On this date in 25 CE, Liu Xiu (15th January 5 BCE – 29th March 57 CE) claimed the throne as emperor of China, restoring the Han dynasty after the collapse of the short-lived Xin dynasty. Discounting the interregnum of the Xin dynasty, the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China (206 BCE–220 CE), preceded by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) is considered a golden age in Chinese history, not least because the ethnic majority in modern China think of themselves as directly descended from the Han of ancient China. This makes as much sense as modern Italians thinking that they are descendants of ancient Romans, but it is an important narrative for modern Chinese. The majority call themselves Han people, they call the language they speak, Han language, and the writing system, Han characters (although they use other terms as well).
Liu Xiu took the imperial name Guangwu, courtesy name Wenshu, and this is the name he is commonly known by. He is treated as the founder of the Later Han or Eastern Han (the restored Han Dynasty), and at the outset he ruled over parts of China only. By the suppression and conquest of regional warlords, he had consolidated the whole of China by the time of his death in 57 CE. I will talk about how Liu Xiu came to be emperor Guangwu, but, like all of Chinese political/military history, the narrative is incredibly complicated and hard to follow (even though I have simplified it a great deal). If you like you can skip to the Han era rabbit and mushroom recipe at the end. If you want the super-super-condensed version it is: usurper replaces the old Han emperor – Liu Xiu and his brother (descendants of the old Han dynasty) plan a rebellion – rebelling factions form and disagree a lot – one faction chooses a leader, general Gengshi – Liu Xiu’s brother hates this plan, revolts, and is executed – Liu Xiu eventually defeats all comers and is installed as emperor. Here’s the somewhat longer version:
Liu Xiu was a sixth-generation descendant of emperor Jing of the Former (or Western) Han. He was the son of Liu Qin (劉欽), magistrate (i.e., head official) of Nandun county (南頓令). Liu Qin was married to the daughter of Fan Chong (樊重), and he and his wife had three sons – Liu Yan, Liu Zhong, and Liu Xiu. Liu Qin died young, and the brothers were raised by their uncle Liu Liang (劉良). Liu Yan was ambitious, and after Wang Mang usurped the Han throne in 8 CE and established the Xin dynasty, Liu Yan was constantly considering starting a rebellion to restore the Han Dynasty. Liu Xiu, by contrast, was a careful man who was content to be a farmer. However, his brother-in-law Deng Chen (鄧晨), the husband of his sister Liu Yuan (劉元), who believed in a prophecy that a man named Liu Xiu would be emperor, constantly encouraged him to be more ambitious.
In 22 CE, with virtually the entire empire rebelling against Wang Mang’s incompetent rule, Liu Yan prepared his rebellion. He planned, along with his brothers, and Li Tong (李通) and his cousin Li Yi (李軼), to kidnap the governor for Nanyang Commandery (roughly modern Nanyang, Henan) and call for the people of the commandery to join him. When the young men of their home territory of Chongling heard about the rebellion, they were all afraid to join—until they saw that Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion as well, figuring that if even a careful man like Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion, the rebellion was carefully planned.
However, the news of the plan leaked out, and Li Tong and Li Yi barely escaped with their lives (but their family was slaughtered). Liu Yan changed his plan and persuaded two branches of the Lülin – the Xinshi Force (新市兵) and Pinglin Force (平林兵) to join forces with him, and they had some military success. Encouraged, Liu Yan made a frontal assault against Wancheng (宛城), the capital of Nanyang Commandery—and suffered a major loss. Liu Yan and Liu Xiu, along with their sister Liu Boji (劉伯姬), survived, but their brother Liu Zhong and sister Liu Yuan died in the battle. Liu Yan’s allies, seeing his defeat, considered leaving him, but Liu Yan was able to persuade them, along with another branch of the Lülin, the Xiajiang Force (下江兵), to join him. In 23, they had a major victory against Xin forces, killing Zhen Fu (甄阜), the governor of Nanyang Commandery.
By this point, many other rebel leaders had become jealous of Liu Yan’s capabilities, and while a good number of their men admired Liu Yan and wanted him to become the emperor of a newly declared Han Dynasty, they had other ideas. They found another local rebel leader, Liu Xuan, a third cousin of Liu Yan, who was claiming the title of General Gengshi (更始將軍) at the time and requested that he be made emperor. Liu Yan initially opposed this move and instead suggested that Liu Xuan carry the title “Prince of Han” first (echoing the founder of the Han dynasty, emperor Gaozu). The other rebel leaders refused, and in early 23 CE, Liu Xuan was proclaimed Gengshi emperor. Liu Yan became prime minister. Liu Xiu, along with many other rebel leaders, carried the title “general”.
Liu Xiu was instrumental in the key victory that sealed Wang Mang’s fate. Wang, aware that the Gengshi emperor was becoming a major threat, sent his cousin Wang Yi (王邑) and his prime minister Wang Xun (王尋) with what he considered to be overwhelming force, around 430,000 men, intending to crush the newly constituted Han regime. The Han forces were at this point in two groups—one led by Wang Feng (王鳳), Wang Chang (王常), and Liu Xiu, which, in response to the arrival of the Xin forces, withdrew to the small town of Kunyang (昆陽, in modern Ye County, Henan) and one led by Liu Yan, which was still sieging Wancheng. The rebels in Kunyang initially wanted to scatter, but Liu Xiu opposed it. Instead, he advocated that they guard Kunyang securely, while he gathered all other available troops in surrounding areas and attacked the Xin forces from the outside. After initially rejecting Liu Xiu’s idea, the Kunyang rebels eventually agreed.
Liu Xiu carried out this action, and when he returned to Kunyang, he began harassing the sieging Xin forces from the outside. Wang Yi and Wang Xun, annoyed, led 10,000 men to attack Liu Xiu and ordered the rest of their troops not to move from their siege locations. Once they engaged in battle, however, after minor losses, the other units were hesitant to assist them, and Liu Xiu killed Wang Xun in battle. Once that happened, the Han forces inside Kunyang burst out of the city and attacked the other Xin units, and the much larger Xin forces suffered a total collapse. The soldiers largely deserted and went home, unable to be gathered again. Wang Yi had to withdraw with only several thousand men back to Luoyang. This was a major blow to Xin, psychologically. From this point on, all was lost.
The very first major incident of infighting in Gengshi emperor’s regime occurred at this time, though. The Gengshi emperor was fearful of Liu Yan’s capabilities and keenly aware that many of Liu Yan’s followers were angry that he was not made emperor. Liu Ji (劉稷), was particularly critical of the Gengshi emperor, and, in consequence, the Gengshi emperor arrested Liu Ji and wanted to execute him, but Liu Yan tried to intercede. The Gengshi emperor, encouraged by Li Yi (who had by that point turned against Liu Yan) and Zhu Wei (朱鮪), took this opportunity to execute Liu Yan as well. At this time, Liu Xiu was fighting on the front lines. When he heard about his brother’s death, he quickly left his army and went back to the temporary capital, Wancheng, to beg forgiveness. When Liu Yan’s followers greeted him, he only thanked them but did not speak of his feelings, but rather blamed himself and did not mention of his achievements at Kunyang. He did not dare mourn his brother. The Gengshi emperor, ashamed of what he had done, spared Liu Xiu and created him the Marquess of Wuxin (武信侯).
Around this time, Liu Xiu married his childhood sweetheart, the famed beauty Yin Lihua. (According to Hou Han Shu, while much younger, when Liu Xiu was visiting the capital Chang’an, he became impressed with the mayor of the capital (zhijinyu, 執金吾) and, already impressed by Yin’s beauty, he made the following remarks: “If I were to be an official, I want to be zhijinyu; if I were to marry, I want to marry Yin Lihua”.
Soon, Wang Mang’s Xin Dynasty and its capital Chang’an fell to the Gengshi emperor’s forces, and the Gengshi emperor was acknowledged by virtually the entire empire as the emperor of the restored Han Dynasty. He initially planned to set his capital at Luoyang, and he made Liu Xiu governor of the capital region. Liu Xiu was commissioned to repair the palaces and governmental offices at Luoyang. Of all of the major Han officials following the restoration, Liu Xiu alone quickly showed his talent for organization, and his agency quickly grew to resemble its pre-Wang Mang counterpart.
In any case, the Gengshi emperor’s regime was only able to obtain nominal submission from many regions of the empire, and one of the troublesome regions was north of the Yellow River. The emperor considered dispatching a general to try to pacify the region, and his cousin Liu Ci (劉賜), who had succeeded Liu Yan as prime minister, endorsed Liu Xiu for that task. Liu Yan’s political enemies, including Li and Zhu, opposed, but after Liu Ci repeatedly endorsed Liu Xiu, the Gengshi emperor relented and, in autumn 23 CE, he sent Liu Xiu to the region north of the Yellow River. Liu Xiu was initially met with great gladness by the people north of the Yellow River. It was around this time that Deng Yu (鄧禹), joined him (later to be his prime minister); other later important figures who joined him around this time included Feng Yi (馮異) and Geng Chun (耿純). Deng, seeing that the Gengshi emperor lacked the ability to rule, persuaded Liu Xiu to keep his sights broad and consider eventual independence.
Liu Xiu would soon have a major problem on his hands, however. In the winter of 23 CE, he faced a pretender for the Han throne, a fortuneteller in Handan named Wang Lang who claimed to be actually named Liu Ziyu (劉子輿) and a son of emperor Cheng. He claimed that his mother was a singer in emperor Cheng’s service, and that Empress Zhao Feiyan had tried to kill him after his birth, but that a substitute child was killed instead. After he spread these rumors among the people, the people of Handan began to believe that he was a genuine son of emperor Cheng, and the commanderies north of the Yellow River quickly pledged allegiance to him as emperor. In spring 24 CE, Liu Xiu was forced to withdraw to the northern city of Jicheng (modern Beijing). Not long after, he faced rebellions in his immediate vicinity, and was nearly killed by rebels who pledged allegiance to Wang. He reached two commanderies in modern central Hebei that were still loyal to the Gengshi emperor—Xindu (信都, roughly modern Hengshui, Hebei), whose governor was Ren Guang (任光), and Herong, (和戎, roughly part of modern Shijiazhuang, Hebei), whose governor was Pi Tong (邳彤). Ren’s deputy Li Chong (李忠), Wan Xiu (萬脩) and Liu Zhi (劉植), who was powerful clan in the region, also joined him. Additionally, he began to make Liu Zhi persuade Liu Yang (劉楊) the Prince of Zhending, who held 100,000 troops, to join him. He entered into a political marriage with Guo Shengtong (郭聖通), the niece of Liu Yang, and combined his forces. He mobilized their forces and won some major battles against Wang’s generals.
Meanwhile, a follower of Liu Xiu, Geng Yan (耿弇), the son of the governor of Shanggu Commandery (上谷, roughly modern Zhangjiakou, Hebei), had fled back to his father’s commandery, and persuaded both his father Geng Kuang (耿況) and the governor of the neighboring Yuyang Commandery (漁陽, roughly modern Beijing), Peng Chong (彭寵), to support Liu Xiu. Geng Yan, being supported by Gen Kuang’s deputy Kou Xun (寇恂) and Jing Dan (景丹), and Peng’s deputy, Wu Han (吳漢), led the two commanderies’ cavalry and infantry forces south to join Liu Xiu. The combined forces gave Liu Xiu enough strength to make a direct assault against Handan, trapping and killing Wang Lang.
After Wang’s death, Gengshi emperor created Liu Xiu the Prince of Xiao and summoned him back to the capital (then moved to Chang’an). Liu Xiu, persuaded by Geng Yan that he should be ready to set out his own course, because the people were badly shaken by Gengshi emperor and his officials’ misrule, declined and claimed that the region still needed to be pacified.
In autumn 24 CE, Liu Xiu, still ostensibly an official under the Gengshi emperor, successfully pacified some of the larger agrarian rebel groups and merged them into his own forces. He also started replacing officials loyal to the Gengshi emperor with those loyal to himself. He consolidated his power north of the Yellow River and, as he predicted that the powerful Chimei would destroy Gengshi emperor’s government for him, he waited for that to happen, not intervening on either side as that conflict was developing. He put Kou Xun in charge of the Henei (modern northern Henan, north of the Yellow River) region and made it the base for food and manpower supplies, while commissioning Deng with an expedition force to the modern Shaanxi region, waiting for the confrontation between the Gengshi Emperor and the Chimei. In early 25 CE, Deng, on his way west, seized the modern Shanxi region and put it under Liu Xiu’s control, before crossing the Yellow River into modern Shaanxi.
At this point, territories that Liu Xiu controlled were already impressive, compared to any other regional power in an empire broken apart by civil war—but he still carried just the title Prince of Xiao (which the Gengshi emperor had bestowed on him) and still ostensibly was controlling those territories as the Gengshi emperor’s deputy, even as he was already engaging militarily against some generals (e.g. Xie Gong – 謝躬) loyal to Gengshi emperor (During this incident, Liu Xiu succeeded to persuade Ma Wu (馬武), who was the deputy of Xie Gong, to join him.). In summer 25, after repeated urging by his followers, he finally claimed the title of emperor and the right to succeed to the Han throne—as emperor Guangwu.
The story so far is complicated enough, and if you made it this far I congratulate you. What follows is yet more complicated and Byzantine. Guangwu spent the rest of his reign consolidating the various warring factions within China and also staving off external threats, especially from Vietnam. He also had to set about land reform and the imposition of a legal system. All told, he was extremely competent as a general and as an administrator, and was legendary for his fairness and mercy. Chinese emperors have had a long history of being jealous, paranoid, and capricious, but Guangwu was none of these things. He set in place a new Han dynasty that lasted for 200 years.
The Han era is generally thought of as a golden age. As it happens, we have a few (very rudimentary) recipe ideas from the period, and a considerable amount of information on cookware, serviceware, and ingredients from meticulous archeological digs of royal tombs that were begun in the 1970s. Nobles were frequently buried with food and cookware, and their skeletons contain remnants of food. There are also many tomb paintings depicting eating scenes. The ingredient list (including spices) looks very much like a modern one, but we cannot know anything about cooking methods. Therefore, food historians have conjectured how to make the dishes using modern techniques (which are certainly venerable and widespread). I’ve chosen a stir-fried rabbit and mushrooms recipe, which I have had to edit and add to a great deal to make sense of. The recipe does not indicate the kind of mushrooms, so use any Chinese mushroom you fancy. Rehydrated dried black mushrooms will work fine. I assume that then, as now, cooks used the mushrooms that were seasonally available.
Stir-Fried Rabbit and Mushrooms
1 lb rabbit meat, cut in small pieces
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 tbsp ginger juice
2 egg whites
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 large black mushrooms, sliced
½ cup chicken broth
2 tbsp cornstarch
Beat together the salt, rice wine, shallot, ginger juice, egg whites, cornstarch, and sesame oil in a large bowl until they are well combined. Add the rabbit meat and stir so that all the pieces are fully covered on all sides. Leave for 10 minutes.
Drain the meat and reserve the liquid.
Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over high heat. Stir in the rabbit mixture, and cooking, stirring constantly, for one minute. Then add mushroom slices stir another minute.
Mix the reserved marinade broth with the cornstarch, and add it to the rabbit mixture. Cook and stir for one minute, then put the finished dish in a pre-heated bowl, and serve with rice.