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Emperor Xuan of Han Liu Xun — Great Monarch Came From Prison and the Commoners' World

Emperor Xuan of Han (91 BC — 49 BC), named Liu Bingyi and later changed to Liu Xun, courtesy name Ciqing, was the 10th monarch of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD).

He grew up in a prison, then was raised and built a lovely family in the civilian world.


Everything changed after he was supported to be the emperor, and his empire reached its peak during his ruling period.

Jade Cup of Emperor Xuan of Han

Jade Cup of Emperor Xuan of Han — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

An Honorable Prince Growing Up In A Prison

After Emperor Wudi and Queen Wei Zifu’s son (the crown prince) got framed and committed suicide, all of his family members were hunted and cruelly assassinated, except for a baby.  

This baby boy named Liu Bingyi, the crown prince’s grandson, was hidden by a maid and secretly sent out of the royal palace; he successfully survived the slaughter and was sent to prison in the end.  

The warden sympathized with the crown prince and Wei Zifu and strongly believed that they were innocent, so he asked two nice women in the prison to help to raise Liu Bingyi, gave them a clean and big cell, and kept this secret carefully.

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty —  Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Years later, the imperial diviner told Emperor Wudi that he could see a potential emperor from that prison, then, all the prisoners there were sentenced to death.  

The warden, hence, told the world about Liu Bingyi's real identity. 

After Emperor Wudi realized that his great-grandson was there, he released everyone in that prison. 

Liu Bingyi now was almost five years old and finally accepted as a royal member; however, Emperor Wudi passed away before he made up to his poor great-grandson. 

Then Liu Bingyi's grandfather’s younger brother ascended to the throne.

Restoration Map of Wei Yang Gong in Changan City, the Royal Palace of the Han Dynasty.

Restoration Map of Wei Yang Gong in Changan City, the Royal Palace of the Han Dynasty. 

A Forgotten Royal Prince Living In the Civilian World

Though Liu Bingyi now had been accepted by the royal family, he was still a kid; moreover, most of the powerful people who were from or close to his grandfather's clan were all sentenced to death in the former slaughters.  

So, he was settled in a place where people select and purchase stuff for the royal palace, where he was poorly provided and without proper education. 

Fortunately, the warden liked Liu Bingyi, and the head of the purchasing place had served his grandfather before; those two sometimes would buy nice food for him, and supported him to learn reading and writing.

Liu Bingyi successfully survived and grew up in the civilian world, where he never had the chance to get in touch with other royal members or powerful politicians, despite his royal origin. 

But he was smart, magnanimous, and optimistic; he also made many friends from different backgrounds and occupations. 

During that time, he also met his true love Xu Pingjun and married her.


They built a small house with a beautiful garden, had a baby boy, and lived a poor but happy life together.

Pottery of Han Dynasty of Scene of A Civilian's Courtyard

Pottery of Han Dynasty of Scene of A Civilian's Courtyard — Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Enthronement As A Puppet Emperor

Soon, the current emperor passed away and left no sons. 

Huo Guang (? — 68 BC), the most powerful regent that was nominated by Emperor Wudi, then supported Liu He to become the next emperor.  

Liu He (? — 59 BC), the grandson of Emperor Wudi, turned out to be extremely ridiculous and got abrogated by Regent Huo Guang 27 days after the enthronement.


In some other versions, Liu He had displeased or tried to challenge Huo Guang's authority.

Afterward, Liu He was subinfeuded as Marquis of Haihun and spent the rest of his life in his fief.

Then, Huo Guang and other officials realized that Liu Bingyi, the next qualified heir to the throne, was an excellent choice, since he was young, with no political experience, and much easier to manipulate. 

Consequently, they supported the 17 years old Liu Bingyi as the next emperor. 

Gold Ingot Unearthed From Mausoleum of Marquis Haihun (Haihunhou), A Grandson of Emperor Wudi of Han

Gold Ingot Unearthed From Mausoleum of Marquis of Haihun (Haihunhou) — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Except for his noble identity, and a good reputation among the civilians, Liu Bingyi, now changed his name to Liu Xun, had few political resources among the ruling class.

Emperor Xuan of Han realized that he had never been taught how to be a monarch of such a big empire. 

During the first few years, Huo Guang obtained real power and was in charge of everything; many important political positions were occupied by his followers or relatives. 

Emperor Xuan of Han, on the other side, felt quite threatened, but always stayed humble and polite, and acted like he trusted Huo Guang completely. 

He knew that if he didn't behave obediently, Huo Guang might abolish him, just as he did to Liu He.

Gilt Bronze Mirror of the Han Dynasty

Gilt Bronze Mirror of the Han Dynasty — Henan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Love between Emperor Xuan of Han and His Queen

Liu Xun only insisted on one thing, despite strong opponents from Huo Guang, the empress dowager, and other powerful officials, which is to nominate Xu Pingjun as his Queen. 

At that time, most of those in the ruling class supported Huo Guang's daughter, who was also a relative of the empress dowager, to be the queen.

But Liu Xun insisted to have Xu Pingjun, the girl that fell in love with him and married him when he was poor, as his honorable queen.

Their love story was highly appreciated and praised since then. 

Blue Glaze Decoration of the Han Dynasty

Blue Glaze Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

But Huo Guang's wife desperately wanted her daughter to be the queen, so she asked a doctor to poison Xu Pingjun during her labor for her second child, secretly. 

Xu Pingjun, Empress Gong Ai, passed away when she was only 20 years old, but Emperor Xuan of Han didn’t know the real reason yet.

The Huo Guang's daughter, then, successfully became the next queen but never had a baby. 

Emperor Xuan of Han still stayed humble and well-behaved, while he secretly built up a team that was only loyal to him.

Counterattack and Seizing of Power

Then Emperor Xuan of Han started to seize the power slowly, but steadily. 

Huo Guang passed away a few years later, then his followers were gradually expelled from important positions, step by step.

Seeing they are losing power, and more people were talking about how Huo Guang's wife poisoned the first queen Xu Pingju, the Huo Guang's clan rebelled. 

Since Emperor Xuan of Han was well prepared and had already built his forces, the rebel was soon defeated. 

After the emperor gained power, he found out that his beloved first queen was murdered. 

Immediately, he abolished and grounded his second queen, Huo Guang's daughter. 

Till now, he finally obtained control over his empire and avenged his beloved woman. 

Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty, With Inscriptions "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness)

Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty, With Inscriptions "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness) — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Reign of the Emperor Xuan of Han

Emperor Xuan of Han Liu Xun's closeness to civilians and strong personality from his early experiences made him an excellent sovereign. 

He reformed the political administration and established a system to assess officials’ work. Many talented people were selected and promoted while corrupted and unqualified ones got abolished or punished. 

The whole political environment became efficient and clean under his ruling period, which brought social stability and prosperity. 

Moreover, Emperor Xuan of Han commanded his elite soldiers successfully defeated the revenging Xiongnu army, after that he established the first government agency in Xinjiang, the Western Reign Protectorate, which largely expanded his empire's territory, and officially included this huge area into the Han Empire. 

He also adjusted inappropriate economic policies, lowered taxes, and assigned farmland to poverty people; the price of food went to the lowest in the entire Han Dynasty. 

Relic Site Xuanquanzhi of the Han Dynasty, A Post Station and State Guesthouse Along the Silk Road to Western Reign Protectorate

Relic Site Xuanquanzhi of the Han Dynasty, A Post Station and State Guesthouse Along the Silk Road to Western Reign Protectorate — Dunhuang, Gansu Province 

Legacy of Emperor Xuan of Han

Decades later, Emperor Xuan of Han passed away in his palace because of sickness and gave the throne to him and Xu Pingjun’s only son. 

Liu Xun was not very satisfied with this crown prince. Deep in his heart, Liu Xun knew that his son Liu Shi was too nice and weak to be a perfect monarch of this prosperous empire. 

But Liu Shi was Xu Pingjun’s only son, based on Liu Xun’s great love for Xu Pingjun, Liu Xun still gave the throne to Liu Shi. Besides, he carefully selected and assigned three very talented ministers to assist the new emperor.  

Emperor Xuan of Han buried Xu Pingjun in the garden where they used to live and built his mausoleum next to hers.

Jade Figurines Unearthed From Mausoleum of Emperor Xuan of Han

Jade Figurines Unearthed From Mausoleum of Emperor Xuan of Han (Duling) — Xi'an Museum

The purpose of the first half of Liu Xun's life, as a child who was raised in prison, was trying to stay alive; he was poverty and carefree, also accompanied by real friends and his true love. 

These experiences also gave him a brave and strong heart, as well as the best understanding of civilians’ lives. 

In the second part of his life, starting as a puppet teenage emperor, he was surrounded by conspiracies and conflicts over power; at the same time, he also had to deal with nomadic harassment, as well as political issues within his government.  

In the end, he became the Emperor Xuan of Han, one of the most successful emperors in the history of China, who further glorified and enlarged his empire and brought his people better lives.

No one knows which lifestyle he enjoyed more, but he achieved great success either way.

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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