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Xiao He (Chinese: 蕭何, d. 193 BC) was a key figure in Liu Bang's rise to power after the fall of the Qin Dynasty. He remained loyal to Liu Bang throughout his life and later became prime minister of the Han Dynasty. He was born in the same place, Pei County (in modern Xuzhoumarker, Jiangsumarker) as Liu Bang. Based on his contributions during the Chu Han Contention and administering the empire, he is generally considered one of the greatest statesmen in Chinese history.

He was instrumental in recommending the great general Han Xin to Liu; he was also instrumental in orchestrating Han Xin's death, along with Liu's Empress Lü Zhi (which gave birth to the proverb his success was on account of Xiao He, and his defeat was on account of Xiao He (成也蕭何,敗也蕭何), used when a person's success and failure arose out of a single factor).

Before Liu Bang's establishment of the Principality of Han

Not much is known about Xiao's life before he became a follower of Liu Bang. He was, as referred to above, born in the same county as Liu and presumably had become acquainted to Liu early. Xiao and a later general of Liu's, Cao Shen (曹參), were friends in their youths, although later their relationship was at best cool.

At the time that Liu released the prisoners he was to escort to Mount Li and then became a fugitive himself, Xiao was serving as a secretary to the county magistrate of Pei County. When Chen Sheng started his rebellion, the county magistrate considered joining the rebellion, and at the advice of Xiao and Cao (who was then a county police official), he sent Liu's brother-in-law Fan Kuai (樊噌) to invite Liu and his company of bandits back to Pei County to support the rebellion. Fan found Liu, but on their way back, the magistrate changed his mind and closed the city gates against them, and also, afraid that Xiao and Cao would open the gates themselves, wanted to execute them. They jumped off the city wall and joined Liu. Liu, apparently at Xiao's suggestion, then sent letters to city elders urging surrender into the city by shooting them in on arrows. The elders agreed, and they assassinated the county magistrate and opened the gates to let Liu in, offering him the title the Duke of Pei. Xiao and Can both became key figures in the Liu cam

During Chu Han Contention

After Liu Bang's success in extinguishing the remainder of Qin Dynasty by capturing its capital Xianyangmarker in winter 207 BC, Xiang Yu, jealous of Liu, nevertheless refused to obey the promise by Mi Xing, Prince Huai of Chu to create Liu the Prince of Qing. Rather, Xiang gave Liu the remote Principality of Han (modern Sichuanmarker, Chongqingmarker, and southern Shaanximarker) in 206 BC. Liu was extremely angry and wanted to attack Xiang, and was joined in this opinion by his generals Zhou Bo (周勃), Guan Ying (灌嬰), and Fan. It was Xiao who persuaded him that this was an unwise course, for Xiang's army was much stronger than his at this time and would surely destroy him. Rather, Xiao showed him that while Han would be a remote principality, it had great economic potential and would permit him to get ready for future military actions. Liu appreciated the advice and made Xiao his Chancellor.

While serving as prime chancellor at the Han capital Nanzheng (南鄭, in modern Hanzhongmarker, Shaanximarker), Xiao befriended Han Xin, who was then a minor official. He realized that Han Xin had excellent military instincts and would make a great general, and repeatedly recommended Han Xin to Liu, but Liu did not take any action. In disappointment, Han Xin chose to desert, and Xiao, when he heard that, chased after Han Xin during the night on a horse, and only after two days -- during which Liu was in extreme panic without him -- did he return with Han Xin and explain the situation to Liu. This time, Liu listened to him, and made Han Xin the commander of the armed forces. With Han Xin as his general, Liu easily conquered the three Qins (modern Shaanximarker) in winter 206 BC and added them to his principality.

As Liu continued east against Xiang's Principality of Western Chu, he left Xiao in complete charge of his principality. Xiao was very effective not only at governing these territories, but in supplying Liu's army with food, supplies, and new soldiers. His abilities allowed Liu Bang's forces to survive defeat after defeat and to replenish itself, while Xiang's forces, even though Xiang was an excellent general, were eventually worn down by attrition, leading to Xiang's final demise in winter 203 BC.

In Han Dynasty

After Liu Bang's victory, he declared himself emperor (later known as Emperor Gao), establishing Han Dynasty. Xiao was naturally named Chancellor, and Liu publicly praised him as one of the three pillars of his victory, along with Han Xin and Zhang Liang. In addition to his responsibilities in governing the empire, he also was given the responsibilities of revising the strict Qin laws to reflect the times. In winter 202 BC, when Emperor Gao created many marquesses according to their contributions, Xiao was created the Marquess of Zan (酇侯). He was also listed first among 18 men that Liu declared to have had the greatest contributions. His father, sons, and brothers were also given smaller fiefs. Xiao was further given the special privilege -- rarely conferred in later history, and usually to powerful officials ready to usurp the throne -- of being allowed to enter the imperial palace with his sword and wooden shoes, and not being required to trot into the palace (as is required of all others) but permitted to walk in at normal pace (劍履上殿, 入朝不趨).

In 200 BC, Xiao constructed Weiyang Palace for Emperor Gao in the capital Chang'anmarker, and the palace would serve as the main imperial palace throughout the Western Han Dynasty and the temporary Xin Dynasty (to 23).

In 196 BC, while Emperor Gao was away from the capital on a campaign against the rebel Chen Xi (陳豨), Han Xin, then already demoted to Marquess of Huaiyin (from his original creation as Prince of Chu), was accused of conspiring Chen and getting ready to start an uprising in Chang'an. Xiao, in conjunction with Emperor Gao's wife Empress Lü, set a trap for Han Xin by announcing false news of victories over Chen. When the marquesses and the officials all arrived at the palace to congratulate Empress Lü, she and Xiao had Han Xin bound and executed.

In 195 BC, an incident occurred that would test the Liu-Xiao relationship but also show the nature of Emperor Gao's reliance on Xiao. Xiao saw that Chang'an was becoming congested, and that the imperial garden was full of uncultivated land, and he suggested that parts of the imperial garden be carved out and be given to farmers as farmland. Emperor Gao accused Xiao of being bribed and dishonoring imperial authority, and had him arrested and thrown into prison. A few days later, after a General Wang discussed with Emperor Gao how Xiao was only thinking of the people, and Emperor Gao saw his errors and had Xiao released. When Xiao arrived at the imperial palace to beg forgiveness, Liu, in half jest and half embarrassment, responded:

The Chancellor was asking for the fields in the imperial garden out of interest for the people, but I did not approve. This showed that I am only like Jie and Zhou, and that you are the most understanding prime minister. Therefore, I intentionally imprisoned you to show the people that I am a tyrant.


After Emperor Gao died later that year, Xiao continued to serve his son Emperor Hui as prime minister. He died in 193 BC. Before he died, he recommended Cao Shen as his successor, even though their relationship had become rather poor later in their lives after having been very friendly early, and after his death, Emperor Hui did name Cao to be the next prime minister.

Impact on Chinese history

Xiao He was one of the most highly regarded statesmen in Chinese history, and often emperors aspired to be able to find "the next Xiao He." He was so regarded not only for his achievements as prime minister, but also for his work ethic and thriftiness, both traits that the Chinese mindset find highly virtuous characteristics. His contributions to the establishment of Han Dynasty was considered so great that, as an exception to the general rule that marches would lapse upon the marquess not having a proper heir (i.e., a son born to his wife -- a son born to a concubine is considered to be inappropriate for this purpose under Han laws), Xiao's March of Zan was permitted to pass to collateral lines multiple times, until the end of Han Dynasty.

Two Chinese proverbs make references to Xiao He. "Chasing after Han Xin in the moonlight" (月下追韓信) was a reference to his tracking down of Han Xin when Han Xin deserted, and refers to an action that is so urgent that it must be carried out immediately. "Cao following the rules of Xiao" (蕭規曹隨) refers to the fact that, after his death, Cao did not change his rules at all, but followed them to the letter, and (both melioratively and pejoratively) refers to following and honoring the rules set by your predecessors to avoid changes.

References




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