Emperor Ling of Han

Emperor Ling of Han (traditional Chinese: 漢靈帝; simplified Chinese: 汉灵帝; pinyin: Hàn Língdì; Wade–Giles: Han Ling-ti; 156 – May 13, 189), was an emperor of the Chinese han dynasty. He was a great-great-grandson of Emperor Zhang. The Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out during Emperor Ling's reign.

Emperor Ling's reign saw yet another repetition of government domination by corrupt eunuchs. This time Zhang Rang and his accomplices succeeded in completely dominating the political scene after prevailing over Empress Dowager Dou's father Dou Wu and his ally, the Confucian scholar Chen Fan (陳蕃) in 168. Emperor Ling, even after he grew to adulthood, was not interested in governmental affairs, instead indulged himself in women and a decadent lifestyle. At the same time corrupt officials levied heavy taxes on the peasants causing public outcries and rebellions. He further exacerbated the situation by selling political offices for money.

Emperor Ling died in 189 at the age of 34, after reigning for 21 years. After his death the power fell into the hands of Dong Zhuo, who despised him. Emperor Ling was one of the rare examples of history in which an emperor whose throne was inherited by a son who received a highly derogatory (but accurate) posthumous name.

Emperor Ling's reign left the Eastern han dynasty weak and ready to crumble. After his death, the empire broke apart, and for several decades warlords battled, until eventually his son Emperor Xian was forced to abdicate in favor of Cao Pi, ushering in the era of the three kingdoms period.

Family background and ascension to the throne

Liu Hong was a hereditary marquess—the Marquess of Jieduting. (A "ting marquess had a march that would be one village or, in rarer cases, two or three villages. ) His was a third generation creation, as his father Liu Chang (劉萇) and grandfather Liu Shu (劉淑) were both Marquesses of Jieduting as well. His great-grandfather was Liu Kai (劉開), the Prince of Hejian, and a son of Emperor Zhang. His mother Lady Dong was Marquess Chang's wife.

When Emperor Huan died in 168 without a son to be heir, his wife Empress Dou Miao became empress dowager and regent, and she examined the rolls of the imperial clan to consider the next emperor. For reasons unknown, her assistant Liu Shu (劉儵) recommended Marquess Hong, and after consulting with her father Dou Wu and the Confucian scholar official Chen Fan, Empress Dowager Dou made him emperor, at age 12. Empress Dowager Dou continued to serve as regent. Emperor Ling posthumously honored his father and grandfather as emperors, and his grandmother as an empress. His mother, because of Empress Dowager Dou's presence, was not honored as an empress or empress dowager, but as an imperial consort.

Early reign

The empress dowager's father Dou Wu and Chen became the most important officials in the imperial government, and they sought to purge the government of eunuch influences. Later in 168, they even proposed to exterminate all of the powerful eunuchs, a proposal that Empress Dowager Dou rejected. However, word of the plot was leaked, and the eunuchs, after kidnapping the empress dowager and taking the young emperor into custody (after persuading him that it was for his own protection) arrested and executed Chen. Dou Wu resisted, but was eventually defeated, and he committed suicide. The Dou clan was slaughtered. The powerful eunuchs, led by Cao Jie (曹節) and Wang Fu (王甫), became the most powerful individuals in the imperial government.

After the destruction of the Dou clan, in 169, Emperor Ling honored his mother Consort Dong as an empress dowager, but continued to also honor Empress Dowager Dou (now placed under house arrest by the eunuchs) as an empress dowager. Members of the Dong clan began to enter government, but did not have substantial influence. Later that year, the eunuchs persuaded Emperor Ling that the "partisans" (i. e. , Confucian officials and university students who supported them) were plotting against him, and a large number of partisans were arrested and killed; the others had their civil liberties stripped completely, in what later was known as the second Disaster of Partisan Prohibitions.

In 172, Empress Dowager Dou died. Despite suggestions by eunuchs to have her only buried as an imperial consort and not be honored as Emperor Huan's wife, Emperor Ling had her buried with honors due an empress dowager, with Emperor Huan. In the aftermaths of her death, a vandal wrote on the palace door:

All that is under the heaven is in upheaval. Cao and Wang murdered the empress dowager. The key officials only know how to be officials and had nothing faithful to say.

The eunuchs were angered, and more than 1,000 people were arrested in the investigation to try to discover who the vandal was, but nothing eventually came of the investigation. In that year, the eunuchs also falsely accused Emperor Huan's brother Liu Kui (劉悝), the Prince of Bohai, of treason, and Prince Kui was forced to commit suicide. The members of his entire household, including wife, concubines, children, assistants, and principality officials, were all executed. The eunuchs continued to be corrupt, and the people received heavier and heavier tax burdens. As Emperor Ling grew older, he not only took no remedial actions, but continued to tolerate the eunuchs' corruption, for the large part. A major defeat by the Xianbei in 177 further drained the imperial treasury.

In 178, Emperor Ling's wife Empress Song, whom he made empress in 171 but did not favor, fell victim to the eunuchs. Her aunt Lady Song was Prince Kui's wife, and so the eunuchs were concerned that if she became powerful, she would avenge her aunt. They, in alliance with the imperial consorts who wanted to replace Empress Song, falsely accused her of using witchcraft to curse the emperor. Emperor Ling believed them and deposed Empress Song. She was imprisoned and died in despair. Her father Song Feng (宋酆) and her brothers were all executed.

Middle reign

In 178, Emperor Ling carried out a plan that greatly damaged the authority of the imperial government and harmed the people even more—he sold offices of all kinds for money. The people who purchased these offices would then become extremely corrupt while in office—and in fact, that was what Emperor Ling contemplated, for he allowed people who did not have the money to start to set up installment payment plans after they were placed in office.

In 180, Emperor Ling created Consort He as the new empress and made her brother He Jin a key official in his government. (According to legends, she was initially selected as an imperial consort because her family bribed the eunuchs. ) She received the empress position because she had given birth to Emperor Ling's son Liu Bian (劉辯).

During these years, Emperor Ling became interested in heavy spending to build imperial gardens, and to finance them he ordered the commanderies and principalities to offer tributes to him personally. This in turn created pressures for officials to be corrupt. However, he also did listen to good advice at times, but did not follow them consistently. For the more honest of his officials, it became a frustrating exercise to try to persuade Emperor Ling on points that were beneficial to the people—because he was in fact persuadable but not usually so.

The Yellow Turban Rebellion

Sometime before 183, a major Taoist movement had emerged from Ji Province (冀州, modern central Hebei ) -- the Taiping Sect (太平教), led by Zhang Jiao, who claimed he had magical powers to heal the sick. By 183, his teachings and followers had spread to eight provinces—Qing (青州, modern central and eastern Shandong ), Xu (徐州, modern northern Jiangsu and Anhui ), You (幽州, modern northern Hebei , Liaoning , Beijing , and Tianjin ), Ji, Jing (荊州, modern Hubei and Hunan ), Yang (揚州, modern southern Jiangsu and Anhui , Jiangxi , and Zhejiang ), Yan (兗州, modern western Shandong ), and Yu (豫州, modern central and eastern Henan ). Several key imperial officials became concerned about Zhang's hold over his followers, and suggested that the Taiping Sect be disbanded. Emperor Ling did not listen to them.

Zhang in fact planned a rebellion. He commissioned 36 military commanders and set up a shadow government, and he wrote a declaration:

The blue heaven is dead. The yellow heaven will come into being. The year will be Jiazi. The world would be blessed.

(Under China's traditional sexagenary cycle calendar method, 184 would be the first year of the cycle, known as Jiazi. ) Zhang had his supporters wrote Jiazi in large characters with white talc everywhere they could—including on the doors of many imperial offices in the capital Luoyang and other cities. One of Zhang's commanders, Ma Yuanyi entered into a plan with two powerful eunuchs, and they planned to start a rebellion to overthrow the han dynasty from inside.

Early in 184, this plot was discovered, and Ma was immediately arrested and executed. Emperor Ling ordered that Taiping Sect members be arrested and executed, and Zhang immediately declared a rebellion. Every member of the rebellion wore a yellow turban as the symbol—and therefore the rebellion became known for it. Within a month, Zhang controlled large areas of territory. Under suggestion by the eunuch Lü Qiang (呂強), who was sympathetic to the partisans, Emperor Ling pardoned the partisans to ward off the possibility they would join the Yellow Turbans. (Lü himself became a victim, however, when the other eunuchs, in retaliation, falsely accused him of wanting to depose the emperor, and he committed suicide later that year. )

Emperor Ling sent out a number of military commanders against the Yellow Turbans, and in these campaigns several of them distinguished themselves—including Huangfu Song, Cao Cao, Fu Xie (傅燮), Zhu Jun, Lu Zhi, and Dong Zhuo. A key military development with great implications later was that the Yellow Turbans were largely combatted with battle-tested Liang Province (涼州, modern Gansu ) troops, who had been accustomed to fight the Qiang rebellions. In late 184, Zhang Jiao was killed, and while the rest of the Yellow Turbans were not defeated immediately, in the following year they gradually dissipated. Because of the Liang forces' contributions to the campaign, they began to be feared and began to look down on troops from all other provinces. During and in the aftermaths of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, many people from other provinces, in order to ward off pillaging by Yellow Turbans or governmental forces, also organized into military organizations, and a good number resisted government forces, and even after the Yellow Turbans were defeated, the central government's control of the provinces was no longer what it used to be.

Late reign

Even after what happened, however, Emperor Ling did not change his wasteful and corrupt ways. He continued to levy heavy taxes and continued to sell offices. As a result, the agrarian and other military rebellions multiplied.

In 188, under the suggestions of Liu Yan, Emperor Ling greatly increased the political and military power of the provincincial governors and selected key officials to serve as provincial governors.

In 189, as Emperor Ling grew ill, a succession issue came into being. Emperor Ling had two surviving sons—Liu Bian, the son of Empress He, and Liu Xie, the son of Consort Wang. Because Emperor Ling had, earlier in his life, frequently lost sons in childhood, he later believed that his sons needed to be raised outside the palace by foster parents. Therefore, when Prince Bian was born, he was entrusted to the magician Shi Zimiao (史子眇) and known by the circumspect title "Marquess Shi. " Later, when Prince Xie was born, he was raised personally by Emperor Ling's mother Empress Dowager Dong and known by the circumspect title "Marquess Dong. " Prince Bian was born of the empress and was older, but Emperor Ling viewed his behavior as being insufficiently solemn and therefore considered creating Prince Xie crown prince, but hesitated and could not decide.

When Emperor Ling died later that year, a powerful eunuch that he trusted, Jian Shuo, wanted to first kill Empress He's brother He Jin and then make Prince Xie emperor, and therefore set up a trap at a meeting he was to have with He. He found out, and peremptorily declared Prince Bian emperor (later known as the Prince of Hongnong).

Personal information


Liu Chang (劉萇), the Marquess of Jiedu, son of Liu Shu (劉淑) the Marquess of Jiedu, son of Liu Kai (劉開) Prince Xiao of Hejian, son of Emperor Zhang of Han


Lady Dong (d. 189)


Empress Song (created 171, deposed and d. 178)

Empress He (created 180, d. 189), mother of the Prince of Hongnong

Major Concubines

Consort Wang Rong (王榮), mother of Emperor Xian (d. 181)


Liu Bian (劉辯), later emperor (deposed 189 and created the Prince of Hongnong, d. 190)

Liu Xie (劉協), initially the Prince of Bohai (created 189), later the Prince of Chenliu (created 189), later Emperor Xian of Han

The Princess Wannian (name unknown, created 180)

Last update 04-04-2012

Site Search


Random Articals

Join Our Newsletter




Send This Page to Friend

To Email this page to a friend

1. Use Your Default Email Client
2. Use Our Recommend Page

Online Contact





If you like this article please feel free to share it to your favorite site listed below:

Choose A Style:

Font Family

Font Colors
black Blue Green Purple Red Default
Font Size

Site Options Help

control panel