Gao Zhao

Last updated

Gao Zhao (高肇) (died 515), courtesy name Shouwen (首文), was a high-level official of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. He was a maternal uncle of Emperor Xuanwu, and he became increasingly powerful during Emperor Xuanwu's reign, drawing anger from other high-level officials not only for his powerplay (including involvement in the death of the highly regarded imperial prince Yuan Xie) and corruption, but also because he was a mere commoner before Emperor Xuanwu's reign and not from the aristocracy and might have been Korean in origin. After Emperor Xuanwu died in 515, the other officials set a trap for Gao Zhao and had him killed.

Courtesy name name bestowed in adulthood in East Asian cultures

A courtesy name, also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name. This practice is a tradition in the Sinosphere, including Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

History of China account of past events in the Chinese civilisation

The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty, during the king Wu Ding's reign, who was recorded as the twenty-first Shang king by the written records of Shang dynasty unearthed. Ancient historical texts such as the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals describe a Xia dynasty before the Shang, but no writing is known from the period, and Shang writings do not indicate the existence of the Xia. The Shang ruled in the Yellow River valley, which is commonly held to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. However, Neolithic civilizations originated at various cultural centers along both the Yellow River and Yangtze River. These Yellow River and Yangtze civilizations arose millennia before the Shang. With thousands of years of continuous history, China is one of the world's oldest civilizations, and is regarded as one of the cradles of civilization.

Xianbei ancient people in Manchuria and Mongolia

The Xianbei were an originally nomadic tribal confederation residing in what is today's eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeast China. Along with the Xiongnu, they were one of the major nomadic groups in northern China from the Han Dynasty to the Northern and Southern dynasties. They eventually established their own northern dynasties such as the Northern Wei founded in the 4th century AD by the Tuoba clan. During the Uprising of the Five Barbarians they became categorized as one of the Five Barbarians by the Han Chinese.



Gao Zhao claimed that his ancestors were from Bohai Commandery (勃海, roughly Cangzhou, Hebei), and that his fifth generation ancestor Gao Gu (高顧), in order to flee the wars during the times of Emperor Huai of Jin, fled to the Korean Peninsula. Gao Zhao's father Gao Yang (高颺) defected to Northern Wei during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen and was given a minor general title and created the Viscount of Hejian. Emperor Xiaowen also took Gao Yang's daughter as an imperial consort, and she gave birth to his second son, Yuan Ke in 483. Yuan Ke was initially not crown prince, but became crown prince in 497 after his only older brother Yuan Xun was deposed from that position in 496, and his mother Consort Gao, whom Emperor Xiaowen initially left in the old capital Pingcheng (平城, in modern Datong, Shanxi) and did not bring to the new capital Luoyang when he moved the capital in 494, was welcomed to the new capital, but on the way, she died suddenly. (Historians largely believe that Emperor Xiaowen's wife Empress Feng Run, who wanted to raise Yuan Ke on her own, murdered Consort Gao.) Gao Zhao and his brothers never had any actual contact with Yuan Ke during his youth. Despite the fact that Gao Yang did have a minor noble title, it appeared that his family was essentially treated as commoners and regarded as uncultured.

Cangzhou Prefecture-level city in Hebei, Peoples Republic of China

Cangzhou is a prefecture-level city in eastern Hebei province, People's Republic of China. At the 2010 census, Cangzhou's built-up area made of Yunhe, Xinhua districts and Cang County largely being conurbated had a population of 1,205,814 inhabitants, while the prefecture-level administrative unit in total has a population of 7,134,062. It lies approximately 90 kilometres (56 mi) from the major port city of Tianjin, and 180 km (110 mi) from Beijing.

Hebei Province

Hebei is a province of China in the North China region. The modern province was established in 1911 as Zhili Province or Chihli Province. Its one-character abbreviation is "冀" (Jì), named after Ji Province, a Han dynasty province (zhou) that included what is now southern Hebei. The name Hebei literally means "north of the river", referring to its location entirely to the north of the Yellow River.

Emperor Huai of Jin, personal name Sima Chi (司馬熾), courtesy name Fengdu (豐度), was an emperor of the Jin Dynasty (265-420).

Rise to power

In 499, Emperor Xiaowen died, and Yuan Ke succeeded him (as Emperor Xuanwu). Emperor Xuanwu posthumously honored his mother Consort Kao as Empress Wenzhao and his grandfather Gao Yang as Duke of Bohai. He summoned Gao Yang's oldest grandson Gao Meng (高猛) and his uncles Gao Zhao and Gao Xian (高顯) and, at their first meeting, immediately created them dukes—in Gao Zhao's case, the Duke of Pingyuan. Emperor Xuanwu awarded the three of them large amounts of property.

Gao Zhao was not only given a noble title, but starting from 499 he became increasingly important on the political scene as well. He was initially looked down upon by the nobility because he came from the Korean Peninsula, and, despite his claims of Han ancestry, was considered to be a dishonorable barbarian, but as his power grew, he was praised for his diligence in handling the matters he was in charge of. His power began to grow greatly in 501, when Emperor Xuanwu, aged 15, relieved his princely uncles Yuan Xi (元禧) the Prince of Xianyang and Yuan Xie the Prince of Pengcheng of their high level posts, and ostensibly took over power himself—but being unable to actually handle all important matters of state due to his age, and thus entrusting much of those affairs to Gao and other close associates. Later that year, Yuan Xi was forced to commit suicide when his plot to secede with the southern half of the empire was discovered, and his property was seized and awarded to Gao and the trusted associate Zhao Xiu (趙修), and from this point on Emperor Xuanwu became increasingly suspicious of members of the imperial clan, making his reliance on Gao even greater.

Yuan Xie (元勰), né Tuoba Xie, courtesy name Yanhe (彥和), formally Prince Wuxuan of Pengcheng (彭城武宣王), later posthumously honored as Emperor Wenmu (文穆皇帝) with the temple name of Suzu (肅祖), was an imperial prince of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. He was a son of Emperor Xianwen, and he often assisted his brother Emperor Xiaowen both in military and governmental matters. After Emperor Xiaowen's death, he briefly served as regent for Emperor Xiaowen's son Emperor Xuanwu. Eventually, due to suspicions and jealousy of Emperor Xuanwu's uncle Gao Zhao, Emperor Xuanwu believed false reports that Yuan Xie was going to rebel, and forced him to commit suicide. He was later posthumously honored as an emperor by his son Emperor Xiaozhuang, although subsequently Emperor Jiemin retracted the honors.

In 502, both Gao and the official Zhang Yi (張彝) wanted to marry Emperor Xuanwu's aunt, the Princess Chenliu. The princess decided to marry Zhang and not Gao, and this caused Gao to be angry. He falsely accused Zhang of crimes, and Zhang was relieved from his post.

in 503, Emperor Xuanwu took the daughter of Gao Zhao's brother Gao Yan (高偃) as a concubine and favored her greatly, further cementing Gao Zhao's power. By that point, Gao was in a power struggle with Zhao, who was believed to be corrupt and extravagant in his living. He induced Zhao's associates Zhen Chen (甄琛), Li Ping (李憑), and Wang Xian (王顯) to accuse Zhao of crimes and torture him, and Zhao died shortly thereafter. From this point on, Gao's hold on the emperor was unchallenged.

Empress Gao Ying was an empress of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. She was the second empress of Emperor Xuanwu.

Increasing power

In 504, Emperor Xuanwu's uncle Yuan Xiang (元詳) the Prince of Beihai, who was then prime minister, grew increasingly arrogant and corrupt. Yuan Xiang had an affair with a cousin of Gao Zhao, who was the wife of Yuan Xie (元燮, not the same person as the Prince of Pengcheng) the Prince of Anding, and through her Gao apparently became aware of Yuan Xiang's crimes, and so he used the evidence of those crimes to further accuse Yuan Xiang of plotting treason. Emperor Xuanwu stripped Yuan Xiang of his title and posts, and Yuan Xiang soon thereafter died, and his associates were executed. Gao further suggested Emperor Xuanwu to put the imperial princes under heavy guard, and, despite opposition from Yuan Xie the Prince of Pengcheng, Emperor Xuanwu agreed, effectively putting those princes under house arrest.

In 507, Gao's power was so well known that after the famed music director Gongsun Chong (公孫崇) spent three years trying to get his revisions to imperial musical numbers adopted officially but was unable to, he had a solution—asking Gao to be in charge of the project, despite Gao's lack of musical knowledge. Emperor Xuanwu approved of the appointment, allowing Gongsun's project to proceed.

Later that year, Emperor Xuanwu's wife Empress Yu died, and in early 508 her son (and Emperor Xuanwu's only son by that point) Yuan Chang (元昌) died as well. It was believed, although unproven, that both Empress Yu and Yuan Chang were murdered by Gao Zhao and Consort Gao.

Empress Yu (488?–507) was an empress of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. She was Emperor Xuanwu's first empress.

In 508, Emperor Xuanwu created Consort Gao empress, despite opposition by Yuan Xie the Prince of Pengcheng. Gao Zhao thereafter became resentful of Yuan Xie. When Emperor Xuanwu's brother Yuan Yu (元愉) the Prince of Jingzhao rebelled that year after believing that Gao was falsely accusing him, Gao in turn falsely accused Yuan Xie of working both in concert with Yuan Yu and rival Liang Dynasty. Emperor Xuanwu believed this, and secretly forced Yuan Xie to commit suicide during an imperial gathering. The populace quickly came to believe that Gao was involved in the death of the highly popular Yuan Xie, and from that point on Gao became even more despised by the people and nobles alike. Apparently apprehensive about this resentment, when Gao Zhao's son Gao Zhi (高植) made contributions in subsequently defeating Yuan Yu, Gao Zhi declined all awards offered him.

In 512, Gao Zhao was made prime minister, but was displeased because at the same time he was relieved of a lower post that allowed him to meet with the emperor daily. This display of displeasure became the topic of ridicule among officials. That year, because of a drought, Gao advocated the review of all criminal cases to see if unfair treatment had displeased the gods, and Emperor Xuanwu's brother Yuan Yi (元懌) the Prince of Qinghe accused Gao of overstepping his authorities. Emperor Xuanwu, while not punishing Yuan Yi for the accusation, also took no actions against Gao.


In the winter of 515, Emperor Xuanwu wanted to try to capture rival Liang's Yi Province (modern Sichuan and Chongqing), and he commissioned Gao Zhao as the commander of the expedition force. Soon after Gao Zhao left the capital Luoyang, however, Emperor Xuanwu died of a sudden illness in spring 515. Emperor Xuanwu's crown prince Yuan Xu (元詡), then age five, succeeded him (as Emperor Xiaoming). In the confusion of the events, Empress Gao tried to have Emperor Xiaoming's mother Consort Hu killed, but could not. Meanwhile, the official Yu Zhong and the imperial princes (Emperor Xuanwu's uncles) Yuan Cheng (元澄) the Prince of Rencheng and Yuan Yong the Prince of Gaoyang seized power, forcing Empress Gao, who was honored as empress dowager, to appoint Yuan Cheng and Yuan Yong as regents.

The princely regents then wrote Gao Zhao a humble letter, in Emperor Xiaoming's name, summoning Gao back to the capital. When Gao heard of Emperor Xuanwu's death and realized that the princes were in power, he became fearful and mournful, and his body became weak. When he arrived in Luoyang's vicinity, his family members arrived to greet him, but he refused to see them. When he then entered the palace to mourn Emperor Xuanwu, the princes and Yu seized him and had him strangled. Emperor Xiaoming then issued an edict in which it was claimed that Gao had committed suicide, and the edict stripped him of his posts and title, but was buried with honors due a scholar. Subsequently, Empress Dowager Gao was deposed and replaced with Consort Hu, and the Gao clan lost its power.

Related Research Articles

Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei Northern Wei emperor

Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei ( 魏孝文帝), personal name né Tuoba Hong (拓拔宏), later Yuan Hong (元宏), or Toba Hung II, was an emperor of the Northern Wei from September 20, 471 to April 26, 499.

Xuanwu was an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty of Northern Wei (499-515). He is known within China as Beiwei Xuanwudi (北魏宣武帝). He was born Tuoba Ke, but later changed his surname so that he became Yuan Ke. During Xuanwu's reign, Northern Wei appeared, outwardly, to be at its prime, but there was much political infighting and corruption, particularly by Xuanwu's uncle Gao Zhao.

Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei ( 魏獻文帝) (454–476), personal name Tuoba Hong, was an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. He was the first emperor in Chinese history who, after retiring in favor of his son Emperor Xiaowen to become Taishang Huang 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.

Empress Feng Run (馮潤), formally Empress You was an empress of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. She was the second empress of Emperor Xiaowen.

Empress Dowager Hu, formally Empress Ling (靈皇后,), was an empress dowager of the nomadic dynasty Northern Wei (515-528). She was a concubine of Emperor Xuanwu, and she became regent and empress dowager after her son Emperor Xiaoming became emperor after Emperor Xuanwu's death in 515. She was considered to be intelligent but overly lenient, and during her regency, many agrarian rebellions occurred while corruption raged among imperial officials. In 528, she was believed to have poisoned her son Emperor Xiaoming after he tried to have her lover Zheng Yan (鄭儼) executed. This caused the general Erzhu Rong to attack and capture the capital Luoyang. Erzhu threw her into the Yellow River to drown.

Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei ( 魏孝明帝), personal name Yuan Xu (元詡), was an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei (386–535). He ascended the throne in the age of five (515), so governmental matters were dominated by his mother Empress Dowager Hu. In 528, Emperor Xiaoming tried to curb his mother's powers and kill her lover Zheng Yan (鄭儼) by conspiring with the general Erzhu Rong. As a result, 18-year-old emperor was poisoned by his mother, who was soon overthrown by Erzhu. From that point on, Northern Wei royal lineage had no actual power. The next ruler, Emperor Xiaozhuang (507–531) was established by Erzhu. Since Erzhu's rival, general Gao Huan, enthroned another royal offspring, the country was soon split in two rival polities, Eastern and Western Wei, both of which did not hold long on the political map of the Southern and Northern Dynasties.

Yuan Zhao (元釗), also known in history as Youzhu, was briefly an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei.

Yu Zhong (于忠) (452–518), né Wuniuyu Qiannian (勿忸于千年), courtesy name Sixian (思賢), formally Duke Wujing of Lingshou (靈壽武敬公), was an official of the Northern Wei dynasty. He briefly served as a regent during the reign of Emperor Xiaoming.

Yuan Yong (元雍), né Tuoba Yong (拓拔雍), courtesy name Simu (思穆), formally Prince Wenmu of Gaoyang (高陽文穆王), was an imperial prince of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. He was very powerful during the reign of his grandnephew Emperor Xiaoming, and by corrupt means grew very rich. This, however, drew resentment from the populace, and after Emperor Xiaoming's death in 528 and the subsequent overthrowing of Emperor Xiaoming's mother Empress Dowager Hu by the general Erzhu Rong, Erzhu had him and over 2,000 other officials slaughtered at Heyin.

Emperor Xiaozhuang of Northern Wei, personal name Yuan Ziyou, was an emperor of China of the Northern Wei, a Xianbei dynasty. He was placed on the throne by General Erzhu Rong, who refused to recognize the young emperor, Yuan Zhao, who Empress Dowager Hu had placed on the throne after she poisoned her son Emperor Xiaoming.

Empress Erzhu Ying'e (爾朱英娥) was an empress of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. She was the wife of Emperor Xiaozhuang and a daughter of the paramount general Erzhu Rong. She later became a concubine of Northern Wei and Eastern Wei's paramount general Gao Huan.

Yuan Hao (元顥), courtesy name Ziming (子明) was an imperial prince and pretender to the throne of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei, who briefly received allegiance from most of the provinces south of the Yellow River after he captured the capital Luoyang with support of neighboring Liang Dynasty. He became complacent after capturing Luoyang, however, and when the general Erzhu Rong, who supported Emperor Xiaozhuang, counterattacked later that year, Yuan Hao fled Luoyang and was killed in flight.

Emperor Jiemin of Northern Wei ( 魏節閔帝), also known as Emperor Qianfei (前廢帝), at times referred to by pre-ascension title Prince of Guangling (廣陵王), personal name Yuan Gong (元恭), courtesy name Xiuye (脩業), was an emperor of Northern Wei. He became emperor after the clan members of the paramount general Erzhu Rong, after Erzhu Rong was killed by Emperor Xiaozhuang, overthrew Emperor Xiaozhuang. Emperor Jiemin tried to revive the Northern Wei state, but with his power curbed by the Erzhus, was not able to accomplish much. After the general Gao Huan defeated the Erzhus in 532, Emperor Jiemin was imprisoned by Gao and subsequently poisoned to death by Emperor Xiaowu, whom Gao made emperor.

Emperor Xiaowu of Northern Wei ( 魏孝武帝), personal name Yuan Xiu, courtesy name Xiaoze (孝則), at times known as Emperor Chu, was an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. After the general Gao Huan rebelled against and defeated the clan of the deceased paramount general Erzhu Rong in 532, he made Emperor Xiaowu emperor. Despite Gao's making him emperor, however, Emperor Xiaowu tried strenuously to free himself from Gao's control, and in 534, he, aligning with the general Yuwen Tai, formally broke with Gao. When Gao advanced south to try to again take control of the imperial government, Emperor Xiaowu fled to Yuwen's territory, leading to Northern Wei's division into two. Emperor Xiaowu's relationship with Yuwen, however, soon deteriorated over Yuwen's refusal to condone his incestuous relationships with his cousins, and around the new year 535, Yuwen poisoned him to death. Emperor Xiaowu's successor Emperor Wen of Western Wei is typically regarded, then, as the first emperor of Western Wei, formalizing the division of the empire.

Emperor Xiaojing of Eastern Wei ( 魏孝靜帝) (524–552), personal name Yuan Shanjian (元善見), was the only emperor of the Eastern Wei – a branch successor state to Northern Wei. In 524, Northern Wei's paramount general Gao Huan, after Emperor Xiaowu had fled the capital Luoyang to reestablish the imperial government at Chang'an, made Emperor Xiaojing emperor as Emperor Xiaowu's replacement, and moved the capital from Luoyang to Yecheng, thus dividing Northern Wei into two, and Emperor Xiaojing's state became known as Eastern Wei. Although Gao Huan treated him with respect, real power was in the hands of Gao Huan, and then Gao Huan's sons Gao Cheng and Gao Yang. In 550, Gao Yang forced Emperor Xiaojing to yield the throne to him, ending Eastern Wei and establishing Northern Qi. Around the new year 552, the former Emperor Xiaojing was poisoned to death on the orders of the new emperor.

Emperor Wen of Western Wei ( 魏文帝) (507–551), personal name Yuan Baoju (元寶炬), was an emperor of Western Wei—a branch successor state to Northern Wei. In 534, Yuan Baoju, then the Prince of Nanyang, followed his cousin Emperor Xiaowu in fleeing from the capital Luoyang to Chang'an, after a fallout between Emperor Xiaowu and the paramount general Gao Huan. However, Emperor Xiaowu's relationship to the general that he then depended on, Yuwen Tai, soon deteriorated as well, and around the new year 535, Yuwen Tai poisoned Emperor Xiaowu to death, making Yuan Baoju emperor. As Gao Huan had, late in 534, made Yuan Shanjian the son of Emperor Wen's cousin Yuan Dan (元亶) the Prince of Qinghe emperor, thus establishing Eastern Wei, Emperor Wen was known as Western Wei's first emperor, formalizing the division. Emperor Wen's relationship with Yuwen appeared cordial, but he was unable to exercise much real power.

The unnamed daughter of Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei was briefly the emperor of Northern Wei (386–534), a Xianbei dynasty that ruled Northern China from the late fourth to the early sixth century AD. She bore the surname Yuan, originally Tuoba. Yuan was the only child of Emperor Xiaoming, born to his concubine Consort Pan. Soon after her birth, her grandmother the Empress Dowager Hu, who was also Xiaoming's regent, falsely declared that she was a boy and ordered a general pardon. Emperor Xiaoming died soon afterwards. On 1 April 528, Empress Dowager Hu installed the infant on the throne for a matter of hours before replacing her with Yuan Zhao the next day. Xiaoming's daughter was not recognised as an emperor (huangdi) by later generations. No further information about her is available.