Empress Dowager Dong

Empress Dowager Dong (fl.156 - 7 July 189[1]), personal name unknown, formally known as Empress Xiaoren, was an empress dowager of the Eastern Han dynasty of China. She was never empress throughout her early life because she was the wife of a marquis; she only became empress dowager because her son, Liu Hong (Emperor Ling), became the emperor by chance. During her son's reign, she developed a rivalry with her daughter-in-law, Empress He, because she wanted Emperor Ling's younger son, Liu Xie, to be crown prince while Empress He wanted her own son, Liu Bian to succeed his father. Emperor Ling died in May 189 before he managed to designate either of his two sons as crown prince. Liu Bian eventually took the throne as Emperor Shao; Empress Dowager Dong, as the emperor's grandmother, became grand empress dowager, while her daughter-in-law became empress dowager. Empress Dowager He eventually conspired with her brother, General-in-Chief He Jin, to unseat her mother-in-law from power. Grand Empress Dowager Dong died of illness shortly after her downfall; the common people held Empress Dowager He and her family responsible for the grand empress dowager's death.

Empress Dowager Dong / Grand Empress Dowager Dong
董太后 / 董太皇太后
Empress Dowager of the Han dynasty
Tenure17 April 169 – 13 May 189
SuccessorEmpress Lingsi
Grand Empress Dowager of the Han dynasty
Tenure15 May - 7 July 189
Died7 July 189
SpouseLiu Chang
IssueEmperor Ling of Han
Posthumous name
Empress Xiaoren (孝仁皇后)


Lady Dong was from Hejian Commandery (河間郡; around present-day Cangzhou, Hebei). She was the wife of Liu Chang (劉萇), the Marquis of Jiedu Village (解犢亭侯). (Liu Chang was a great-grandson of Liu Kai (劉開), the sixth son of Emperor Zhang.[2]) In 156, she bore Liu Chang a son, Liu Hong.[3] It is not known whether she had any other children.

In January 168, after Emperor Huan died without a son to succeed him, his wife Empress Dou (later empress dowager) selected 12-year-old Liu Hong, the Marquis of Jiedu Village,[a] to be the new emperor. He is historically known as Emperor Ling. The newly crowned Emperor Ling awarded his late father the posthumous title "Emperor Xiaoren" (孝仁皇) and named his father's burial place "Shen Mausoleum" (慎陵); he also gave his mother the title "Honoured Lady of Shen Garden (慎園貴人)" in April or May 168.[4] In 169, following the downfall of Empress Dowager Dou and her clan, Emperor Ling sent his attendants to fetch his mother from Hejian Commandery to live in Yongle Palace (永樂宮) in Luoyang, the imperial capital. He also honoured her as "Empress Xiaoren" (孝仁皇后) on 17 April 169,[5] and appointed his mother's elder brother, Dong Chong (董寵), as Bearer of the Mace (執金吾). Dong Chong was later imprisoned for lying that he was acting on Empress Dowager Dong's order; he died in prison.[6]

Empress Dowager Dong was not involved in state affairs until after Empress Dowager Dou's death in 172. She encouraged Emperor Ling to start the practice of selling government offices for money; this practice severely damaged the Han civil service system and led to widespread corruption. In 188, her nephew, Dong Zhong (董重), was promoted from Minister of the Guards (衛尉) to General of Agile Cavalry (驃騎將軍) and put in command of over 1,000 troops.[7]

In 181, one of Emperor Ling's consorts, Beautiful Lady Wang (王美人),[b] bore him a son, Liu Xie (Emperor Xian). Beautiful Lady Wang was subsequently poisoned to death by Emperor Ling's empress, Empress He, so the motherless Liu Xie was raised by his grandmother.[9] Empress Dowager Dong often urged Emperor Ling to designate one of his only two surviving sons, Liu Xie and Liu Bian (born to Empress He), as crown prince. Empress He and Empress Dowager Dong became engaged in a rivalry because they wanted Liu Bian and Liu Xie respectively to be crown prince. Emperor Ling died in 189 before he could name one of them as his successor.[10]

Despite the machinations of Jian Shuo (a eunuch and close aide of Emperor Ling) to put Liu Xie on the throne, Empress He and her brother, General-in-Chief He Jin, succeeded in making Liu Bian emperor; Liu Bian is historically known as Emperor Shao. As the mother of the reigning emperor, Empress He became empress dowager, while Empress Dowager Dong became grand empress dowager. The empress dowager and grand empress dowager started vying for influence in court politics; their respective pillars of support, He Jin and Dong Zhong, were also locked in a power struggle. Grand Empress Dowager Dong contemplated getting Dong Zhong to help her eliminate He Jin. When Empress Dowager He heard about it, she informed He Jin and another brother of hers, He Miao (何苗). They decided to take preemptive action against the grand empress dowager.[11]

One day, He Jin, He Miao and their supporters found an excuse to remove Grand Empress Dowager Dong from Yongle Palace and send her back to her hometown in Hejian Commandery, so they raised their idea in the imperial court. The court officials and Empress Dowager He approved the idea. He Jin then sent his troops to surround Dong Zhong's residence and arrest him; he committed suicide later. Grand Empress Dowager Dong sank into paranoia and depression after hearing news of Dong Zhong's death and died of illness in 189 after being in power for about 22 years. The common people blamed Empress Dowager He and her family for the grand empress dowager's death. Grand Empress Dowager Dong's remains were transported back to Hejian Commandery and buried alongside her husband's in the Shen Mausoleum.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Liu Chang (劉萇) died before 168 so Liu Hong inherited his father's title and marquisate.
  2. ^ Beautiful Lady Wang (王美人) was from the Zhao State (趙國; in present-day Hebei). Her grandfather, Wang Bao (王苞), served as a General of the Household for All Purposes (五官中郎將) in the Han imperial court. She was not only beautiful in appearance, but also talented in arts and mathematics. After her death, Emperor Ling often mourned her by writing poetry dedicated to her.[8]


  1. ^ According to Liu Hong's biography in Book of the Later Han, Lady Dong died on the xinhai day of the 6th month of the 6th year of the Zhongping era of his reign. This corresponds to 7 Jul 189 on the proleptic Gregorian calendar. [(中平六年)六月辛亥,孝仁皇后董氏崩] Houhanshu, vol. 08
  2. ^ (萇,河閒孝王開孫淑之子也。) Annotation in Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  3. ^ (孝仁董皇后諱某,河閒人。為解犢亭侯萇夫人,生靈帝。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  4. ^ According to Liu Hong's biography in Book of the Later Han, Lady Dong was made guiren on the jiawu day in the leap month of the 1st year of the Jianning era of his reign. However, there is no jiawu day in said leap month, which corresponds to 25 Apr to 24 May 168 in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.[(建宁元年)闰月甲午,追尊...考为孝仁皇,夫人董氏为慎园贵人。] Houhanshu, vol. 08
  5. ^ According to Liu Hong's biography in Book of the Later Han, Lady Dong was made empress on the yisi day in the 3rd month of the 2nd year of the Jianning era of his reign. This corresponds to 17 Apr 169 in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.[(建宁二年)三月乙巳,尊慎园董贵人为孝仁皇后。] Houhanshu, vol. 08
  6. ^ (建寧元年,帝即位,追尊萇為孝仁皇,陵曰慎陵,以后為慎園貴人。及竇氏誅,明年,帝使中常侍迎貴人,并徵貴人兄寵到京師,上尊號曰孝仁皇后,居南宮嘉德殿,宮稱永樂。拜寵執金吾。後坐矯稱永樂后屬請,下獄死。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  7. ^ (及竇太后崩,始與朝政,使帝賣官求貨,自納金錢,盈滿堂室。中平五年,以后兄子衛尉脩侯重為票騎將軍,領兵千餘人。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  8. ^ (王美人,趙國人也。祖父苞,五官中郎將。美人豐姿色,聦敏有才明,能書會計,以良家子應法相選入掖庭。帝愍協早失母,又思美人,作追德賦、令儀頌。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  9. ^ (時王美人任娠,畏后,乃服藥欲除之,而胎安不動,又數夢負日而行。四年,生皇子恊,后遂酖殺美人。帝大怒,欲廢后,諸宦官固請得止。董太后自養協,號曰董侯。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  10. ^ (初,后自養皇子協,數勸帝立為太子,而何皇后恨之,議未及定而帝崩。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  11. ^ (何太后臨朝,重與太后兄大將軍進權埶相害,后每欲參干政事,太后輒相禁塞。后忿恚詈言曰:「汝今輈張,怙汝兄耶?當勑票騎斷何進頭來。」何太后聞,以告進。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  12. ^ (進與三公及弟車騎將軍苗等奏:「孝仁皇后使故中常侍夏惲、永樂太僕封諝等交通州郡,辜較在所珍寶貨賂,悉入西省。蕃后故事不得留京師,輿服有章,膳羞有品。請永樂后遷宮本國。」奏可。何進遂舉兵圍驃騎府,收重,重免官自殺。后憂怖,疾病暴崩,在位二十二年。民間歸咎何氏。喪還河閒,合葬慎陵。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).