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5 Tragic Chinese Emperors Who Ended Their Reigns as Captives

KL Yong 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, 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 during 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. 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.

Sadly, it didn't take long for the Middle Kingdom to again descend into devastating turmoil, in the form of the War of the Eight Princes, followed by invasions 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 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. 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 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 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 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 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 too. Briefly, Southern Tang was even 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 even 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 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.

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 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 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 his passing. These include a demotion to the status of a commoner and being forced to honor Jurchen ancestors. To constantly mock his failures, he 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 anything, 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.

Historically, the capture of Zhao Huan and his father is also referred to as the Jingkang Incident (靖康之恥), with the incident considered one of the most humiliating episodes in Chinese history. The 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.

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, though, 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.

© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong

Comments

Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on February 24, 2020:

Thank you. :)

William on February 24, 2020:

great detail

the stories are amazing

Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore 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

Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore 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

Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore 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.