Empress Lü 呂后

Empress Lü 呂后

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, the founder of the Han Western Dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).

Her ancestors came from Danfu 單父 (modern Danxian 單縣, Shandong), but her father moved to Pei 沛 (modern Peixian 沛縣, 將Jiangsu), the home town of Liu Bang.

“Master Lü” 呂公, as her father was called, was good at professing (fortune-telling by someone’s face), recognized that Liu Bang would become some great, 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 Xiang Yu 項羽, 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 him, he negotiated with Xiang Yu, and the latter released his hostages.

Empress Lü was a very clever person and was less scrupulous than her husband. This was of great importance after Liu Bang had become emperor in 202 and had to fight against his former allies that he had made kings. While Liu Bang was reluctant to immediately execute persons like Peng Yue 彭越 or Han Xin 韓信, 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, especially Xiao He 蕭何.

She also cooperated with the highest ministers in the question of the crown prince. When Liu Bang wanted to get rid of their common son Liu Ying 劉盈 (Emperor Hui 漢惠帝, r. 195-188) because he estimated him as too weak, and wanted to make Liu Ruyi 劉如意 crown prince, son of his concubine Lady Qi 戚夫人, the ministers supported Empress Lü.

After Liu Bang’s death (from then known as Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 202-195), Liu Ying was made emperor. Because he was a very delicate and weak person, Lü Zhi, now Empress Dowager, took over 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 killed Liu Ruyi and another son of a concubine of Liu Bang, Liu You 劉友.

When her son, shocked by these cruelties, became sick, the Empress Dowager was officially made regent for her son (cheng zhi稱制 “she pronounced the rules”). When Emperor Hui died unexpectedly in 188 BCE without heirs, she had enthroned one or two children of him for which she also took over regency.

The first infant 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 was charged with the murder of his mother, a concubine of late Emperor Hui, and was confronted with this charge by the infant emperor, so that he was (after being killed by the Empress Dowager) by another baby prince, 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 children emperors were not considered as true rulers of the Han dynasty and were even said to have been fathered by someone of the Lü family. The two official histories of the Han dynasty, Shiji 史記 and Hanshu 漢書, fully acknowledge the rule of Empress Dowager Lü and not 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 during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) that did not allow a woman to rule.

In this virtually hopeless situation of missing successors to her son Empress Lü began to enfeoff her own relatives with titles of nobility. Her nephews Lü Tai 呂台, Lü Chan 呂產 and Lü Lu 呂祿 were made princes (wang 王). She also had retired some ministers criticizing her, like Wang Ling 王陵.

She proved to be a very competent regent, relaxed taxes on the peasantry and had abolished the most cruel penalties of the Qin dynasty 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 enfeoffed as princes, occupied the imperial palace and usurped command of the palace guard.

It is far from clear as to whether they ever tried installing one among 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 Wang Ling and Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang) Chen Ping 陳平 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 historians always quarreled about the question as to whether Empress Lü  ought to be allowed to be listed among the emperors, ruling from 187-188.

On the one side, the had never proclaimed herself emperor (as Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 did) but was only regent for infant emperors (shaodi 少帝). However, there is great doubt about the the authenticity of the two children called Gong 恭 and Hong 弘.

The Shiji, therefore grants her an own imperial biography (9 Lü taihou benji 呂太后本紀), 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, pp. 628-629.

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