Emperor Xuan of Han

Emperor Xuan of Han
Portrait of Emperor Xuan from Sancai Tuhui
Emperor of the Han dynasty
Reign74–49 BC
PredecessorPrince of Changyi
SuccessorEmperor Yuan
Born91 BC
Chang'an, Han Empire
Died49 BC
Chang'an, Han Empire
Du ling, Xi'an
Full name
Liu Bingyi 劉病已, later Liu Xún 劉詢[1]
Era dates
Dìjié 地節 (69 BC – 66 BC)
Yúankāng 元康 (65 BC – 61 BC)
Shénjué 神爵 (61 BC – 58 BC)
Wŭfèng 五鳳 (57 BC – 54 BC)
Gānlù 甘露 (53 BC – 50 BC)
Dìjié 地節 (69 BC – 66 BC)
Huánglóng 黃龍 (66 BC – 49 BC)
Posthumous name
Short: Emperor Xuan (宣帝) "responsible"
Full: Xiaoxuan (孝宣) "filial and know by many"
Temple name
Zhōngzōng (中宗)
HouseHouse of Liu
FatherLiu Jin[2]
MotherConsort Wang[3]

Emperor Xuan of Han (91 BC – 10 January 49 BC), born Liu Bingyi (劉病已), later renamed to Liu Xun (劉詢), was an emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty from 74 to 49 BC. His life story was a riches-to-rags-to-riches story.

Emperor Xuan was the great grandson of Emperor Wu. His grandfather Liu Ju, was the son of Emperor Wu and Empress Wei and the crown prince of the Han Empire, who in 91 BC was framed for witchcraft practice against Emperor Wu and committed suicide after being forced into a failed uprising. His father Liu Jin (劉進) also died in that turmoil. Emperor Xuan was only an infant at the time and hence he was spared (but only barely) but was banished to live as a commoner.

After Emperor He's short reign of only 27 days in 74 BC, Xuan was declared emperor by Huo Guang (the half-brother of Huo Qubing). Emperor Xuan has been considered a hardworking and brilliant emperor. Because Xuan grew up as a commoner, he thoroughly understood the suffering of his people. He lowered taxes, liberalized the government and employed capable ministers to the government. He was said by Liu Xiang to have been fond of reading Shen Buhai, using Xing-Ming to control his subordinates and devoting much time to legal cases.[4][5] Emperor Xuan was open to suggestions, was a good judge of character, and consolidated his power by eliminating corrupt officials, including the Huo family, which have exerted considerable power since the death of Emperor Wu, after Huo Guang's death. However, his execution of the entire Huo clan later drew heavy criticism from historians for its ungratefulness to Huo Guang. (e.g., Sima Guang in his Zizhi Tongjian.)

Under Emperor Xuan, the Han dynasty prospered economically and militarily. His rule lasted 25 years and he died in 49 BC. He was succeeded by his son Emperor Yuan.

Family background and early life

Parentage, disaster, and a barely spared young life

Liu Bingyi was born in 91 BC to Liu Jin, the son of then-Crown Prince Liu Ju, and his wife Consort Wang.[6][7] As the grandson of the Crown Prince, Bingyi likely was born in Prince Ju's palace.

That same year, however, disaster would strike. With conspirators accusing him of using witchcraft against his father Emperor Wu, Prince Ju was forced into a rebellion, which was defeated. Prince Ju committed suicide, and Bingyi's two uncles died with him, although it was not clear whether they also committed suicide or were killed by soldiers. Bingyi's great-grandmother Empress Wei also committed suicide, and his grandmother (Prince Ju's concubine) Consort Shi and his parents died in the incident as well in the capital Chang'an. It is not completely clear whether they took their own lives or were executed, but the latter seems likely.

For reasons not completely clear, the baby Bingyi was spared, although he was imprisoned in a prison overseen by the Ministry of Vassal Affairs. He was put into the custody of the warden Bing Ji (丙吉). Bing knew that Prince Ju was actually innocent of witchcraft and took pity on the child, and selected two kind female prisoners, Hu Zu (胡組) and Guo Zhengqing (郭徵卿) to serve as his wet nurses and caretakers. Bing visited them each day to see how the child was doing.


Near the end of Emperor Wu's reign, there was an incident when magicians claimed that an aura of an emperor was appearing from Chang'an prisons. Emperor Wu ordered that all prisoners, regardless of whether they had been convicted or not and regardless of the severity of the charges, were to be executed. When the eunuch delivering the edict arrived at the Vassal Affairs prison that Bing oversaw, Bing refused to accept the edict, stating that no one who had not been convicted of a capital crime should be executed, and particularly not the emperor's own great-grandson. The eunuch filed charges against Bing for refusing to abide by the edict—a capital offense—but by that time Emperor Wu had realized his error and declared a general pardon. The prisoners in all other prisons were dead, but the prisoners at Bing's prison survived.

However, this incident made Bing feel that it was inappropriate for the young Bingyi to remain at the prison, and so he ordered one of his lieutenants to transfer Bingyi and Hu (Guo might have died by this point) to the city government of Chang'an. The city government refused to accept responsibility, and so Bing had to let them remain in prison. After Hu's sentence was over, Bing hired her out of his own pocket to continue to serve as a wet nurse for several months, before letting her leave. Later, the budget for taking care of Bingyi was cut off from the imperial clan affairs budget, and Bing took money out of his own salary to care for Bingyi. When he grew somewhat older, Bing heard that Consort Shi's mother Zhenjun (貞君) and brother Shi Gong (史恭) survived the incident, and so sought them out and had Bingyi delivered to the Shi residence. Lady Zhenjun raised him herself.

Several years later, Bingyi's granduncle Emperor Zhao found out that Bingyi was alive, and ordered that the Ministry of Imperial Clan Affairs take over the duty for caring for Bingyi. The chief eunuch at the palace Zhang He (張賀), who had previously been an advisor to Prince Ju before he was castrated by Emperor Wu in the aftermaths of Prince Ju's death, cared well for young Bingyi, and paid for his expenses and studies out of his own pocket.

Young adulthood and marriage

Circa 76 BC, Zhang wanted to marry his granddaughter to Bingyi, but his brother Zhang Anshi (張安世), then an important official, opposed, fearing that it would bring trouble. Zhang, instead, invited one of his subordinate eunuchs (who had also been castrated by Emperor Wu), Xu Guanghan (許廣漢), to dinner, and persuaded him to marry his daughter Xu Pingjun to him. When Xu's wife heard this, she became extremely angry and refused, but because Zhang was Xu's superior, Xu did not dare to renege on the promise, and Bingyi and Pingjun were married, in a ceremony entirely paid by Zhang (because Bingyi could not afford to). Zhang also paid the bride price.

After marriage, Bingyi depended on his wife's family and his grandmother's family for support, and he engaged a teacher to teach him the Confucian classics. He was a diligent learner, and he also had a strong sense of social justice. As a teenager, he had many friends from all walks of life and was able to see the dark sides of society and the suffering of the people at the hands of corrupt officials. He had a strong interest in hiking. Occasionally he was summoned to see Emperor Zhao. Pingjun bore him a son, Liu Shi.

Other Languages
Bân-lâm-gú: Hàn Soan-tè
čeština: Süan-ti (Chan)
Deutsch: Han Xuandi
français: Han Xuandi
한국어: 전한 선제
Bahasa Indonesia: Kaisar Xuan dari Han
Nederlands: Han Xuandi
日本語: 宣帝 (漢)
norsk: Han Xuandi
polski: Han Xuandi
português: Xuan de Han
русский: Сюань-ди
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Car Xuan od Hana
українська: Лю Бін'і
Tiếng Việt: Hán Tuyên Đế
吴语: 汉宣帝
粵語: 劉詢
中文: 汉宣帝