When we study ancient books and texts, we need to know the man behind the writings or their compilation. The compilation of the Huainanzi, a Daoist text, has been accredited to Prince Liu An of Huainan. Many may not know the man and under what circumstances the Huainanzi was compiled. Since there are a few incorrect ascribed views floating around in the web – as if Prince Liu An was persecuted by the Han Court; this entry serves to provide an accurate history during his time:
His father, Prince Liu Chang of Huainan, was one of Emperor Kao-tsu’s younger sons. When Emperor Wen first came to the throne, the prince of Huainan behaved in a proud, overbearing manner because he was next of kin, often breaking the law. But since they were brothers, the emperor pardoned him. In the third year he came to court and conducted himself in the most presumptuous manner. Hunting with the emperor in the imperial park, he rode in the same carriage and addressed him as “Elder Brother”. Later he killed a marquis and because he had his reasons and they were brothers, the emperor pardoned him.
At this time Empress Po, the crown prince and all the chief ministers went in fear of the prince of Huainan. After the return to his principality he grew even more high-handed. He ignored the laws of the land, usurped the imperial prerogatives when he entered or left the palace, and issued his own decrees, all as if he were the emperor.
In the sixth year he plotted rebellion. The plot was discovered and investigated, and the prince was summoned to the capital. The emperor pardoned him from the death penalty but had to exile Liu Chang the minimal punishment insisted upon by his chief ministers. The emperor decreed, “Regarding food for Liu Chang, let him be given five catties of meat a day and two measures of wine. Let ten ladies who have won his favor also join him. For the rest, it shall as you propose. Let all the conspirators be executed.”
The district authorities through whose hands the prince passed were too afraid to open up the sealed carriage. Liu Chang lamented his past faults, refused all food and died. When his carriage reached Yung, the local magistrate broke open the seals and reported the prince’s death. The emperor wept bitterly.
In the eight year of his reign Emperor Wen, still grieving over the prince of Huainan, ennobled his four sons who were all about seven or eight years old at that time. Liu An was enfeoffed as marquis of Fuling. Eight years later the emperor divided the old territory of Huainan into three parts and made Liu An, prince of Huainan; Po, prince of Hengshan; Tzu, prince of Luchiang. Their other brother had died leaving no heir.
Prince Liu An was fond of reading and playing the lyre, but took no pleasure in hunting with hounds and horses. He tried to win the people by acts of kindness so that his fame might spread through all the land. Long embittered by the death of his father, Prince Liu Chang, he intended to revolt at the first opportunity. In secret he set about gathering follower and winning the hearts of the people in preparation for a revolt.
The prince believed that as Emperor Wu had no heir there would be trouble and the princes would contend for supremacy. So he got weapons and laid up a store of money to win over the other princes, wandering scholars and men of outstanding ability. Then orators and strategists made wild, fantastic predictions to please the prince who showered gold on them in his delight, and plotted rebellion even more eagerly.
In 126 BC Emperor Wu gave the prince a stool and walking-stick and exempted him from paying homage at court.
Liu An’s son had studied swordsmanship and fancied himself unsurpassed in all the land. In 123 BC, having heard that the palace guardsman Lei Pei was a good swordsman, he summoned him to a contest. Lei Pei repeatedly refused to strike but then by accident wounded him, who was so angry that Lei Pei feared reprisals. To avoid trouble, Lei Pei volunteered to go fight the Huns. But Liu An ‘s son spoke ill of him and the prince ordered the dismissal of Lei Pei from his post as a warning to others. Then Lei Pei fled to Changan and reported the matter.
The emperor ordered an investigation by the chief justice and the governor of Honan, who sent to arrest Liu An’s son. The ministers in charged of the case said, “Liu An detained Lei Pei and others who had volunteered to go and fight the Huns. For defying a government decree, he deserves public execution.” To this the emperor would not agree, and when the ministers asked that the prince be deposed, the emperor again refused his consent. Then they suggested that Liu An be deprived of five counties. The emperor deprived him of two counties and sent to inform the prince that his offence was pardoned but that some of his land was to be confiscated.
Later the prince said, “I acted with humanity and justice and yet am deprived of territory. How shameful!” After this he stepped up his plans for revolt. If his envoys came back from the capital with wild rumors and declared that the emperor had no son or the country was badly governed, the prince exulted. If anyone said the country was well governed or a son had been born to the emperor, he raged and considered these as vicious lies.
Based on a report by a grandson of Liu An, the crown prince of Huainan was investigated for a plot to kill a military tribune of Han. Then one of Liu An’s minister went of his own accord to the authorities and made a full confession of how he plotted revolt with the prince of Huainan. Then the authorities arrested the crown prince and his mother and besieged the palace, while they searched for and arrested all those protégés of the prince who had plotted with him and were still in his kingdom. When all their findings were reported to the emperor, he ordered his ministers to investigate the matter. Several thousand men were involved in the plot, including princes, senior officers and prominent citizens. They were punished according to the gravity of their offences.
To ensure justice, the emperor asked the princes and marquises to discuss the matter with the prime minister. Then forty-three nobles declared, “Liu An, the prince of Huainan, is guilty of high treason. There is clear evidence of his plot to revolt. He should suffer the extreme penalty.”
When the prime minister and the chief justice reported this, the emperor sent the officer of the imperial clan with the imperial tally and credentials to arrest the prince. Before the officer reached Huainan, the prince killed himself. The principality of Huainan was abolished.
The Grand Historian comments:
Well does the Book of Songs say: “The northern barbarians should be punished, and those of Ching and Shu chastised.” The princes of Huainan were the emperor’s kinsmen and ruled as princes over a thousand li of territory. Yet instead of assisting their sovereign as good vassals, they took to evil courses and plotted high treason. Thus both father and son lost their land and perished themselves, becoming a laughing stock throughout the empire. [Records of the Historian – Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang]
When Liu An said that he acted with humanity (ren) and justice (yi) and yet shamefully deprived of property, after being pardoned by the emperor for a wrongdoing punishable by death, it reminded me of the Duke of Song who carried a flag emblazoned with the Chinese word for ‘Ren’ into war and had his troops massacred because of his wrong strategies. Both the Duke of Song and Liu An showed a lack of understanding of benevolence (ren). What Daoist virtues did Liu An, his son, and his father Liu Chang, displayed that we can admire?
If we reread the paragraph on how he won over the wandering scholars, men of outstanding ability, orators and strategists, and what they did for Liu An, do we not have occasion to question what actually went into the compilation of the Huainanzi and to doubt its integrity?
Please ignore my comment about the Huainanzi if you have found the text useful. This entry is not for breaking hearts. Probably you already know what Daoist texts are good for your studies. After all one only knows little about Tao, with limited reading of ancient texts, books and some ‘hearsay’ from Daoist deities, immortals and Buddhas along the way.