The First Empress

by Long Tang

This is part two. Read the suite from the beginning.

Act I – The Loyal Wife

In 222 BC, the 19 year old Lu Zhi married Liu Bang who was 20 years her senior. The marriage was arranged by her father who believed Liu Bang was destined for greatness. She was of a well to do family, while he was the local warden. As an obedient and loyal wife of the Confucian tradition, she promptly produced a son and a daughter, and managed the household for Liu Bang. But, fate was not kind to Lu Zhi.

It was a tumultuous time with thriving rebellions against the Imperial Ch’in government. Liu Bang escorted a group of prisoners to the provincial capital; after one day, half of the prisoners escaped. It was a capital offense to lose prisoners. So, Liu Bang decided to join the rebel army, and became the leader of his band. The local magistrate arrested Lu Zhi for being married to a rebel leader. Luckily, the jailer was a friend and colleague of Liu Bang, and got her released. Once freed, Lu Zhi stayed home and took care of their children and Liu’s father while regularly sending food and supplies to her husband. While away on campaigns, Liu Bang left his father and wife in the care of a friend, Shen Yiji. Unfortunately, they were captured by a rival warlord – Xiang Yu, the King of Western Chu region.

Within three years, Liu Bang became the King of the Han territories. His biggest rival was another rebel – Xian Yu, who held Liu’s family as prisoners. While fighting the Ch’in loyalists, rebel leaders formed an alliance against the Ch’in government. After the rebel forces annihilated all Ch’in loyalist armies, they turned on each other for the ultimate supremacy. Xiang Yu threatened to boil Liu Bang’s father and wife into soup if Liu did not surrender. To Lu Zhi’s shock and surprise, Liu Bang not only refused, he even asked Xiang Yu to share a bowl of the soup. Luckily, the King of Western Chu did not go through with the threat. Finally, the two side agreed to a truce, and Lu Zhi was released to join her husband.

With his family safe in his camp, Liu Bang promptly broke the truce and attacked Xiang Yu. The surprise attack routed the Chu army, and Xiang Yu committed suicide. Liu Bang went on to establish the Imperial Han Empire, with Lu Zhi as the First Imperial Empress of China, and Shen Yiji as a senior minister.

Gone was the kind and gentle woman who married Liu Bang. Years of campaigning, including three years as an enemy captive, had traumatized Lu Zhi. The experience taught her the harsh realities of life and shaped her into a hard and bitter woman with a paranoiac security complex. Her psychological condition was further exasperated by the presence of beautiful Lady Chi, who had kept Liu Bang company while Lu Zhi suffered hunger and abuse as a prisoner of the Chu Army. However, Lu Zhi remained loyal and supportive of her husband, but her penal experience made the new empress a scheming woman.

Lu Zhi was concerned about the loyalty of General Han Xin, who had been of invaluable service to Liu Bang in defeating the Ch’in army and later the Chu army. After the establishment of the Han Empire, Liu Bang made Han Xin the Lord of the Qi territory, a position that could threaten the security of the empire. Liu Bang realized the threat but was reluctant to do anything about it, for fear of another civil war. Lu Zhi decided to act on her own, while Liu Bang was campaigning against a rebellion. She sent word to Han Xin that the emperor had quelled the uprising. The ruse lured the general into the palace to celebrate the victory. Once in the palace, Lu Zhi had him arrested then charged him with collaboration with the rebels. Han Xin was first branded as a traitor; she then had his nose cut off, legs severed, then caned, and finally beheaded. His body was then displayed at the market square.

When Liu Bang returned to the Capital, he was saddened by the death of the valiant general, but at the same time pleased by the way the empress handled the potential threat to the empire. Her killing of Han Xin saved Liu Bang from bearing the name of an ungrateful betrayer of a loyal friend.

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