Biography (COB): Empress He

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Empress HeEmpress He

Comprehensive Officer Biography
Translated & Authored by

Place of Birth: Wan City, Nanyang Commandery
Lifespan: Unknown (1)
Titles: Honored Lady, Empress, Empress-Dowager
Family: He Jin, He Miao (brothers), Liu Bian (Han Shaodi) (son), Emperor Ling (husband), Lady Jun of Wuyang (mother), Younger sister (married to the son of Zhang Rang), Empress-Dowager Dong (mother-in-law), Emperor Huan (father-in-law), Zhang Rang (uncle by law)

(1) Since concubines were usually young when selected, and since Hou Han shu records her as a woman of striking appearance, we can conclude that the Lady He must have been a woman in her early twenties or possibly younger. With this theory, we can say that the Lady He was born around AD 160.

Empress He, a woman of great beauty, was selected to be in Emperor Ling’s harem during the annual selection of concubines, which took place in the eighth month of each year (2). Her character and beauty earned her the title of Guiren or Honoured Lady, and she gave birth to the child Liu Bian, the later Emperor Shao. Another of Emperor Ling’s concubines, the Beauty Wang, had borne the Emperor a son. Lady He was so jealous of the Beauty Wang, that she had her poisoned shortly after the Beauty gave birth to her son (3). Emperor Ling also had other children with other concubines, but each of them had died while they were still very young. Frightened by the fact that he may not have any heirs, Emperor Ling sent Liu Bian, the son of Lady He, to live with a Taoist named Shi Zimao, and the infant Liu Xie, son of the late Beauty Wang, was sent to live with the Empress-Dowager Dong, Emperor Ling’s mother. In the third year of Radiant Harmony (AD 180), the Lady He was made Empress.

(2) From Hans Bielenstein’s “The Restoration of the Han Dynasty”.
(3) Though women were considered less powerful by men, the Empresses and concubines in early chinese history held considerable, sometimes even absolute power over the court. Poisoning rival concubines was a tragic yet all too common happening in Imperial Courts. Since concubines and wives were put in different ranks, they were often compelled to compete with each other, with tragic results as we can see. Empresses and concubines were not spared from punishment, but were often able to buy their way out of danger.

Empress He had two half-brothers, He Miao, who was older, and He Jin, a younger half-brother. He Jin held considerable rank during the time of his sister’s time in court, and even acted as Commander-in-Chief of the Han Forces during the Yellow Turban rebellion. Empress He and He Jin had the same father, who died before his children’s’ rise to rank, but was posthumously titled General of Chariots and Cavalry, and Marquis of Wuyang. He Miao was born from a different father but shared the same mother with Empress He. Their mother received the title of Lady of Wuyang in the year AD 183. (4)

(4) The Lady He’s father was apparently a butcher, which does not disqualify the family from entering their daughter in the harem selection. Empress He’s mother, the Lady of Wuyang, often accepted bribes and gave out bribes from and to the palace eunuchs in order to get her daughter instated as Empress. This explains why Empress He was cautious when dealing with eunuchs later on.

When Emperor Ling died in the last year of Central Stability (AD 189) the Empress became Empress Dowager (Huang Taihou). Emperor Ling had died without naming an heir, so in Han tradition the Empress-Dowager was given the authority to name the heir. Though the younger son, Liu Xie, was a bright lad the Empress-Dowager naturally selected her son Liu Bian as successor. Liu Xie was given the title of King of Bohai, and Liu Bian ascended the throne on May 15th, becoming Emperor Shao at the age of 16 (5). The reign title changed from Central Stability year six, to the first year of Prosperous Radiance (光熙).

(5) Regarding the rank of Liu Xie, I am following the standard of Prof. Rafe de Crespigny in his translation of titles found in ZZTJ. Since HHS identifies Liu Xie as Bohai Wang (勃海王) I will go with King of Bohai, rather than Prince of Bohai. Moreover, the account of HHS says the it was Emperor Shao who gave him this title, logically, we can asume that it was Empress-Dowager He who did this. The Empress however has no authority to give out titles, but she could draft the edict in her sons name. After the death of an Emperor, it was custom to give the title of King or Prince to the brothers of the heir apparent. It could also be used as a method to relocate jealous relatives. Emperors had the full right to demote their relative, as is seen in the case of Wei Wen-di (Cao Pi) and his brother Cao Zhi.

A power triangle now formed in the capital. On one side was the new Emperor with his mother Empress-Dowager He, on the other side was He Jin, the Empress’ half-brother and Commander-in-Chief, and lastly there was Jian Shi. The latter, a eunuch, had been appointed Commander of the Eight Armies of the Western Garden by Emperor Ling before he dies, and held formal power over the entire military, and was the guardian of Liu Xie. Jian Shi had planned to kill He Jin, and invited him to the palace. One of his own men betrayed him, and He Jin declined the invitation. Later, He Jin ordered the prefect of the Yellow Gates (the marshall authority of the Emperor’s harem), to arrest and execute Jian Shi. Control over the military now belonged to He Jin. General of the Rear Yuan Wei was appointed as Grand Tutor for the new Emperor. Although she held no real authority in the court, Empress-Dowager Dong tried to interfere with court matters. However, Empress He would not allow such a thing. The aged Empress was enraged and often shouted at Empress He, swearing that her patron Dong Zhong could easily kill He Jin. Empress He immediately told He Jin about what happened in the court, and a memorial was drafted to have the Empress-Dowager exiled from the capital and returned to her place of birth. The memorial was approved by the three Dukes, and on June 7th He Jin stripped Dong Zhong of his rank, after which the latter comitted suicide. The Empress-Dowager Dong died on July 7th of the same year (6). He Jin then suggested that the palace eunuchs would be dismissed and replaced with his officer. Empress-Dowager He did not agree and told He Jin that she would not want to deal his officers, and that eunuchs were an essential part of the court. He Jin withdrew from the request. He Miao and Lady Jun of Wuyang talked to Empress-Dowager He about the eunuchs, supporting their positions and denouncing the remarks of He Jin.

(6) HHS tells us that the Empress-Dowager Dong died of grief and terror. The same account of her death in ZZTJ tells us that she comitted suicide.

Enticed by Yuan Shao, He Jin summoned regional commanders to the capital as a show of force to the eunuchs. He also summoned Dong Zhuo to the capital, going against the warnings of his officers. Dong Zhuo immediately wrote a memorial to Empress-Dowager He, asking for her permission to slay the eunuchs. The Empress would not approve, and again He Miao remonstrated his younger brother for his actions. He Jin did not go through with his plans, and had Dong Zhuo stop his march to the capital. Yuan Shao was then given the staff of authority by He Jin, and he sent out commands to the regional commanders, telling them to gather their troops outside the palace. Empress He was alarmed, and she immediately relieved the eunuchs of their duties and sent them back home. Yuan Shao urged He Jin to use this opportunity to get rid of the eunuchs once and or all, but He Jin would not agree. Yuan Shao thus sent out reports to his commanders to kill any eunuchs that try to leave the palace district. The plan leaked out however, and one the eunuchs, Zhang Ran, whose son was married to a younger sister of Empress, used his daughter-in-law to beg Empress He to be allowed to come back to the palace. Empress He agreed and reinstated all the eunuchs to their posts. On September 22nd of that year, He Jin again asked his sister to have the eunuchs executed. The request was overheard by Zhang Rang and Duan Gui, who plotted against He Jin. They summoned He Jin back to the palace where they ambushed and beheaded him. Yuan Shu, Wang Kuang and Zhang Zhang, all former officers of He Jin, heard about what happened to their lord, and the immediately attacked the inner palace, chopping down and burning the gates. The eunuchs told Empress He that He Jin had rebelled and now has his troops raiding the palace. They took Empress He, the Emperor Shao and the King of Chen Liu and lead them to the northern palace through the covered passage (7).

(7) The King of Chen Liu was the title of Liu Xie, former King of Bohai, he was transferred to that position after the death of Jian Shi. Additionally, the palace of Luoyang was seperated between a southern and northern part. These parts were connected with each other through a covered passage, which was an elevated passage that allowed court officials and royalty to travel between parts without having to use normal streets. De Crespigny, quoting Bielenstein: Lo-yang.

The eunuchs were stopped by Master of Writing Lu Zhi and the Head of Henan Precinct Min Gong, some of them were killed, while some, including Zhang Rang, drowned themselves. Empress-Dowager He was released by the eunuch Duan Gui, and escaped back to the palace through a side door. Min Gong then led the Emperor and his younger half-brother back to the palace on horseback. Dong Zhuo saw the fires in the capital and lead his troops towards the palace. Under Dong Zhuo’s protection, the Emperor and the King of Chen Liu returned to the palace on September 25th. The reign title was again changed, this time to the first year of Zhaoning. During the great confusion, the Great Seal of State had been lost (8). At this point, the capital was occupied by the forces of Dong Zhuo and those of Yuan Shao. Dong Zhuo had made false accusations about Minister of Works Liu Hong, and the latter was dismissed. Dong Zhuo took up the vacant post. A dispute began when Dong Zhuo asked Yuan Shao to support him in dethroning Emperor Shao and replacing him with the King of Chen Liu. Yuan Shao’s family had been very priveledged during the Han reign, and even now his family was well positioned. Thus he went against Dong Zhuo, but fled from the Capital without doing anything to protect the Emperor.

(8) There are six Imperial Seals of State, the main seal, the sign of the Emperor, was missing when the Emperor returned to his palace. The seal represented an Emperor’s mandate to rule. It was found two years later by Sun Jian.

Dong Zhuo held a council to propose the replacement of Emperors, nobody dared speak to him, except Lu Zhi, the Master of Writing, who made a fool of Dong Zhuo. The latter was enraged and drew his sword. Cai Yong remonstrated him, and told Dong Zhuo that killing Lu Zhi would bring about the peoples’ rage. Dong Zhuo thus relieved Lu Zhi of his duties. Yuan Wei, the uncle of Yuan Shao, agreed with deposing Emperor Shao, and followed Dong Zhuo to the palace. On September 28th, the Emperor was dethroned and made the King of Hongnong. Dong Zhuo turned to the weeping Empress-Dowager He, and openly remonstrated her for her actions against Empress-Dowager Dong (9). He then transferred her to the Palace of Perpetual Peace and had her placed under house arrest. On September 30th, Dong Zhuo had the Empress-Dowager He drink poison, which killed her. During her burial ceremony, none of the court officials or ministers wore plain clothing as is the custom; they simply wore white silk and did not lament for her.

(9) The Empress-Dowager Dong, being Empress He’s mother-in-law, held seniority in the court. While their parents are still alive, it is a child’s filial duty to listen to them and take care of them. Dong Zhuo himself was not a filial man, but this was the excuse he needed to warrant the removal of the Empress from the court, and his way of keeping her out of the way.

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A Kongming’s Archives Exclusive Production
Major Sources: Zhongguo Lishizhu Professor T.Chen (1965 Peking), Zizhi Tongjian (Beijing 1956), To Establish Peace (Rafe De Crespigny), Houhan Shu: The Annals of Emperor Ling