5 Chinese Emperors Who Ended Their Reigns as Captives

Updated on June 10, 2017
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Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communications 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, Ah Dou is almost always portrayed as a moron in modern Chinese entertainment.
One of the most notorious Chinese emperors, 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, the orphaned son of Three Kingdoms Warlord Liu Bei, is nowadays synonymous with a good-for-nothing son who fails despite intensive mentoring. It can also mean "moron" or "imbecile."

Historically, Liu Shan was the second and last emperor of Shu Han and reigned from AD 223 to AD 263. After Shu Han had surrendered 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 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 relatively comfortable.

Of all the captive Chinese emperors on this list, Liu Shan got off the easiest. However, he was not spared the disdain of subsequent generations. This is due in large part to how accounts of the Three Kingdoms era inevitably portray him as stupid and incapable—a hopeless fool that even legendary statesman Zhuge Liang could not mentor. There was also a particularly damaging incident involving a banquet hosted by Wei Regent Sima Zhao after Liu Shan’s surrender. During this event, Shu's 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 no longer thought about Shu. In his words, his blissful life in Cao Wei was more than enough for him.

Today, some historians defend Liu Shan, arguing that his statement was, in reality, a shrewd way of avoiding execution by Cao Wei. Other portrayals depict him as intelligent and deeply resentful of Zhuge Liang’s constant supervision, claiming he actively sought to remove the latter from office. Whatever the truth, Ah Dou still goes down in Chinese history as the worst type of son a man could have. To the Chinese, Liu Shan also represents the worst sort of ruler any empire could suffer. He is scorned as a coward who agreed to bow to the enemy rather than die in dignity.

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 promising. After over half a century of bloody civil war, China was whole again, once more united under one rule. However, it didn't take long for the Middle Kingdom to descend into turmoil again—beginning with the devastating War of the Eight Princes—before suffering invasion by neighbouring 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, emperor in name only, wielded almost no power.

Today, many historians consider Sima Chi, or Jin Huaidi (晋怀帝), as well-meaning and intelligent but doomed, as he had absolutely no power or military might to deal with Sima Yue and the barbarian invasions. Soon after Sima Yue’s death, the hapless emperor was captured by the Xiongnu state of Han Zhao. Initially, he was treated reasonably. However, in AD 313, he met his demise when he was falsely accused of treason and subsequently poisoned.

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.

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

Li Yu, artist extraordinaire, but ill-suited to be a ruler.
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 had ended, China was split into numerous feuding states, with Southern Tang being one of them. The founder, Li Bian, probably sought to legitimise his rule by adopting the dynastic title of the famous former Chinese emperors. (Li was also the family surname of the Tang dynasty.) At its peak, the short-lived Southern Tang Empire controlled substantial land in the heart of China. It was considered one of the larger, stronger empires in this war-torn, Ten Kingdoms era.

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 Dynasty, and Southern Tang was quickly reduced to being a mere vassal state. Eventually, Li Yu was forced to surrender to Zhao in AD 975, and after that, he was kept under house arrest in Kaifeng. There, Li Yu and his family would remain for three years. The captive emperor ultimately died from poisoning by the Second Song Emperor, Zhao Guangyi, in AD 978.

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 land concessions. A more objective way of assessing him 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 management brilliance of Zhao Kuangyin. In his final years, Li Yu 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, historical films, and television shows.

A Tragic Sovereign?

Li Yu is also commonly referred to as Li Houzhu. He is immortalised in a Cantonese opera work of the same name. The opera itself portrays 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.

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.' His failures aside, 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.' His failures aside, 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 overemphasising the arts and Taoism while making numerous diplomatic mistakes. During his reign, the Song Dynasty was already under severe threat of invasion by the Northern Jurchens, but Zhao Ji and his ministers did little to contain the threat. Their negligence finally resulted in an all-out invasion by the Jurchens in AD 1126.

In the face of disaster, Zhao Ji did the ridiculous. He abdicated and passed the throne to his eldest son, Zhao Huan, which neither saved his empire or himself. Instead, when Song Capital Bianjing fell the next year, both Zhao Ji and his son were taken captive. The two emperors spent the rest of their lives as prisoners of the Jurchens. Zhao Ji died nine years later, but before his death, he suffered multiple humiliations at the hands of the Jurchens—including a demotion to the status of a commoner, being forced to honour 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 Zhao Huan, or Song Qinzong. What is there to do when your father leaves you a broken empire?
Tragic Zhao Huan, or Song Qinzong. What is there to do when your father leaves you a broken empire?

When a reign ended in captivity in China, the emperor was thought to be inept. In other words, deserving of their 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, the young Zhao Huan’s only mistake was focusing on negotiations rather than 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 captive of the Jurchens, till his death in AD 1161.

The capture of Zhao Huan and his father is historically referred to as the Jingkang Incident (靖康之恥), and is considered to be one of the most humiliating episodes in Chinese history. It also ended what is now called the Northern Song Dynasty, with the remaining 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. Historians mostly agree that the first Southern Song emperor, Gaozong, dreaded having to relinquish the throne in the event of Zhao Huan being rescued. This doomed Zhao Huan, resulting in him spending more than half his life in captivity.

© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong


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    • CYong74 profile image

      Kuan Leong Yong 2 months ago from Singapore

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

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      Nate 2 months ago

      Great Job! Very interesting and sad

    • CYong74 profile image

      Kuan Leong Yong 14 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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      Garnetbird 14 months ago

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