Liu Zhao the Emperor He of Han — Turning Point Monarch of the Han Dynasty

Liu Zhao (79 — 106), respected as Emperor He of Han, was a very controversial monarch of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220).

He was an excellent emperor with splendid accomplishments that led his empire to reach another peak but also was the one who left a huge potential peril that caused the prosperous empire to collapse gradually in the next century. 

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Dingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Child Emperor Under Control of His Adoptive Mother

When Liu Zhao was little, he was adopted by the childless queen named Dou. Afterward, his birth mother was framed up and committed suicide, her entire clan had perished as well. 

When he turned 9, his father passed away. Hence, he ascended to the throne as a child emperor, his adoptive mother Dou was respected as the empress dowager, and her clan obtained all power.

Gradually, more people from Dou's clan were promoted to important positions, which made her clan became quite powerful; especially after her brother named Dou Xian defeated the Xiongnu for good.

Brick Graving of the Eastern Han Dynasty about People Playing Board Game "Liubo" — Xuzhou Art Museum of Han Stone Gravings (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Power and Conspiracies of the House of Dou 

Soon, the House of Dou included a powerful empress dowager, an excellent marshal who was in charge of the army, some royal princesses, and lots of noble lords.

While, on the other side, was the lonely teenager emperor Liu Zhao; he had no idea of who, among his officials, were loyal to him, or to the House of Dou.

Though his ancestors tried very hard to avoid the powerful clan of empress dowager’s, this still happened inescapably.

The powerful and contributive general Dou Xian (? — 92), brother of the Empress Dowager Dou, was an exceptional marshal but an arrogant person.

Bronze Artifact of Han Dynasty with Inlaying Gold and Silver that used to Press Sitting Mat — Hebei Museum  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

After the southern part of the Xiongnu allied with the Han by marriage, the northern force kept fighting and further expanded during Wang Mang's reign (9 — 23).

Dou Xian led Han’s army, allied with southern Xiongnu, defeated the northern part for several times.

When the northern Xiongnu wanted to surrender, the southern Xiongnu instigated the negotiation to fail; so Dou Xian commanded his army attacked and chased the rest Xiongnu forces westward far away until they disappeared.

From that time on, in the Han Empire’s documents, this aggressive and strong nomadic regime that had fought with the Han for hundreds of years was finally defeated and perished for good in the history of China.

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

Afterward, Dou Xian was given countless privileges and power.

However, he didn’t know that nothing could keep expanding, or when to be humble and modest.

He occupied many farmlands illegally, even included a royal princess’ property. He kept many professional assassins, murdered a lord from royal Liu’s clan out of jealousy, and those who disagreed or displeased him. 

Soon, Dou Xian and his followers planned to assassinate Liu Zhao and rebel, but the emperor was informed. 

Perishing the House of Dou with Help of the Eunuch Group

Liu Zhao, though still was a kid, he gradually realized that he was just a puppet emperor, while the House of Dou obtained the actual dominance.

However, most of his relatives were members of the House of Dou, most ministers and generals were following, or maybe secretly supporting, this clan. Besides, Liu Zhao’s every move was being monitored as well.  

That way, the only group that Emperor Liu Zhao could easily reach and trust was eunuch, those imperial servants that had been serving him.

Bronze Turtledove Toy Cart of the Han Dynasty — Henan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Liu Zhao asked some eunuchs and his royal guards ambushed in a palace carefully, then he tricked Dou Xian and his main followers to come, under the name of celebrating their military success. 

Afterward, Liu Zhao captured all of Dou Xian’s followers and removed his military power; then he commanded Dou Xian and other powerful people of the Dou clan to commit suicide.

In the end, Liu Zhao was told about how his adoptive mother Dou framed up and murdered his birth mother and her entire clan; but he didn't demote or punish the Empress Dowager Dou. 

After she passed away, she was still buried with Liu Zhao’s father, using the ceremony of an empress dowager.

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Golden Belt Buckle of the Han Dynasty Decorated with Turquoises — Shouxian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

An Excellent Teenager Emperor Liu Zhao

Now Liu Zhao was a 13-year-old emperor, who was already quite strong and decisive.

Afterward, he kept working diligently, as other good monarchs had done in the history of China. He cared about civilians, lowered taxes, encouraged agriculture, and selected qualified officials to make sure the government operates efficiently.

He also further expanded his realm and made peace with nearby regions.

Liu Zhao passed away when he was 27; in that year, the population of the Han Empire surpassed 53 million, and people were living in peace and wealth.

He left the Han Empire to a baby emperor of only a few months old, and his beautiful and smart queen Deng Sui.

Consequences of the Emperors' Losing Power

Emperor Liu Zhao defeated his powerful political enemies when he was still a teenager and led his kingdom to reach prosperity, he was exceptional indeed.

However, he was widely criticized for having established precedent that giving eunuch too much political power, though that was the only choice he had in the beginning.

Objectively speaking, eunuchs that he trusted and nominated were loyal and helpful; they made important contributions to Liu Zhao’s defeating the House of Dou and regaining centralized power.

The paper, one of the greatest inventions in the ancient history of China, was bettered by a eunuch named Cai Lun (? — 121) during Liu Zhao’s ruling period.

Bronze Unicorn of the Eastern Han Dynasty — Gansu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Therefore, maybe Liu Zhao’s decision wasn’t quite wrong; things that wronged the dynasty in the following century were more about people. 

But Liu Zhao's reign was indeed a turning point of the Han Dynasty in the history of China; after his departure, till the Han dynasty ended in over a century later, none of the following emperors obtained actual centralized power.

Instead, nearly most of the following emperors of the Han Dynasty after Emperor He of Han had repeated the same fate, which they ascended to the throne at a very young age when the empress dowager and her clan, or eunuch group, were in charge of almost everything.

Some of the emperors tried to fight, while others just lived with the flow, but none of them could achieve big success as Liu Zhao did. 

Since then, the Han Dynasty gradually declined.

Unearthed Glass Bowl of the Han Dynasty — Nanyang Cultural Relic and Archeology Research Institute  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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