- James Houser
February 28, 202 BC - Coronation of Liu Bang and birth of Han Dynasty
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
February 28, 202 BC. The Middle Kingdom, long divided, must unite. On this day, Liu Bang, once a peasant and constable of a backwater province, becomes Emperor of China. Liu Bang takes the name Gaozu, and establishes the Han Dynasty, which will rule China during its "Classical Period" - 446 years - and sets the standard for all dynasties to follow. What we now know as China begins here.
To date this story...at the same time as the events below, Rome was in a desperate war against Hannibal, the Greeks were still dealing with the aftermath of Alexander's wars, and India was reigned by the Maurya Empire, its first great kingdom. This is before Christ. This is *ancient.*
Liu Bang was born and grew up during the rise of the first great empire that unified China - the Qin. Before the Qin, the north-central Chinese mainland had been made up of multiple competing kingdoms. In Chinese history, this is known as the "Warring States" period. Qin was only one kingdom among many, but it had the advantage of a large population, good generals, divided opponents, and the leadership of Ying Zheng. By 223 BC, the Qin had defeated all their opponents and taken control of all the kingdoms of China. Ying Zheng declared himself Qin Shi Huang - the First Emperor. Qin Shi Huang was the first, the Augustus or Charlemagne of China. He was the Man.
Liu Bang grew up in this period, the son of a peasant family in the state of Chu, unnoticed by the lords and kings fighting above him. Liu Bang was confident, charismatic and generous, but also lazy, incurious and a troublemaker. Despite these negative traits, he was able to use his personal charms to get himself appointed the Sheriff of Sishui and make a lot of personal connections in his district. His sublime confidence and undeniable charisma made inroads in crowds he never would have touched otherwise.
In 210 BC, Qin Shi Huang died, leaving his Empire in the hands of his less capable son Qin Er Shi. His mausoleum was going to be a grand affair, and Liu Bang was ordered to escort some convicts to help with construction. While on the trip, some of the prisoners escaped. Liu Bang feared for his life because losing these men was a capital offense under Qin law; figuring he may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, Liu released all the other prisoners. Some of the prisoners, impressed with his (secretly selfish) generosity, decided to follow Liu to refuge from the law in the mountains. So Liu's workers never reached Xi'an to build what would become the Terracotta Army, one of the greatest archaeological treasures of ancient China.
Liu picked the right time to become a dangerous outlaw, because in 208 BC, a large-scale rebellion erupted against the new Qin Empire. Liu Bang, who had gained control over his home province through a series of strange, nearly accidental events, decided to throw in with the rebellion because he really saw no other option. He joined multiple other rebel leaders, including the brilliant captain Xiang Yu. Fiery, young and ambitious, Xiang Yu was determined to gain prominence in the new China. Instead, he was thwarted. Liu Bang's army was the one that captured and deposed the last Qin Emperor. Instead of sacking the capital city of Xianyang, though, as Xiang Yu had promised to do, Liu Bang peacefully occupied it and restored stability quickly, as well as carefully preserving the Qin records.
So does it seem like Liu Bang is kind of an accidental hero throughout most of this? Sort of. He never lost his inherent laziness,
Xiang Yu, however, burned with jealousy that this bandit king had taken the city before him. At the legendary Feast of Hong Gate in 206, he tried multiple times to have Liu Bang murdered, but Liu Bang was able to escape. Xiang Yu's army forced Liu to flee from Xianyang, which Xiang Yu subsequently plundered and burned. Reduced to the small province of Hanzhong, remote from the centers of power, Liu Bang had to face a foe that controlled almost all of China.
The period 206-202 BC is known as the "Chu-Han Contention." The wreckage of the Qin Empire hung in the balance. Xiang Yu, Hegemon-King of Western Chu, contended with his foe Liu Bang, the King of Han. The struggle is one of the classic military campaigns of Chinese history. Liu Bang suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Xiang Yu before he realized that he was no general, and sought to find one - and settled on the brilliant and inspiring, but ambitious and dangerous Han Xin.
Han Xin is one of the great military geniuses of history, ranking with Hannibal Barca or Scipio Africanus of Rome in his ability. (Han Xin won his great victories at the same time Scipio was defeating Hannibal at Zama). Under Liu Bang's suspicious eye, Han Xin utterly defeated Xiang Yu, finally overthrowing him at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BC. Initially allies in the defeat of the Qin Empire, the Chu King Xiang Yu and the Han King Liu Bang had clashed. In the end, Liu Bang was triumphant.
Was this all a huge accident? It may seem so. Liu Bang was not an "imperial" character from birth. His laziness, anti-intellectualism and juvenile delinquency were not promising for his later prospects, and he never really overcame them. His rise was propitious and the result of coincidence - the flight of his prisoners, the timing of his turn to banditry, his joining the great anti-Qin rebellion out of convenience - and seem hardly unaffected by his actions.
However, Liu Bang's immense charisma and shrewd judgment of character saw him through. His rise from small-town sheriff to major rebel leader could not have happened without the connections he built along the way. The loyalty he commanded from his followers, from those first few prisoners to his soldiers after his defeats by Xiang Yu, was not something that could be bought or even engineered. His judgment of character led him to select Han Xin as his general, knowing that he could become a great danger if left unchecked and taking measures to prevent that. By 196 BC, Han Xin would finally go too far in his ambitions and earn himself a death sentence.
On February 28, 202 BC, Liu Bang confirmed his ascendancy as ruler of China. He is remembered to history as Emperor Gaozu, the First Han Emperor. He is remembered for his charisma, generosity and sense of duty to his subjects - but not his military skill or learning. Nobody's perfect.
The rise of the Han was important for another, major reason. Philosophically, the Qin Dynasty had been based on the tenets of Legalism - a harsh governing theory that could be related to Western ideas of Machiavellianism or *realpolitik.* Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, had famously burned many Confucian scholars who objected to his brutalist political theory. Legalism enshrined the role of the autocrat, promoted stability above all else, and later served as the foundational principle for the famous tyrant Cao Cao and for Maoist China. Mao famously used Legalist philosophies as a way of discrediting Confucianism, and the doctrine has seen a revival under the rule of Xi Jinping.
Liu Bang, however, had been an adherent of Confucianism ever since his conversion by a wandering scholar. Confucianism, like almost all Chinese philosophy including Legalism, prescribed a structure and order of Chinese society. However, Confucius expressed that rulers, just like subjects, had duties as well as rights. The Confucian order emphasized the place of duty and responsibility in contrast to the autocratic order of Legalism. It also posited that an unfit ruler would eventually lose the will of God - referred to in China as the "Mandate of Heaven."
To speak of a "kinder, gentler China" is a bit simplistic, but that is - in a way - what the Han Dynasty represented in response to the Qin. Between these two philosophies the history of China has veered - the responsibility and the authority of the ruler, and the rights and oppression of subjects. In this balance it hangs still.
Establishing a balance in Chinese ideals that has lasted two millennia is no small feat for a small-town sheriff.
Book Recommendations: For a good history of early China, John Keay's China: A History (London: HarperPress, 2008) remains a good work for the man on the street. For a more focused study, see Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).