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Yuan Hong the Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei — A Great King with Outstanding Achievements and Tragic Encounters

Yuan Hong (467 — 499), originally named Tuoba Hong, respected as Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei, was a remarkable monarch who implemented a series of successful reforms that flourished his empire and significantly influenced the history of the North and South Dynasties (420 — 589).

As a monarch of a strong kingdom, however, he suffered a lot of unfortunate encounters.


It turned out that power and success didn't bring him the happiness he had anticipated.

Relief Sculpture of Yuan Hong the Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei Visiting Buddhist Temple (Li Fo Tu)

Relief Sculpture of Yuan Hong the Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei Visiting Buddhist Temple (Li Fo Tu) — Metropolitan Museum of Art

Orphaned at a Young Age: The Story of a Toddler Prince

Northern Wei was a regime that the Xianbei people in northern China founded.


This nomadic minority followed a tradition that his birth mother would be executed when a boy was nominated as the crown prince. 

This was meant to eliminate the possibility of a strong mother and her clan negatively influencing politics.

So, Yuan Hong’s mother was executed after he was nominated as the crown prince when he was only three years old. 

In the following year, Yuan Hong’s father abdicated the throne. 

Afterward, Yuan Hong was raised by Empress Dowager Feng, his nominal grandmother.

When Yuan Hong was 9, his father was imprisoned by Empress Dowager Feng and died suddenly a few months later. 

Most people believed Feng poisoned him to death because his reputation and achievements on the battlefield threatened her, or he had planned to assassinate Feng through a coup.  

Blue Glass Cup of Northern Wei

Blue Glass Cup of Northern Wei — Datong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Support and Suppression by Empress Dowager Feng

Empress Dowager Feng (442 — 490), respected as Empress Wenming, was one of the most influential, accomplished, and strong female politicians in Chinese history. 

Though Feng and Yuan Hong were not biologically related, she raised him since he was a little boy.


Therefore, Empress Dowager Feng loved him and taught him as her heir. 

Feng was strict with Yuan Hong and commanded him to read and learn Confucianism and ancient history. 

Besides, as a Han person, Feng implemented a series of Sinicization reforms while teaching and explaining to Yuan Hong the reasons and means to develop and flourish the empire. 

However, after Yuan Hong had his first boy, he begged Empress Dowager Feng not to execute the boy’s birth mother, but Feng refused. 

Feng insisted on following this Xianbei tradition, killed Yuan Hong’s beloved woman, and started raising this baby boy alone. 

Jade Mythical Animal Bixie of the Northern Wei

Jade Mythical Animal Bixie of the Northern Wei — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Remarkable Reign of Yuan Hong and the Flourishing Empire

Yuan Hong had been an intelligent student and a respectful, loving grandson of Empress Dowager Feng. 

After Feng passed away, Yuan Hong was overcome with grief. He refrained from eating or drinking anything for five entire days and conducted the burial of his beloved grandmother Feng with an emperor's ceremony.

Then he took absolute control over his empire and became a real monarch when he was 23.

He inherited and further developed Feng’s ideology and implemented the famous, successful Reform of Emperor Xiaowen that flourished the kingdom.

Yuan Hong, Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei migrated his capital city southward to Luoyang, where it was more accessible to reign his expanding empire, integrate with the Han people and attack kingdoms in the south.  

The Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was constructed under his command. 

Panoramic of Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang

Panoramic of Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang (Photo by Bencmq)

Then, Emperor Xiaowen regulated his citizens to use Han-style family names, wear Han clothes, and speak the Han language. He also changed his family name from Tuoba to Yuan.

Many Confucian schools were built in his new capital city, and Han classics were taught to more civilians. 

Besides, more civilians were given farmland, taxes were lowered, and officials were well-managed. 

Under Emperor Xiaowen’s reign, the Northern Wei kept expanding and flourishing.


As a powerful king who could have as many women as he wanted, his love life was full of tragedies. 

Eternal Lovestruck to A Beautiful Woman

According to Xianbei tradition, Yuan Hong was forced to kill a beloved woman who gave birth to his first baby boy, who was soon nominated as crown prince.


However, a few years later, his first son betrayed him and staged a rebellion.

Yuan Hong then had to sentence him to death.

Years later, Yuan Hong fell in love with another beautiful woman named Feng Run, but she got sick and was sent back home by Empress Dowager Feng.

After hearing Feng Run was recovered a few years later, Yuan Hong immediately welcomed her back to the palace and gave her an honorable title.


Since then, Yuan Hong gave her most of his love and attention. 

Yuan Hong abolished his first queen three years later and respected Feng Run as his second queen. 

Besides, Feng Run started raising his second son, later nominated as the crown prince by Yuan Hong, after killing the boy’s birth mother. 

Blue Glass Earrings of Northern Wei

Blue Glass Earrings of Northern Wei — Datong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Betrayal, Heartbreak, and the Tragic End of the Emperor's Love

Feng Run (469 — 499), revered as Empress You, nevertheless, betrayed Emperor Yuan Hong on several occasions.

She engaged in romantic relationships with other men while she was ill and residing outside the royal palace.

When Emperor Yuan Hong was on the battlefields, she summoned her lovers to the royal palace and spent happy times with them.


Later, she forced Princess Pengcheng to marry her brother, but the princess didn't want to. 

Princess Pengcheng, Emperor Yuan Hong's younger sister, fled from the capital city, traveled a considerable distance to meet Yuan Hong, and revealed to him the queen's affair.

Painted Dancing Pottery Figurine of Northern Wei

Painted Dancing Pottery Figurine of Northern Wei — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Yuan Hong was deeply upset and heartbroken. He soon fell ill and subsequently ordered the execution of Feng Run's lovers.

But he didn’t do anything to his beloved Queen Feng Run since he never stopped loving her. 

A few months later, Emperor Yuan Hong died because of sickness when he was only 32 years old. 

After he departed, Feng Run was executed and buried using a queen’s ceremony.


Some people documented that Emperor Yuan Hong commanded to kill Feng Run before he departed because he worried that Feng Run would manipulate and endanger politics.  

Others believed that it was the idea of Yuan Hong’s other brothers, who didn’t want Feng Run to be respected as empress dowager and gain more power.

Green Glass Bowl of the Northern Wei

Green Glass Bowl of the Northern Wei — Datong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Legacy of Yuan Hong the Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei

Yuan Hong experienced a series of sorrowful encounters during his life: he lost his parents at a young age, faced punishment numerous times from his powerful grandmother, was compelled to execute his beloved woman and first son, was betrayed and deeply wounded by the love of his life, and ultimately succumbed to heartbreak in his thirties.

As a monarch, however, he was remarkably extraordinary.


He implemented significant reforms that bolstered his kingdom, improved the lives of his people, and fostered the integration of Han and Xianbei cultures.

His son inherited his policy and kept expanding the empire, and the Northern Wei peaked during their reign.

Eaves Tile of Northern Wei, Carved with "Fu Gui Wan Sui" (Wealth and Longevity)

Eaves Tile of Northern Wei, Carved with "Fu Gui Wan Sui" (Wealth and Longevity) — Northern Dynasties Museum of Datong (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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