Empress Dou, wife of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) and mother of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), was a powerful woman who greatly influenced the imperial court of the early Han Dynasty. Although she did not overtly steer politics, she knew how to support ministers she liked and how to undermine the careers of those with whom she disagreed. The key to earning the empress’ help or hindrance was the philosophy that each minister professed. Personally, Empress Dou was a devout supporter of Daoism, and she encouraged members of the court to study the teachings of Daoist thinkers, such as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Courtiers who shared her views could count on the empress’ backing, whereas ministers who followed different schools of thought had to face the possibility of palace intrigue or even unfiltered hostility in public from the empress.
Experiencing the brunt of the empress’ wrath were members of the court that followed the teachings of Confucius, as Confucian scholars were increasingly becoming a threat to the Daoist grip on government. In her efforts to keep the rival philosophy in check, Empress Dou was known to have used her influence to cajole the government into starting investigations against several Confucian scholars, and these intrigues on several occasions turned deadly. A certain Master Yuan Gu was one such Confucian scholar who drew the ire of Empress Dou, but he, fortunately, was somewhat protected by a friendship he had cultivated with the empress’ son, Emperor Jing. Encouraged by the emperor’s support, Master Yuan Gu was known to talk back to the empress dowager more than was likely proper. This behavior ultimately had consequences, eventually landing Master Yuan Gu in an absurd situation involving a pigpen.
The origin of Master Yuan Gu’s peculiar pigpen episode was said to have begun when Empress Dowager Dou directly asked the scholar for his opinion on the Daoist teachings of Lao Tzu. It was a direct question and he gave her a direct answer. According to the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, Yuan Gu bluntly replied by saying Lao Tzu’s work was, “The sayings of a menial, nothing more!” (Shi Ji 121). Empress Dowager Dou was infuriated by this insult against her favorite wiseman, and therefore she decided to seek revenge against the mouthy scholar. As the story goes, the empress dowager stomped her way over to her son, Emperor Jing, and demanded that Master Yuan Gu be punished. She apparently had a specific punishment in mind—her demand was that the scholar to be tossed into a pigpen full of angry boars.
Emperor Jing was said to have been sympathetic with his friend, Master Yuan Gu, but he could not simply disregard a direct request from his influential mother. Caught in this dilemma, the emperor decided to play both sides. On the one hand, he fulfilled his mother’s wishes by indeed sentencing Master Yuan Gu to be locked in a pigpen. Nevertheless, the emperor arranged for only a single pig to be placed in the pen, and he also equipped the scholar with a sharp knife to use against the animal. Master Yuan Gu still had to fight the creature, but he emerged victorious from his odd battle and rejoined the court with the emperor’s blessing. After this incident, Master Yuan Gu apparently learned to guard his words with more care, and consequently had no further notable fights with the empress. He reportedly went on to live past the age of ninety years old, dying sometime during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Section of Along the River During the Qingming Festival Season (Qing Court Version), by 5 Qing court artists—Chen Mei, Sun Hu, Jin Kun, Dai Hong, and Cheng Zhidao—and was completed in 1736, [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.