Sunday, 19 February 2017

Meet Liu Ziye, the Chinese Caligula

Rome is justly notorious for several of its Emperors, whether Nero with his cruelty and artistic vanity, Commodus with his gladiatorial obsessions, or Heliogabalus with his perverse sexuality. But the most notorious of the Emperors is undoubtedly Caligula, who committed acts of evil, depravity, and insanity with a degree of panache that makes him the epitome of Lord Acton's famous axiom that power corrupts while absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But Rome was not alone in bestowing such corrupting power on men. The Chinese have an even longer history of Emperors, and although they found ways to contain and enervate their emperors behind silken curtains and clouds of incense and opium, ministered by eunuchs and concubines, they too had their mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know emperors. 

The closest comparison to Caligula was perhaps Liu Ziye (劉子業), who reigned as the Emperor Qianfei over a vast area of Southern China as part of the Southern Song Dynasty (420-479).

Born in 449, he was the grandson of the Empror Wen, and was raised at the capital Jiankang, while his father, Liu Jun, served as governor in various provinces away from the capital. In 453, the Emperor Wen was assassinated by another of his sons, Liu Shao, who was the Crown Prince, and Liu Ziye's own uncle. The Emperor Wen had been planning to remove Liu Shao from the succession after learning that he was using witchcraft against him, prompting his son to strike first and murder him.

Liu Ziye survived the coup but was imprisoned by his uncle while his father and uncle fought for power. Because of the stigma of patricide most generals deserted Liu Shao, leading to his defeat and execution at the hands of his brother, who then became Emperor, while Liu Ziye became Crown Prince. 

Liu Jun reigned for the next 11 years, during which father and son had a generally troubled relationship. Liu Jun was a hard drinking military man, while his son was awkward and studious. At one point his father considered disinheriting him but was persuaded not to. When he died in 464, at the age of 34, his son succeeded him, becoming Emperor under the reign name Qianfei, He was just 15 years old and would reign for around a years and a half.

It was not long before his evil nature showed itself. It seemed to be driven initially by resentment of his father. On becoming Emperor Liu Ziye immediately rescinded all his father's laws and decrees. Then, when looking at some new portraits of his ancestors, including one of his father, he commented, "He had such a big nose from overdrinking. Where was the nose?" and ordered the artist to repaint the portrait with a drunkard's nose.

Later that year his mother the Empress Dowager Wang was very ill, but he refused to visit her, saying that there were ghosts in sick people's rooms. It seems that Liu Ziye had a bit of a phobia for ghosts as he was often troubled by them. His mother's reaction, however, suggests that he also had a troubled relationship with her. Angered, she ordered a servant to bring a sword to cut her open, "to see how it is that this animal came out of me," and died soon after.

Old associates of his father tried to reign in the young Emperor with good advice and warnings of consequences, but so strong was his resentment of his father that he now transferred his hatred onto these high officials, ordering them to commit suicide. This scared other high-ranking officials, leading to a repeating cycle of fear leading to plots to depose the Emperor, resulting in executions when they failed, leading to yet more fear and increasing paranoia on the part of the Emperor.

As is often the case in such situations, he tried to build strong loyalty within his immediate retinue by granting his followers immense privileges and rewards, while targeting members of the ruling elite he was unsure of. That included his grand-uncle Liu Yigong, who was the highest-ranking official. After hearing of a suspected plot, Liu Ziye personally led his imperial guards to kill Liu Yigong and his four sons, cutting off his grand-uncle's limbs, cutting his stomach open, and pulling out his entrails, and then gouging out his eyes. Like other tyrants, he then added a touch of chilling humour to his barbarity, placing Yigong's eyes in honey and calling them "pickled ghost eyes." 

One of the few people he now trusted was his sister Liu Chuyu, but here too he showed his unconventional side. One day she complained that it was unfair that he had thousands of concubines while she was only allowed one husband. Liu Ziye decided she had a point and had 30 handsome young men selected for her pleasure, an act that caused great resentment. 

In addition to killing many of his relatives, Liu Ziye also became increasingly sex mad, both for the pleasures it afforded, as well as a means of humiliating those elites he did not trust. He summoned a number of princesses to the palace and ordered them to have sex with his attendants. When one of his aunts, Princess Dowager Jiang of Nanping, refused, he had her whipped and killed her three sons. He was also deeply involved in an incestuous relationship with another of his aunts Liu Yingmei, so much so that he pretended to her husband that she had died, sending a partly decomposed body of a lookalike to her husband so that he wouldn't come looking for her. The husband was not fooled and this drove him to plot against Liu Ziye, leading to his execution when the plot was betrayed. 

Worried that his remaining uncle's would rebel against him he gathered them in the capital Jiankang and started to keep them in cages designed for weighing pigs, as they were all overweight. He also gave them humorous nicknames, such as "Prince of Pigs," "Prince of Murderers," "Prince of Thieves," "Prince of Donkeys." 

Towards the end of his brief reign, his sexual abuse and violence were escalating. When he ordered some noble ladies to strip naked and chase each other, one refused so he beheaded her. That night he saw a woman cursing him in his dream, "You are so violent and immoral that you will not live to see the wheat harvest next year." When he woke up and saw a lady-in-waiting who resembled the apparition in his dream he also ordered her beheaded, leading to yet another dream in which the freshly killed lady-in-waiting also cursed him. 

There is an element of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy to the story of Liu Ziye, almost as if the story had been tweaked and polished over the years to give off the right moral message as a warning to future headstrong rulers.

The story goes that the bad dreams caused him to hold a "ghost-killing ceremony" the next night, at which one of his attendants, whom he had often rebuked, killed him. He was succeeded by one of his remaining uncles, who, it turned out, was just as cruel and violent as his nephew.

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