Dou Guangguo was from an impoverished noble family based out of Qinghe in Zhao. Even though the rebellion against the Qin regime and the consequential rise of the Han Dynasty under Emperor Gaozu (king r. 206-202, emperor 202-195 BCE) was a time of tremendous social mobility, the Dou family remained of little significance, holding virtually no worth except the noble blood that ran in their veins.
The downtrodden Dou family, however, was given a door to future opportunities during the reign of Empress Dowager Lü, the wife of Emperor Gaozu and the mother of Emperor Hui (r. 195-188 BCE). Either during Empress Dowager Lü’s domineering years over her son’s reign, or in her own sole rule by means of young puppet emperors between 188 and 180 BCE, the empress dowager took an interest in Dou Guangguo’s family. Empress Dowager Lü had many relatives in need of consorts and concubines, so she was always on the lookout for young women from good families who could be integrated into the imperial court. As it happened, Dou Guangguo had an older sister who fit the empress dowager’s requirements. Guangguo was very, very young at the time, but he would later claim to have vivid memories of spending time with his sister, Lady Dou, before she left to become a palace attendant of Empress Dowager Lü.
Whereas the fortunes of Lady Dou were on the rise, young Guangguo would have a drastically different path in life. When Dou Guangguo was four or five years old, he somehow fell into the hands of a group of kidnappers. The criminals presumably gave Guangguo his nickname, Shaojun, as a new identity and then sold him to a family that was in need of a servant.
Young Shaojun, however, must have been a difficult child, for he was ultimately traded or sold to more than ten families before he found a more stable position with a family from Yiyang. The Yiyang family may have owned a charcoal burning business, or just wanted more spare charcoal for their home, because they eventually sent Shaojun (presumably now a young adult) into the forested mountainside to make charcoal alongside around a hundred other workers. While working with the charcoal burners, Shaojun apparently survived a catastrophic embankment collapse that killed most of his comrades. That accident evidently inspired him to seek a practitioner of divination to tell him of his future—the diviner unbelievably told Shaojun that he would one day become a landed noble with the rank of marquis.
Despite the enticing prophecy, Shaojun needed to work until his unlikely fortune came true. He either returned to the family in Yiyang or found employment as a servant with someone else. Whatever the case, he was ultimately sent by his employer to the capital city of Chang’an, arriving sometime after Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) succeeded to the throne. While there, Shaojun began to hear intriguing stories about Wen’s empress.
From gossip on the street, Shaojun learned that the new empress was of a poor, but noble, family from the Zhao region. She had been lifted out of obscurity to become a palace attendant of Empress Dowager Lü, and was eventually sent with four other women to the kingdom of Dai, where she became a favorite concubine of the imperial prince, King Liu Heng (ruler of Dai, r. 196-180). When Empress Dowager Lü died in 180 BCE, the government ministers supported Liu Heng over the puppet emperor that was left behind by the late empress dowager. After massacring the Lü clan, the Han ministers invited Liu Heng to come to Chang’an and become the new emperor. Liu Heng accepted the offer and was henceforth known as Emperor Wen.
At the time of his ascendance to the throne, Emperor Wen did not have an empress. During his days as the king of Dai, he had chosen a queen, but she unfortunately died and none of her sons lived past their father’s first year of rule as emperor. As such, the ministers quickly urged that Wen should choose an heir from among the sons birthed by his concubines. In 179 BCE, Emperor Wen agreed with his advisors’ suggestions and named his eldest living son, Liu Qi, as his heir and elevated Liu Qi’s mother to the position of empress. The woman in question was Wen’s favorite consort from Zhao and happened to be none other than Shaojun’s older sister, Lady Dou.
After learning of his sister’s fate, Shaojun wrote to Emperor Wen and Empress Dou, telling them of his bizarre background. The letter caught the attention of the imperial couple and they invited him to personally meet with them. In an audience before the emperor and empress, Shaojun told of how his birth name was Dou Guangguo and that he had been kidnapped at around five years of age; that he had been sold by his captors as a servant or laborer and had remained in that line of work ever since. Finally, he reminisced about his memories of spending time with Lady Dou before she became a palace attendant. He recalled how they picked mulberry leaves together and how she had washed his hair with rice-water shortly before departing on her fateful journey to Chang’an. After hearing these memories, Empress Dou confirmed that Shaojun was indeed her long-lost brother.
Upon being accepted by Empress Dou, Shaojun was showered with wealth and given prime real estate in the city of Chang’an. They even sent him several advisors and teachers to show him how to act properly in the imperial court. Finally, during the reign of Empress Dou’s son, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), Shaojun was appointed as the marquis of Zhangwu.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cooking mural from a tomb in Aohan, c. Liao Dynasty, [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.