Emperor Gaozu of Han

Emperor Gao (256 BC or 247 BC – 1 June 195 BC), commonly known by his temple name Gaozu (Chinese: 高祖; pinyin: Gāozǔ; Wade–Giles: Kao Tsu), personal name Liu Bang, was the founder and first emperor of the han dynasty, ruling over China from 202 BC to 195 BC. Liu Bang was one of the few dynasty founders in Chinese history that emerged from the peasant class (another prominent example being Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the ming dynasty). In the early stage of his rise to prominence, Liu Bang was addressed as "Duke of Pei", with the "Pei" referring to his hometown of Pei County. He was also granted the title of "King of Han" by Xiang Yu, when the latter split the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms. Liu Bang was known by this title before becoming Emperor of China.

Birth and early life

Liu Bang was born in a peasant family in Zhongyang Village, Feng Town, Pei County, Sishui Commandery (in present-day Feng County, Jiangsu ). His parents' names were not recorded in history and they were referred to as "Liu Taigong" (劉太公; Old Sir Liu) and "Liu Ao" (劉媼; Old Madam Liu). It is said that before Liu Bang's birth, his mother was caught in a rainstorm and took shelter under a bridge. Just then, there was lightning and thunder and the sky darkened. Liu Bang's father went to fetch his wife home and saw a dragon above her. Liu Bang's mother became pregnant and gave birth to Liu Bang.

Emperor Yao was claimed to be the ancestor of Liu Bang. Emperor Yao himself was descended from Huangdi. Most Chinese noble families claimed descent from Huangdi.

Liu Bang had a high nose, whiskers and a beard, bearing some resemblance to a dragon in appearance. He had 72 dark spots on his left leg as well. The young Liu Bang was outspoken, charismatic and of great forbearance and tolerance. However, Liu Bang enjoyed loafing, disliked reading and showed no interest in farming, hence his father often chided him as a "little rascal". Liu Bang persisted in his idling ways and depended on his brother's family for food and lodging. When he grew older, he was appointed as a patrol officer and forged close relationships with the officials in the county office, earning himself a little reputation in his hometown. While having drinks with his friends in the local taverns, they would notice a silhouette of a dragon over him whenever he was drunk. The tavern owners felt that Liu Bang was an extraordinary person and provided him with drinks each time free of charge.

One day back in his hometown, a respectable man known as Lü Wen (also called Lü Gong), who had recently moved to Pei County, was visited by the most influential men in town. Xiao He, who was in charge of helping Lü Wen collect the gifts from the visitors, announced, "Those who do not offer more than 1,000 coins in gifts shall be seated outside the hall. " Liu Bang went there without bringing a single cent and said, "I offer 10,000 coins. " Lü Wen saw Liu Bang and was impressed with him on first sight, that he immediately stood up and welcomed Liu into the hall to sit beside him. Xiao He told Lü Wen that Liu Bang was not serious, but Liu ignored him and chatted with Lü. Lü Wen said, "I used to predict fortunes for many people but I've never seen someone so exceptional like you before. " Lü Wen then offered his daughter Lü Zhi's hand in marriage to Liu Bang and they were wed. Lü Zhi bore Liu Bang a son (later Emperor Hui of Han) and a daughter (later Princess Yuan of Lu).

Insurrection against the qin dynasty

Once, Liu Bang was put in charge of escorting some convicts to Mount Li to build the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. During the journey, many prisoners fled and Liu Bang feared for his life, because allowing convicts to escape was a capital crime. Liu Bang then released the remaining prisoners and became a fugitive, with some of the men he released voluntarily agreeing to follow him. In legend, they encountered a gigantic white serpent that killed some people with its poisonous breath. Liu Bang slew the serpent that night and encountered an old woman weeping by the road the next morning. When Liu Bang's men asked her why she was crying, she replied, "My child, the White Emperor's son, has been slain by the son of the Red Emperor. ", and disappeared mysteriously. After hearing the old woman's strange words, Liu Bang's men believed that he was destined to become a ruler in future and became more impressed with him. The event was called "Uprising of the Slaying of the White Serpent" (Chinese: 斬白蛇起義; pinyin: zhăn bái shé qĭyì).

Liu Bang and his followers sought refuge on Mount Mangdang near Pei County and lived in an outlaw stronghold there. Liu Bang still maintained secret contact with his old friends in his hometown, such as Xiao He and Cao Shen. In 209 BC, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang rebelled against the qin dynasty, known as the Daze Village Uprising. The magistrate of Pei County considered rebelling as well, so at the advice of Xiao He and Cao Shen, he sent Fan Kuai (Liu Bang's relative) to invite Liu Bang and his followers back to Pei to support him. However, the magistrate changed his mind later and denied Liu Bang's party entry into the city. He was worried that Xiao He and Cao Shen might open the city gates for Liu Bang so he intended to have them executed, but Xiao and Cao escaped and joined Liu. Liu Bang followed Xiao He's suggestion and ordered his men to send letters on arrows fired into the city, urging his townsfolk to surrender and help him. They responded to Liu Bang's call and killed the magistrate, welcoming Liu back into the city. Liu Bang was then addressed as "Duke of Pei" (沛公) or "Lord Pei" by his followers.

In 208 BC, during the reign of Qin Er Shi, the descendants of the royal families of the former Yan, Zhao, Qi and Wei states rose in rebellion against the qin dynasty in the name of restoring their states. In Wu (in present-day Jiangsu ), Xiang Liang started an uprising as well and installed Mi Xin as King Huai II of Chu. Liu Bang went to join Xiang Liang and served under Chu for some time. After Xiang Liang was killed in action at the Battle of Dingtao, King Huai II sent Xiang Liang's nephew Xiang Yu and Song Yi to lead an army to attack the Qin forces and help Zhao. Liu Bang was granted the title of "Marquis of Wu'an" (武安侯) by the king and put in charge of an army to attack Qin. The king promised that whoever managed to enter Guanzhong (heartland of Qin) first will be granted the title of "King of Guanzhong". In 206 BC, Liu Bang beat Xiang Yu in the race to Guanzhong and arrived at Xianyang, the capital of Qin. The last Qin ruler Ziying surrendered to Liu Bang and the qin dynasty ended. Liu Bang issued strict orders for his troops, forbidding them from killing innocent civilians and pillaging the cities they conquered. The peace and stability in Xianyang was restored temporarily while Liu Bang's army was stationed there.

Chu–Han contention

the Feast at Hong Gate, while secretly preparing to kill Liu during the feast. However, Xiang Yu's uncle Xiang Bo, who was a close friend of Liu Bang's strategist Zhang Liang, managed to persuade Xiang Yu to spare Liu's life. Fan Zeng then ordered Xiang Yu's cousin Xiang Zhuang to perform a sword dance during the feast and use the opportunity to kill Liu Bang, but Xiang Bo prevented him from doing so. Liu Bang lied that he needed to go to the latrine and escaped back to his camp. Liu Bang and his troops evacuated from Xianyang and retreated westwards later. Xiang Yu led his men into Xianyang and they plundered and pillaged the city, committing atrocities against civilians and destroying the Epang Palace by fire.

Xiang Yu proclaimed himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" and split the former Qin Empire into Eighteen Kingdoms. The land of Guanzhong, rightfully Liu Bang's according to King Huai II's earlier promise, was granted by Xiang to three surrendered Qin generals instead. Liu Bang was relocated to Hanzhong in the remote Bashu region (in present-day Sichuan ) and granted the title of "King of Han" (汉王/漢王). While Xiang Yu was away suppressing the rebellion in Qi, Liu Bang led his troops to seize Guanzhong and several lands, including Xiang's capital of Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou) at one point. The forces of Chu and Han then engaged in a power struggle for supremacy over China for about five years, known as the Chu–Han contention, with victories and defeats for both sides in various battles.

Initially, Chu had an advantage over Han, but the tide turned in favour of the latter in 203 BC, after Xiang Yu and Liu Bang came to an armistice, known as the Treaty of Honggou, that divided China into east and west under their domains respectively. Liu Bang renounced the treaty and attacked Xiang Yu shortly afterwards, taking the latter by surprise and scoring a series of victories in the following battles. Liu Bang's forces defeated Xiang Yu at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BC and Xiang committed suicide. Chu surrendered and China was unified under Liu's rule.

Establishment of the han dynasty

In 202 BC, Liu Bang became Emperor of China with support from his subjects, even though he had expressed some reluctance in taking the throne. Liu Bang named his dynasty "Han", historically known as "Western han dynasty", and he became known as Emperor Gao (or Gaozu). He built his capital in Luoyang (later moved to Chang'an) and appointed Lü Zhi as his empress and his son Liu Ying as crown prince.

The following year, Gaozu rewarded his subjects who had contributed to the dynasty's founding, but the process prolonged for a year as the subjects started fighting among themselves for the rewards. Gaozu felt that Xiao He's contributions were the greatest, so he granted Xiao the title of "Marquis of Zan" and the greatest amount of food storages. Zhang Liang was granted the title of "Marquis of Liu". Some of Gaozu's subjects expressed their objections because they felt that Xiao He did not participate personally in battles so his contributions were not great. Gaozu replied that Xiao He was involved in strategic planning so credit should be given to Xiao because he was the one who set the direction for them to go. Cao Shen was named by Gaozu as the person who made the most contributions in battle. As for the others, Gaozu rewarded them in accordance to their contributions.


Gaozu was wounded by a stray arrow during a campaign to suppress Ying Bu's rebellion. He fell seriously ill and remained in his inner chambers for a long period of time, ordering his guards to deny anyone entry. After several days, Fan Kuai barged into the chambers to see Gaozu and the other subjects followed behind him. They saw Gaozu lying on his bed with only a eunuch to accompany him. Fan Zeng said, "How glorious it was when Your Majesty first led us to conquer the empire and how weary we are now. Your subjects are worried when they learn that Your Majesty is ill, but Your Majesty refuses to see us and prefers the company of a eunuch instead? Has Your Majesty forgotten the incident about Zhao Gao?" Gaozu laughed after hearing that and got out of bed to meet his subjects.

Gaozu's health deteriorated later and Empress Lü hired one of the best physicians to heal him. When Gaozu enquired about his condition, the physician told him that his illness can be cured. However, Gaozu was displeased and he scolded the physician, saying, "Isn't it Heaven's will that I managed to conquer this empire in simple clothing and with nothing but a sword? My life is determined by Heaven, and it will still be useless even if Bian Que was here!" Gaozu refused to continue with his treatment and sent the physician away with some gold. Before his death, Gaozu said Cao Shen can be chancellor after Xiao He dies, and Wang Ling may succeed Cao Shen. Gaozu also said that Wang Ling may be too young to take on his duties so Chen Ping may assist Wang Ling, but Chen Ping is also qualified to take on the responsibilities alone. Gaozu also named Zhou Bo as a possible candidate for the role of Grand Commandant. Gaozu died in Changle Palace on 1 June 195 BC and was succeeded by the crown prince Liu Ying, who became Emperor Hui of Han.


Reducing taxes and corvée

Gaozu disbanded his armies and allowed his soldiers to return home after becoming the emperor. He issued an order for those under the jurisdiction of his vassal kings, stating that those who remained in Guanzhong will be exempted from taxes and corvée for twelve years, whereas those who returned to their respective fiefdoms will be exempted for six years and the state will provide for them for a year. Gaozu also granted freedom to those who had sold themselves into slavery to avoid hunger during the war. In 195 BC, Gaozu issued two decrees, the first to officialize the lowering of taxes and corvée, and the second to fix the amount of tribute paid to the imperial court from the vassal kings in the 10th month of every year. The land tax on agricultural production was reduced to a rate of one-fifteenth of crop yield. He also privatized the coinage.

Emphasis on Confucianism

In his early days, Gaozu disliked reading and regarded Confucianism lowly. After he ascended to the throne, he retained the same perspective towards Confucianism as before, until he was enlightened by the scholar Lu Gu. Lu Gu wrote a 12 volume book titled Xinyu (新語), stressing the benefits of governing the nation by moral virtue rather than by using coercive laws. Lu Gu read each volume to the emperor after he had finished writing it, and Gaozu was deeply impressed. Under Gaozu's reign, the influence of Confucianism increased and gradually replaced Legalism, which dominated and prevailed in the previous dynasty. Confucian scholars, including Lu Gu, were recruited into Gaozu's government and Gaozu also introduced reforms to the legal system, lightening the harsh laws from the qin dynasty and reducing the severity of punishments. In 196 BC, after putting down Ying Bu's rebellion, Gaozu's army passed by Shandong (native land of Confucius), where Gaozu personally prepared for a ceremony to pay his respects to the late philosopher.

Dispute over the succession

In his later years, Gaozu began to show greater affection for Concubine Qi and paid less attention to Empress Lü Zhi. He felt that the crown prince Liu Ying who was born to the empress, his oldest son and heir apparent to the throne, was too weak to be a ruler. Gaozu had the intention of deposing Liu Ying and replacing him with another son named Liu Ruyi (born to Concubine Qi), Prince of Zhao. Empress Lü became worried and asked Zhang Liang to help her son keep his position. Zhang Liang recommended four reclusive wise men, collectively known as the "Four Haos of Mount Shang" (Chinese: 商山四皓; pinyin: Shāng Shān Sì Hào) to help Liu Ying.

In 195 BC, after Gaozu returned from suppressing Ying Bu's rebellion, his health worsened and he desired even more to change the crown prince. Zhang Liang tried to stop him but Gaozu ignored Zhang, so Zhang retired from state affairs on the excuse that he was ill. The crown prince's tutor Shusun Tong and Zhou Chang protested strongly against Gaozu's decision to replace the crown prince. Zhou Chang said, "I'm not good in arguing, but I know that this is not right. If Your Majesty gets rid of the crown prince, I will refuse to listen to your orders anymore. " Zhou Chang was very outspoken but however he had a stuttering problem, which made his speech even more amusing and Gaozu laughed. After that, the four wise men appeared and Gaozu was surprised to see them because they had refused to serve him before. They promised to help Liu Ying in future if he became the emperor. Gaozu was pleased to see that Liu Ying now had the support of the four men, so he dismissed the idea of replacing the crown prince.

Military campaigns

After establishing the han dynasty, Gaozu appointed several vassal kings to help him govern his empire and granted them fiefs spread throughout the land. There were seven of them; Zang Tu, King of Yan; Hán Xin, King of Hán; Han Xin, King of Chu; Peng Yue, King of Liang; Ying Bu, King of Huainan ; Zhang Er, King of Zhao; Wu Rui, King of Changsha. However, Gaozu became worried later that the kings might rebel against him, because they were not from his own clan. He had some of them framed and executed on charges of treason, such as Peng Yue, while others such as Ying Bu and Zang Tu did rebel against him later and were eliminated by him. Only Wu Rui and Zhang Er were left eventually.

During Qin Shi Huang's reign, the threat of the Xiongnu in the north was already present. Qin Shi Huang sent Meng Tian to lead an army to attack the Xiongnu and defend the northern border, while ordering the construction of the Great Wall to safeguard the Qin Empire. Meng Tian achieved success in driving the invaders back north. Following the collapse of the qin dynasty, the Xiongnu seized the advantage to advance south and raid the border again. In 201 BC, Hán Xin (King of Hán) surrendered to the Xiongnu and in the following year, Gaozu led his army to attack the Xiongnu. However, the Han forces were no match for the Xiongnu (led by Modu) and Gaozu's army was besieged at Baideng by 300,000 enemy cavalry. Gaozu left safely after he followed Chen Ping's suggestion to bribe Modu's wife with gifts and ask her to request for her husband to lift the siege. As an act of appeasement, Gaozu initiated the policy of heqin, which was, to marry noble ladies from his royal clan and offer yearly tributes to the Xiongnu chieftains in exchange for peace between both sides.

Song of the Great Wind

The Song of the Great Wind was a song composed by Liu Bang in 195 BC when he visited his hometown of Pei County after suppressing Ying Bu's rebellion. He prepared a banquet and invited all his old friends and townsfolk to join him. After some drinks, Liu Bang started playing a guqin and sang the Song of the Great Wind.


Song of the Great Wind


A great wind came forth,the clouds rose on high.


Now that my might rules all within the seas,I have returned to my old village.


Where will I find brave mento guard the four corners of my land?


In contrast with Xiang Yu, usually depicted as a romantic man of noble origin, Liu Bang was often mentioned as a rogue or street ruffian. Xiang Yu treated his subordinates and peers well even though he was ruthless and cruel towards his enemies. On the other hand, Liu Bang appeared as a charismatic but shrewd leader, who manipulated his subjects for his own purposes while putting on an image of a benevolent and righteous lord. Liu Bang forbid his men from killing civilians and pillaging the cities he conquered, in order to win the support and trust of the people. In direct contrast, Xiang Yu was cruel and condoned the acts of brutality by his followers towards the common people, that accounted for his decline in popularity. Liu Bang's strengths include: his ability to make decisions based on advice from his subjects; making sound judgements when accepting others' views; performing acts that would win him the support of others, and his personal charisma.

After the establishment of the han dynasty, Liu Bang initially handsomely rewarded his subjects who helped him gain the throne, but he grew suspicious of them later and doubted their loyalties. Two of his subjects who contributed heavily to the dynasty's founding, Han Xin and Peng Yue, were killed on Empress Lü Zhi's orders and their clans exterminated as well. Despite his various character flaws, Liu Bang treated the people better than the Qin rulers and was a popular monarch during his reign.


Gaozu was the first Chinese emperor to have an intimate male companion, Jiru, as listed in the official histories. As Sima Qian noted, Gaozu, for all his coarseness and blunt manners, was won by the charms of Jiru. Jiru did not have any particular talent or ability, and won prominence simply by his looks and graces. He was by Gaozu's side day and night, and all the high ministers were obliged to apply to them when they wished to speak to the emperor. Gaozu's example of officially elevating a male lover to the top of the administration would be followed by nine more rulers of the han dynasty.

Personal information


Liu Taigong (literally: Old Sir Liu)

Liu Ao (literally: Old Madam Liu)


Liu Bo, Duke of Huai

Liu Xi, Prince of Dai

Liu Jiao, Prince of Chu


Empress Lü Zhi, Liu Ying and Princess Yuan of Lu's mother

Major Concubines

Consort Cao, Liu Fei's mother

Consort Qi, Liu Ruyi's mother

Consort Wan

Consort Guan

Consort Bo, Liu Heng's mother

Consort Zhao, Liu Chang's mother

Consort Zhao Zi'er


Liu Fei, Prince Daohui of Qi

Liu Ying, Crown Prince, later Emperor Hui

Liu Jian, Prince Ling of Yan

Liu Ruyi, Prince Yin of Zhao

Liu Heng, Prince of Dai, later Emperor Wen

Liu Hui, Prince of Liang, later Prince Gong of Zhao

Liu You, Prince of Huaiyang, later Prince You of Zhao

Liu Chang, Prince Li of Huainan

Princess Yuan of Lu


Liu Xiang, Prince Ai of Qi, Liu Fei's son

Liu Zhang, Prince Jing of Chengyang, Liu Fei's son

Liu Xingju, Marquis of Dongmou, Liu Fei's son

Liu Qi, Crown Prince, later Emperor Jing, Liu Heng's son

Last update 07-06-2012

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