"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 offended Liang Song (the favorite son-in-law of the emperor), when he died, he almost didn't receive a proper burial.
Soon after General Ma Yuan's death, his young son also died. General Ma's wife couldn't deal with the double loss and became mentally unstable. The third daughter of Ma Yuan was only 13 years old at the time but 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 families.
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 choice." 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 Confucian texts, including the Spring and Autumn Annuls, Chu Ci and Zhou Li. Later on, she wrote a book called Notes on the Life of a Xian Emperor.
Empress Ma was kind-hearted by nature. She was modest, frugal and didn't enjoy pleasure-seeking. She was kind to everybody. She always wore clothes made of cotton. Other than formal state occasions, she never wore expensive silk clothing. Other concubines of the emperor respected and admired her.
She was a woman blessed with many virtues and talents, as well as 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 were planning to overthrow the emperor and take over the throne. After their plot was discovered, the emperor couldn't bear to execute them. 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 the arrest of Liu Ying's followers. Large numbers of 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 the 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 many 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 many different things into consideration. When he encountered things that he couldn't resolve easily, he often asked Empress Ma for advice. Empress Ma was able to offer insightful analysis and give constructive solutions. The emperor took her advice seriously and accepted many of her suggestions, which closed a lot of gaps in the way that the country was being run. Despite receiving such recognition from the emperor, Empress Ma never once tried to promote her own family members. She didn't even bring up the issue of the injustice that her own father had suffered. Even though she felt very sad about it, she never brought the subject up with the emperor, who in turn respected her even more.
Empress Ma didn't have any children of her own. After Madam Jia, one of the emperor's royal concubines, gave birth to a son, the emperor gave the infant to Empress Ma. 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 birth 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."