Lü Clan Disturbance

A Western Han (202 BC - 8 AD) ceramic statuette of a seated woman and court attendant holding up her robes, from a tomb of Xianyang, Shaanxi province

The Lü Clan Disturbance (Chinese: 呂氏之亂, 180 BCE) refers to a political upheaval after the death of Empress Lü Zhi of the Han dynasty, the aftermath of which saw her clan, the Lü, who were consort kin, being deposed from their seats of power and massacred; the deposition of the puppet Emperor Houshao; and the accession to the throne of Emperor Wen.

Sometimes the term also encompasses the total domination of the political scene by Empress Lü Zhi and her kin after the death of her son Emperor Hui (188 BCE) to an extent even greater than during his reign. The term "the Lü Clan Disturbance" itself is not neutral; it was used by the officials who overthrew them and historians who supported their political theories, but is used here not to cast any judgment on the Lü, but because it is commonly used.

Emperor Hui's death and political dominance of Empress Lü Zhi

Further information: History of the Han dynasty

When Emperor Hui died in autumn 188 BC, his son (but this parentage is disputed) Liu Gong ascended to the throne as Emperor Qianshao. However, there was not even pretension that he was actually in charge; Emperor Hui's mother Empress Lü Zhi, titled "Grand Empress Dowager Lü", was the one who publicly and actually controlled the political power.

In winter 188 BC, Grand Empress Dowager Lü wanted to make her brothers princes against her husband Emperor Gaozu's rule that only members of the imperial Liu clan may be made princes – a rule that she herself had a hand in creating. She was opposed by Right Minister Wang Ling (王陵) but was supported by Left Minister Chen Ping and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Zhou Bo (周勃). When Wang rebuked Chen and Zhou in private for going against Gaozu's rule, they rationalized that their compliance with the grand empress dowager was necessary to protect the empire and the Liu family.

Grand Empress Dowager Lü then promoted Wang to the honorary position of the emperor's teacher (太傅, taifu); Wang declined, claiming illness. Lü removed him from his position as Right Minister and had him (as Marquess of Anguo) returned to his march (in modern Baoding, Hebei) and promoted Chen to Right Minister ("right" being the more honored direction) and her lover Shen Yiji (審食其), Marquess of Piyang, to Left Minister.

Grand Empress Dowager Lü would then go ahead and carry out her plan to make members of her clan princes. In summer 187 BC, when her daughter Princess Yuan of Lu died, she made the princess' son, Zhang Yan (張偃), Prince of Lu. Princess Yuan of Lu's husband and Zhang Yan's father, Zhang Ao (張敖), had, during Gaozu's reign, been Prince of Zhao, but was removed as part of the policy against non-Liu princes, so Grand Empress Dowager Lü might have felt that making Zhang Yan a prince would be considered to be more justified; when Zhang Ao died in 182 BC, he was posthumously honored as a prince.

A month later, she required the officials to formally petition her to make her nephew Lü Tai (呂台) Prince of Lü – carving the principality out from the Principality of Qi. She also, in 184 BCE, in the unprecedented and subsequently rare action of creating a female with a march, made her younger sister Lü Xu (呂須) Marchioness of Lingguang. In spring 181 BC, Lü Tai's son Lü Chan (呂產), who had become Prince of Lü after his father's death, was given the larger principality of Liang, but did not go to his principality but stayed in the capital Chang'an to serve as the emperor's teacher and assistant to Grand Empress Dowager Lü. Later that year, the grand empress dowager made her nephew Lü Lu (呂祿) Prince of Zhao and another son of Lü Tai's, Lü Tong (呂通), Prince of Yan.

Death of Grand Empress Dowager Lü

In summer of 180 BC, Grand Empress Dowager Lü died. Immediately before her death, she put Lü Lu and Lü Chan in charge of the imperial guards – Lü Lu in charge of the stronger northern division and Lü Chan in charge of the weaker southern division – and also the government. After her death, it was alleged that the Lü clan made a plan to overthrow the Han dynasty and assume imperial power themselves. Purportedly, this plan was leaked to Liu Zhang, the Marquess of Zhuxu and grandson of Emperor Gao through his oldest son Liu Fei (劉肥), who had married a daughter of Lü Lu's and who learned of the plan from his wife. Liu Zhang then planned a rebellion with his younger brother Liu Xingju, the Marquess of Dongmou, and their older brother Liu Xiang, the Prince of Qi. Under their plan, Liu Xiang would lead Qi forces from the principality (modern Shandong) against the capital, while Liu Zhang and Liu Xingju would persuade the imperial guards to rise against the Lüs. If they were successful, they planned to have Liu Xiang declared emperor.

Coup d'état against the Lüs and their total destruction

That would not be how the plan actually went, however. In autumn 180 BC, Liu Xiang did indeed start a military campaign with his own forces and also seized the forces of the nearby Principality of Langye. Lü Chan sent Guan Ying (灌嬰), the Marquess of Yingyin, against Qi forces, but Guan, unwilling to fight the Qi forces (because he actually distrusted the Lüs more than Qi), managed to negotiate a secret armistice with Liu Xiang, and both armies halted some distance apart from each other.

Allegedly, at this time, the Lüs were ready to take over the imperial dynasty, but did not do so because they were concerned of reactions by Zhou Bo, Liu Zhang, and the Principalities of Qi and Chu. While the crisis was forming in Xi'an, so was a new conspiracy, involving these key players:

The conspirators first tried to get the Lüs to give up power voluntarily, by having Li Ji persuade Lü Lu that the best course of action for him and Lü Chan is to return to their principalities and turn over power to Zhou and Chen. Lü Lu agreed, but was unable to reach a consensus with the Lü clan elders.

The conspirators then took drastic actions. Ji issued a forged imperial edict, ordering the northern division of the imperial guards to be turned over to Zhou. When the edict arrived at the northern division's camp, Li and Liu Jie persuaded Lü Lu that the edict was genuine and that he should obey it, and he did so. Zhou then, after requiring the guards to affirm their loyalty to the imperial Liu clan, took over the northern division.

The conspirators then took action against Lü Chan, who had not known of this turn in events. While Lü Chan was trying to enter the imperial palace (alleged by the conspirators later to be preparing for the takeover) Liu Zhang and Cao had the gates of the palace controlled and had Lü Chan and his guards trapped in the courtyard. Zhou sent some soldiers to Liu Zhang, who fought with Lü's guards and killed him in battle. Over the next few days, the Lü clan was slaughtered to the last person.

Emperor Wen's accession to the throne

The political propaganda of the conspirators was to protect Emperor Houshao against the Lü conspiracy, but once the Lüs were slaughtered, they alleged that neither the emperor nor his brothers was in fact Emperor Hui's son – that Empress Zhang Yan, Emperor Hui's wife, had stolen and adopted them at Empress Dowager Lü's instigation. They also admitted that they were concerned of reprisals when Emperor Houshao and his brothers would grow up. They then resolved on deposing Emperor Houshao and inviting an imperial prince, not from Emperor Hui's line, to be the new emperor.

The question was, obviously, which prince to invite. Some suggested that Liu Xiang, being the oldest grandson of Emperor Gao and the son of Emperor Gao's oldest son, was the obvious selection. However, most of the important officials disagreed – they were concerned that Liu Xiang's uncle Si Jun (駟均) was a dominating figure and that, if Liu Xiang were to become emperor, they would have a repeat of the Lü clan situation. They believed that Emperor Gao's oldest surviving son, 23-year-old Prince Liu Heng of Dai, was the better choice, because he was known to be filial and tolerant, and because his mother Consort Bo's family was known to be careful and kind. They then secretly sent messengers to Prince Heng, inviting him to be the new emperor.

Prince Heng's advisors were mostly suspicious. They, apparently feeling that the massacre of the Lü clan was without cause, were concerned that the officials in fact had intended on making Prince Heng a puppet and were ready to take over themselves. However, one of those advisors, Song Chang (宋昌), had a different opinion. He believed that the people were supportive of the Han dynasty and would not tolerate a takeover; and that given that there were many other principalities outside the capital, that the officials, even if they had wanted, would be unable to usurp imperial power. Still hesitant, Prince Heng sent his uncle Bo Zhao (薄昭) to Xi'an to meet with Zhou, who guaranteed that the officials were sincere. Bo believed them and urged Prince Heng to accept the offer.

Prince Heng then headed to Chang'an. During an evening ceremony at the Dai mission in the capital, the officials, led by Chen, offered the throne to Prince Heng, and he accepted, formally ascending the throne after declining four times, as Emperor Wen. That same night, Liu Xingju evicted Emperor Houshao from the imperial palace, and the officials welcomed Emperor Wen to the palace with great pomp.


Regardless of whether one believes that the Lü clan were actually planning a takeover – and while traditionally, the historians believed so, modern historians have begun to doubt that more and more – the Lü Clan Disturbance had fortunate aftereffects on the Han dynasty. It was affirmed that the power would rest with the emperor. Further, and more importantly, Emperor Wen became an effective, thrifty, hard-working and benevolent ruler, and the reigns of Emperor Wen and his son Emperor Jing were generally regarded as one of the golden ages of Chinese history. What happened to the Lü clan was also often used throughout Chinese history as a warning to the families of empresses not to assume too much power, and to the emperors not to allow them to do so.

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