Han dynasty

Empress Song

The empress is shown at the bottom of this painting.

Empress Song (fl.170 – late 178) was an empress of the Han dynasty of China. She was Emperor Ling’s first wife and later became a victim of the powerful eunuchs.

Family background and marriage to Emperor Ling
The later Empress Song was born into a clan that was honored, but not particularly powerful, during the Eastern Han dynasty. Her father Song Feng (宋酆) was a grandnephew of Consort Song, the imperial consort of Emperor Zhang who gave birth to his first crown prince Liu Qing. During the early reign of Emperor Ling, Song Feng served as the commander of the capital (Luoyang) defense forces. Her aunt was the consort of Liu Kui (劉悝), the Prince of Bohai (勃海王), a brother of Emperor Ling’s predecessor Emperor Huan.

In 170, Lady Song was selected to be an imperial consort with the rank of guiren. Gui ren (貴人) is “someone who can help you, or is destined to help you.

In August or September 171, even though she was not a favored consort, she was created empress, perhaps because of her noble lineage. Song Feng was created a marquis.

The Liu Kui incident, fall and death
However, even after becoming empress, Empress Song never had Emperor Ling’s favor. This, combined with her weak personality, emboldened the concubines who wanted to replace her; these concubines then often defamed her. What proved to be more damaging to her was the “Liu Kui incident”.

In 165, Liu Kui had been demoted due to treason; he then approached powerful eunuch Wang Fu (王甫) and promised him a large sum of money if Wang Fu could persuade Emperor Huan to restore his title. In 167, Emperor Huan’s posthumous edict restored Liu Kui to the title of Prince of Bohai. However, Liu Kui did not fulfill his promise. In return, Wang Fu falsely accused Liu Kui of treason in 172; Liu Kui was forced to commit suicide, and his entire household was executed. Thereafter, Wang Fu and his confederates became constantly concerned that if Empress Song became powerful, she would avenge her aunt, who was Liu Kui’s consort. They, therefore, joined with the concubines to falsely accuse her of using witchcraft against Emperor Ling.

In October or November 178, Emperor Ling finally believed them and deposed Empress Song. Empress Song was imprisoned and died in despair. Her father Song Feng and her brothers were all executed. Song Qi (宋奇), formally the Marquis of Yinqiang (隐强侯), who was also executed, was probably a brother of the empress; and as his wife was a younger cousin of Cao Cao, Cao Cao was dismissed from his post as the Prefect of Dunqiu. Some of the eunuchs not involved in the plot who took pity on the late empress gathered her body and those of her family members and gave them proper burials but as commoners.

Empress He

Empress shown on the top of this painting

Empress He (died 30 September 189), personal name unknown, posthumously known as Empress Lingsi, was an empress of the Eastern Han dynasty. She was the second empress consort of Emperor Ling and the mother of Emperor Shao. After the death of Emperor Ling in 189, she became empress dowager when her young son, Liu Bian (Emperor Shao), became the new emperor. She was caught up in the conflict between her brother, General-in-Chief He Jin, and the eunuch faction, who were both vying for power in the Han imperial court. After He Jin’s assassination and the elimination of the eunuch faction, the warlord Dong Zhuo took advantage of the power vacuum to lead his forces into the imperial capital and seize control of the Han central government. Dong Zhuo subsequently deposed Emperor Shao, replaced him with Liu Xie (Emperor Xian), and had Empress Dowager He poisoned to death.

Family background and early years
Lady He was from Wan County (宛縣), Nanyang Commandery (南陽郡), which is in present-day Nanyang, Henan. Unlike most Han dynasty empresses, she was not of noble birth; her father, He Zhen (何真), was a butcher. Her mother’s maiden family name is unknown, but her given name was “Xing” (興). She had two half-brothers, He Jin (same father) and He Miao (same mother) (何苗), and a younger sister who married the (adopted) son of the eunuch Zhang Rang.

According to legends, she joined Emperor Ling’s imperial harem after her family bribed the eunuchs tasked with selecting women to serve the emperor. She was seven chi and one cun tall. In 176, she bore Emperor Ling a son, Liu Bian, who turned out to be the emperor’s oldest surviving son because his other sons born before Liu Bian died in infancy or childhood. As Emperor Ling believed that he lost his previous sons due to bad luck, he ordered Shi Zimiao (史子眇), a Taoist, to raise his newborn son; Liu Bian was given the title “Marquis Shi” (史侯). Lady He became highly favoured by Emperor Ling, who awarded her the rank of “Honoured Lady” (貴人). Honoured Lady He was known for being jealous and cruel. The other women in Emperor Ling’s harem were afraid of her.

As empress consort
On 8 January 181, Emperor Ling instated Honoured Lady He as Empress to replace Empress Song, whom he deposed in 178. The following year, the emperor bestowed titles on Empress He’s parents to honour them: her deceased father, He Zhen, received the posthumous appointment “General of Chariots of Cavalry” (車騎將軍) and the title “Marquis Xuande of Wuyang” (舞陽宣德侯); her mother was given the title “Lady of Wuyang” (舞陽君).

As empress dowager
When Emperor Ling became critically ill in 189, he secretly entrusted his eight-year-old son Liu Xie to close aide and eunuch, Jian Shuo. Upon Emperor Ling’s death, Jian Shuo attempted to lure He Jin into a trap in the palace, assassinate him, and then install Liu Xie on the throne. However, Pan Yin (潘隱), a eunuch who was also an acquaintance of He Jin, warned the General-in-Chief of Jian Shuo’s plot. He Jin returned to his military camp and pretended to be sick so he did not need to respond when summoned to enter the palace. Jian Shuo’s plan to make Liu Xie emperor failed, so a 13-year-old Liu Bian was enthroned and became historically known as Emperor Shao. Empress He, as the emperor’s mother, became empress dowager and attended imperial court sessions alongside her son. As Emperor Shao was still young, General-in-Chief He Jin and Grand Tutor Yuan Wei (袁隗) served as his regents.

The warlord Dong Zhuo ultimately led his forces into Luoyang, the imperial capital, and took advantage of the power vacuum to seize control of the Han central government. In 28 September 189, he deposed Emperor Shao (who was demoted to “Prince of Hongnong”) and replaced him with Liu Xie (the Prince of Chenliu), who is historically known as Emperor Xian. A tearful Empress Dowager He watched as her son was forcefully pulled away from his throne, while the officials watched and did not dare to say anything for fear of antagonising Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo subsequently relocated Empress Dowager He to Yong’an Palace (永安宮) and had her poisoned to death there. He also killed the empress dowager’s mother, the Lady of Wuyang (舞陽君). Dong Zhuo then forced Emperor Xian to attend the empress dowager’s funeral on 29 October 189 at Fengchang Village (奉常亭), a district of Luoyang. The officials who attended the funeral were dressed in plain colours but not proper mourning attire; the entire ceremony did not befit her status as an empress dowager. She was buried in the Wenzhao Mausoleum (文昭陵) with Emperor Ling as an empress instead of empress dowager, and posthumously honoured as “Empress Lingsi” (靈思皇后).

Their Spouse: Emperor Ling of Han

Emperor Ling of Han (156/157 – 13 May 189), personal name Liu Hong, was the 12th and last powerful emperor of the Eastern Han dynasty. Born the son of a lesser marquis who descended directly from Emperor Zhang (the third Eastern Han emperor), Liu Hong was chosen to be emperor in February 168 around age 12 after the death of his predecessor, Emperor Huan, who had no son to succeed him. He reigned for about 21 years until his death in May 189.

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