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

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

Grand Empress Dou Yifang was one of the most powerful women in the Han dynasty. In my previous article, I chronicled Dou Yifang’s rags-to-riches story of a peasant girl who rose to empress dowager. In this article, I will discuss Grand Empress Dou Yifang’s powerful influence in the Han court. Grand Empress Dou Yifang ruled through three generations. This story shows how the empress dowager was a champion in promoting Taoism in China. Grand Empress Dou Yifang was a woman who commanded both respect and authority.

Even though Empress Dowager Dou Yifang was blind, she still wielded significant influence in court. Shortly after her son, Emperor Jing, came to the throne, there was a movement known as The Rebellion of Seven States. It was led by Liu Pi, the Prince of Wu.[1] However, Emperor Jing quickly suppressed the rebellion. Empress Dowager Dou Yifang advised her son not to let Liu Pu’s descendants become princes.[2] Her son only partially did what she asked. He made Liu Pi’s younger son, instead of the older son, a prince.[3]

However, Empress Dowager Dou Yifang’s younger son, Liu Wu, was stirring up trouble. Liu Wu had helped put down the rebellion led by Liu Pu, and he believed he deserved to be his brother’s imperial heir.[4] Because Liu Wu was Empress Dowager Dou Yifang’s favourite son, she supported the idea, but the court officials were against it.[5] One of the ministers, Yuan Ang, said that passing the throne from father to son was unquestionable, for it ensured political stability.[6] This comment angered Liu Wu. He had Yuan Ang and the other ministers that were against him assassinated.[7] Liu Wu then ordered his assassins to commit suicide and presented their bodies to the Emperor.[8] This episode made Empress Dowager Dou Yifang worry about her favourite son’s fate. She cried and refused to eat.[9] When she learned that Emperor Jing officially declared his brother innocent of the assassination of the court officials, Empress Dowager Dou Yifang became calm. However, she began to worry immediately after the official decree when she heard a rumour that the Emperor killed his younger brother.[10] Yet, she found that they had reconciled. Empress Dowager Dou asked her son to make Liu Wu a marquess, but he refused.[11]

There was an incident where she rewarded and punished one of the officials. During a hunting party, one of the Emperor’s concubines, Lady Jia, came upon a wild boar who charged at her.[12] The Emperor was about to protect her, but his official Zhu Di stopped him by saying, “If Your Majesty was so careless of his own life, how can he be worthy of his ancestors and of the hope and love of the empress dowager?”.[13] This made the emperor turn and walk away, and luckily the wild boar turned away from Lady Jia, who did not suffer any injuries.[14] When Empress Dowager Dou Yifang learned of Zhu Di’s comment, she awarded him with 100 jin of gold.[15] Not long after this incident, Zhu Di refused to give Liu Rong, Emperor Jing’s son by a concubine and his discarded heir, a knife to kill himself.[16] Shortly after, another official gave Liu Rong a knife, which he used to kill himself. Distraught over the loss of her grandson, Empress Dowager Dou Yifang blamed Zhu Di for persuading her grandson to commit suicide. She ordered him to be executed.[17]

Empress Dowager Dou Yifang continued to shower gifts on her younger son, Liu Wu. While Liu Wu did not have any punishment with his involvement in the death of the court officials, Emperor Jing sent him to live in Liang, where he was a great distance from the Emperor.[18] In 144 B.C.E., Liu Wu went to the capital to pay his respects and asked if he could stay in the capital longer.[19] The Emperor denied his request. This refusal made Liu Wu sink into a depression. He went home and fell ill and died of a high fever.[20] Empress Dowager Dou Yifang was distraught over her favourite son’s death and blamed Emperor Jing for his death.[21] To appease her, Emperor Jing divided Liang into five states and made Liu Wu’s five sons a prince of each state and granted Liu Wu’s daughters’ land.[22] This made the Empress dowager happy.

In the empress dowager’s later years, she began to promote Taoism in a Confucian court.[23] She circulated Taoist texts.[24] She trained her son, Emperor Jing, on the Taoist theories. Together, they followed the principles during his reign.[25] When Emperor Jing died in 140 B.C.E., his son, Liu Che, became Emperor Wu. Emperor Wu promoted his grandmother to Grand Empress Dowager.

Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang was still very influential and wielded great authority in the court. The new Emperor was a Confucianist and wanted to promote Confucianism and not Taoism.[26] He relied on Confucianist scholars Wang Zang and Zhao Wan to run his court.[27] The two scholars told the new Emperor that Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang should not be involved in state affairs because she was a Taoist.[28] This angered Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang that she sent her spies to gather any information about any signs of transgression.[29] When she received the information she wanted, she told the Emperor of their crimes.[30] As soon as he learned of their crimes, he had them imprisoned, and they were forced to commit suicide.[31] Other Confucianist scholars were dismissed, and no more Confucian ideologies remained in court.[32] The public had now accepted Taoism.[33]

Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang died in 135 B.C.E. She was over seventy. She was buried beside her husband, Emperor Wen, in Shuangling (Shuang mausoleum).[34] All her personal possessions were bestowed upon her daughter, Princess Piao.[35] As grand empress dowager, she did not burden the people with heavy taxes, nor did she try to usurp power.[36] Unlike Empress Dowager Lu Zhi, Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang has been praised for using her maternal power to influence succession and to continue her family line.[37] Her son, Emperor Jing, respected her and tried to please her. Because of her considerable influence, Emperor Wu had to wait until she died to make Confucianism the national doctrine.[38] Grand Empress Dowager Dou Yifang is remembered as “the last of the Taoist grandes dames of Western Han”.[39]


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. 133

[2] Shanben, p. 133

[3] Shanben, p. 133

[4] Shanben, p. 133

[5] Shanben, p. 134

[6] Shanben, p. 134

[7] Shanben, p. 134

[8] Shanben, p. 134

[9] Shanben, p. 134

[10] Shanben, p. 134

[11] Shanben, p. 134

[12] Shanben, p. 134

[13] Shanben, pp. 134-135

[14] Shanben, p. 135

[15] Shanben, p. 135

[16] Shanben, p. 135

[17] Shanben, p. 135

[18] Shanben, p. 135

[19] Shanben, p. 135

[20] Shanben, p. 135

[21] Shanben, p. 135

[22] Shanben, p. 135

[23] Xiaoming, pp. 53-54

[24] Shanben, p. 135

[25] Shanben, p. 135

[26] Shanben, p. 135

[27] Shanben, p. 135

[28] Shanben, p. 135

[29] Xiaoming, p. 54

[30] Xiaoming, p. 54

[31] Xiaoming, p. 54

[32] Xiaoming, p. 54

[33]Xiaoming, p. 54

[34] Xiaoming, p. 55

[35] Xiaoming, p. 55

[36] Shanben, p. 136

[37] Shanben, p. 136

[38] Shanben, p. 136

[39] Shanben, p. 136

About Lauralee Jacks 183 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. 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. 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 fiction in 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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