the position of crown prince. Shauang and Xiao—sons of the late Queen Chengshu—were still eligible for the title, but now Queen Xulai’s eldest son, Guang, was also a contender in the race to become Liu Ci’s heir. Meanwhile, other concubines such as the aforementioned Jueji, were also doing their best to knock Xulai down a peg, hoping to find an opening for themselves and their sons to rise to prominence.
Shuang, the eldest of Liu Ci’s sons and the leader in the competition to become crown prince, had a bizarre relationship with his step-mother, Xulai. At times, he was extremely hostile to her, and he reportedly even sent someone to assassinate or beat up her mother in 125 BCE. Xulai’s mother was, indeed, supposedly injured, but she survived her wound and Shuang (after his involvement was discovered) was given a severe beating by Liu Ci. In another odd episode, Shuang allegedly decided to change tactics and was said to have attempted to seduce Queen Xulai. Yet, the new queen understandably had a deep dislike of Shuang, so she rejected the advances and reported it to Liu Ci, who, again, gave his son a severe beating. Queen Xulai, who was not too shabby in intrigue, allied herself with Shuang’s siblings, Xiao and Wucai. Shuang countered this by working together with the prominent concubine, Jueji, against the queen. Nevertheless, Xulai’s faction started to gain the advantage and, though she personally wanted her son Guang to be named heir, she was also more than willing to support Xiao over Shaung.
By 123 BCE, Shuang knew his status as heir of Hengshan was becoming questionable, with Xiao now becoming the likeliest contender. To regain ground, Shuang decided to make an extreme move—he wrote a letter to the emperor, accusing Xiao of having an affair with a dancer or maid employed by Liu Ci. As the story goes, other members of the royal family in Hengshan learned that Shuang had sent a letter to the central government, but they did not know what he had written. King Liu Ci, himself, apparently believed the letter to be much worse than it actually was, causing him to write his own letter to the emperor, in which he denounced his own son, Shuang, as a scoundrel and criminal. When the central government received these dueling letters, one by the eldest prince denouncing Xiao, and the other by the king lambasting Shuang, they decided to open another investigation into Hengshan.
Shuang and Liu Ci could not have chosen a worse time to send letters to the emperor. As mentioned before, Liu Ci and his brothers were always stigmatized with suspicions of rebellion. Sadly, just as the in-fighting royals of Hengshan were accusing each other of crimes, King Liu Ci’s brother, An (the ruler of Huainan), was accused of plotting rebellion and he committed suicide as legal pressure mounted against him. As Liu Ci and An were close, the central government suspected that the forces of Hengshan had been planning to join the rebellion, or at least had prior knowledge of the plot’s existence. Therefore, when Emperor Wu’s justice system announced investigations into Hengshan in 122 BCE, their inquiries were not simply about affairs and bickering brothers—instead the officials came with charges of rebellion.
As the story goes, the investigators spread a rumor that anyone who confessed willingly about their involvement with the plot would be pardoned and not punished. Xiao apparently trusted this statement and confessed that he had prior knowledge of the rebellion. Unfortunately, this confession likely caused the doom of his entire family. Soon after, Liu Ci’s palace was besieged to keep the king from escaping, and more law officials were dispatched to Hengshan to judge the doomed royal family of Hengshan. No mercy was shown. Emperor Wu’s Grand Historian and palace secretary, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), reported the gruesome fates of Liu Ci’s family:
“When the king heard of this [investigation], he cut his throat and died. Liu Xiao, because he had confessed on his own initiative, was pardoned from the accusation of revolt, instead he was tried on charges of having had illicit relations with one of his father’s maids and was executed in the market place. Queen Xulai was also accused of having killed the former queen, Chengshu, by black magic, while Crown Prince Liu Shuang was accused of having acted contrary to filial piety by reporting on his own father. Both were executed in the market place. All those who had taken part in the planned revolt with the king were executed along with their families” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 118).
Such was the fate of Liu Ci and his family in Hengshan. The entire family, in one way or another, was found guilty of something and executed. As usually happened after Emperor Wu had one of the kingdoms or princedoms in his empire purged, Liu Ci’s realm was dissolved and reorganized as a province that was controlled directly by the central government.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Mural from the Song Dynasty tomb of Zhao Daweng at Baisha in Yuxian, Henan, dated to 1099, [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.