Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei

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Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei
Emperor of Northern Wei
Reign465–471 [1]
Predecessor Emperor Wencheng
Successor Emperor Xiaowen
Died476 (aged 2122)
ConsortsEmpress Si
Issue Emperor Xiaowen
Yuan Xi
Yuan Gan
Yuan Yu
Yuan Yong
Yuan Xie
Yuan Xiang
Princess Changshan
Princess Lelang
Princess Pengcheng
Princess Le'an
Princess Gaoping
Full name
Family name: Tuoba (拓拔; tuò bá)
Given name: Hong (弘, hóng)
Posthumous name
Xianwen (獻文, xiàn wén),
literary meaning:
"wise and civil"
Temple name
Xianzu (顯祖, xiǎn zǔ)
Father Emperor Wencheng
MotherEmpress Yuan

Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei ((北)魏獻文帝) (454 – 476), personal name Tuoba Hong, Xianbei name Didouyin (第豆胤), was an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. He was the first emperor in Chinese history who, after retiring at age 17 in favor of his 4-year old son Emperor Xiaowen to become Taishang Huang (retired emperor) in 471, continued to hold on to power until his death in 476—when the official history states vaguely that he may have been killed by his stepmother Empress Dowager Feng.


Family background

Tuoba Hong was born in 454, as Emperor Wencheng's oldest son. His mother was Consort Li, who had previously been captured in war and had become a concubine of Tuoba Ren (拓拔仁) the Prince of Yongchang, a distant relative of Emperor Wencheng, who was executed in 453 after having been accused of crimes. After Tuoba Ren's death, she was seized and taken into the palace, where she became Emperor Wencheng's concubine. In 456, Emperor Wencheng created Tuoba Hong crown prince—and, at the same time, according to Northern Wei customs, ordered Consort Li to commit suicide.


Under Yifu Hun's regency

In 465, Emperor Wencheng died, and the 11-year-old Crown Prince Hong ascended the throne as Emperor Xianwen. Emperor Wencheng's wife Empress Feng was honored as empress dowager, and Emperor Xianwen's deceased mother Consort Li was posthumously honored as Empress Yuan. Power soon fell into the hands of the official Yifu Hun, who assumed dictatorial powers and killed a large number of other officials, including Yang Baoping (楊保平), Jia Airen (賈愛仁) the Duke of Pingyang, and Zhang Tiandu (張天度), Qiumuling Duohou (丘穆陵多侯), Tuoba Yu (拓拔郁) the Duke of Shunyang, and Emperor Wencheng's prime minister Buliugu Li. However, in 466, Empress Dowager Feng staged a coup and had Yifu arrested and executed. She assumed regency herself.

Under Empress Dowager Feng's regency

Empress Dowager Feng engaged Jia Xiu (賈秀), Gao Yun, and Gao Lü (高閭) as her assistants in the regency. Later, she also incorporated her brother Feng Xi (馮熙) into the decision-making circle.

Empress Dowager Feng was soon presented with a major opportunity to expand Northern Wei territory, as also in 466, rival Liu Song had a major dynastic succession struggle after Emperor Qianfei of Liu Song was assassinated in 465. Emperor Qianfei's uncle Emperor Ming of Liu Song was declared emperor in the capital Jiankang, while his brother Liu Zixun the Prince of Jin'an was declared emperor in early 466 in Xunyang (尋陽, in modern Jiujiang, Jiangxi). After Emperor Ming's forces defeated Liu Zixun's and captured and executed Liu Zixun in fall 466, the Liu Song general Xue Andu (薛安都), the governor of Xu Province (徐州, modern northern Jiangsu and northern Anhui), who had initially declared for Liu Zixun, was apprehensive that he would be punished by Emperor Ming, and so decided to surrender to Northern Wei, and soon, he was joined by Bi Zhongjing (畢眾敬) the governor of Yan Province (兗州, modern western Shandong) and Chang Zhenqi (常珍奇) the governor of Ru'nan Commandery (汝南, roughly modern Zhumadian, Henan). Empress Dowager Feng sent the general Yuchi Yuan (尉遲元) to accept the surrenders of these Liu Song generals and to secure the region just north of the Huai River, and Yuchi subsequently defeated two attempts by Emperor Ming to recapture those provinces. She also sent the general Murong Baiyao (慕容白曜) to attack and try to capture Liu Song's Qing (青州, modern central and eastern Shandong) and Ji (冀州, modern northwestern Shandong) Provinces, which were cut off from the rest of Liu Song after Xue's defection, and by 469, both provinces fell into Northern Wei hands, and all of the regions north of the Huai River were by now Northern Wei territory.

In 467, Emperor Xianwen's concubine Consort Li—a daughter of his uncle Li Hui (李惠) and therefore his cousin—bore his oldest child Tuoba Hong (different character than his own), and Empress Dowager Feng personally raised the young prince. She soon terminated her regency and returned imperial powers to Emperor Xianwen, who was 13 years old at this point.

After assuming imperial authority

As emperor, Emperor Xianwen was described as hardworking and appropriate in his awards and punishments—in particular, in promoting honest officials and demoting corrupt ones, and it was said that only starting in his reign were Northern Wei officials praised for being honest. He was also said to be heavily into studies of religions and philosophies, including both Taoism and Buddhism.

In 469, Emperor Xianwen created Tuoba Hong crown prince. As Tuoba Hong's mother Consort Li died the same year and was described in traditional histories to be missed by all in the palace, she was probably forced to commit suicide pursuant to Northern Wei customs.

In 470, resentful that Murong Baiyao had flattered Yifu Hun while Yifu was in power, Emperor Xianwen, in an act that appeared to be uncharacteristic for his reign, falsely accused Murong Baiyao of treason and put him and his son Murong Ruyi (慕容如意) to death.

Also in 470, an event would damage Emperor Xianwen's relationship with his stepmother Empress Dowager Feng. Empress Dowager Feng had taken the official Li Yi (李奕) as her lover. In 470, the official Li Xin (李訢), who was a close friend of Li Yi's brother Li Fu (李敷), was accused of corruption, and Emperor Xianwen became aware of the accusations even though Li Fu tried to suppress the reports. He had known about his stepmother's relationship with Li Yi and, while he had not taken any actions against it at that point, disapproved of it. He sentenced Li Xin to death, but then informed Li Xin that if he could report on crimes that Li Fu and Li Yi had committed, he would be spared. After initial reluctance, Li Xin did so, and another man named Fan Biao (范標) also did so. Emperor Xianwen then executed Li Fu and Li Xin. Empress Dowager Feng became resentful of Emperor Xianwen after that point.

In 471, because of Emperor Xianwen's philosophical interests, he wanted to leave the throne to spend more time on his studies. He wanted to pass his throne to his uncle Tuoba Zitui (拓拔子推) the Prince of Jingzhao, who was highly praised by all officials. He therefore summoned an imperial council to discuss the matter. The officials largely opposed Emperor Xianwen's proposal, and suggested instead that if Emperor Xianwen wanted to leave the throne, he should pass the throne to Crown Prince Hong. He therefore did so, and the four-year-old crown prince took the throne as Emperor Xiaowen. Emperor Xianwen himself took the title of Taishang Huangdi (retired emperor).

As retired emperor

As retired emperor, however, Emperor Xianwen continued to be in control of the Imperial regime, and all important matters were still submitted to him. He spent much time on criminal law matters, and during this time, the criminal cases generally were paid more attention, and while they took longer to process, the results were considered more just.

In 476, legend claims that still resentful of Emperor Xianwen, Empress Dowager Feng killed him. (Most historians, including Sima Guang, believed that she poisoned him, but another version indicated that Empress Dowager Feng readied assassins who, when Emperor Xianwen came to her palace to greet her, seized and smothered him.) However, studies by 周思源 Zhou Siyuan point out that if Feng had killed the monarch, chaos would have ensued, but nothing of the sort happened. Zhou reasons that after a failed attempt to oust Feng, the Emperor committed suicide. After his death and a smooth transition, Empress Dowager Feng assumed regency over Emperor Xiaowen.

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  1. Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp.  64. ISBN   0-8135-1304-9.
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor Wencheng of Northern Wei
Emperor of Northern Wei
Succeeded by
Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei
Emperor of China (Northern)
Preceded by
Emperor Ming of Liu Song
Emperor of China (Northern Jiangsu)
Emperor of China (Shandong)