History Lessons

Emperor Huan of Han

Be careful of those eunuchs

Emperor Huan of Han

Chronic misgovernment in the latter period of the Han Dynasty saw the country edge towards civil war – known to history as the Three Kingdoms era (beginning in 221 AD).

Emperor Huan of Han (the fourth emperor in the Han Dynasty, 132-168 AD) was instrumental in this process. He ascended to the throne when he was 14. As he was too young to rule, the queen mother, Empress Dowager Liang, exercised power as regent. Imperial power was distributed amongst her relatives.

As the emperor became older, he sought more authority for himself.

To do so, he relied on the court eunuchs to spy on his mother and his maternal relatives.

As a result, the eunuchs began to enjoy enormous power. Knowing they had the emperor’s ear, many abused their power and spread false rumours to eliminate their enemies.

Lao Xiu was one such offender. To avenge those who had wronged or opposed him, he fabricated a story claiming his enemies were conspiring to overthrow the emperor. Among them were Li Ying and Du Mi, two honest officials known for their righteousness.

In the purge that followed many were executed (including Li and Du).

Those who survived were forbidden to stay in the capital and were prevented from seeking further public office. This came to be known as the Dang Gu Incident in Chinese history (‘the Disaster of Partisan Prohibition’).

Some years were to follow before the empire fragmented; but Huan’s empowering of the eunuch faction sowed the seeds of dissension.

The lesson: the creation of cliques often leads to the break up of organisations. Only a weak leader will allow them to develop.

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