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Huo Guang 霍光

Sep 28, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Huo Guang 霍光 (died 68 BCE), courtesy name Zimeng 子孟, was a powerful official of the mid-Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). He was a half-brother of general Huo Qubing 霍去病 and was appointed court gentleman (lang 郎).

After the death of Huo Qubing he was promoted to Commandant-in-chief of the chariots (fengche duwei 奉車都尉) and Grand Master for Splendid Happiness (guanglu dafu 光祿大夫). Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) highly estimated him as a careful and responbible court official. In 87 BCE the Emperor was severely sick and appointed Prince Liu Fuling 劉弗陵 as heir apparent. Huo Guang was appointed General-in-chief serving as Commander-in-chief (da sima da jiangjun 大司馬大將軍) and became one of the four regents to support the young prince (Emperor Zhao 漢昭帝, r. 87-74 BCE). The other regents were Jin Midi 金日磾, Shangguan Jie 上官桀 and Sang Hongyang 桑弘羊.

In his position as General-in-chief, Huo Guang was master of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu 尚書) and the ministries. In 85 BCE he was given the title of Marquis of Bolu 博陸侯. His daughter was married to Shangguan An 上官安, the son of Shangguan Jie, and the daughter springing off this marriage was made Empress in 83 BCE 上官安 (Empress Shangguan 上官后). The family of the Shangguans used this position to line the pockets of their friends and relatives, a circumstance that resulted in growing tensions with Huo Guang who vehemently contradicted the bestowment of titles of nobility to Shangguans' favourites.

The relation with Sang Hongyang who controlled the bureaus of the state monopoly on the merchandise of salt and iron also became worse. At that point of time (80 BCE) the Shangguans and Sang Hongyang secretly planned to kill Huo Guang and to replace Emperor Zhao with Liu Dan 劉旦, Prince of Yan 燕. Yet their plot was reveiled and Sang Hongyang and the Shangguans were exectued. Prince Dan and Empress Shangguan committed suicide.

From that time on Huo Guang was the undisputed master of the court. His son Huo Yu 霍禹, his nephews Huo Yun 霍雲 and Huo Shan 霍山, the sons-in-law and other relatives were given high posts in the military structure of the imperial administration. The reign of Emperor Zhao, guided by Huo Guang, was characterised by a politics of relaxation. After decades of activity Emperor Wu had gone back to the political style of his predecessors. Taxes were lowers, expenditure was cut, corvée labour was sparingly required. In 81 BCE the court convoked scholars from throughout the empire to discuss the pending question of the state monopoly. The result of this discussion was that the tax on liquors was dropped, as well as the required delivery of a certain amount of horses by all communities.

The period of war with the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 was also finished, and the court went back to the appeasement politics by presenting the wild tribes with silks and the khan with a princess (heqin 和親 "peace by marriage").

In 74 BCE Emperor Zhao died without heir. According to the wish of the Empress Dowager, Liu He 劉賀, Prince of Changyi 昌邑, was made the new emperor, as a grandson of late Emperor Wu. Yet the arrogant and frivolous behaviour of the Prince caused his demotion, and the high ministers invited Liu Xun 劉詢, Prince Wei 衛太子, who was also a grandson of Emperor Wu, to mount the throne (Emperor Xuan 漢宣帝, r. 74-49 BCE). Huo Guang was still regent for the Emperor when he died, after twenty years of almost unchallenged reign.

Huo Guang was the first kinsman of an empress (waiqi 外戚) who wielded greatest power at the court. It was he who eclipsed the status of the Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) and transformed this once important office into a mere nominal post without any power. Huo Yu and Huo Shan occupied high posts and enjoyed luxury and status.

The decline of the family Huo began with the murder of Empress Xu 許皇后 by Huo Guang's wife. Emperor Xuan took first measures to curtail the power of the Huos. On their side, a secret plan was made to depose Emperor Xuan and to replace him with Huo Yu. This would have been the end of the dynasty. Yet the plan was reveiled, Huo Yun and Huo Shan committed suicide, and Huo Yu was executed by being cut into two halves at the waist (yaozhan 腰斬) on the market place. The rest of the family Huo was extinguished.

Tian Renlong 田人隆 (1992). "Huo Guang 霍光", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Vol. Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 418.