Emperor Han Huidi 劉 盈 (210–188 BC)
He is generally remembered as a weak character dominated by his mother, Empress Dowager Lü, personally kind and generous but unable to escape the impact of her viciousness. He tried to protect Ruyi, Prince Yin of Zhao, his younger half-brother, from being murdered by Empress Dowager Lü, but failed. After that he indulged himself in drinking and women and died at a relatively young age.
Empress Dowager Lü installed two of his sons, Liu Gong and Liu Hong (known collectively as Emperors Shao of Han), the sons of the Emperor’s concubine(s) after he died without a designated heir. Emperor Hui’s wife was Empress Zhang Yan, a niece of his by his sister Princess Yuan of Lu; their marriage was the result of insistence by Empress Dowager Lü and was a childless one.
Immediately upon Prince Ying’s ascension to the throne as Emperor Hui, Empress Lü, now empress dowager, became the effective lead figure in his administration. She wanted to carry out a plot of revenge against Consort Qi and her son Ruyi. She first arrested Consort Qi and put her in prison garb (shaved head, confined by stock, and wearing red clothes).
She then summoned Liu Ruyi to the capital—an attempt that was initially resisted by Ruyi’s chief of staff Zhou Chang (周昌), whom she respected because he was one of the officials who insisted on Liu Ying being the rightful heir. Instead of directly moving against Zhou and Liu Ruyi, though, Lü circumvented Zhou by first summoning him to the capital, and then summoning Liu Ruyi.
Emperor Hui tried to save Liu Ruyi’s life. Before Liu Ruyi could get to the capital, Emperor Hui intercepted his young brother at Bashang (霸上, in modern Xi’an) and received Liu Ruyi into his palace, and they dined together and slept together. Empress Dowager Lü wanted to kill Liu Ruyi, but was afraid that any attempt might also harm her own son, and therefore could not carry out her plot for several months.
Empress Dowager Lü got her chance in winter 195 BC. One morning, Emperor Hui was out hunting and wanted to take Liu Ruyi with him. The young prince was then only 12 years old and refused to get up from bed, and Emperor Hui left for the hunt on his own. Empress Dowager Lü heard this and immediately sent an assassin into the emperor’s palace to force poisoned wine down the prince’s throat.
By the time that Emperor Hui returned, his brother was dead. She then had Consort Qi’s eyes gouged out, made her ears deaf, drugged her to make her unable to speak and had her arms and legs cut off. The mutilated woman was thrown to a toilet and fed and kept alive in a pig’s bin and was called the “人彘”, meaning literally the “human swine”. (She would die from the torture.)
When Emperor Hui saw his father’s favorite and the mother of his beloved little brother in such a condition, he cried out loud and became ill for about a year, complaining to his mother that he felt that he could not govern the empire, given that he was the son of someone like her who has done such inhuman deed. From that point on, Emperor Hui indulged himself with wine and women and no longer made key governing decisions, leaving them to his mother.
Emperor Hui, however, continued to try to protect his siblings. In winter of 194 BC, when Liu Fei, Prince of Qi—his older brother—made an official visit to the capital, they both attended a feast put on by Empress Dowager Lü. Emperor Hui, honoring the prince as an older brother, asked him to sit in a seat at the table even more honored than his own. The empress dowager was greatly offended and instructed her servants to pour a cup of poisoned wine for Liu Fei and then toasted him.
As Liu Fei was about to drink the poisoned wine, however, Emperor Hui, realizing what was happening, grabbed the cup as if to drink it himself. Empress Dowager Lü jumped up and slapped at the cup, spilling it. Liu Fei was able to get out of the situation by offering an entire commandery from his principality to Princess Yuan of Lu as her realm. Empress Dowager Lü, who greatly loved her daughter as well, became pleased and let Liu Fei return to his principality.
Emperor Hui died in the autumn of 188 BC of an unspecified illness.
- Records of the Grand Historian, vol. 9.
- Book of Han, vol. 2.
- Zizhi Tongjian, vols. 9, 11, 12.
- Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. pp. 36-37