5 Tragic Chinese Emperors Who Ended Their Reigns as Captives

Updated on May 30, 2019
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Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

1. Liu Shan (刘禅), Last Emperor of Shu Han, AD 207–271

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

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 his reign by premier Zhuge Liang, little is known of 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 would remain as a captive 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. Popular Chinese beliefs and narrations, on the other hand, tend to describe him as irredeemably stupid. An absolute moron that even the brilliant Zhuge Liang was unable to mentor. Frequently cited is also a notorious incident at a banquet hosted by Wei Regent Sima Zhao after Liu Shan’s surrender. During the 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 modern reinterpretations of Three Kingdoms history have also portrayed Liu Shan as intelligent and deeply resentful of Zhuge Liang’s constant control. 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

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

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 rule. Sadly, it didn't take long for the Middle Kingdom to once more 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, the Jin 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. Sima Chi himself was no more than a puppet Chinese emperor who wielded no power.

Today, many 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 disposed emperor was reasonably treated, he was even conferred a concubine by the ruler of Han Zhao, Liu Cong. However, in AD 313, Liu Cong was incensed when other Jin captives lamented the sight of Sima Chi serving wine to Han Zhao officials. After accusing these captives of treason, the barbarian ruler had them executed. Sima Chi himself was also poisoned to death.

History repeats.

In a tragic repeat of his fate, 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 retreat to the east.

3. Li Yu (李煜), Last Emperor of Southern Tang, AD 938–978

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.

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. (Incidentally, Li was also the family name of the 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. A potential power that might one day reunite China.

By Li Yu’s reign, however, Southern Tang was under severe threat from the armies of Zhao Kuangyin in the north. 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 subsequently, 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

Of note, 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. Another way of putting it would be to say that 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 are nowadays regarded as gems of medieval Chinese literature. They have also inspired numerous Chinese operas and historical films, as well as television features.

A Tragic Sovereign?

Li Yu is commonly referred to as Li Houzhu and is immortalised in a Cantonese opera work of the same name. Within the 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

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

Commonly referred to as Emperor Huizong of Northern Song, Zhao Ji, like Li Yu (see above), was an accomplished painter, poet, and calligrapher. So legendary were his skills he even had a style of Chinese calligraphy named after him. On the other hand, he was terrible as a ruler, constantly overemphasizing the arts and Taoism while making numerous diplomatic mistakes. During his reign, Northern Song was constantly 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

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?

Whenever a reign ends with captivity in Chinese history, the 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), and this is 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 relinquishing Northern China and relocating their capital to the southern city of Lin’an. Chinese periodic stories such as Wuxia 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 was more than happy to leave the two captive Chinese emperors in Jurchen hands. The succeeding emperor, 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Kuan Leong Yong

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      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        17 months ago from Singapore

        Sure!

      • profile image

        Elly 

        17 months ago

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

      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        21 months ago from Singapore

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

      • profile image

        Nate 

        21 months ago

        Great Job! Very interesting and sad

      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        2 years ago from Singapore

        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.

      • profile image

        Garnetbird 

        2 years ago

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

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