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Persons in Chinese History - Empress Dowager Hu 胡太后

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Empress Dowager Hu 胡太后 (?-528), posthumous title Empress Dowager Ling 北魏靈太后, was the principal consort of Emperor Xuanwu 北魏宣武帝 (r. 499-515) of the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534), and the mother of Emperor Xiaoming 北魏孝明帝 (r. 515-528). She hailed from an eminent family Linjin 臨涇 in the commandery of Anding 安定 (today's Zhenyuan 鎮原南, Gansu), and her father Hu Guozhen 胡國珍 was Minister of Education (situ 司徒). Her entrance in the inner quarters was made possible by the recommendation of her aunt, who was a Buddhist nun and had direct access to the emperor. So she became the Emperor's favourite and was given the status of *Lady of Inherent Splendidness (chenghua 承華, see female officials). According to the house law of the Northern Wei, a consort having born a male child was killed, in order to prevent her relatives from assuming power. For this reason, Lady Hu was the only concubine desiring to produce a boy. When she gave birth to Yuanxu 元詡, the emperor was highly delighted, spared her life in violation of the law, and promoted her to the status of Lady of *Complete Splendidness (chonghua 充華).
When her son Yuan Xu 元詡 (Emperor Xiaoming) acceeded to the throne, he was just 6 sui old, so that a regency was neccessary, carried out by Empress Dowager Hu (a title she was granted just after the accession of Yuan Xu to the throne), supported by her brother-in-law Yuan Cha 元叉, and the chief eunuch Liu Teng 劉騰. The last two conspired with each other and in 520 put the Empress Dowager under arrest, of which she only freed herself five years later by managing the murder of Yuan Cha. The strong-minded Empress Dowager resumed her regency for her young son. The ministers used to address her as "majesty" (bixia 陛下), and she called herself (zhen "We"). Both sides thus breached the law which did provide these titles just for an emperor. Yet Empress Dowager Hu was intelligent and gifted, and took care for the full range of government affairs. The times became turbulent not just at the court, but throughout the empire, particularly in the northern garrisons (bianzhen 邊鎮), which increasingly displayed their dissatisfaction with the court. Yuan Cheng 元澄 and Yuan Fan 袁翻 therefore suggested a reconstruction of the border garrison system, while Wei Langen 魏蘭根 opted for a full change of the military system, but these plans were not adopted by the Empress Dowager. Instead, she adopted Cui Liang's 崔亮 suggestion to appoint military officials according to age (tingniange 停年格), and not by ability or merits.
The Empress Dowager was a devotee to Buddhism, and spend huge amounts to built the lavishly decorated Yongning Monastery 永寧寺 in Luoyang 洛陽, with a Buddha statue eight paces high and a nine-storey high pagoda, and the Buddhist stone caves of Yique 伊闕 (today known as the Longmen Grottoes). She also sent out Song Yun 宋雲 and the monk Huisheng 惠生 to collect Buddhist scriptures in the West. Some historians even went so far to accuse Empress Dowager Hu of having had an illicit relation with Yuan Yi 元懌.
In order to raise government revenue, a market tax was introduced (shishui 市稅), and the field and household tax was levied in advance for six years. She was therefore generally blamed to have cause the impoverishment of the common people and the depletion of the state treasury, and eventually also by the uprising of the six northern garrisons, which brought about the end of the dynasty. Throughout the empire, rebellions broke out, and general Xiao Bingyin 蕭寶寅, a defector from the south, proclaimed his own empire in the region of Guangzhong 關中. The Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557) in the south used this instable situation and invaded territory of the Northern Wei.
Chinese historians depict Empress Dowager as thoroughly depraved, engaging in entertainments with her minions Zheng Yan 鄭儼 and Xu He 徐紇. She had eliminated all persons with whom the young emperor had close contact and might threaten her dominance. In 528 Emperor Xiaoming decided to rely on a powerful commander to free himself. He sent an order to Commander-in-chief (da dudu 討虜大都督) Erzhu Rong 爾朱榮, asking him to conquer the capital Luoyang. The emperor himself, aged 19 sui, was thereupon murdered, allegedly on order of his own mother. The three-sui old Prince of Lintao 臨洮 was enthroned. Historians know also the story that Lady Pan 潘妃 had born a baby girl, which the Empress Dowager passed for a boy and declared him emperor until the first turmoils about the emperor's death were over. When Erzu Rong conquered Luoyang, the Empress Dowager and her puppet emperor were drowned in the Yellow River, and many princes and countless officials lost their lives in the massacre the Commander had allowed.

Sources: Chen Quanli 陳全力, Hou Xinyi 侯欣一 (ed. 1991), Houfei cidian 后妃辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe), p. 74. ● Zhou Yilang 周一良 (ed. 1992), "Hu Taihou 胡太后", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 383.

June 23, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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