Dong Xian : biography
Dong Xian (董賢) (23 BC(?) – 1 BC) was a Han Dynasty politician who quickly rose from obscurity as a minor official to being the most powerful official in the imperial administration of Emperor Ai within a span of a few years.Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press.
Most scholars agree that Dong's quick career advancement came mostly because of his personal relationship with Emperor Ai, likely a homosexual one, rather than a demonstration of abilities. Both men were married, but Emperor Ai, at least, was childless.
An idiomatic term for homosexuality in Chinese is duanxiu zhi pi (斷袖之癖, literally, "passion of the cut sleeve"), derived from an episode involving Dong and Emperor Ai. They often slept together on the same bed, which in ancient China was not necessarily an indication of a sexual relationship. One afternoon, after Emperor Ai woke up from a nap, Dong was still sleeping, and Emperor Ai's sleeve was stuck under Dong's head. Rather than waking Dong up, Emperor Ai cut off his sleeve to allow Dong to continue to sleep without disturbance.
In summer 1 BC, Emperor Ai suddenly died without an heir. Dong Xian, as the commander of the armed forces, was the most powerful official at court, but he was paralyzed by this sudden event. Grand Empress Dowager Wang took decisive action; she proceeded to Weiyang Palace and seized the imperial seal. She then summoned Dong, who was caught by surprise, and was unable to act. Grand Empress Dowager Wang summoned her nephew Wang Mang back to the palace as well and transferred the command of the imperial guard from Dong to Wang.
Wang Mang then ordered the palace secretary to issue an article of impeachment against Dong, accusing Dong of failing to attend to Emperor Ai when he was ill. Dong was prohibited from entering the palace, and was relieved of his post the next day. That night, he and his wife committed suicide, and were buried quickly. Wang Mang disinterred him to make sure that he was in fact dead, and then had him reburied within a prison. The entire Dong clan was exiled to Hepu (合浦, in modern Zhanjiang, Guangdong) and their assets forfeited to the imperial treasury.
It is unclear when Dong became a court official, but it is known that early in Emperor Ai's reign (which lasted from 7 BC to 1 BC), Dong was a minor imperial secretary (郎, lang), and he was a colleague of the later-posthumously famous Confucian scholar Yang Xiong.
By 4 BC, at the age of 19, he was an imperial attendant (侍中, shizhong) and the director of imperial equine operations (駙馬都尉), fuma duwei. (In later dynasties, this became a title for princesses' husbands. That was not true during the Han Dynasty, and it is, in any case, clear that Dong did not marry a princess.) His relationship with Emperor Ai would allow him to suddenly increase his power and prestige.
Relationship with Emperor Ai and quick ascension to great power
Circa 4 BC, Dong had by this point become a favorite of Emperor Ai's. It was described that whenever Emperor Ai visited places outside the palace, Dong would accompany him, and once Emperor Ai returned to the palace, he would attend to the emperor. Emperor Ai rewarded him with large sums of money. Dong's wife was given unprecedented permission to enter and leave the palace as she wished, and she set up a residence with Dong inside the palace. Emperor Ai also created Dong's sister an imperial consort (with the prestigious title zhaoyi (昭儀)), ranked just below his wife Empress Fu. The three members of the Dong family thereby spent day and night near the emperor. Dong's father Dong Gong (董恭) was made the minister of palace supplies and created an acting marquess (關內侯).
Emperor Ai further ordered the imperial architect to build a luxurious residence for Dong just outside the main imperial palace, Weiyang Palace. The residence was described to be so spacious that it was like an imperial palace. Emperor Ai also gave Dong the best weapons and the most precious jewels from the imperial treasury - so much so that what Dong used was even more precious than what Emperor Ai personally used. Further, imperial burial tools were pre-awarded to Dong in preparation for his eventual burial, and Dong's future tomb was built right next to Emperor Ai's own.
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