Han dynasty

Empress Yixian
(Liang Nüying)

Empress shown in the center of this painting

Liang Nüying (梁女瑩) (died 9 August 159), center, formally Empress Yixian (懿獻皇后, literally “the meek and wise empress”) was an empress during the Eastern Han Dynasty. She was Emperor Huan’s first wife.

Family background
It is not known when Liang Nüying was born, but what is known is that at her young age, she was accustomed to an honored position as a daughter of the Grand Marshal Liang Shang (梁商) and a younger sister of Empress Liang Na, Emperor Shun’s wife, and later regent to his son Emperor Chong, and two successors from collateral lines, Emperors Zhi and Huan. Indeed, it was because she was betrothed to Emperor Huan (who was then the Marquess of Liwu) that her elder brother, the powerful Liang Ji, insisted on making him emperor in August 146 after poisoning Emperor Zhi. After Emperor Huan became emperor, he married her in 147 and created her empress on 30 September.

As empress
As an empress, Empress Liang was somewhat in the shadow of her sister, the empress dowager, and brother, and not much is known about her. Traditional history indicates that because of her honored position as the empress dowager’s sister, initially, Emperor Huan did not dare to have any other favorite consorts. She was described as so luxurious in her living that her expenses far exceeded the empresses of the past. After her sister died in April 150, she began to lose Emperor Huan’s favor, but she continued to be greatly jealous. As she was sonless, she did not want any imperial consorts to have sons—so she would have them killed if they became pregnant. With Liang Ji effectively in control of the government, Emperor Huan did not dare to respond, but he would rarely have sexual relations with her. Empress Liang died in anger on August 9, 159, and was buried with the honors of an empress. On 28 August of that same year, she was buried in Yiling.

Later that year, Emperor Huan, in conjunction with eunuchs, overthrew Liang Ji in a coup d’etat. The Liang clan was slaughtered. On September 14, Empress Liang’s tomb has retitled as a tomb of an “Honored Lady” effectively meaning that she was posthumously demoted. On the same day, Deng Mengnü was made empress.

Empress Deng (Deng Mengnü)

Empress shown on the right of this painting

Deng Mengnü (鄧猛女) (died 165), also briefly known as Liang Mengnü (梁猛女) then as Bo Mengnü (薄猛女), was an empress during the Eastern Han Dynasty. She was the second wife of Emperor Huan.

Family background
Deng Mengnü’s father Deng Xiang (鄧香) was a low-level official in the imperial administration. (It is not clear under which emperor(s) he served.) He was a cousin of Empress Deng Sui and therefore a grandson of the statesman Deng Yu. Deng Mengnü’s mother was named Xuan (宣). Deng Xiang died early, and after his death, Lady Xuan remarried Liang Ji (梁紀—note different character than the Liang Ji referenced below), an uncle of Sun Shou (孫壽), the wife of the powerful official Liang Ji (梁冀), who dominated the political scene throughout the reigns of Emperor Huan and his two predecessors, Emperors Chong and Zhi, as the brother of the regent Empress Dowager Liang.

Marriage to Emperor Huan
After Lady Xuan remarried, Deng Mengnü lived for a while with her mother and her stepfather. Because she was beautiful, Liang Ji and Sun Shou had offered her to Emperor Huan to be an imperial consort—and adopted her and changed her family name to Liang. After the death of Liang Ji’s sister Empress Liang Nüying in August 159, Liang Ji was hopeful to continue to use her to control Emperor Huan and hoped that she would become empress. To completely control her, Liang Ji planned to have her mother, Lady Xuan, killed, and in fact sent assassins against her, but the assassination was foiled by the powerful eunuch Yuan She (袁赦), a neighbor of Lady Xuan. This set in motion a series of events that led to Liang Ji’s downfall, as Emperor Huan, angry about the assassination attempt, formed a conspiracy with five powerful eunuchs and overthrew Liang in a coup d’etat later in September 159. The Liang and Sun clans were slaughtered.

After the fall of the Liang clan, on 14 September 159, Emperor Huan created then-Consort Liang empress, but disliked her family name, and so ordered her family name be changed to Bo (薄). Only later did the emperor find out that she was actually Deng Xiang’s daughter, and therefore had her original family name of Deng restored. A number of her uncles and cousins were promoted to important positions but not given much real power.

Downfall and death
For a while, Emperor Huan greatly favored the beautiful Empress Deng. However, his affection was not undivided, and he had a large number of other favorites, including Consorts Guo and Tian. Empress Deng became very arrogant and jealous, and she and Consort Guo engaged in a series of false accusations against each other. On 27 March 165, Emperor Huan decided to rid himself of Empress Deng and ordered her deposed and imprisoned. She died in anger and depression. Her relatives who had been promoted when she had become empress were removed from their positions, and her uncles Deng Wanshi (鄧萬世) and Deng Hui (鄧會) were executed.

Empress Huansi 
(Dou Miao)

Empress shown on the left of this painting

Dou Miao (Chinese: 竇妙; died 18 July 172), formally Empress Huansi (literally, “the diligent and deep-thinking empress”), was an empress during the Han Dynasty. She was the third wife of Emperor Huan. After his death in January 168, she served as regent for his successor Emperor Ling, assisted by her father Dou Wu and the Confucian scholar Chen Fan (陳蕃). Dou and Chen had a major confrontation with powerful eunuchs later in 168 and were defeated and killed. After that, she was under house arrest until her death.

Family background and marriage to Emperor Huan
It is not known when Dou Miao was born. Her father Dou Wu was a low level official during Emperor Huan’s administration and a well-known Confucian scholar; he also came from a background of nobility, as a descendant of Dou Rong (竇融), who had contributed much to the restoration of the Han dynasty under Emperor Guangwu. Not much is known about her mother’s family background.

In 165, around the time that Emperor Huan deposed his second wife, Empress Deng Mengnü, Dou Miao became an imperial consort. However, Emperor Huan did not favor her. Later that year, though, when selecting a new empress, she was considered. Emperor Huan wanted to create his favorite, Consort Tian Sheng (田聖), empress, but officials, led by Chen, opposed due to Consort Tian’s low birth. Rather, they pressured Emperor Huan to create Consort Dou empress. He gave in to pressure and created her empress later that year, on 10 December. Her father was promoted to a series of posts with increasing importance.

In 166, during the first Disaster of Partisan Prohibitions (黨錮之禍), Dou Wu interceded on behalf of the officials who were accused of wrongdoing by the powerful eunuchs and the university students who had been arrested for petitioning on their behalf, and his intercession helped to prevent them from being executed. Because of this, Dou Wu and Empress Dou were viewed by the officials as hopes for overthrowing the powerful eunuchs eventually.

As empress dowager and regent
In January 168, Emperor Huan died without a son. Empress Dou became empress dowager and regent. She and her father examined the potential successors within the imperial Liu clan, and they settled on the 12-year-old Liu Hong (劉宏), the Marquess of Jieduting, and he ascended the throne as Emperor Ling. Empress Dou continued to serve as regent. She trusted Chen and her father Dou Wu, and gave them great power.

Hateful that Consort Tian had Emperor Huan’s greatest affection, Empress Dowager Dou had her executed, even before Emperor Huan could be buried.

As regent, Empress Dowager Dou appeared to be diligent and paid attention to many important matters, including the suppression of Qiang revolts. She supported the program of general Duan Jiong (段熲) to suppress the Qiang with overwhelming force, and he was successful (although he was criticized, and perhaps she should be as well, for being overly cruel during this campaign); this was the end of Qiang rebellions during Han Dynasty.

Their Spouse: Emperor Huan of Han

Emperor Huan of Han (Chinese: 漢桓帝; pinyin: Hàn Huán Dì; Wade–Giles: Han Huan-ti; 132 – 25 January 168) was the 27th emperor of the Han dynasty after he was enthroned by the Empress Dowager and her brother Liang Ji on 1 August 146. He was a great-grandson of Emperor Zhang. He was the 11th Emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty.

After Emperor Zhi was poisoned to death by the powerful official Liang Ji in July 146, Liang Ji persuaded his sister, the regent Empress Dowager Liang to make the 14-year-old Liu Zhi, the Marquess of Liwu, who was betrothed to their sister Liang Nüying (梁女瑩), emperor. As the years went by, Emperor Huan, offended by Liang Ji’s autocratic and violent nature, became determined to eliminate the Liang family with the help of eunuchs. Emperor Huan succeeded in removing Liang Ji in September 159 but this only caused an increase in the influence of these eunuchs over all aspects of the government. Corruption during this period had reached a boiling point. In 166, university students rose up in protest against the government and called on Emperor Huan to eliminate all corrupt officials. Instead of listening, Emperor Huan ordered the arrest of all students involved. Emperor Huan has largely been viewed as an emperor who might have had some intelligence but lacked wisdom in governing his empire, and his reign contributed greatly to the downfall of the Eastern Han Dynasty.

Hou Hanshu (Book of the Later Han) recounts that one Roman envoy (perhaps sent by emperor Marcus Aurelius) reached the Chinese capital Luoyang in 166 and was greeted by Emperor Huan.

Emperor Huan died in January 168 after reigning for more than 21 years; he was 36. He was succeeded by Emperor Ling of Han.

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