Emperor Yuan of Han (75–33 BC) was an emperor of the Chinese Han Dynasty. He reigned from 48 to 33 BC. Emperor Yuan was remembered for the promotion of Confucianism as the official creed of Chinese government. He appointed Confucius adherents to important government posts.
However, at the same time that he was solidifying Confucianism’s position as the official ideology, the empire’s condition slowly deteriorated due to his indecisiveness and inability to stop factional infighting between officials in his administration, and his trusting of certain corrupt officials.
When Emperor Yuan was born as Liu Shi in 75 BC, his parents Liu Bingyi and Xu Pingjun were commoners without titles. Bingyi was the great-grandson of Emperor Wu, and his grandfather Liu Ju was Emperor Wu’s crown prince, until he was forced by Emperor Wu’s paranoia into a failed rebellion in 91 BC while Bingyi was still just an infant, in the aftermaths of which Prince Ju committed suicide and virtually his entire family was wiped out. Bingyi was spared because of his young age, but became a commoner and survived on the largess of others. One of whom was chief eunuch Zhang He, who had been an advisor for Prince Ju before his rebellion, and who was punished by being castrated.
Circa 76 BC, Zhang wanted to marry his granddaughter to Bingyi, but his brother Zhang Anshi (張安世), then an important official, opposed, fearing that it would bring trouble. Zhang, instead, invited one of his subordinate eunuchs (who had also been castrated by Emperor Wu), Xu Guanghan (許廣漢), to dinner, and persuaded him to marry his daughter Xu Pingjun to Liu Bingyi. When Xu’s wife heard this, she became extremely angry and refused, but because Zhang was Xu’s superior, Xu did not dare to renege on the promise, and Bingyi and Pingjun were married, in a ceremony entirely paid by Zhang (because Bingyi could not afford to). Zhang also paid the bride price. After marriage, Bingyi heavily depended on his wife’s family for support.
Shi was only less than a year old when something highly unusual would happen to his father. Shi’s great-granduncle, Emperor Zhao had died that year, and the regent Huo Guang, having been dissatisfied with his initial selection of Prince He of Changyi, deposed Prince He and offered the throne to the commoner Bingyi instead. Bingyi accepted, and took the throne as Emperor Xuan. Shi’s mother Xu Pingjun was created empress.
This action would cost Empress Xu her life, however, and cost Prince Shi his mother. Huo Guang’s wife, Xian (顯), would not be denied her wish of making her daughter Huo Chengjun (霍成君) an empress. In 71 BC, Empress Xu was pregnant when Lady Xian came up with a plot. She bribed Empress Xu’s female physician Chunyu Yan (淳于衍), under guise of giving Empress Xu medicine after she gave birth, to poison her. Chunyu did so, and Empress Xu died shortly after she gave birth. Her doctors were initially arrested to investigate whether they cared for the empress properly. Lady Xian, alarmed, informed Huo Guang what had actually happened, and Huo, not having the heart to turn in his wife, instead signed Chunyu’s release.
In 70 BC, Emperor Xuan created Huo Chengjun empress. Accustomed to luxury living, her palace expenditures far exceeded the late Empress Xu. Her becoming empress would threaten Prince Shi’s life, as in 67 BC, Emperor Xuan created the eight-year-old Crown Prince Shi and created Empress Xu’s father and Prince Shi’s grandfather Xu Guanghan the Marquess of Ping’en—an action that Huo Guang had opposed. Huo’s wife Lady Xian was shocked and displeased, because if her daughter were to have a son later, that son could only be a prince and not the future emperor. She instructed her daughter to murder the crown prince. Allegedly, Empress Huo did make multiple attempts to do so, but failed each time. Around this time, the emperor also heard rumors that the Huos had murdered Empress Xu, which led him to begin stripping the Huos of actual power, while giving them impressive titles.
In 66 BC, after there had been increasing public rumors that the Huos had murdered Empress Xu, Lady Xian finally revealed to her son and grandnephews that she had, indeed, murdered Empress Xu. In fear of what the emperor might do if he had actual proof, Lady Xian, her son, her grandnephews, and her sons-in-law formed a conspiracy to depose the emperor. The conspiracy was discovered, and the entire Huo clan was executed by Emperor Xuan. For the time being, Empress Huo was deposed but not executed, but 12 years later she was exiled; in response, she committed suicide.
What Empress Huo tried to do influenced Emperor Xuan in his choice of his next wife. At that time, he favored Consorts Hua, Zhang, and Wei, each of whom bore him children. He almost settled on Consort Zhang as his new empress. However, he became hesitant, remembering how Empress Huo had tried to murder the crown prince. He therefore resolved to create an empress who was childless and kind. He decided on the gentle Consort Wang, and created her empress in 64 BC. Emperor Xuan put Prince Shi in her care, and she cared for him well.
Empress Wang would have a role in Crown Prince Shi’s eventual choice of a wife. In the middle of the 50s BC, Consort Sima, the favorite consort of Prince Shi died from an illness. Prince Shi was grief-stricken and became ill and depressed himself. Emperor Xuan was concerned, so he had Empress Wang select the most beautiful of the young ladies in waiting and had them sent to Prince Shi. Wang Zhengjun was one of the ladies in waiting chosen. She bore him his first-born son Liu Ao (劉驁, later Emperor Cheng) circa 51 BC. Prince Ao became Emperor Xuan’s favorite grandson and often accompanied him.
During his years as crown prince, Prince Shi did not have a major role in government, given the forceful nature of his father’s personality. He was taught the Confucian classics by a succession of Confucian scholars, during his pre-teen and teenage years. Prince Shi became and mild-mannered strict adherent to Confucian principles, unlike his father’s effective use of both Legalist and Confucian principles in his governance. This would bring his father’s ire on him. In 53 BC, once, when Emperor Xuan and Prince Shi were having dinner, he suggested that Emperor Xuan employ more Confucian officials in key positions.
Emperor Xuan became extremely angry and commented that Confucian scholars were impractical and could not be given responsibilities, and further commented that Emperor Yuan would bring the downfall of the Liu imperial clan—words that would turn out to be fairly prophetic. This would also bring his father to consider changing the succession plans, as he was also disappointed by Prince Shi’s general lack of resolve. He considered creating Prince Shi’s younger brother Liu Qin, the Prince of Huaiyang, crown prince instead, but could not bring himself to do so—remembering how Prince Shi’s mother Empress Xu was his first love and had been murdered by poisoning, and also how he depended on his father-in-law in his youth. Prince Shi’s position therefore was not seriously threatened.
In 49 BC, Emperor Xuan fell deathly ill
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. Before his death, he commissioned his cousin-once-removed Shi Gao (史高), Prince Shi’s teacher Xiao Wangzhi (zh:蕭望之), and Xiao’s assistant Zhou Kan (周堪) to serve as regents. After he died, Prince Shi ascended the throne as Emperor Yuan.
As emperor, Emperor Yuan immediately started a regimen of reducing governmental spending, with the objective of reducing the burdens of the people in mind. He also started a program for social assistance to provide stipends for the poor and new entrepreneurs. He also, contrary to his father’s governing philosophy, heavily relied on Confucian scholars and put them into important governmental positions.
In 48 BC, Emperor Yuan created Consort Wang Zhengjun, the mother of his first-born son Prince Ao, empress. In 47 BC, he created Prince Ao crown prince.
In 46 BC, alarmed at the high human and monetary cost of occupying Hainan and suppressing the frequent native rebellions, Emperor Yuan decreed that the two commanderies on the island be abandoned. Similarly, in 40 BC, alarmed at the high cost of maintaining imperial temples, he reduced the number of standing temples.
Quickly, in Emperor Yuan’s administration, a factional schism developed—a phenomenon that would plague his entire reign and cause officials to be concentrated on infighting rather than effective governance. One faction included mainly Confucian scholars—his teachers Xiao and Zhou, aligned with an imperial clan member who was also a Confucian scholar, Liu Gengsheng (劉更生, later named Liu Xiang 劉向), and imperial assistant Jin Chang (金敞). The other faction was his cousin-twice-removed Shi, imperial secretary Hong Gong (弘恭) and chief eunuch Shi Xian (石顯). The Confucian faction derived their power from the fact that Emperor Yuan trusted and respected their advice. The “court faction” derived their power from their physical closeness to the emperor and their key roles in processing reports and edicts for Emperor Yuan. Policy-wise, the Confucian faction advocated returning to the ancient policies of the early Zhou Dynasty, while the court faction advocated keeping the traditions of the Han Dynasty. In 47 BC, Hong and Shi used procedural traps to cause Zhou and Liu to be demoted to commoners and Xiao to be retired. Later that year, the court faction would further press Xiao into committing suicide—by tricking Emperor Yuan into believing that it would be appropriate to have Xiao investigated for inducing his son to make a petition for him—something considered inappropriate. Hong and Shi knew that with Xiao’s temper, he would rather commit suicide than face an investigation, and that was what Xiao did. For now, the court faction had prevailed. In actions characteristic of his personality, Emperor Yuan rebuked Hong and Shi harshly for misleading him, and buried Xiao with great honor, but did not punish Hong (who died himself later that year) and Shi.
In 46 BC, Emperor Yuan summoned Zhou back to his administration and gave him a mid-level office, along with Zhou’s student Zhang Meng (張猛, a grandson of the great explorer Zhang Qian). Despite the relatively low positions that Zhou and Zhang had, their advice was highly valued by Emperor Yuan. In 44 BC, he would also promote the highly regarded Confucian scholar Gong Yu (貢禹), who tried not to engage himself in factional politics, to the position of vice prime minister, and heeded many of his suggestions to further reduce governmental spending and to encourage the study of Confucianism.
In 43 BC, there were a number of unusual astronomical and meteorological signs that were considered signs of divine disapproval. Shi Xian and his allies, the Xu and Shi clans, alleged that this was sign of divine disapproval of Zhou and Zhang’s policies. Zhou and Zhang were demoted to local posts. In 42 BC, he promoted another Confucian scholar, Kuang Heng (匡衡), to be his key advisor, and Kuang, aware of the fate of the other Confucian scholars, entered into an alliance with Shi Xian as well to ensure his own safety and power.
In 40 BC, more unusual signs occurred, and Emperor Yuan asked the court faction to explain how they could continue to occur if, as they alleged, they were signs of divine disapproval of Zhou and Zhang. They could not, and so Emperor Yuan summoned Zhou and Zhang back to the capital to serve as advisors. However, this would not last long, as Zhou soon died of a stroke, and Shi Xian found an opportunity to falsely accuse Zhang of crimes and forced him to commit suicide.
Another Confucian scholar would try his luck at shaking the influence of Shi Xian, however, in 37 BC. That man was Jing Fang (京房), who, in addition to studying Confucianism, was also an accomplished fortuneteller. (It should be noted that at this time, fortunetelling was still considered to be a part of Confucian studies—indeed, a highly honored part; it was not until several decades later when Confucians began to disfavor fortunetelling.) Jing, who had become a trusted advisor of Emperor Yuan after Emperor Yuan greatly favored his proposed system for examining and promoting regional officials, accused Shi and Shi’s assistant Wulu Chongzong (五鹿充宗) to be corrupt and evil. Initially, Emperor Yuan believed him, but took no actions against Shi and Wulu. Shi and Wulu soon found out and fought back by accusing Jing of conspiring with Emperor Yuan’s brother Liu Qin, the Prince of Huaiyang, and Prince Qin’s uncle, and Jing was executed.
Around the same time, however, despite Emperor Yuan’s general tendency for pacificism, a military confrontation with one branch of Xiongnu, which had by that time fractured into competing courts ruled by Chanyus Huhanye in the east and Zhizhi in the west. During Emperor Xuan’s reign, Chanyu Huhanye had officially submitted to Han as a subject and received Han assistance. Chanyu Zhizhi, then the stronger of the two, tried to maintain a détente with Han by sending his son Juyulishou (駒于利受), but was not so willing to submit, and soon found himself outpowered by the Han-assisted Huhanye. In 49 BC, the last year of Emperor Xuan’s reign, Chanyu Zhizhi headed northwest and conquered several Xiyu kingdoms, settling his capital at the old capital of one of those kingdoms, Jiankun (modern Altay, Xinjiang). From there, he often attacked the Han ally Wusun, rendering Wusun heavily wounded from those attacks.
In 44 BC, Chanyu Zhizhi sent an ambassador to offer tributes to Han, but at the same time demanded that Han deliver his son Juyilishou back to him. Emperor Yuan commissioned a guard commander, Gu Ji (谷吉), to escort Juyilishou. Initially, under suggestion by Gong and other key officials, who reasoned that Zhizhi had no real intention to submit and was far away, Emperor Yuan instructed Gu to escort Juyilishou only to the Han borders, and let him make the rest of the trek on his own. Gu reasoned that by escorting Juyilishou all the way to Jiankun, he might be able to persuade Zhizhi to submit, and that he was willing to risk his own life to do so. Emperor Yuan agreed, and Gu made the escort to Jiankun. Chanyu Zhizhi was not impressed, and had Gu executed. He then realized that he made a key mistake, and he entered into an alliance with Kangju to conquer Wusun, a traditional enemy of Kangju. They repeatedly dealt Wusun heavy losses for several years.
In 36 BC, two Han commanders—Gan Yanshou (甘延壽) and his lieutenant Chen Tang (陳湯) would take initiative and destroy Zhizhi as a threat, however. Zhizhi, after winning many victories over Wusun and other Xiyu kingdoms, had become exceedingly arrogant, and treated his ally, the king of Kangju, as a subject, and he even executed the daughter of the king of Kangju, who had been given to him as a wife as part of the alliance. He also forced the other kingdoms in the region, even including the powerful Dayuan, to pay him tribute.
Chen felt that Chanyu Zhizhi would eventually become a major threat and devised a plan to destroy him. Reasoning that Zhizhi was a powerful warrior but lacked the affection of the kingdoms that were subject to him, and also that his new capital (on the banks of Lake Balkhash) had only recently been built and lacked strong defenses, his plan was to gain requisition of the colonization forces that Han had in Xiyu and Wusun forces to advance to Zhizhi’s capital in order to capture it. Gan agreed with his plan and wanted to request approval, but Chen feared that civilian officials would disapprove of the plan. Therefore, when Gan fell sick on one occasion, Chen forged imperial edicts and requisitioned the colonization forces as well as the forces of the kingdoms that submitted to Han authority. Once Gan recovered, he tried to reverse Chen’s actions, but Chen warned him that it was too late to do so. They then sent out (after submitting reports impeaching themselves for forging edicts but describing the reasons for doing so), marching along two routes—one half taking a route through Dayuan and the other through Wusun. The forces rejoined when they entered Kangju. They then set a trap for Zhizhi, by pretending that they were running low on supplies—to ward off the possibility that Zhizhi would flee. Zhizhi, taking the bait, stayed in his capital. The coalition forces soon arrived at his capital and besieged it, and Chanyu Zhizhi died in the battle.
Both happy (that his enemy was dead) and fearful (that Han was demonstrating its might), Chanyu Huhanye made a second official visit to the Han capital of Chang’an in 33 BC, and formally asked to become a “son-in-law of Han”. In response, Emperor Yuan gave him five ladies in waiting as a reward, and one of them was the beautiful Wang Zhaojun. Impressed that Emperor Yuan gave him the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen, Huhanye offered to have his forces serve as the northern defense forces for Han—a proposal that Emperor Yuan rejected as ill-advised—but the relationship between Han and Xiongnu thereafter grew stronger and stronger.
Emperor Yuan was a relatively non-womanizing emperor, but he did have two favorite concubines in addition to Empress Wang — Consort Fu (傅昭儀) and Consort Feng Yuan (馮昭儀), each of whom bore him one son. Empress Wang apparently tried to maintain a cordial relationship with both, and she was largely successful, at least as far as Consort Feng was concerned. However, a struggle between Empress Wang and Consort Fu for their sons’ heir status would erupt.
As Crown Prince Ao grew older, Emperor Yuan became increasingly unhappy with his fitness as imperial heir and impressed with Consort Fu’s son, Prince Liu Kang of Shanyang (山陽王劉康). Several incidents led to this situation. One happened in 35 BC, when Emperor Yuan’s youngest brother Prince Liu Jing of Zhongshan (中山王劉竟) died, Emperor Yuan became angry when he felt that the teenage Crown Prince Ao was insufficiently grieving—particularly because Princes Ao and Jing were of similar age and grew up together as playmates—and showing insufficient respect to Prince Jing. Prince Ao’s head of household Shi Dan (史丹), a relative of Emperor Yuan’s grandmother and a senior official respected by Emperor Yuan, managed to convince Emperor Yuan that Crown Prince Ao was trying to stop Emperor Yuan himself from overgrieving, but the seed of dissatisfaction was sown.
As the princes further grew, several things further led to an endearment between Emperor Yuan and Prince Kang. They shared affection and skills in music—particularly in the playing of drums. Prince Kang also showed high intelligence and diligence, while Crown Prince Ao was known for drinking and womanizing. When Emperor Yuan grew ill circa 35 BC—an illness that he would not recover from—Consort Fu and Prince Kang were often summoned to his sickbed to attend to him, while Empress Wang and Crown Prince Ao rarely were. In his illness, apparently encouraged by Consort Fu, Emperor Yuan reconsidered whether he should make Prince Kang his heir instead. Only the intercession of Shi Dan—who risked his life by stepping onto the carpet of the imperial bed chamber, an act that only the empress was allowed to do, at the pain of death—led Emperor Yuan to cease those thoughts. When Emperor Yuan died in 33 BC, Crown Prince Ao ascended the throne (as Emperor Cheng).