Empress Ma Mingde, the First Lady of the Country

Kun De

PureInsight | March 1, 2006

[PureInsight.org] "A true man
should die on the battlefield at the border defending one's country,
with his body sent home wrapped in horse leather." These are the famous
words of General Ma Yuan. He was a very famous general during the
Eastern Han Dynasty. He contributed a lot to bringing peace to the land
of China under Emperor Liu Xiu. But because he had offended Liang Song,
the favorite son-in-law of the emperor, when he died, he almost didn't
receive a proper burial.

Soon after his death, his young son also died. His wife couldn't deal
with the double losses, and became mentally unstable. The third
daughter of Ma Yuan was only 13 years old at the time. She bravely
stepped forward to take care of the entire family. She was not only
able to deal with major and minor things in the household, she also
ably represented the family like an adult in dealing with other

In 52 A.D, at the age of 13, she was selected to join the court of Liu
Zhuang, the crown prince. After she entered the palace, she devoted
herself to serving Empress Yin. She also treated everyone else around
her with a great deal of respect and good manners, and gradually became
beloved by all. In 57 A.D., Liu Zhuang became the emperor and named her
one of his royal concubines. In 60 A.D., he was about to select his
empress and asked his mother Empress Dowager Yin for advice. Empress
Dowager Yin replied, "Royal Concubine Ma is the most virtuous among all
your wives. She should be your pick." So the emperor named Ma as his
empress. She is known in history as Empress Ma Mingde (Ming means
"clear" and De means "virtue.")

Empress Ma was not only virtuous, she was also learned. She could recite the Book of Changes in its entirety. She also was very familiar with many classical Confucius texts, including Spring and Autumn, Chu Ci, and Zhou Li. Later on, she even wrote a book called "Notes on the Life of a Xian Emperor."

Empress Ma was by nature kind-hearted. She was modest, frugal and
didn't enjoy seeking pleasure. She was kind to everybody. She always
wore clothes made of raw cotton. Other than formal state occasions, she
never wore expensive silk clothing. All the concubines of the emperor
respected and admired her.

She was a woman blessed with many virtues, talents, and good looks.
Even though she didn't want to interfere in the affairs of the country,
she had shrewd judgment. In 70 A.D., Liu Ying, the Duke of Chu and the
half-brother of the emperor, was planning to overthrow the emperor and
take over the throne. After his plot was discovered, the emperor
couldn't bear to execute him He only stripped Liu Ying's title and
ordered him to move to Danyan County (in today's Anhui Province). Liu
Ying committed suicide once he arrived in Danyan County. The emperor
felt that certain followers of Liu Ying had urged and encouraged his
rebellion. So he ordered Liu Ying's followers to be arrested. Countless
people were implicated. Several thousand officials were arrested and
sent to remote places. Many court officials urged the emperor to stop
the witch hunt. But the emperor refused to listen. After Empress Ma
learned that the vast majority of people who had been arrested and
punished were innocent, she was very troubled. When the emperor went to
visit her one day, she urged him not to expand the scope of the
investigation any more. She looked so sad that the emperor was deeply
moved. In February of 72 A.D., he granted amnesty to the entire
country. People who had committed treason were normally not included in
amnesties. Emperor Liu Zhuang made an exception and gave them amnesty
as well. A major case that could have resulted in the wrongful deaths
of numerous innocent people was quickly put to an end. Liu Zhuang was
normally a very strict emperor. Empress Ma was given a lot of credit
for the quick and benevolent closure of the case.

From then on, Emperor Liu Zhuang felt that the empress had a lot of
unique and insightful understandings of the political affairs of the
country. She had the ability to analyze the entire situation rationally
and take all the different things into consideration. When he
encountered things that he couldn't resolve easily, he often asked
Empress Ma for advices. Empress Ma was able to offer insightful
analysis and give constructive solutions. The emperor treated her
advice seriously and accepted many of her suggestions, which closed a
lot of gaps in the ways that the country was being run. But she never
once tried to promote her own family members. She didn't even bring up
the injustice that her own father had suffered from. Even though she
felt very sad about it, she never brought the subject up to the
emperor, who in turn respected her even more.

Empress Ma didn't have any children of her own. After Madam Jia, one of
his royal concubines, gave birth to a son, the emperor gave the infant
to Empress Ma to raise. The boy was named Liu Dan. When he put the
infant boy into the arms of his wife, Liu Zhuang said something to
comfort her, "In this world, not every woman is able to give births to
children. One shouldn't treat only the children that she has given
birth to as her own children. As long as you treat him with kindness
and love, this child who was borne by another woman will become a
filial and devoted son of your own."

Empress Ma devoted herself to care for Liu Dan. Even though she had a
lot of servants in the royal palace, she took care of the baby boy by
herself and wore herself out. The amount of care and motherly love that
she gave to the boy as he grew up surpassed what other royal concubines
gave to their own natural children. Empress Ma and Liu Dan were very

In 75 A.D., Emperor Liu Zhuang died. Liu Dan, the crown prince,
ascended the throne. He named Empress Ma the Empress Dowager. He knew
that Empress Ma wasn't his birth mother. But he also knew how much love
she had given him over the years and treated her as his own mother in
his heart. After he became the emperor, he didn't give any special
treatment to Madam Jia, his birth mother. Madam Jia lived out the rest
of her life in the royal palace as just one of the many royal
concubines of the previous emperor. Her family also didn't receive any
special honor or recognition.

One year after Liu Dan ascended the throne, a major drought broke out.
Certain royal officials wanted to fawn on Empress Dowager Ma's family.
They told the emperor that the drought had taken place because Ma's
family hadn't been properly honored and urged the emperor to bestow the
rank of Marquis on the brothers of Empress Dowager Ma. Empress Dowager
Ma refused to grant the request. She wrote a harshly worded edict and
denied the request. When the emperor read the edict, he was very moved.
He told his mother, "The Han Dynasty is very prosperous. To honor my
uncles is the same thing as giving my sons the titles of duke. It is
supposed to happen. You are so modest. Do you want me to be an emperor
who doesn't show the proper filial respect to his uncles? Among my
three uncles, one is elderly and two are ill. If something happens to
them before I give them the proper titles, I will regret it for the
rest of my life. We should find an auspicious time to honor them
properly and shouldn't wait too long."

Empress Dowager Ma replied, "I have thought about this issue quite a
bit. It is not that I want to have a reputation of modesty to the point
where I'd allow my son's reputation to suffer. It is just that the Ma
family hasn't made any contribution to the country. Right now there is
a major drought. Our people are suffering. If we honor my family at
such a time, it is against my wishes, and it is not showing filial
respect to me. If you must honor them, you should wait until the
weather is good and our border is calm."

Four years after Liu Dan ascended the throne, the country enjoyed great
weather and excellent harvest. The border was also clam. The emperor
immediately bestowed his three uncles the titles of Marquis.

After Empress Dowager Ma learned about it, she felt that people
shouldn't be greedy and she didn't want her brothers to exert too much
influence at the royal court. She let her wishes be known to her
brothers. After they accepted the titles of Marquis, they resigned
their official posts, and stopped participating in the country's
political affairs.

During the Eastern Han Dynasty, many emperors died young, leaving
behind young sons to inherit the throne. Most of the young Empress
Dowagers relied on their own families to run the country, resulting in
many tragedies. Empress Dowager Ma was the only exception. She learned
from the history and forbade her family to hold too much power. She
lived her entire life in a modest, low-key and frugal way. She was very
learned person and possessed a sharp mind. She died in 79 A.D. at the
age of 41. She made huge contributions to the reigns of her husband and
her son. Records of Upright Women Part II
has the following praises for her, "As a young girl before she was
married, she was an example to all young girls. As the mother to the
country, she was an example to all empresses."

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