Empress Ma devoted herself to caring 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 close.
In 75 A.D., Emperor Liu Zhuang died. Liu Dan, the crown prince, ascended to 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 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 flatter Empress Dowager Ma's family using this opportunity. 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 and 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 an excellent harvest. The border was also calm. The emperor then bestowed his three uncles with the title 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 title of Marquis, they resigned from 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 history and forbade her family from holding too much power. She lived her entire life in a modest, low-key and frugal way. She was a 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 rule 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."