Given that the Shiji is a framework for China’s early imperial political thought, it can be used to demonstrate the influence of women on politics during the rule of the Han dynasty. Empress Lu, in particular, is a key component to the understanding of these roles, since she was the only woman who reigned for several years during the Han. It is unclear whether the author was concerned with the character of Empress Lu, or whether the author was instead writing about a political system in which women given the power to rule almost always led to disaster.
It has been suggested that the new imperial system introduced in China by the Qin and the Han produced a “misogynistic ideology” that became evermore embedded in aristocratic thought (Van Ess 222). It can be assumed that according to this ideology, the majority saw women as the source of many political crises. The unification of the empire is hence said to have been the commencement of a tradition that believed women to be jealous and intractable and therefore men should attempt to preclude women from acquiring political power.
In “The Basic Annals of Empress Lu” the description of Empress Lu contains elements that present her as a brutal and heartless person. This paper will provide an analysis of various excerpts that illustrate aspects of Empress Lu’s personality. The “Basic Annals of Empress Lu,” consists almost exclusively of edicts issued during her reign. Consequently, it is fundamentally depersonalized. That said, the way in which the edicts are arranged and the particular information is strategically included, gives light to the author’s intent when describing Empress Lu.
In the case of “The Basic Annals of Empress Lu”, the main feature dominating the life of Empress Lu was fear for herself and for her clan. The author’s portrayal of Empress Lu provides an argument that an empress defending her own position can be ruthless. It is an account that deals with a woman who, although she uses brutal methods, is acting in self-defense. In an account regarding Empress Lu and Lady Qi demonstrates the fear that Empress Lu has.
In the story on page 268, Empress Lu declared her rage on Lady Qi, ordering that her hands and feet be cut off, her eyes plucked out, and her ears burned, and that she be rendered dumb by drinking poison and finally thrown into the privy where she was known as a “human pig”. Forced by the Empress to take a look, the Emperor Hui said, “no human being could have done such a deed as this! ” that he would give up ruling. His consequent drinking eventually made him sick.
This story shows that the author did not intend to describe Empress Lu as a nice person. However, there is a reason for Empress Lu’s cruelty, specifically, that Gaozu had tried to eliminate the heir apparent and replace him with the son of a concubine. Empress Lu took her revenge when Gaozu was dead. In the “The Basic Annals of Empress Lu”, fear is the motive that drives Empress Lu. All of her actions are explained by the eager attempt to make her own life and the lives of her family safe and to avoid a threatening dismissal from power.
This motif is present during the story of the Qi King Liu Fei’s encounter with the Empress on pages 269 to 270. Emperor Hui treats this man with honor and as a member of his family, rather than a subject. In the eyes of the Empress, this reflected the Emperor’s weak character; an emperor was not allowed to treat a relative as his equal. It is this breach of etiquette, and presumably also Empress Lu’s fear that he could become a strong competitor, that causes Empress Lu to attempt to poison the king of Qi.
She failed in her attempt and the king found out that Empress Lu had tried to poison him. Subsequently an official suggested that the King, whose territory covered more than seventy cities, should grant the province of Chengyang to the Empress Dowager as a bathing city for her daughter. When the King abided, Empress Lu was delighted and held a banquet in honor of the King of Qi. This account is evidence for the author’s claim that Empress Lu is only brutish because she fears that her family will lose power.
As soon as an advisor removes the Empress’s fear that she and her clan might lose power, she was able to be appeasing and even courteous. Fear was her motive when she heartlessly acted against her opponents, a fear that made her cruel. The next story again shows that the author wanted to describe not the evil of women but the cruelty of the political circumstances that forced Empress Lu to act. After the death of her son, Emperor Hui, it is said that the Empress’s “lamentations [were] without real grief” (page 270).
The son of Zhang Liang, who had helped keep Emperor Hui on the throne, said to the prime minister that since the Empress was “afraid” of the power of the Chen Ping and the other great ministers, he should allow her to make three of her male relatives generals. When the Chen Ping granted this, Empress Lu was happy and “her lamentations took on air of genuine sorrow” (270). Clearly, Empress Lu had feared that there would no longer be a direct affiliation between her and the throne after the death of her son, and that she would be removed from power.
Another excerpt also demonstrates Empress Lu’s desire to give her family more power, without angering others and thus putting her family at risk for losing power. On page 271, there is a paragraph on former followers of Gaozu and ministers of Empress Lu who continued the politics of conciliation. They permitted the Empress to make her family members kings despite an agreement in which, according to the chancellor of the left, Wang Ling, Gaozu had sworn that the empire should unite in attacking on all those who were to be made kings and did not belong to the Liu family.
This is also the only instance in which there is mention that Empress Lu is acting in a manner that defies gender rules. The marquises state “now that the empress dowager is issuing decrees in the manner of an emperor, if she wishes to make kings of her brothers, we cannot see that there is any objection” (271). Only once she is making decrees in the manner of an emperor is she to be respected. Gender aside, it seems clear that the author, when quoting Gaozu’s oath, wants to show that policies that had once been supported and maybe even invented by the Empress herself, were now directed against her.
This is supported later, when Empress Lu is careful to ennoble others before distinguishing members of her own family. On page 272, it says “the empress dowager, with a view to making marquises of the members of her own family, first enfeoffed the palace secretary Feng Wuze, who had been a faithful follower of Gaozu, with the title of marquis of Bocheng. ” This shows that although she had the intention of giving her family noble titles, she was careful to first give honor to others, so as not to cause strife. Instead, her intention was to forge an alliance between the Lu and the Liu.
Her aim was to secure the position of her own family, not to put the Liu family in danger. This argument is also made clear when evaluating the reasoning behind the deaths of the kings of Zhao. Throughout her reign, Empress Lu kills two of the Kings of Zhao and forces one to commit suicide. At first glance, it appears that Empress Lu is evil and violent, killing three successive kings. However, in two of the cases, the reason is that she had given the kings wives of her own clan whom the kings, deeply disapproved. These two murders undoubtedly show the cruelty of Empress Lu, however they again expose the same aim.
Empress Lu wanted to forge an alliance between the Liu and Lu through marriage. This did not work and the reaction was harsh. As soon as someone tried to remove a Lu woman, the Empress killed him, just as she had done with the first King of Zhao and his mother, Lady Qi, when the empress’s own position had been threatened. It is relevant to note that the empress subsequently attempts to convince the King of Dai to become the King of Zhao, but he refused given the trend of dying kings. Only after he did not accept, did the Empress Lu appoint a King from the Lu family.
The author’s inclusion of the account regarding the King of Dai provides insight into Empress Lu’s genuine intentions. The last paragraph of “The Basic Annals of Empress Lu” gives the reader insight into the author’s true intentions when writing the Annals and his thoughts regarding Empress Lu (page 284). In this remark, the author narrates the story of Empress Lu’s life, causing the reader to connect this last judgment to her personally. That is, aside from the power struggle within the Lu family, her rule brought peace to the empire. Therefore, based on this last paragraph, the author assesses Empress Lu as a ruler in a positive manner.
Although the remarks from The Grand Historian give light to the author’s opinion of Empress Lu’s ability to rule, this essay is not arguing that the author was sympathetic for Empress Lu. However, in the Shiji, she is not attacked as a consequence of conventional female characteristics, and her jealousy is not the main feature of this text. Instead, this section of the Annals focuses on her fear that the Lu family might lose their power or be killed. She, in conclusion, appears simply as a ruler is who extremely fearful and paranoid of the dangers surrounding her.