The Gengshi Emperor (Chinese: 更始帝; pinyin: Gēngshǐ Dì; Wade–Giles: Keng-shih-ti; died AD 25), was an emperor of the Han Dynasty restored after the fall of Wang Mang's Xin Dynasty. He was also known by his courtesy name Shenggong (simplified Chinese: 圣公; traditional Chinese: 聖公) and as the King or Prince of Huaiyang (simplified Chinese: 淮阳王; traditional Chinese: 淮陽王; pinyin: Huáiyáng Wáng), a posthumous title bestowed upon him by Emperor Guangwu of the Eastern Han. The Gengshi Emperor was viewed as a weak and incompetent ruler, who briefly ruled over an empire willing to let him rule over them, but was unable to keep that empire together. He was eventually deposed by the Chimei and strangled a few months after his defeat.
Traditional historians treat his emperor status ambiguously—and sometimes he would be referred to as an emperor (with reference to his era name—thus, the Gengshi Emperor) and sometimes he would be referred to by his posthumous title, Prince of Huaiyang. The later title implied that he was only a pretender and the Eastern Han was the legitimate restoration of the earlier Han.
Collapse of Wang Mang's Xin Dynasty
Late in Wang Mang's reign as the emperor of Xin Dynasty, there were agrarian revolts virtually everywhere in the empire, due to Wang's incompetent rule and the natural disasters of the time. The two largest branches were the Lülin (concentrated in modern southern Henan and northern Hubei) and Chimei (concentrated in modern southern Shandong and northern Jiangsu).
In 22, the most ambitious of the rebels would emerge. Liu Yan, a descendant of a distant branch of the Han imperial clan, who lived in his ancestral territory of Chongling (舂陵, in modern Xiangfan, Hubei), had long been disgusted by Wang Mang's usurpation of the Han throne, and had long aspired to start a rebellion. His brother Liu Xiu, by contrast, was a careful and deliberate man, who was content to be a farmer. Around this time, there were prophecies being spread about that the Lius would return to power, and many men gathered about Liu Yan, requesting that he lead them. He agreed, and further joined forces with the branch of Lülin forces who had entered the proximity, and they began to capture territory instead of simply roving and raiding. (It was said that many of the neighborhood young men were initially hesitant to join the rebels, but when they saw that Liu Xiu, whom they considered wise and careful, joining as well, they agreed to.) In 23, under Liu Yan's leadership, the joint forces had a major victory over Zhen Fu (甄阜), the governor of the Commandery of Nanyang, killing him. They then sieged the important city of Wancheng (the capital of Nanyang Commandery, in modern Nanyang, Henan).
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 restored 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 who was considered a weak personality, and requested that he be made emperor. Liu Yan initially opposed this move and instead suggested that Liu Xuan carry the title "King of Han" first (echoing the founder of the Han dynasty, Emperor Gaozu). The other rebel leaders refused, and in early 23, Liu Xuan was proclaimed emperor. Liu Yan became prime minister.
Battle of Kunyang
In the spring of 23, the major military confrontation of Kunyang would seal Wang Mang's fate. He sent his cousin Wang Yi (王邑) and his prime minister Wang Xun (王尋) with what he considered to be overwhelming force, some 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 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; rather, he advocated that they guard Kunyang securely, while he would gather all other available troops in surrounding areas and attack the Xin forces from the outside. After initially rejecting Liu Xiu's idea, the Kunyang rebels eventually agreed.
Liu Xiu carried out his 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; after this point on, there would be no hope for it.
Infighting and move toward Chang'an
The very first major incident of infighting in the Gengshi Emperor's regime would happen in 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. One, Liu Ji (劉稷), was particularly critical of the Gengshi Emperor. The emperor arrested Liu Ji and wanted to execute him, but Liu Yan tried to intercede. The emperor took this opportunity to execute Liu Yan as well. Subsequently, ashamed of what he had done, though, he spared Liu Yan's brother Liu Xiu and honored him by creating him Marquess of Wuxin.
The Gengshi Emperor then commissioned two armies, one led by Wang Kuang, targeting Luoyang, and the other led by Shentu Jian (申屠建) and Li Song (李松), targeting Chang'an directly. All the populace on the way gathered, welcomed, and joined the Han forces. Shentu and Li quickly reached the outskirts of Chang'an. In response, the young men within Chang'an also rose up and stormed Weiyang Palace, the main imperial palace. Wang died in the battle at the palace (by Du Wu (杜吳)), as did his daughter Princess Huanghuang (the former empress of Han). After Wang died, the crowd fought over the right to have the credit for having killed Wang, and tens of soldiers died in the ensuing fight. Wang's body was cut into pieces, and his head was delivered to the provisional Han capital Wancheng, to be hung on the city wall.
Attempted consolidation of power
After Wang Mang's death, the Gengshi Emperor moved his capital from Wancheng to Luoyang. He then issued edicts to the entire empire, promising to allow Xin local officials who submitted to him to keep their posts. For a brief period, nearly the entire empire showed at least nominal submission—even including the powerful Chimei general Fan Chong (樊崇), who, indeed, went to stay in Luoyang under promises of titles and honors. However, this policy was applied inconsistently, and local governors soon became apprehensive about giving up their power. Fan, in particular, left the capital and returned to his troops. In response, the Gengshi Emperor sent various generals out to try to calm the local governors and populace; these included Liu Xiu, who was sent to pacify the region north of the Yellow River. Further, around these times, the people began to see that the powerful officials around the Gengshi Emperor were in fact uneducated men lacking ability to govern; this further made them lose confidence in his governance.
The Gengshi Emperor's governance would in fact immediately be challenged by a major pretender in winter 23. A fortuneteller in Handan named Wang Lang 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 around 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. Liu Xiu was forced to withdraw to the northern city of Jicheng (modern Beijing). After some difficulties, however, Liu Xiu was able to unify the northern commanderies still loyal to the Gengshi Emperor and besiege Handan in 24, killing Wang Lang. The Gengshi Emperor put Liu Xiu in charge of the region north of the Yellow Rivera and created him the Prince of Xiao, but Liu Xiu, still aware that he was not truly trusted and secretly angry about his brother's death, secretly planned to peel away from the Gengshi Emperor's rule. He began to strip other imperially-commissioned generals of their powers and troops, and concentrated the troops under his own command.
Also in 24, the Gengshi Emperor moved his capital again, back to the Western Han capital of Chang'an. The people of Chang'an had previously been offended by the emperor's officials, who did not appreciate their rising up against Wang Mang but in fact considered them traitors. Once the Gengshi Emperor was back in the capital, he issued a general pardon, which calmed the situation for a while. At this time, Chang'an was still largely intact, except for Weiyang Palace, destroyed by fire. However, the Gengshi Emperor's timidity quickly caused problems. When the imperial officials were gathered for an official meeting, the emperor, who had never seen such solemn occasions, panicked. Later, when generals submitted reports to him, he asked questions such as, "How much did you pillage today?" This type of behavior further reduced the people's confidence in him.
The emperor entrusted his government to Zhao Meng (趙萌), whose daughter he took as an imperial consort. He himself engaged in frequent drinking and was often unable to receive officials or make important decisions. Zhao greatly abused his power, and once, when an honest official revealed Zhao's crimes to the Gengshi Emperor, the emperor had him executed. The other powerful officials also abused their power greatly, often commissioning duplicating local officials throughout the empire, causing great confusion and anger.
In the autumn of 24, the Gengshi Emperor sent his generals Li Bao (李寶) and Li Zhong (李忠) to try to capture modern Sichuan, then held by the local warlord Gongsun Shu (公孫述), but his generals were defeated by Gongsun.
Defeat by Chimei
In the winter of 24, an ominous issue would arise: Chimei troops, then stationed at Puyang, were highly fatigued at the time and wanted to go home. Their leaders felt that if they did so, Chimei forces would scatter and be unable to be gathered again, and they felt that a clear target needs to be created. They decided to announce that they were attacking the imperial capital Chang'an and, divided into two armies, they began to head west. Liu Xiu, while he had fairly strong troops, chose to stand by and wait for Chimei to destroy the Gengshi Emperor; he used the Henei region (modern northern Henan, north of the Yellow River) as his base of operations for its strategic location and the richness of its soil. The Chimei armies rejoined in Hongnong (弘農, in modern Sanmenxia, Henan), defeating every single army that the emperor sent to stop it.
In 25, the Gengshi Emperor's forces would cause the death of the former Western Han emperor-designate, Emperor Ruzi (Liu Ying). Two far-fetched co-conspirators—Fang Wang (方望), the former strategist for the local warlord Wei Xiao (隗囂), and a man named Gong Lin (弓林) -- and their group of several thousand men, after kidnapping the former Duke of Ding'an, occupied Linjing (臨涇, in modern Qingyang, Gansu). The Gengshi Emperor sent his prime minister Li Song (李松) to attack them, and wiped out this rebel force, killing Liu Ying.
In summer 25, Liu Xiu finally made a formal break with the emperor, after his generals and the emperor's fought over control of the Henei and Luoyang regions. He declared himself emperor (establishing the regime known later as the Eastern Han Dynasty), and soon his general Deng Yu also captured the modern Shanxi, further reducing the Gengshi Emperor's strength. Feeling trapped, a number of the emperor's generals conspired to kidnap him and flee back to their home region of Nanyang (in modern Henan). They were discovered, and many were executed, but one, Zhang Ang (張卬) occupied most of Chang'an, forcing the Gengshi Emperor to flee, just as Chimei forces were approaching.
Chimei, at this time, decided that they also needed their own emperor. They found three descendants of Liu Zhang, Prince of Chengyang, who was very popular with the people of his principality (from which many Chimei soldiers came) and who was worshiped as a god after his death. After drawing lots, the youngest, the 15-year-old Liu Penzi was chosen and declared emperor. However, the young "emperor" was not given any power, but was effectively a puppet who still served as a cattle keeper within the army.
Generals still loyal to the Gengshi Emperor were eventually able to evict Zhang from the capital, but by that time the situation was desperate. Zhang and his allies surrendered to Chimei and, working with them, attacked Chang'an, which fell quickly, and the emperor fled, only followed by several loyal followers, including Liu Zhi (劉祉) the Prince of Dingtao and Liu Gong (劉恭) the Marquess of Shi—who, incidentally, was Liu Penzi's older brother. They were eventually taken in by one of the Gengshi Emperor's generals, Yan Ben (嚴本), who, however, was in actuality holding them as bargaining chips. When Liu Xiu heard about the fall of Chang'an, he created the emperor Prince of Huaiyang, in absentia, and decreed that anyone who harmed the Prince of Huaiyang would be severely punished and that anyone who protected and delivered him to Eastern Han would be rewarded. (This appears to be basically political propaganda on Liu Xiu's part.) When news of Chang'an's fall arrived in Luoyang, Luoyang surrendered to Liu Xiu, who entered the city and made it his capital.
In winter 25, after being held by Yan a few months, the Gengshi Emperor saw his situation as futile and requested Liu Gong to negotiate surrender terms. A promise was made that he would be made the Prince of Changsha. Emperor Penzi's general Xie Lu (謝祿) arrived at Yan's camp and escorted the Gengshi Emperor back to Chang'an to offer his seal (seized from Wang Mang) to Emperor Penzi. Chimei generals, notwithstanding the earlier promise, wanted to execute him. It was only Liu Gong's final intercession (in which he threatened to commit suicide at the execution site) that allowed the Gengshi Emperor to be spared at this point, and he was created the Prince of Changsha. He, however, was forced to stay in Xie's headquarters, and Liu Gong protected him on a number of occasions.
Chimei generals were even less able to govern the capital than the emperor, due to the fact that they were unable to control their soldiers from pillaging from the people. The people began to yearn the return of the Gengshi Emperor. Zhang Ang and his allies, afraid of what might happen if the emperor returned to power, persuaded Xie to strangle him. Liu Gong hid his body in a secure location, and years later, after Eastern Han had securely captured the Chang'an region, Liu Xiu had the Gengshi Emperor's body buried with princely honors at Baling (霸陵), near the tomb of Emperor Wen.
- Family name
- Liu (劉, Liú)
- Given name
- Xuan (玄, Xúan)
- Era name
- Gengshi (更始, Gèngshǐ) 23-25
- Liu Zizhang (劉子張), grandson of Liu Xiongqu (劉熊渠) the Marquess of Chonglin, the grandson of Liu Fa (劉發), Prince Ding of Changsha, the son of Emperor Jing of Han
- Lady He
- Major Concubines
- Consort Zhao, the daughter of Zhao Meng (趙萌)
- Consort Han
- Consort Fan
- Liu Qiu (劉求), later created Marquess of Xiangyi by Liu Xiu
- Liu Xin (劉歆), later created Marquess of Gushu by Liu Xiu
- Liu Li (劉鯉), later created Marquess of Shouguang by Liu Xiu