The Chinese Empresses Whose Wisdom Enriched Dynastic Rule

A depiction of Tang Dynasty Empress Zhang Sun(长孙皇后)and her husband, Taizong( 唐太宗)
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By Leo Timm  | 

Throughout China’s long history, many dynasties were established by men of strength and ambition. Yet the wise and virtuous women who stood alongside them were no less instrumental in shaping the character and heritage of Chinese civilisation.

Classical Chinese culture values women who apply their intellect and wisdom to assist fathers, husbands, and sons in their judgement and conduct.

In the “Thousand Character Classic”, an educational text, there is the line, “Outside, accept the teachings of your master; at home, honour your mother’s principles.”

Wisdom, represented by the Chinese character “zhi”, is the fourth of five cardinal virtues taught in Confucianism, the others being benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and faith. In the following three stories, the Chinese empresses are known for their contributions to the Han and Tang dynasties.

Empress Yin Shows Compassion to a Deposed Court Rival

Besides his proper wife Yin Liuha, Emperor Guangwu of the Eastern Han Dynasty also had a wealthy imperial consort, Guo Shengtong, who had bore him a son. This led to an awkward situation in which the emperor favoured Yin Lihua, but was under pressure to choose Guo Shengtong out of pragmatism.

Yin Lihua was a woman from eastern China descended from the famed minister Guan Zhong. Praising her as a “mother role model of beauty”, Guangwu offered Yin the position of empress.

Having no son, Yin remained humble and declined the offer. Guo Shengtong became empress.

Guangwu could not shake his feelings for his first wife. When the emperor tried to confer noble titles on Yin’s brothers, she refused, saying that it would be improper nepotism. When he tried to reward her with expensive jewellery, Yin pointed out that such extravagance was hardly appropriate given that the empire had hardly stabilised after years of warfare.

Knowing that Guangwu was still in love with Yin, Guo Shengtong was jealous and slandered her repeatedly. After 17 years of marriage, the emperor tired of Guo and stripped her of imperial status.

Though Yin Lihua became the new empress, she did not harbour grudges against Guo or her family. She commanded her sons and grandchildren to treat the deposed empress as their own mother and grandmother. A notable instance of this was when Emperor Ming, Yin’s son and the successor to Guangwu, attended the funeral of Liu Jiang, who was Guangwu’s firstborn son by Guo. As a result of Yin’s virtue, the rest of Han Dynasty history was not disgraced by violence among the royalty.

Mingde Empress Aids in Court Administration

Another Han Dynasty empress, Mingde, was the daughter-in-law of the aforementioned Empress Yin and the wife of Emperor Ming. She is known for responsibly using her imperial authority to ensure smooth succession between emperors, earning her the appraisal as a model for all women and empresses at home and in court.

Emperor Ming valued Mingde’s opinions and frequently asked her thoughts on political matters. Despite the great leverage she held over her husband, Mingde restricted herself to the role of adviser and never used her charm to benefit her own household.

Finally, Emperor Ming passed away and was replaced by Emperor Zhang. Because Zhang was still a child, Empress Mingde filled in for him.

In Chinese history, it was not uncommon for the empress-dowager to seize power for herself and rule from behind the scenes with the help of male royalty. Empress Mingde knew the chaotic results that would come of this, and strictly forbade any other royalty to touch power or influence the young emperor.

As an example, there was much pressure on Emperor Zhang to grant his uncles royal titles. Empress-Dowager Mingde resolutely stood her ground against these requests until she was ready to pass full imperial authority to Zhang. His reign was thus stable and successful.

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