The Emperor Who Was Murdered Over A Roast Joke
When you think “comedy,” we don’t know if your mind goes immediately to fourth-century China. But that’s what we’re looking at today, at the Jin Dynasty, at the reign of Emperor Xiaowu.
Xiaowu became emperor when he was just 10 years old. His father had been a sort of puppet emperor, put on the throne after a general deposed his predecessor, then when the man died, no one was sure at first what could happen next. They made his son emperor, hoped that general wouldn’t kill him, and everything kind of worked out.
The boy emperor got married when he was 13, to a 16-year-old, who took to heavy drinking as soon as she became empress. Xiaowu asked her father to straighten her out, and he supposedly did, but she still died when she was 21.
Later in life, Xiaowu had concubines, including one known as the Honorable Lady Zhang. Xiaowu might have thought more highly of concubines than some emperors did: His own mother had been a concubine. But at a public feast when he was 34, he made a joke about Lady Zhang, saying that he’d soon have to replace her, as she was nearly 30.
This was a joke, say the histories. But Lady Zhang either considered this a real threat to her future or just got really angry that the joke targeted her. So she bribed the emperor’s bodyguards with wine to leave him for the night. And then she entered his chambers with her own retinue of servants and had them suffocate Xiaowu with his own bedclothes.
The emperor had died in his sleep, said Lady Zhang. And though the truth very quickly got out, no one bothered holding her responsible. Xiaowu’s death meant they could put another boy on the throne, one they could easily control. The new man behind the new emperor was Xiaowu’s brother, who spent his entire time as the hand of the king being corrupt and drinking. Virtually everyone in this story was drunk, as is always true for good stories about comedy roasts.
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