Monday, December 11, 2017

Conspiring Concubines and Desperate Divas: Women and Power Politics in the Han Dynasty

History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2009

*Note: Originally I wrote this article for the Heritage Key website based in London, England. That website is no longer online. I don't like to waste such extensive research so have republished it here.

Xin Zhui (Chinese: 辛追), also known as Lady Dai, 
was the wife of the Marquess Li Cang. Wax reproduction 
from the cast of her mummy discovered at Mawangdui.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1972, the intact tomb of a noble lady of the Han dynasty was discovered at Mawangdui in the eastern outskirts of Changsha, China.  Although eclipsed by the discovery of the life-sized terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang-di two years later, the Mawangdui tomb is still considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century and provided important insight into the lifestyle of the rich and famous of early Western Han society.  The tomb was filled with food offerings and household items that Xin Zhui, the wife of the Chancellor or "Marquis" of the state of Changsha, a fief containing 700 households, would need to continue a luxurious lifestyle in the afterlife.

"Remains of Lady Dai’s last feast—provisions to span the ages—still linger in her sublime lacquerware, vestiges of beverages and comestibles lurking amongst some of the sixteen distinctive types of lacquer objects discovered: pheasant bones, ox ribs and shoulder blades, mandarin-fish bones, and wheaten food in various pan dishes; erbei winged cups referencing their intended use for food, wine, and broth via inscriptions; yu bowls; shao ladles; zhi cups; bi ladles; a ji armrest; ding tripods, one half filled with lotus root strips; an trays (set with cups, dishes containing food), and a pair of bamboo chopsticks; an unspecified cake-like food in all of the he boxes; a jubeihe cup container; yi pouring vessels; a pingfeng screen; fang vases, all four with dregs of wine or broth; a biscuit-like substance in a lian box; dregs of broth or wine in zhong vases." - Julie Rauer, The Last Feast of Lady Dai

Her astoundingly well-preserved corpse enabled researchers to conduct one of the most complete autopsies ever performed on an ancient corpse. 

"Plagued by a series of parasites and suffering from coronary thrombosis and arteriosclerosis, the obese noblewoman was further incapable of normal locomotion, the result of acute back pain initiated by a fused spinal disc (exposed via X-rays). Clogged arteries culminated in a profoundly damaged heart, ironically paralleling the contemporary health crisis of mass obesity fueled by economic plentitude, caloric overindulgence and lack of exercise. Gallstones further taxed Xin Zhui’s badly overburdened physiology; one of these abnormal masses of biliary calculus, according to expert medical consensus, lodged in her bile duct, aggravating an already precarious circulatory condition, and likely induced a colossal heart attack."  - Julie Rauer, The Last Feast of Lady Dai

This painting on silk, recovered from Lady Dai's
tomb depicts the heaven (upper part), the human
realm  (middle part), and the netherworld. Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
She had a fashionable wardrobe of some of the finest silk ever found still in tact - one burial robe a delicate gossamer weighing only 49 grams.  Like most cultured ladies of the period she probably loved music as her grave goods contained several musical instruments including a 25-stringed se and a 22-pipe yu. She was well groomed, evidenced by her lacquered costmetic case with delicate combs and a bronze mirror. But, feasting and entertainments aside, what was life really like as a noblewoman in the Han imperial court.

Exotic concubines and meek, submissive wives people the stereotypes of Chinese women often portrayed in tales and legends told from a western perspective.  However, although virtuous, supportive wives were admired and held up as examples of behavior in ancient Chinese society, women in ancient Chinese history went far beyond the expected roles of marital relationships - leading rebellions, serving as political consultants, recording history, becoming revered teachers, commanding armies and even making or breaking the next emperor.

The impact of women's contributions was never more evident than during the Han Dynasty - China's Golden Age.  Strong women were a a force to be reckoned with from the very beginning of the empire.

The first Han emperor, Liu Bang, was born a simple peasant, one of only two Chinese emperors (the other the founder of the Ming dynasty) from humble origins.  As he and his followers battled the forces of the Qin, he encountered a vigorous female officer named Huang Guigu, who led Qin forces in northern China.  "Lady Sima", as she was officially called, studied military tactics at night, practiced military formations during the day, was strong enough to draw a stout bow and was revered for her talent at reading the stars.  Recognizing her value, Liu Bang  issued an imperial decree after his victory which gave Huang Guigu 300 catties of gold and jade to demonstrate his respect for her.

Although there is no record of Liu Bang commissioning Huang Guigu to command some of his own battalions, he actively recruited former Qin officials for positions in his new government. The burdens of administration of such a large empire must have seemed daunting.  It is reported that he wrote the following poem at a wine party he gave in his  hometown  after putting down an armed rebellion in 195 B. C.


A great wind rises,
    Clouds fly and scatter;
With power over the four seas,
    I return to my homeland;
Where shall I get brave warriors
     to safeguard the four qrarters?
        (Tr.Ronald C. Miao)

Little did he realize at the time that his most formidable female adversary would end up being his own wife, the Empress Lü Zhi.

 Lü Zhi was a daughter of a Qin magistrate for the county of Danfu.  When Liu Bang was still but a roving rebel and visited Danfu, he was recognized by Lü Zhi's father as a talented leader.  Lü Wen predicted the young rebel would become a great man, so he granted Liu Bang the hand of his daughter in marriage.  Lü Zhi bore the future emperor a daughter then, in 210 BC, a son.  But, Lü Zhi spent the years during her husband's conquest of the Qin empire in relative isolation with her father-in-law in Pei where her husband had grown up.

Finally, in 207 BC, the greatness foreseen by Lü Zhi's father came to pass - the Qin dynasty fell and Liu Bang became the Prince (sometimes translated as "king") of Han.  However, he shared power with a brilliant but ruthless rebel general named Xiang Yu who, it is speculated, kept Lü Zhi, her children and her father-in-law as virtual hostages to derail any future of ambitions of his one-time rebel  colleague.

This excellent production available on Netflix chronicles the rise of Liu Bang and his
conflict with Xiang Yu. (Subtitled in English)

In 205 BC, in spite of the fact that his family were "under the protection" of Xiang Yu, Liu attacked his rival's capital, Pengcheng, while the general was off campaigning against the nearby state of Qi.  Xiang quickly withdrew from the Qi campaign and counter-attacked, nearly annihilating Liu's forces and recapturing Pengcheng. In the aftermath, as Liu tried to retreat back to his own territory, he marched through Pei and tried to rescue his father, wife, and children. However, the young family became separated in the confusion and, although. Liu rescued his children, his father and his wife were captured by Xiang's forces and held thereafter as literal hostages, along with one of Liu's officials, Shen Yiji. (Shen Yiji would became openly romantically involved with Lü Zhi after Liu Bang's death).

General Xiang eventually released the trio under the terms of a truce with Liu Bang.  But, with his family now safe, Liu broke the truce and decisively defeated Xiang Yu in 203 BC.  Liu finally claimed the title of Emperor and named Lü Zhi as empress, designating their son, Liu Ying as crown prince, a seemingly happy ending.

But Liu still had to pacify other areas of the empire, so he spent years away from his family on campaign.  While he was away, he put Empress Lü and the crown prince in charge of his new capital  Chang'an and gave them the authority to make key decisions for the surrounding area, assisted by his long time supporter and new prime minister, Xiao He, and Zhang Liang, one of his military strategists.

Empress Lü proved to be an able administrator but soon her advisors saw that she had learned some hard lessons from Xiang Yu during her captivity.

In 196 BC, the emperor left the capital to put down a rebellion led by the Marquis of Yangxia.  While he was gone, the Empress heard a rumor that Han Xin, a brilliant military strategist that was key to her husband's victory over Xiang Yu was involved in the plot hatched by the Marquess of Yangxia.  The emperor had supposedly already confided his fear of the man's military skills to his wife.  But, Han Xin had been mentored by the now, prime minister, Xiao He, who had personally recommended him to the emperor for his military prowess.  When the empress summoned him, he suspected nothing, knowing that his patron Xiao He was the emperor's minister.  Once he arrived, however,  Empress Lü ordered her guards to seize him.  She then ordered the torture and execution of the unfortunate man along with close relatives of his father, his mother, and his wife. The prime minister was put in a position where he was forced to assist her or risk his own life, but he secretly managed to help the man's sons escape and change their family names to protect them from future imperial retribution.

Later that year, the Empress would strike down another of her husband's former allies.  Peng Yue, a skilled general during the revolt against the Qin, was awarded the title of the Prince of Liang after the Qin were defeated.  He was summoned by the emperor to join him in the campaign against the Marquis of Yangxia. Peng Yue sent word back to the emperor that he was ill at the time.  Enraged the emperor arrested Peng Yue and subsequently stripped him of his titles and exiled him to Qingyi. Peng Yue appealed to Empress Lü and she agreed to intercede on his behalf.  They traveled together to Luoyang, where the Emperor was encamped. Peng Yue thought that Empress Lü was in fact going to plead for his freedom. Instead, she told the emperor that Peng Yue, a capable general like Han Xin, would create a threat if exiled.  So, she paid an informant to falsely testify that Peng Yue was planning another rebellion and had Peng Yue executed along with his entire family.

Now, it would appear that Empress Lü was acting to protect her husband's position but could there have been more to it than just that?  During this time, the emperor had become enamored with one of his concubines, Consort Qi, "The Benign".  Lady Qi bore him a son and, as the child grew older, the emperor thought the boy more resembled him than his firstborn with Empress Lü.  Had the emperor began to wonder about an affair between his empress and his officer, Shen Yiji, imprisoned with her several years before?

In 199 BC the emperor appointed his new son to the rank of Prince of Zhao. Rumors began to spread through the palace that the emperor planned to replace the crown prince, who the emperor found to be weak and not at all like himself, with his new son, Prince Ruyi. So, could the Empress have been planning to appear to be actively protecting her husband's interests while in fact diverting attention away from her own plans to usurp the throne?

One source claims that the emperor was dissuaded from this course of action by his advisors because they said such a change could cause chaos in the new government.  Another source reports that the emperor summoned the crown prince and asked him to take command of a contingent of the army that was slated to engage enemy troops in a particularly hazardous battle.  Empress Lü, fearing for her son's safety prevented him from accepting the post.  Instead the emperor led the army himself and was gravely wounded. (The sources don't mention friendly fire but the convenience of the event raises suspicion).

When the emperor sucuumbed to his wounds and the crown prince was named Emperor Hui, Then Dowager Empress Lü imprisoned Lady Qi, ordering a punishment of hard labor. Then the Empress Dowager sent for the 12-year-old Prince Ruyi.

Now the young Emperor Hui felt kindly toward his half brother and feared that his mother might attempt an assassination of the young prince.  So Emperor Hui intercepted his half-brother at Bashang and they proceeded together to the emperor's palace where they kept each other company for several months.  One morning, the emperor planned to go hunting but could not get his little brother to get up so early in the morning.  Thinking the boy would be safe because he had now been at the palace for several months and no harm had come to him, the emperor left the palace.  Upon hearing that her son was off hunting, the Empress summoned an assassin who forced the boy to drink a poisonous elixir (wine?).  The empress then ordered torturers to go to the prison where Lady Qi was kept and cut off her arms and legs, then deafen and blind her.  The Lady Qi was then cast into a filthy pit.

When the emperor returned from his hunting trip, he learned that his brother was dead.  His mother then took him to the prison and showed him a mud smeared mutilated creature that she called "Human Pig".  At first the emperor did not recognize Lady Qi but when it finally dawned on him who the poor unfortunate creature was, he was horrified.  He subsequently withdrew from court affairs and spent the rest of his days drinking and womanizing.

He did rally one last time to defend yet another half-brother from his ruthless mother.   In winter of 194 BC, Liu Fei, Prince of Qi, the emperor's older brother by his father's mistress Consort Cao, was invited to a feast hosted by Empress Dowager Lü. To honor his brother, the emperor invited him to sit in the most prestigious place at the table. The Empress Dowager was furious and sereptiously ordered her servants to pour a cup of poisoned wine for Prince Fei.  As she toasted Prince Fei, the emperor, sensing his brother's peril, snatched the goblet from him and brought it to his own lips. The Empress Dowager Lü then jumped up and slapped the cup away. As a peace offering, Prince Fei, at the emperor's urging, presented Lü's daughter, Princess Luyuan, with a prefecture from his fief to administer as her own. Empress Dowager Lü agreed to the arrangement and allowed Prince Fei to leave the palace safely.

Poor Emperor Hui was still within his mother's clutches, though, and she had succession plans that required his participation.  In 191 BC, the emperor was forced to marry the daughter of his sister.  The marriage proved a childless one but it was alleged that the Empress dowager told her grandaughter, now empress, to adopt eight boys that were to be stolen from women that would be executed afterwards. Modern scholars speculate that these children were actually Emperor Hui's by some of his concubines since killing the children's fathers was not mentioned.  But, Han court officials probably intentionally denied the imperial ancestry of these children to prevent them from being obligated to avenge the slaughter of the Lü clan that followed the deaths of Emperor Hui and the Grand Dowager Empress.  As it was, between natural causes and executions, only two of the eight children survived, with Liu Gong, becoming, only briefly, Emperor Qianshao, when his "father" died in 188 BC.

Four years after he became emperor, the young man somehow learned that his real mother was not his father's empress and that his mother was executed by the empress.  He became enraged and swore revenge against his false mother, the granddaughter of the now-Grand Empress Dowager Lü.  His outburst was apparently overheard (in imperial courts all the walls have ears!) and reported to Grand Empress Dowager Lü.  She had Emperor Qianshao, probably her own grandson, locked up within the palace and put out reports that the emperor was ill and could not receive visitors.  After a time, she claimed he was too ill to rule, had suffered a psychosis and should be deposed and replaced by his brother who would become Emperor Houshao.  Grand Empress Dowager Lü then had the former emperor, probably in a drug-induced stupor, put quietly to death.  Sadly, the young man's brief reign coupled with allegations of psychosis resulted in his name being frequently omitted from the list of official Han Dynasty emperors, almost as if he had never even existed at all.

Grand Empress Dowager Lü continued her tyranny through her new puppet grandson, Emperor Houshao.  She also immediately set about appointing members of her own clan as princes of Han.

But death finally claimed the scheming Grand Empress Dowager Lü in 180 BC.

Grand Empress Dowager Lü was returning to the capital after performing a temple sacrifice when "something that looked like a blue dog appeared and bit her in the arm pit, then suddenly disappeared. Divination proved it to be the evil spirt of the King of Hao [Prince Ruyi's] spirit. She grew ill of the wound in her side and shortly died. - Han Shu [History of the Han Dynasty] by Pan Ku, third century AD, (Tr. De Bary, 1960,172).

But her powerful clan still held the Han court in an iron grip.  In fact, the wily old woman even attempted to rule from the grave.  Her will stipulated that the new emperor would marry the daughter of the Grand Empress Dowager Lü's nephew - therefore maintaining the domination of the Lü clan in court affairs.  But court officials, led by left prime minister, Chen Ping and commander in chief of the armed forces, Zhou Bo,rose up and slaughtered the entire Lü clan.  Emperor Houshao was deposed and banished to the ministry of palace supplies building.  The hapless young emperor was later executed, probably along with his new empress, although historians are silent on this point.

Ornate lacquered coffin unearthed at Mawangdui, 2nd century BCE. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Lady Dai, buried in the tomb excavated at Mawangdui, lived during these dangerous and tumultous times.  As a young woman, she must have been terrified as she witnessed the treacheries of the Han court and carefully guarded her conversations with other noble ladies as she was probably aware that the Dowager Empress had spies everywhere.  Much is said of her apparent indulgence in food but maybe this was her escape from the emotional tension of her daily life.

Only in her thirties when her husband died, Lady Dai would have been a relatively defenseless widow with a young son at her side by the time the Grand Empress Dowager Lü finally died and the slaughter of the Lü clan began.  Fortunately, her husband had been a general during the Qin uprising and subsequent conflict between the Chu and Han states, so he probably was not related to the emperor or Grand Empress Dowager, although Emperor Hui later substituted only family members in high official posts so the Marquis of Dai's familial relationship to the emperor is unclear.  In any event, his wife would not have been considered part of the Lü clan (though married, the family clans of husband and wife were considered separate entities) so, she escaped the blood bath. Apparently, despite her relatively young age at the time of her husband's death, she did not remarry but lived out her years as a wealthy matron supervising her son's household, a dowager of sorts in her own right although hopefully a much kinder, gentler one than Lü Zhi.

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!