Han dynasty

Empress Ma

Empress Ma (馬皇后, personal name unknown) (40 – August 16, 79), formally Empress Mingde (明德皇后, literally, “the understanding and virtuous empress”), was an empress during the Eastern Han Dynasty from the year 60 until her death. Her husband was Emperor Ming of Han.

Her Story

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In 40, the eventual Empress Ma was born to Emperor Guangwu’s General Ma Yuan, known for his expeditions against Vietnamese rebellions and his exhortations on personal living, and his wife Lady Lin (藺夫人). Ma was a marquess, and Lady Ma was therefore born into comfort and wealth, as a member of a noble family.

In 49, however, things would change. Ma, while on an expedition against the Wulin tribes (in modern eastern Guizhou and northwestern Hunan), died during the campaign from a plague, which also killed a large number of his soldiers. After his death, Ma’s deputy Geng Shu (耿舒), who had disagreed with Ma’s strategy, and Emperor Guangwu’s son-in-law Liang Song (梁松), who had prior grudges against Ma, falsely accused Ma of many crimes — most of which is unknown to us.

The other noble families began to look down on the Ma family. Lady Ma had been previously engaged to marry a son of another noble family, the Dous.

As a consort to the crown prince, Consort Ma was described to be excellent at serving her mother-in-law, Empress Yin Lihua, and she quickly became Empress Yin’s favorite. She was also cordial and warm to her fellow consorts. 

As empress, Empress Ma was described as humble and solemn, and she loved reading. She often wore the less expensive white silk without elaborate designs. The imperial consorts and princesses were all surprised by how thrifty she was and yet impressed by her. Emperor Ming often consulted her on important matters of state when he could not make a decision quickly. She would analyze the issues carefully and come up with good suggestions. One thing she was described of having never done was to request favors for her brothers and cousins. Because of this, Emperor Ming continued to respect and love her.

Empress Dowager Ma continued to be known for her humility and good judgment as empress dowager. Empress Dowager Ma also established a textile factory and a mulberry garden for silkworms, which became a fairly productive industry for the imperial household. In her spare time, she often discussed important matters of state with Emperor Zhang and taught his sons the Confucian classics – particularly the Analects of Confucius.

In August of 79, Empress Dowager Ma died; she was in her 40s. She was buried with her husband.

Her Spouse

Emperor Gaozu of Han (256 – 1 June 195 BC), born Liu Bang (Chinese: 劉邦; pinyin: Liú Bāng) with courtesy name Ji (季), was the founder and first emperor of the Han dynasty, reigning in 202–195 BC. His temple name was “Taizu” while his posthumous name was Emperor Gao, or Gaodi; “Gaozu of Han”, derived from the Records of the Grand Historian, is the common way of referring to this sovereign even though he was not accorded the temple name “Gaozu”, which literally means “High Founder”.

About this Portrait

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

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