Huo Guang

Huo Guang

Huo Guang (d. 68 BC) (Traditional Chinese: 霍光), courtesy name Zimeng (子孟) was a Western Han statesman who was a rare example in Chinese history of a powerful official who deposed an emperor for the good of the state rather than to usurp the throne. He was the half-brother of renowned Han general Huo Qubing.

Service under Emperor Wu

Huo's early career in Han government was not well-documented, but it is known that as of 88 BC -- near the end of Emperor Liu Che (Emperor Wu)'s reign, he was already a fairly highly ranked official with dual titles of "fengche duwei" (奉車都尉) and "guanglu dafu" (光祿大夫). When Emperor Wu, near the end of his life, chose his youngest son Liu Fuling (later Emperor Zhao) as heir, he commissioned Huo, ethnically-Xiongnu official Jin Midi, and imperial guard commander Shangguan Jie (上官桀) as coregents, but with Huo effectively in command of the government, with the titles of "dasima" (大司馬) and "dajiangjun" (大將軍). When Emperor Wu died in 87 BC, Emperor Zhao, then eight-years-old, was left in the tutelage of Huo, Jin, and Shangguan. Emperor Wu's will created the three of them as marquesses, but all three declined.

Service under Emperor Zhao

Emperor Zhao, as the youngest son of Emperor Wu, drew jealousy from his older brothers, and in his reign there were multiple conspiracies. In 86 BC, a conspiracy involving Liu Dan (劉旦), the Prince of Yan (燕王) and an elder son of Emperor Wu, was discovered, but the prince was not punished, presumably under Huo's decision, even though the other conspirators were executed.

In 85 BC, Huo was created the Marquess of Bowang (博望侯).

In the same year, Jin, a moderating influence in the coregency, died. After Jin's death, Shangguan became increasingly jealous of Huo's powers, even though the two had been great friends, and Huo had given his daughter in marriage to Shangguan's son Shangguan An (上官安). In 84 BC, as a ploy to further strengthen his powers, Shangguan Jie gave his granddaughter (also Huo's granddaughter), then age five, in marriage to the emperor, then age 11, and she was made empress in 83 BC.

In 80 BC, the dormant conflict between Huo and Shangguan came to a head. Shangguan formed a conspiracy with Liu Dan the Prince of Yan, the Princess Eyi (鄂邑公主) (who, as the emperor's sister, had served as his caretaker), and another important official Sang Hongyang (桑弘羊) to make false allegations of treason against Huo. However, Emperor Zhao, who trusted Huo, did not act on the allegations. The conspirators then planned a coup d'etat, but were discovered. Most of the conspirators, including Shangguan, were executed, and Liu Dan and the Princess of Eyi were forced to commit suicide.

The Prince He Incident and the installation of Emperor Xuan

In 74 BC, Emperor Zhao died at age 21 without issue -- and therefore without an heir. Even though Emperor Zhao had living older brothers, Huo considered them incompetent and unfit for the throne. After some investigation, he settled on making Liu He, Emperor Zhao's nephew and the Prince of Changyi the new emperor. Once the Prince of Changyi was installed as the emperor, however, he began to spend incessantly and otherwise act inappropriately during the period of mourning for Emperor Zhao.

In response, Huo decided to depose the new emperor -- then an unprecedented action in Chinese history. Under an edict issued by Empress Dowager Shangguan -- Huo's granddaughter -- Prince He was deposed after just 28 days as emperor and exiled to his old principality of Changyi, but without a princely title.

There was no imperial heir in sight who fit Huo's standard of a diligent and skilled emperor. At the suggestion of another senior official Bing Ji (丙吉), Huo made a great-grandson of Emperor Wu (whose grandfather Liu Ju had been Emperor Wu's crown prince by Empress Wei but who subsequently fell out of favor and was killed in a disturbance, with his issue being removed from the imperial household), Liu Bingyi (later Liu Xun 劉詢) emperor. 27 days after Prince He was deposed, Liu Bingyi, who then was a commoner with no titles, became emperor (later known as Emperor Xuan).

Service under Emperor Xuan

In 73 BC, Huo offered to return all authority to Emperor Xuan, but the emperor declined and reaffirmed that all important matters were to be presented to Huo before Huo would present them to the emperor. The emperor also made Huo's son Huo Yu (霍禹) and his grandnephews Huo Yun (霍雲) and Huo Shan (霍山) (Huo Qubing's grandsons) key officials in his administration. Huo Guang's sons-in-law Fan Mingyou (范明友) and Deng Guanghan (鄧廣漢) were made high military commanders. During the next few years, Huo and the emperor effectively shared imperial powers.

In 71 BC, Huo Guang's wife Xian (顯), in order to make her daughter Huo Chengjun (霍成君) empress, poisoned Emperor Xuan's wife Empress Xu Pingjun by bribing her doctor. In 70 BC, Huo Chengjun was created empress.

Death and subsequent destruction of the Huo clan

In 68 BC, Huo Guang became ill and died. Emperor Xuan and Empress Dowager Shangguan made the nearly-unprecedent act of personally attending Huo's wake and built an impressive mausoleum for Huo. After Huo's death, his sons, sons-in-law, and grandnephews remained in important posts and were made marquesses. The Huo family lived luxurious lives and acted as if it were the imperial household. Emperor Xuan, unhappy about the Huos' arrogance, began to gradually strip their actual powers while formally keeping their titles impressive.

In 67 BC, Emperor Xuan made his son Liu Shi (劉奭, later Emperor Yuan), by the deceased Empress Xu, crown prince, an act that greatly angered Lady Xian, who instructed her daughter to murder the crown prince. Allegedly, Empress Huo did make multiple attempts to do so, but failed each time. Around this time, the emperor also heard rumors that the Huos had murdered Empress Xu, which led him to further strip the Huos of actual power.

In 66 BC, Lady Xian revealed to her son and grandnephews that she had, indeed, murdered Empress Xu. In fear of what the emperor might do if he had actual proof, Lady Xian, her son, her grandnephews, and her sons-in-law formed a conspiracy to depose the emperor. The conspiracy was discovered, and the entire Huo clan was executed by Emperor Xuan -- an act that later drew heavy criticism from historians for its ungratefulness to Huo Guang. (e.g., Sima Guang in his Zizhi Tongjian.) (For the time being, Empress Huo was deposed but not executed, but 12 years later she was exiled; in response, she committed suicide.)

Despite the destruction of the Huo clan, Emperor Xuan continued to honor Huo Guang posthumously. In 51 BC, when he painted the portrait of 11 great statesmen of his administration in the great hall of his palace, Huo, alone among the 11, was referred to by title and family name only, which was considered an even greater honor than the honor given to the other 10.

Impact on Chinese history

Huo was treated somewhat paradoxically by posterity. On one hand, he was greatly admired for his skillful administration of the empire and his selflessness in putting himself in great danger in deposing an unfit emperor. On the other hand, he was also criticized for his dictatorial governing style and alleged nepotism -- traits that some historians claim eventually led to his clan's destruction.

Many later conspirators in Chinese history would often claim that they were acting in the empire's best interest, like Huo, even though few actually did. (One example -- perhaps the only one -- was the conspiracy against Emperor Shao of Southern Song Dynasty.) Conversely, when emperors wanted to accuse (and execute) officials of treason, they often euphemistically refer to them as "wanting to act like Huo Guang." Effectively, Huo set a standard of decisiveness and strength that was rarely matched and even more rarely used for the benefit of the state.

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