Emperor Gao (256 BC or 247 BC – 1 June 195 BC), commonly known by his temple name Gaozu ,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” and “Liu Ao” . 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”.
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 Guangrebelled 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” 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 andSong Yi to lead an army to attack the Qin forces and help Zhao. Liu Bang was granted the title of “Marquis of Wu’an” 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.