An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Rebellion of the Seven Princes

Sep 13, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The rebellion of the Seven Princes (Chinese: Wu-Chu qiguo zhi luan 吳楚七國之亂, literally: rebellion of the Seven Princedoms [under the leadership of] Wu and Chu) was a joint war of seven imperial princes against the attempts of Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE) of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) to cut down the seize of the princes' territories in order to curtail their economical and political power. The Seven Princes were:

Table 1. The Seven Rebellious Princes of the Former Han Period
1 Liu Pi 劉濞 Prince of Wu 吳 nephew of Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖
2 Liu Wu 劉戊 Prince of Chu 楚 grandson of Liu Jiao 劉交, brother of Emperor Gaozu
3 Liu Sui 劉遂 Prince of Zhao 趙 son of Liu You 劉友, half-brother of Emperor Wen 漢文帝
4 Liu Piguang 劉辟光 Prince of Jinan 濟南 son of Liu Fei 劉肥, Prince of Qi 齊
5 Liu Xian 劉賢 Prince of Linzi 臨淄 son of Liu Fei, Prince of Qi
6 Liu Ang 劉卬 Prince of Jiaoxi 膠西 son of Liu Fei, Prince of Qi
7 Liu Xiongqu 劉雄渠 Prince of Jiaodong 膠東 son of Liu Fei, Prince of Qi

Liu Pi was the leader of the rebellion.

The princedoms had become very strong in the course of time and some of them began challenging the authority of the emperor. Chao Cuo 晁錯, Censor-in-chief to Emperor Jing therefore suggested diminishing the size of the princedoms in his memorial Xiaofance 削藩策 "Stratagem to cut down [the size of] the princedoms". The princedoms had their origin at the beginning of the Han period, when Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE), founder of the Han dynasty, ennobled relatives and non-relatives of him (the latter being the so-called yixingwang 異姓王 "kings not related to the imperial house") with kingdoms (wangguo 王國). In the first years of his reign, several of the non-relative kings rebelled and were therefore (except Wu Rui 吳芮, king of Changsha 長沙) replaced by imperial princes. The princedoms would, Liu Bang throught, contribute to the stability of the empire, but in the end, quite the opposite was the case. The princedoms were very large territories (often corresponding to a modern province) and could dipose of the tax revenue of all inhabitants. This was no problem as long as the princes were brothers or nephews of the emperor.

With the death of Liu Bang, the early death of his son, Emperor Hui 漢惠帝 (r. 195-188), and the ensuing reign of Empress Dowager Lü 呂太后 (r. 188-180), the fight for dominance among the princes gained importance, especially after Empress Dowager had ennobled some of her relatives as kings. After her death, the Lüs were killed, and a less important son of Liu Bang became ruler, Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE). Emperor Wen took several measures to control the regional rulers. He firstly ordered that all princes and marquesses had to leave the imperial court and reside in their domain. This would deprive them from direct control of court affairs.

Secondly, all sons of emperors and princes were to be given estates, a measure that would have the result that the estates became smaller and smaller. His son Liu Wu 劉武, for instance, was ennobled as prince of Liang 梁, a princedom that was located between the heartland of the empire and the large princedoms of the southeast. The young minister Jia Yi 賈誼 proposed to split the traditional large territories into several small estates. Qi 齊, for instance, was divided into seven small princedoms.

The first prince challenging the authority of the central government was Liu Chang 劉長, Prince of Huainan 淮南, and a son of Liu Bang. Yuan Ang 袁盎 and Chao Cuo suggested dividing up his estate, but Emperor Wen resisted their pleas. Liu Xingju 劉興居, Marquis of Dongmou 東牟侯, and Liu Zhang 劉章, Marquis of Zhuxu 朱虛侯, had not been friends of Emperor Wen's accession to the throne. Their candidate had been Liu Jianglü 劉將閭, Prince of Qi, and they were therefore not granted large territories but only the small estates of Chengyang 城陽 and Jibei 濟北, respectively, which were parts of the territory of Qi. In 177, when Emperor Wen was campaigning against the Xiongnu 匈奴 steppe hordes, the Prince of Jibei rose his weapons. He was defeated and committed suicide, his estate was confiscated. Three years later, the Prince of Huainan rebelled and proclaimed himself emperor, but was defeated and died on the way into exile to Shu 蜀 (modern Sichuan). Jia Yi therefore submitted his memorial Zhiance 治安策 "Stratagems for a peaceful government".

Emperor Jing began to bring Chao Cuo's suggestions into effect and cut off territories from the princedoms of Zhao, Jiaoxi, Chu and Wu. This measure of the central government met harsh resistance by the princes. Liu Pi, Prince of Wu, soon allied with Liu Ang, Prince of Jiaoxi, and the two decided to usurp the throne. Liu Ang secretly met with his brothers, and Liu Pi with the princes of Chu, Zhao and Huainan. Liu Pi, as that among the princes who was most affected by the controlling measures of the central government, began his rebellion in 154 BCE. He had all officials of the central government killed.

The rebelling princes sent out their armies marching against the west, in order to conquer the central region and the capital, where Chao Cuo was to be killed. Liu Jianglü, Prince of Qi, refused in the last moment to take part in the rebellion, and the Princes Liu Zhi 劉志 of Jibei and Liu An 劉安 of Huainan (mentor of the book Huainanzi 淮南子) were not able to field their armies. The disturbance that the rebellion brought with it was nevertheless very great, and each of the other princes had to decide whether to side with the rebels or to stay loyal to the emperor. Liu Pi's hatred was not only directed against the minister Chao Cuo, the inventor of the strategy to diminish the size of the princedoms. Twenty years earlier, Emperor Jing, at that time still crown prince, had killed Liu Pi's son during a chess contest. From that time on, Liu Pi had never visited the capital again and was, in a gesture of appeasement, also allowed not to annually pay hommage to the emperor. This situation allowed him to rule over an independant and rich region of the empire.

The court sent out three armies to fight the rebels. Zhou Yafu 周亞夫 took over the main task to ward off the rebel's forces in the southeast. Li Ji 酈寄 marched against the princedom of Zhao in the north, and Luan Bu 欒布 against the princedoms on the Shandong peninsula. Dou Ying 竇嬰 commanded the large imperial camp at Xingyang 滎陽. In the capital, things took a very different course: Yuan Ang, formerly counsellor to Liu Pi, suggested to the emperor to execute Chao Cuo as the main reason for the disturbances. Emperor Jing consented and had exectued Chao Cuo. Yet new of his death stimulated the usurpatory spirit of Liu Pi instead of becalming him. At this time, the Prince of Liang, Liu Wu 劉武, the Emperor's brother, played an important role for the defeat of the rebel armies. He was first defeated by the rebels, but Zhou Yafu sent out cavalry units that cut off the logistics chain of the rebel army. With the defeat at Xiayi 下邑 (modern Dangshan 碭山, Anhui), the armies of Wu and Chu virtually dissolved. Liu Pi withdrew with the rest of his troops to Danxi 丹徙 (modern Zhenjiang 鎮江, Jiangsu) south of the Yangtze. He was killed by troops recruited from the area of Dongyue 東越 (north of modern Zhejiang). Liu Wu 劉戊, Prince of Chu, committed suicide. The other princes, defeated by Luan Bu, were either executed or choose death. Liu Jianglü, ashamed for his role in the rebellion, also committed suicide. In the north, Li Ji was able to conquer the territory of Zhao when the Xiongnu auxiliaries that Liu Sui had won over deserted him. He also choose death.

With the defeat of the Seven Princes, the politics to grant only small territories as princely estates was enhanced. Under Emperor Wu, the size of the princedoms was not to be larger than a commandery (jun 郡), and the sons of princes were from then on only granted a title, without being given an estate. The suggestion for this measure, the so-called Tui'enling 推恩令 "Edict concerning the renouncing [of ennoblement] and the benevolent [bestowing of titles]", came from Zhufu Yan 主父偃.

Tian Yuqing 田余慶 (1992). "Wu-Chu qiguo zhi luan 吳楚七國之亂", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1234-1235.