top of page

Emperor Yuan of Han — Monarch With Sad Love Stories, and Supporter of Eunuchs

Emperor Yuan of Han (74 BC — 33 BC), named Liu Shi, was the 11th monarch of the Han Dynasty


He was a kind, talented person with a good heart, but had been widely criticized for being too weak, as a monarch who declined his empire and aggrieved himself in his love life.  


In the end, his reign was a turning point in the Han Dynasty when the emperor started losing power, to eunuch groups or strong clans.

Jade Bear Unearthed from Mausoleum of the Emperor Yuan of Han

Jade Bear Unearthed from Mausoleum of the Emperor Yuan of Han — Xianyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Talented Prince and An Incapable Heir

Liu Shi was the only son of Empress Xu Pingjun, the true love of Emperor Xuan of Han. She married the emperor when he was a still commoner, accompanied him through thick and thin, but was poisoned to death in a political conspiracy at a very young age.    

Emperor Xuan of Han realized Liu Shi's credulity and recreancy and had other sons that were stronger and more capable to be the monarch of the huge empire, however, he still gave the throne to Liu Shi.

As a prince, Liu Shi was quite outstanding and talented. He was well educated, kind, and knowledgeable; his scholarship in history and Confucianism was quite excellent in the history of China.

Moreover, he was a genius musician who could master many kinds of instruments and compositions, as well as a great calligrapher.

Jade Figurine and Horse Unearthed from Mausoleum of the Emperor Yuan of Han

Jade Figurine and Horse Unearthed from Mausoleum of the Emperor Yuan of Han — Xianyang Museum

Emperor Yuan of Han - Soft Monarch that Kept Losing Power

After Liu Shi ascended to the throne as Emperor Yuan of Han, he was very respectful to the officials that his father left to him but was also very credulous to close eunuchs.

He always had difficulty deciding whose suggestion he should listen to and which side he should support; thus, he barely had a concrete political principle or ambition.

Soon, eunuchs allied with some powerful aristocrats won over upstanding officials, which made the capable regent commit suicide out of desperation and disappointment.

This regent was trusted and chosen by Emperor Xuan of Han and had been teaching Liu Shi for a long time. 

Jade Cup of Emperor Xuan of Han

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

Liu Shi, Emperor Yuan of Han, was very sad about losing the regent but didn’t punish people who were responsible for this tragedy either.

Gradually, he lost centralized power, to eunuchs and strong clans who in the end made nearly all decisions for the emperor.

 Nothing destructive happened during his rule, which was mainly because of the solid and strong foundation his brilliant father and other ancestors built, however, his losing power was a turning point in the Han Dynasty. 

Eunuch group, for the first time in the history of China, started to obtain a great deal of power and manipulate politics. 

Unhappy Love Lives

Liu Shi's personality was unlike any of the ancestral emperors of the Han Dynasty, which also made his love life full of regrets. 

When he was the crown prince, he only loved a concubine that he married when he was very young, though his father assigned him some other beautiful women.

Unfortunately, his beloved girl passed away young, because of sickness; when she was dying, she told Liu Shi that she was cursed by his other women that felt jealous of her, though no one could tell if that was the truth.

But Liu Shi believed her completely and stopped seeing his other women because of hatred. 

Blue Glaze Decoration of the Han Dynasty

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

As an heir, however, he had to have sons; so his father found more women for him.

Liu Shi couldn’t defy his father’s command, so he randomly pointed to a woman and spent a night with her. 

This woman named Wang Zhengjun (71 BC — 13 AD), then got pregnant, gave birth to Liu Shi’s first baby boy, and was nominated as the queen. Liu Shi’s father was very happy and finally relieved.

No one could expect that this single night brought the Han Dynasty a crown prince, a queen, a very powerful Wang Clan, as well as a person of the Wang Clan named Wang Mang who usurped the throne and ended the Han Empire.

Mirror of the Han Dynasty with Inscriptions, Praising Wang Mang's Enthronement and His Replacement of the Former Royal Liu Clan

Mirror of the Han Dynasty with Inscriptions, Praising Wang Mang's Enthronement and His Replacement of the Royal Liu Clan — Fuyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Inactive Military Success During the Emperor's Reign


After Liu Shi's father the Emperor Xuan of Han successfully took control of northwest China and further weakened the Xiongnu, their forces kept fighting civil wars and left two main regimes at the end.  

One regime migrated to West Asia and allied with a country there through marriage, whose king then claimed Han as their enemy and killed Han’s diplomatic envoys.

This made an assistant general named Chen Tang quite angry, who started to ally with other countries nearby that had been bullied by the Xiongnu.


Then he commanded this army to attack the Xiongnu when his general in charge was sick. 

Bronze Sword and Its Sword Decoration of the Han Dynasty

Bronze Sword and Its Sword Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Nanyang Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

When they were about to march off, Chen Tang sent his emperor Liu Shi a report, telling what they would be doing.

Before the central government of the Han Empire realized what exactly happened, Chen Tang had already led his 40, 000 soldiers perished the Xiongnu regime that had moved to West Asia. 

That Xiongnu regime's king, queen, crown prince, and all the aristocrats were killed in that war, and some of their lands were awarded to those supportive allies. 

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Initiating a war without the emperor’s command was a serious crime in the history of China, especially Chen Tang’s "assistant general" position was not even qualified to be a commander of an army; but the huge success was quite thrilling, and Chen Tang used little of Han’s resources, thanks to his allies.

It took Emperor Yuan of Han a long time to decide if Chen Tang should be punished or rewarded.

Finally, Liu Shi decided to give Chen Tang awards of a noble title and money, for having successfully perished a regime of the Xiongnu decisively with his exceptional intelligence and courage. 

Missing of the Beauty Wang Zhaojun

Another regime of the Xiongnu complied with the Han Empire and pursued a political alliance by marriage.

Liu Shi didn’t want to marry a real princess or noble girl to this king, so he decided to select a woman from his royal maids.

Wang Qiang (about 54 BC — 19 BC), also named Wang Zhaojun, volunteered, and then got awarded a princess title.

Emperor Liu Shi met her for the first time at the farewell ceremony and was impressed by her stunning beauty.

Wang Zhaojun or Wang Qiang of the Han Dynasty

Since Liu Shi’s beloved concubine passed away years ago, it was the first time he was so attracted to a woman; unfortunately, he couldn’t call off this important political alliance. 

In the end, he had to see her off, reluctantly.

Wang Zhaojun, one of the Four Beauties in the history of China, a gorgeous and brave woman, brought peace and better communication to Han and the Xiongnu for over half a centenary.


Her courage and dedication had been eulogized for generations. 

Legacy of Emperor Yuan of Han

Liu Shi, the Emperor Yuan of Han, was indeed a kind person that had barely blamed anyone. When he was crown prince, he always disagreed with his father for being too strict and potent; he believed that many people his father had punished were innocent.

It turned out credulous and unconditional forgiving, however, these were not quite necessary qualities for the monarch of a huge, feudal empire. 

This nice, modest, and talented person, thus, was considered an incapable monarch in the history of China, who lost centralized power and discombobulated his kingdom.

Though he never intended to hurt anyone, his indecision and nonfeasance gradually declined the prosperity of the Han Dynasty.

Lacquer Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Han Dynasty

Lacquer Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Han Dynasty — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

bottom of page