Huo Guang

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  • Died: 68 BCE
  • Chinese/Japanese: 霍光 (Huò Guāng / Kaku Kou)

Huo Guang was a prominent Han Dynasty official whose career, described at length in the Book of Han, is taken as a model of moral rectitude and upright behavior, but also as a warning on the dangers of rising too high, and wielding too much power.

He rose to great power, serving as de facto ruler during the reigns of several emperors, who are said to have willingly allowed him that much power, due to his righteousness; in particular, Huo is known for helping to depose a problematic emperor, in the interests of the good of the state, without trying to seize the throne for himself. However, following his death, his next of kin did not match his greatness, and their great power and wealth came to attract suspicion, leading to the downfall and near extermination of his line.

Life & Career

Huo Guang was a son of the great general Huo Zhongyu, and half-brother to the great general Huo Qubing. Qubing's mother Wei Shaoer was simply a maid in a marquis' household, but when Wei's sister became an empress, the family gained in status.

Qubing, traveling on campaign, eventually brought his young brother Huo Guang, then about ten years old, to Chang'an. Huo Guang soon afterwards was made a palace attendant, and then an attendant in charge of handling memorials to the throne. After Qubing died, Guang was eventually promoted to "chief commandant in charge of the imperial carriage and counselor to the keeper of the palace gate."[1] In 91 BCE, Emperor Wu of Han (Hàn Wǔdì) entrusted Huo Guang with looking after his designated heir, invoking the example of the Duke of Zhou who looked after the young King Cheng of Zhou. When discussing this again in 87 BCE, as the Emperor lay on his deathbed, Huo Guang initially demurred, suggesting that Jin Midi would be the better choice, but the emperor placed this responsibility on Huo Guang, naming him grand marshal general in chief. The following day, the Emperor died. His son, then eight years old, succeeded him, taking the throne as Emperor Zhao of Han, with Huo Guang as regent.

Earlier that year, Huo Guang, Jin Midi, and a few others had contributed notably to putting down a rebellion. A letter left by Emperor Wu after his death indicated that he posthumously enfeoffed each of them as marquis, with a territory, as reward for their loyal service.

Huo Guang's eldest daughter later married a son of General of the Left Shanguan Jie. Their daughter (Huo's granddaughter) later became Empress, causing Huo's son-in-law Shanguan An (the son of Shanguan Jie), to rise considerably in rank and power. Huo Guang, Shanguan Jie, and his son An, then all wielded considerable power for a time, before it developed into a power struggle between them. Father and son Shanguan, along with Princess Gai, turned to support Liu Dan, king of Yan, the elder brother of Emperor Zhao, in attempting to defame Huo Guang. They submitted a memorial to the throne detailing Huo Guang's failings and evil deeds, but the emperor refused to believe them, and kept Huo Guang in his service. This group then continued to conspire against him, and some time later, Huo Guang had a number of them put to death; the rest committed suicide.

Though Emperor Zhao reached his majority, he continued to entrust Huo Guang with most matters, and so Huo Guang remained for the entire 13 years of Emperor Zhao's rule the de facto most powerful person in the empire. Emperor Zhao then died in 74 BCE, and believing the last remaining son of Emperor Wu - Liu Xu, king of Guangling - to be an unreliable choice for emperor, Huo Guang worked with the other chancellors and councilors, citing precedents, to pass over Liu Xu and instead have Liu He, king of Changyi and grandson of Emperor Wu, become the next Emperor. However, Liu He proved a terrible emperor, and so citing the precedent of Yi Yin of the Yin Dynasty, and with the support of the empress dowager and many top officials, Huo Guang managed to have Liu He deposed. Liu He attempted to retain his throne by citing the Classic of Filial Piety, which states that though one might not know the Way, so long as one has seven upright advisors, one can still rule righteously. Still, Huo Guang and the empress dowager saw him deposed, and had over two hundred of his followers executed for failing to correct the emperor's poor behavior.

Huo Guang then found a remaining distant relative of Emperor Wu, who took the throne as Emperor Xuan of Han. In 73 BCE, Huo Guang's fiefs were expanded, in recognition of his great service and rectitude, and he continued to wield very considerable power. According to the Book of Han, Emperor Xuan declined to take over true power, and like his predecessor entrusted Huo Guang with control of most matters.

In 68 BCE, Huo Guang fell ill and died. He was given a lavish funeral, and his next of kin considerable benefits, including that their inherited lands be exempt from taxation, and from being divided up. Yet, while they continued honestly enough in their official duties, none could not match up to the reputation of Huo Guang in rectitude and uprightness, and so the elite lifestyle earned by Ho Kuang began to seem to the Emperor unearned, even undeserved, in the hands of his descendants. Thus, Emperor Xuan began to demote members of the Huo family, and to turn to other families (including his own relations) to occupy the highest posts in the realm. Rumors accusing the Huo family of plotting against the throne then led to several members of the family (Huo Guang's grand-nephews Huo Yun and Huo Shan, and son-in-law Fan Ming-you) committing suicide, and several others (including Huo Guang's son Huo Yu) being arrested and executed. Several thousand other households, accused of being in league with the Huo, were similarly wiped out.

A man named Master Xu of Mouling is quoted as saying

He who indulges in extravagance will become rebellious, he who becomes rebellious will invariably despise his superiors, and he who despises his superiors will pursue the way of treason. When one rises to a position above others he is bound to be hated by the mass of men. The Huo family had held the reins of power for a long time now and the people who hate it are many - in the fact, the whole empire hates it. If in addition it pursues the way of treason, how can it help but be destroyed![2]


  • Burton Watson (trans.), Courtiers and Commoners in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han by Pan Ku, Columbia University Press (1974), 121-151.
  1. Watson, 122.
  2. Watson, 150.