Emperor Hui of Han

Emperor Hui of Han or Han Huidi (漢惠帝 Hàn Huìdì; 210 BC – 26 September 188 BC) was the second emperor of the Han dynasty in ancient China. He was the second son of Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang, of the Liu family), the first Han emperor, and Empress Lü from the powerful Lü clan (House of Lü). Han Huidi is generally remembered as a somewhat weak character dominated and terrorized by his mother, Lü (Lu Hou, who became Empress Dowager after she encouraged her husband to command personally a war in which he died from an arrow wound).

Emperor Hui of Han
Emperor of the Han dynasty
Reign195–188 BC
PredecessorEmperor Gaozu
SuccessorEmperor Qianshao and Empress Lu (actually as Empress regent)
RegentEmpress Lu
Born210 BC
Pei County, Qin Empire
Died26 September 188 BC (aged 22)
Chang'an, Han Empire
SpouseEmpress Xiaohui
IssueLiu Gong
Liu Hong
Family name: Liu (劉 liú)
Given name: Ying (盈 yíng)
Posthumous name
Short: Hui (惠, hùi)
Full: Xiaohui (孝惠, xiào hùi)
"filial and benevolent"
FatherEmperor Gaozu
MotherEmpress Gao
Emperor Hui of Han
Traditional Chinese劉盈
Simplified Chinese刘盈
Anling (安陵), the tomb of Han Huidi, in Xianyang, Shaanxi

Huidi was personally kind and generous, but unable to escape the impact of Lu Hou's viciousness. However he did end the laws of Burning of books and burying of scholars. He tried to protect Ruyi, Prince Yin of Zhao, his younger half-brother, from being murdered by Empress Dowager Lü, but failed. After that, he indulged himself in drinking and sex, and died at a relatively young age. Emperor Hui's wife was Empress Zhang Yan, a niece of his by his sister Princess Yuan of Lu; their marriage was the result of insistence by Empress Dowager Lü and was a childless one. Empress Dowager Lü installed two of his alleged sons whom she adopted into her clan, Liu Gong and Liu Hong (known collectively as Emperors Shao of Han), the sons of the Emperor's concubine(s) after he died without a designated heir: however they and the rest of the Lu clan were exterminated and Liu Heng was established as emperor, as heir of the Liu clan, thus firmly establishing the succession of the Liu family as the dynastic family of Han.

Early life and years as crown princeEdit

Early yearsEdit

Liu Ying was born during the Qin dynasty. Liu Ying's childhood is not completely clear. His father Liu Bang would after Liu Ying's birth go on to found the Han dynasty, under the assumed name of Han Gaodi (emperor Gao of Han). What is known is that Liu Ying was not Liu Bang's oldest son—that would be Liu Fei, who would later be made the Prince of Qi. However, Liu Ying was considered to be the proper heir because his mother, the later Empress Lü, was Liu Bang's wife, while Liu Fei's mother was either a concubine or a mistress.

Chu–Han ContentionEdit

During Chu–Han Contention, while Liu Bang fought a five-year war with Xiang Yu for supremacy over the Chinese world, his mother, his sister, and he did not initially follow his father to the Principality of Han (modern Sichuan, Chongqing, and southern Shaanxi); rather, they stayed in his father's home territory, perhaps in his home town of Pei (沛縣, in modern Xuzhou, Jiangsu) deep in Xiang's Principality of Western Chu, presumably with his grandfather Liu Zhijia.

Father Liu's big setbackEdit

In 205 BC, Liu Bang appeared to be near total victory, having captured Xiang's capital of Pengcheng. How his family received this news was unclear, but a few months later, when Xiang responded and crushed Liu's forces, Liu fled and, in his flight, attempted to pass through his hometown to take his family with him. He was able to find his children and carry them along with him, but his father and wife were captured by Xiang's forces and kept as hostages—and would not be returned to him until Liu and Xiang temporarily made peace in 203 BC. The then-very young Liu Ying must have then spent these days not knowing what the eventual fate of his grandfather and mother would be.

Father Liu's big victoryEdit

After Liu Bang's victory and self-declaration as the emperor (later known as Emperor Gao), thus establishing the Han Dynasty, in 202 BC, he made his wife empress and Liu Ying, as his proper heir, crown prince. Thus, Liu Ying became the first crown prince in Chinese imperial history. Under the title of Ying Taizi ("Crown Prince Ying"), he was considered to be kind and tolerant, characteristics that Emperor Gao did not like. Rather, he favored his young son Liu Ruyi, whom he considered to be more like him and whose mother, Consort Qi, was his favorite concubine. With the support of the officials and the Four Whiteheads of Mount Shang, Prince Ying's status as heir survived despite Consort Qi's machinations.

Four Whiteheads of Mount ShangEdit

Kanō Naonobu (17th century): "The Four Sages of Mount Shang"

Soon after establishing the Han dynasty, the new emperor, Gaodi, was eager to recruit talented persons. In 196 BCE Gao even issued a decree to the effect that any official knowing of a virtuous man must so report on penalty of being fired (unless they were too old or sick).[1]:28 Sometime before or after that, Gao attempted to obtain the services of the Four Whiteheads of Mount Shang: Master Dongyuan, Qi Liji, Master Xiahuang and Mr. Lu Li. During the time of troubles which characterized the Qin dynasty, these four had entered into a life of seclusion on Mount Shang. They were old and had white hair and beards: thus they were known as the Four Whiteheads of Mount Shang. Liu Bang was well aware of the reputation of these four sages, and when he became emperor Gao, the four refused his ardent entreaties to assume positions of importance in his newly established government. When the question of who was to be imperial heir came up, two of Gaodi's women both advocated for their own son: Lu for Ying and Qi for her own son. Gao favored Qi's son, as he thought the youth embodied more of his personality. Lu Hou got the advantage: she went to the powerful official Zhang Liang, who said, “His Majesty had long heard about the Four Whiteheads of Mount Shang and wanted to invite them to serve the country. However, they refused. If the Crown Prince could obtain the support of the Four Whiteheads of Mount Shang, then His Majesty would not depose him.” Lu Hou then applied her forces of persuasion. The Four Whiteheads of Mount Shang showed up at court. The four agreed that according to the Confucian precepts of filial piety, as the elder son the future Huidi should succeed to the rulership, and that furthermore Liu Ying's nature was benevolent and compassionate. Gaodi noticed the presence of four elders with white hair and white beards at his court, and inquired as to their identity. Upon finding out who they were and what their position was, Gaodi went to Lady Qi and told her: “I cannot appoint your son as the successor because the Crown Prince has already obtained the support of such capable people. His position is firmly entrenched.”[2]

Lu Hou: Growing ascendancyEdit

As crown prince, Prince Ying, along with his mother, would be the ones who would rule on important matters at the capital in his father's absence during various campaigns. When Ying Bu rebelled in 196 BC, Emperor Gao was ill and considered sending Prince Ying as the commander of the forces against Ying Bu rather than campaigning himself, but at the suggestion of Empress Lü (who averred that the generals, who were generally Emperor Gao's old friends, might not fully obey the young prince), went on the campaign himself. Prince Ying was instead put in charge of home territories around the capital Chang'an, assisted by Confucian scholar Shusun Tong (叔孫通) and strategist Zhang Liang (張良). He appeared to carry out the tasks competently but without distinction.

Succession to the imperial powerEdit

Prince Ying succeeded to the throne of Han when his father died in 195 BC from complications of an arrow wound suffered during the campaign against Ying Bu, after Lu Hou had insisted on Gaodi personally leading the fight.

Reign as emperor under Empress Lu regencyEdit

Immediately upon Prince Ying's ascension to the throne as Emperor Hui, Empress Lü, now empress dowager, became the effective lead figure in his administration. She wanted to carry out a plot of revenge against Consort Qi and her son Ruyi. She first arrested Consort Qi and put her in prison garb (shaved head, confined by stock, and wearing red clothes). She then summoned Liu Ruyi to the capital—an attempt that was initially resisted by Ruyi's chief of staff Zhou Chang (周昌), whom she respected because he was one of the officials who insisted on Liu Ying being the rightful heir. Instead of directly moving against Zhou and Liu Ruyi, though, Lü circumvented Zhou by first summoning him to the capital, and then summoning Liu Ruyi.

Emperor Hui tried to save Liu Ruyi's life. Before Liu Ruyi could get to the capital, Emperor Hui intercepted his young brother at Bashang (霸上, in modern Xi'an) and received Liu Ruyi into his palace, and they dined together and slept together. Empress Dowager Lü wanted to kill Liu Ruyi, but was afraid that any attempt might also harm her own son, and therefore could not carry out her plot for several months.

Empress Dowager Lü got her chance in winter 195 BC. One morning, Emperor Hui was out hunting and wanted to take Liu Ruyi with him. The young prince was then only 14 years old and refused to get up from bed, and Emperor Hui left for the hunt on his own. Empress Dowager Lü heard this and immediately sent an assassin into the emperor's palace to force poisoned wine down the prince's throat. By the time that Emperor Hui returned, his brother was dead. She then had Consort Qi's eyes gouged out, made her ears deaf, drugged her to make her unable to speak and had her arms and legs cut off. The mutilated woman was thrown into a latrine and then fed and kept alive in a pig's bin and was called the "人彘", meaning literally the "human swine". (She would die from the torture.) When Emperor Hui saw his father's favorite and the mother of his beloved little brother in such a condition, he cried out loud and became depressed and sick for about a year. He told his mother that he could not govern the empire, given that he was the son of someone like her who has done such inhuman deed. From that point, Emperor Hui only "indulged himself with wine and women" and no longer made key governing decisions, leaving them to his mother.

Emperor Hui, however, continued to try to protect his siblings. In the winter of 194 BC, when Liu Fei, Prince of Qi—his older brother—made an official visit to the capital, they both attended a feast put on by Empress Dowager Lü. Emperor Hui, honoring the prince as an older brother, asked him to take a seat at the table even more honored than his own. The empress dowager was greatly offended and instructed her servants to pour two cups of poisoned wine which were set on the table between the three people. She ordered Liu Fei to toast her, while ignoring Emperor Hui. As Liu Fei was about to drink the poisoned wine, Emperor Hui, knowing his mother's murderously jealous temperament and remembering how his other brother had died, suddenly reached for the second cup, which the Empress did not intend. (The second cup was a decoy, placed there only to suggest to Liu Fei that she would return his toast, as ritual required, although he would die immediately on drinking his, so she would not need to drink the other cup. Her resentment toward Liu Fei fully captured her attention and she did not even think of her son's presence.) Empress Dowager Lü jumped up and slapped the second cup away from Emperor Hui, spilling it. Liu Fei realized the trick and left, pretending to be already drunk. In the end, he was only able to leave the capital by offering to the Empress an entire commandery from his principality, to be the feudal estate of Princess Yuan of Lu. Empress Dowager Lü, who greatly loved her daughter as well, was pleased and let Liu Fei return to his principality.


As the second emperor of his dynasty, Huidi helped to establish the Han dynasty on a strong footing: Huidi bolstered the Han dynastic aspirations by establishing shrines venerating his father throughout the land. Although his father, Gaodi, had continued many of the Qin institutions, Huidi repealed some particularly harsh Qin laws, such as the Burning of books and burying of scholars law. Nevertheless, Huidi's gentle nature was at first little match against the ruthless Lu Hou and her clan. Still, the Han dynasty was set on a firm foot as the challenging Lu clan was eventually generally exterminated and Han Huidi was effectively succeeded by Han Wendi.[1]:31, 33


Hui died in the autumn of 188 BC of an unspecified illness. Emperor Gaozu's surviving sons then chose their half-brother Liu Heng as next emperor, deliberately due to his lack of a powerful maternal clan.[1]:33

Marriage and childrenEdit

In winter 192 BC, Emperor Hui married Empress Zhang, a marriage that would not yield any children. However, whether Emperor Hui actually had children during or before his reign is a controversial question. The officials, including Chen Ping and Zhou Bo, who would later overthrow the Lü clan after the deaths of both Emperor Hui and Empress Dowager Lü, claimed that Emperor Hui had no sons—but that Empress Zhang, at Empress Dowager Lü's instigation, stole eight boys from other people, put their mothers to death, and made the children her own. Modern historians have split opinions on the issue, but largely believe that the boys were actually Emperor Hui's sons by concubines and that Empress Zhang did indeed put their mothers to death and make them her own children. (As, for example, Bo Yang pointed out, it would be logically incongruent, if Empress Zhang did steal these children from elsewhere, for her to put only the mothers but not the fathers to death.) Under this theory, the officials denied the imperial ancestry of these children in fear of the fact that they were also descendants of Empress Dowager Lü and her clan, and therefore might if allowed to live eventually to seek vengeance for the slaughter of the Lü clan—a reason that they themselves admitted. Except for Liu Gong (who was deposed and executed by Empress Dowager Lü), the other children either died young by natural causes or were executed by the officials after they made Liu Heng, the Prince of Dai (Emperor Wen) the emperor.


Consorts and Issue:

  • Empress Xiaohui, of the Zhang clan (孝惠皇后 張氏; 202–163 BC), niece, personal name Yan ()
  • Unknown
    • Liu Gong, Emperor (皇帝 劉恭; 193–184 BC)
    • Liu Qiang, Prince Huai of Huaiyang (淮陽懷王 劉強; d. 183 BC)
    • Liu Buyi, Prince Ai of Hengsha (恆山哀王 劉不疑; d. 186 BC)
    • Liu Hong, Emperor (皇帝 劉弘; 190–180 BC)
    • Liu Chao, Prince of Hengshan (恆山王 劉朝; d. 180 BC)
    • Liu Wu, Prince of Huaiyang (淮陽王 劉武; 192–180 BC)
    • Liu Tai, Prince of Liang (梁王 劉太; d. 180 BC)


Liu Qing
Liu Ren
Liu Taigong (282–197 BC)
Emperor Gaozu of Han (256–195 BC)
Empress Zhaoling
Emperor Hui of Han (210–188 BC)
Lü Wen
Empress Gao (241–180 BC)


See alsoEdit

Reference citationsEdit

Classical Chinese secondary reference sourcesEdit

These Classical Chinese historical sources are standard, and incorporated herein:

Other referencesEdit

  1. ^ a b c Paludan, Ann (1998). Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05090-2.
  2. ^ Yeh Chia-ying, translation Josey Shun and Bhikshuni Heng Yin, "Lectures on Tao Yuanming's Poems", a series of lectures at Gold Buddha Monastery, Canada (lecture tapes were transcribed by Tu Xiaoli, An Yi, and Yang Aidi) <"Vajra Bhodi Sea" No. 382, March 2002>
Emperor Hui of Han
Born: 210 BC Died: 188 BC
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor Gaozu of Han
Emperor of China
Western Han
195 BC – 188 BC with Empress Dowager Lü  (195–188 BC)
Succeeded by
Emperor Qianshao of Han