In Takashi Miike’s 2010 film 13 Assassins—a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name—the eponymous assassins gather to plot the extrajudicial killing of a sadistic lord who is the half-brother of the shogun (a Japanese military dictator). The samurai film is set in 1844, during the decline of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, but its villain could just as easily have been lifted from a much older real-life source in nearby China.
In 94 BCE, Sima Qian, an official in China’s Han Dynasty, completed a great work that his father had begun years earlier. Known to Western audiences as the Records of the Grand Historian, this ancient document detailed the history of the world as it was known to the people of the Han Dynasty, and the history of China from the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor to the author’s own age.
Almost a footnote in this grand history—as if, perhaps, the Han Dynasty would prefer that he was forgotten—was Liu Pengli. The nephew of Emperor Jing, Liu Pengli was the Prince of Jidong around the year 144 BCE, so only about half a century before he would be written of in the Records of the Grand Historian. Liu Pengli was one of five sons born to Liu Wu, prince of the powerful fief of Liang. When Liu Wu died, the emperor divided Liang into five smaller provinces, each ruled by one of the five sons.
Unfortunately for the people of the province of Jidong, Liu Pengli proved to be anything but a benevolent monarch. According to Sima Qian, “he was arrogant and cruel and would go out on marauding expeditions with tens of slaves or young men who were hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport.”
While marauding and pillaging with impunity are nothing new for rulers, this claim has led some historians to call Liu Pengli history’s first serial killer. “Confirmed victims exceeded 100,” according to the Records of the Grand Historian, “and these murders were known across the kingdom, so people were afraid of leaving their homes at night.”
Of course, there’s no reason to assume that Liu Pengli restricted his murderous activities to the evening hours. As the ruler of the province and the nephew of the emperor, Pengli was largely protected from the repercussions of his actions. Indeed, who could the populace even go to with their concerns, when their liege was the one slaughtering them?
Yet Pengli’s station and his royal bloodline could only protect him for so long. According to Sima Qian, “Eventually, the son of one of his victims accused him to the Emperor, and the officials of the court requested that Liu Pengli be executed.” However, even then, Pengli was protected by his position, and the Records of the Grand Historian state that “the Emperor could not bear to have his own nephew killed.”
Instead, “Liu Pengli was made a commoner and banished to the county of Shangyong” in what is now the Hubei Province of China. In 116 BCE, less than three decades after his murderous reign began, Pengli’s “sovereignty was abolished and his land reclaimed by the Emperor Jing,” according to Sima Qian.
Thus ends what little historical record we have of Pengli’s apparently brutal crimes. With so little to go on, of course, it’s almost impossible to say how much of Pengli’s reign of terror is true. As it turns out, Emperor Jing is said to have focused on weakening the feudal kingdoms of ancient China and consolidating his own power, so stripping Pengli of his land and titles would have been a convenient move.
Was Liu Pengli a murderous marauder whose own people feared him so much that they barricaded themselves in their homes at night? Was his life spared and his lands taken by a benevolent emperor who could not bear to execute his own flesh and blood? Or was Pengli the victim of an elaborate smear campaign designed to put the province of Jidong in the hands of the Han Dynasty, which has left him painted as a monster in one of our only surviving records of the time?
We’ll probably never know the answers to these questions. Whoever he was and whatever he did, Liu Pengli lived more than two thousand years ago, and his crimes are recorded in only a single surviving historical document, written years after the fact. But if that brief yet blood-chilling paragraph by Sima Qian is accurate, Liu Pengli may be the earliest serial killer in the historical record, not to mention one of the most prolific.
For many, however, the mystery of Liu Pengli is what fascinates us. Like so many chapters—both wondrous and bloody—that have been lost to history, we can’t help but ponder what the truth might be, and our imaginations are fired by the idea of this marauding king, slaying his own subjects for sport thousands of years gone by.