Empress He (Han dynasty)

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Empress Lingsi
Chinese 靈思皇后
Literal meaning The Unattentive and Deep-thinking Empress
Empress He
Chinese 何皇后

Empress He (died 189), personal name unknown, formally known as Empress Lingsi (靈思皇后; literally: "the Unattentive and Deep-thinking Empress") was an empress of the Han Dynasty period of Chinese history. She was Emperor Ling's second wife. Along with her brother He Jin, she was able to temporarily dominate power at the imperial court after the death of Emperor Ling in 189 as empress dowager.

Family background and marriage to Emperor Ling[edit]

Unlike most Han Dynasty empresses, Empress He was not from a noble family; rather, her father He Zhen (何真) was a butcher in Nanyang (南陽, in modern Nanyang, Henan). Her mother was named Xing (興). It is not known when she was selected as an imperial consort. According to legends, she was selected to be an imperial consort after her family paid bribes to the eunuchs selecting imperial consorts. She was said to be far taller than the average woman and very beautiful. In 176, she gave birth to Emperor Ling's oldest surviving son Liu Bian. (Emperor Ling had previous sons but all died in infancy or childhood.) Based on customs of the time, in order to let Prince Bian avoid the fate of his older brothers, he was entrusted to the magician Shi Zimiao (史子眇) and known by the circumspect title "Marquess Shi." In 180, Emperor Ling made Consort He empress to replace his first wife Empress Song, who was deposed in 171.

As empress[edit]

As empress, Empress He was said to be greatly favored by Emperor Ling. She was also described as very jealous and very cruel, and the imperial consorts were all fearful of her. After she became empress, her mother Lady Xing was created the Lady of Wuyang, and her brothers He Jin and He Miao (何苗) began to be promoted quickly.

In 181, a concubine of Emperor Ling, Consort Wang, gave birth to a son named Liu Xie. The jealous Empress He assassinated her by poisoning her rice porridge. Emperor Ling was enraged and wanted to depose her, but the eunuchs pleaded on her behalf, and she was not deposed. Prince Xie was raised personally by Emperor Ling's mother Empress Dowager Dong and known by the circumspect title "Marquess Dong."

As the princes grew in age, Emperor Ling considered whom to create crown prince. Prince Bian was born of the empress and was older, but Emperor Ling viewed his behavior as being insufficiently solemn and therefore considered creating Prince Xie crown prince, but hesitated and could not decide.

As empress dowager[edit]

Emperor Ling died in 189. The powerful eunuch Jian Shuo, whom he trusted, wanted to first kill He Jin and then make Prince Xie emperor, and therefore set up a trap at a meeting he was to have with him. He found out, and preemptorily declared Prince Bian emperor (later known as the Prince of Hongnong). Empress He became empress dowager, and she and He Jin became the key power at court, although a number of the eunuchs remained very powerful.

A confrontation quickly brewed. In the summer of 189, He Jin, plotting with Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu, as well as a number of other young officials, planned to act against Jian. Jian tried to persuade his fellow powerful eunuchs, including Zhao Zhong and Song Dian (宋典), to go along with his plan to arrest and kill He Jin. However, Zhao and Song were persuaded by another eunuch, Guo Sheng (郭勝) -- a friend of the Hes—to turn down Jian's suggestions. He Jin then arrested Jian and executed him, taking over the forces under his control.

The Hes then had a confrontation with yet another power center. Emperor Ling's mother, Grand Empress Dowager Dong, and her nephew Dong Chong (董重) were displeased at the Hes' power grab, and Grand Empress Dowager Dong often argued with Empress Dowager He, once threatening to have Dong Chong decapitate He Jin. He Jin took preemptive action and had Empress Dowager He issue an edict exiling her mother-in-law back to Hejian (in modern Baoding, Hebei), where her husband's fief was and Dong Chong arrested. Dong Chong committed suicide, and Grand Empress Dowager Dong died soon thereafter—with most historical accounts concluding that she died from fear, but some suggested that she committed suicide. This event caused the Hes to be very unpopular among the people.

In autumn 189, Yuan Shao suggested to He Jin that the eunuchs be slaughtered—a proposal that Empress He immediately rejected, as the plan would have required that Empress He interact with normal men on a regular basis, a requirement that she found offensive and inmodest. Lady Xian and He Miao also opposed the plan, reasoning that they owed much to the eunuchs. He Jin was therefore hesitant to carry out his plan, and he and Yuan Shao hatched an alternative plan that would later prove disastrous—instructing generals outside the hospital to declare rebellions and demanding that the eunuchs be slaughtered, in order to force Empress He to do so. One of the generals that He Jin so instructed was Dong Zhuo, then in command of the battle-tested Liang Province (涼州, modern Gansu) forces—not remembering that Dong Zhuo had previous records for disobeying direct orders and undue harshness.

As Dong approached the capital with his forces, Empress Dowager He was forced to order the powerful eunuchs to leave the palace and return to their marches. (Most of these powerful eunuchs were created marquesses by Emperor Ling.) However, after the eunuchs' leader, Zhang Rang pleaded with his daughter-in-law (Empress Dowager He's sister), Empress Dowager He relented and summoned them back to the palace. The eunuchs then found out that He Jin in fact planned to exterminate them, and they tricked He Jin into falling into an ambush and getting killed. He Jin's associates, led by Yuan Shao, then surrounded the palace, and the eunuchs took Empress Dowager He, the young emperor, and Prince Xie hostage, although Empress Dowager He soon escaped. Meanwhile, Yuan Shao had the other eunuchs mass-executed, and also killed He Miao for not having cooperated with He Jin.

Two days later, the several eunuchs holding the emperor and Prince Xie hostage, knowing that they were in desperate straits, took the emperor and the prince and fled north toward the river. With government officials Lu Zhi and Min Gong (閔貢) on their heels, the eunuchs, led by Zhang Rang, released the emperor and Prince Xie and committed suicide by jumping into the Yellow River. As Min and Lu were escorting the emperor and the prince back to the capital Luoyang, they were intercepted by Dong Zhuo's forces. As Dong came up to meet them, the young emperor was so shocked that he spoke incoherently and could not answer Dong Zhuo's questions. The younger Prince Xie, however, had no such difficulty in describing the events. Dong became impressed by the younger prince, and, because he shared the same name with the late Grand Empress Dowager Dong, began to consider deposing the emperor and replacing him with Prince Xie.

Dong quickly took over the capital by using his forces to intimidate others. Yuan Shao and Cao Cao, then in command of the palace guards, saw that they could no longer control their forces, which had been so intimidated by the stronger Liang Province forces that they were not following orders, fled the capital. Dong then ordered the young emperor deposed (and created the Prince of Hongnong), and Empress Dowager He was forced to agree. Prince Xie was declared emperor (as Emperor Xian).

Dong then accused Empress Dowager He of having been filially unpious toward Grand Empress Dowager Dong, and forcibly moved her to an unused palace. He then had her poisoned to death. While she was still buried with an empress title with her husband Emperor Ling, she was not honored with the proper ceremonies due an empress dowager, and Dong also had her mother, Lady Xian, executed. Her son, the Prince of Hongnong, would also suffer the same fate in 190.

See also[edit]

Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Song
Empress of Eastern Han Dynasty
180–189
Succeeded by
Empress Fu Shou