Above all, Emperor Ai of Han (who ruled from 6 B.C.E.-1 C.E.) loved his retainer Dong Xian, whose father was a respected censor in the emperor’s court.
Dong Xian was a person whose beauty invited admiration.
While other courtiers competed to ornament themselves as seductive beauties and used artful speech to captivate, Dong Xian wore a simple garment of misty plain silk. It draped upon him like cicada wings. Dong Xian did not use an extravagant belt or long skirt.
Emperor Ai gazed at him and spoke of Dong Xian’s deportment and appearance. The emperor asked, “What about this retainer Dong Xian?” Because of this Dong Xian spoke with the emperor. Thus began his favour.
One day, as Dong Xian slept soundly beside the emperor, the emperor was suddenly called away on business. Rather than wake his beloved, the emperor simply cut off that part of his sleeve on which Dong Xian’s head rested, such was his consideration.
Dong Xian’s favour and love increased daily, He held high office and each year was granted ten thousand piculs of grain. His honours alarmed the court. Dong Xian’s family also received extraordinary benefits as a result of the emperor’s favour: his father was promoted to the position of Marquis of Guannei with an attendant fief. Everyone in Dong Xian’s household, down to his slaves, received grants from the emperor. Because of the emperor’s blind love, the state fell into chaos.
On his deathbed, Emperor Ai named Dong Xian as his heir, in violation of custom. But Dong Xian had many enemies at court, and upon the emperor’s passing, they forced him to commit suicide. Wang Mang usurped the throne, and Emperor Ai’s failed attempt to hand his title over to his young male lover doomed the Western Han dynasty, which ended with his reign.1