Liu Bang (c.256-195 BC) was the winner in the civil wars that followed the collapse of the first Imperial dynasty in China, the Qin Dynasty, and was the founder of the Han Dynasty, which ruled with a short break for four centuries and established many features of Chinese life that lasted until the revolutions of the twentieth century (Wade-Giles Liu Pang).
Liu Bang was one of only two peasants or rose to become Emperor (the other being the founder of the Ming dynasty). His first position of authority was as a village headman, but this led to his initial revolt. One of his roles as headman was to guard prisoners being taken to work on the First Emperor’s massive tomb. Many of these prisoners escaped, leading Liu to fear that he would be executed in punishment (the harshness of Qin rule was one of the reasons for its collapse). Liu decided to let the rest of the prisoners go, and became an outlaw, initially with a band made up of ten of the former prisoners.
Liu Bang’s band eventually grew into a large army, and he became a key part of the rebel alliance that overthrew the Qin dynasty. This alliance was led by Xiang Yu, the most able of the rebel military leaders, but it was Liu Bang who occupied the Qin capital in 206 BC, capturing the last member of the dynasty. Xiang Yu’s plan after this victory was to split the empire into nineteen kingdoms. He would be king of Chu and over-king, with eighteen sub-kingdoms under his authority. Liu Bang was expecting to be rewarded with the post of King of Qin as a reward for capturing the area, but instead he was made King of Han, the area to the south of Qin. The Qin heartland was split into three kingdoms and given to three former Qin generals.
Inevitably this system collapsed into civil war. The main conflict was between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, and is known as the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BC), but this wasn’t the only war to break out. Xiang Yu was a better general than Liu Bang, but Liu Bang had the better subordinates, most notably Han Xin, and was the better politician. Despite a series of battlefield victories Xiang Yu’s position was slowly weakened, and late in 203 BC he agreed to split the empire (Treaty of the Hong Canal). Liu Bang almost immediately broke the treaty, and won the decisive battle of the war at Gaixia (202 BC).
Liu Bang declared himself to Emperor later in 202 BC, and is remembered as the Emperor Gaozu (Wade-Giles: Kao-tsu). At first his position was somewhat unsteady. Like Xiang Yu he created a number of subsidiary kingdoms, and also like Xiang Yu he faced a number of revolts during his reign, but unlike Xiang Yu he was able to overcome each of them (although he did die of a wound inflicted during one of these revolts), and by the end of his reign most of the original sub-kings had been replaced by members of the Imperial family.
On his northern borders Liu Bang faced the Xiongnu nomads (Hsiung-nu). The First Emperor had sent a major expedition against these nomads, but this backfired when the able leader Modu Chanyu (or Maodun) (r.209-174 BC) took power and reorganised the clans, making them a more serious threat. As Emperor Liu Bang took part in at least one campaign against the Xiongnu, but despite winning a number of victories he was besieged at Baideng (200 BC). The siege only lasted for seven days, and was ended by trickery or bribery (probably involving Modu Chanyu’s wife). Liu Bang abandoned the idea of a military campaign against the nomads and instead agreed a peace treaty. The Han sent regular gifts of rice, silk and wine, while Modu Chanyu received a Han ‘princess’ as a bride (this was originally to be a daughter of Liu Bang and the Empress Lu, but the empresses objected and so a different girl was sent (beginning a tradition of ‘Heqin’ marriage alliances that lasted until the end of the Imperial system).
Liu Bang was said to have been personally coarse, but he did appreciate the value of having educated men at his court and he overturned the Qin attempts to destroy most culture. He was also concerned with reviving the rural economy and lowered the tax burden on the peasants. He died in 195 BC and was succeeded by three minors in turn, with real power held by his widow, the Empress Lu. It is a tribute to the stability of the system that Liu Bang had put in place that his new dynasty survived such a vulnerable period, and lasted with a short break for the next 400 years.