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Chinese Emperors Who Ended Their Reigns As Captives

Updated on November 7, 2016
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Middle-aged "otaku" from Singapore, with interest in games, movies, books, and anything mythological.

Ah Dou is invariably portrayed as a moron in Chinese entertainment nowadays.
Ah Dou is invariably portrayed as a moron in Chinese entertainment nowadays. | Source

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, orphaned son of Three Kingdoms Warlord Liu Bei, is universally used in Chinese communities to imply a good-for-nothing son who fails despite intensive mentoring.

The real-life Liu Shan was the second and last emperor of Shu Han, and reigned from AD 223 to AD 263. After Shu Han capitulated to Cao Wei in AD 263, Liu Shan was relocated to the Wei capital of Luoyang and conferred the honorary title of Duke Anle. (安乐, the Chinese term for contentment) There, he remained till he died in AD 271.

Of all captive Chinese emperors in this list, Liu Shan got off the easiest. He is, however, not at all spared the disdain of subsequent generations. This is largely because narrations of the Three Kingdom era tend to portray him as incapable and stupid, whom even legendary statesman Zhuge Liang failed to mentor. There was also a staining episode involving a banquet hosted by Wei Regent Sima Zhao after Liu Shan’s surrender. During this, Shu music was intentionally performed. While Liu Shan’s retainers wept for their lost empire, Liu Shan himself was indifferent. He even coolly remarked that he doesn’t think about Shu, given his current blissful life.

Some writers nowadays defend Liu Shan, arguing that his claim was his shrewd way of avoiding execution by Cao Wei. More colourful portrayals even paint Liu Shan as intelligent and deeply resentful of Zhuge Liang’s constant hawking, and actively sought to remove the latter from office. Whatever the truth, Ah Dou goes down in Chinese “history” as the worst type of son a man could possibly have. Also, the worst possible ruler any empire could suffer.

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

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 off promisingly. China was reunited after decades of bloody strife. Quite quickly though, the dynasty descended into turmoil. First to come was the devastating War of the Eight Princes, an internal conflict for power. This was followed closely by the threat of invasion by neighbouring Xiongnu (匈奴, barbarian) states. By the time Sima Chi ascended the throne, the Jin Dynasty was weak, corrupted and ineffectual. The imperial court was also dominated by Sima Yue, one of the princes in the previous civil conflict.

Historians mostly conclude Sima Chi, or Jin Huaidi (晋怀帝), to be well-meaning and intelligent. However, his authority was badly curtailed by the despotic Sima Yue. There was also the constant threat of Xiongnu invasion looming over all affairs. Soon after Sima Yue’s death, the hapless emperor was captured by the Xiongnu state of Han Zhao. He was at first reasonably treated. However, in AD 313, he was falsely accused of treason, and poisoned to death.

In a tragic repeat of Sima Chi’s fate, his successor, Sima Ye, would also be captured by Han Zhao in AD 316. Like his uncle, Sima Ye was also forced to serve wine as a butler. Thereafter, he was condemned to death, and swiftly executed.

East, West Jin Dynasty?

Historians divide the Jin Dynasty into Western Jin and Eastern Jin. Simply put, Western Jin was the empire from its establishment to Sima Ye's capture. Eastern Jin was the remnant after the dynasty was forced to retreat to the east.

Li Yu, artist extraordinaire, but ill-suited to be the ruler of an empire.
Li Yu, artist extraordinaire, but ill-suited to be the ruler of an empire.

Li Yu (李煜), Last Emperor of Southern Tang

Born AD 938. 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 feuding states. Southern Tang was one of these. It was founded by Li Bian, who probably sought to legitimise his rule by adopting the title of the former dynasty. (Li was also the surname of the Tang dynasty) At its peak, the Southern Tang Empire controlled substantial land in the heart of China.

By Li Yu’s reign, however, Southern Tang was under serious threat from the armies of Zhao Kuangyin in the north. The latter had established the Song Dynasty, and Southern Tang was already reduced to a vassal state. Eventually, Li Yu was forced to surrender to Zhao in AD 975, and thereafter kept under house arrest in Kaifeng. Li Yu and his family would remain there for three years, till his death from poisoning by the Second Song Emperor, Zhao Guangyi.

Of note, Li Yu is both 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 concessions. A more objective way of assessing him could be that Li Yu was simply not “Chinese emperor material,” and therefore stood naught a chance against the military and management brilliance of Zhao Guangyin. In his final years, Li Yu lamented his shortcomings in several poignant poems. The most famous of these are nowadays regarded as gems of medieval Chinese literature.

A Tragic Sovereign?

Li Yu is more commonly referred to as Li Houzhu. He is immortalised in a Cantonese opera work of the same name, the opera itself portraying him as a suffering sovereign. While this portrayal might not be entirely accurate, it has over the years generated much sympathy for him among Cantonese opera fans.

Zhao Ji, incidentally, is the reigning emperor in the Chinese literature classic, Water Margin.
Zhao Ji, incidentally, is the reigning emperor in the Chinese literature classic, Water Margin.

Zhao Ji (赵佶), Eighth and Second Last Emperor of Northern Song

Born AD 1082. Died AD 1135.

Commonly referred to as Emperor Huizong of Song, Zhao Ji, like Li Yu (see above), was an accomplished painter, poet and calligrapher. He even has a style of Chinese calligraphy to his name. On the other hand, he was terribly ineffectual as a rule. Constantly overemphasising on arts and Taoism while making numerous diplomatic mistakes. During his reign, the Song Dynasty was already under immediate threat of invasion by the Northern Jurchens. It is fair to say Zhao Ji and his ministers did little to contain this threat.

In AD 1126, the Jurchens struck. In the face of disaster, Zhao Ji did the ridiculous. He passed the throne to his eldest son, Zhao Huan. This ended up neither saving his empire or himself. The following year, the Jurchens invaded the Song Capital of Bianjing and took the royal family captive. Zhao Ji and his son would spend the rest of their lives as captives of the Jurchens. The doomed emperor died nine years later, after suffering numerous humiliations such as being demoted to the status of a commoner, forced to honour Jurchen ancestors, and conferred the derogatory title of Besotted Duke.

Tragic Zhao Huan, or Song Qinzong. What could you do if your old man leaves you such a mess?
Tragic Zhao Huan, or Song Qinzong. What could you do if your old man leaves you such a mess?

Zhao Huan (赵桓), Ninth and Last Emperor of Northern Song

Born AD 1100. Died AD 1161.

Chinese emperors who ended their reigns in captivity are usually condemned as inept. In other words, deserving of their fate. Personally, I would say this was not the case for Zhao Huan, also referred to as Emperor Qinzong of Song. His dad, Zhao Ji (see above) forced the throne on him while he was just seventeen. By then, the aggressive Jurchens had invaded, and by most accounts were plain unstoppable. If any, the young Zhao Huan’s mistake was to focus on negotiations, rather than put up a strong resistance. In AD 1127, his capital was overrun and Zhao Huan taken captive together with his father. He would spend the rest of his life broken and humiliated, as a captive of the Jurchens, till dying in AD 1161.

This capture of Zhao Huan and his father is historically referred to as the Jingkang Incident (靖康之恥), and is regarded as one of the most humiliating episodes in Chinese history. (If not the most humiliating. Two Chinese emperors with one stone) It also ended what is now referred to as the Northern Song Dynasty, with the remaining Chinese forces relinquishing the northern part of their empire and relocating their capital to the southern city of Lin’an. Chinese periodic stories such as Wuxia are fond of referencing this incident. And in Wuxia, a common trope is the quest to rescue the two captive Chinese emperors. The sad truth however was, the first emperor of the subsequent Southern Song dynasty was more than happy to leave the two captive Chinese emperors in Jurchen hands. Historians mostly agree that the first Southern Song emperor, Gaozong, dreaded having to surrender the throne if Zhao Huan was rescued. He much rather have his elder brother and dad stayed captured.

Brief History of the Song Dynasty


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      Garnetbird 5 months ago

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

    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 5 months 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.

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