Emperor Ai of Han (27 BCE – 15 August 1 BCE) was an emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty. He ascended the throne when he was 20, having been made heir by his childless uncle Emperor Cheng, and he reigned from 7 to 1 BCE.
The people and the officials were initially excited about his ascension, as he was viewed by them (as well as Emperor Cheng) to be intelligent, articulate, and capable. However, under Emperor Ai, corruption became even more prevalent and heavy taxes were levied on the people. Furthermore, Emperor Ai was highly controlled by his grandmother Consort Fu (consort of his grandfather and his predecessor's father Emperor Yuan), who demanded the title of Grand Empress Dowager—even though she had never been an empress previously and therefore did not properly hold that title, and this led to the unprecedented and unrepeated situation of four women possessing empress dowager titles at the same time—Empress Wang (Emperor Cheng's mother and Emperor Yuan's wife), Empress Zhao Feiyan (Emperor Cheng's wife), Consort Fu, and Consort Ding (Emperor Ai's mother).
Consort Fu's control of the political scene extended until her death in 2 BCE, including an episode where her jealousy of Consort Feng Yuan—another consort of Emperor Yuan's (and therefore her romantic rival) and the grandmother of the future Emperor Ping—resulted in Consort Feng being falsely accused of witchcraft and subsequently being forced to commit suicide. During Emperor Ai's reign, he also stripped the Wang clan (Empress Wang's clan), which had been powerful during Emperor Cheng's reign, of much of their power, and substituted members of the Fu and Ding clans in their stead (which, ironically, caused the people, who were not enamored with the Wangs initially, to long for their return to power as they associated the departure of the Wangs from power with Emperor Ai's incompetence in administration). In an unpopular act, Emperor Ai had his prime minister Wang Jia (王嘉, unrelated to the Wang clan mentioned above) put to death for criticizing him, an act that made him appear tyrannical. Emperor Ai's shortcomings quickly led to the demoralization of the people towards the government and the acquisition of power by Wang Mang, in a backlash, after Ai died in 1 BCE.
Emperor Ai was also famous for being the most effusive homosexual emperor of the Han dynasty. Traditional historians characterized the relationship between Emperor Ai and Dong Xian as one between homosexual lovers and referred to their relationship as "the passion of the cut sleeve" (斷袖之癖) after a story that one afternoon after falling asleep for a nap on the same bed, Emperor Ai cut off his sleeve rather than disturb the sleeping Dong Xian when he had to get out of bed. Dong was noted for his relative simplicity contrasted with the highly ornamented court, and was given progressively higher and higher posts as part of the relationship, eventually becoming the supreme commander of the armed forces by the time of Emperor Ai's death. Dong was afterward forced to commit suicide.
The Rise of Dong Xian
Circa 4 BCE, Emperor Ai entered into a relationship that would further make him incapable of decisions other than those made out of impulse. He began to favor the minor official Dong Xian, and historians largely believed that they had a homosexual relationship. Both men were married, but that would not have been seen as conflicting with a homosexual love affair. Ai came from a long line of emperors, all married of course, with male companions listed in their official histories.
Ai bestowed many honors on Dong at a rate which alarmed the court. Dong and his wife moved into the palace, and Dong's sister became an imperial consort. Dong's father was made an acting marquess (關內侯). Emperor Ai also ordered that a luxurious residence, as luxurious as an imperial palace, be built for Dong. All who opposed these honors for Dong were severely punished.
In 3 BCE, against opposition by his prime minister Wang Jia (王嘉), Emperor Ai created Dong the Marquess of Gao'an. The following year, the prime minister submitted a report to Emperor Ai, in which he urged that the honors bestowed on Dong be curbed. This report was carefully worded to appear to be looking out for Dong. It warned that Dong might suffer the same fate of Emperor Wen's favorite Deng Tong (鄧通), who starved to death after his assets were confiscated by Emperor Wen's heir, or of Emperor Wu's favorite Han Yan (韓嫣), who was executed by Empress Dowager Wang after being accused of improperly assuming imperial style.
Later in 2 BCE, when Wang Jia opposed the expansion of Dong's march, Emperor Ai had him accused falsely of crimes and forced him to commit suicide. Later that year, Dong was made the commander of the armed forces—at age 22—and effectively the most powerful official in the administration. Several members of the Dong clan became important officials as well, displacing the Fus and the Dings after Grand Empress Dowager Fu died in 2 BCE.