Han dynasty

Empress Xianmu (Cao Jie)

“The last empress of the Eastern Han dynasty of China”

Cao Jie (died 2 July 260) formally known as Empress Xianmu, was the last empress of the Eastern Han dynasty of China. She was the second wife of Emperor Xian, the last Han emperor, and became known as the Duchess of Shanyang after her husband’s abdication. Cao Jie was also the daughter of Cao Cao the Great, who was a prominent warlord, statesman, and poet who lived during the late Eastern Han Dynasty in China.

Cao Jie’s Story

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Cao Jie (died 2 July 260),[a] formally known as Empress Xianmu, was the last empress of the Eastern Han dynasty of China. She was the second wife of Emperor Xian, the last Han emperor, and became known as the Duchess of Shanyang after her husband’s abdication.

She was a half-sister of Cao Pi, who ended the Han dynasty by forcing Emperor Xian to abdicate the throne in his favor and established the state of Cao Wei. She fiercely opposed the coup d’état orchestrated by Cao Pi, repeatedly refusing to hand over the imperial seal.

Empress Xianmu is praised in the traditional point of view as the last defender of the failed Han Dynasty, alongside Empress Fu Shou and Lady Dong in contrast to Emperor Xian’s negligence.

Her Father

Cao Cao, also known as Cao Cao the Great, was a prominent warlord, statesman, and poet who lived during the late Eastern Han Dynasty in China. He was born in 155 AD and died in 220 AD. Cao Cao played a significant role in the period of political turmoil and military conflict known as the Three Kingdoms period.

Cao Jie (Empress Xianmu) was a daughter of the warlord Cao Cao, who by 196 had Emperor Xian under his control and issuing edicts in Emperor Xian’s name to his own benefit in his campaign to reunite the empire, which had been held by regional warlords. In 213, Cao, who by that point had been created the Duke of Wei (later King of Wei), offered three daughters to be Emperor Xian’s consorts – Cao Jie (曹節) and her elder sister, Cao Xian (曹憲), and younger sister, Cao Hua (曹華).

Her Spouse

Emperor Xian of Han (2 April 181 – 21 April 234), personal name Liu Xie (劉協), courtesy name Bohe, was the 14th and last emperor of the Eastern Han dynasty in China. He reigned from 28 September 189 until 11 December 220.[5][6]

Liu Xie was a son of Liu Hong (Emperor Ling) and was a younger half-brother of his predecessor, Liu Bian (Emperor Shao). In 189, at the age of eight, he became emperor after the warlord Dong Zhuo, who had seized control of the Han central government, deposed Emperor Shao and replaced him with Liu Xie. The newly enthroned Liu Xie, historically known as Emperor Xian, was in fact a puppet ruler under Dong Zhuo’s control.

In 190, when a coalition of regional warlords launched a punitive campaign against Dong Zhuo in the name of freeing Emperor Xian, Dong Zhuo ordered the destruction of the imperial capital, Luoyang, and forcefully relocated the imperial capital along with its residents to Chang’an. After Dong Zhuo’s assassination in 192, Emperor Xian fell under the control of Li Jue and Guo Si, two former subordinates of Dong Zhuo. The various regional warlords formally acknowledged Emperor Xian’s legitimacy but never took action to save him from being held hostage.

In 195, Emperor Xian managed to escape from Chang’an and return to the ruins of Luoyang during a feud between Li Jue and Guo Si, where he soon became stranded. A year later, the warlord Cao Cao led his forces into Luoyang, received Emperor Xian, took him under his protection, and escorted him to Xu, where the new imperial capital was established. Although Cao Cao paid nominal allegiance to Emperor Xian, he was actually the de facto head of the central government. He skillfully used Emperor Xian as a “trump card” to bolster his legitimacy when he attacked and eliminated rival warlords in his quest to reunify the Han Empire under the central government’s rule.

Cao Cao’s success seemed inevitable until the winter of 208–209, when he lost the decisive Battle of Red Cliffs against the southern warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei. The battle paved the way for the subsequent emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu.

In late 220, some months after Cao Cao’s death, Cao Cao’s successor, Cao Pi, forced Emperor Xian to abdicate the throne to him. He then established the state of Cao Wei with himself as the new emperor – an event marking the formal end of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period in China. The dethroned Emperor Xian received the noble title Duke of Shanyang (Chinese: 山陽公) from Cao Pi and spent the rest of his life in comfort and enjoyed preferential treatment. He died on 21 April 234, about 14 years after the fall of the Han dynasty.

About this Portrait

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

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