Photo of Lü’s jade seal, held at the Shaanxi History Museum. Image Credit: Shaanxi History Museum.

By Jack Beesley

Empress Lü Zhi (241–18 August 180 BCE) was the empress consort of Gaozu, the founding emperor of the Han dynasty, and was the first woman to hold the title of Empress of China. She is typically portrayed as the first woman to have ruled over a united China.

Lü was born in Shanfu County during the late Qin Dynasty. She was married off by her father to Liu Bang, the future Emperor Gaozu. Liu was still a low-ranking official at this time, however, Lü’s father saw great potential in him, which served as the pretext for the marriage.

Lü and Liu Bang had two children together: Princess Yuan of Lu and the future Emperor Hui of Han.

Liu Bang later joined the revolt against the Qin Dynasty. The dynasty fell in early 206 BC and Xiang Yu divided the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms. Liu Bang was subsequently named “King of Han”.  

However, Lü and her children were captured by Xiang Yu after Liu Bang attacked and seized the Three Qins. This marked the beginning of a four-year power struggle for supremacy over China between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, from 206 BC to 202 BC.

Liu Bang ultimately defeated Xiang Yu at the battle of Gaixia in 202 BC, unified China, and proclaimed himself Emperor. Lü was thus installed as Empress and her son recognised as crown prince.

However, in the second year of the Han dynasty, Emperor Gaozu planned to replace Lü’s son with the son of his concubine, Madam Qi. Lü was ultimately successful in maintaining her son’s position and became the effective lead figure in his administration after his succession.

Despite this, Lü enacted revenge on Madam Qi through deplorable torture methods. So brutal was Qi’s torture and mutilation, that she was described as resembling a ‘human swine’. Shocked by his mother’s brutality, Emperor Hui virtually relinquished his authority to her.

Emperor Hui died in 188 BC. His death and the succession of a child left power exclusively in the hands of Empress Dowager Lü. This legitimized her legacy as the first female absolute ruler in Chinese history.

Recommended Reading

Hans van Ess, “Praise and Slander: The Evocation of Empress Lü in the Shiji and the Hanshu,” NAN NÜ 8.2 (2006): 221-254

Lisa Ann Raphals, Sharing the Light: Representations of Women and Virtue in Early China (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

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