Emperor Gaozu, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, did not come from a noble family. Instead, he had grown up as a peasant during the time of the Qin Dynasty and worked as a minor local official and village head who sometimes ran afoul of the law. One day, he had a momentous encounter with a certain Master Lü, who directed Gaozu to relocate to the district of Pei. Around that time, Gaozu married Master Lü’s daughter, Lü Zhi, and earned the respect of the local populace of Pei. When mass rebellions erupted against the Qin Dynasty in 209 BCE, Lü Zhi was actively by her husband’s side as he took power first as Governor of Pei, then as King of Han, and, finally, as Supreme Emperor of China.
When Gaozu became an emperor, Lü Zhi ascended to the rank of empress. The two were quite the formidable couple and their strengths complemented each other well. Emperor Gaozu was a masterful talent scout, able to recruit, manage and utilize great generals and ministers to help him run his empire. Gaozu was known to make bad decisions from time to time, but his wise counselors had the courage to offer advice, and the emperor had the good sense to listen to their suggestions. Empress Lü, on the other hand, reportedly had a keen instinct for knowing which disaffected nobles could cause potential problems for her family. She was also reportedly ruthless enough to have several of these threats eliminated, sometimes even without consulting Emperor Gaozu. Her talents were all the more deadly, as she was a natural at political maneuvering and court subterfuge.
Emperor Gaozu and Empress Lü had two children. These were Princess Yuan and the future Emperor Hui. Although Lü Zhi was Gaozu’s wife and empress, she was not the only woman in his life. To the empress’ chagrin, there was a harem of other women that the emperor spent time with. These consorts, and their children, had the potential to challenge Empress Lü’s authority as empress and also endangered her son, Hui’s, position as heir apparent. There were at least seven other sons fathered by Emperor Gaozu with different women, and each of these sons had been granted control of a kingdom by their father.
The greatest rival to Empress Lü was a certain woman named Lady Qi. Emperor Gaozu and Lady Qi had a son named Liu Ruyi, and the emperor showed both mother and child great affection. In fact, in 195 BCE, the very year of Gaozu’s death, the emperor was seriously considering the idea of making Prince Ruyi the heir apparent instead of Hui. Fortunately for Empress Lü, most of the nobles were against the idea. Several influential members of the court, including the imperial secretary, Zhou Cang, the master of ritual, Shusun Tong, and Marquis Zhang Liang of Liu, successfully convinced the emperor to keep his current heir apparent. Convinced by his vassals, Emperor Gaozu reaffirmed Hui’s position as heir and sent away Liu Ruyi to take up the throne of Zhao.
When Emperor Gaozu died on June 1, 195 BCE, Hui became the new emperor and Lü Zhi’s title shifted to that of Empress Dowager. Although her son was the emperor, real power in the empire fell into the hands of Lü Zhi. Unfortunately for Lady Qi and her son, Liu Ruyi, the empress dowager had not forgotten or forgiven their disruption in the imperial succession. With Gaozu no longer around to shield them, Empress Dowager Lü quickly began plotting her revenge.
Not long after Gaozu’s death, Liu Ruyi began receiving messages from the empress dowager, asking him to leave his domain of Zhao to make an appearance in the Han capital of Chang’an. Luckily for the king of Zhao, the late emperor Gaozu had sent his trusted royal secretary, Zhou Chang, to act as Liu Ruyi’s prime minister, with instructions to keep the young king safe. Zhou Chang intercepted three of the empress dowager’s summons and sent the messengers back with replies that the king of Zhao would not be traveling to the capital city. Thwarted, Empress Dowager Lü changed her tactics. She sent a message summoning only Zhou Chang to Chang’an, making no mention of Liu Ruyi. Zhou Chang accepted the summons and set off on the road to the capital. Little did he know, however, that Empress Dowager Lü had sent a separate letter to Liu Ruyi, which arrived after the prime minister had already departed from Zhao. This time, Zhou Chang was not present to intercept the letter. Without his prime minister’s cautious counsel, Liu Ruyi decided to travel to Chang’an.
Despite Empress Dowager Lü’s hatred for Lady Qi and Liu Ruyi, Emperor Hui still had a surprisingly warm relationship with his half-brother. To the empress dowager’s annoyance, when the vulnerable Liu Ruyi arrived in Chang’an, Emperor Hui immediately brought him under his protective wing. For months, the emperor kept his half-brother nearby, letting Liu Ruyi eat meals with him and even allowing him to sleep near the emperor’s own chambers. Yet, Hui could not keep his eye on his brother forever, and the empress dowager was a patient woman. Near the end of 194 BCE, Emperor Hui left Chang’an on a hunting trip, leaving his half-brother behind. When the emperor returned to the city, Liu Ruyi had died of suspicious causes—the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), claimed that Empress Dowager Lü had him poisoned.
While horrible, Liu Ruyi’s early death was a kind fate compared to what allegedly happened to his mother. At the time of Emperor Gaozu’s death, Lady Qi had already been in Chang’an, so the empress dowager quickly arrested her and locked her in the palace. With Lady Qi in her grasp, the empress dowager apparently delved into her own darkest and most deranged thoughts to come up with a punishment for her hated rival. Sima Qian graphically wrote, “Empress Lü later cut off Lady Qi’s hands and feet, plucked out her eyes, burned her ears, gave her a potion to drink which made her dumb, and had her thrown into the privy, calling her the ‘human pig’” (Shi Ji 9, trans. Burton Watson). Sima Qian further alleged that Empress Dowager Lü’s brutality greatly distressed the young emperor, resulting in Hui turning to heavy drinking and other bad habits. He died in 188 BCE, at only twenty-three years of age.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Social media crop of Palace Ladies, painted by Gu Kaizhi (345–406), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.