Empress Dowager Deng – The scholarly regent

Li Sheng as Empress Dowager Deng in The Legend of Ban Shu (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Dowager Deng is known in history as an intelligent and capable regent. She was the second Empress of Emperor He, and she ruled as regent for sixteen years. She fostered Confucian learning, and she set up an imperial Confucian school for both men and women. She instructed palace women to be educated in Confucian texts and her most significant contribution was that she was a patron of Ban Zhao, China’s most famous female historian. Under her patronage, Ban Zhao would compose one of China’s most influential literary works.

Empress Dowager Deng was born in 81 C.E. Her name was Deng Sui. Her grandfather, Deng Yu, was given the title of “Grand Mentor” for his contributions to Eastern Han.[1] Her father was Deng Xun, who was made Commander for the Protection of the Territory.[2] Her mother was a grandniece of Empress Yin Lihua.

Deng Sui was a brilliant child. She could read at six years old.[3] When she was twelve, she could recite the Classic of Poetry and the Analects.[4] However, her family disapproved of her studies. Her mother wanted her to do women’s work like sewing.[5] Yet, Deng Sui still loved to learn. Thus, she would sew in the day and study the Confucian texts at night.[6] Her family gave her the nickname, “The Confucian Student”.[7]

In 92 C.E., at the age of eleven, Deng Sui was selected to become a concubine at the palace.[8] However, her father died shortly after she was chosen, so she did not go. She was so upset about her father’s death that she wept and did not eat anything for three days.[9] After three days, her family did not recognize her because of her careworn appearance.[10] 

In 95 C.E., she was chosen again to become a concubine to Emperor He. This time she joined Emperor He’s harem and was admired for her beauty.[11]  However, Emperor He already had an Empress. She was Empress Yin, the great-grandniece of Empress Yin Lihua and Deng Sui’s maternal cousin.[12] Empress Yin was also known for her intelligence and was well-educated in the classics and the arts.[13] In 96 C.E., she was promoted to Worthy Lady (the rank below Empress).[14] Lady Deng served her cousin, Empress Yin, dutifully and was said to be “respectful, correct, and cautious”.[15] She also disliked wearing lavish outfits like Empress Yin and dressed frugally.[16] Lady Deng ensured she was dressed the opposite from her ostentatious cousin.[17] “If by chance her clothing was the same as Empress Yin’s, she changed immediately.”[18]

However, Empress Yin was losing the Emperor’s love because she did not give him any sons.[19] He turned his affections to Deng Sui.[20] Deng Sui was still childless, and Emperor He’s sons kept dying in infancy. Deng Sui sent the Emperor suitable concubines.[21] Empress Yin did not send him any. Thus, Emperor He loved Deng Sui and respected her.[22] He ignored Empress Yin. This made Empress Yin so jealous of her rival that chroniclers claim she practised witchcraft to try to eliminate her rival.

When the Emperor was ill, word reached Lady Deng’s ears that Empress Yin intended to kill her whole clan.[23] She wept and tried to commit suicide, crying that she did not want to suffer the same fate as Consort Qi (to learn about Consort Qi’s fate, see the article on Empress Lu).[24] She was about to swallow poison, but her servants stopped her.[25] The next day, Emperor He recovered, and he arrested Empress Yin for charges of witchcraft.[26] She was found guilty and was deposed in 102. Empress Yin moved to another palace, where she died shortly after her arrival.[27] Empress Yin’s clan was executed or exiled.[28] In the winter of 102, Lady Deng was made Empress.

Immediately after she became Empress, she established a policy of frugality.[29] She told the vassal states to send her paper and ink instead of expensive and precious gifts.[30] She also refused the Emperor’s request to promote her brothers.[31] Empress Deng was the patroness of Ban Zhao, who was one of China’s famous female historians. After her brother Ban Gu (see the article Empress Dowager Dou for more information about the famous historian’s downfall) died for supporting the self-serving Dou clan, Empress Deng commissioned Ban Zhao to finish History of the Han Dynasty.[32] She also hired Ban Zhao to be her personal tutor in classic Confucian texts, astronomy, and mathematics.[33] Ban Zhao also became a court poet, and she wrote Precepts for My Daughter.[34] This text became the leading book on women’s moral education. [35]

In 105 C.E., Emperor He died. His one-hundred-day-old son named Liu Long became Emperor Shang.[36] Deng Sui became Empress Dowager and regent.[37] This time, Empress Dowager Deng needed to promote her clan to strengthen her power. She bestowed on them titles and let them become involved in politics.[38] However, she made sure that they did not overstep their bounds. The Deng clan remained loyal to the Empress Dowager.[39] During Emperor Shang’s brief reign, she gave a general amnesty to prisoners, cut the costs of food and clothes in the palace, and gave the female servants and slaves who were too old to work the option of staying in the palace or going back to their native homes.[40]

In 106 C.E., Emperor Shang died when he was only eight months old.[41] Emperor He’s twelve-year-old nephew named Liu Hu ascended the throne as Emperor An.[42] Empress Dowager Deng was still regent, but a court official named Du Gen submitted a memorial on behalf of his colleagues requesting her to step down as regent and give imperial power to Emperor An.[43] Empress Dowager Deng was so outraged at this official’s impertinent request that she ordered Du Gen and his colleagues to be placed in silk bags and beaten to death.[44] Somehow Du Gen managed to escape, and he fled to an obscure place where he became a waiter in a wine shop.[45] It was not until Empress Dowager Deng died that Du Gen was restored to his title and was honoured by Emperor An for submitting his memorial.[46]

Empress Dowager Deng ruled as regent for sixteen years.[47] During those years, she established morality and frugality in the palace.[48] She eliminated weak and incompetent men from their court posts and installed capable, intelligent men to these positions instead.[49] She offered aid to the commoners affected by natural disasters.[50] She also aided people from minority ethnic groups.[51] 

During Empress Dowager Deng’s lifetime, Buddhism and Taoism were gradually becoming popular religions.[52] In order to combat these religions, Empress Dowager Deng set up an imperial Confucian school that consisted of both men and women from the imperial royal family and her Deng clan.[53] She hired Confucian scholars to be their teachers.[54] She served as a proctor during their examinations.[55] She was stricter with the Deng children than she was with the children of the imperial family.[56] She taught them both the privileges and the responsibilities that came with power.[57] Empress Dowager Deng also had eunuchs, and palace women instructed in Confucian classics.[58]

In the third month of 121 C.E., Empress Dowager Deng died at the age of 41.[59] She was buried beside Emperor He in Shen Tomb.[60] The Deng clan became powerless, and many members of the Deng clan were executed or forced to commit suicide.[61] Historians have praised Empress Dowager Deng for putting the interests of the nation before herself.[62]  She has been seen by the Chinese people as an example of a virtuous and benevolent ruler.[63]


Chaizhong, W., Aixiang, S., & Peterson, B.B. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge.

McMahon, K. (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Wong, Y.L. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E. (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.; W.W. Che, Trans.). NY: Routledge.

[1] Wong, p. 122

[2] Wong, p. 122

[3] McMahon, p. 103

[4] McMahon, p. 103

[5] Chaizhong, et al., p. 115

[6] Chaizhong, et al., p. 115

[7] Wong, p. 122

[8] Wong, p. 122

[9] Wong, p. 122

[10] McMahon, p. 103

[11] McMahon, p. 103

[12] Wong, p. 123

[13] McMahon, p. 103

[14] Wong, p. 123

[15] McMahon, p. 103

[16] Wong, p. 123

[17] Wong, p. 123

[18] McMahon, p. 103

[19] Wong, p. 123

[20] Wong, p. 123

[21] Wong, p. 123

[22] Wong, p. 123

[23] McMahon, p. 103

[24] Wong, p. 123

[25] McMahon, p. 103

[26] Wong, p. 123

[27] McMahon, p. 103

[28] McMahon, p. 103

[29] Wong, p. 123

[30] Wong, p. 123

[31] Wong, p. 123

[32] Mcmahon, p. 104

[33] Wong, p. 125

[34] McMahon, p. 104

[35] McMahon, p. 104

[36] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[37] Wong, p. 124

[38] Wong, p. 124

[39] Wong, p. 124

[40] Wong, p. 124

[41] Wong, p. 124

[42] Wong, p. 124

[43] Wong, p. 124

[44] Wong, p. 124

[45] Wong, p. 124

[46] Wong, p. 124

[47] Wong, p. 124

[48] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[49] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[50] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[51] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[52] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[53] Wong, p. 124

[54] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[55] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[56] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[57] Chaizhong, et al., p. 116

[58] Wong, p. 125

[59] Wong, p. 125

[60] Wong, p. 125

[61] Wong, p. 125

[62] Wong, p. 125

[63] Chaizhong, et al., p. 117

About Lauralee Jacks 93 Articles
I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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