The Truth and the Historical Meanings of the Coups of Annihilating Empress Lü’s Families and Consolidating the Emperor’s Authority in the Early Han Empire





Published date: 

December, 2004


Hsiao-Shih Cheng


For over two thousand years, the coup of annihilating Empress Lü’s families (諸呂) that occurred in the 23th year of the Western Han Empire (180 B. C.) had been widely misunderstood. Empress Lü’s (呂后) descendants were thought to be guilty and justly executed, because they intended to commit the crime of treason. This view has been challenged by contemporary scholars who reached the consensus that Lü’s families were innocent in fact. They argued that the Prime Minister Lü Chan (呂產) and the Supreme Commander Lü Lu (呂祿) were murdered in a dirty coup conspired by the elder statesmen and generals who had contributed to the founding of the Empire, especially the former Prime Minister Chen Ping (陳平), for the sake of power and self-interests. Through systematic examination of the original historical record, i.e., Shih-chi (史記) by Ssu-ma Chien (司馬遷), this article demonstrates that both of these two conflicting views are far from the truth.

The truth is that the sharp political conflicts between the two ruling families, i.e., those of the First Emperor Liu Pang (劉邦) and of his widow the Empress Lü, were about to trigger a whole-scaled civil war which might cause the death of millions of people and the collapse of the new-born Empire. The conflict was resolved and the civil war was fortunately prevented, as the elder statesmen and generals intervened and staged a coup to annihilate the Lü’s families. In the process, the prime ‘conspirator’ Chen Ping had conducted many immoral and illegal acts. Nevertheless, his means is justified by his end to save the people and the state.

In the coup that immediately followed the extermination of the Lü’s families, Chen Ping and his followers murdered the young Emperor crowned by the Empress Lü, whose legitimacy had been challenged by the feudal lords of the Liu families. By setting up the First Emperor’s son Liu Heng (劉恆) as the new Emperor and by setting up his son as heir apparent , the crisis of political succession was resolved and the authority of the imperial house was consolidated. This also contributes greatly to the survival of the Empire for over two hundred years. Overall, Chen Ping had done great contributions to the Western Han Empire. This is the reason why the Grand Historian Ssu-ma Chien regarded him with admiration and respect.

Finally, this article demonstrates that the original historical records of this event was written by Ssu-ma Chien in extremely peculiar manners. Most records of political history are the victor’s stories. Shih-chi is a rare exception. By planting riddles in the narration of facts, he presented two stories of the same event. One, the victor’s; the other, the loser’s. This is one of the main reasons why the truth and the historical meanings of the event are so difficult to grasp.