The First Empress

by Long Tang

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

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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