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Liu Xuan 劉玄, the Gengshi Emperor 更始帝

Dec 15, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Liu Xuan 劉玄 (d. 25 CE), courtesy name Shenggong 聖公, ended the usurpation of Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-22 CE) and was the factual founder of the Later Han dynasty (25-220 CE). Liu Xuan is known as the Gengshi Emperor 更始帝 (r. 23-25 CE).

He hailed from Caiyang 蔡陽 (modern Zaoyang 棗陽, Hubei) and was a distant relative of the house of Liu 劉 that constituted the Han dynasty. When his younger brother was killed, Liu Xuan sent one of his retainers to take revenge. The assassin was arrested, so that Liu Xuan had to flee. He joined the rebel bands of Chen Mu 陳牧 in Pinglin 平林. In 22 CE the rebels rose against the usurper Wang Mang, who had founded the Xin dynasty 新.

Their armies, known as the Lulin 綠林 (special reading instead of Lülin) bands, united and were able to defeat Wang Mang's generals Zhen Fu 甄阜 and Liang Qiuci 梁丘賜. This victory incited them to proclaim an emperor on their own side. Because Liu Xuan was a relative to the last emperor of the Former Han, he was made emperor and chose the reign motto of Gengshi 更始 "New beginning". Liu Xuan entered the capital Wancheng 宛城 (i.e. Chang'an 長安, modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) and conferred titles of nobility on some members of the house of Liu, as well as on several generals.

Inspite of his high position of emperor he feared the influence of the princes Liu Xiu 劉秀 (the eventual Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝, r. 25-57 CE) and Liu Yin 劉縯. He had executed the latter. After the great victory of the rebel armies at Kunyang 昆陽 Liu Xuan sent out Wang Kuang 王匡 to attack the city of Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan) and Shentu Jian 申屠建 and Li Song 李松 to attack Wuguan 武關. Their victories caused all local strongmen throughout the empire to kill the officials of Wang Mang and to recognize the newly founded Han dynasty.

After Wang Mang's death Liu Xuan moved his residence to Chang'an. Yet Liu Xuan had no talent to reign the empire. He left all government affairs to his father-in-law, Zhao Meng 趙萌, and indulged in pleasures, as the historians say. The masses felt no improvement of their conditions, so that the rebellions continued. The so-called Red Eyebrows 赤眉 even entered and looted the capital. Enraged, Liu Xuan killed Shentu Jian, Chen Mu and Cheng Dan 成丹 as former members of the rebel groups, but in the end he accepted handing over the imperial seal to the rebels.

He was made Prince of Changsha, while the rebels first made Liu Ying 劉嬰 (the last ruler of the Former Han) the new emperor, and later Liu Penzi 劉盆子. The atrocities that the Red Eyebrows committed in the capital caused the masses to yearn for the peaceful months under Liu Xuan's rule. His popularity was the reason why he could no longer be protected by Liu Gong 劉恭 and Xie Luju 謝祿居, and he was strangulated.

He was nonetheless given great honours in burying him in the tomb mound Baling 霸陵, the grave of Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE).

Tong Chao 童超 (1992). "Liu Xuan 劉玄", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Vol. Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 611.