Farmer’s son and police officer, Emperor Gaodi, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202 BC, was an unusual figure who founded perhaps the most successful dynasty in Chinese history. Gaodi also elevated the status of officials, artisans and farmers above that of businessmen and is said to have believed his greatest strength was knowing how to exploit the talents of the people around him.
But the emperor – formerly Liu Bang, a native of Jiangsu province – is perhaps best known for embracing Confucian tolerance after the harsh governing style of his predecessors, the Qin emperors.
Gaodi abolished a series of laws and punishments, setting a more humanistic tone for the Han Dynasty, which flourished both culturally and economically. Taxes were lowered and agricultural reform encouraged. Its relative success left its mark. The name for the majority ethnic group in China: the “Han”.
The details of how Liu became first Emperor of the Western Han with its capital in Xi’an – the Eastern Han was to follow, 200 years later, making for a 400-year era in all – are complicated by tales of thunderstorms, dragons and serpents. Yet Liu’s path to power may have begun almost by accident, when a group of prisoners he was escorting fled during a journey across northern China.
The penalty for that under the Qin was death for the commanding officer, so Liu joined the escapees in the mountains as bandit leader. Not long after, he became Duke of Pei, ruler of his home town of Pei. His power grew.
With the Qin crumbling, in 207 BC, the last Qin Emperor Ziying surrendered to Liu at the Qin capital of Xianyang. More fighting followed until in 202 BC Liu became Emperor Gaodi or Gaozu, “first ancestor” – the official title of his reign.
His rule was to last only seven years, during which time he fought a series of battles, including conflicts with the Xiongnu, tribes on China’s north and western borders. Exhausted by warfare, Gaodi offered them princesses of the royal family in marriage. It proved a complicated and often costly method of securing friendship.
According to John Keay’s China: A History Gaodi remained a soldier to the end, particularly in his personal habits. “The emperor liked nothing more than a bacchanalia of brimming cups, earthy jokes and clumsy horseplay,” he writes. And like many military men, he wasn’t a fan of intellectuals: “He was known to snatch off the hat of the nearest scholar to use as a chamber pot.”
In 195 BC Emperor Gaodi was struck by an arrow in battle and died. A year before his death, Gaodi’s army had passed through the hometown of Confucius in Shandong, where he paused to mark his respects. It was a useful nod to China’s past, especially for a ruler who started as a rebel.
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