Empress Lü was the wife of Gaozu, founder of the Han Dynasty (c. 206 BCE) and the first Han emperor of China (r. 202-195 BCE). While Gaozu was alive, Empress Lü proved herself a fearsome political maneuverer who knew how to detect and eliminate threats to the fledgling dynasty, sometimes doing so even without the emperor’s permission. When Emperor Gaozu died in 195 BCE, the throne passed to the empress’ son, Hui. Yet, although her son was officially emperor, it was Empress Lü who was the true power behind the throne. The common people were reportedly content under the empress’ reign, but it was a very tense time for the newfound nobles in the empire. With the lives of her son and herself on the line, Empress Lü escalated her role as the unofficial spymaster of the dynasty, assassinating several half-brothers of Emperor Hui and sending out her kinswomen to marry (and spy on) the regional kings and marquises of the empire. When Emperor Hui died in 188 BCE, Empress Lü maintained her power by acting as regent for two successive child-emperors.
In the lands to the north of the Han Empire, the aging Empress Lü had an admirer. His name was Maodun, a powerful Shanyu (high chief) of the nomadic Xiongnu people. He came to power around 209 BCE and built an empire mighty enough to rival that of his Chinese neighbors. Shanyu Maodun and Emperor Gaozu had clashed in 200 BCE, and in the resulting battle Emperor Gaozu was outwitted by the Xiongnu, surrounded by the Shanyu’s forces, and pressured to agree to a peace that favored the Xiongnu. In the aftermath of the battle, Emperor Gaozu sent an imperial princess to be the consort of the Shanyu, and he also sent tribute to the nomads and opened up trade relations. This defensive policy of marriage, tribute and trade would continue for decades, and would be imitated by several of Emperor Gaozu’s successors.
Although Shanyu Maodun was a busy man, conquering rival nomadic tribes and expanding his empire, he kept himself informed on politics in the Han Dynasty. When the Xiongnu leader learned that Emperor Gaozu had died and that Empress Lü was reigning with an iron fist in China, he was apparently quite impressed or amused by the news. After hearing of Empress Lü’s rise to power, Shanyu Maodun evidently one day felt the urge to write the empress a blunt and audacious letter. When the peculiar note reached the imperial court in China, it caused a shock among the Han courtiers that would resound for decades.
In his letter to Empress Lü, Shanyu Maodun wrote out his observation that he and she were both old, lonely rulers and suggested that they comfort each other through marriage. Whether or not this proposal was pragmatic, heartfelt, or taunting, is a matter of opinion, but Empress Lü, her advisors, and the ancient Chinese scholars who wrote about the event virtually all considered it to be an insult of the highest degree. Empress Lü’s response upon hearing the marriage proposal was reportedly to summon her generals and demand that they plan an invasion of the Xiongnu Empire. Sycophants and warmongers eagerly volunteered to command the punitive expedition against the mighty Xiongnu chief. Yet, in the end, the more cautious advisors won the debate by reminding the empress that even the great Emperor Gaozu had not been able to defeat Shanyu Maodun in battle and that the empire was not yet stable enough for a protracted campaign against the Xiongnu. Ultimately, Empress Lü called off the war and maintained peace with the Xiongnu.
After Empress Lü’s death in 180 BCE, Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) and Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE) continued the Han Dynasty policy of sending tribute and imperial princesses to the Xiongnu, and otherwise only fighting defensive wars against incursions begun by the Shanyu’s forces. It was Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) who finally changed the Han policy with the Xiongnu to that of relentless aggression, leading to the conquest of great stretches of Xiongnu territory. Around the year 101 BCE, Emperor Wu released an edict that mentioned both Gaozu’s defeat and the letter sent to Empress Lü in an effort to rile up his people against the Xiongnu. The edict, recorded by Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), read:
“Emperor Gaozu has left us the task of avenging the difficulties which he suffered at Pingcheng. Furthermore, during the reign of Empress Lü the Shanyu sent to the court a most treasonable and insulting letter. In ancient times when Duke Xiang of Qi avenged an insult which one of his ancestors nine generations earlier had suffered, Confucius praised his conduct in the Spring and Autumn Annals” (Shi Ji110).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Rejection scene from the Admonitions Scroll, attributed to Gu Kaizhi (c.345-c.406), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.