An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Empress Lü 呂后 or Empress Dowager Lü 呂太后

Mar 8, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Empress Lü 呂后 (died 180 BCE), also known as Empress Dowager Lü 呂太后, personal Name Lü Zhi 呂雉 or Lü Exu 呂娥姁, was the wife of Liu Bang 劉邦 (known as Emperor Gaozu, r. 202-195), the founder of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). Her ancestors hailed from Danfu 單父 (modern Danxian 單縣, Shandong), but her father moved to Pei 沛 (modern Peixian 沛縣, Jiangsu), the home town of Liu Bang. "Master Lü" 呂公, as her father was called, was good at prosopomancy (fortune-telling by someone's face), prognosticated that Liu Bang would have a brilliant future, and thereupon engaged his daughter to him. She had two children with Liu Bang, a daugther, and a son who would eventually become Emperor Hui.

During the war against the hegemonial king of West Chu (Xichu Bawang 西楚霸王) Xiang Yu 項羽 (232-202 BCE), Lü Zhi was seized, together with Liu Bang's father, and taken hostage. Xiang Yu threatened to cook Liu Bang's father alive, but Liu Bang feigned not being impressed. In 203, circumstances were better for Liu Bang, he negotiated with Xiang Yu, and the latter released his hostages.

Empress Lü was a very clever person and less scrupulous than her husband. This was of great importance after Liu Bang had become emperor in 202 and had to fight against some of his former allies that he had ennobled as kings. While Liu Bang was reluctant to punish traitorous persons like Peng Yue 彭越 (d. 196) or Han Xin 韓信 (d. 196), Empress Lü was careful enough to have them arrested and executed for rebellion. In all these instances, she was advised by Liu Bang's highest ministers, particularly Xiao He 蕭何 (d. 193).

She also cooperated with the highest ministers in the question of the issue and succession to the throne. When Liu Bang desired to get rid of their common son Liu Ying 劉盈 (the eventual Emperor Hui 漢惠帝, r. 195-188) because he saw him as a weakling, and wanted to confer the title of heir apparent on Liu Ruyi 劉如意, son of Liu Bang's concubine Lady Qi 戚夫人, the ministers supported Empress Lü and her son.

After Liu Bang's death, Liu Ying was made emperor. Because he was a very delicate person, Lü Zhi, now Empress Dowager, took over many aspects of the business of politics. She took cruel revenge on Lady Qi and mutilated her, exhibiting her as "the human pig" (renzhi 人彘). She had Liu Ruyi killed, and also another son of a concubine of Liu Bang, Liu You 劉友. When her own son, shocked by these cruelties, fell ill, the Empress Dowager was officially made regent (linchao tingzheng 臨朝聽政) for her son. When Emperor Hui died unexpectedly in 188 BCE without heirs, she had a young son of a concubine of his made emperor for whom he also took over regency.

The child emperor was called Liu Gong 劉恭 (known as Shaodi Gong 少帝恭, r. 188-184 BCE) and officially reigned for four years. Empress Dowager Lü is charged with the murder of his mother, a concubine of late Emperor Hui. When the infant emperor learned that his mother had been killed, he was murdered and replaced by anotherinfant, Liu Hong 劉弘 (previous name Liu Yi 劉義), the Prince of Hengshan 恒山 (known as Shaodi Hong 少帝弘, r. 184-180).

These two child emperors are not considered as true rulers of the Han dynasty and were even said to have been sons of kinsmen of the Empress Dowager. The two official histories of the Han dynasty, Shiji 史記 and Hanshu 漢書, therefore fully acknowledge the regency of Empress Dowager Lü as a period of rule and not as that of the two infant emperors. The replacement of Empress Lü as a regent by the two child emperors in historiography is a result of orthodox Confucian thought flourishing during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) that did not allow a woman to rule.

In this virtually hopeless situation that her own son had no heir, Empress Lü began to confer title of nobility on her own kinsmen (waiqi 外戚). Her nephews Lü Tai 呂台, Lü Chan 呂產 and Lü Lu 呂祿 were made princes (wang 王). She also had some ministers retired which had criticized her, for instance, Wang Ling 王陵.

Empress Dowager Lü proved to be a very competent regent, relaxed taxes and abolished the most cruel penalties of the Qin dynasty's penal law. During her reign, the empire recovered from the hardships of decades of war and exploitation.

Empress Dowager Lü had no male descendant whose line could take over the throne. With her death, the power of the family Lü would decline, and so her nephews, already encouraged by being made princes, occupied the imperial palace and usurped command of the palace guard. It is far from clear whether they ever tried to install one of them as an emperor (Chinese sources use the term zuo luan 作亂 "to make turbulences, to create disorder" in the sense of "to rebel, to try to challenge the dynasty"). Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉) Wang Ling and Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相 ) Chen Ping 陳平 (d. 187) defeated the rebellious Lü family and invited Liu Heng 劉恆, another son of Liu Bang, to become emperor (known as Emperor Wen 漢文帝, r. 180-157).

Empress Lü's posthumous title is Han Gaohou 漢高后. She was expelled from the ancestral altar of the Han dynasty at the beginning of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220). Chinese historiographers always quarreled about the question whether Empress Lü should be allowed to be listed among the rulers of the Han dynasty as having ruled (and not just reigned) from 187-188. On the one hand, she had never proclaimed herself emperor (as Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 did) but was only regent for infant emperors (shaodi 少帝). On the other hand, there is great doubt about the identity of the two children called Gong and Hong. The Shiji therefore granted Empress Lü an own imperial biography (9 Lü taihou benji 呂太后本紀), and the same is done in the Hanshu (3 Gao hou ji 高后紀).

Lin Ganquan 林甘泉 (1992). "Lü Hou 呂后", 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. 2, 628.