Empress Fu Shou – The deposed Empress who tried to save the Han Dynasty




Empress Fu Shou as portrayed by Wan Qian in the Secret of the Three Kingdoms (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Fu Shou was the first Empress of Emperor Xian, the last Emperor of the Han Dynasty. Empress Fu Shou has long been regarded as a tragic heroine.[1] She tried to save the falling Han Dynasty, but she couldn’t.[2] Instead, it not only cost her life but also the execution of almost her entire family. Yet, the greatest tragedy was that her husband could not save her because he was a puppet Emperor.

The birth date of Empress Fu Shou remains unknown. She was born in Dongwu in Langye (modern-day Zhucheng District in Shandong Province).[3] Her father was Fu Wan, who was the Marquis of Buqi. Her mother was Liu Ying, who was the Princess of Yang’an and the daughter of Emperor Huan of Western Han Dynasty.[4] In 189 C.E., General Dong Zhuo overthrew Emperor Shao. He placed the eight-year-old Liu Xie on the throne as Emperor Xian. A year later, in 190 C.E., Fu Shou entered the palace to become a concubine to Emperor Xian. She was given the rank of Worthy Lady. On 20 May 195 C.E., Fu Shou was invested as Empress of China.

Shortly after Empress Fu Shou’s investiture, Dong Zhuo’s (who died in 192 C.E.) remaining army rebelled against the royal family. This forced Emperor Xian to flee across the Yellow River at night.[5] Empress Fu Shou led Emperor Xian’s concubines and other palace women out of the capital on foot.[6] She took several bolts of silk with her. Throughout her journey, Dong Cheng (Emperor Xian’s maternal uncle) tried to take the bolts of silk away from her.[7] Many attendants also tried to take the silk, which caused a melee that killed several attendants, and blood splattered the Empress’s clothes.[8] However, Empress Fu Shou stubbornly clung to her bolts of silk.[9] 

When the party finally reached Anyi (northwest modern-day Xia District in Shanxi Province), they were exhausted and hungry.[10] Once they arrived, they met Cao Cao (who would be posthumously known as Emperor Wu of Wei). Cao Cao was in charge of the local forces that were fighting for the royal family. Cao Cao escorted Emperor Xian and Empress Fu Shou and her party to Xuchang. It was said that Cao Cao led them to Xuchang not just for protection but to observe them.[11] As a reward for rescuing them, Emperor Xian made Cao Cao the Grand Minister of Works and Chariot and Horse General. In 196 C.E., the royal family returned to the capital. However, they found the city to be mostly destroyed.[12] They moved the capital from Luoyang to Xuchang.[13]

Cao Cao began to be the most powerful man in court.[14] By 196 C.E., Emperor Xian was completely under his control and was a puppet Emperor.[15] Cao Cao also killed anyone who opposed him.[16] In 200 C.E., Cao Cao killed Dong Cheng. He even killed his daughter, Worthy Lady Dong, who was pregnant with Emperor Xian’s child.[17] These executions caused Empress Fu Shou to be afraid of him.[18]

In late 214 C.E., Empress Fu Shou wrote a letter to her father asking him to kill Cao Cao.[19] However, her father was greatly afraid of Cao Cao and dared not make an assassination attempt on him.[20] When Cao Cao discovered the plot, he was angry at Empress Fu Shou and decided to seek revenge against her.[21] He forced Emperor Xian to depose her.[22] He also forced him to write an edict stating that for twenty-four years as Empress, she “no longer had the virtue to teach the people.”[23] It also stated that “Empress Fu was a jealous and spiteful person and had planned murder, and therefore was not qualified to remain Empress.”[24] The edict finished with: “It is a great pity, but she has brought this upon herself. We are not handing her over to the court trial because we are treating her leniently.”[25]

Empress Fu Shou was forced to give up her imperial seal and ribbon.[26] Soldiers arrested the deposed Empress Fu Shou.[27] As she was led out of her palace barefoot with unkempt hair, she passed by Emperor Xian.[28] She wept, and her last words to him were: “Can’t you save my life?”[29] Emperor Xian replied, “I don’t know when my turn will come.”[30] 

The deposed Empress Fu Shou was sent to the women’s prison.[31] She died there on 8 January 215 C.E. One historical record claimed that Cao Cao had the deposed Empress Fu Shou assassinated.[32] Her two sons were both poisoned.[33] Over a hundred of her family members were executed.[34] Her mother and nineteen of her remaining family members were exiled to the Zhu Commandery (modern-day Zhuzhou in Hebei Province).[35]

Empress Fu Shou is considered a heroine who tried to save her dynasty.[36] However, her enemy was too powerful for her to defeat. Her bold actions in fighting against General Cao Cao would have drastic consequences for her.[37] She would lose her throne, her husband, her life, her sons, and almost her entire family. Yet, the saddest part was that her husband could not even save her because he had no power. The Han Dynasty did not last long after Empress Fu Shou’s death. It fell five years later, in 220 C.E., and the Three Kingdoms War started. These events were dramatized in the infamous classic historical fiction novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Sources:

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

Yang H. (2015). “Fu Shou, Empress of Emperor Xian”. 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. pp. 142-143.


[1] Yang, 2015

[2] Yang, 2015

[3] Yang, 2015

[4] Yang, 2015

[5] Yang, 2015

[6] Yang, 2015

[7] Yang, 2015

[8] Yang, 2015

[9] Yang, 2015

[10] Yang, 2015

[11] Yang, 2015

[12] Yang, 2015

[13] Yang, 2015

[14] Yang, 2015

[15] McMahon, 2013

[16] Yang, 2015

[17] Yang, 2015

[18] Yang, 2015

[19] Yang, 2015

[20] Yang, 2015

[21] Yang, 2015

[22] Yang, 2015

[23] Yang, 2015, p. 143

[24] Yang, 2015, p. 143

[25] Yang, 2015, p. 143

[26] Yang, 2015

[27] Yang, 2015

[28] Yang, 2015

[29] Yang, 2015, p. 143

[30] Yang, 2015, p. 143

[31] McMahon, 2013

[32] Yang, 2015

[33] McMahon, 2015

[34] Yang, 2015

[35] Yang, 2015

[36] Yang, 2015

[37] Yang, 2015






About Lauralee Jacks 188 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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