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5 Tragic Chinese Emperors Who Ended Their Reigns as Captives

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Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

One of the most notorious captive Chinese emperors in history, “Ah Dou” is almost always portrayed as a moron in modern Chinese entertainment.

One of the most notorious captive Chinese emperors in history, “Ah Dou” is almost always portrayed as a moron in modern Chinese entertainment.

1. Liu Shan (刘禅), Last Emperor of Shu Han

Born AD 207. Died AD 271.

Be offended if you are called an “Ah Dou” (阿斗) by a Chinese person. Be very offended!

The childhood name of Liu Shan, the orphaned son of Three Kingdoms Warlord Liu Bei, the name is a metaphor in the Chinese language for a good-for-nothing successor. One who fails despite intensive mentoring.

Alternatively, it can also mean moronic, imbecile, or “beyond hope.”

Historically, Liu Shan was the second and last emperor of Shu Han and reigned from AD 223 to AD 263. As Premier Zhuge Liang banned historians from the Shu court during this period, little is known about the young emperor, apart from him treating Zhuge Liang as a father figure and leaving most state matters in the premier’s hands.

After Shu Han surrendered to Cao Wei in AD 263, Liu Shan was relocated to the Wei capital of Luoyang; thereafter, he was also conferred the honorary title of Duke Anle (安乐, the Chinese term for contentment). Here, Liu Shan remained as a captive ex-emperor until he died in AD 271. Notably, Liu Shan was never ill-treated during captivity. Neither was he forced to live under humiliating circumstances. His final days are believed to be relatively comfortable.

As for his actual reign, because of the lack of historical records, it is hard to surmise what sort of ruler Liu Shan was. Regardless of this, modern Chinese narrations tend to describe the man as irredeemably stupid and spineless. An absolute moron that even the brilliant Zhuge Liang was unable to mentor.

Frequently cited as an example of Liu Shan’s flawed character is also a notorious incident in the State of Wei, this being a banquet hosted by Wei Regent Sima Zhao after Liu Shan’s surrender. During this banquet, Shu's music was intentionally performed, but while Liu Shan’s retainers wept for their lost empire, Liu Shan himself was indifferent. The captive emperor even coolly remarked that he no longer thought about Shu.

Of note, modern historians have highlighted that Liu Shan’s reign was relatively stable and that after Zhuge Liang’s death, he was able to check the machinations of evil courtiers. Some reinterpretations of Three Kingdoms history also depict Liu Shan as intelligent and deeply resentful of Zhuge Liang’s constant control.

Whatever the truth, one fact remains unchanged. While Liu Shan died as a duke, in truth, he spent his final hour as an enemy’s prisoner.

Sima Chi, one of the most tragic captive Chinese emperors.

Sima Chi, one of the most tragic captive Chinese emperors.

2. Sima Chi (司馬炽), Fourth Emperor of Western Jin

Born AD 284. Died AD 313.

The Jin Dynasty, which succeeded the tumultuous Three Kingdoms era, started promisingly. After 60 years of bloody civil war, China was whole again, once more united under one dynasty and one family.

Sadly, it didn't take long for the Middle Kingdom to again descend into turmoil. Within 30 years, the devastating War of the Eight Princes broke out. After a tenacious peace was achieved, China was invaded by neighboring Xiongnu (匈奴, barbarian) states.

By the time Sima Chi ascended the throne as the fourth emperor of Jin, the embattled dynasty was broken, corrupt, and suffocating under the iron grip of Sima Yue, one of the princes in the previous civil conflict. Bluntly put, many Chinese historians today consider Sima Chi, or Emperor Jin Huaidi (晋怀帝), as well-meaning and intelligent but doomed from the start of his reign. The hapless emperor had neither political power nor military might to deal with Sima Yue or the barbarian invasions.

In fact, he couldn’t even protect himself. Soon after Sima Yue’s death, he was captured by the Xiongnu state of Han Zhao.

Initially, the captive emperor was reasonably treated by his captors; he was even conferred a concubine by Liu Cong, the ruler of Han Zhao. Tragically, in AD 313, Liu Cong was incensed by other Jin captives lamenting the sight of Sima Chi serving wine to Han Zhao officials. After accusing these captives of treason, Liu executed all of them. Sima Chi himself was also poisoned to death.

The Humiliation of Jin Repeats

In a tragic repeat of history, Sima Chi's successor Sima Ye would also be captured by Han Zhao. Like his uncle, Sima Ye was forced to serve wine as a butler. Subsequently, he was also sentenced to death and swiftly executed.

Chinese tragic emperor Li Yu. Artist extraordinaire, but ill-suited to be a ruler.

Chinese tragic emperor Li Yu. Artist extraordinaire, but ill-suited to be a ruler.

3. Li Yu (李煜), Last Emperor of Southern Tang

Born AD 937. Died AD 978.

First off, Southern Tang is not the famed Tang Dynasty of Chang’an and Silk Route fame.

After the original Tang Dynasty ended, China was split into numerous short-lived feuding states, with Southern Tang one of the final ones. Its founder, Li Bian, possibly sought to legitimize his rule by adopting the dynastic title of the former era. Incidentally, Li was the family name of the previous Tang emperors too.

At its peak, Southern Tang also controlled substantial land in the heart of China. It was even considered one of the larger, stronger kingdoms in this war-torn Ten Kingdoms era. Briefly, Southern Tang was viewed as a potential power that might one day reunite China.

By Li Yu’s reign, however, Southern Tang was under severe threat from the northern armies of Zhao Kuangyin. The latter had established the Song Empire, and within years, Southern Tang was reduced to a mere vassal state.

Eventually, Li Yu was even forced to formally surrender to Zhao in AD 975; thereafter, he was kept under house arrest in Kaifeng. There, Li Yu and his family would languish for three years. The tragic Chinese emperor was then poisoned to death by the Second Song Emperor, Zhao Guangyi, in AD 978.

An Accomplished, Multi-Talented Artist

Li Yu is simultaneously hailed as one of China’s most artistically talented emperors and condemned as an ineffectual ruler who first overindulged in the arts, and then sought to appease the Zhao family through constant land concessions.

In other words, Li Yu was more of an artist than a ruler and therefore had no chance of victory against the military and logistic brilliance of Zhao Kuangyin. In his final years, Li Yu himself acknowledged his shortcomings and lamented them in several poignant poems.

The most famous of these works are nowadays regarded as gems of medieval Chinese literature. They have also inspired numerous Chinese operas, historical films, and television series.

Like Li Yu, Zhao Ji is considered one of the most artistically accomplished Chinese emperors. He was also the reigning emperor in the Chinese literature classic, Water Margin.

Like Li Yu, Zhao Ji is considered one of the most artistically accomplished Chinese emperors. He was also the reigning emperor in the Chinese literature classic, Water Margin.

4. Zhao Ji (赵佶), Eighth Emperor of Northern Song

Born AD 1082. Died AD 1135.

Commonly referred to as Emperor Huizong of Northern Song, Zhao Ji, like Li Yu (see above), was an accomplished painter, poet, and calligrapher. His skills were so legendary, he even had a style of Chinese calligraphy named after him.

In stark contrast to his artistic talents, though, he was a terrible ruler, frequently overemphasizing the arts and Taoism while also making numerous diplomatic mistakes. During his reign, Northern Song was under severe threat of invasion by the Northern Jurchens, but Zhao Ji and his ministers did little if anything to contain the threat. Their negligence and aloofness ultimately invited an all-out invasion by the Jurchens in AD 1126.

In the face of this disaster, Zhao Ji did the absurd. He abdicated and passed the throne to his eldest son Zhao Huan, an act that neither saved his empire nor himself.

When Song Capital Bianjing (Kaifeng) fell the next year, both Zhao Ji and his son were swiftly captured. The two tragic Chinese emperors then spent the rest of their lives as prisoners and hostages of the Jurchens, with Zhao Ji himself dying eight years later.

Worse, the captured emperor repeatedly suffered humiliations at the hands of the Jurchens before dying. Such shaming includes a demotion to the status of a commoner and being forced to honor Jurchen ancestors. To constantly mock his failures, Zhao Ji was also conferred the derogatory title of Besotted Duke.

Tragic Chinese Emperor Zhao Huan, or Song Qinzong. What is there to do when your father leaves you a broken empire?

Tragic Chinese Emperor Zhao Huan, or Song Qinzong. What is there to do when your father leaves you a broken empire?

5. Zhao Huan (赵桓), Ninth Emperor of Northern Song

Born AD 1100. Died AD 1161.

Whenever a dynasty ends with captivity in Chinese history, the final emperor would be assumed to be inept; in other words, deserving of his fate.

This was not wholly the case for Zhao Huan, though, otherwise known as Emperor Qinzong of Northern Song. His father, Zhao Ji (see above), forced the throne on him when he was 26 years old. By then, the Jurchens had invaded and, by most accounts, were plain unstoppable.

If any, the inexperienced Zhao Huan’s only mistake was focusing on negotiations instead of putting up a strong resistance. In AD 1127, his capital was overrun, and Zhao Huan was taken captive together with his father. He then spent the rest of his life broken and humiliated, a prisoner of the Jurchens till death in AD 1161.

The Jingkang Humiliation

Historically, the capture of Zhao Huan and his father is referred to as the Jingkang Humiliation/Incident (靖康之恥), with the incident considered one of the most humiliating episodes in Chinese history. This episode furthermore ended what is now called the Northern Song Dynasty, with remnant Chinese forces permanently relinquishing Northern China and relocating their capital to the southern city of Lin’an (Hangzhou).

Within Chinese culture, periodic stories such as Wuxia sagas frequently reference the Jingkang Incident, with a common trope being the quest to rescue the two captive emperors. Sadly, the truth was that the first emperor of the Southern Song dynasty, Zhao Huan’s successor, was more than happy to leave the two captive Chinese emperors in Jurchen hands.

That emperor, Song Gaozong, dreaded having to relinquish the throne in the event of Zhao Huan being rescued. This effectively doomed poor Zhao Huan, resulting in him spending more than half of his life in captivity.

Appendix: Ming Yingzong, the Captive Emperor Who Made a Comeback

No discussion of tragic, captive Chinese emperors is complete without a mention of Ming Yingzong (AD 1427 – AD 1464). However, it must first be noted that this ruler ended his life on a far more positive note.

Another of China’s many child emperors, Ming Yingzong, actual name Zhu Qizhen (朱祁鎮), ascended the dragon throne at the age of eight. In AD 1449, the 22-year-old emperor personally led a half-million-strong army against the Mongolians and made the truly unwise decision of assigning command of his troops to Wang Zhen, a eunuch.

A series of terrible decisions then resulted in the Ming forces being decimated by the much smaller Mongolian army. Wang Zhen was supposedly killed by furious Ming troops. The emperor himself was also captured.

Amazingly, Yingzong survived captivity well, possibly because the Mongolians never expected such a victory. The young emperor managed to befriend Esen, the Taishi who led the Mongolian victory. Esen, in turn, ensured Yingzong was respectfully cared for.

A year later, Yingzong was returned to the Ming Dynasty. However, Yingzong’s brother had by then ascended the throne as the Jingtai Emperor. Without surprise, the Jingtai Emperor swiftly put his older brother under house arrest.

This imprisonment lasted for seven years. After the Jingtai Emperor fell ill, Yingzong successfully executed a coup and regained rulership. Thereafter, he reigned for another seven years under a new era name.

Further Reading

Top 10 Terrible Chinese Emperors
Other than spending nine years in humiliating captivity, Emperor Song Huizong is also regarded by historians as one of Imperial China’s worst rulers.

Li Yu – Poems by the Famous Poet – All Poetry
Translations of Li Yu’s poems. Captivity and the loss of his state infused his later works with a melancholic poignancy.

Man Jiang Hong - Yue Fei - Motivation Mentalist
Translation with Hanyu Pinyin Mandarin pronunciation guide of Man Jiang Hong (满江红), the poem penned by Chinese general Yue Fei to lament the loss of Song Dynasty territory.

References

  • 其宗. (2001). 中华上下五千年. (赵机, Ed.). 宗教文化出版社. ISBN: 9787801233721.
  • 刘禅. 到百科首页. (n.d.). https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E5%88%98%E7%A6%85/17362?fromtitle=%E6%B1%89%E6%80%80%E5%B8%9D&fromid=9815945. [In Chinese]
  • 司马炽. 到百科首页. (n.d.). https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E5%8F%B8%E9%A9%AC%E7%82%BD. [In Chinese]
  • Li Houzhu. Li Houzhu - New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Li_Houzhu.
  • A Misplaced Artist--Emperor Song Huizong. (n.d.). http://en.chinaculture.org/classics/2008-04/07/content_129795.htm.
  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, February 12). Jingkang incident. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jingkang_incident.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Ced Yong

Comments

Ced Yong (author) from Asia on February 24, 2020:

Thank you. :)

William on February 24, 2020:

great detail

the stories are amazing

Ced Yong (author) from Asia on March 24, 2018:

Sure!

Elly on March 23, 2018:

Thanks for this! Gonna use this for my project if it is ok with you

Ced Yong (author) from Asia on November 21, 2017:

Thanks, Nate. Yes, it is sad when a sovereign ends up a slave. (Though in some situations, they deserved it)

Nate on November 21, 2017:

Great Job! Very interesting and sad

Ced Yong (author) from Asia on November 04, 2016:

Thanks Garnetbird. :) Yes, there were plenty of terrible periods in China's 5000 year history. Either it was overrun, or divided, or worst of all, suffered from emperors who left everything in the hands of scheming eunuchs.

Garnetbird on November 03, 2016:

Well written and fascinating. The history of China is laced with sad tragedy.