China’s first peasant Emperor: How far can a little bit of empathy take you?

On paper, LiuBang (劉邦) had none of the pre-requisites required of an emperor — he didn’t have noble blood, he frequently got in trouble with the law, he was lazy, disliked learning, and hated doing manual labor — you might say he had none of the characteristics required of an emperor.

Yet, somehow he managed to defeat XiangYu (項羽), the prominent warlord who was tipped to be the next emperor — a well-educated noble and a military genius who never lost a single battle.

But how exactly does an unknown peasant born in a distant province, rise to become the founding emperor of an entire dynasty?

Thrust into leadership

Early life was good for LiuBang, who by his forties, was a relatively popular local figure because of his generous attitude.

But while he was escorting a group of prisoners to the Emperor’s mausoleum, one of the prisoners he was guarding escaped. This was a capital offence under Qin dynasty rules, so rather than risk punishment, he released the remaining prisoners and became a rebel himself.

Three years later, after being thrust somewhat unwillingly into his position of power, LiuBang found himself as the “Marquis of Wu’an” (武安侯) at the center of the rebellion tasked with taking over Guanzhong, the capital of the Qin dynasty, alongside XiangYu. Although initially allies and friends, this competition would be the undoing of their friendship.

Forced to leave the capital

The two set out towards the capital on separate paths, with the king promising that the first to take the city would be rewarded with the title of the King of Guanzhong.

XiangYu encountered resistance after resistance on his way to the capital, whereas LiuBang’s journey was relatively peaceful, with many cities surrendering without a fight — even the Qin ruler capitulated on his arrival.

While he was there, LiuBang tried to do good by the citizens by abolishing the hundreds of harsh laws that were in place. He replaced them with only three — punishment for murder, robbery, and harming another. That was it.

Needless to say, LiuBang started to win over the hearts of the locals who were used to following Qin’s oppressive ways.

But when XiangYu arrived, he was angry and blinded by the hate for LiuBang reaching the capital before him. He forced LiuBang to leave and he burned the palace to the ground.

This would be the recurring theme between LiuBang and XiangYuLiuBang was regarded as a kind and competent ruler who brought many Confucian ideals to his rule, while XiangYu fancied himself as the king of kings, and was a ruthless and merciless warrior. (XiangYu had once buried alive two hundred thousand enemy soldiers.)

A leader among leaders

So why did LiuBang eventually succeed over XiangYu? Well, you could say that being kind and having merciful had something to do with it, but that wouldn’t be the whole story. There are many rulers throughout history that were at least as barbaric as XiangYu.

But my guess would be that he knew how to win over the hearts of people. When LiuBang was asked about why he thought he won the war, he said:

When it came to strategy and policy, I was never as adept as ZhangLiang (张良); I can’t even read.

When it came to operations and logistics, I was never as good as XiaoHe (蕭何), as every time I lost a battle I would flee to the closest safe space I could find. But XiaoHe was always able to find and rescue me.

And when it came to battles, it’s not even worth discussing. I was never in the same league as HanXin (韓信), and many brave soldiers have died because of my lack of leadership.

But it was because I was able to use these three heroes that I was able to defeat XiangYu. In contrast, XiangYu had FanZeng (范增) by his side, one of the greatest strategists of all time, but he was arrogant and refused to listen to him. This is why I won.

While XiangYu was a masterful leader and general, LiuBang was a leader of leaders. Who would’ve thought that you could get so far with a little bit of empathy?

Posted in History