Empress Dowager Dou Yifang – The blind champion of Taoism (Part one)




Dou Yifang as portrayed in Schemes of a Beauty (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang’s rags-to-riches story has captured the popular imaginations of China for many centuries.  She is portrayed by Sally Wen in the Chinese television series, The Virtuous Queen of Han. Her life has also been dramatized in the hit Chinese drama, Schemes of a Beauty, where she is portrayed by the famous Ruby Lin. However, her life story shows that the truth is stranger than fiction. Because Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang led a colourful life and is an influential political figure, there are to be two articles written about her life. In this article, I will detail Dou Yifang’s rise to power as the empress dowager.

Dou Yifang was born around 206 B.C.E. in Guanjin village in Qinghe county (modern-day eastern Hengshui) in Hebei province.[1] She was born into a poor family in Zhao state. She lost her parents at an early age, but she had two brothers, Changjun and Shaojun (the latter of whom would later be sold into slavery).[2] The three orphans supported themselves by farming and weaving.[3] 

One day, Dou Yifang was selected to be a servant to Empress Lu Zhi. However, Empress Lu Zhi decided to make her a concubine to one of the five vassal Kings that were loyal to the Han empire.[4] Dou Yifang originally wanted to be a concubine to the King of Zhao so that she could be near her family.[5] However, the eunuch failed to assist her and sent her along with four other women to the kingdom of Dai as a gift to their king, Liu Heng.[6] King Liu Heng’s consort, Madame Wang, had already borne him four sons, so he looked at his gifts to decide his new favourite.[7] His eyes immediately fell upon Dou Yifang, and he chose her to be his favourite. King Liu Heng bestowed on Dou Yifang the concubine title of “Lady Dou”.[8] Lady Dou Yifang bore Liu Heng a daughter named Liu Piao, and two sons, Liu Qi (the future Emperor Jing) and Liu Wu (her favourite child).[9]

When Empress Dowager Lu Zhi died, the court officials selected Liu Heng to be the Emperor. In 180 B.C.E., he ascended the throne and became Emperor Wen. Madame Wang’s sons all died before Liu Heng became Emperor, so Emperor Wen chose Dou Yifang’s son, Liu Qi, to become his successor.[10] He also elevated Lady Dou to the status of empress.[11] The Emperor elevated Empress Dou Yifang’s family. Her deceased parents were given the posthumous titles of Marquis and Marquise of Ancheng.[12] Her elder brother, Changjun, moved to the capital. Her other brother Shaojun’s whereabouts were unknown because he was kidnapped and sold into slavery at an early age.[13]

The tale of how Empress Dou Yifang reunited with her brother, Shaojun, has been one of the most heart-warming tales in China. Shaojun worked as a charcoal burner in the mountains.[14] One evening, the side of the mountain he was working on collapsed. It killed over a hundred workers. Shaojun was the only survivor.[15] He happened to cross paths with a fortune-teller who told him that he would soon become an imperial duke.[16] He set his sights on the capital city of Chang’an, where he learned that his sister was made empress.[17] He presented himself to the imperial officials so he could be reunited with his sister. However, he was asked to prove his identity. He proved it by showing the scar he had when he had fallen off a mulberry tree while picking the fruit with his sister.[18] Upon showing his scar, Empress Dou Yifang recognized her brother, burst into tears and grasped his hands.[19] The Emperor gave him gifts, made him a duke, and permitted him to live in Chang’an.[20] The Emperor also gave Empress Dou Yifang’s brothers tutors to be educated in affairs of state. Unlike Empress Lu Zhi, who was criticized for promoting her family members to high positions of power, scholars have praised Empress Dou Yifang’s promotion of her brothers. Her brothers have often been lauded “to be gentlemen of virtue and taste.” [21]

Shortly after Empress Dou Yifang was reunited with her long lost brother, she fell ill and became blind.[22] As soon as she became blind, she lost all favour with Emperor Wen. He began to shift his attention to two concubines.[23] However, none of them bore him any children.[24] In 157 B.C.E, Emperor Wen died, and Liu Qi ascended the throne as Emperor Jing.[25] Empress Dou Yifang became Empress Dowager Dou Yifang.

In my next article, I will discuss Grand Emperor Dowager Dou Yifang’s later years. She was one of the most influential figures in the Han dynasty, where she wielded power for forty-five years. She was instrumental in reviving Taoism.[26] She also supported the Naturalists’ school of thought, which taught the concepts of the yin and yang and in which nature was the balance of the two forces.[27] Thus, Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang will always be remembered as a skilled politician who, through the use of Taoism, helped China remain unified.[28]

Read part two here.

Sources:

Zhaoming, Z. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (B. B. Peterson, Ed.; Z. Zhongliang, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Shanben, B. (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.). NY: Routledge.


[1] Shanben, p. 132

[2] Xiaoming, p. 51

[3] Shanben, p. 132

[4] Xiaoming, p. 51

[5] Xiaoming, p. 51

[6] Shanben, p. 132

[7] Shanben, p. 132

[8] Shanben, p. 132

[9] Shanben, p. 132

[10] Shanben, p. 132

[11] Xiaoming, p. 52

[12] Shanben, p. 152

[13] Xiaoming, p. 52

[14] Xiaoming, p. 52

[15] Xiaoming, p. 52

[16] Xiaoming, p. 52

[17] Shanben, p. 133

[18] Shanben, p. 133

[19] Shaben, p. 133

[20] Shanben, p. 133

[21] Xiaoming, p. 53

[22] Shanben, p. 133

[23] Xiaoming, p. 53

[24] Shanben, p. 133

[25] Shanben, p. 133

[26] Xiaoming, pp. 53-54

[27] Xiaoming, p. 55

[28] Xiaoming, p. 55






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