Ladies of the Court of Emperor Huan of Han
Yan Ming 匽明 (d.152 AD), mother of Emperor Huan of Later Han 漢桓帝.
The Lady Yan was probably born about 110 in the territory of Hejian 河間, in the south-east of present Hebei. About 130 she became the concubine 媵妾 of Liu Yi 劉翼, marquis of Liwu 蠡吾. Liu Yi already had a principal wife, the Lady Ma 馬, but they do not appear to have had any children, and certainly no sons.
Liu Yi's father Liu Kai 劉開, King of Hejian, was a son of Emperor Zhang 章 of Later Han (reigned 75-88) and Liu Yi had at one time been considered for the imperial succession by the Empress-Dowager Deng 鄧太后. Named King of Pingyuan 平原, a territory west of present-day Tianjin, he had been kept at the capital, but after the death of the Dowager in 121 he was reduced to be a petty marquis and sent back to live in seclusion in Hejian. In 130, on petition from his father Liu Kai, the county of Liwu 蠡吾 was taken from Hejian state and granted him as a fief.
Liu Zhi 劉志, eldest son of Liu Yi by the Lady Yan, was born in 132, and Liu Yi is known to have fathered at least two other sons and two daughters, probably also by the Lady Yan. Liu Yi died about 140, Liu Zhi succeeded to the fief, and the Lady would no doubt have lived out her days in obscurity but for the politics of succession at the imperial capital.
In 146 the young emperor Liu Zuan 劉纘, aged nine, died at Luoyang. Known by his posthumous title as Emperor Zhi 質, Liu Zuan had been chosen for the throne by the Empress-Dowager Liang Na 梁納 q.v. Widow of Liu Bao 劉保, Emperor Shun 順, who had died in 144, the Lady Liang controlled the government in alliance with her brother the General-in-Chief Liang Ji 梁冀. In the absence of an appointed Heir-Apparent, the Dowager had the right to choose the successor to the throne, and after the death of Liu Bao's only son, the infant Emperor Chong 沖, in 145, the Lady Liang had selected Liu Zuan. Even before his death, however, she had summoned Liu Zhi to the capital and betrothed him to her younger sister Liang Nüying 梁女瑩 q.v. As soon as Liu Zuan was dead, Liu Zhi was placed upon the throne, and in the following year, 147, he was married to Liang Nüying. He is known to history by his posthumous title as Emperor Huan.
The new emperor's father, the late Liu Yi, was now honoured as Emperor Xiao-Chong 孝崇 [xiao "Filial" being a common part of the posthumous title for all rulers of Han other than the two founders]. The name of Liu Yi's tomb in Hejian was changed to Boling 博陵, and the Lady Yan was named Honoured Lady of the Funerary Park at Boling 博園貴人. Honoured Lady was the highest rank of concubine, immediately below the empress, but the appointment to attend her husband's tomb meant the Lady could not live at the capital with her son: the Liang group had no wish to provide an alternative centre of power for any faction which might turn the young emperor against them.
The Lady Ma, full widow of Liu Yi, was likewise appointed an Honoured Lady of Boling, and she was also appointed guardian for the emperor's younger brother Liu Shi 劉石 [or 碩 also known as Gu 顧]. Liu Shi had been granted the restored title of King of Pingyuan, but he was frequently drunk and incapable of carrying out his duties. In 150 the Dowager Liang died, and Emperor Huan, now eighteen years old, was able to arrange for his mother to be brought to the capital. The Excellency over the Masses 司徒 Zhang Xin 張歆, one of the highest ministers of state, was sent with authority to grant the Lady Yan an imperial seal and ribbon, and she was escorted to residence in the Northern Palace at Luoyang.
The apartments of the honorary Empress-Dowager were known as the Palace of Perpetual Joy 永樂宮, her household, headed by a Steward 少府, was protected by imperial guardsmen of the Feathered Forest 羽林 and Rapid Tiger 虎賁 troops, and she received a pension from the tax revenues of nine counties of Julu 鉅鹿 commandery in present-day southern Hebei. This was the first time in Later Han that the mother of an emperor had not been the wife or concubine of a previous ruler, and the honours paid her were based upon those recorded from Former Han. The Lady Yan played, however, no part in the politics of the court.
In 152 the Lady Yan died. Liu Shi was named chief mourner, accompanied by his brother Liu Kui 劉悝 the King of Bohai 勃海 and two daughters of the Lady Yan, now princesses. A decorated coffin, jade shroud and other grave goods were provided by the special workshops of the Eastern Garden 東園 at Luoyang, and an extravagant funerary cortege back to Hejian was led by the Excellency over the Masses. Neighbouring kings and marquises, and all imperial officials for two hundred kilometres around, were ordered to attend the final ceremony at the Boling tomb, where the Lady Yan was laid to rest beside her husband.
Hou Han shu 10B [the Biographies of the Empresses], Beijing 1965 edition, 441-442.
Liang Na 梁妠 (116-150 AD), Empress and Dowager of Emperor Shun of Later Han 漢順帝.
Liang Na was a great-niece of the Honoured Lady Liang 梁貴人, who was the natural mother of Emperor He 和 of Later Han (reigned 88-106) but had been murdered in 83 by the Empress Dou 竇 of Emperor Zhang 章 of Later Han (reigned 75-88). The Liang family had suffered political eclipse, but had been fully restored to political status at the capital in 97, and three brothers of the late Lady Liang were enfeoffed as marquises. Liang Na's father Liang Shang 梁商 succeeded to his own father's fief in 126, and two years later Liang Na was brought into the imperial harem of Emperor Shun.
The Lady Liang's biography claims that a splendid light accompanied her birth, that she was skilled in women's work of spinning and needlework while she was still young, and that she could recite the Analects of Confucius 論語 and had studied the Classic of Poetry 詩經 by the age of nine. It is said, moreover, that she kept portraits of the worthy women celebrated by the Lienü zhuan 列女傳 of Liu Xiang 劉向 of Former Han always beside her, to compare her conduct with theirs and remind herself of the moral standards she must seek to attain, while her father spoke of her in admiration as the means by which the prosperity of the house would rise to its greatest heights. Some of this may be true, but these are also the clichés by which Chinese history and legend may enhance the facts concerning any person of future consequence.
Liang Na was formally selected for the harem, but her family connections were obviously of major importance in gaining her entry and securing the emperor's attention. She was thirteen years old at the time by Chinese reckoning and Liu Bao 劉保, Emperor Shun, was himself just one year older. Liang Na was accompanied by one of her father's sisters: this second Lady Liang may have been young enough to attract the ruler's interest but it is more probable that she served as an escort and guardian to her niece in the dangerous political milieu of the palace; she is in any case not heard of again.
The physiognomist Mao Tong 茅通, who took part in the selection, exclaimed at Liang Na's exceptional and most noble appearance, and when the Grand Astronomer 太史令 tested her fortune by the techniques of oracle bones and the Yi jing 易經 Book of Changes the signs were remarkably good. She was appointed as an Honoured Lady 貴人, highest rank of concubine, and was especially favoured by the emperor. With erudite quotations from the Book of Changes and the Classic of Poetry, however, Liang Na urged her consort not to devote all his attention to her lest she suffer the jealousy and calumny of others, and we are told that the emperor was all the more impressed with her good sense.
Emperor Shun took the cap of manhood in 129, and by 132 the senior ministers were pressing for the appointment of an empress. Liang Na was only one of four concubines to have attracted the young ruler, and the choice between favourites was so uncertain that there was a proposal to decide the matter by casting lots in order that the world of the spirits might decide. Hu Guang 胡廣, however, a senior official of the imperial secretariat, supported by two of his junior colleagues, urged that there was a well-established hierarchy of criteria for such a significant decision: first came the question of family background and then the comparison of virtue; if virtue was equal, there was the consideration of age; and finally one should think of physical attraction. Upon this basis, Liang Na was chosen as a woman of excellent family, and on 2 March 132 she was proclaimed as Empress 皇后.
The empress' father Liang Shang was immediately made a Palace Attendant 侍中, a supernumerary post with right of regular access to the ruler, and his marquisate was increased in size and value. He also became colonel of a regiment in the Northern Army 北軍, central strategic reserve of the empire, and soon afterwards was promoted again to be Bearer of the Mace 執金吾, chief of police at the capital, an office comparable in rank to a senior ministry. In 135, moreover, after refusing a previous offer, he accepted appointment as General-in-Chief 大將軍, formally a military post with command over the Northern Army but, more significantly, providing authority over government at the highest level. On previous occasions under the Han, generals-in chief had exercised the functions of a regent, and though Emperor Shun was of age he was effectively sharing his rule with Liang Shang.
In the system and traditions of Han there was nothing unusual or inappropriate about the possession of such power by an imperial relative through marriage. As Hu Guang had argued, the empress should be a woman of good family, and one reason for this was the general recognition that she and her male relatives would have power and influence at court. The senior police and military offices which Liang Shang had taken were not necessarily among the official posts which might be held by regular members of the bureaucracy, and in times of peace only members of the greatest families connected to the throne could expect appointment as General-in-Chief: in the structure of government at that time this was a recognised office with wide-ranging powers and influence, and the male head of the consort clan was an appropriate person to fill it. Liang Shang died in 141, but he was immediately succeeded as General-in-Chief by his eldest son Liang Ji 冀, and with the aid of his sister in the inner palace the Liang group continued to dominate the court.
We are told that the Empress Liang continued to behave with intelligence and good will, that she took no false pride in the advancement which her virtues had gained her, that she studied the lessons of the past with utmost care, and that whenever there was an eclipse she would make particular confession of her faults and failings. She did not, however, bear her husband any children, and when Emperor Shun died in 144 his only son was the infant Liu Bing 劉怲, born the previous year to his second-rank concubine the Beauty nee Yu 虞美人, and proclaimed as Heir just a few months before his father's death.
According to the traditional constitution of Han, when an emperor died leaving a recognised heir under age his empress, now entitled Empress-Dowager 皇太后, was regent for the infant successor. She took part in formal gatherings of the court, and the relationship was symbolised by the physical arrangements: while an emperor of full age and authority sat in the throne-room facing to the south, when the ruler was a child his place was on the east of the dais, facing to the west, and the regent Dowager was opposite him, behind a screen but in matching position. The Lady Yu, though she came of respectable family and had given Emperor Shun a daughter as well as a son, had not been awarded any special status before he died, and she was now granted only the empty style of Great Lady 大家.
Early in 145, moreover, after only a few months of nominal rule, the infant Emperor Chong 沖 was dead, and there was now no named heir to the throne. In these circumstances an empress-dowager of Han acquired even greater power, for she had undisputed authority to choose the next emperor from any of the male members of the imperial family. In doing so, she could take such advice as she wished, but the matter was not open to public debate, nor was any minister of state, no matter how his rank, entitled to effective intervention. The precedent for this dated back to Former Han, but had been decisively confirmed by the Dowager Deng 鄧太后 in 105 and 106. At that time, after the death of Emperor He, the Dowager announced that he had left two young sons who had been brought up outside the palace, but that the elder brother Liu Sheng 劉勝 was suffering from an incurable illness and was unfit to rule. She therefore placed the younger, Liu Long 劉隆, upon the throne, and even when he died a few months later, aged just over a year, she again passed over Liu Sheng in favour of Liu You 劉祐, a nephew of Emperor He, later known as Emperor An 安 (reigned 106-125). Inevitably, much of the information formed an intimate secret of the state, and all the decisions and announcements were made on the authority of the Dowager alone.
So in 145 the Dowager Liang took counsel with her brother within the private quarters of the harem 定策禁中 and after three weeks the choice fell upon Liu Zuan 劉纘, a great-great grandson of Emperor Zhang. Eight years old by Chinese reckoning, Liu Zuan was the son of Liu Hong 劉鴻, King of Le'an 樂安, by the Lady Chen 陳, a former singing girl who had been taken by the king but had not even been granted the position of concubine in his royal harem. Apart from the fact that he was old enough to avoid the risks of infant mortality, and young enough to require the guidance of a regent, there was nothing to distinguish Liu Zuan as superior to any other cadet of the imperial house, while his mother's ancestry left much to be desired.
In opposition to this choice, the senior official Li Gu 李固, who as Grand Commandant 太尉 was the highest member of the regular bureaucracy, led a group of officials who urged the claims of Liu Suan 劉蒜, King of Qinghe 清河: twenty years old, Liu Suan was evidently well qualified to take the throne, and would not need the guidance of a regent. This, however, naturally rendered his candidacy unacceptable to the Liang party, and after a short exchange of memorials, the Dowager exercised her prerogative and installed Liu Zuan, while Liu Suan was sent back to his state in the northwest of present-day Shandong.
As with the Lady Yu, the natural mother of the young emperor, the Lady Chen, was granted the title Great Lady but was predictably excluded from any role in government.
One year later, Liu Zuan too was dead. Despite his youth, he had perceived the tight limits to his notional authority, but he was unfortunately not perceptive enough to appreciate the need to keep silent, and on one occasion he referred publicly to Liang Ji as "an over-bearing general" 破扈將軍. A short time later the emperor was eating dumplings when he was seized by stomach cramps and died. It was traditionally argued that Liang Ji had poisoned the boy, but it may only have been bad cooking, and Liu Zuan was perhaps naturally weak and sickly.
What is most suspicious about the affair, however, is that even before the death of Liu Zuan, Liu Zhi 劉志 the future Emperor Huan 桓, then fifteen sui, had been called to the capital and betrothed to Liang Nüying 梁女塋, younger sister of the Dowager. Had Liu Zuan been expected to reign for a normal life-time, the Lady Liang would surely have been committed to him in order to maintain the influence of her family. As it is, one may suspect that Liang Ji and his elder sister had early knowledge of his fate. Li Gu had the physicians impeached and the death investigated, but nothing came of the matter and Liang Ji and his family were free to maintain their power.
At this time Li Gu and his colleagues, notably Du Qiao 杜喬, again pressed the claims of Liu Suan. Though Liu Zhi was older than Liu Zuan, he was only a marquis, he was yet not of full age, and he was clearly intended as a puppet of the Liang family. On the other hand, there appeared no other means of determining the succession than through the authority of the Dowager, and Liu Suan himself was opposed by a strong faction of eunuchs. Despite forceful arguments, Li Gu and Du Qiao were defeated and on 1 August 146 Liu Zhi was placed upon the throne.
Furthermore, at the end of the year a small local group attempted to arrange a coup in Qinghe and proclaim Liu Suan as rightful emperor. The disturbance was put down without difficulty and Liu Suan himself had been in no way involved, but he was nonetheless reduced in rank, exiled and committed suicide. Soon afterwards Li Gu and Du Qiao were also implicated, and despite protests from the court they died in the following year.
For the next few years the Dowager
Liang held formal control of the government in association with her brother
Liang Ji. The historians of Han have accused Liang Ji and his wife Sun Shou
q.v. of inordinate greed, luxury and extravagance, and they may indeed
have extorted great wealth from rival families. The Lady Liang herself, however,
is praised for her devotion to duty in the difficult times which followed
the second great rebellion of the Qiang 羌
people in the northwest and a series of frontier disturbances with the Xiongnu
匈奴 of the north. Inside
The government had been in serious financial straits since the first great Qiang rebellion of 107-118, and its general weakness was symbolised by the plundering of the tomb of Emperor Shun outside Luoyang within a year of his burial. The biography of the Dowager in Hou Han shu, however, says that she was restrained and frugal, that she appointed good officials, sent out troops to deal with disorder, and all the empire was settled by her efforts. One may observe a literary contrast between the worthy sister and the wicked brother, and both are no doubt exaggerated, but the Dowager does well from the comparison.
Emperor Huan took the cap of manhood at the beginning of 148, but the Dowager maintained her regency, on the grounds of the disturbances in the empire, for another two years. She formally relinquished her office in the first month of 150, and she died a few weeks later, on 6 April, at the age of thirty-four.
Hou Han shu 10B [the Biographies of the Empresses], Beijing 1965 edition 438-440.
Liang Nüying 梁女塋 (d.159 AD), Empress of Emperor Huan of Later Han 漢桓帝.
Younger sister of Liang Na q.v., Liang Nüying was a daughter of the General-in-Chief Liang Shang and sister to his son and successor Liang Ji. In 146 her elder sister, now Empress-Dowager and regent, called Liu Zhi, Marquis of Liwu 蠡吾 in Hejian 河間, in the south-east of present Hebei, to come to the capital, and arranged his betrothal to Liang Nüying. Liu Zhi was then fifteen sui, and the throne was occupied by the Dowager's previous selection, Liu Zuan. The nine-year-old Emperor Zhi, however, had shown his disapproval of the dominance held by Liang Ji over the court, and he died a short time later.
Though the death was investigated, nothing was found, but the betrothal of Liu Zhi and Liang Nüying throws considerable suspicion upon the affair. Had Liu Zuan been expected to reign for a normal life-time, the Lady Liang would surely have been committed to him. As it is, one must assume that Liang Ji and his elder sister had early knowledge of his fate.
Liu Zhi, Emperor Huan, was promptly placed upon the throne, and the Dowager Liang Na maintained the regency. In the summer of the following year Liang Nüying entered the imperial harem, and in the autumn, on 30 September 147, she was made Empress. The marriage ceremony was modelled on precedents of 191 BC, when the young Emperor Hui 惠 had been under the authority of his natural mother the Dowager nee Lü 呂, former Empress of Gaozu 高祖 and, perhaps more significantly, those of 4 AD, when the young Emperor Ping 平, last ruler of Former Han, was married to a daughter of the future usurper Wang Mang 王莽. The betrothal money was 20,000 pounds of gold, while imperial presents to the bride's family included wild geese (because they follow the natural relationship of yin and yang), jade bi-rings 璧, a team of four horses and a quantity of rolled silk. Inside the palace, it appears that the new empress shared the extravagant tastes of her brother Liang Ji rather than the frugality of her sister the Dowager: her apartments and pavilions were expensively carved and ornamented, her clothing and jewellery, trinkets and brightly-painted carriages were more ostentatious than any of her predecessors.
It is not possible to make a firm estimate of the age of the Empress Liang. Her elder sister was born in 116, and her father Liang Shang died in 141. Many women came to the harem at the age of thirteen sui, but the age for general selection went up to twenty, and it is likely that in this special case the empress was in her early twenties, born about 125 and some ten years younger than her sister. With support from her family to deal with eunuchs and other attendants within the harem, and with her own physical attractions to influence her young husband, it is not surprising that, as her biography says, she monopolised Emperor Huan's attentions and favours. During these first years, at least, no other women were permitted to approach him.
Emperor Huan took the cap of manhood at the beginning of 148, aged sixteen sui, but there was no real change to the political system of control: the Dowager justified her continued maintenance of power by emergencies of the frontier and internal rebellion, and Liang Ji controlled the troops and officials at the capital. Early in 150, however, the Dowager Liang formally ended the regency, and a few weeks later she was dead.
In practical terms this made little difference, for Liang Ji's authority over the court as General-in-Chief was unimpaired and the Empress Liang was well placed to supervise the inner palace. On the other hand, Emperor Huan now possessed a little more freedom, which he expressed in first instance by inviting his natural mother the Lady Yan Ming q.v. to come to Luoyang and take up residence in the Northern Palace. At the same time, moreover, his personal relationship with the empress was naturally weakened. The fact that she was expected to maintain some surveillance over him on behalf of her family caused inevitable tension, she had not borne an imperial son and heir; and we may assume that the charms of an older woman were less fascinating to a young man of eighteen than they had been to an ingenu three years earlier.
From this time, therefore, Emperor Huan embarked upon the sexual career which was to make him celebrated in Chinese history. With little opportunity for political involvement outside the palace, the emperor gave his attention to a large number of concubines, one after another, and sometimes several at once. His fluctuating favours encouraged intrigue amongst the women of the harem, and gave frequent opportunity for patronage and self-advancement to the senior eunuchs who arranged to satisfy his wishes.
In some respects, it served the interests of the consort family that the emperor should distract himself in this way, and though the Lady Liang may have been jealous and frustrated she had no means to affect her husband's choice of partners. What she could do, however, was control the results, and in a telling passage the history remarks that "if a woman of the palace became pregnant, it was seldom she came to full term." How many concubines suffered miscarriage or induced abortion we do not know, nor how many children were still-born or killed at birth. It appears, however, that only one child, the Princess Hua 華, was born at this time and survived to maturity.
In the autumn of 159, on 9 August, the Empress Liang died. She was probably in her mid-thirties, about the same age as her elder sister the Dowager had been at the time of her death in 150. There is no reason to believe that the Lady Liang did not die of natural causes, but her demise was evidently unexpected and brought an immediate crisis in the central government of the empire. Within a few weeks Liang Ji and his clan had been destroyed by a coup of the emperor supported by his eunuchs, and as the Lady Liang's successor the Empress Deng Mengnü q.v. took her place, the former empress was posthumously demoted to the senior concubine's rank of Honoured Lady.
Hou Han shu 10B [the Biographies of the Empresses], Beijing 1965 edition 443-444
Rafe de Crespigny, "The Harem of Emperor Huan; a study of court politics in Later Han" in Papers on Far Eastern History 12 (Canberra, September 1975), 1-42 at 4-11
de Crespigny, "Politics and Philosophy under the Government of Emperor Huan" in T'oung Pao 66 (1980), 41-83
de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling (Canberra 1989) I, 8-14
Sun Shou 孫壽 (d.159 AD), wife of the General-in-Chief Liang Ji 梁冀.
Liang Ji, brother of Liang Na q.v., Empress of Emperor Shun of Later Han 漢順帝, succeeded his father Liang Shang 梁商 as General-in-Chief in 141. In combination with his sister he dominated the court, and when the emperor died in 144 he shared in her regent government for the infant son and successor Liu Bing 劉怲. After the death of this child Emperor Chong 沖 in 145 they placed the young Liu Xuan upon the throne and the following year, after he too died in somewhat suspicious circumstances, they chose Liu Zhi, Emperor Huan, to succeed him. To confirm the position of the family, moreover, Liang Ji and the Dowager married their younger sister, Liang Nüying q.v., to the young ruler.
Liang Ji's wife Sun Shou is first mentioned by the histories in 150, about the time of the death of the Dowager Liang Na, when she was enfeoffed as Lady of Xiangcheng 襄城君 in Yingchuan 潁川 commandery, present-day central Henan. With additional revenues from a neighbouring county, her annual income amounted to fifty million cash, while her seal and insignia were equal to those of a senior princess.
The historians acknowledge that Sun Shou was extremely beautiful, but in all other respects she is described in most unflattering terms. Sensual and seductive in appearance and manner, she had her eyebrows shaped and her cheeks painted to give a mournful, languorous look, and wore her hair on one side in a style described as "falling from a horse." Her smiles appeared forced and painful "as if she suffered from toothache," and she walked with delicate, mincing steps as though her feet could barely support her. For his part, influenced by her pretensions, Liang Ji too acquired strange mannerisms, wearing robes of inordinate length and a narrow head-dress which drooped to one side, carrying a great fan and riding in an unusual, flat-topped carriage.
Liang Ji also acquired a mistress, You Tongji 友通期, who had formerly been a member of the harem of Emperor Shun. He kept her in a house west of the capital, but Sun Shou sent slaves to follow him, found her hiding place, then seized her, beat her, cut off her hair and slashed her face. Sun Shou intended to report the matter to the court, which would have raised a considerable scandal, but Liang Ji managed to get her mother to dissuade her. He continued to visit the Lady You and had a son by her, and though Sun Shou eventually had her own son Liang Yin 梁胤 kill the Lady, but Liang Ji managed to hide his infant son from her.
Later, also in the west of the city, and probably in the same area, Liang Ji established a separate complex of pavilions to house the multitude of women who became his concubines. Some came from respectable families, but all became his slaves and they were known as "Women who have Sold Themselves" 自賣人.
We are also told that Liang Ji had a homosexual affair with the slave Qin Gong 秦宮, whom Sun Shou too took to her bed. Qin Gong acquired inordinate influence in the court and the government, and became one of the couple's most ruthless agents.
Despite these tensions and jealousies, we are told that Liang Ji was besotted with Sun Shou, and totally under her influence. In particular, he allowed her to persuade him to replace many of his own kinsmen with members of her family. Some ten of the Liang were dismissed from their posts in government, ostensibly as a sign of modesty and restraint, but their places were taken by relatives of the Lady Sun, who acquired senior rank in both the capital and the provinces, while many of them adopted the Liang surname. All were greedy and cruel, and they sent out private retainers and clients to arrest wealthy men on false charges, then beat them until they offered vast quantities of cash to ransom themselves. Liang Ji behaved in the same way, and was notorious for his seizure of private property and his exploitation of government officers, but through Sun Shou's influence her family shared in the opportunities. And when Liang Ji had a great town house constructed for himself, Sun Shou built a mansion to match it across the street. Both had great pleasure grounds, and husband and wife were wheeled about their gardens in carriages decorated with gold and silver, covered by a canopy of feathers.
About 153 or 154 Sun Shou arranged for the entry of the young Deng Mengnü q.v. into the harem of Emperor Huan. The Lady Deng was a step-daughter of Liang Ki 梁紀
Mengnü's stepfather Liang Ki, however, died soon afterwards, and when the Empress Liang Nüying died in 159 and Emperor Huan planned to replace her with the Lady Deng there was a desperate struggle for influence. Liang Ji sought to have the Lady Deng adopted into his own clan as a means to maintain connection, but her natural mother, Xuan 宣, was urged by her son-in-law Bing Zun 邴尊, who was married to the Lady Deng's elder sister, that she should refuse his proposal and keep the advantages of imperial favour for herself and her own close relatives.
Liang Ji sent his favourite Qin Gong with a band of retainers to kill Bing Zun, and a few days later they attempted to break into the mansion of the Lady Xuan and murder her too. She fled to tell Emperor Huan, and he now called on a small group of trusted eunuchs to plan a coup against Liang Ji. Aided by the fact that with the death of the Empress Liang Ji and his associates had lost much of their contact with the harem and the inner palace, Emperor Huan sent a mixed force of eunuchs and palace gentlemen to surround the residences of Liang Ji and Sun Shou, taking back their insignia of rank and office, and ordering them to exile in the far south of Vietnam. Sun Shou and her husband committed suicide, while their relatives and clients were dismissed from office; many of them were arrested, executed or exiled.
In later generations, the name of Sun Shou became proverbial for beauty and wilful extravagance.
Hou Han shu 34 [liezhuan 24: the Biography of Liang Ji], Beijing 1965 edition 1179-81
Ch'ü T'ung-tsu, Han Social Structure (Seattle 1972), 471-477
Deng Mengnü 鄧猛女 (116-150 AD), Empress of Emperor Huan of Later Han.
Daughter of Deng Xiang 鄧香 and his wife Xuan 宣, whose maiden surname is unknown, the Lady Deng was selected into the harem of Emperor Huan in 153 or 154; she was at that time probably thirteen sui, the most common age for such entry, and was therefore born about 141. First appointed a Chosen Woman 采女, lowest of the three ranks of imperial concubines, she was extremely beautiful, she attracted the attention and favours of the emperor, and she was swiftly promoted to be an Honoured Lady 貴人, highest rank below the empress.
The Lady's father Deng Xiang was a great-nephew of the Empress-Dowager Deng 鄧太后, who had ruled for many years as the regent for Emperor An 安. The family had been respected and powerful in Nanyang 南陽 commandery, the southwest of present-day Henan, for many generations and Deng Xiang's ancestor Deng Yu 鄧禹 was a leading supporter of the founding Emperor Guangwu 光武 of Later Han. After the death of the Dowager Deng in 121, however, the power of her family had been broken by Emperor An, and Deng Xiang was no longer regarded as a man of noble descent. He first held low-ranking probationary appointment as a Gentleman of the Palace 郎中, and he never rose higher than the position of a junior official in the office of the Lateral Courts 掖庭, the bureau which supervised the affairs of the harem and was staffed by both eunuchs and full men. He died comparatively young, a few years after the birth of his daughter, and his widow the Lady Xuan soon married again.
Xuan's second husband, and the Lady Deng's step-father, was Liang Ki 梁紀
It was under the influence of Sun Shou, moreover, that Mengnü entered the harem. Recognising the girl's physical attractions, Sun Shou evidently hoped she would act as an agent or support for her adopted relatives. At first the plan appears to have been successful: Mengnü contrived to avoid any quarrel with the reigning Empress Liang Nüying 梁女瑩, sister of Liang Ji, and she also obtained special favours for her own family. A year after she entered the harem, presumably at the time she was promoted to be Honoured Lady, her elder brother Deng/Liang Yan 演 received a county marquisate in Nanyang with the high rank of Specially Advanced 特進 and precedence next only to the highest ministers of state. When Yan died a year or so later his son Kang 康, Mengnü's nephew, succeeded to his fief.
On the other hand, the Lady's step-father Liang Ki died soon after her entry into the harem, so the connection with Sun Shou and Liang Ji was weakened, and in the autumn of 159 the situation was dramatically changed by the unexpected death of the Empress Liang. Her brother Liang Ji had no longer any direct connection to the imperial harem, and in order to regain his influence there he now proposed to adopt the Lady Mengnü as his daughter and have her established as empress.
Emperor Huan had no objection to this arrangement on personal grounds - he still preferred Mengnü to the other women available - but there were growing signs that he resented Liang Ji's dominance at court. Now twenty-seven, he had been kept from all practical influence in government and he was resentful about many individual cases of the General-in-Chief's harsh measures against protest and dissent, but so long as Liang Ji had the support and approval of Mengnü's own family, notably her mother Xuan, there was no room for political manoeuvre. At this point, however, Xuan and her immediate relatives came to realise that they would lose much of their influence if Mengnü came under Liang Ji's control, and Xuan herself saw the golden opportunity of official rank as mother-in-law to the emperor. She refused to approve the adoption.
An elder sister of Mengnü had married a certain Bing Zun 邴尊, who currently held the low-ranking post of Consultant 議郎 at the court. He too could see the opportunities presented by the good fortune of his sister-in-law, and he took the lead in urging the Lady Xuan to oppose Liang Ji's plans. Within a few days Liang Ji had sent a group of his retainers to kill him, but Xuan still refused to change her mind, and Liang Ji sent his men against her too.
The Lady Xuan's mansion in the capital was directly next door to the house of the eunuch Regular Attendant Yuan She 袁赦. Like other great houses of the time, it was surrounded by a high wall, and Liang Ji's men broke into Yuan She's compound in order to gain entry to Xuan's. Yuan She discovered them, he beat on a drum to summon his own servants, and called out to warn Xuan. She ran to the palace, reached the emperor, and told him the story.
If Liang Ji could act so directly,
Emperor Huan himself was now clearly in danger of his life. He had little
time to act before Liang Ji did re-establish control within the harem, but
he made effective use of the opportunity. With a trusted group of senior eunuchs,
he drew up the necessary orders and sent a mixed force of eunuchs and palace
gentlemen to surround the residences of Liang Ji and his wife Sun Shou, taking
back their insignia of rank and office, and ordering them to exile in the
far south of
Five days after the coup, on 14 September 159, the Honoured Lady Mengnü became Empress 皇后. She and her relatives had renounced their connection with the Liang family, and the emperor insisted that his new consort should adopt the surname Pu 蒲. It is possible the surname was chosen because it had been Xuan's maiden name before her marriage to Deng Xiang, but more likely it was a reminder of the good example of the modest lady Pu, concubine of Emperor Gaozu 高祖 of Former Han who became the mother of Emperor Wen 文 in the early second century BC.
Two years later, however, in 161, senior officials at court sent in a memorial to say that it was inappropriate for the empress to avoid the name of her true father, and an edict restored her surname to Deng. Deng Xiang was granted posthumous title as a marquis and appointment as General of Chariots and Cavalry 車騎將軍, a high and formal military rank which had been held in the past by imperial relatives by marriage; Xuan was enfeoffed as Lady of Kunyang 昆陽君, a prosperous county in Nanyang, while her grandson Deng Kang had his fief transferred to another county in Nanyang and was awarded a donation of one hundred million cash. When Xuan died some time later, her estate was transferred as a marquisate to another grandson, Deng Tong 鄧統, Deng Tong's younger brother Deng Bing 秉 also received a fief, and Deng Xiang's title was transferred to a senior cousin, Deng Hui 鄧會.
On the other hand, though her relatives commanded various units in the palace guards and the Northern Army stationed at the capital, only one member of the empress' family, her senior cousin Deng Wanshi 鄧萬世, was appointed to significant office as Intendant of the capital commandery Henan 河南尹. He too received a marquisate, but his favour may have been due less to the influence of the empress than to the fact that he had been a friend of the emperor before he was brought to the throne.
Though their perquisites were modest compared to the extravagance and power of the Liang family, the Deng were not popular with regular officials of the court, and Emperor Huan received many complaints and protests against them and against the honours he had granted. In particular and very strangely, though the Deng had long been a leading family, and there appears to have been no direct question raised about the empress' legitimacy, she was several times described as a woman of low birth.
The emperor paid small attention to these criticisms, and the Lady Deng continued to receive his favours. Sadly, however, she bore him no sons, and though two imperial daughters appeared about this time it is not likely that either of them were hers. Emperor Huan, indeed, had gathered a vast harem, alleged to number five or six thousand women, with servants and slaves, and ministers were protesting that the cost was becoming a major strain on the finances of the empire. The numbers may be exaggerated: it is hard to imagine what any man could do with such a mass of femininity, but Emperor Huan's palatial Garden of the Shining Dragon 濯龍園was one of the celebrated pleasure-places of Han.
The Empress Deng herself, however, now in her late twenties and faced with constant competition from new, ambitious rivals, was in an increasingly weak position. It is recorded that she had a furious quarrel with the Honoured Lady Guo 郭, and each told tales about the other, while there is also reference to her drunkenness. Her biography says that she was arrogant and over-bearing and the emperor became tired of her presumptions and importunities.
On 27 March 165 the Empress Deng was dismissed and imprisoned in the Drying House 暴室, the harem hospital which was also used for the seclusion of high-ranking ladies when they were out of favour, and a short time later she was dead, officially through an excess of grief. One account says that she was disgraced for misbehaviour and then compelled to commit suicide, while two other passages claim that she was found guilty of "heretical doctrines" 左道, that is non-Confucian teachings and superstition.
Apart from her erratic behaviour under the pressure of harem rivalries, it may well be that the unfortunate empress had been in search of some fertility charm or drug which might enable her to bear the emperor a son. Innocent and well-intentioned though this may have been, the implications at one level of supernatural interference with the sacred person of the emperor, and at another of the possibility of poison, were dangerous and potentially devastating. The accusation of witchcraft was a cliché of harem politics, but it may nonetheless be true, while "death through grief" may indeed conceal forced suicide or even murder.
With the fall of the Lady Deng, her relatives were removed without difficulty from their positions at court: unlike the Liang, they had acquired no substantial support or patronage. Deng Wanshi and Deng Hui died in jail, while Deng Tong, Deng Bing and Deng Hui were briefly imprisoned but then released and sent back to their home country in Nanyang. They were also stripped of their honours, and the property they had received was confiscated.
About this time, moreover, two of Emperor Huan's eunuch favourites were dismissed and one, Zuo Guan 左悺, was obliged to commit suicide. The ostensible cause was a series of accusations brought by regular officials against the corruption of relatives of the eunuchs who held office in the provinces. Zuo Guan, however, had also been heavily involved in the development of the imperial worship of the divinity Huang-Lao 黃老, a combination of the legendary Yellow Emperor 黃老 and the sage Laozi 黃老.
The Huang-Lao cult was well established in the Han period, but Emperor Huan was the first ruler to grant his personal patronage. At the very beginning of his reign a temple had been constructed for the sage at his reputed birth place in Chen 陳 kingdom, eastern Henan, but since the emperor held no effective authority at that time we may assume this was an initiative of the Liang regency. Twenty years later, however, in the first month of 165, Zuo Guan was sent to make sacrifice at the shrine, and it may be that this ritual reflected an enterprise of the Empress Deng, seeking mystical support for herself, her husband and his dynasty. Even after the empress' death and that of Zuo Guan, however, the imperial interest continued, with the erection of a commemorative stele in the autumn of 165, another visit to the shrine at the beginning of 166 and a culminating ceremony of worship to Huang-Lao and the new, alien, divinity of the Buddha [described as 浮圖 or 浮屠 rather than the modern 佛] which was held at the imperial palace in Luoyang in the summer of that year.
It has been suggested that Emperor Huan's third empress, the Lady Dou Miao 竇妙 , was responsible for this development, but it appears more probable that the worship of Huang-Lao by Emperor Huan reflected the involvement of the Empress Deng in unorthodox religions and her unsuccessful quest for a son and heir who might preserve her husband's affections and her own imperial status.
Hou Han shu 10B [the Biographies of the Empresses], Beijing 1965 edition 444-445
Hans Bielenstein, "Lo-yang in Later Han times" in Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 48 (Stockholm 1976), 93-95
Rafe de Crespigny, "The Harem of Emperor Huan; a study of court politics in Later Han" in Papers on Far Eastern History 12 (Canberra, September 1975), 1-42 at 11-25 and 34-42
de Crespigny, "Politics and Philosophy under the Government of Emperor Huan" in T'oung Pao 66 (1980), 41-83
de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling (Canberra 1989) I, 8-14, 58
Anna Seidel, La Divinisation de Lao Tseu dans le Taoisme des Han, Publications de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient 71 (Paris 1969)
Seidel, "The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Taoist Messianism: Lao-tzu and Li Hung" in History of Religions IX.2&3 (November and February 1969-70), 216-247
Dou Miao 竇妙 (d.172 AD), Empress and Dowager of Emperor Huan of Later Han.
Early in 165 the Empress Deng Mengnü, consort of Emperor Huan, was dismissed, imprisoned and died. In that same year the Lady Dou Miao joined the imperial harem. Probably selected at the time of the regular autumn recruitment, in which case she would have been some thirteen to fifteen years old, she was promptly appointed as an Honoured Lady, highest rank of concubine, and on 10 December 165 she was proclaimed Empress.
The Lady was the eldest daughter of Dou Wu 竇武, a descendant of the north-western warlord Dou Rong 竇融, who had been the rival and later an ally of the founding Emperor Guangwu of Later Han. Dou Rong's great-granddaughter became the Empress of Emperor Zhang 章, and after his death in 88 she and her family controlled the government of the young Emperor He 和 until the overthrow of their power in 92. The Dowager died in 97, and her family had not recovered its political importance at the capital.
In their home country about Chang'an 長安, present-day Xi'an, however, the Dou still held personal influence and considerable wealth. Dou Wu's father had been administrator of a northern frontier commandery, and Dou Wu himself had established his reputation as a scholar of the classics who ran a private academy near his home. When his daughter was appointed Honoured Lady, Dou Wu was granted probationary appointment as a Gentleman of the Palace 郎中, and when she became empress he was appointed colonel of a regiment in the Northern Army, central strategic reserve of the empire, and was enfeoffed as a marquis with revenue from five thousand households.
The arrangement, however, was not so straightforward as a summary of Chinese records might indicate. Firstly, it is clear that Emperor Huan was under considerable pressure from senior ministers at court to appoint the Lady Dou, and his own position was evidently not strong enough to withstand their arguments. His personal favourite was the Lady Tian Sheng 田聖, a Chosen Woman 采女, lowest rank of concubine, who regularly shared his bed with eight unnamed companions. He had no interest in the Lady Dou, and attended her very rarely, if at all.
The argument of his ministers, however, was that it was essential for the good of the dynasty for the emperor to take a woman of good family as his consort, and the Dou were presented as a most appropriate alliance. There seems no doubt that the Lady Tian was of humble origin, but it is surprising that the former Empress Deng was also criticised on the same grounds. Both the Deng and the Dou were related to powerful empress-dowagers of the past, and the fathers of both women had held only minor official rank. There is, prima facie, no way to determine why the commentators should denigrate the background of the Lady Deng and praise that of the Lady Dou, and one must assume there was some strong sense of personal prejudice.
From the point of view of the dynasty, moreover, and particularly in terms of the succession, the arguments for a woman of good family are very strange. In 159 the emperor had been able to gather supporters among the eunuchs of the harem to overthrow the power of the Liang family, which had dominated the government since the days of his predecessor Emperor Shun [see sub Liang Na], while his Empress Liang Nüying had actually been responsible for the miscarriages or abortion of any children which he had conceived with other women of the harem. One might expect that the last thing Emperor Huan would wish to inflict upon his dynasty was another generation of aristocratic relatives by marriage, while it seems very likely that the Lady Tian Sheng and her eight companions were engaged not only for their qualities as sexual partners, but also in the hope that one of the magical number nine might conceive a son.
It appears, therefore, that Emperor Huan's position was weak. There had been growing complaints about the size and cost of his harem, while a number of his eunuch allies and favourites had lately been disgraced for corruption. The fall of the Empress Deng and her family gave the reform party at court the opportunity to press for a new influence within the palace, they evidently regarded the scholarly Dou Wu as a supporter of their cause, and the emperor was obliged to accept their wishes.
Dou Wu was later promoted to become Colonel of the City Gates 城門校尉, an independent command responsible for the outer defences of the capital. He gave particular attention to students and junior clerks, recommending many of them for promotion and distributing rewards and subsidies, while keeping his own style of life simple and plain. With a fine reputation and many recipients of his patronage and bounty, he confirmed his alliance with leading officials such as Chen Fan 陳蕃 and established a substantial position at court. In 167, when the imperial eunuchs managed to have some of their out-spoken critics arrested, Dou Wu faced the emperor with a threat to resign his office and his fief, and he obtained the release of the prisoners.
Emperor Huan, on the other hand, liked Dou Wu no better than before for this political activity, and he continued to reject the Empress. Still more important, though two daughters were born about this time, he acquired no son and heir.
It has been suggested that the Empress Dou had some influence on the emperor's patronage of the cult of Huang-Lao 黃老, a combination of the legendary Yellow Emperor 黃老 and the sage Laozi 黃老, which culminated in a great ceremony of sacrifice at the capital in the summer of 166. It seems more probable, however, that his interest was first inspired by the Empress Deng and a number of the eunuch officials, and that it was developed further not in combination with the Dou but rather in opposition to the Confucianism represented by Dou Wu and his ministerial allies. It may even be that the emperor was seeking an alternative source of spiritual legitimacy for his personal regime which would be independent of traditional Confucian ideology. [See sub Deng Mengnü above, and also especially de Crespigny, "Politics and Philosophy."]
At the end of 167 the emperor became seriously ill, and 25 January 168 he died, still only in his mid-thirties. As he lay upon his death-bed, he promoted Tian Sheng and her colleagues to be Honoured Ladies, but after he was dead, and while his body yet lay in state in the palace, the Empress Dou, now Dowager, killed the Lady Tian Sheng. Through the intervention of two senior eunuchs she was obliged to spare the lives of the other eight favourites, but the Dowager and her father Dou Wu now controlled the government.
As the emperor had died without an heir, the customs of Han, confirmed by the recent precedent of the Dowager Liang Na, allowed her a free choice among the cadets of the imperial house, and the Dowager Dou, probably still aged no more than twenty, consulted her father within the private apartments of the palace 定策禁中. Despite his association with members of the outer court and the bureaucracy, Dou Wu made no attempt to involve any senior ministers in the decision. He did ask the Imperial Clerk Liu Shu 劉儵, a member of the censorate, for a recommendation, and when Liu Shu proposed the village marquis Liu Hong 劉宏 he was sent with an escort to bring him to the capital. On 17 February 167 Liu Hong was proclaimed emperor; he is commonly known by his posthumous title as Emperor Ling 靈.
Though we are told Liu Shu had been asked to nominate members of the imperial clan who were noted for their moral qualities, it is difficult to see how these criteria should have led necessarily to Liu Hong. The new emperor was twelve sui when he was placed upon the throne, so he was little more than ten years old by Western reckoning at the time he was chosen. His great-grandfather, Liu Kai 劉開 the King of Hejian, was a son of Emperor Zhang 章 of Later Han (reigned 75-88), and Liu Hong was thus a member of the same lineage as his predecessor Emperor Huan. On the other hand, Liu Hong's grandfather, a younger son, had been granted only a petty marquisate, neither he nor Liu Hong's father had shown any personal distinction, and Liu Hong's own later conduct, while perhaps only of marginal importance to the government as a whole, was never exemplary. As in the cases of Liu Zuan and of Liu Zhi, future Emperor Huan, a generation earlier, one is inclined to assume that in the eyes of his sponsors Liu Hong's chief recommendations were that he was old enough to avoid the risks of infant mortality, and young enough to require the guidance of a regent, thus ensuring the hegemony of the dowager's clan for some years to come [see sub Liang Na above].
With his family's power now established, Dou Wu and his daughter arranged enfeoffments and rewards for their relatives and clients and, like the Liang family before them, members of the Dou family held significant military and police appointments about the capital. Dou Wu himself became General-in-Chief 大將軍, the same position as had been held by Liang Ji, brother of the empresses Liang Na and Liang Nüying, which formally gave command over the whole Northern Army, the major professional force at the capital. He also established a close partnership with Chen Fan, named as Grand Tutor 太傅, and the two men shared control over the imperial secretariat, centre of government authority.
In accordance with the wishes of their popular constituency, young men about the capital who wished to see revival and reform on idealistic Confucian lines, Dou Wu and Chen Fan planned to destroy the power of the harem eunuchs who had acquired power through the favour of Emperor Huan. Under the influence of the Regular Attendants Cao Jie 曹節 and Wang Fu 王甫, however, the Dowager rejected her father's proposals, and continued to protect the attendants in the harem. As months passed, the frustration of Chen Fan and the reformers became more obvious, and Dou Wu was increasingly inclined towards a coup d'état which would bring a swift and bloody resolution to the stalemate.
In the autumn of 168 matters
came to a head. Chen Fan and Dou Wu ordered the arrest of Cao Jie and Wang
Fu, but other eunuchs joined together in self-defence and persuaded the boy
emperor to support them. The elderly Chen Fan was arrested as he sought to
break into the palace, and when Dou Wu went to call troops from the Northern
Army he was faced by imperial orders and by the popular frontier general Zhang
Huan 張奐 who had been persuaded to oppose the traitor. Dou Wu's men deserted him and
Dou Wu committed suicide. Others of the family were also slain, and remnant
relatives and clients were exiled to the far south of the empire in present-day
The Dowager Dou herself was placed under house arrest in the Cloud Terrace 雲臺 of the Southern Palace at Luoyang. She was not treated well by her eunuch jailers, and although Zhang Huan protested and the emperor himself gave orders, her situation did not greatly improve.
At the beginning of winter in 171 Emperor Ling made a special visit and paid respects to the Dowager for having brought him to the throne, and the eunuch Dong Meng 董萌 again raised the matter of her ill-treatment. The emperor was concerned and gave increasing quantities of supplies and provisions, but Cao Jie and Wang Fu avenged themselves by trumping up charges of impiety against Dong Meng and he was executed.
In 172 the Dowager's mother died in exile in the south and it is said that the empress became ill from grief. She died on 18 July, and one must suspect that she was assisted to her end. The eunuchs, enemies to the last, argued that her funerary rites should be no more those of an Honoured Lady, but after debate in the full court between the eunuchs and his senior ministers Emperor Ling determined that the Dowager Dou should be buried with full imperial honours, and on 8 August she was placed in the same tomb as her late consort Emperor Huan.
Hou Han shu 10B [the Biographies of the Empresses], Beijing 1965 edition 445-446
Hans Bielenstein, "Lo-yang in Later Han times" in Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 48 (Stockholm 1976), 95-98
Ch'ü T'ung-tsu, Han Social Structure (Seattle 1972), 484-490
Rafe de Crespigny, "The Harem of Emperor Huan; a study of court politics in Later Han" in Papers on Far Eastern History 12 (Canberra, September 1975), 1-42 at 25-42
de Crespigny, "Politics and Philosophy under the Government of Emperor Huan" in T'oung Pao 66 (1980), 41-83
de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling (Canberra 1989) I, 64, 88-102, 121-126
Anna Seidel, La Divinisation de Lao Tseu dans le Taoisme des Han, Publications de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient 71 (Paris 1969)
Seidel, "The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Taoist Messianism: Lao-tzu and Li Hung" in History of Religions IX.2&3 (November and February 1969-70), 216-247
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