Yuan Hong — A Great King with Outstanding Achievements and Tragic Encounters

Yuan Hong (467 — 499), original name Tuoba Hong, respected as Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei, was a remarkable monarch that implemented a series of successful reforms, which 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 heartbreaking encounters. It turned out that power and success didn't bring him any happiness that he had expected.

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

Lost Parents as A Toddler Prince

Northern Wei was a regime that was founded by the Xianbei people in northern China, a nomadic minority that followed a tradition that if a boy was nominated as the crown prince, his birth mother would be executed. 

This was meant to eliminate the possibility of a strong mother and her clan having a negative influence on politics.

So, Yuan Hong’s mother was executed after he was nominated as the crown prince when he was only 3 years old. 

In the next 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 passed away out of a sudden a few months later. 

Most people believed that Feng poisoned him to death, because she was threatened by his reputation and achievements on battlefields, 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 Suppress of Empress Dowager Feng

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

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

Besides, Feng, as a Han person, 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 to follow this Xianbei Tradition and killed Yuan Hong’s beloved woman and started to raise this baby boy on her own. 

Jade Mythical Animal Bixie of the Northern Wei

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

Great Reign of Yuan Hong and His Flourishing Empire

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

After Feng passed away, he was extremely sad and didn’t eat or drink anything for 5 entire days, and buried his beloved grandmother Feng using 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 easier 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 Confucianism 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 that was allowed to have as many women as he wanted, however, 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 that gave birth to his first baby boy that was nominated as crown prince soon. However, a few years later, his first son betrayed him and rebelled.

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 then 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 had given her most of his love and attention. 

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

Besides, Feng Run started to raise his second son, later nominated as the crown prince by Yuan Hong, after having killed 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 Tragic Ending of Emperor's Love

Feng Run (469 — 499), respected as Empress You, however, cheated on Emperor Yuan Hong several times. 

She had some romantic relationships when she was sick and lived outside of the royal palace. 

When Emperor Yuan Hong was on the battlefields, she summoned her lovers to the royal palace and spent lots of happy times with them. Later, she forced Princess Pengcheng to marry her brother, but the princess didn’t want to. 

Princess Pengcheng, the younger sister of Emperor Yuan Hong, then escaped out of the capital city, ran a long way to meet Yuan Hong, and informed him about 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 very upset and heartbroken. He got sick soon and executed 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 passed away 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 obtain 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 had experienced a series of sorrowful encounters during his life: lost his parents when he was little, had been punished several times by his powerful grandmother, was forced to kill his beloved woman and first son, betrayed and deeply hurt by the love of his life, and passed away because of heartbroken in his 30’s.

As a monarch, however, he was quite extraordinary. He implemented a series of influential reforms that strengthened his kingdom, brought his people better lives, and promoted the integration of Han and Xianbei cultures.

His son inherited his policy and kept expanding the empire, and the Northern Wei reached its peak during their reigning period.

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)