After the 15 year experiment that was the Qin dynasty, China was once again divided up into states and was asked to play nice this time. However, after being witness to the absolute power an emperor of China could wield, Chinese generals and noble families simply couldn’t restrain their ambition and go back to how it was before.
Almost immediately after splitting the land, fights broke out between neighbours and entire family trees of noble families were being slaughtered. It was in this atmosphere that China fell into the hands of a supposedly reluctant emperor.
Liu Bang of Han had already made a name for himself as a great general for his role in the surrender of Qin Er Shi’s replacement, resulting in the fall of Qin. In return he had been given control of one of the divided states, and became “King of Han”. Now, 5 years later, after pushing back and defeating many of his rival states, Liu Bang found himself being offered to become emperor of a China he had conquered pretty much unintentionally. After supposedly refusing the role, Liu Bang eventually agreed and became the new emperor of China, taking on the new name (as emperors are prone to do) of Han Gaozu.
Gaozu hadn’t come from a noble background and many of the palace staff disliked his rural accent. However, that culture clash worked both ways; as it’s said that one day, when Gaozu was unimpressed with the know-it-all nature of a particular scholar, he showed his disapproval by urinating in the man’s hat.
Other than rumoured pee related hi jinx, Gaozu was a reasonable man and generally took advice well, resulting in a fairer system of government that won over the hearts and minds of the populace. However, as is always the way, somebody has to spoil it for the rest of us. While the now elderly Gaozu joined his troops in a battle against a rebel uprising, he was shot in the leg with an arrow and died shortly afterwards.
Gaozu had always been at peace with his mortality, and planned his heir well in advance. However the initial choice of his and the empress’ son was starting to sour for Gaozu, as he felt the boy was just too soft to be emperor. Hearing her family might be denied the throne, the Empress rounded up some of the most respected officials and sages in China to persuade Gaozu to reconsider. Taking their advice, as he often did, it’s believed Gaozu joked that ‘I suppose that means the empress will be in control now’.
Maybe Gaozu had been reading some Han dynasty spoilers, as next time his son Han Huidi takes the throne… With his mother never far behind.
The Chinese characters used in Gaozu’s chinese name are: 高 (Gao) meaning ‘High’ and 祖 (Zu) meaning ‘ancestor’ or ‘forefather’. An English translation for Han Gaozu would therefore be ‘High Ancestor of Han’.
Gaozu is an oddity in the early dynasties, breaking conventions by having 祖 (ancestor) in his title; whereas the vast majority of early emperors would have a single Chinese character followed by 帝 (di) which simply means ‘Emperor’.