The First Empress

by Long Tang

The west had Queen Victoria, and Catherine the Great, while the East had Wu Zetian, the Female Emperor of China. They were renowned as dominant rulers of their times. However, in terms of sheer meanness, cruelty, and accomplishments none of them could hold a candle to Lu Zhi (241 – 180 BC), the First Empress of China. Even war hardened generals trembled at her frowns.

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.

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.

Act III – The Wise Ruler

In 195 BC, Lu Zhi, the first Imperial Empress, and the first Dowager Empress of Imperial China was forced by circumstance to become the first female ruler of China. She used drastic measures to secure the stability of the realm. Her penchant for violence cowered the courtiers and no one dared to challenge her authority.

The Dowager Empress was determined to lay a solid foundation for a great empire. The empire had yet recover from 500 years of civil war and tyrannical rule (of the Ch’in dynasty). She might have rode roughshod over the aristocrats, but she was gentle in her treatment of the people. She lowered taxes and eliminated labor levees to ease the burden of the people. She replaced the harsh penal codes of the Ch’in Empire and reduced the degrees of punishments. The measure removed frivolous crimes and limited penalties, thus devoting more manpower to production and commerce. Lu Zhi established a military conscription system, and discouraged lavish spending. She brought coinage mints under government management for quality control (of the coins), stabilize market prices and encouraged trade and commerce.

Politically, Lu Zhi relied on the legacy courtiers of Emperor Liu Bang’s regime to provide stability and continuity for the people. After suffering a major defeat at the Battle of Bai-Deng, Liu Bang was forced to sign a peace treaty with the powerful Xiongnu Empire. Xiongnu were a nomadic people in northern and western China and Siberia. Under the agreement, the Imperial Han Empire would marry its princesses to Xiongu chieftains and send gifts of grain and silk. In return, the nomads would not invade the Han Empire. When Liu Bang died, Mào Dùn Chán Yú, the Xiongnu chieftain, sent a message to the Han Dowager Empress, ‘You lost your husband, and I lost my wife. We two ruler are unhappy, but there is no reason for distress. I propose a union of what we have to make up for which were lost.’  The Dowager Empress was insulted and infuriated, but she took the counsel of her courtiers and suppressed her rage. Instead of sending an army, she sent a return message, ‘I am old and feeble, with falling hair and missing teeth, it would be most difficult for me to travel.” She sent the message with gifts of horses and carriages. The diplomatic response alleviated a military confrontation and allowed peace to reign. For 70 years, Lu Zhi and the ensuing Han emperors abided by the appeasement policy which allowed China to recover from her civil wars and grew strong, strong enough to eventually evict the Xiongnu from eastern Asia.

Lu Zhi was a visionary ruler. While the First Emperor Ch’in (Qin) Shi Huang Di physically unified China in 221 BC under the Ch’in banner, the average person still thought of himself as a member of various kingdoms of the pre-unification era. It was Empress Lu Zhi’s policy that laid the foundation for the melting pot that melded the diverse people into one race. It was the reason that majority of the ethnic Chinese were called the Han people. Historians regarded Empress Lu Zhi as an effective ruler whose astute administration laid the foundation for benign government that made significant contributions to the building of China. Nevertheless, they often referred to her as “The Manipulator.”

Ch’in (Qin) Shi Huang Di never named an empress and neither did his heirs. After the fall of the Ch’in dynasty, Liu Bang defeated all contenders and established the Imperial Han dynasty. He name Lu Zhi as empress, thus Lu Zhi became the first Empress of Imperial China; by circumstances, she was also the first Dowager Empress and the first female ruler of China.


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4 Responses to “The First Empress”

  1. The First Empress | Says:

    […] « The First Empress […]

  2. The First Empress | Says:

    […] This is part three. Read the suite from the beginning. […]

  3. The Wise Empress | Says:

    […] This is part three. Read the suite from the beginning. […]

  4. Young Historian Says:

    “In 222 BC, the 19 year old Lu Zhi married Liu Bang who was 20 years her senior.” Where did you find the source for the year of the marriage? If you could remember, it would really help me out!

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