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Biography of Han Kao-tsu

Name: Han Kao-tsu
Bith Date: c. 247 B.C.
Death Date: 195 B.C.
Place of Birth: China
Nationality: Chinese
Gender: Male
Occupations: emperor
Han Kao-tsu

The Chinese emperor Han Kao-tsu (ca. 247-195 BC) was the founder of the Former Han dynasty, the first major Chinese dynasty for which there are reliable and fairly full historical records.

Kao-tsu is the posthumous title given to Liu Chi, the founder of the Former Han dynasty. Little is known of his early years (indeed, it is not certain whether his name was Liu Chi or Liu Pang). He was born a commoner and was one of only two commoners to become emperors of China. Part of his youth was spent as a peasant, but he managed to receive some education. He became a low-ranking local official under the Ch'in dynasty (221-207 B.C.).

The Ch'in rulers, who ruled under the influence of a Legalistic as opposed to a Confucian philosophy, were known for their excessively harsh application of laws and punishments and for their burdensome demands on the population for taxes and labor services. In 209 rebel bands began to arise in the eastern part of the empire in opposition to Ch'in policies.

Kao-tsu, in his official capacity, had been leading a group of convict laborers from his home in Kiangsu to the Ch'in capital, where they were supposed to work on the tomb of Ch'in Shih huang-ti, the dynasty's founder. When some of the convicts fled, Kao-tsu, knowing that he was responsible for them and would be punished because of their escape, also decided to turn bandit.

Kao-tsu developed a sizable following and then attached himself to Hsiang Yü, the descendant of a family which for generations had been well known as superb military commanders for the state of Ch'u. While he conquered areas in the eastern parts of the empire, Kao-tsu led his troops westward. In 207 Kao-tsu's army occupied the Ch'in capital, Hsien-yang, thus marking the end of the detested Ch'in dynasty. Kao-tsu, in later years, dated the founding of his own dynasty from the fall of the Ch'in capital.

Character of an Emperor

Actually, however, Kao-tsu did not become emperor until 202, when he defeated Hsiang Yü, who had become his major competitor for the throne of China. Kao-tsu's personality was an important factor in his ultimate victory. He tended to be magnanimous and forgiving where Hsiang Yü was cruel and vindictive. Kao-tsu also was well attuned to the suffering that people had endured under the Ch'in regime. Thus when he entered the Ch'in capital, one of his first acts was to announce that murderers were to be executed and thieves punished according to the gravity of the offense, but that all of the hated Ch'in laws were to be abolished.

Hsiang Yü was utterly lacking in this kind of appreciation for good propaganda. Kao-tsu was an excellent judge of men. While Hsiang Yü was a superior strategist, he was not able to surround himself with capable advisers and generals as Kao-tsu was able to do.

Organization and Consolidation

Since the Ch'in capital had been razed by Hsiang Yü, Kao-tsu built a new capital at Ch'ang-an. His state structure was very similar to that of Ch'in. There was, however, an important difference between the two. The Ch'in government had abolished the old feudal states and employed central government appointees in commanderies (chün, roughly equivalent to modern provinces but generally smaller) and prefectures (hsien).

During the wars that led to the rise of Han, generals had declared themselves kings of feudal states and Hsiang Yü had enfeoffed others. Kao-tsu had been forced to recognize some of these kings in order to gain their allegiance. The result of these earlier policies was that about half of the empire was not administered by the Emperor through his commanderies and prefectures but was ruled by seven highly autonomous kings. Throughout his reign Kao-tsu devoted most of his attention to eliminating these rulers over whom he had little or no control. By 196 all but one of the kings had been killed. The remaining kingdom was small and distant from the capital; hence it did not pose a threat to the imperial throne.

However, since one of the charges frequently made against the Ch'in dynasty had been its attempt to eradicate feudalism, Kao-tsu felt that some kind of a compromise was necessary. Accordingly, by the time of his death nine of his sons and brothers had been enfeoffed, and the principle had been established that only members of the imperial family, the house of Liu, could be made kings. But following the "Rebellion of the Seven Kingdoms" in 154, the kingdoms were reduced in size and ruled by officials sent out by the central government. In effect, although not entirely in name, the Han administrative system was the same as that of the Ch'in.

In the field of foreign policy Kao-tsu's major problem was the Hsiung-nu, nomadic tribes which raided the northern Chinese border settlements. In the course of one of Kao-tsu's campaigns against a rebel Chinese king in 201 the king joined forces with the Hsiung-nu. Kao-tsu was under siege for a week and barely managed to escape.

Following these battles, Kao-tsu pursued a policy of peace with the Hsiung-nu. In exchange for their pledge not to raid the border, Kao-tsu presented a Chinese princess to the Hsiung-nu ruler as his wife, and the Chinese made annual gifts to the nomadic warriors. With a few notable exceptions, including Hsiung-nu attacks that brought them within sight of the capital in 166, Kao-tsu's policy was effectively continued for about 60 years.

Further Reading

  • There is no scholarly work devoted exclusively to Han Kao-tsu. Excellent materials on him and his reign are available in Burton D. Watson, Records of the Grand Historian of China, Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien (2 vols., 1961). A more critical translation (with annotations) of another Han history is Homer H. Dubs's translation of Pan Ku's History of the Former Han Dynasty (3 vols., 1938-1955).

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