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Introduction to Chapters II and III

These two chapters give an account of the chief events during the time that the government was in control of the Empress née Lü, the wife of Emperor Kao-tsu. Chapter II treats of the period when her son, Emperor Hsiao-hui, was on the throne and chapter III of the period after his death when she openly took control. These chapters, like chapter I, are largely based on the corresponding chapter in the SC, chapter IX. Pan Ku, however, added some new material; he seems to have had available a collection of imperial edicts and possibly an official annalistic chronicle, upon which he drew.

The SC puts this material into one chapter; Pan Ku divides it into two because there were two rulers. Pan Ku furthermore has transferred into his "Memoirs" the more sensational stories given in the SC, seemingly because he felt that these accounts concerned the private lives of the actors, rather than their public acts. Thus he has left in these "Annals" only the bare mention of Liu Ju-yi's death and that of Liu Yu, and has said nothing about the Empress's treatment of the Lady née Ch'i. Concerning the attempted assassination of Liu Fei, he mentions only its administrative result. He gives those accounts in full in his "Memoir of the Imperial Relatives by Marriage" and the "Memoir of the Five Kings who were Sons of Kao-tsu." Thus Pan Ku seems to have conceived of the "Annals" as chronicles properly devoted to the official acts of the ruler and the important events of the reign, rather than as an attempt to give in full an account of the period. Such an account must be gathered from the mine of material in the remainder of this encyclopedic history.

This period of fifteen years constituted a period of rest and recuperation after the fighting and destruction preceding the reign of Kao-tsu and the civil war during it. The only serious conflict was an internal one, which did not come to a head until the very end of the period. Kao-tsu had eliminated all his important feudal kings except those of his own family, so that during this period there were no revolts, such as had plagued him. Peace was made with the only important external enemy, the Huns, and it was cemented by sending a girl of the imperial family to be a bride of the Hun emperor, the Shan-Yü. There was only one war---with the state of Nan-Yüeh, located at the present Canton; but the mountains proved such a barrier that the war was confined to border forays, and the Chinese generals did not even try to cross the mountains. Thus the people secured a rest, the population could increase, and the country became prosperous.

The Chancellor of State, Hsiao Ho, who had administered Kao-tsu's empire, died in the second year of this period. He nominated Kao-tsu's greatest fighter, Ts'ao Ts'an, as his successor, thus emphasizing the tradition that since the empire had been conquered by Kao-tsu's personal followers, it should be ruled by them. This tradition was followed as long as any capable followers of Kao-tsu remained alive and was the factor that prevented the overturn of the state.

Liu Ying, known as Emperor Hsiao-hui, proved a kindly but weak young man. He was only in his sixteenth year when he came to the throne, and the real power went to his mother, then entitled the Empress Dowager née Lü. She had taken an active part in the conquest of the empire, had suffered severely in that contest, and had gathered around her a faction, chiefly composed of members of the Lü family (including two of her older brothers who had been generals of Kao-tsu and had been ennobled by him as marquises) and of her relatives by marriage, especially the valiant Fan K'uai, who had married her younger sister, the able and determined Lü Hsü. This faction ennabled the Empress Dowager to enthrone her son, although he was not the oldest nor the favorite son of Kao-tsu. The oldest son was Liu Fei, who had been made King of Ch'i, the most important part of the empire next to Kuan-chung. But Liu Fei was not the son of Kao-tsu's wife, and so could be passed over.

Since the Empress Dowager had only barely succeeded in enthroning her son, she felt driven to cultivate the interests of the people in order to bolster up her power. Hence, although she committed grave crimes, she proved a good ruler. She could not afford the unpopularity of misrule and was too intelligent to indulge in it. She lightened the taxes and removed some of the severe punishments that had been inherited from the Ch'in dynasty, repealing, for example, the Ch'in law against the possession of proscribed books. She allowed the commutation of punishments, even of capital punishment, for money payment, which, in those days of severe and harsh punishments, was a lightening of penalties rather than an invitation to the wealthy to commit crime. The most serious crimes were not commuted.

But she came into conflict with her son the Emperor when she attempted to take vengeance upon her rival. She imprisoned closely in the Palace the favorites of her husband, especially the Lady née Ch'i, who had almost succeeded in displacing her as Empress. The Empress Dowager wanted a keener revenge, but dared do nothing more as long as the Lady's son was alive. This ten-year-old boy, Liu Ju-yi, Kao-tsu's favorite child, had been made King of Chao with a capable and brave Chancellor to guard him. When this Chancellor would not send the boy to the capital, the Empress Dowager removed the Chancellor and had the boy brought. But he was a favorite of the Emperor too, so the sixteen year old Emperor met his half-brother at a village ten miles from the capital and carefully conducted him to his own apartments, where he guarded him by always keeping him by his side. After several months, one morning early the Emperor went out hunting, leaving Ju-yi sleeping. The Empress Dowager immediately had her step-son poisoned. The Emperor could do nothing to his own mother, not even for murder.

Then the Empress Dowager had the dead boy's mother, the Lady née Ch'i, terribly mutilated and thrown out into the gully through which ran the sewer, naming her "the Human Swine." She took her son to see her mutilated rival; he did not recognize the poor lady; when an attendant informed him of her identity, the Emperor wept himself into a nervous breakdown. For a year he could not leave his bed. When he recovered, he sent this message to his mother: "Your deed was utterly inhuman. I am your son, so I cannot again govern the country." Then he gave himself over to drinking, to women, and to pleasure.

The next year Liu Fei came to court. At a family dinner the Emperor seated Fei above himself, as befitted the oldest brother. The Empress Dowager became angry and ordered two goblets of poisoned wine for Fei. Then she commanded him to drink a toast. But the Emperor took one of the goblets to drink; without a descendant on the throne the Empress Dowager would have been helpless; she hastily arose and upset her son's goblet. Then Fei took alarm and left. He feared for his life, but found that the Empress Dowager had merely acted in a fit of anger; so he made his peace with her by presenting her daughter, Kao-tsu's oldest child, the Princess Yüan of Lu, with a commandery and appointing this step-sister as his Queen Dowager.

Emperor Hui died in the seventh year of his rule. The Empress Dowager had married him to the daughter of Princess Yüan. Such a union was quite proper, since the girl had a surname different from that of her husband. But she had no child. The Emperor had however had a son by a lady of his harem; the Empress Dowager named this babe the son of the Empress and killed his mother. The babe was made Heir-apparent and was enthroned as Emperor. Since he was her grandson, and the Empress was her granddaughter, the Empress Dowager herself boldly took the Emperor's place in court and issued imperial decrees and edicts in her own name.

Then she strengthened her position by appointing four of her nephews from the Lü family as kings, and, to forestall trouble over the succession, if anything should happen to the babe, she took six babes of the Lü family and named them marquises, asserting that they were children of Emperor Hui.

This action brought her into conflict with one of the established practises of the dynasty, which was after her death to prove stronger than she. Kao-tsu had gathered his immediate followers and made them swear a solemn oath in a ceremony in which a white horse had been killed and the lips of each had been smeared with the blood. This oath was to the effect that no one except members of the imperial Liu family should be made king and no one should be made marquis except for deeds of valor. Kao-tsu had taken this step when he was plagued by the rebellions of those vassal kings not members of the imperial clan; but he had himself violated this oath in the appointment of his boyhood and close friend, Lu Wan, as King of Yen. The Empress Dowager's important officials had all been followers of Kao-tsu and had taken this oath; yet they respected her ability and recognized that she had materially assisted in winning the empire, so that she also was one of the followers of Kao-tsu; these facts and the power of the Lü faction kept the officials from making any overt move against her. The Senior Lieutenant Chancellor, Wang Ling, protested in private, but he was promoted to an advisory post which left him powerless. The Empress Dowager thus succeeded in establishing herself firmly in control. She had a committee of the high officials and nobles arrange the precedence of the nobles in the court, thus increasing the prestige of her faction.

In 184 B.C. the child emperor learned of his real mother. Boy-like he boasted, "The Empress could have killed my mother and pass me as her son. I am not yet grown up, but when I am grown up, I will change things." Such a threat to the Empress Dowager's power could not be tolerated; the child was pronounced insane, imprisoned to death in the palace prison, and the ministers were ordered to suggest his successor.

They knew that he was the only natural son of Emperor Hui; in seeming deference to the Empress Dowager but in real unwillingness to be a party to her action they replied merely that they accepted her orders. She then selected one of the six babes she had previously named as marquises and sons of Emperor Hui and appointed him Emperor. The ministers said nothing; this appointment was not their work; they consequently felt free to overturn it later.

In order to consolidate her power, the Empress Dowager had married some of Kao-tsu's sons to girls of her family, the Lü. One of them, Yu, did not love his wife and favored a concubine; he was slandered to the Empress Dowager as having said that after her death he would attack the Lü family. She summoned him to the capital and starved him to death in his lodgings. Another son, K'uei, was so oppressed by his wife, a Lü girl, who poisoned his beloved concubine, that he committed suicide. A third, Chien, died; the Empress Dowager sent to have his son killed and end his kingdom. There were left now only two out of the eight sons of Kao-tsu, only three of whom had died a natural death.

The Empress Dowager knew she could not live much longer; to perpetuate her clan's power she appointed her two nephews, Lü Ch'an and Lü Lu, the first as Chancellor of State, in charge of the civil government, and the second as First Ranking General, in charge of the military. To placate the Liu faction, she appointed its head, Liu Tse, a venerable cousin of Kao-tsu, as King of Lang-ya, and gave royal posthumous titles to Kao-tsu's mother, older brother, and older sister. Thus she prepared for the inevitable.

In March/April 181, as the Empress Dowager was returning to the capital from a religious ceremony in the suburbs, she was bitten in the side by a dog, which immediately disappeared. When she was brought back to the Palace, the diviner brought the response, "It is the ghost of Ju-yi, become an evil spirit." The wound probably became infected; she died on August 18. By a testamentary edict she made grants to the nobles, generals, and officials, leaving the government in charge of her two nephews.

Revolution arose immediately. There had been much criticism of the Empress Dowager; one portent after another had been noted. Twelve days after the death of Liu Yu there had been an eclipse total at the capital, and the Empress Dowager was said to have declared, "This is on my account." Those of Kao-tsu's personal followers, such as the famous Lu Chia, who had been unable to stomach the Empress Dowager's rule and had retired to their estates, returned to the capital to readjust matters. The Lieutenant Chancellor Ch'en P'ing and the Grand Commandant Chou P'o were both old friends of Lu Chia. They had all been companions of Kao-tsu and had taken the oath. They were ready to eliminate the Lü faction, for they owed their positions to having been followers of Kao-tsu even more than to the favor of the Empress Dowager. They were actively aided by the Liu faction, composed of the Liu family and its adherents.

Overt action was taken by the King of Ch'i, who was the eldest son of Liu Fei, the eldest son of Kao-tsu. He mobilized his army and tricked Liu Tse into aiding him. Kuan Ying, one of Kao-tsu's best generals, was sent against the rebels; but Kuan Ying had also taken the oath. He went half-way and encamped, sending word to the King of Ch'i that he would later join him. Thus the Lü power crumbled.

Kao-tsu's followers in the capital meanwhile conspired to overthrow the Lü, with Chou P'o and Ch'en P'ing at their head. They had a friend of Lü Lu point out to him that the appointment of nine kings from the Liu family and three kings from the Lü family had been quite legal, since it had been done after deliberation by the high officials and with the concurrence of the kings---that thus the imperial power was not absolute, but was limited by the consent of the high ministers and the highest nobles. He was told that if the Lü promptly surrendered their power and retired to their estates, they would not be molested; but if not, they would be suspected of rebellion and proceeded against. Lü Lu saw the correctness of this reasoning and agreed, but he had to submit the matter to his clan, and so action was postponed.

On September 26 the defection of Kuan Ying was reported to Lü Ch'an. The bureaucracy was so honeycombed with conspirators that word of this news was immediately taken to Chou P'o. Lü Lu was promptly tricked into giving up control of the army; the troops unanimously declared for the Liu faction, and Lü Ch'an, seemingly the only able man among the Lü faction, was killed. The next day the whole Lü clan was massacred. Thus the power of the Empress Dowager collapsed like a house of cards within six weeks after her death. Then the high officials and heads of the Liu clan met and chose as the next emperor the oldest surviving son of Kao-tsu, whose reputation and that of his wife's family were better than that of the King of Ch'i.

In this manner the first threat to the House of Liu from members of clans allied by marriage was removed by the action of Kao-tsu's loyal followers. The House of Liu was securely fixed on the throne and its continuation secured. It is interesting that this House was finally overthrown by another clan whose power likewise came from intermarriage with the royal house.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia