I remember when I was in JC, there was this Chinese teacher who once touched on the topic of Chinese women in ancient times. She waxed lyrical and even got emotional over the plight of helpless women who had their feet crushed and bound to look pretty. Others had to parade themselves before the emperor, with few other opportunities to rise within the ranks. Were women in ancient China really so powerless? Were emperors as powerful as they appear on our TV screens? Are Dowager Cixi and Wu Zetian notable exceptions of powerful women in ancient China? Let’s take a look at some lesser known examples which will show that the above women may actually represent the norm.
In the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义, the Chief of Army during the rule of Emperor Liu Hong 刘宏 was a former butcher by the name of He Jin 何进. When Cao Cao was a junior officer, he predicted that an imbecile like He Jin would ruin the empire. He could never have attained his rank were it not for his sister, Empress He 何太后. The He family established its power base in the palace with the help of the palace eunuchs. While eunuchs were supposed to be lowly servants, they were also a vital link between the imperial court and the Inner Palace. Ministers who sought an audience with the Emperor often had to go through them. This put them in the position to take bribes, grow rich and cultivate loyalists. The Han empire was virtually run by the eunuchs and the He family while the sickly Emperor Liu Hong just wanted to spend his last days in ecstasy. Unfortunately for He Jin, he fell out with the eunuchs, got assassinated and his successor wannabe Yuan Shao 袁绍 indiscriminately slaughtered all the eunuchs, creating a power vacuum which led to power struggles between regional governors 诸侯. The state of anarchy which followed spelled the end of the Han Empire, paving the way for the emergence of three kingdoms.
One should note that He Jin and his sister’s hegemony over the imperial court was not a phenomenon unique to Emperor Liu Hong’s reign. In spite of all the good food and imperial health services, few Chinese emperors lived past the age of 40. Many died when their elder sons (crown princes) were still children. When that happened, the dowager would invariably enlist the help of eunuchs to bring members of her family into the imperial court and run the country. By the time the young emperor grew up, he would have realised too late that he was only an emperor in name. The power was in the hands of his mother’s family. Can you blame him for not minding state affairs, indulging in wine, women and song instead?
Of course, there were emperors and ministers who were aware of this undesirable outcome. A special position or appointment was thus created when the emperor was on his deathbed – regents. I prefer the grand-sounding Chinese name – Gu Ming Da Chen 顾命大臣. The Gu Ming Da Chen position was usually held by more than one minister. They had to be the emperor’s most trusted subjects and their task was basically to execute the late emperor’s will. Over and above that, they represented the late emperor himself and their orders were treated as the late emperor’s orders too.
When Liu Bei 刘备 was on his deathbed, he entrusted the governing of the Shu Kingdom to his prime minister Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮. Liu Bei added that if his son Liu Chan 刘禅 (also known as Ah Dou) made a mess of things, Zhuge Liang had his permission to seize power and take over as ruler of Shu. Well, Ah Dou turned out to be an imbecile, but a loyal subject to the end, Zhuge Liang did not seize power and the Shu Kingdom hurtled down the path of decline after his death.
Nevertheless, with Gu Ming Da Chen in place, the eunuchs, dowager and her family were often kept in check. I’m not sure exactly how a Gu Ming Da Chen would go about performing his duties, but with a bit of help from TV and movies, I can imagine some suave and pompous minister walking around cradling the late emperor’s sword, shouting down anyone who dared suggest changing a law that the late emperor put in place. Of course, there is nothing to stop a Gu Ming Da Chen from falling in love with the dowager, rendering this scheme useless as well. Fantasies aside, there exists a absurd paradox that a Gu Ming Da Chen can mess things up by being too loyal and conscientious.
At his deathbed, Song Dynasty’s Emperor Wudi, Liu Yu 宋武帝,刘裕 appointed Gu Ming Da Chen – Xu Xianzhi 徐羡之 Xie Hui 谢晦, Fu Liang 符亮 – three men of exceptional talent and conduct to mentor his son Liu Yifu 刘义符 who succeeded him as emperor after his death. It turned out that the young emperor was good for nothing. The three regents, sworn to defend and ensure the prosperity of the empire had to make a painful decision on behalf of their late emperor. They identified the late emperor’s third son Liu Yilong 刘义隆 as a far better candidate for the throne and dismissed Liu Yifu! That’s the kind of power bestowed upon the Gu Ming Da Chen. Cool? Not quite.
Not to disappoint, the younger prince demonstrated exceptional leadership, wisdom and presence of mind. He quickly learned the ropes and once he felt that he had learned enough and could hold his own, he put the three Gu Ming Da Chen to death! Why? Because with them around, his position on the throne would always be tenuous. What if they did to him like what they did to his brother?
Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most powerful of them all?