5 Tragic Chinese Emperors Who Ended Their Reigns as Captives
1. Liu Shan (刘禅), Last Emperor of Shu Han, AD 207–271
Be offended if you are called an “Ah Dou” (阿斗) by a Chinese person. Be very offended! The childhood name of Liu Shan, orphaned son of Three Kingdoms Warlord Liu Bei, the name is a metaphor in the Chinese language for a good-for-nothing successor 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 historians were banned from the Shu court during this period by Premier Zhuge Liang, 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 and thereafter conferred the honorary title of Duke Anle (安乐, the Chinese term for contentment). There, Liu Shan remained as a captive ex-emperor until his death in AD 271. Notably, Liu Shan was not ill-treated during captivity. Neither was he forced to live under humiliating circumstances. His final days were considered relatively comfortable.
Because of the lack of historical records, it is hard to surmise what sort of ruler Liu Shan actually was. Regardless of this, modern Chinese narrations tend to describe the man as irredeemably stupid. An absolute moron that even the brilliant Zhuge Liang was unable to mentor.
Frequently cited as an example of Liu Shan’s irredeemable character is also a notorious incident at 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. He even coolly remarked that he no longer thought about Shu. Of note, modern historians have highlighted that Liu Shan’s reign was relatively stable. Some reinterpretations of Three Kingdoms history also depict Liu Shan as intelligent and deeply resentful of Zhuge Liang’s constant manipulation. Whatever the truth, one fact remains unchanged, though. While Liu Shan died as a duke, in truth, he spent his final hour as an enemy’s prisoner.
2. Sima Chi (司馬炽), Fourth Emperor of Western Jin, AD 284–313
The Jin Dynasty, which succeeded the tumultuous Three Kingdoms era, started off promisingly. After 60 years of bloody civil war, China was whole again, once more united under one dynasty.
Sadly, it didn't take long for the Middle Kingdom to again descend into turmoil, beginning with the devastating War of the Eight Princes, before invasion by neighboring Xiongnu (匈奴, barbarian) states. By the time Sima Chi ascended the throne as the fourth emperor of Jin, his embattled dynasty was broken, corrupt, and ineffective. The imperial court was also under the iron grip of Sima Yue, one of the princes in the previous civil conflict. A blunt way of putting it is that Sima Chi himself was no more than a puppet Chinese emperor who wielded no power.
Today, many Chinese historians 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, for 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. Sadly, 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 Continues
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 sentenced to death and swiftly executed.
Western Jin vs. Eastern Jin
Chinese historians divide the Jin Dynasty into Western Jin and Eastern Jin. Simply put, Western Jin was the empire from its establishment until Sima Ye's capture. Eastern Jin was the remnant after the dynasty was forced by barbarian invasions to relinquish its western territories.
3. Li Yu (李煜), Last Emperor of Southern Tang, AD 938–978
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 being one of the final ones. Its founder, Li Bian, possibly sought to legitimize his rule by adopting the dynastic title of the former era. (Li was also the family name of the previous Tang dynasty) At its peak, Southern Tang controlled substantial land in the heart of China. It was considered one of the larger, stronger kingdoms in this war-torn Ten Kingdoms era. Briefly, Southern Tang was also seen 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 before long, Southern Tang was reduced to no more than a mere vassal state. Eventually, Li Yu was forced to formally surrender to Zhao in AD 975, and thereafter, kept under house arrest in Kaifeng. There, Li Yu and his family would languish for three years. The tragic Chinese emperor ultimately died from poisoning 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, 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 own shortcomings and lamented about 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 and historical films, as well as television series.
A Tragic Sovereign?
Li Yu is more commonly referred to as Li Houzhu. He is also immortalized in a Cantonese operatic work of this name. Within that opera, he is portrayed as a well-meaning and suffering sovereign. In turn, this portrayal has, over the years, generated much sympathy for him among Cantonese opera fans.
4. Zhao Ji (赵佶), Eighth Emperor of Northern Song, AD 1082–1135
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 terrible as a 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 to contain the threat. Their negligence, their aloofness finally invited an all-out invasion by the Jurchens in AD 1126.
In the face of 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. Instead, when Song Capital Bianjing 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. Zhao Ji himself died eight years later. Before his death, he suffered repeated humiliations at the hands of the Jurchens. These include a demotion to the status of a commoner, being forced to honor Jurchen ancestors, and being conferred the derogatory title of Besotted Duke.
5. Zhao Huan (赵桓), Ninth Emperor of Northern Song, AD 1100–1161
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.
Personally, I would say this was not the case for Zhao Huan, 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 anything, young 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 would spend the rest of his life broken and humiliated, a prisoner of the Jurchens till death in AD 1161.
Historically, the capture of Zhao Huan and his father is referred to as the Jingkang Incident (靖康之恥), with the incident considered one of the most humiliating episodes in Chinese history. It also ended what is now called the Northern Song Dynasty, with remnant Chinese forces permanetly relinquishing Northern China and relocating their capital to the southern city of Lin’an.
Within Chinese culture, periodic stories such as Wuxia sagas are fond of referencing this incident, and a common trope is the quest to rescue the two captive emperors. Sadly, the truth was that the first emperor of the Southern Song dynasty i.e. 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.
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