An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Empress Deng 鄧皇后

Nov 1, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Empress Deng 鄧皇后 (80-121 CE), personal name Deng Sui 鄧綏, honorific title Empress Xi 熹皇后, was the empress of Emperor He 漢和帝 (r. 88-105 CE) of the Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE). She is therefore officially called He Xi Deng Huanghou 和熹鄧皇后 "Empress Deng, the Morning Sunlight [Empress] of [Emperor] He".

Her father Deng Xun 鄧訓 was Commander Protecting the Qiang Barbarians (hu Qiang xiaowei 護羌校尉). Her mother, Miss Yin 陰氏, was a daughter of the nephew of Empress Yin 陰皇后, the consort of Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. 25-57), the founder of the Later Han. She entered the imperial harem in 95 CE and was made Empress (huanghou 皇后) in 102.

After the death of her husband she was given the title of Empress Dowager (taihou 太后) and reigned (linchao chengzhi 臨朝稱制) for the young Emperor Shang 漢殤帝 (r. 105-106 CE). She continued to act as regent when Emperor An 漢安帝 (r. 106-125 CE) mounted the throne.

Empress Dowager Deng was supported by a staff of highly entrusted eunuchs (huanguan 宦官) that were often given favour over regular state officials. The rising power of the eunuch factions had begun during the reign of Emperor He, when the eunuch Zheng Zhong 鄭眾 managed the extinction of the family of Empress Dou 竇后, and was given the title of Marquis of Chaoxiang 鄛鄉.

The kinsmen (waiqi 外戚) of Empress Dowager Deng were promoted to highest posts. Deng Zhi 鄧騭 was made General-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍), and many of her brothers were ennobled as marquis, their retainers being given large stipends. In order to enhance the power of her own relatives, Empress Dowager Deng diminished the political importance of the Three Dukes (sangong 三公). Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉) Xu Fang 徐防 withdrew from his office in protest of such a deepgoing change of the structure of the central government.

The situation was aggravated by several years of drought during which the local governts took no action to bring relief to the suffering population. Instead, some corrupt governors presented falsified figures of newly opened lands and wrong numbers of households to the court. The rebellion of Zhang Bolu 張伯路 in 109 is to be laid back to these circumstances.

At the same time Non-Chinese peoples in the border regions, especially in the west, disturbed the peace of the empire. It took several years to master all these challenges. The Empress Dowager had the granaries opened to feed the people, encouraged the repair and building of dykes and dams and took measures to prohibit the prodigy displayed by the wealthy and to cut expenditure at the court.

Tian Renlong 田人隆 (1992). "He Xi Deng Huanghou 和熹鄧皇后", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 361.