Emperor Xuan of Han

Emperor Xuan of Han (91 BC – 49 BC) was an emperor of the Chinese han dynasty from 74 BC to 49 BC. His life story was a riches-to-rags-to-riches story.

Emperor Xuan was the great grandson of Emperor Wu. His grandfather, son of Emperor Wu and Empress Wei, Liu Ju was once the crown prince of Emperor Wu but in 91 BC he was accused of witchcraft practice against the Emperor and, after being forced into a failed rebellion, committed suicide; Emperor Xuan's father Liu Jin (劉進) also died, although it is not clear whether he committed suicide or was killed by pursuing soldiers. Emperor Xuan was only an infant at the time and hence he was spared (but only barely) but was banished to live as a commoner.

After Emperor He's short reign of only 27 days in 74 BC, Xuan was declared emperor by Huo Guang (the half-brother of Huo Qubing). Emperor Xuan has been considered a hardworking and brilliant emperor. Because Xuan grew up as a commoner, he thoroughly understood the suffering of his people. He lowered taxes, liberalized the government and employed capable ministers to the government. In addition Emperor Xuan was open to suggestions, was a good judge of character, and consolidated his power by eliminating corrupt officials, including the Huo family, which have exerted considerable power since the death of Emperor Wu, after Huo Guang's death. However, his execution of the entire Huo clan later drew heavy criticism from historians for its ungratefulness to Huo Guang. (e. g. , Sima Guang in his Zizhi Tongjian. )

Under Emperor Xuan, the han dynasty prospered economically and militarily. His rule lasted 25 years and he died in 49 BC. He was succeeded by his son Emperor Yuan.

Parentage, disaster, and a barely spared young life

Liu Bingyi was born in 91 BC to Liu Jin, the son of then-Crown Prince Liu Ju, and his wife Consort Wang. As the grandson of the Crown Prince, Bingyi likely was born in Prince Ju's palace.

That same year, however, disaster would strike. With conspirators accusing him of using witchcraft against his father Emperor Wu, Prince Ju was forced into a rebellion, which was defeated. Prince Ju committed suicide, and Bingyi's two uncles died with him, although it was not clear whether they also committed suicide or were killed by soldiers. Bingyi's great-grandmother Empress Wei also committed suicide, and his grandmother (Prince Ju's concubine) Consort Shi and his parents died in the incident as well in the capital Chang'an. It is not completely clear whether they took their own lives or were executed, but the latter seems likely.

For reasons not completely clear, the baby Bingyi was spared, although he was imprisoned in a prison overseen by the Ministry of Vassal Affairs. He was put into the custody of the warden Bing Ji (丙吉). Bing knew that Prince Ju was actually innocent of witchcraft and took pity on the child, and selected two kind female prisoners, Hu Zu (胡組) and Guo Zhengqing (郭徵卿) to serve as his wet nurses and caretakers. Bing visited them each day to see how the child was doing.


Near the end of Emperor Wu's reign, there was an incident when magicians claimed that an aura of an emperor was appearing from Chang'an prisons. Emperor Wu ordered that all prisoners, regardless of whether they had been convicted or not and regardless of the severity of the charges, were to be executed. When the eunuch delivering the edict arrived at the Vassal Affairs prison that Bing oversaw, Bing refused to accept the edict, stating that no one who had not been convicted of a capital crime should be executed, and particularly not the emperor's own great-grandson. The eunuch filed charges against Bing for refusing to abide by the edict—a capital offense—but by that time Emperor Wu had realized his error and declared a general pardon. The prisoners in all other prisons were dead, but the prisoners at Bing's prison survived.

This incident made Bing feel, however, that it was inappropriate for the young Bingyi to remain at the prison, and so ordered one of his lieutenants to transfer Bingyi and Hu (Guo might have died by this point) to the city government of Chang'an. The city government refused to accept responsibility, and so Bing had to let them remain in prison. After Hu's sentence was over, Bing hired her out of his own pocket to continue to serve as a wet nurse for several months, before letting her leave. Later, the budget for taking care of Bingyi was cut off from the imperial clan affairs budget, and Bing took money out of his own salary to care for Bingyi. When he grew somewhat older, Bing heard that Consort Shi's mother Zhenjun (貞君) and brother Shi Gong (史恭) survived the incident, and so sought them out and had Bingyi delivered to the Shi residence. Lady Zhenjun raised him herself.

Several years later, Bingyi's granduncle Emperor Zhao found out that Bingyi was alive, and ordered that the Ministry of Imperial Clan Affairs take over the duty for caring for Bingyi. The chief eunuch at the palace Zhang He (張賀), who had been had previously been an advisor to Prince Ju before he was castrated by Emperor Wu in the aftermaths of Prince Ju's death, cared well for young Bingyi, and paid for his expenses and studies out of his own pocket.

Young adulthood and marriage

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 him. 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 depended on his wife's family and his grandmother's family for support, and he engaged a teacher to teach him the Confucian classics. He was a diligent learner, and he also had a strong sense of social justice. As a teenager, he had many friends from all walks of life and was able to see the dark sides of society and the suffering of the people at the hands of corrupt officials. He had a strong interest in hiking. Occasionally he was summoned to see Emperor Zhao. Pingjun bore him a son, Liu Shi.

Succession to the throne

After Emperor Zhao died in 74 BC at the age of 20, the regent Huo Guang initially offered the throne to Prince He of Changyi. However, after Prince He quickly showed his unsuitability to be an emperor, Huo removed him from the throne. Huo, however, could not find a suitable successor among the princes. At Bing's recommendation (although the exact process behind the scenes was not completely clear), Huo, with Zhang Anshi's concurrence, decided to offer the throne to Bingyi, then 17, an offer ratified by Huo's granddaughter Empress Dowager Shangguan. To avoid having a mere commoner take the throne, 27 days after Prince He was removed from the throne, Empress Dowager Shangguan first created him the Marquess of Yangwu. On the same day, he was offered the imperial seal and the throne, and he accepted.

Early reign

When Emperor Xuan accepted the throne, his son Prince Shi was barely a few months old. Prince Shi's mother Xu Pingjun was initially created a consort. When it came time to create an empress, the officials largely wanted Emperor Xuan to marry Huo Guang's daughter Huo Chengjun (霍成君) and create her empress. Emperor Xuan did not explicitly reject this proposal, but issued an order to seek out the sword that he owned as a commoner. Getting the hint, the officials recommended Consort Xu as empress, and she was created as such late in 74 BC. He initially wanted to create his father-in-law Xu Guanghan a marquess, but Huo opposed, reasoning a eunuch who had suffered castration as a punishment should not be made a marquess. Instead, Xu was given the title of Lord of Changcheng (昌成君).

In 73 BC, Huo offered to be relieved of his responsibilities as regent. Emperor Xuan declined and ordered that all important matters of state still be submitted to Huo first. He also gave high positions to Huo's son Huo Yu (霍禹) and grandnephews Huo Yun (霍雲) and Huo Shan (霍山), as well as Huo's sons-in-law Fan Mingyou (范明友) and Deng Guanghan (鄧廣漢). In many ways, Emperor Xuan, although now emperor, remained intimidated by the powers of Huo and was always humble before him. In that same year, Emperor Xuan restored posthumous titles to his grandparents and parents (although, perhaps out of respect to Emperor Zhao's memory, Crown Prince Ju received the rather unflattering posthumous name "Li" (戾, unrepenting)) and reburied them with honor. In 67 BC, he also finally found his maternal grandmother and her family, and he rewarded his grandmother and uncles with riches, and his uncles were created marquesses.

Huo Guang's wife Xian (顯) would not be denied what she wanted—having her daughter as 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 that same year, a major battle with Xiongnu occurred. Xiongnu had been incessantly attacking the Xiyu (central Asia) kingdom of Wusun, whose queen was the Han princess Liu Jieyou (劉解憂). Emperor Xuan commissioned five generals and coordinated a plan with Wusun to attack Xiongnu at the same time. Xiongnu put the strongest defenses against the Han generals, and they largely fought inconclusively, but with the western frontiers weakened, Wusun forces won a major victory over Xiongnu, severely crippling Xiongnu's western region. For years after, without Han engaging major forces, Xiongnu was constantly under attack by Dingling from the north, Wuhuan from the east, and Wusun from the west, and became unable to harass Han borders.

In 70 BC, Emperor Xuan created Huo Chengjun empress. Accustomed to luxury living, her palace expenditures far exceeded the late Empress Xu.

Emperor Xuan's early reign was generally known for his willingness to innovate, to commission officials who were lenient on the people, and to listen to advice. For example, in 67 BC, based on a submission from a Justice Ministry official Lu Wenshu (路溫舒), who was concerned about the harshness of the criminal justice system, Emperor Xuan added four appellate judges who were in charge of hearing final appeals. While this fell well short of what Lu suggested, it did help to reform the justice system somewhat.

The destruction of the Huo clan

In 68 BC, Huo Guang died. Emperor Xuan and Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan made the nearly-unprecedented act of personally attending Huo's wake and built an impressive mausoleum for Huo. After Huo's death, Zhang Anshi and Wei Xiang (魏相) became Emperor Xuan's most powerful advisors, but Emperor Xuan assumed far more personal powers than he had during Huo's lifetime. Later, Bing Ji (who had not yet revealed by this point the extent of his contribution to the emperor's survival in his young age) also became a key official. Huo's son, grandnephews, and sons-in-law remained in key posts, however.

In 67 BC, Emperor Xuan created Prince Shi—the late Empress Xu's son—crown prince, and created Empress Xu's father 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—an act that later drew heavy criticism from historians for its ungratefulness to Huo Guang. (e. g. , Sima Guang in his Zizhi Tongjian. ) (For the time being, Empress Huo was deposed but not executed, but 12 years later she was exiled; in response, she committed suicide. )

Middle reign

During the middle stage of his reign, Emperor Xuan's administration continued to be known for the promotion of honest officials who generally cared for the people. It was also marked by further fostering of relationships with Xiyu kingdoms, making them strong vassals. He was also characterized by attention to detail and willingness to have correspondences with his generals in which he kindly but firmly had concrete discussions with them on proper military strategy in dealing with minority tribes and foreign nations. An example could be seen in his correspondences with General Zhao Chongguo (趙充國) in 62 BC to 60 BC when Zhao was on a mission to pacify the Qiang tribes, some of which were rebelling and some of which were considering rebellion. Zhao opposed the annihilation strategy that other generals had proposed and which Emperor Xuan had initially approved, but instead advocated better treatment of the tribes and establishment of military settlements to better prepare for any future rebellions. Eventually, Emperor Xuan agreed, and the Qiang tribes were pacified without major bloodshed. Also, after a short foray into magic in 61 BC, Emperor Xuan realized the follies of seeking immortality, and abandoned the would-be costly venture (unlike, for example, his great-grandfather Emperor Wu).

In 64 BC, Emperor Xuan considered creating a new empress. At that time, his favorite consorts were Consorts Hua, Zhang, and Wei. He seriously considered creating Consort Zhang, the mother of his son Liu Qin (later Prince of Huaiyang), empress, but was still hesitant over the episode in which Empress Huo nearly succeeded in poisoning Crown Prince Shi. He then resolved to create an empress who did not have sons of her own and was kind and gentle. He created Consort Wang, not one of his favorites, empress and had her raise Crown Prince Shi as her own.

That same year, he also changed his name to Xun (詢), to make it easier for the people to carry out "naming taboo" (the avoidance of using the emperor's name in speech or writing), because bing and yi were both common characters that were hard to avoid.

In 63 BC, having realized the extent of Bing's contributions to him, Emperor Xuan decided to repay him, and others who were involved in his upbringing, for their kindness. Bing and several others, in addition to Zhang He's adopted son, were created marquesses. The prison guards who had treated him with kindness were also rewarded. His nurses Hu and Guo had already died by this point, but their descendants were tracked down and rewarded.

Late reign

Late in his reign, Emperor Xuan began to moderately become luxurious in living, but was still comparatively thrifty in his expenditures. He also began to relax from his early diligence in governing the state. He also became less diligent in realizing of false reports by officials. For example, there were a large numbers of reported sightings of fenghuang (Chinese phoenixes) -- mythological birds who were considered symbols of divine favor—during this period, and while in ancient China there might have been "legitimate" sightings of phoenixes (i. e. , rare birds that were then-considered phoenixes), a good number of these reports were later shown to be likely hoaxes, but Emperor Xuan accepted these reports without critically examining them. However, in general, Emperor Xuan's reign, even in this period, was marked by his concern for the people and unwillingness to undertake military action unless necessary. For example, in 59 BC, a major Xiongnu civil war broke out—which would leave the Xiongnu fighting each other for years. Many generals advocated using this opportunity to completely annihilate the Xiongnu. Emperor Xuan did not want to do so, but rather encouraged peace among the Xiongnu princes with hopes of having them submit to him.

His efforts paid off. By 56 BC, Xiongnu had been fractured into three separate regimes, ruled by Chanyus Runzhen (閏振), Huhanye (呼韓邪), and Zhizhi. All three sought peace with Han, and Han was able to reduce its defense forces by one fifth, decreasing the burdens on the people correspondingly. In 54 BC, Chanyu Runzhen was defeated and killed by Chanyu Zhizhi, who further sought to try to defeat Chanyu Huhanye to reunify Xiongnu. In response, in 53 BC, at the advice of his official, Chanyu Huhanye headed south and requested to become a Han vassal to seek Han protection. In 51 BC, Chanyu Huhanye made an official visit to Chang'an as a Han vassal, and Emperor Xuan, correctly judging that he should seek to have Huhanye submit to him out of gratitude and not of fear, ordered that Huhanye not be required to bow to him, and that he be treated as higher than imperial princes. Emperor Xuan also commissioned an expedition force to assist Chanyu Huhanye in defending his territory. In 49 BC, Chanyu Huhanye made a second visit. With Han assistance, his strength grew, and Chanyu Zhizhi, who had previously been stronger, was in fact forced to move west.

In 53 BC, disappointed in Crown Prince Shi's overreliance on Confucian officials and lack of resolve, he considered creating 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.

In 51 BC, after Chanyu Huhanye's visit, Emperor Xuan, in his most shining moment, remembered key officials who had been instrumental in his success. In an unprecedented action, he had the portraits of 11 of them be painted onto the main gallery of the main imperial palace, the Weiyang Palace. The 11 were:

Huo Guang

Zhang Anshi

Han Zeng (韓增)

Zhao Chongguo

Wei Xiang

Bing Ji

Du Yannian (杜延年)

Liu De (劉德)

Liang Qiuhe (梁丘賀)

Xiao Wangzhi (蕭望之)

Su Wu

Huo was referred only by titles and not by name—which was considered an even greater honor than given to the other 10.

By this time, the Western han dynasty would reach its peak in terms of territorial size, even greater than during the reign of Emperor Wu.

Emperor Xuan died in 49 BC. He was succeeded by Crown Prince Shi, as Emperor Yuan. His tomb, Du ling is located some 15 km south east of the city of Xian.

Era names

Benshi (本始 py. bĕn shĭ) 73 BC – 70 BC

Dijie (地節 py. dì jié) 69 BC – 66 BC

Yuankang (元康 py. yúan kāng) 65 BC – 61 BC

Shenjue (神爵 py. shén jué) 61 BC – 58 BC

Wufeng (五鳳 py. wŭ fèng) 57 BC – 54 BC

Ganlu (甘露 py. gān lù) 53 BC – 50 BC

Huanglong (黃龍 py. huáng lóng) 49 BC

Personal information


Liu Jin (劉進), son of Liu Ju, initially Crown Prince Li of Emperor Wu of Han


Consort Wang (王氏)


Empress Xu Pingjun, mother of Crown Prince Shi

Empress Huo Chengjun, Huo Guang's daughter (deposed 64 BC, committed suicide 52 BC)

Empress Wang (d. 16 BC)

Major Concubines

Consort Zhang, mother of Prince Qin

Consort Wei, mother of Prince Xiao

Consort Gongsun, mother of Prince Yu

Consort Rong, mother of Prince Jing

Consort Hua, mother of Princess Guantau


Crown Prince Liu Shi, later Emperor Yuan of Han

Liu Qin (劉欽), Prince Xian of Huaiyang (created 63 BC, d. 27 BC)

Liu Xiao (劉囂), Prince of Dingtao (created 52 BC), later Prince Xiao of Chu (created 49 BC, d. 47 BC)

Liu Yu (劉宇), Prince Xi of Dongping (created 52 BC, d. 19 BC)

Liu Jing (劉竟), Prince of Qinghe (created 47 BC), later Prince Ai of Zhongshan (created 44 BC,35 BC)

Princess Guantau

Princess Guiwu, married first Zhang Lin, Marquis of Fuping and had a son, Zhang Fang; remarried to Zhao Qin, Marquis of Linping; remarried to Xue Xuan, Marquis of Gaoyang

Last update 07-06-2012

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