Known in life as Emporer Xin Liu, Ai earned his posthumous name of “filial and lamentable” (full: Xiaoai). While the “filial” aspect was standard for Chinese emperors beginning with Han Xiaowen, and the “lamentable” refers to his early death, historians center his biographies around acts that would be equally good reasons for the simultaneously blessed and damning titles: grave mismanagement and corruption, including the memorable love affair that gave rise to the Chinese idiom 斷袖之癖, “the passion of the cut sleeve.”
Ai became Prince Xin at age four when his father, brother to the then-reigning emperor, passed away. He earned his place as heir to the throne when he impressed his uncle with his knowledge of law and Confucian texts, and ascended at age twenty. Although his subjects were initially enthusiastic about his intelligence and people skills, during his short reign of six years his popularity tanked, due to heavy taxes, blatant corruption, and his predilection for disposing of officials who got in his way. Wikipedia’s account (which is copied word-for-word on a number of other cites, making citing other sources difficult) of the politicking his grandmother – who held a great deal of influence over Ai – engaged in reads like a high society soap opera.
As negative as the press Ai generated was, he is best known now for a touching love story…that, true to form, involved stunning levels of corruption and ended in tragedy. Dong Xian, a low-level public official, rapidly ascended through the court ranks after catching Ai’s eye, finally taking the title of commander of the armed forces. Historians agree that although they were both married the two were lovers, seeing as Dong displayed no remarkable aptitude that would justify him being given the highest existing political post, and he had a tendency to follow Ai around the palace at times when he should have been doing his job. At the time, homosexual relationships between men were not stigmatized; and so, when Ai arrived at an official function one day missing a sleeve and explained that he had cut it off rather than disturb Dong, who had been sleeping on the fabric, his courtiers took to cutting off their own sleeves as a way of celebrating the love affair. Unfortunately, when Ai passed away shortly after, his unpopularity – and more political maneuvering by his relatives – put Dong and his wife in a position where they were forced to commit suicide.