Gao Yanzong was the fifth son of Gao Cheng, who was the heir of Eastern Wei's paramount general Gao Huan, and who took over the regency of Eastern Wei after Gao Huan's death in 547. Gao Yanzong's mother was Gao Cheng's concubine Lady Chen, who was previously a concubine of Yuan Dan (元湛) the Prince of Guangyang, but his birth year is not known in history. As Gao Cheng was assassinated by his servant Lan Jing (蘭京) in 549, Gao Yanzong was raised by Gao Cheng's younger brother Gao Yang, who seized the throne from Emperor Xiaojing of Eastern Wei in 550, establishing Northern Qi as its Emperor Wenxuan. Emperor Wenxuan was described as loving Gao Yanzong so much that even when Gao Yanzong was 11, he still had Gao Yanzong ride him for game. In or sometime before 555, Emperor Wenxuan asked Gao Yanzong what princely title he wanted, and Gao Yanzong responded, "I want to be the Prince of Chongtian (衝天, meaning, "rising to heaven")." The prime minister Yang Yin commented, "There is no such commandery on earth. I wish that he would be satisfied (安, an) with virtues (德, de)." Emperor Wenxuan thus created Gao Yanzong the Prince of Ande in 555.
During the subsequent reign of Emperor Xiaozhao, another uncle of Gao Yanzong's, Gao Yanzong was the governor of Ding Province (定州, roughly modern Baoding, Hebei). He was accused of abusing his staff -- including defecating upstairs and forcing someone to receive the feces downstairs in his mouth, and mixing feces with pork and serving it to others, and those who would not eat it would be whipped. When Emperor Xiaozhao heard this, he had the official Zhao Daode (趙道德) go to Ding Province to cane Gao Yanzong 100 times. As Gao Yanzong did not take the punishment with good attitude, Zhao added 30 times to his caning. Gao Yanzong was also known for testing the sharpness of his sword by cutting humans with it, and for tolerating his staff of abuses. During the subsequent reign of another uncle, Emperor Wucheng, Emperor Wucheng sent messengers to whip him for these abuses and executed nine of his associates. Thereafter, Gao Yanzong regretted his actions and changed his ways. In 566, when Emperor Wucheng tortured his brother Gao Xiaowan (高孝琬) the Prince of Hejian to death, Gao Yanzong mourned greatly, and he made an effigy of Emperor Wucheng out of straw and whipped it, stating, "Why kill my brother?" When his servant informed Emperor Wucheng, Emperor Wucheng whipped Gao Yanzong 100 times, nearly causing his death. Subsequently, however, Gao Yanzong was rotated through a number of important offices. In 569, after Emperor Wucheng's death, he was one of the individuals who tried to persuade Emperor Wucheng's son Gao Wei and wife Empress Dowager Hu to remove Emperor Wucheng's favorite official He Shikai from his post, but was ultimately unsuccessful in doing so. Subsequently, in 571, after Gao Wei's brother Gao Yan killed He Shikai in a coup, Gao Yanzong, along with his brother Gao Xiaoheng (高孝珩) the Prince of Guangning, tried to encourage Gao Yan to take further action to seize power, but Gao Yan hesitated and was ultimately defeated and killed.
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