Han dynasty

Empress Dou

Empress Dou (竇皇后, personal name unknown; 63 – 8 October 97 CE), formally Empress Zhangde (章德皇后, literally “the polite and virtuous empress”), was an empress of the Chinese Han dynasty. Her husband was Emperor Zhang. She was already influential and powerful during her husband’s reign but became particularly highly powerful and influential as empress dowager and regent between 88 and 92 for her adoptive son Emperor He after Emperor Zhang’s death. Her family members, particularly her brother Dou Xian, became extremely powerful until they were toppled in a coup d’etat by Emperor He, in 92. Empress Dou lost her power but remained honored until her death.

Her Story

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Lady Dou’s father Dou Xun (竇勳) was a grandson of the statesman Dou Rong (竇融). Her mother was Princess Piyang (沘陽公主), a daughter of Liu Jiang (劉疆), the Prince of Donghai, who was a highly honored older brother to Emperor Ming and was Emperor Guangwu’s first crown prince; therefore, she was created a princess even though her father was not an emperor. 

Lady Dou became an imperial consort to Emperor Zhang in 77. She was his favorite, and he created her empress on 3 April 78;[4] he was 22 at the time.

Empress Dou was a jealous woman, and she became engaged in power struggles with other imperial consorts soon after she became empress. She was completely in control of the palace and exercised the power of rewards and punishments stubbornly over the palace.

While Emperor Zhang’s adoptive mother Empress Dowager Ma was alive, she selected two daughters of Song Yang (宋楊) as consorts for Emperor Zhang. In 78, the elder Consort Song gave birth to a son named Liu Qing (劉慶), and because Empress Dou was sonless, Prince Qing was created crown prince in 79. The Consorts Song was greatly favored by Empress Dowager Ma until Empress Dowager Ma’s death in 79.

ater in 79, however, Empress Dou would (perhaps remembering Empress Dowager Ma’s example) adopt the son of another imperial consort, Consort Liang, Liu Zhao (劉肇), as her own son, and she plotted, along with her mother Princess Piyang and her brothers, to have her adopted son made crown prince. 

In 88, Emperor Zhang died. Crown Prince Zhao succeeded to the throne as Emperor He, at age nine. Empress Dou, now empress dowager, served as regent. Her brothers Dou Xian, Dou Du, Dou Jing (竇景), and Dou Gui (竇瑰) all became powerful officials.

n 92, however, the Dous would suddenly fall as the result of a coup d’état. The details are unclear now, but it appeared that Emperor He, perhaps encouraged by his brother Prince Qing (whose mother had died at the Dous’ hand and whose status as crown prince had been stripped away by their machinations) and the eunuch Zheng Zhong (鄭眾), made sudden orders to the imperial guards to have them arrest Dou Xian’s associates and execute them. He sent Dou Xian and his brothers back to their marches, but eventually ordered them to commit suicide, with the exception of Dou Gui. Empress Dowager Dou remained empress dowager, but lost all power.

Emperor He was unaware that he was not Empress Dowager Dou’s biological son, and he continued to honor and respect her, even though not giving her any real authority, after the fall of the Dou brothers. However, after she died in October 97, it became known that he was actually born of Consort Liang. While Emperor He posthumously honored Consort Liang and also rewarded her family with power and wealth subsequently, he rejected a suggestion to posthumously demote Empress Dowager Dou. Instead, she was buried with full imperial honors, with her husband Emperor Zhang.

Her Spouse

Emperor Zhang of Han (Chinese: 漢章帝; pinyin: Hàn Zhāng Dì; Wade–Giles: Han Chang-ti; 56 – 9 April 88), born Liu Da (劉炟), was an emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty from 75 to 88. He was the third emperor of the Eastern Han.

Emperor Zhang was a hardworking and diligent emperor. He reduced taxes and paid close attention to all affairs of state. Zhang also reduced government spending as well as promoted Confucianism. As a result, Han society prospered and its culture flourished during this period. Along with his father Emperor Ming, Emperor Zhang’s reign has been highly praised and was regarded as the golden age of the Eastern Han period, and their reigns are collectively known as the Rule of Ming and Zhang.

During his reign, Chinese troops under the leadership of General Ban Chao progressed far west while in pursuit of Xiongnu insurgents harassing the trade routes now collectively known as the Silk Road.

The Eastern Han dynasty, after Emperor Zhang, would be plagued with internal strife between royal factions and eunuchs struggling for power. The people for the coming century and a half would yearn for the good days of Emperors Ming and Zhang. (However, part of the strife came from the power obtained by consort clans – and the precedent was set by Emperor Zhang’s bestowing of power on both his adoptive mother Empress Dowager Ma‘s clan and his wife Empress Dou’s clan.)

About this Portrait

Chinese watercolor, on silk. The Chinese Empresses Collection
Painted by Xiang Li
75 x 36 inches

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