The best profession in ancient China is without a doubt being an emperor. However, the worst profession is also being the emperor, or to be specific, the last emperor of a dynasty. Although there were lucky last emperors who could preserve their lives following abdication, some rare examples being Emperor Xian of Han (漢獻帝) and Emperor Puyi of Qing (清廢帝). Unfortunate emperors met tragic ends, either being killed by their ministers, like Emperor Yang of Sui (隋煬帝) and Emperor Zhaozong of Tang (唐昭宗), or being murdered by the emperors of the succeeding dynasties, such as Li Yu (李煜) of the Southern Tang dynasty (南唐). Some of these last emperors were cruel and provoked uprisings, while others indulged in pleasure and were captured by enemy states. Some possessed intelligence and courage, but they were born at the wrong time and were controlled by powerful ministers. This topic will explore the ten famous last rulers who had difficulty returning in Chinese history.
Qin Er Shi (秦二世) Hu Hai (胡亥), the second Qin emperor, had a stubborn and wicked nature who only indulged in pleasure without any knowledge of governance and statecraft. He killed important ministers and the royal family members, ultimately losing his power and meeting death at the hands of his most trusted eunuch Zhao Gao (趙高).
Emperor Xian of Han, Liu Xie (劉協), ascended the throne when he was only nine and never held real power. His reign began during the political chaos of the despotic Dong Zhuo (董卓) and continued through the relentless struggles between Li Jue (李傕) and Guo Si (郭汜) that ensued following Dong’s death. Emperor Xian was never more than a puppet. Forced to flee to Luoyang (洛陽), he fell into the hands of Cao Cao (曹操) and became a tool to command the feudal lords. Eventually, he was forced to abdicate to Cao Pi (曹丕) and even had to offer his two daughters to Cao Pi for his pleasure.
Sun Hao (孫皓) was the last emperor of the State of Wu (吳國) during the Three Kingdoms period. The mean and ungrateful Sun indulged in excessive drinking and lust. Having a narrow mind, he frequently executed ministers and his consorts who opposed his whims, leading to widespread resentment and loss of public support. The state of Wu was eventually eradicated by the Jin dynasty (晉朝) and Sun died in exile in a foreign land.
Emperor Yang of Sui, Yang Guang (楊廣), was a typical tyrant. He murdered his own father and elder brother, and committed improprieties with his stepmother. He also engaged in aggressive military campaigns and launched three invasions against the Goguryeo (高句麗), leading to the depletion of the national treasury. Moreover, he was stubborn and disregarded the advice of loyal officials. As a result, he was killed in a mutiny, personally bringing about the downfall of the Sui dynasty.
Emperor Zhaozong of Tang, Li Ye (李曄), was the 20th emperor of the Tang dynasty. Although he possessed intelligence and courage, he was born in an unfortunate era. He employed strategies to eliminate the domineering eunuch Yang Fugong (楊復恭), but failed to address the larger issue of the eunuch domination and was once imprisoned by Liu Jishu (劉季述). He launched a campaign against the regional military governor Li Maozhen (李茂貞), but suffered setbacks and was forced to flee. Eventually, he was killed by Zhu Quanzhong (朱全忠).
Li Yu, the last ruler of the Southern Tang, was a man of many talents and was skilled in various arts, earning him the title of a master poet. However, he neglected internal affairs, became overly superstitious about Buddhism, and indulged excessively in banquets and pleasures while surrounding himself with sycophantic officials. His diplomatic ability was mediocre that he failed to recognise the importance of mutual support. When the Northern Song dynasty (北宋) attacked the Later Shu (後蜀), Li remained indifferent and inactive. As a result, the Southern Tang was conquered by the Northern Song and Li himself became a captive. He was ultimately poisoned by Emperor Taizong of the Northern Song (宋太宗).
Emperor Huizong of Song (宋徽宗) was a renowned artist but also a notorious ruler. He excelled in painting, calligraphy, and the appreciation of antiques. He was also fond of cockfighting, dog racing, and Cuju (蹴鞠, an ancient Chinese ball game), while indulging in a life of excessive drinking and pleasure. Due to his ignorance of state affairs, he relied heavily on treacherous officials and plundered the people’s wealth, leading to the decline of the national strength. Eventually, the Song dynasty was conquered by the Jin dynasty (金朝). Emperor Huizong was captured and later died in exile in a foreign land.
The Yuan dynasty (元代) was already plagued by numerous crises when Emperor Shun (元順帝) acceded the throne. However, he neglected state affairs and indulged in unrestrained pleasure and luxury. The result was rampant corruption among officials and widespread uprisings. The Yuan empire was finally overthrown by Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋). At the age of 51, Emperor Shun died of dysentery in Yingchang (應昌, on present-day southwest of Lake Taal Nor in Heshigten Banner, Inner Mongolia, China).
Emperor Sizong of Ming (明思宗), Zhu Youjian (朱由檢), was stubborn and self-centred. He was prone to suspicion and cruelty that he dismissed and executed numerous ministers who fell out of his favour. At the end of the Chongzhen (崇禎) era, officials even dreaded being promoted to important positions. This eventually led to widespread rebellion and the loss of support to the emperor, resulting in his overthrow by the peasant army led by Li Zicheng (李自成). Emperor Sizong chose to hang himself eventually, sacrificing his life for the nation.
When Aisin-Gioro Puyi (愛新覺羅溥儀) ascended the throne as Emperor Xuantong (宣統) of the Qing dynasty, he was not even three years old. Both the Emperor Guangxu (光緒) and Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) passed away in quick succession on the second day of his entry into the palace. At the time, Sun Yat-sen’s (孫中山) revolutionary movement was surging, shaking the Qing’s rule to the core. In 1912, Empress Dowager Longyu (隆裕太后) issued an imperial decree for Puyi’s abdication, marking the end of the imperial system in China. Even so, Puyi continued to live a carefree life in the Forbidden City. In 1917, Zhang Xun (張勛) led his troops to support Puyi’s restoration. Duan Qirui (段祺瑞) responded swiftly by organising an anti-rebellion military force at the Machang (馬廠) military camp in Tianjin (天津) and taking an oath to suppress Zhang. The restoration lasted for only 12 days. Subsequently, Puyi became a political puppet in the puppet state of Manchukuo (滿洲國), which was a major stain in Chinese history.