Episode 31 Companion: Yuan, Cheng, Ai, and the love that dare not speak its name



Emperor Yuan of Han (漢元帝, Han Yuandi)

Née: Liu Shi (劉奭)
Claim to the Throne: Emperor Xuan’s eldest son

Born: 75 BCE

Beginning of Reign: 48 BCE (Age: 27)

Death: 33 BCE (Age: 42)

Reign: 15 years

Yuan was remembered for the promotion of Confucianism as the official creed of Chinese government. He appointed Confucian adherents to important government posts.

However, under him the Han Empire slowly deteriorated due to his indecisiveness and inability to stop factional infighting in his court.



Emperor Cheng of Han (漢成帝, Han Chengdi)

Née: Liu Ao (劉驁)

Claim to the Throne: Emperor Yuan’s eldest son

Born: 51 BCE

Beginning of Reign: 33 BCE (Age: 18)

Death: 7 BCE (Age: 44)

Reign: 26 years

Under Emperor Cheng, the Han dynasty continued its slide into disintegration while the Wang clan continued its slow grip on power and on governmental affairs as promoted by the previous emperor.

Corruption and greed continued to plague the government, and as a result rebellions broke out throughout the country. 

Cheng of Han


Emperor Cheng (top left, seated) hears his citizen’s pleaCheng in court





Emperor Ai of Han (漢哀帝, Han Aidi)


Née: Liu Xin (劉欣)


Claim to the Throne: Emperor Cheng’s fraternal nephew (through Prince Liu Kang of Dingtao)


Born: 27 BCE


Beginning of Reign: 7 BCE (Age: 20)


Death: 1 BCE (Age: 26)


Reign: 6 years

The people of Han and the Imperial Court officials were initially excited about Ai’s accession, as he was viewed as intelligent, articulate, and capable.

However, under Emperor Ai, corruption became even more prevalent and heavy taxes were levied on the people.  Furthermore, Emperor Ai was highly controlled by his grandmother Consort Fu.     

Ai of Han


A young Wang Mang, member of the prestigious Wang Clan and Commander of the Armed Forces for Han from 8-7 BCE before being forced out of office by Consort/Empress Dowager Fu.  Wang Mang plays a tertiary role in this week’s episode… but write him down, he’ll be back in a big way next time.

Wang Mang young

Dong Xian



In 4 BCE, at age 19 Dong began an extremely close – and likely homosexual- relationship with Emperor Ai.  He began his career as a minor imperial secretary, then an attendant, and then the Director of Imperial Equine Operations.  But with Ai’s affections, he was rapidly promoted to Marquis in 3 BCE, and finally to Commander of the Armed Forces, Prime Examiner, and the Security Chief to the Capital in 2 BCE.


The pair are famous for the supposed “Passion of the Cut Sleeve,” in which one afternoon, after Emperor Ai woke up from a nap, Dong was still sleeping, and Emperor Ai’s sleeve was stuck under Dong’s head. Rather than waking Dong up, Emperor Ai cut off his sleeve to allow Dong to continue to sleep without disturbance.


But with Emperor Ai’s sudden death in Spring of 1 BCE,  Dong was stripped of power in the aftermath (in spite of Ai’s deathbed order that he should inherit the throne), and relieved of his post.  He and his wife would commit suicide, but Wang Mang (who had returned to the capital to retake command of the armed forces by the request of his cousin, the Empress Dowager) unburied his – to ensure that he was in fact dead – and then had him re-interred within a prison.


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