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Lü Zhi
Empress of Western Han (202 BC-195 BC)
Empress Dowager Lü (195 BC-180 BC)
Born 241 BC
Died 180 BC (aged 61)
Consort to Emperor Gao of Han
Children Emperor Hui of Han
Princess Luyuan

Empress Lü Zhi (呂雉) (died 180 BC), commonly known as Empress Dowager Lü (呂太后, pinyin: Lǚ Tàihòu) or formally as Empress Gao (高皇后, pinyin: Gaō Huánghoù), was the wife of Emperor Gao of the Han Dynasty. They had two known children—the eventual Emperor Hui and Princess Luyuan (魯元公主). After her husband's death, she carried on a lengthy affair with one of his officials, Shen Yiji (審食其), the Marquess of Piyang, which lasted until her death.

Empress Lü has been criticized by some past historians for being a power-hungry woman. According to traditional historians, she conspired against Han Xin, the Prince of Chu, and Peng Yue, the Prince of Liang; both were prominent generals and major contributors to the founding of the Han dynasty and were awarded principalities for their achievements. Allegedly at Empress Lü's suggestion, Emperor Gao removed Han from his principality of Chu, and she executed Han in Emperor Gao's absence after accusing him of treason. Similarly, allegedly at her suggestion, he had Peng arrested, charged with treason, and executed. Despite her reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty (which is probably well-deserved), she appeared to be genuinely devoted to her husband and the safety of the empire—so much so that long after Emperor Gao's death, she, then firmly in control, continued to carry out his instructions on the succession of ministers. Despite her cruelty, she was also known as an able administrator, and she (other than the instances of nepotism) generally promoted capable officials. During her regency, therefore, the people of the empire enjoyed a measure of rest from the turmoils of the destruction of Qin Dynasty and the wars of Chu Han Contention. However, due to her inexplicable trade embargo against Nanyue, Nanyue made repeated attacks against the Principality of Changsha (modern Hunan) and the Commandery of Nan (modern Hubei). As far as the relations with Xiongnu to the north, there was a famous episode in which the Xiongnu chanyu Modu wrote her a mocking letter proposing marriage. She wrote back a humble letter proposing instead that a princess be given to him as part of the heqin system.[1]

After Emperor Gao died in 195 BC, Empress Lü received the title of Empress Dowager and became immensely powerful. She murdered Concubine Qi's son Liu Ruyi, the Prince of Zhao, and she then tortured Concubine Qi by cutting off her limbs and blinding and deafening her, leading to her death. Her inhumane treatment of Concubine Qi depressed the gentle but weak Emperor Hui. She also starved to death another son of her husband's—Liu You, the Prince of Zhao—whom she felt had slighted his wife, the Princess of Zhao, who was a niece of hers.[2] Emperor Hui's infant sons, Emperor Qianshao and Emperor Houshao, were installed as her puppets on the throne after Emperor Hui's death in 188 BC. Thus, real power rested in her hands for sixteen years.

During her regency, members of the Lü clan gradually took over important posts in the government; however, upon her death, officials that previously served under Emperor Gao, including Chen Ping, Zhou Bo and Guan Ying, eliminated the Lü clan and placed Emperor Wen on the throne. In this way, Empress Dowager Lü's devotion to her husband's wishes oddly enough led to her own clan's downfall, as Chen and Zhou were named by her to their posts long after Emperor Gao's death pursuant to his instructions on ministerial succession.

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Family background and marriage to Liu Bang

Lü Zhi's father Lü Gong (呂公) was a friend of the county magistrate of Pei County (沛縣) during late Qin Dynasty. Her eventual husband Liu Bang is a minor official (泗水亭長). Both Lü Gong and Liu Bang were guests in a banquet held by the magistrate of Pei County. Lü Gong was surprised at Liu Bang's appearance and behaviour and predicted that he would eventually become a great man. This led to him offering his daughter, Lü Zhi, to him in marriage, despite the fact that he was a minor official. She bore him a daughter, who was to become Princess Luyuan (魯元公主), and then, in 210 BC, bore him a son, Liu Ying.

When Chen Sheng rebelled against Qin rule in 209 BC, Liu joined the rebellion. For the next few years, Lü lived with Liu's father only rarely seeing her husband.

Life during Chu Han Contention

During the last years of the Qin dynasty, Liu Bang played a major role in its downfall, but in doing so he offended Xiang Yu, who wanted the glory for himself.

In 207 BC, after the fall of Qin, Liu became the Prince of Han (modern Sichuan, Chongqing, and southern Shaanxi). However, Lü, her children, and her father-in-law did not go to the then-remote Principality of Han, but stayed in Liu's home county of Pei (in modern Xuzhou, Jiangsu). This is either because of Han's remoteness or because they were prevented from doing so by Xiang, whose Principality of Western Chu included Pei.

Late in 207 BC, Liu would break out of the isolation that Han was in by attacking the three Qins—three principalities that Xiang had established to prevent Liu from receiving the territories of the former state of Qin. Qin had previously been promised to Liu, which started a four-year war known as the Chu Han Contention. Despite this, however, Xiang initially took no action against Lü or her father-in-law.

In 205 BC, while Xiang was occupied in a separate war against Qi, Liu took the opportunity to attack his capital Pengcheng, capturing it in the summer of 205 BC. Xiang quickly withdrew from the Qi campaign and staged a counter-attack that nearly annihilated Liu's forces and recaptured Pengcheng. In the aftermath, as Liu tried to retreat back to his territory, he went through Pei and tried to take his father, wife, and children with him. However, in the confusion, the family members became separated. Liu was able to take his children back to the safety of his own territory, while his father and his wife Lü were captured by Xiang's forces and held thereafter as hostages, along with Liu's official Shen Yiji. (It has been speculated that the romantic relationship that Lü later had with Shen started to develop at this stage, as they were probably imprisoned together by Xiang.)

Near the end of the war, when there was a temporary truce between Liu and Xiang, Xiang transferred Liu Zhijia and Lü to Liu. Lü was then honored with the title Princess of Han. The truce, however, did not last long, as at Zhang Liang and Chen Ping's suggestion, Liu broke the truce and defeated Xiang in 203 BC. Soon thereafter, Liu claimed the title of emperor (later known as Emperor Gao of Han). He established Princess Lü as his empress, and established their son, Ying, as crown prince.

As empress

Despite Emperor Gao's victory over Xiang, there would still be many unpacified areas of the empire for years, requiring the new emperor to engage in many campaigns thereafter. He put Empress Lü and Crown Prince Ying in charge of the capital Chang'an and key decisions in home territories, assisted by Xiao He and Zhang Liang. It was also during this time that Emperor Gao began to favour one of his younger concubines, Consort Qi, who bore him a son, Ruyi (劉如意), who was established as the Prince of Zhao in 199 BC, displacing Empress Lü's son-in-law (Princess Luyuan's husband) Zhang Ao (張敖). Consort Qi yearned to have her son displace his older half-brother Prince Ying as the heir to the throne, and would often beg Emperor Gao to make her son the crown prince, drawing resentment from Empress Lü.

During this period, however, Empress Lü proved herself to be an able administrator of the home territories, and quickly built a strong working relationship with Emperor Gao's officials, who admired her for her capability and feared her for her ruthlessness. She would, indeed, be most known as an empress for her hand in the deaths of Han Xin and Peng Yue—whose military capabilities both she and her husband had been apprehensive of. In 196 BC, Emperor Gao travelled away from the capital, trying to suppress a rebellion by Chen Xi (陳豨), the Marquess of Yangxia. In this year it was alleged that Han, a friend of Chen's who by then had been demoted to a powerless marquess in Chang'an, had conspired to start a rebellion in the capital. Empress Lü, after consulting with Xiao He, had Xiao He summon Han for a meeting, at which Empress Lü's guards surprised Han, subsequently capturing and executing him and his clan.

Later that year, Peng Yue would suffer the same fate. Emperor Gao had summoned Peng Yue and his forces to join him in the campaign against Chen. Peng Yue, then the Prince of Liang, however, did not do so, claiming illness, and Emperor Gao, angrily sent a messenger to rebuke him. An official of Peng Yue's encouraged him to rebel, but Peng Yue refused to do so. Despite this, Emperor Gao sent troops to arrest Peng Yue and subsequently stripped of his titles. He then exiled Peng Yue to Qingyi (青衣, in modern Ya'an, Sichuan). On Peng Yue's journey to the southwest, however, he encountered Empress Lü. He pleaded to her, claiming his innocence. Empress Lü agreed to intercede on his behalf, and they returned to Luoyang, where Emperor Gao was at then, together. Peng Yue thought that Empress Lü was in fact going to beg Emperor Gao for his freedom. Instead, she told Emperor Gao that Peng Yue, being as capable as he was, would create a threat if exiled and Emperor Gao agreed; she then found an informant to falsely report that Peng Yue was about to start a new rebellion. Peng Yue was executed, as was his clan.

Empress Lü's own son, Crown Prince Ying, was in a precarious position, as Emperor Gao, unimpressed by his kind but weak character, continued to consider replacing him with Prince Ruyi. With officials having a strong rapport with Empress Lü, however, they generally opposed the move, and Emperor Gao had to abandon it. After he died in 195 BC, Prince Ying succeeded him, acquiring the title Emperor Hui, Empress Lü became the empress dowager.

As empress dowager

Empress Dowager Lü exerted even more influence during the reign of her son than she did as empress. Her first targets were Consort Qi and Prince Ruyi (who by then had gone to his principality of Zhao, located in modern Hebei) province. She dressed Consort Qi in prisoner clothes and forced her to hard labor—milling rice. She also summoned Prince Ruyi to the capital, intending to kill them together. Prince Ruyi's prime minister Zhou Chang (周昌), whom Empress Dowager Lü respected because of his stern opposition to Emperor Gao's proposal to make Prince Ruyi crown prince, temporarily protected him by refusing to allow him to go to Chang'an. Empress Dowager Lü solved this problem by first inviting Zhou Chang to the capital then, once he left Zhao, summoning Prince Ruyi.

Emperor Hui tried to save Prince Ruyi's life. Before Prince Ruyi could get to the capital, Emperor Hui intercepted his half-brother at Bashang (霸上, in modern Xi'an) and received Prince Ruyi into his palace, and they dined together. Empress Dowager Lü wanted to kill Prince Ruyi, but was afraid that any attempt to do so might also harm her own son, and therefore she could not carry out her plans for several months.

Empress Dowager Lü got her chance in the winter of 195 BC. One morning, Emperor Hui was out hunting and wanted to take Prince Ruyi with him. The young prince was then only 12 years old and refused to get up from bed, and Emperor Hui left for the hunt on his own. Empress Dowager Lü heard this and immediately sent an assassin into the palace to force poisoned wine down the prince's throat. By the time that Emperor Hui returned, the young prince was dead. She then tortured Consort Qi most inhumanely— cutting her limbs off, blinding her, and deafening her—and Consort Qi would eventually die from the continued torture. When Emperor Hui saw Consort Qi in a pig's bin blind and without limbs, he cried out loudly and became ill for about a year, complaining to his mother that he felt that he could no longer govern the empire, given that he, as the emperor, could not even protect the concubine and son so loved by his father. From that point on, Emperor Hui indulged himself with wine and women and no longer made key governing decisions, leaving them to his mother.

Emperor Hui would have to protect another sibling of his from Empress Dowager Lü. In winter of 194 BC, when Liu Fei, Prince of Qi—his older brother by Emperor Gao's mistress Consort Cao—made an official visit to the capital, they both attended a feast put on by Empress Dowager Lü. Emperor Hui, honoring the prince as an older brother, invited him to a seat at the table even more honored than his own. The Empress Dowager was greatly offended and instructed her servants to pour a cup of poisoned wine for Prince Fei and then toasted him. As Prince Fei was about to drink the poisoned wine, however, Emperor Hui, realising what was happening, grabbed the cup as if he would drink it himself. Empress Dowager Lü immediately jumped up and slapped at the cup, spilling it. Prince Fei was able to get out of the situation by offering an entire commandery from his principality to Lü's daughter, Princess Luyuan, to serve as her realm. Empress Dowager Lü accepted this peace offering and allowed Prince Fei to return to his principality.

In 192 BC, Empress Dowager Lü (who at that point was involved in an affair with Shen) received a most unusual marriage proposal. The Xiongnu chanyu Modu sent her a letter stating the following, intending to intimidate and mock her:

I am a lonesome ruler who was born in the northern wilderness and have grown on plains full of livestock. I often got to your borders and wanted to tour the main territories of Han. You had just lost your husband, and I imagine you cannot endure the loneliness. Since neither of us can gratify ourselves in our loneliness, marry me, and we will exchange what we do not have for what we do have. What do you think?

Empress Dowager Lü was greatly offended, but could do nothing due to Xiongnu's military strength. She instead offered a daughter of an imperial prince to Modu in marriage (as part of the heqin system) and replied with a humble letter, seeking peace.

In 191 BC, at Empress Dowager Lü's insistence, Emperor Hui married Princess Luyuan's daughter Zhang Yan—his niece—as empress. The marriage would be a childless one. It was alleged that Empress Dowager Lü told Empress Zhang to take eight boys from others and execute their mothers, and then adopt the children as her own. (There is a dispute whether these children were Emperor Hui's; traditional historians believed that they were not, while modern historians generally believe that they were, by his concubines.) (See here for more details.)

In 188 BC, Emperor Hui died. One of the children that Empress Zhang adopted, Liu Gong, became emperor (as Emperor Qianshao). However, now-Grand Empress Dowager Lü would be the one who actually and formally ruled over the empire, and traditional historians did not even consider Liu Gong a true emperor, often omitting him from the list of Han Dynasty emperors.

As grand empress dowager

Quickly, Grand Empress Dowager Lü tried to carry out something that Emperor Gao had prohibited—making her kin princes. (Emperor Gao had decreed that no non-imperial clan members could be made princes—a rule that Grand Empress Dowager Lü herself had a hand in creating.) This was opposed by the right prime minister Wang Ling (王陵) but accepted by the left prime minister Chen Ping and the commander in chief of the armed forces Zhou Bo (周勃). When Wang rebuked Chen and Zhou in private for going against Emperor Gao's rule, they rationalized that their compliance with the grand empress dowager was necessary to protect the empire and the Lius. Grand Empress Dowager Lü then promoted Wang to the honorary position of the emperor's teacher (太傅, taifu); Wang declined and claimed illness. Lü then removed him from the position and had him (as the Marquess of Anguo) returned to his march (in modern Baoding, Hebei) and promoted Chen to right prime minister ("right" being the more honored direction) and her lover Shen Yiji to left prime minister.

She then proceeded to establish her family as princes. Her first step in this was establishing her grandson, and Princess Luyuan's daughter, Zhang Yan (張偃—different intonation than his sister the empress), as the Prince of Lu. In the following years she established these family members as princes:

  • Lü Tai (呂台), the son of her brother Lü Ze (呂澤), the Prince of Lü (established in 186 BC, died that year)
  • Lü Chan (呂產), the son of Lü Tai, first as the Prince of Lü (established in 182 BC to replace his brother Lü Jia (呂嘉), the son of Lü Tai, who was regarded as arrogant and wasteful), then as the Prince of Liang (established in 181 BC)
  • Lü Lu (呂祿), the son of her brother Lü Shizhi (呂釋之), the Prince of Zhao (established in 181 BC)
  • Lü Tong (呂通), the son of Lü Tai, the Prince of Yan (created 181 BC)

She also, in an unprecedented action, created her sister Lü Xu (呂須) the Marchioness of Lingguang, with a separate march from that of her husband Fan Kuai, in 184 BC.

Around 184 BC, Emperor Qianshao discovered that he was not in fact now-Empress Dowager Zhang's son and that his mother had been put to death. He made the mistake of remarking that when he grew up, Empress Dowager Zhang would pay for this. Grand Empress Dowager Lü, once she heard of this, had him secretly imprisoned within the palace and publicly announced that he was severely ill and unable to receive anyone. After some time, she told the officials that he continued to be ill and incapable of governing, and that he had also suffered a psychosis. She proposed that he be deposed and replaced. The officials complied with her wishes, and he was deposed and put to death. He was succeeded by his brother Liu Yi (劉義), whose name was then changed to Liu Hong (as Emperor Houshao).

Death

In 180 BC, Grand Empress Dowager Lü was making sacrifices to the gods at Bashang. As she was returning to the capital after the sacrifices, she saw something that appeared to be a blue-haired dog attacking her armpit and then suddenly disappearing. A warlock informed her that the object was Prince Ruyi's spirit. She became apprehensive and began to suffer pain in her armpit, which eventually became a major illness. She died later that year and was buried with her husband.

In the aftermath of her death, the officials would plot against the Lü clan and have Grand Empress Dowager Lü's family members overthrown and executed. See Lü Clan Disturbance for more details.

Personal information

See also

References

Chinese royalty
New dynasty Empress of Western Han Dynasty
202 BC – 195 BC
Succeeded by
Empress Zhang Yan
New creation Empress of China
202 BC – 195 BC
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