Lü Zhi (吕雉, 241–180 BC), commonly known as Empress Lü (吕后), and Empress Dowager Lü (吕太后),was the empress consort of Emperor Gaozu, Liu Bang’s wife and the first empress of the Han Dynasty.

In 195 BC Emperor Gaozu died and was succeeded by Liu Ying, who became historically known as Emperor Hui of Han. Lü Zhi was honoured by Emperor Hui as empress dowager. She exerted more influence during the reign of her son than she had when she was empress.

While Lu Zhi never proclaimed herself Empress, many historians recognise her as the first reigning Empress of China. She was the empress consort to Gaozu, the founder of the Han dynasty. When Emperor Gaozu died, she became Empress Regent for her son, Emperor Hui. Because her son was weak, Lu Zhi reigned China in his stead. She basically held the status as emperor in all but name. Therefore, she is recognised as the first Empress of China.

Lu Zhi was born in Shanfu County during the Qin dynasty. Her father, Lu Gong, eventually moved his family to Pei county to escape a personal enemy. Lu Gong was taken with Liu Bang, a low-ranking official who would later become Emperor Gaozu. Lu Gong decided to offer his daughter, Lu Zhi to him in marriage. Liu Bang, who was of commoner status, eagerly decided to marry Lu Zhi because she was a noble.

Liu Bang orchestrated a rebellion against the Qin dynasty and captured the capital. However, Liu Bang had another rival who was after the throne, Xiang Yu. He was an aristocratic general who had massive power. Liu Bang and Xiang Yu fought each other for the Chinese throne for four years. During the war, Lu Zhi and her parents were captured and became hostages under Xiang Yu. They were freed when in 203 B.C, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu.

By 202 BC, Liu Bang became Emperor. His wife, Lu Zhi, became Empress of the Han dynasty. Together, they reigned in Chang’an. They both had one son,  Lin Ying, the Crown Prince who would later become Emperor Hui and Lu Yuan. Empress Lu was a politically astute woman. She was known to be a “resolute and steadfast woman.” She assisted the emperor in establishing his authority over the country and was responsible for eliminating members of the nobility. Empress Lu Zhi and Liu Bang developed a feudal system, in which trusted generals would rule over remote areas of China. They also had a common interest in the poor. They demanded fewer taxes and less labour.

Liu Bang eventually took a concubine named Qi Ji. He fell in love with her, and she later bore him a son named Ru Yi. He favoured him so much that Liu Bang considered making him his heir instead of Lin Ying. This is because he believed his older son was too soft and incompetent. Liu Bang feared that Lin Ying would not be as strong an emperor as he was (which would turn out to be true). This caused a rift between Empress Lu and Liu Bang. She never accompanied him anywhere, and he would take his concubine with him on trips.

Empress Lu worked tirelessly to keep her son as Liu Bang’s heir. She gained ministers as allies, who prevented Liu Bang from removing Lin Ying as his heir. She also gained the prime minister’s favour to preserve the throne for her son. When Liu Bang died on April 25, 195 B.C., she did not announce his death. Instead, she conspired with Shen Yiji to control the generals in the provinces. Once her son’s succession was ensured, she announced her husband’s passing.

Now that Lin Ying was emperor, Empress Lu became empress dowager and was the true ruler of the Chinese emperor. She was the one with the true power and authority in her hands. She was also the first Chinese empress to issue imperial decrees. The first thing she did was send Qi Ji to jail. Next, she assassinated her son’s rival, Ru Yi. Then, she mutilated Qi Ji and sent her to live in a pigsty. After she got rid of her rivals, Empress Lu administered the powers of the state for seven years of her son’s rule. During that time, she elevated her own Lu family to power. In 197 B.C.,  Mao Dun, the chief of the nomads, asked Empress Lu to marry him since they were both widowed. She was grateful for his proposal but did not accept. Despite her rejection, they became good allies and great friends during her reign.

When Emperor Hui died in 188 B.C., Shao became emperor. No one knows Emperor Shao’s origins, but it was said he was the illegitimate son of Emperor Hui. To make sure that Emperor Shao was safely on the throne, Empress Lu made sure to make Liu Bang’s other sons generals in Southern China.

Under Emperor Shao, Empress Lu again ruled with her own hands and refused Emperor Shao to conduct any affairs of state. She removed the ministers at court, who were faithful to Liu Bang, and gave the positions to her own family members. Eventually, she removed Emperor Shao from the throne and replaced him with a puppet emperor named Wang Yi. She imprisoned the king of Zhao for plotting treason and later had him murdered. Empress Lu never stopped trying to marry female members of the Lu family to the royal Liu heirs and bestowing them titles. It was said that people feared that she would usurp the imperial throne for her own family.

Empress Lu died on July 30, 180 B.C. The Liu royal family gained their power back.They took the Lus titles and privileges and bestowed them on themselves. They also murdered the important figures of the Lu clan. Liu Heng, Liu Bang’s son from a minor concubine,  was elevated to the throne and became Emperor Wen Di.

Empress Lu’s reputation has been criticised by her contemporaries simply because she was a woman reigning with imperial power. However, her critics agree that she was an effective ruler. She had an interest in the poor and improved their conditions. She lowered taxes, increased state revenues, and promoted peace. Empress Lu’s reign was often seen as a state of peace.Through her efforts, she helped ensure the continuance of the Han dynasty. She had sections of the Great Wall rebuilt and neutralised the barbarians. She also centralised the courts of justice and ended family blood feuds. Like many royals of the time,  Empress Lu Zhi had to resort to murder and conspiracy to ensure her family’s place on the throne. Even though she could be cruel to her enemies, she had a love for her subjects.

By Laura Lee


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