Who Was First Emperor Of The Han Dynasty?

The People’s Republic of China is rich in civilization, which goes back over four thousand years. There have been many emperors in Chinese history who have had a significant effect on the demographics, governance style, and the culture of China. One of the influential emperors, who fought to maintain control over one of the most enduring empires in China, was Liu Bang. Read on to learn more about whom his was, how he established the Han Dynasty, and his achievements.

Who was Liu Bang?

picture of liu bang

Liu Bang, who is officially known and remembered as Emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, was the founder and the first emperor of the Han Dynasty from 202 BC until his death in 195 BC. He had the courtesy name ‘Ji’, his temple name was ‘Taizu’ and his retrospective name was ‘Gaozu of Han’ or ‘Emperor Gao’.

He is greatly remembered as one of the few dynasty founders in Chinese history who was born into a peasant family, yet was able to conquer all the odds and become an influential leader. Before becoming an emperor, he was an outstanding political strategist and he served for the Qin Dynasty as a minor low enforcement officer in Pei County. When the Qin emperor passed on and the empire was facing a time of political chaos, he immediately abandoned his civil service position and became a rebel leader. As a leader, he made great contributions to the development of the Han people and greatly shaped Chinese culture and history.

Who was the first emperor of the Han Dynasty?

The Han Dynasty, which existed between 202 BCE and 220CE, was the second dynasty of Imperial China. It succeeded the Qin Dynasty, which existed between 221 and 206 BCE, and it was followed by the Period of the Three Kingdoms in China. The Han dynasty was founded by the influential commoner – Liu Bang, who was crowned Emperor Gaozu of Han when he rose to power. He was the first emperor of the Han Dynasty and he worked so hard toward repairing all the systemic damages that were caused by the repressive regime of the Qin Dynasty. He tried to create more benevolent laws, and a more functional and responsive government, and he ensured that his people were cared for.

Liu Bang – Birth and Early Life

Liu Band was born in 256 BC into a peasant family that lived in Fenyu Village, which is located in the Zhongyang Township in Feng County in the State of Chu. He was born and raised during the late years of the Warring States Period, which was between 475 and 221 BC. According to several historical records and other Chinese literary works, Liu Bang was very charismatic and outspoken when he was young. Along with that, he was very generous and he was of forbearance. Despite these strong personality traits, he disliked reading, he was always in trouble with the law, he barely showed interest in farming and manual labor like all the other commoners in the land, and he truly enjoyed loafing.

As he grew older, he developed a great interest in politics and he eventually became a low-ranking official. As a civil servant, he slowly gained popularity and took time to build a rapport for himself. At one point in his journey, he happened to see Emperor Qin moving around in an elegant carriage and it motivated him to develop strength in his character, command, and engagement patterns.

How did Liu Bang Die?

Unfortunately, Liu Bang was wounded by a stray arrow when campaigning against Ying Bu. Following the tragic accident, he became seriously ill and had to stay in his inner chambers for a long period of time. During this time, he ordered his guards to deny entry to anyone who tried to visit him. After several days, his friend and leader- Fan Kuai, barged into Liu Bang’s chambers and everyone else who wanted to see him followed through. They saw the emperor and questioned his current state by comparing it to a time when Liu Bang established their empire. That motivated the emperor to get out of bed and meet his subjects.

After some time, his health deteriorated and empress Lu Zhi had to hire a famous physician to heal Liu Bang. When the physician told him that his condition could be cured and he could resume normal duties after treatment, the emperor was angry and scolded the physician. He refused to continue with treatment and asked the physician to leave. Right before he died, he tried to shed light on his potential successor. On June 195 BCE, he became weary, and seriously ill, and eventually died in Changle Palace.

Liu Bang Family

It is believed that Liu Bang’s ancestors were the Yellow Emperor and the mythical Emperor Yao. Generally, nearly all noble families from ancient China claimed the Yellow Emperor as their ancestor, which is more or less a justification for their right to rule. His parents were Liu Ao (Old Madam Liu) and Liu Taigong (Old Sir Liu) and they were from the Zhongyang district in Pei County, which was located in the state of Chu. Supposedly, Liu Ao (his mother) encountered a dragon during a rainstorm, and through this, Liu Bang was conceived.

He had a close friend – Zhang Er, who was the magistrate of Waihuang Country, which was close to their county. He considered his family and they lived together for a long time before they went into hiding. His wife was Lu Zhi, the daughter of a wealthy and influential gentry from Shanfu county known as Lu Wen. He and his wife had two children – a son (Liu Ying) who became the future Emperor Hui, and a daughter who eventually became the Princess Yuan of Lu.

How did Liu Bang establish the Han Dynasty

han dynasty dates

How old was Liu Bang when he became the emperor? When the Qin Dynasty collapsed in 207 BCE, 18 separate kingdoms actively declared their independence. In the process, the Han and Chu states became the most popular, however, the Han state was the victor in the 4-year civil war, which was known as the Chu-Han Contention. Here, Liu Bang, who had been born a peasant, rose in rebellion against the Qin Empire in the late Qin Dynasty. He successfully conquered multiple territories and managed to defeat all rival armies, and eventually emerged as the First Emperor of the Han Empire in 202 BC.

He was about 55 years old when he became the emperor and he established Chang’an (Xi’an) as the capital of the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty was considered one of the most important and longest-lasting dynasties in the history of China. It ruled China for over 400 years, from 206 BCE to 220 CE, and it ushered in a period of development, the golden age of peace, and ultimate prosperity. After the establishment of the Han Dynasty, there was an unexpected coup by the Xin Dynasty which led to the division of the Kingdom into the Western Han Dynasty and the Eastern Han Dynasty. Upon separation, there was great stability, and the same dynastic clan continued to rule the land.  

When Liu Bang ascended the throne, the first thing he did was to establish the harsh laws of the Qin Dynasty and established more benevolent laws that were greatly supported by the people. He also ordered the reduction of taxes so that peasants can be part of resource mobilization in the state and allowed armies to go back and farm their lands. Because of his effective measures, reforms, and undeniably strong leadership, China’s economy recovered very fast and there was a lot of political stability in the region.

Why was Liu Bang important?

Liu Bang was not only the founder of the longest-lasting Dynasty in China’s history (the Han Dynasty) but he is also the symbolic father of the Han people, who make up a fifth of the world’s population. Along with that, he is a great inspiration to many Chinese leaders across the globe, as he was only a commoner who eventually rose to power and served as a strategic and progressive ruler. He is also considered an influential leader and he played a role in shaping China’s culture, history, economic development, and political structure.

Liu Bang vs. Xiang Yu (Chu-Han Contention)

chu han contention map

In 209 BC, Liu Bang revolted against the tyranny of the Qin Dynasty. After about 2-3 years of warfare, he successfully overthrew the Qin Dynasty. At that time, Xiang Yu (another rebel leader) was furious because Liu Bang successfully captured Xianyang ahead of him. For the next 4 years, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu waged a rough war to contest the throne, the war was known as the Chu-Han war, and it ended with the victory of Liu Bang.

During the war, Xiang Yu’s military had an advantage over Liu Bang’s military forces. One day, Xiang invited Liu to a banquet so that he can execute him, but Xiang was flattered by Liu’s modest conversations. So, Xiang held back from killing Liu. Liu, on the other hand, sought help and protection from Fan Kuai and Xiang Bo, and he managed to escape from Xiang Yu’s military base. He then united other anti-Xiang Yu forces, fought back, then won the war. When this happened, Xiang Yu of Western Chu immediately committed suicide by slitting his throat using a sword beside the Wujiang River.

Liu Bang Achievements

Some of the achievements of Liu Bang were;

Reducing taxes and corvée

At one point during his reign as emperor, he disbanded his armies and allowed his soldiers to go back home. Following this decision, he gave an order stating that all the people who stayed back and chose to settle in Guanzhong were exempted from taxes and corvée for twelve consecutive years. He gave another order stating that those who chose to return to their respective native territories would only be exempted for 6 years and that the central government would provide for them for only a year. In addition to that, he granted freedom to those who willingly sold themselves into slavery to avert effects of war. Also, he reduced the land tax on agricultural production and privatized the coinage.

Emphasis on Confucianism

When he was younger, he greatly disliked reading and was completely against Confucianism. When he became the emperor, he still had negative attitudes towards the Confucian philosophy until he came across Lu Gu- the scholar who wrote a 12-volume book titled Xinyu. The book extensively discussed the benefits of governing by moral virtue instead of using harsh and punitive laws to restrict people. Lu Gu read each volume to Emperor Gaozu and the emperor was greatly impressed. For this reason, Confucianism flourished during his reign and replaced Legalism that was used in the Qin Dynasty. Lu was part of his government and together they reformed the legal system, reduced the severity of punishments and created a more functional and responsive government structure.

Dispute over the succession

At one point in his life, Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu) neglected his wife (Empress Lu Zhi) and favored concubine Qi. During this time, he believed that his son (Liu Ying) born to empress Lu Zhi was too weak to be his successor. For this reason, he looked for ways to replace Liu Ying with concubine Qi’s son (Liu Ruyi). Empress Lu Zhi became worried and consulted Zhang Liang to help maintain her son’s position as heir. Zhang recommended the 4 Whiteheads of Mount Shag to help her son.

In 195 BC, when Emperor Gaozu slowly became weak due to his health condition, he wanted to replace Liu Ying even more and wanted Liu Ruyi to take up the crown prince title. When Zhang Liang tried to convince him otherwise, the emperor turned him down, so he decided to retire. Zhou Chang and Shusun Tong also rejected the idea of replacing the heir and refused to follow emperor Gaozu’s orders. Zhou Chang’s stutter amused the emperor. Eventually, the 4 Whiteheads showed up in court in favor of Liu Yhing and the emperor was greatly surprised because they had previously declined to join the civil service when he asked. They vowed to help him in the future as long as he remained the crown prince. Following this action, emperor Gaozu decided that his son the empress was fit to be his successor.

Military campaigns

Right after successfully establishing the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang took time to appoint princes and vassal kings to help him govern his empire and gave each one of them a piece of land to settle. Seven of the appointed vassal kings weren’t related to the imperial clan, and this caused worry in emperor Gaozu’s heart as he felt that at one point the 7 vassal kings would rebel against his rule because they have no loyalty ties. Two of the vassal kings (Han Xin and Peng Yue) were falsely accused of treason and were executed alongside their families. The other two vassal kings (Ying Bu and Zang Tu) revolted against the king but ended up being killed in the process. Wu Rui, Zhang Er, and the other Han Xin were left.

The Xiongnu in the north had been a threat since the Qin Dynasty. For this reason, Qin Shi Huang sent the general to Meng Tian to oversee the defenses on the northern border to repel any invaders, which he did successfully. When the Qin Dynasty collapsed, the Xiongnu moved south and tried to raid the border once again. In 201 BCE, Xan Xin deserted the Xiongnu leader, and in the following year, emperor Gaozu lead an army to attack the Xiongnu but he was trapped by the enemies at the battle of Baideng. He bribed the Xiongnu’s leader’s wife with gifts and she immediately asked her husband to withdraw his forces. When he got a chance to return to the capital, Liu Bang initiated the policy of hegin, where noble ladies were sent to marry Xiongnu annually in exchange for peaceful ties.


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