Empress Deng Sui

Empress Deng Sui

Empress Deng Sui (鄧綏) (AD 81 - 121), formally Empress Hexi (和熹皇后, literally "the moderate and pacifying empress") was an empress during Han Dynasty. She was Emperor He's second wife. She later, as empress dowager, served as regent for his son Emperor Shang and nephew Emperor An, and was regarded as an able and diligent administrator. She was perhaps the last effective ruler of the Eastern Han Dynasty, as the subsequent emperors and empresses dowager were largely incompetent rulers. During her regency, there were natural disasters and wars with Xiongnu and Qiang, but she was able to remedy the disasters and largely quell the wars. She was also praised for her attention to criminal justice.

Family background and entry to palace

Deng Sui was born in 81. Her father Deng Xun (鄧訓) was a son of Emperor Guangwu's prime minister Deng Yu. Her mother, Lady Yin, was a daughter of a cousin of Emperor Guangwu's wife Empress Yin Lihua. She was selected to be in the palace in 95, and she became a consort to Emperor He in 96. She was 15, and he was 17.

As imperial consort and empress

When Deng Sui became an imperial consort, Emperor He had already created Empress Yin empress. Empress Yin was described as beautiful but short and clumsy, and she was also known for jealousy. Consort Deng tried to foster a proper relationship with her by being humble, and was described as constantly trying to cover Empress Yin's mistakes. This, however, only drew Empress Yin's jealousy, as Emperor He became impressed with her and considered her one of his favorites. Empress Yin was also not pleased that Consort Deng, concerned that Emperor He was constantly losing sons in childhood, often recommended other consorts for him to have sexual relations with. Once, when Emperor He was ill, Empress Yin made the remark that if she became empress dowager, the Dengs would be slaughtered -- and upon hearing that remark, Consort Deng considered committing suicide, and one of her ladies in waiting saved her by falsely telling her that the emperor had recovered. However, the emperor did soon recover, so Consort Deng and her family escaped a terrible fate.

In 102, Empress Yin and her grandmother, Deng Zhu (鄧朱), were accused of using witchcraft to curse imperial consorts (probably including Consort Deng). She was deposed and died of sorrow, probably in 102 as well. Emperor He created Consort Deng empress to replace her.

As empress, Empress Deng was described as diligent and humble, and she resisted offers by Emperor He to promote her relatives. She also prohibited the commanderies and principalities from offering her tributes -- which had been customary for empresses to receive.

As regent for Emperor Shang

In 106, Emperor He died, creating a succession crisis. Empress Deng and all of the imperial consorts were sonless for a long time. (Emperor He was described to have had a number of sons who died in young age; it is unclear whether Empresses Yin or Deng ever gave birth, but it appears that they did not.) Late in Emperor He's reign, he had two sons -- whose mothers were not mentioned in history -- Liu Sheng (劉勝) and Liu Long. Under the superstition of the time, it was thought that they might survive better if they grew up outside the palace in light of their other brothers' early deaths, so both were given to foster parents.

At the time Emperor He died, Liu Sheng, the older son, was still young (but actual age is not recorded in history) and believed to be constantly ill. The younger, Liu Long, was only 100 days old. Both were welcomed back to the palace, and Empress Deng created Liu Long crown prince, believing that he would be healthier, and then that night he was proclaimed emperor, as Emperor Shang. Power was in Empress Dowager Deng's hands, as regent for the infant emperor, and her brother Deng Zhi (鄧騭) quickly became the most powerful official at court. She issued a general pardon, which benefitted the people who had rights stripped from them for associating with the family of Empress Dou -- whose family had been powerful during the early reign of Emperor He but was toppled in a coup d'etat.

Late in 106, the young emperor died, creating yet another succession crisis. By this time, the officials had realized that Prince Sheng (then Prince of Pingyuan) was not as ill as initially thought, and they generally wanted him to be emperor. However, Empress Dowager Deng, concerned that Prince Sheng would bear a grudge for not having been made emperor first, had other ideas. She insisted on making Emperor Shang's cousin Prince Hu emperor instead, and he took the throne as Emperor An, at age 12. (Prince Hu was the son of Prince Qing of Qinghe -- who was once a crown prince under Emperor He's father Emperor Zhang but was deposed due to machinations of Emperor Zhang's wife Empress Dou. Therefore, he was viewed by some as the rightful heir.)

As regent for Emperor An

When Emperor An ascended the throne, his father (Prince Qing) was still living, as was Prince Qing's wife Consort Geng -- who had remained in the capital Luoyang with him until his ascension. (Emperor An's mother Consort Zuo Xiao'e (左小娥), Prince Qing's concubine, had died sometime earlier.) However, Empress Dowager Deng was able to ensure exclusive control over the young emperor still, as empress dowager, by sending Consort Geng to join her husband Prince Qing in his Principality of Qinghe.

Empress Dowager Deng showed herself to be an able regent who did not tolerate corruption, even by her own family members. She also carried out criminal law reforms. For example, in 107, she issued an edict that extended the period for death penalty appeals.

In 107, however, there would be major problems on the borders. First, Xiyu kingdoms (modern Xinjiang and former Soviet central Asia), who had submitted to Han suzerainty during the times of the great general Ban Chao, had been resisting Ban's successors for some time due to their harsh regulations, and in 107, Empress Dowager Deng finally decreed that Xiyu be abandoned. That same year, Qiang tribes, who had been oppressed by Han officials for more than a decade and fearful that they would be ordered to quell Xiyu rebellions, rebelled themselves. This was a major rebellion, affecting a wide region over modern Shaanxi, Gansu, and northern Sichuan, and Qiang forces even made incursions into modern Shanxi and threatened the capital at one point. The situation became so severe that Deng Zhi considered abandoning Liang Province (涼州, roughly modern Gansu), a proposal that Empress Dowager Deng wisely rejected. The rebellion would not be put down until 118, by which point the western empire was in shambles.

Also, in 107 to 109, there were many natural disasters -- floods, droughts, and hail, in different parts of the empire. Empress Dowager Deng was largely effective in organizing disaster relief efforts.

In 109, South Xiongnu, which had been a loyal vassal up to this point, rebelled as well, believing that Han had been so weakened by Qiang rebellions that it would be easy target. However, after Han made a strong show of force, South Xiongnu submitted again and would not become a trouble spot for the rest of Han Dynasty.

In 110, Empress Dowager Deng's mother Lady Yin died. Her brothers resigned their posts to observe a period of mourning for three years, and after initially not approving the request, she eventually did, under female scholar Ban Zhao's suggestion. Even though they were without major government posts, however, they remained powerful advisors. As the years went by, Empress Dowager Deng's original humble nature appeared to entirely wear away as she hang onto power, and when some of her relatives and close associates suggested that she transfer the authorities to Emperor An, she became angry at them and would not do so.

In 121, Empress Dowager Deng died and was buried with her husband Emperor He with full honors. Emperor An finally took power at age 28. His wet nurse Wang Sheng (王聖) and trusted eunuchs Li Run (李閏) and Jiang Jing (江京), who had waited for years to have power, falsely accused Empress Dowager Deng of having considered deposing Emperor An and replacing him with his cousin, Liu Yi (劉翼) the Prince of Hejian. In anger, Emperor An removed all of Empress Dowager Deng's relatives from government and forced many of them to commit suicide. Later that year, however, he partially reversed his orders, and some of Empress Dowager Deng's relatives were allowed to return, but the clan had been decimated by then.


* "Book of Later Han", vols. 4, 10, part 1.
* "Zizhi Tongjian", vols. 48, 49, 50.

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