Have you heard of Liu Bang?

If you’re a westerner, probably not. Who was he? Some obscure person who had a walk-on part in Chinese history?

If you’re Chinese, you certainly will have heard of him: he has a large claim to being the most famous person in your country’s long history.

So who, actually, was he? Well, he founded the longest-lasting and most influential empire in China’s history, that of the Han dynasty. And to give some idea how crucial this dynasty was to the development of China, to this very day the label which the Chinese give themselves as an ethnic group is the “Han”. This is all the more remarkable because the Han dynasty was not a recent one: it was contemporary with the Roman Empire in the west. Can you imagine modern Europeans calling themselves “Romans”?

 

Map of Han dynasty China – TimeMaps image

What makes his achievements even more remarkable is that Liu Bang came from a peasant family, and rose to become emperor of all China through his own innate abilities: guile, forcefulness and a large measure of ruthlessness. In so doing he ended the chaos which had followed the downfall of the first imperial dynasty, the short-lived Qin dynasty, and restored order and stability to the enormous country.

Liu Bang, the emperor Gaozu: 18th century portrait (and entirely imaginary!) – Public Domain

Liu Bang sat on the throne as the emperor Gaozu, and initiated the fundamental policies which would make the Han empire so long-lived. He laid the foundations for the Confucian, bureaucratic state which would bring China so much political unity, social cohesion and economic growth for almost two millennia. He really does deserve to be regarded by all humanity as one of the great figures in world history.

By Peter Britton