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Emperor Guangwen of Han
Emperor of Han-Zhao
Reign304 – 19 August 310
SuccessorLiu He
Yongguang Mausoleum (永光陵)
Issuesee #Personal information
Family name: Liu (劉)
Given name: Yuan (淵)
Courtesy name: Yuanhai (元海)
Era dates
  • Yuánxī (元熙): 304–308
  • Yǒngfèng (永鳳): 308–309
  • Héruì (河瑞): 309–310
Regnal name
Grand Chanyu (大單于, 304)
King of Han (漢王, 304–308)
Emperor (since 308)
Posthumous name
Emperor Guangwen (光文皇帝)
Temple name
Gaozu (高祖)
FatherLiu Bao
MotherLady Huyan

Liu Yuan (劉淵) (died 19 August 310), courtesy name Yuanhai (元海), also known by his posthumous name as the Emperor Guangwen of Han (Zhao) (漢(趙)光文帝) was the founding emperor of the Xiongnu-led Han-Zhao dynasty of China during the Sixteen Kingdoms period.[1] Due to Tang dynasty naming taboo, he is referred to by his courtesy name as Liu Yuanhai (劉元海) in the Book of Jin.[2]

Liu Yuan was a direct descendant of the Southern Xiongnu chanyus, whose power was abolished near the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. Growing up in the Chinese capital of Luoyang, he was highly sinicized and held several offices overseeing the Xiongnu tribes in Bingzhou under the Western Jin dynasty. With the War of the Eight Princes weakening Jin authority in northern China, the Xiongnu of Bingzhou rebelled and acclaimed Liu Yuan as their leader in 304. Liu Yuan established his state on the basis of restoring the Han dynasty, which he claimed descent through his ancestors who married Han princesses by heqin.

The formation of Han-Zhao, along with Cheng-Han in southwestern China, is often seen as the start of the Sixteen Kingdoms period, ending China's brief period of unification since the end of the Three Kingdoms period in 280. As anti-Jin sentiment continued to grow in northern China, Liu Yuan soon found himself leading a coalition of Han Chinese and tribal rebels. Though he would not live long to see it, his family and generals would eventually drive the Jin dynasty out of the north.

Family background

Liu Yuan was a member of Xiongnu nobility, as a descendant of the first great chanyu in Xiongnu history, Modu Chanyu, who, along with their people, had long been loyal vassals to the Han dynasty and to its successor states Cao Wei and Jin. In late Wei or early Jin times, the Xiongnu nobles claimed that they descended from the Han dynasty's ruling Liu clan also — through a princess who had married Modu Chanyu – and therefore changed their family name to Liu. Liu Yuan's father, Liu Bao, was a son of one of the last Southern Xiongnu chanyus, Yufuluo, and the nephew of the very last Southern Xiongnu chanyu Huchuquan (before Cao Cao abolished the office in 216 and divided the Xiongnu into five tribes (bu, 部)); Liu Bao had the command of the Left Tribe (左部). Liu Yuan's mother Lady Huyan (呼延) appeared to be from a noble family, and was in probability Liu Bao's wife, not concubine. As all five tribes settled down in Bingzhou (modern southern Shanxi), that was likely where Liu Yuan was born and raised.

As Jin subject

As powerful Xiongnu nobles were usually encouraged or pressured by Cao Wei and Jin authorities to send their sons to the capital Luoyang (both to encourage them to further sinicization and as collateral for their loyalty), Liu Yuan was sent to Luoyang to reside and to study traditional Chinese literature. He became well known for his studies, particularly of the Zou version of Confucius' Spring and Autumn Annals and of the military strategies of Sun Tzu and Wu Qi. The key Jin official Wang Hun (one of the lead generals who later participated in conquering Eastern Wu) became impressed with him, and Wang Hun's son Wang Ji (王濟) became a close friend of Liu Yuan's. Wang Hun believed Liu to be general material and repeatedly recommended Liu Yuan to Emperor Wu, but Kong Xun (孔恂) and Empress Yang Zhi's uncle Yang Ji (楊濟) suspected Liu for his Xiongnu ancestry and persuaded Emperor Wu against giving Liu military commands during campaigns against Eastern Wu and the Xianbei rebel Tufa Shujineng. Eventually, even Emperor Wu's brother Sima You the Prince of Qi, impressed and fearful of Liu's abilities, encouraged Emperor Wu to have Liu executed, but Wang Hun persuaded Emperor Wu that it would be wrong. When Liu Bao died in 279, Emperor Wu permitted Liu Yuan to take over command of the Left Tribe. In 289, he was transferred to Commander of the North Tribe.

As the commander of the tribes, Liu became known for his fair administration of laws and willingness to listen to ideas, and also for his willingness to spread his wealth. Therefore, the ambitious people in his region, not only of the five Xiongnu tribes but of many Han clans, flocked to him. After Emperor Wu's death and succession by Emperor Hui, the regent Yang Jun made Liu the commander of all five tribes, but toward the end of the subsequent regency of Emperor Hui's wife Empress Jia Nanfeng, Liu was removed from that position due to his inability to stop one of his countrymen's rebellions. Later, when Sima Ying the Prince of Chengdu became the military commander at Yecheng, he invited Liu to be one of his subordinate military commanders, and Liu accepted the invitation.

Independence from Jin

In the midst of the War of the Eight Princes, in 304, Xiongnu nobles, led by the commander of the North Tribe, Liu Xuan, tired of the Jin misrule and secretly plotted reindependence from Jin. They sent a messenger to secretly offer Liu Yuan the title of Grand Chanyu. Liu Yuan then told Sima Ying, who was then concerned about an attack from Wang Jun, whose troops were reinforced with Xianbei and Wuhuan soldiers, that he would be willing to mobilize Xiongnu soldiers to support Sima Ying's cause. Sima Ying agreed and allowed Liu Yuan to return to the Xiongnu tribes.

Once Liu Yuan returned to his people, he gathered 50,000 men quickly and was readying himself to rush to Sima Ying's aid, but he also publicly accepted the title of Grand Chanyu. (Previously, Sima Ying had bestowed the title of North Chanyu on him.) However, he then heard that Sima Ying's forces had collapsed in fear of Wang's troops and that Sima Ying had, against his prior advice, fled to Luoyang. He then declared his people independent from Jin and further declared that, as a Han descendant, he would succeed to the Han throne, and therefore claimed the title of the King of Han—deliberately choosing a title that had been previously held by the Han dynasty's founder, Liu Bang (Emperor Gao). He reestablished the worship of eight Han emperors—Emperor Gao, Emperor Wen, Emperor Wu, Emperor Xuan, Emperor Guangwu, Emperor Ming, Emperor Zhang, and Liu Bei (Emperor Zhaolie). He created his wife Lady Huyan (likely a relative of his mother) princess. (The name of Liu's state was therefore "Han," but is often referred to as "Han-Zhao" or "Former Zhao" because his nephew Liu Yao, who took the throne in 318, changed the name of the state to Zhao in 319.)


For those impressed with Liu's abilities previously, however, his reign was somewhat of a let down. He spent great energy on trying to restore the Han system of government, but he himself was unable to quickly expand his sphere of influence. He set his capital at Lishi (離石, in modern Lüliang, Shanxi), but his control of territory became limited to that local region. His forces were often able to achieve victories over Jin forces but unable to hold cities. In 305, after a famine, he relocated to Liting (黎亭, in modern Changzhi, Shanxi).

As years went by, however, the various agrarian rebel generals who were resisting Jin rule, whether ethnically Wu Hu or Han, often chose to come under Liu Yuan's Han banner. Chief among these were the Chinese general Wang Mi and the Jie general Shi Le (both of whom declared loyalty to Han in 307), who generally only nominally submitted to Liu's orders while maintaining separate power structures but who also did appear to genuinely respect and fear Liu. As for troops under his own control, Liu largely entrusted them to his son Liu Cong the Prince of Chu and his nephew Liu Yao the Prince of Shi'an. The four generals, while not being able to hold cities, were generally able to rove throughout northern and central China unimpeded by Jin forces, defeating most Jin generals who opposed them.

In 308, Wang's troops advanced on the Jin capital Luoyang, but was repelled. That year, after capturing more territory, Liu Yuan moved his capital to Puzi (蒲子, in modern Linfen, Shanxi) and declared himself emperor, signifying an even more complete break from Jin. In 309, he moved the capital once more to Pingyang (平陽, also in modern Linfen). By this time, Liu Cong and Wang Mi had eventually been able to control all of southern Shanxi for Han, and they again attacked Luoyang, but were again repelled.

In 310, Liu Yuan grew ill, and he created his second wife Lady Dan empress and his oldest son Liu He (by his first wife Empress Huyan—who appeared to have died by this point, although her death was not mentioned in history) crown prince. When he died later that year, Liu He became emperor. However, only a week later, he was overthrown and killed by Liu Cong, who then became emperor.

Physical appearance

In the Book of Wei, Chinese author Wei Shou notes that Liu Yuan was over six feet tall and that he had strands of red hair in his long beard.[3]

Skepticism over lineage

Some modern Chinese academics, such as Tang Changru (唐长孺) and Chen Yong (陈勇), cast doubt on Liu Yuan's lineage from the Southern Xiongnu chanyus, with Tang in particularly presenting three reasons. Firstly, Liu Bao's lifespan was unusually long, as he was serving as Tuqi King in 195 and died after Tufa Shujineng's Rebellion in 279 according to Liu Yuan's entry in the Jinshu. Secondly, the Leader (or Commander) of the Left Tribe in 272 was Li Ke (李恪) and not Liu Bao according to Emperor Wu's entry in the Jinshu, but Liu Yuan's entry states that he inherited the position from his father. Thirdly, Liu Yuan was from Xinxing Commandery (新興郡; north of present-day Xinzhou, Shanxi), which would have placed him in the North Tribe (北部), so for him and his father to hold command over the Left Tribe is puzzling. Furthermore, the Jinshu states that after becoming Leader of the Left Tribe, he was later transferred to become Commander of the North Tribe, and when Sima Ying permitted him to return to the Xiongnu, he was given the title of North Chanyu rather than the vacant title of South Chanyu, which was held by his supposed ancestors.

Tang hypothesized that these discrepancies were due to Liu Yuan actually being from the Tuge tribe (屠各部) or Xiuchuge (休屠各). This theory is supported by the fact that Liu Yuan and his family members are referred to as "Tuge" in several passages from relevant records. The Tuge migrated into the Chinese interior much earlier than the other Southern Xiongnu tribes and were not related to the chanyu lineage of the Luandi clan. In 188, they rebelled and killed the chanyu, Qiangqu and exiled his son Yufuluo. During the Cao Wei and Western Jin periods, they were the most influential clan among the Xiongnu in Shanxi. It is possible that Liu Yuan and Han-Zhao historians had fabricated his ties to the Luandi clan for more legitimacy by presenting his rule as a direct continuation of the Southern Xiongnu chanyus and a restoration of the Han dynasty.[4][5]


Consort and their eespective issue(s):


  1. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 56. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9.
  2. ^ Liu Yuan (劉淵) shares the same given name as Emperor Gaozu of Tang, whose real name is Li Yuan (李淵).
  3. ^ Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1973). The World of the Huns: Studies of Their History and Culture. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 373. ISBN 0520015967.
  4. ^ Tang, Changru; 唐长孺 (2017). Wei jin nan bei chao shi lun cong (Di 1 ban ed.). Beijing. ISBN 978-7-100-15269-3. OCLC 1096382148.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ Chen, Yong (2007). "去卑监国的败局与屠各刘豹的崛起". Wenxue100. Retrieved 10 October 2023.
Emperor Guangwen of Han (Zhao)House of Liu Died: 310 Regnal titles RecreatedTitle last held byEmperor Gaozu of Han King of Han 304–308 Succeeded byHimselfas Emperor of Han-Zhao Preceded byHimselfas King of Han Emperor of Han-Zhao 308–310 Succeeded byLiu He Titles in pretence Preceded byEmperor Hui of Jin — TITULAR — Empire of China Royal descent claimant304–310Reason for succession failure:Wu Hu uprising Succeeded byLiu He