Why poison was the regicidal weapon of choice in Chinese history
- Many of China’s emperors were murdered by poison, chosen for its clean, quick death and easy administration
- In 1908 the Guangxu Emperor died the day before his nemesis, Empress Dowager Cixi, many speculate on her orders
He is the latest in a long line of the Kremlin’s political opponents suspected to have been poisoned. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union devised inventive ways of doing away with dissidents both at home and abroad. Exotic methods of delivery included cyanide spray guns secreted in newspapers and poison-tipped umbrellas. Modern Russia seems to have continued this tradition.
Poisons were also widely used in China’s past. Compared to swords, axes and other arms, poisons were easily hidden and administered, they killed quickly with minimal mess, and the victims’ bodies remained intact. For these reasons, poison was the murder weapon of choice for many regicides. If one’s target was a ruler, a gruesome death would be deemed indecorous.
The Han period (202BC-AD220) saw several emperors assassinated by poison, including children. A feature of Han politics was the young age of its emperors, and the political domination of empress dowagers – often not their biological mothers – and their families.
When the young emperors were no longer useful, or began to challenge the status quo, they would be killed by their puppeteers. Western Han dynasty emperors Ping and Zhi were aged 14 and nine, respectively, when they were poisoned in AD6 and AD146. The Eastern Han’s Emperor Shao was deposed at age 14 and forced to ingest poison a year later by kingmaker Dong Zhuo, who had installed a new emperor.
Some emperors were poisoned by their relatives. The Sui dynasty’s Emperor Wen was murdered by his own son – one story has it that poison was administered to hasten his demise in AD604 after he revealed his intention to alter the succession plans.