Empress He (Han dynasty)

Empress He (died 30 September 189[1][2]), 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. He subsequently deposed Emperor Shao, replaced him with Liu Xie (Emperor Xian), and had Empress Dowager He poisoned to death.

Empress He / Empress Dowager He
何皇后 / 何太后
Empress consort of the Han dynasty
Tenure8 Jan 181 – 13 May 189
PredecessorEmpress Song
SuccessorEmpress Fu
Empress dowager of the Han dynasty
Tenure15 May – 30 Sep 189
PredecessorEmpress Xiaoren
Died30 September 189
SpouseEmperor Ling of Han
IssueEmperor Shao of Han
Posthumous name
Empress Lingsi (靈思皇后)
FatherHe Zhen
MotherLady of Wuyang

Family background and early yearsEdit

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" (). She had two half-brothers, He Jin (same father) and He Miao (same mother) (何苗),[3][4] and a younger sister who married the (adopted) son of the eunuch Zhang Rang.[5]

According to legends, she joined Emperor Ling's imperial harem after her family bribed the eunuchs tasked with selecting women to serve the emperor.[6][7] 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).[8][9] 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.[10]

As empress consortEdit

On 8 January 181,[11] 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).[12]

Around the time, one of Emperor Ling's consorts, Beautiful Lady Wang (王美人),[a] became pregnant. As she feared that Empress He would harm her unborn child, she attempted to cause a miscarriage by consuming drugs but her child remained safe and she had dreams about the sun. In 181, after Beautiful Lady Wang gave birth to a son, Liu Xie, Empress He ordered her to be poisoned to death. Emperor Ling was furious when he found out and he wanted to depose Empress He, but the eunuchs managed to persuade him to spare the empress. The motherless Liu Xie was raised by his grandmother, Empress Dowager Dong, and given the title "Marquis Dong" (董侯).[14]

When his subjects asked him to name one of his sons as crown prince, Emperor Ling had a dilemma between Liu Bian and Liu Xie, his only two surviving sons. He felt that Liu Bian was unfit to be emperor because he was frivolous and unable to command respect, so he preferred Liu Xie. However, he was also worried that if he chose Liu Xie, Empress He would turn to her half-brother, He Jin, for help. He Jin held the position of General-in-Chief (大將軍) and was a highly influential figure in the imperial court. He ultimately did not name either of his sons as crown prince.[15]

As empress dowagerEdit

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.[16][17]

In the summer of 189, after Jian Shuo learnt that He Jin and his subordinates were plotting to eliminate him, he tried to persuade his fellow eunuchs to join him in his plan to assassinate He Jin. However, they were persuaded by Guo Sheng (郭勝), a eunuch close to Empress Dowager He, to reject Jian Shuo's idea. He Jin subsequently had Jian Shuo arrested and executed, and then took control of the military units previously under Jian's command.[18] In the autumn of 189, Yuan Shao suggested to He Jin to eliminate the eunuch faction and consolidate power. Empress Dowager He immediately rejected the idea because it required her to interact with men on a regular basis, which she found offensive and immodest. Empress Dowager He's mother (the Lady of Wuyang) and He Miao (何苗) had been bribed by the eunuchs to protect them, so they also strongly opposed He Jin's plan, saying that they owed much to the eunuchs. (Empress Dowager He became Emperor Ling's consort because the eunuchs helped her.)[19]

He Jin then heeded an alternative suggestion from Yuan Shao: he secretly instructed a few provincial military officials or warlords (Dong Zhuo, Wang Kuang, Qiao Mao and Ding Yuan) to lead their troops to the vicinity of Luoyang, the imperial capital, and openly demand that the eunuchs be executed – in the hope of pressuring Empress Dowager He to take action against the eunuchs. Empress Dowager He initially refused to harm the eunuchs, but as Dong Zhuo's forces approached Luoyang, she ordered the eunuchs to leave the palace and return to their marquisates. (Many of the eunuchs were made marquises by Emperor Ling.)[20] Empress Dowager He's younger sister married the adopted son of Zhang Rang, the eunuch leader. Zhang Rang pleaded with her to help him, so she informed her mother (the Lady of Wuyang), who in turn spoke to Empress Dowager He. The empress dowager relented and summoned the eunuchs back to the palace.[21]

Around late August or September 189, the eunuchs hatched a plot to assassinate He Jin. They issued a fake imperial order in Empress Dowager He's name, instructing He Jin to enter the palace to meet her. He Jin fell into an ambush and died at the hands of the eunuchs, who declared him guilty of treason.[22] After He Jin's death, his subordinates Wu Kuang (吳匡) and Zhang Zhang (張璋), along with Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu and others, led their troops to storm the palace and kill the eunuchs in revenge. They indiscriminately slaughtered anyone who looked like a eunuch; some young men who had no facial hair, in desperation, dropped their pants in front of the soldiers to prove that they were not eunuchs. During the attack, the eunuchs took Empress Dowager He, Emperor Shao and the Prince of Chenliu (Liu Xie) hostage and tried to flee from the palace. Lu Zhi intercepted the eunuch Duan Gui (段珪) and saved the empress dowager from him.[23] He Miao, who was sympathetic towards the eunuchs, was killed by Wu Kuang and Dong Zhuo's younger brother Dong Min (董旻). Over 2,000 people died in the attack.[24] Emperor Shao and the Prince of Chenliu, who were taken out of the palace by the eunuchs during the chaos, were eventually found near the riverbank and saved by Lu Zhi and Min Gong (閔貢), who brought them back safely.[25]


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,[26] 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[27] 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).[28][29]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ 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.[13]


  1. ^ Both Annals of the Later Han by Yuan Hong and Liu Xie's biography in Book of the Later Han recorded that Empress Dowager He was killed by Dong Zhuo on the bingzi day of the 9th month of the 6th year of the Zhongping era of Liu Hong's reign. This corresponds to 30 Sep 189 in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.[(中平六年九月)丙子,太后何氏崩,董卓杀之也。] Houhanji vol. 25
  2. ^ While Lady He's birth year was not recorded, her son Liu Bian was born in 173/6. Thus, her birth year should be in or before 161.
  3. ^ (何進字遂高,南陽宛人也。異母女弟選入掖庭為貴人,有寵於靈帝,...) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  4. ^ (《英雄记》云:苗,太后之同母兄,...)Yingxiong Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol.06
  5. ^ (張讓子婦,太后之妹也。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  6. ^ (靈思何皇后諱某,南陽宛人。家本屠者,以選入掖庭。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  7. ^ (風俗通曰,漢以八月筭人。后家以金帛賂遺主者以求入也。) Annotation in Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  8. ^ (長七尺一寸。生皇子辯,養於史道人家,號曰史侯。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  9. ^ (道人謂道術之人也。獻帝春秋曰:「靈帝數失子,不敢正名,養道人史子眇家,號曰史侯。」) Annotation in Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  10. ^ (拜后為貴人,甚有寵幸。性彊忌,後宮莫不震懾。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  11. ^ According to Liu Hong's biography in Book of the Later Han, Lady He was made empress on the jisi day of the 12th month of the 3rd year of the Guanghe era of Liu Hong's reign. This corresponds to 08 Jan 181 in the proleptic Gregorian calendar. [(光和三年)十二月己巳,立贵人何氏为皇后.] Houhanshu vol. 08
  12. ^ (光和三年,立為皇后。明年,追號后父真為車騎將軍、舞陽宣德侯,因封后母興為舞陽君。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  13. ^ (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).
  14. ^ (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).
  15. ^ (初,何皇后生皇子辯,王貴人生皇子協。羣臣請立太子,帝以辯輕佻無威儀,不可為人主,然皇后有寵,且進又居重權,故乆不決。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  16. ^ (六年,帝疾篤,屬協於蹇碩。碩旣受遺詔,且素輕忌於進兄弟,及帝崩,碩時在內,欲先誅進而立協。及進從外入,碩司馬潘隱與進早舊,迎而目之。進驚,馳從儳道歸營,引兵入屯百郡邸,因稱疾不入。碩謀不行,皇子辯乃即位,何太后臨朝,進與太傅袁隗輔政,錄尚書事。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  17. ^ (中平六年,帝崩,皇子辯即位,尊后為皇太后。太后臨朝。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
  18. ^ (進素知中官天下所疾,兼忿蹇碩圖己,及秉朝政,陰規誅之。 ... 進乃使黃門令收碩,誅之,因領其屯兵。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  19. ^ (袁紹復說進曰:「前竇武欲誅內寵而反為所害者, ... 我柰何楚楚與士人對共事乎?」進難違太后意,且欲誅其放縱者。紹以為中官親近至尊,出入號令,今不悉廢,後必為患。而太后母舞陽君及苗數受諸宦官賂遺,知進欲誅之。數白太后,為其障蔽。又言:「大將軍專殺左右,擅權以弱社稷。」太后疑以為然。中官在省闥者或數十年,封侯貴寵,膠固內外。進新當重任,素敬憚之,雖外收大名而內不能斷,故事乆不決。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  20. ^ (紹等又為畫策,多召四方猛將及諸豪傑,使並引兵向京城,以脅太后。進然之。 ... 遂西召前將軍董卓屯關中上林苑,又使府掾太山王匡東發其郡強弩,并召東郡太守橋瑁屯城皐,使武猛都尉丁原燒孟津,火照城中,皆以誅宦官為言。太后猶不從。 ... 進於是以紹為司隷校尉,假節,專命擊斷;從事中郎王允為河南尹。紹使洛陽方略武吏司察宦者,而促董卓等使馳驛上,欲進兵平樂觀。太后乃恐,悉罷中常侍小黃門,使還里舍,唯留進素所私人,以守省中。諸常侍小黃門皆詣進謝罪,唯所措置。進謂曰:「天下匈匈,正患諸君耳。今董卓垂至,諸君何不早各就國?」袁紹勸進便於此決之,至于再三。進不許。紹又為書告諸州郡,詐宣進意,使捕案中官親屬。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  21. ^ (進謀積日,頗泄,中官懼而思變。張讓子婦,太后之妹也。讓向子婦叩頭曰:「老臣得罪,當與新婦俱歸私門。惟受恩累世,今當遠離宮殿,情懷戀戀,願復一入直,得暫奉望太后、陛下顏色,然後退就溝壑,死不恨矣。」子婦言於舞陽君,入白太后,乃詔諸常侍皆復入直。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  22. ^ (八月,進入長樂白太后,請盡誅諸常侍以下,選三署郎入守宦官廬。諸宦官相謂曰:「大將軍稱疾不臨喪,不送葬,今欻入省,此意何為?竇氏事竟復起邪?」又張讓等使人潛聽,具聞其語,乃率常侍段珪、畢嵐等數十人,持兵竊自側闥入,伏省中。及進出,因詐以太后詔召進。入坐省闥,讓等詰進曰:「天下憒憒,亦非獨我曹罪也。先帝甞與太后不快,幾至成敗,我曹涕泣救解,各出家財千萬為禮,和恱上意,但欲託卿門戶耳。今乃欲滅我曹種族,不亦太甚乎?卿言省內穢濁,公卿以下忠清者為誰?」於是尚方監渠穆拔劔斬進於嘉德殿前。讓、珪等為詔,以故太尉樊陵為司隷校尉,少府許相為河南尹。尚書得詔板,疑之,曰:「請大將軍出共議。」中黃門以進頭擲與尚書,曰:「何進謀反,已伏誅矣。」) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  23. ^ (進部曲將吳匡、張璋,素所親幸,在外聞進被害,欲將兵入宮,宮閤閉。袁術與匡共斫攻之,中黃門持兵守閤。會日暮,術因燒南宮九龍門及東西宮,欲以脅出讓等。讓等入白太后,言大將軍兵反,燒宮,攻尚書闥,因將太后、天子及陳留王,又劫省內官屬,從複道走北宮。尚書盧植執戈於閣道䆫下,仰數段珪。段珪等懼,乃釋太后。太后投閣得免。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  24. ^ (匡遂引兵與董卓弟奉車都尉旻攻殺苗,弃其屍於苑中。紹遂閉北宮門,勒兵捕宦者,無少長皆殺之。或有無須而誤死者,至自發露然後得免。死者二千餘人。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  25. ^ (張讓、段珪等困迫,遂將帝與陳留王數十人步出穀門,奔小平津。公卿並出平樂觀,無得從者,唯尚書盧植夜馳河上,王允遣河南中部掾閔貢隨植後。貢至,手劔斬數人,餘皆投河而死。明日,公卿百官乃奉迎天子還宮,以貢為郎中,封都亭侯。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  26. ^ According to Liu Hong's biography in Book of the Later Han, Liu Bian was deposed by Dong Zhuo on the jiaxu day of the 9th month of the 6th year of the Zhongping era of Liu Hong's reign. This corresponds to 28 Sep 189 on the proleptic Gregorian calendar. [(中平六年)九月甲戌,董卓废帝为弘农王。] Houhanshu, vol. 08
  27. ^ According to Annals of the Later Han by Yuan Hong, Lady He's funeral took place on the yisi day of the 10th month of the 6th year of the Zhongping era of Liu Hong's reign. This corresponds to 29 Oct 189 in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.[(中平六年)冬十月乙巳,葬灵思何皇后。] Houhanji vol. 25
  28. ^ (董卓遂廢帝,又迫殺太后,殺舞陽君,何氏遂亡,而漢室亦自此敗亂。) Houhanshu vol. 69.
  29. ^ (并州牧董卓被徵,將兵入洛陽,陵虐朝庭,遂廢少帝為弘農王而立協,是為獻帝。扶弘農王下殿,北面稱臣。太后鯁涕,羣臣含悲,莫敢言。董卓又議太后踧迫永樂宮,至令憂死,逆婦姑之禮,乃遷於永安宮,因進酖,弒而崩。在位十年。董卓令帝出奉常亭舉哀,公卿皆白衣會,不成喪也。合葬文昭陵。) Houhanshu vol. 10 (Part 2).
Chinese royalty
Preceded by Empress of Eastern Han Dynasty
Succeeded by