Liu Yan (general)

Liu Yan (general)

Liu Yan (Traditional Chinese: 劉縯; pinyin: Líu Yǎn) (d. 23), courtesy name Bosheng (伯升), was a general of one of the major uprisings against China's Xin Dynasty and its emperor, Wang Mang. Although he would have military successes, he would die early as a victim of political intrigue. His brother Liu Xiu, however, would eventually found the Eastern Han Dynasty (as Emperor Guangwu).

Family background

Liu Yan was the sixth generation descendant of Emperor Jing of the Former (or Western) Han. He was the son of Liu Qin (劉欽), magistrate of Nandun county (南頓令). Liu Qin was the son of Liu Hui (劉回), vice governor in charge of military affairs for Julu commandery (鉅鹿都尉). Liu Hui was the son of Liu Wai (劉外), governor of Yulin commandery (鬱林太守). Liu Wai was the son of Liu Mai (劉買), known posthumously as Marquess Jie of Chongling (舂陵節侯). Liu Mai was the son of Liu Fa (劉發), known posthumously as Prince Ding of Changsha (長沙定王). The prince of Changsha was a brother of Emperor Wu, a famous emperor of the Former Han, and he was the son of Emperor Jing. (This made Liu Xiu third cousin to Emperor Gengshi, who was also descended from Liu Fa.)

Liu Qin was married to the daughter of one Fan Chong (樊重), and he and his wife had three sons -- Liu Yan, Liu Zhong (劉仲), and Liu Xiu. Liu Qin died early, and the brothers were raised by their uncle Liu Liang (劉良). Liu Yan was ambitious, and ever since Wang Mang usurped the Han throne in 8 and established Xin Dynasty, Liu Yan was constantly considering starting a rebellion to restore the Han Dynasty. Liu Xiu, in contrast, was a careful man who was content to be a farmer.

Rebellion against Xin

In 22, with virtually the entire empire rebelling against Wang Mang's incompetent rule, Liu Yan prepared his rebellion. He planned, along with his brothers, and Li Tong (李通) and his cousin Li Yi (李軼), to kidnap the governor for Nanyang Commandery (roughly modern Nanyang, Henan) and call for the people of the commandery to join him. When the young men of their home territory of Chongling heard about the rebellion, they were all scared to join -- until they saw that Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion as well, figuring that if even a careful man like Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion, the rebellion was carefully planned.

However, the news of the plan leaked out, and Li Tong and Li Yi barely escaped with their lives (but their family was slaughtered). Liu Yan changed his plan and persuaded two branches of the Lülin -- the Xinshi Force (新市兵) and Pinglin Force (平林兵) to join forces with him, and they had some military success. Encouraged, Liu Yan made a frontal assault against Wancheng (宛城), the capital of Nanyang Commandery -- and suffered a major loss. Liu Yan and Liu Xiu, along with their sister Liu Boji (劉伯姬), survived, but their brother Liu Zhong and sister Liu Yuan died in the battle. Liu Yan's allies, seeing his defeat, considered leaving him, but Liu Yan was able to persuade them, along with another branch of the Lülin, the Xiajiang Force (下江兵), to join him. In 23, they had a major victory against Xin forces, killing Zhen Fu (甄阜), the governor of Nanyang Commandery.

Being passed over as emperor

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 newly declared 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 "Prince of Han" first (echoing the founder of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gao). The other rebel leaders refused, and in early 23, Liu Xuan was proclaimed emperor. Liu Yan became prime minister (大司徒, "dasitu").


After Emperor Gengshi's forces decisively defeated Wang Mang's last major force -- which had sought to crush the rebels with overwhelming force -- at the Battle of Kunyang (in which Liu Yan's brother Liu Xiu played a major part), Emperor Gengshi quickly became at least nominally acknowledged by most of the empire as the legitimate Han emperor. However, Emperor Gengshi remained 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 Emperor Gengshi. Emperor Gengshi arrested Liu Ji and wanted to execute him, but Liu Yan tried to intercede. Emperor Gengshi, encouraged by Li Yi (who had by that point turned against Liu Yan) and Zhu Wei (朱鮪), took this opportunity to execute Liu Yan as well. Liu Xiu barely survived after Emperor Gengshi became ashamed of what he had done to Liu Yan.

After Liu Yan's death, Liu Xiu took his sons in and raised them. After Liu Xiu eventually proclaimed himself emperor, founding the Eastern Han Dynasty, in 25, he took steps to honor Liu Yan's sons Liu Zhang (劉章) and Liu Xing (劉興). In 26, he created Liu Zhang Prince of Taiyuan and Liu Xing Prince of Lu (and made Liu Xing the heir to his other brother, Liu Zhong). In 39, he posthumously honored Liu Yan with the title Prince Wu ("martial prince") of Qi (as his son Prince Zhang had, by that point, been moved to the Principality of Qi).

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