Empress Dou was the consort of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) and the mother of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE). When Jing came to the throne, he was tied to an empress that he despised, as the marriage had been arranged for him by his family, with his grandmother, Empress Dowager Bo, being the main proponent for the match. When this influential grandmother died around 155 BCE, Emperor Jing quickly separated himself from his unwanted wife, and began a long multi-year period of deliberation about which concubine would become the next empress. While the selection process was ongoing, the emperor named as his heir the eldest son he had fathered—Liu Rong—but this prince’s mother, Lady Li, was not named Empress. In fact, the emperor had long lost any passion for her, and although Lady Li’s son remained the designated heir for years, Lady Li personally was never elevated in rank above her fellow concubines. Emperor Jing’s mother, Empress Dowager Dou, did not meddle in the maneuvering and posturing that was occurring in her son’s harem, but Jing’s sister, Elder Princess Liu Piao, did become an ally to a particular concubine. The Elder Princess worked with a woman named Madam Wang to destroy the already weak relationship between the emperor and Lady Li. By 150 or 149 BCE, the intrigue had done its work, allowing Madam Wang to steal Emperor Jing’s heart from Lady Li. When the victorious concubine ultimately became Empress Wang, the previous heir to the throne, Liu Rong, was replaced by the empress’ own son, Liu Che (the eventual Emperor Wu, r. 141-87 BCE).
Liu Rong, after losing his designation as heir, was sent to become the king or prince of Linjiang. There, his fate would only continue to sour. When Liu Rong arrived in his new domain, he was said to have begun renovations on the palace that would be the seat of power in his allotted realm. Yet, during this construction, workers were accused of damaging a wall of an ancestral temple near the site, and as they were employed by Liu Rong, he was held responsible for the sacrilegious act. Facing this accusation, Liu Rong was called back to the capital to be interrogated by an official named Zhi Du—a man known for being unnaturally harsh. As the story goes, Zhi Du imprisoned the former heir and refused to let him write any letters to his father, the emperor. Other officials, thinking Zhi Du to be too strict, had to smuggle writing implements to Liu Rong and secretly brought the message to Emperor Jing. Liu Rong, however, likely did not learn of his father’s response. As told by Grand Historian Sima Qian (r. 145-90 BCE), Zhi Du bullied, threatened, and tormented his prisoner into a state of hopelessness and despair. Before a verdict was delivered on his case, Liu Rong took his own life while he was under Zhi Du’s supervision.
Liu Rong’s suicide reportedly shocked and outraged the Chinese populace, and it also seemed as if nature, itself, mourned over his tragic death, for incidents such as flocks of swallows paying their respects at the departed man’s tomb were witnessed and reported by locals. Among the many people left in a rage by Liu Rong’s unnecessary death was the emperor’s mother, Empress Dowager Dou. Although she had not meddled in her son’s choice of empress and heir, she could not stay silent over the treatment of her grandson. Grand Historian Sima Qian commented on the campaign of revenge that Empress Dowager Dou waged against the man she held responsible for Liu Rong’s death: “When Empress Dowager Dou heard of this she was furious and managed to have charges brought against Zhi Du. He was obliged to resign his post and retire to his home” (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 122). The empress dowager’s vengeance did not end with kicking Zhi Du out of the capital. According to Sima Qian, the influential matriarch next talked Emperor Jing out of giving Zhi Du any government positions besides dangerous frontier commands. In the end, Empress Dowager Dou ultimately compelled her son, the emperor, to execute Zhi Du.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting from an 18th-century plate from Qing Dynasty China, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.