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Reflections: royal appointments

Wee Kek Koon

 

Queen Elizabeth II was present at the funeral of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher - a rare honour, for the monarch rarely goes to the funerals of her non-royal subjects.

When senior statesman Yuan Cheng died in AD519, Empress Dowager Ling, the de facto ruler of the Northern Wei dynasty, went in person with his cortege until they reached the countryside, and she was recorded as shedding copious tears. Unlike Thatcher, who was a grocer's daughter - seemingly a fact of some importance to the British, given its frequent mention - Yuan was a member of the imperial clan of the Northern Wei.

Yuan was born Tuoba Cheng, but his cousin, Emperor Xiaowen - in a move not dissimilar to the British royal family changing its name from the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more English-sounding Windsor in 1917 - switched the imperial family name from the foreign sounding "Tuoba", a Xianbei name, to the Han Chinese "Yuan".

Yuan was the emperor's right-hand man and his biggest contribution to Northern Wei was his support for the latter's sweeping reforms, which included greater Sinicisation of the Xianbei ruling class. He also led an army to put down a rebellion in 496. Yuan's stellar political career covered three reigns, and he continued to speak out against what he saw as bad policies and the court's excesses until his death.

 

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