An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Emperor Han Huidi 漢惠帝 Liu Ying 劉盈

Mar 8, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Emperor Han Huidi 漢惠帝 (210-188, r. 195-188 BCE), personal name Liu Ying 劉盈, was the second ruler of the Former Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BC-8 CE). He was a son of Liu Bang 劉邦 (Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195), the founder of the dynasty, and Empress Lü 呂后, personal name Lü Zhi 呂雉 (d. 180 BCE).

Apart from Liu Ying, Liu Bang had several more sons, for instance, Liu Fei 劉肥, illegal oldest son (shu zhangzi 庶長子) of Liu Bang and Mme Cao 曹氏, or Liu Ruyi 劉如意, son of Lady Qi 戚夫人, or Liu Heng 劉恒, son of Lady Bo 薄姬 and eventual Emperor Wen 漢文帝, r. 180-157. Liu Ying had an older sister, the eventual Princess Yuan of Lu 魯元公主. Her personal name is unknown.

Liu Ying grew up under turbulent conditions, when, after the demise of the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE), various warlords fought against each other. The two strongest of them were his father Liu Bang and the so-called hegemonial king of West Chu (Xichu Bawang 西楚霸王) Xiang Yu 項羽 (232-202 BCE). Even during his childhood, when Liu Bang was still mayor (tingzhang 亭長) of Sishang 泗上, his son had to work on the fields, as the universal history Shiji 史記 holds. Liu Bang, who had freed some slave labourers, had to flee to the swamps of Mang 芒 and Dang 碭, and from then time on, left alone his wife and children. Lü Zhi even traveled around in search of her husband.

Liu Bang adopted the title of Duke of Pei 沛公 and left back his family in Fengyi 豐邑. In 206, Xiang Yu made him King of Han 漢 in the far west, while his family remained in east China, but obviously had to flee then and when. When Liu Bang sent out Xue Ou 薛歐 (d. 188) and Wang Xi 王吸 to care for them, they could not find Lü Zhi and her children. In 205, Xiang Yu defeated Liu Bang heavily in the battle of Pengcheng 彭城. Liu Bang fled on a cart and tried to pick up his family. Xiahou Ying 夏侯嬰 (d. 172) finally found the two children and took them on Liu Bang's cart. Yet the horses were exhausted and the enemy close, so Liu kicked his children from the cart to have better chance to escape, but each time he did so, Xiahou Ying saved the children. Wang Ling 王陵 (d. 181) finally brought back the two children to Fengyi.

In the meantime, Lü Zhi and Liu Bang's father had been taken hostages by Xiang Yu and were only released in 203. Like for his own children, Liu Bang did not much care for his wife and father. Yet as early as 205, Liu Bang declared Liu Ying heir apparent of the kingdom of Han, and in 202 of the empire of Han. Not long thereafter, Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu) wanted to make his favourite son Liu Ruyi heir apparent, not just because Gaozu loved Lady Qi much more than Lü Zhi (Empress Lü), but because he held Liu Ying as a weakling and saw Liu Ruyi as resembling his own "strong" kind. Moreover, Lady Qi actively pursued the emperor to make her son crown prince. But practically all ministers, mostly Zhou Chang 周昌 (d. 192) and Zhang Liang 張良 (d. 186), supported Empress Lü in her rights as main consort and Liu Ying in that of claimant to the throne. The Shiji includes the story of the Four Old Men from Mt. Shangshan (Shangshan Sihao 商山四皓) who persuaded Emperor Gaozu not to exchange the heir apparent.

Liu Ying received education by the Confucian master Shusun Tong 叔孫通 (d. 189). He, too, supported Ying's claim to the throne in 195, when Gaozu fell ill and once more brought up the question.

When Gaozu died, Empress Lü organized military precautions against some of the generals which might try of overthrow the dynasty. Because Liu Ying (Emperor Hui) was a very delicate person, Lü Zhi, now Empress Dowager (taihou 太后), took over many aspects of the business of politics. She took cruel revenge on Lady Qi and mutilated her, exhibiting her as "the human pig" (renzhi 人彘). She had Liu Ruyi killed, and also another son of a concubine of Liu Bang, Liu You 劉友 (mother unknown). Liu Ying was not able to protect his half-brother, but at least saved the life of Liu Fei whom the Empress Dowager wanted to poison. Emperor Hui was shocked by the cruelty of his mother, fell ill, and the Empress Dowager was officially made regent (linchao tingzheng 臨朝聽政) for her son.

Emperor Hui was married to his niece, Zhang Yan 张嫣 (202-163). In this way, no other family would have influence on the emperor and political matters. The marriage was without children, but Empress Zhang was forced to adopt children by concubines of her husband - another measure to prevent the kinsmen (waiqi 外戚) of other women to raise in power. The name of seven children are transmitted (Liu Gong 劉恭 [emperor], Liu Qiang 劉强 [Prince Huai of Huaiyang 淮陽懷王], Liu Buyi 劉不疑 [Prince Ai of Hengshan 恒山哀王], Liu Shan 劉山 [also called Yi 義 or Hong 弘, emperor], Liu Chao or Zhao 劉朝 [Prince of Hengshan], Liu Wu 劉武 [Prince of Huaiyang], and Liu Tai 劉太 [Prince of Liang 梁]). The mothers of these children were later killed on order of the Empress Dowager. Some historians held that the children were not sons of Emperor Hui, but issues of the Lü family. Yet such allegations might have been a pretext for the extinction of the Lüs after the Empress Dowager's death.

Emperor Hui died unexpectedly in 188 BCE without (legal) heirs. Empress Dowager Lü, then Grand Empress Dowager (taihuang taihou 太皇太后), continued her regency and enthroned Liu Gong 劉恭 (known as Shaodi Gong 少帝恭, r. 188-184 BCE), who officially reigned for four years. When he found out that his real mother had been murdered, he was killed and replaced by another infant, Liu Hong 劉弘 (known as Shaodi Hong 少帝弘, r. 184-180).

When the Grand Empress Dowager died in 180 BCE, the Lü family - mainly nephews of Lü Zhi - was wiped out, and Liu Bang's son Liu Heng was enthroned as Emperor Wen.

Chinese historiographers were not very kind to Emperor Hui. Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145-86 BCE), author of the Shiji, did not compile an imperial annals-biography (benji 本紀) for him, but included the history of his reign into a annals-biography of his mother, the Empress Dowager (9 Lü Taihou benji 呂太后本紀). This changed in the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), when Empress Lü was expelled from the ancestral altar because neither she nor Emperor Hui were ancestors of the imperial lineage, but Emperor Hui's brother, Emperor Wen (and his mother, Lady Bo). Ban Gu 班固 (32-92 CE), compiler of the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, therefore shifted the Empress Dowager to the collective biography of empresses and their kinsmen (97 Waiqi zhuan 外戚傳), and created a regular annals-biography for Emperor Hui (2 Huidi ji 惠帝紀).