Emperor Xiaowu of Northern Wei

Emperor Xiaowu of northern wei ((北)魏孝武帝) (510 – February 3, 535 ), personal name Yuan Xiu (元脩 or 元修), courtesy name Xiaoze (孝則), at times known as Emperor Chu (出帝, "the emperor who fled"), was an emperor of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty northern wei. After the general Gao Huan rebelled against and defeated the clan of the deceased paramount general Erzhu Rong in 532, he made Emperor Xiaowu emperor. Despite Gao's making him emperor, however, Emperor Xiaowu tried strenuously to free himself from Gao's control, and in 534, he, aligning with the general Yuwen Tai, formally broke with Gao. When Gao advanced south to try to again take control of the imperial government, Emperor Xiaowu fled to Yuwen's territory, leading to northern wei's division into two (as Gao then made Yuan Shanjian the Heir Apparent of Qinghe emperor (as Emperor Xiaojing), establishing eastern wei). Emperor Xiaowu's relationship with Yuwen, however, soon deteriorated over Yuwen's refusal to condone his incestuous relationships with his cousins, and around the new year 535, Yuwen poisoned him to death. Emperor Xiaowu's successor Emperor Wen of western wei is typically regarded, then, as the first emperor of western wei, formalizing the division of the empire.


Yuan Xiu was born in 510, as the third son of Yuan Huai (元懷) the Prince of Guangping, a son of Emperor Xiaowen and a younger brother of the then-reigning Emperor Xuanwu. His mother Lady Li was likely Yuan Huai's concubine, not his wife, although historical records were not clear on the issue. In 517, Yuan Huai died.

In Yuan Xiu's youth, he was considered to be quiet and peaceful, and he was interested in military matters. In 527, Emperor Xuanwu's son Emperor Xiaoming created Yuan Xiu the Duke of Ruyang. In 530, Emperor Xiaozhuang promoted him to the title of Prince of Pingyang.

In 532, the general Gao Huan defeated the members of the clan of the paramount general Erzhu Rong (who had overthrown and killed Emperor Xiaozhuang after Emperor Xiaozhuang killed Erzhu Rong in 530). During the campaign, Gao had declared Yuan Lang, a distant member of the imperial Yuan clan, emperor, to compete with Emperor Jiemin, whom Erzhu Rong's cousin Erzhu Shilong had made emperor. Gao, after victory, considered Yuan Lang an inappropriate choice to be emperor, given his distant relationship to the recent emperors. He considered keeping Emperor Jiemin on the throne, but decided against it when his generals Wei Lan'gen (魏蘭根) and Qiu Ling (name not in Unicode) opined that Emperor Jiemin would be difficult to control in the future; he therefore had Emperor Jiemin imprisoned. He also considered making Yuan Yue (元悅) the Prince of Ru'nan, the only surviving son of Emperor Xiaowen, whom he welcomed back from rival liang dynasty (where Yuan Yue had fled earlier), emperor, but later changed his mind after hearing that Yuan Yue was violent and arbitrary. At that time, the imperial princes were all largely in hiding, and Yuan Xiu was hiding at a farm. Gao's ally, the general Husi Chun, located Yuan Xiu, and Gao wanted to make Yuan Xiu emperor. After a meeting with Gao, in which Gao vowed allegiance, Yuan Xiu decided to agree. Gao therefore forced Yuan Lang to yield the throne to Yuan Xiu, who then took the throne as Emperor Xiaowu.

Reign in Luoyang

One thing Emperor Xiaowu immediately started doing—for which he was criticized by historians—was eliminating potential claimants to the throne. Less than 10 days after taking the throne, he poisoned the deposed Emperor Jiemin to death. Six months later, he forced Yuan Lang and another former emperor, Yuan Ye, to commit suicide. He also executed his uncle Yuan Yue.

Although Gao made him emperor, Emperor Xiaowu also almost immediately tried to do what he could to avoid being controlled by Gao. Although he married Gao's oldest daughter as his empress around the new year 533, he, after initially appearing to show deference to Gao, began to rule with Husi Chun and his associate Wang Sizheng (王思政) as his assistants, making decisions contrary to Gao's opinion, particularly after Gao had defeated the final major member of the Erzhu clan, Erzhu Zhao. He secretly communicated with Heba Yue (賀拔岳), who controlled the western provinces, and also commissioned Heba Yue's brother Heba Sheng (賀拔勝) as the commander of the southern provinces, wanting to depend on the Heba brothers to resist Gao's hold. Tensions also increased over Gao's desire to control more provinces and Emperor Xiaowu's corresponding desire to wrest control of the provinces from Gao.

In spring 534, Heba Yue's friend and lieutenant, Houmochen Yue (侯莫陳悅), due to Gao's instigation, assassinated Heba Yue. Heba Yue's troops supported Heba Yue's assistant Yuwen Tai to replace him, and Yuwen soon defeated Houmochen, who committed suicide. Emperor Xiaowu continued to engage in talks with Yuwen (whom Heba Yue had previously sent to Emperor Xiaowu as a liaison) with an eye of depending on Yuwen to face off against Gao. In summer 534, Emperor Xiaowu prepared his troops and, believing he could catch Gao by surprise, issued secret edits to Gao pretending that he was suspecting Yuwen and Heba Sheng of rebellion and planning to attack them with Gao. Gao saw through Emperor Xiaowu's plot, however, and instead marched toward Luoyang. Wang Sizheng, believing that the imperial troops were not strong enough to resist Gao's, suggested Emperor Xiaowu to flee to Yuwen's territory, and Emperor Xiaowu decided to do so, rejecting Husi Chun's offer to take one final stand at Luoyang, particularly when Heba Sheng failed to come to the emperor's aid and when Yuwen's troops failed to arrive quickly. It took Gao only a month to reach Luoyang, and Emperor Xiaowu fled west, encountering Yuwen's troops on the way, and had them escort him back to Yuwen's headquarters at Chang'an, where he reestablished the imperial government and made Yuwen prime minister. He also married his sister Princess Fengyi to Yuwen.

Flight to Chang'an and death

Meanwhile, Gao Huan took over the Luoyang region, and soon also defeated Heba Sheng, taking over his territory and forcing him to flee to Liang. Gao then wrote repeated petitions to Emperor Xiaowu, requesting that he return to Luoyang and indicating that he was willing to return to the status quo ante. Emperor Xiaowu did not respond to any of Gao's overtures. Gao therefore made Yuan Shanjian, the son and heir apparent of Emperor Xiaowu's cousin Yuan Dan (元亶) the Prince of Qinghe emperor (as Emperor Xiaojing) and moving the capital from Luoyang to Yecheng, thus formally dividing the empire into two (eastern wei under Emperor Xiaojing and western wei under Emperor Xiaowu), albeit with each claiming to be the rightful one.

Meanwhile, Emperor Xiaowu's relationship with Yuwen Tai was deteriorating. While at Luoyang, he had previously entered into incestuous relationships with three of his cousins—Yuan Mingyue (元明月) the Princess Pingyuan, the Princess Ande, and Yuan Jili (元蒺藜), who was also created princess. Yuan Mingyue accompanied him on his flight to Chang'an, but Yuwen disapproved of the relationship, and persuaded the imperial princes to arrest and kill her. Emperor Xiaowu was very angry, and he often used his bow or pounded his table inside the palace as demonstrations of his displeasure. Around the new year 535, he drank wine spiked by poison—in all likelihood placed by Yuwen's assassins—and died. Yuwen made his cousin Yuan Baoju the Prince of Nanyang (Yuan Mingyue's brother) emperor (as Emperor Wen).

Era names

Taichang (太昌 tài chāng) 532

Yongxing (永興 yǒng xīng) 532

Yongxi (永熙 yǒng xī) 532-534

Personal information


Yuan Huai (元懷), Prince Wumu of Guangping (d. 517), son of Emperor Xiaowen of northern wei


Lady Li, likely Yuan Huai's concubine


Empress Gao (created 532), daughter of Gao Huan

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