Emperor Cheng of Han

Emperor Cheng of Han (51 BC – 7 BC) was an emperor of the Chinese han dynasty ruling from 33 BC until 7 BC. Under Emperor Cheng, the han dynasty continued its slide into disintegration while the Wang clan continued its slow grip on power and on governmental affairs as promoted by the previous emperor. Corruptions and greedy officials continued to plague the government and as a result rebellions broke out throughout the country. Emperor Cheng died after a reign of 26 years and was succeeded by his nephew.

Birth and career as Crown Prince

Emperor Cheng was born circa 51 BC to then-Crown Prince Liu Shi (later Emperor Yuan) and one of his consorts, Consort Wang (later more commonly known as Grand Empress Dowager Wang). He was Emperor Yuan's first born son.

In 47 BC, Emperor Yuan created Prince Ao, Empress Wang's son, Crown Prince.

Emperor Yuan was a relatively non-womanizing emperor, but he did have two favorite concubines in addition to Empress Wang -- Consort Fu and Consort Feng Yuan, each of whom bore him one son. Empress Wang's 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 led Emperor Yuan to cease those thoughts. When Emperor Yuan died in 33 BC, Crown Prince Ao ascended the throne (as Emperor Cheng).

The aggrandization of power by the Wang clan

After the death of Emperor Yuan and the accession of Emperor Cheng, Empress Wang became empress dowager. Prince Kang, as was customary with imperial princes, was sent to govern his principality -- now at Dingtao (定陶). Despite the near-coup by Consort Fu and Prince Kang, however, Empress Wang and Emperor Cheng did not bear grudges, and, against the advice of officials who were concerned that Prince Kang would become the subject of conspiracies, Emperor Cheng often summoned Prince Kang to the capital Chang'an for extended visits.

Emperor Cheng was very trusting of his uncles (Empress Dowager Wang's brothers) and put them in important roles in government. In addition to his oldest uncle Wang Feng (王鳳), who had inherited his father's title as the Marquess of Yangping, six of Empress Dowager Wang's brothers were created marquesses, in violation of the rule laid by Emperor Gao, the founder of the dynasty, who had decreed that only those who had contributed to the empire in substantial ways could be made marquesses. Several (Wang Feng, Wang Shang (王商), and Wang Gen (王根)), in addition to Empress Dowager Wang's cousin Wang Yin (王音), served successively as the supreme commander of the armed forces and were in effective control of the administration. After Wang Gen, Empress Dowager Wang's nephew Wang Mang (王莽) served in the same role.

Wang Feng, 33 BC-22 BC

Wang Yin, 22 BC-15 BC

Wang Shang, 15 BC-12 BC

Wang Gen, 12 BC-8 BC

Wang Mang, 8 BC-7 BC

The Wangs, while not corrupt in general and apparently genuinely trying to help the emperor, were largely concerned with aggrandizing their power and not with the best interests of the empire when selecting officials for various posts, and this led to a continued deterioration in the administration of Emperor Cheng, who at times considered modifying this power structure but always failed to do so. For example, in 24 BC, under the suggestion of an official Wang Zhang (王章, unrelated to the Wang clan), Emperor Cheng considered replacing Wang Feng with highly-regarded official Feng Yewang (馮野王), the brother of his father's concubine Consort Feng. When Wang Feng realized this, Empress Dowager Wang became saddened, and in response Emperor Cheng executed Wang Zhang and relieved Feng Yewang of his post without any allegation of wrongdoing.

Emperor Cheng's "women troubles" and lack of an heir

Emperor Cheng was a womanizer with many favorites. His first favorite was Empress Xu (created 31 BC), from the clan of his murdered grandmother, the first wife of Emperor Xuan, and he also favored Consort Ban. Neither Empress Xu nor Consort Ban bore him a child, however, and concerned with having a grandson to be heir, Empress Dowager Wang openly encouraged Emperor Cheng to take on more and more concubines, but that did not result in the birth of an heir. Circa 19 BC, however, when Emperor Cheng was visiting Princess Yanga (陽阿公主), he became enamored with her dancing girl Zhao Feiyan (趙飛燕) and her sister Zhao Hede (趙合德) and made them his concubines, and they became favored over Empress Xu and Consort Ban. In 18 BC, the Zhao sisters falsely accused Empress Xu and Consort Ban of witchcraft; Empress Xu was deposed, and while Consort Ban was able to successfully plead her case, she did not wish to return to the same environment and instead became a lady in waiting for Empress Dowager Wang. Then Emperor Cheng wanted to create Zhao Feiyan his empress, but Empress Dowager Wang complained about her low birth and prior occupation as a dance girl; she finally capitulated to her son's wishes in 16 BC, but she was never pleased with the Zhao sisters. Neither the Zhaos nor another later favorite of Emperor Cheng's, Consort Li, bore him a son either, however.

In 9 BC, still heirless, Emperor Cheng appeared to come to the resolution of making either his younger brother Prince Liu Xing of Zhongshan (中山王劉興) or his nephew Prince Liu Xin of Dingtao (定陶王劉欣, son of the late Prince Kang) his heir. Emperor Cheng became convinced that Prince Xin was more capable, and at the same time, Prince Xin's grandmother Consort Fu was endearing herself to the Zhaos and Wang Gen with lavish gifts, and so the Zhaos and Wang Gen both praised Prince Xin as well. Emperor Cheng made Prince Xin crown prince in 8 BC.

Emperor Cheng died suddenly in 7 BC, apparently from a stroke (although historians also report the possibility of an overdosage of aphrodisiacs given to him by Consort Zhao Hede). Immediately there were many rumors that he had in fact had concubines who bore him sons, but that those sons and their mothers were murdered by Consort Zhao Hede (out of jealousy) and possibly Emperor Cheng himself. Grieving her husband and apparently fearful of reprisals, Consort Zhao Hede killed herself. Crown Prince Xin ascended the throne as Emperor Ai.

A report by officials commissioned by Empress Dowager Wang concluded in 6 BC that Emperor Cheng did have two sons -- one born to Consort Cao in 12 BC and one born to Consort Xu (a relative of the deposed Empress Xu) in 11 BC. However, both of the sons were murdered in their infancy by orders of Consort Zhao Hede, with at least tacit agreement from Emperor Cheng, who was enamored with her; Consort Cao was forced to commit suicide after her son was murdered. In response, apparently at the urging of Empress Dowager Wang, Emperor Ai stripped the Zhaos' relatives of their marquess titles and exiled them; only Empress Zhao Feiyan was spared, although she was forced to commit suicide after Emperor Ai's death.

Impact on Chinese history

Emperor Cheng has often been used as an example of someone who had been so thoroughly controlled by his mother's family that it led to the eventual usurpation for Wang Mang. This view may be an oversimplification -- certainly Emperor Cheng himself was quite capable of asserting his own opinions and carry out his own actions, independent of his uncles' wishes, when he wanted. However, he created a precedent for empresses' families to become in effective control of government, and many eastern han emperors would fall into the same trap.

Era names

Jianshi (建始 py. jìan shĭ) 32 BC – 28 BC

Heping (河平 py. hé píng) 28 BC – 25 BC

(陽朔 py. yáng shùo) 24 BC – 21 BC

Hongjia (鴻嘉 py. hóng jīa) 20 BC – 17 BC

Yongshi (永始 py. yŏng shĭ) 16 BC – 13 BC

Yuanyan (元延 py. yúan yán) 12 BC – 9 BC

Suihe (綏和 py. sūi hé) 8 BC – 7 BC

Personal information


Emperor Yuan of Han


Empress Wang Zhengjun, aunt of Wang Mang


Empress Xu (deposed 18 BC, committed suicide 8 BC)

Empress Zhao Feiyan (forced to commit suicide 1 BC by Wang Mang)

Major Concubines

Consort Ban, poet, scholar and aunt of historian Ban Biao and grandaunt to his children -- historian Ban Gu, general Ban Chao, and female historian Ban Zhao

Consort Zhao Hede (committed suicide 7 BC, younger sister of Empress Zhao Feiyan)

Consort Li Ping, formerly Consort Ban's handmaiden

Consort Cao, alleged mother of one of his murdered sons, forced to commit suicide when her son was murdered

Consort Xu, alleged mother of one of his murdered sons and likely relative of Empress Xu


2 sons by consorts, allegedly murdered 11 BC by Consort Zhao Hede and possibly Emperor Cheng himself; however, decades later there were pretenders who claimed to be Emperor Cheng's sons

Last update 07-06-2012

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