Empress Dowager Dou – The duplicitous Empress

(Not to be confused with Empress Dowager Dou Yifang)

Empress Dowager Dou has been known in history as one of China’s most villainous empresses. Chroniclers emphasized how all of her evil actions were pardoned by her merciful adopted son.[1] Historian Keith McMahon even labelled her as “The Conniving Empress.”[2] She killed off her rivals and promoted her self-serving brothers. Yet, Empress Dowager Dou was a capable regent, and she had two military victories in her reign. However, her accomplishments were forgotten while her vile reputation remained. Thus, Empress Dowager Dou will continue to remain in history as an evil empress.[3]

Empress Dowager Dou was born around 62 C.E. Her first name is unknown.[4] Her family was from Pinglang in Fufeng (somewhere between the modern-day cities of Xianyang and Xingping in Shaanxi Province).[5] Her father was Dou Xun, and her mother was Princess Biyang, the granddaughter of Emperor Guangwu and Empress Guo Shengtong.[6] Thus, Dou was a descendant of the imperial family. However, the family fell from prominence when her father was found to be abusing his power by mistreating peasants.[7] This so disgusted Emperor Ming that he had Dou’s father executed. Despite these setbacks, Dou was a very bright young girl.[8] She impressed her family when she could read at six years old.[9]

In 77 C.E., Dou and her sister were selected to become concubines to Emperor Zhang. Emperor Zhang was very eager to see Dou because he had heard about her beauty before.[10] It turned out that she lived up to his expectations because historians describe her to be an elegant beauty.[11] He was smitten with her at first sight. Even Empress Dowager Ma was pleased with her.[12] She seemed to be a gentle and devoted daughter-in-law.[13] Thus, the following year in 78 C.E., Lady Dou was promoted to Empress with the Empress Dowager’s approval. Her sister was made Worthy Lady (the rank below Empress), and their father was honoured with the posthumous title of Marquis Si of Ancheng.[14]

Even though Dou was invested as Empress, she was still not happy with her situation. She was still childless.[15] Historians said that she became a jealous woman and hated her palace concubines who had a son with her husband.[16] Chroniclers also stated that she spent her free time getting rid of her rivals.[17] Her first victim was Lady Song, who gave birth to a son named Liu Qing.[18] Empress Dou accused Lady Song of witchcraft, and the concubine was forced to commit suicide.[19] 

After Lady Song‘s death, Empress Dou decided to eliminate Lady Liang. She wrote an anonymous letter to Lady Liang’s father accusing him of a crime he did not commit.[20] Lady Liang’s father was executed.[21] Lady Liang and her entire family were forced into exile in Juizhen (modern-day Vietnam).[22] Lady Liang died shortly after she arrived at her destination.[23] Empress Dou adopted Lady Liang’s son, Liu Zhao (the future Emperor He).[24] Empress Dou also continued to promote her brothers to high court positions.[25]

In 88 C.E., Emperor Zhang died at the age of thirty-three.[26] The ten-year-old Liu Zhao ascended the throne as Emperor He.[27] Dou became Empress Dowager and was made regent.[28] As regent, Empress Dowager Dou had complete control of the nation.[29] She made her mother the Grand Princess.[30] She also made her brother Dou Xian in charge of all the confidential military affairs.[31] Yet, Dou Xian was very ruthless and kept eliminating his rivals, which included many prominent officials and noblemen.[32] Empress Dowager Dou was about to punish her brother, but Dou Xian bargained with her by organizing a military expedition against the powerful northern Xiongnu (known in the West as the Huns).[33] 

In 89 C.E., he led the military expedition, and they achieved a military victory. The Han killed more than 10,000 of the northern Xiongnu army.[34] Over two hundred thousand Xiongnu surrendered.[35] Pleased with his victory, the conceited Dou Xian and his comrade general, Geng Bing, engraved their victory on stones before they returned to Luoyang (the capital city).[36] The victory only made Dou Xian more arrogant, but Empress Dowager Dou did not punish him. Instead, she made him the highest-ranking Han general.[37] This meant that he was even higher than the Prime Minister![38] She was very pleased with her brother because this victory over the Xiongnu greatly increased her reputation.[39]

In 91, C.E., Dou Xian went on a second military expedition against the Xiongnu and was also victorious.[40] Empress Dowager Dou promoted her two other brothers, Dou Jing and Dou Duo. All three of her brothers continued to abuse their power by mistreating the commoners and fabricating accusations against the officials and nobles they disliked.[41] They were greatly hated. It was said that street vendors and businessmen ran away when they happened to catch sight of them.[42]

In 92 C.E., Emperor He was so disgusted with his adopted mother’s brothers that he formed a coup d’etat to get rid of them.[43] Emperor He executed her three brothers and many of their supporters.[44]  One of these supporters was Ban Gu, the author of History of The Han Dynasty.[45] The Dou brothers’ family were exiled to modern-day Vietnam.[46] Emperor He was now in power, and Empress Dowager Dou was forced to hand over the imperial seals.[47]

Empress Dowager Dou lived for five more years. During those years, she was lonely and depressed.[48] She died in 97 C.E. She was around the age of thirty-five.[49] Before she could be buried, a memorial was submitted requesting Empress Dowager Dou to be stripped of her imperial title because of all the harm she caused Worthy Lady Liang and her family.[50] Several officials also agreed for Empress Dowager Dou to be stripped of her title and not to let her be buried beside her late husband.[51] After much contemplation, Emperor He issued an edict that decreed:

“Although [Empress Dowager Dou] has broken the law, she was often modest in her demands. After serving her for ten years, I am deeply aware of her kindness to me. In Book of Rites, there is no record of a son downgrading someone of an older generation. Because of my love for her, as a grateful man, and a filial son, I cannot part from her and her kindness; on principle, I cannot treat her badly. There is also the case of Empress Dowager Shangguan who was not dethroned. Therefore, I will not consider this request.”[52]

Empress Dowager Dou was buried in the Jing Tomb beside her late husband, Emperor Zhang.[53] The Empress’s greatest fault was in promoting her self-serving brothers. This had made her hated by her contemporaries. Yet, in the end, she was shown mercy in death. Empress Dowager Dou will always be remembered for her ruthlessness.


Fanzhong, Y. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.; A. Xinli, Trans..). London: Routledge.

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

Yang, H. (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]Yang, p. 128

[2] McMahon, p. 128

[3] Yang, p. 128

[4] Yang, p. 127

[5] Fanzhong, p. 103

[6] Fanzhong, pp. 103-104

[7] Fanzhong, p. 104

[8] Yang, p. 127

[9] Yang, p. 127

[10] Yang, 127

[11] Yang, p. 127

[12] Yang, p. 127

[13] Yang, p. 127

[14]Yang, p. 127

[15] McMahon, p. 102

[16] Yang, p. 127

[17]Yang, p. 127

[18] Fanzhong, p. 104

[19] Fanzhong, p. 104; Yang, p. 127; McMahon, p. 103

[20] Fanzhong, p. 105; Yang, p. 127

[21] Fanzhong, p. 105; Yang, p. 127

[22] Fanzhong, p. 105; Yang, pp. 127-128

[23]Fanzhong, p. 105; Yang, pp. 127-128; McMahon, p. 103

[24] Fanzhong, p. 105; Yang, p. 128; McMahon, p. 103

[25] Yang, p. 128

[26] Fanzhong, p. 1-5

[27] Fanzhong, p. 105

[28] Fanzhong, p. 105; Yang, p. 128; McMahon, p. 103

[29] Fanzhong, p. 105

[30] Yang, p. 128

[31] Fanzhong, p. 128

[32] Fanzhong,p p. 105-106

[33] Fanzhong, pp. 105-106

[34] Fanzhong, p. 106

[35] Fanzhong, p. 106

[36] Fanzhong, p. 106

[37] Fanzhong, p. 106

[38] Fanzhong, p. 106

[39] Fanzhong, p. 106

[40] Fanzhong, p. 107

[41] Fanzhong, p.107

[42] Fanzhong, p. 107

[43] Fanzhong, p. 107

[44] McMahon, p. 103

[45] McMahon, p. 103

[46] Fanzhong, p. 107

[47] Fanzhong, p. 107

[48] Fanzhong, p. 107

[49] Fanzhong, p. 107

[50] Yang, p. 128

[51] Yang, p. 128

[52] Yang, p. 128

[53]Yang, p. 128

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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