The First Empress

by Long Tang

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

Act II – The Conniving Regent

In 202 BC, Liu Bang became the first Emperor of the Imperial Han dynasty, with Lu Zhi as the empress and their son Liu Ying as the Crown Prince. However, it was not long before Liu Bang’s favorite concubine, Lady Chi, started nagging the emperor to name her own son Liu Ruyi as the crown prince. Liu Bang consulted with his courtiers, who opposed the removal of Liu Yang without cause. Empress Lu Zhi was concerned about Lady Chi’s schemes, and decided to secure her son’s position.

Lu Zhi knew Liu Bang admired four famous sages, and sought to recruit them into his service, but the four men did not want to be bothered and went into hiding in the mountains. Lu Zhi sent men with gifts to the four sages and wrote a personal letter requesting their assistance as tutors for Crown Prince Liu Ying. Her humble plead convinced the four sages to become Liu Ying’s mentors and advisors. Lu Zhi then arranged a banquet for Crown Prince Liu Ying to showcase his corps of advisors to the emperor. The presence of the four sages in the crown prince’s entourage convinced the emperor not to remove Liu Ying as the heir to the throne.

In 195 BC, Liu Bang died. The 17 year old Crown Prince Liu Ying ascended to the throne with Lu Zhi as the Dowager Empress/Regent until Liu Ying reached his majority. Without Liu Bang as a restraint, Lu Zhi’s psychopathic streak came to the fore when she took the helm of the empire. The Dowager Empress sensed the tenuousness of her authority which was derived from her young son, the immature young emperor; and paranoia surged to the surface. She decided to kill all senior military commanders to eliminate the threats to her realm. They were the men who had helped her husband built the empire, held high positions and maintained large followings thus posed threats to her power. Shen Yiji, the senior minister became aware of her intentions, he dissuaded the Dowager Empress from the rash deed which would have provoked revolts, followed by a civil war and the destruction of the still fragile empire.

Lu Zhi heeded the advice of her friend who had been her guardian and protector while they were prisoner of Xiang Yu, and avoided the political crisis. As an alternative solution, she chose Liu Bang’s favorite concubine Lady Chi to demonstrate her power. She first poisoned Prince Liu Ruyi, the son of Lady Chi (fathered by Liu Bang) then cut off Lady Chi’s four limbs, gouged out her eyes, smoked her ears to deafness, and muted her with drugs. The empress then forced all senior courtiers and generals to view the sufferings of Lady Chi who had been left in a stench-filled toilet chamber. The lady suffered for three whole days before she expired. The demonstration put to rest any thought of rebellion against her authority.

Lu Zhi also ordered her son Liu Ying, the young emperor, to visit Lady Chi in her tortured state. It was Lu Zhi’s idea of tough love, to harden the young man for his duties as the emperor. The empress’ technique worked with the battle hardened courtiers and generals, however, in the case of her son the emperor, her show of violence backfired. The experience traumatized the 17-year-old emperor. He was shocked by his mother’s sadistic cruelty. The young emperor had a caring personality. Viewing the tortured body of Lady Chi devastated the psyche of the young emperor. He felt distraught and helpless in spite of his august position of an emperor. She was his mother, and Confucian ethics does not condone disobedience to one’s parent. The emperor distanced himself from his mother then in a fit of anger, he declared his resolution to not serve as the emperor. The Dowager Empress was surprised by her son’s petulant reaction to her endeavors. The young man did not properly appreciate the purpose of her deeds – to secure the empire for him, the Emperor. Nevertheless, the empire needed a ruler. Lu Zhi shook her head in anguish then charged ahead with herself holding the reins of the empire.

As for the emperor, he withdrew into his private wonderland and sought solace in his imperial stable of courtesans, both males, and females. Within seven years, he expired from overindulgence.

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