Great Empresses of China – Role Models for Traditional Women (Part 2)

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2. Empress Ma Mingde of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Empress Ma Mingde (39 – 79 AD) was born to Ma Yuan, a famous military general of the Eastern Han Dynasty in China. He was highly decorated for stopping invasions into China for Emperor Guangwu (5 BC – 57 AD). However, he was later framed and lost everything because he offended the emperor’s son-in-law, Liang Song. At the time, his third daughter, Ma Mingde, was only ten years old, but she had to take on the responsibilities of managing the entire household. Not only was she able to independently handle the family affairs, she was also able to interact amicably with relatives like an adult.

In 52 AD, 13-year-old Ma Mingde was selected to serve the crown prince, Liu Zhuang (28 – 75 AD). Once in the palace, she served Empress Yin meticulously and treated all the other ladies with proper courtesy and etiquette. In 57 AD, Liu Zhuang succeeded as emperor, becoming Emperor Ming, and Ma Mingde was selected as the empress for her superior virtue. Empress Ma not only had a lofty character, she was also highly intelligent and talented. She could recite Yi Ching and studied Confucian classics such as The Spring and Autumn Annuals, Songs of Chu, and Rites of Zhou.

Empress Ma was kind and forgiving by nature. She was modest, respectful, and frugal. She did not like parties, but she was very amiable and approachable. She normally wore coarse clothes. She only wore clothes made of expensive silk with lavish embroidery for state ceremonies. She was highly respected by the ladies of the court.

Empress Ma was not involved in politics, but she had her own opinions. In 70 AD, Emperor Ming’s half-brother, Liu Ying, attempted a coup but the plot was discovered. The emperor did not have the heart to execute him. He only stripped him of his title of duke and exiled him to Danyang County in today’s Anhui Province.

After Liu Ying arrived in Danyang County, he committed suicide. The emperor suspected that his half-brother must have been encouraged to commit treason and ordered an investigation. A large number of people were accused and implicated. Many officials tried to persuade the emperor into stopping the investigation, but he refused to listen. Empress Ma knew most of the people who were arrested were actually innocent and was very worried. One day after the emperor had returned to their chamber, she begged him not to make things worse than they were. The sad expression on her face touched him. In February during his 15th year of rule, the emperor ordered a general pardon, including for treason, a crime that was previously not included in the general pardon. Many lives were spared because of Empress Ma Mingde.

After that, Emperor Ming realized that the empress had her own unique opinions. When there were problems that the court officials could not make decisions on, he often asked the empress for her analysis. The empress helped him analyze the source of the issues and the emperor took them seriously, thus remedying flaws in state affairs. Many problems were solved with her help. However, she never mentioned her own problems, including the false accusations against her own father. Despite her feelings for her father, she never sought the emperor’s help, which earned his respect even more.

Empress Ma did not give him any children, so the emperor had her act as the mother for a son, Liu Da, he had with a court lady, Jia.

Empress Ma looked after Liu Da with all her heart. She insisted on taking care of him herself to the point of exhaustion. They had a relationship as though the empress had given birth to him.

In 75 AD, the emperor passed away. Crown Prince Liu Da succeeded as Emperor Zhang. Empress Ma was revered as Empress Dowager. A drought occurred in the second year of the new emperor’s rule. Court officials tried to please the Empress Dowager by suggesting that the drought was a sign of heaven’s rage because the Empress Dowager’s three brothers had not been given royal titles. However, Empress Ma did not agree with their suggestion. In fact, she issued an edict to condemn the proposal. When Emperor Zhang read the edict, he lamented to Empress Ma, “Mother, giving uncles royal titles is as natural as giving the title of duke to princes. Mother, you may want to keep a low profile, but how can I not pay filial respect to my uncles? Besides, one of them is old and two are ill. I will never have another chance to do anything for them if they should pass away before I give them a royal title.”

Empress Ma explained, “It was a deliberate decision. I was not trying to keep a good reputation at the expense of yours. The fact is that the Ma family has not accomplished anything for the country worthy of a royal title. Now there is a drought, and the entire nation is enduring difficult times. If you should give my brothers royal titles, it will be against my will and you will not be showing filial respect for me. If you insist on giving them royal titles, you must wait until there are no disasters or war.”

Four years after Emperor Zhang ascended to the throne, China was free of disasters and war. It was then that Emperor Zhang gladly gave his three uncles royal titles.

After Empress Ma learned the news, she advised her brothers not to be greedy and asked them to understand where she was coming from. The three brothers accepted their royal titles, but retired from political life.

Emperors of the Eastern Han Dynasty were mostly young when they ascended to the throne. Their young mothers often had to rely on their brothers to help govern the nation. Empress Ma was the only exception. Following the lessons of history, she forbade her brothers from engaging in politics. Empress Ma was diligent, modest, respectful, educated, wise, and loyal. She passed away at the age of 41 in 79 AD. Emperor Ming and Emperor Zhang’s rules were successful ones, and it had a lot to do with her. In Sequel to the Biography of Respected Ladies in China, Empress Ma was described as such: “In terms of family, she was a model for all women. In terms of national administration, she was a model for all empresses.”

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