Great Empresses of China – Role Models for Traditional Women (Part 1)
Standards for traditional Chinese women were derived from ancient people's ideals of the unity of Heaven and humankind, and the subsequent traditional moral values. The I Ching
(Book of Changes
) says that yin and yang means “the way.” “Yin” and “yang” are two different substances, and each naturally has different properties. “Qian” (The Creative, Heaven) and “Kun” (The Receptive, Earth) are typical examples of yin and yang. "The movement of heaven is full of power. Thus, the gentleman makes himself strong and tireless. The earth's condition is one of receptive devotion. Thus, the gentleman who has breadth of character carries the outer world." Feminine and masculine are manifestations of its characteristics. Corresponding to humans, men are masculine, women are feminine; hardness and softness are interdependent and thus in harmony. This is the code of ethics and etiquette formed after the Great Way was implemented in the world.
There were more detailed descriptions in ancient times on the standards for women. The Book of Rites
, Rites of Zhou
, Classic of Poetry
, Biographies of Exemplary Women
, and other classics laid out clear standards and requirements and also contained role models of ancient women. A traditional woman should be gentle and virtuous, kind and restrained, and should possess an elegant grace that emerges naturally from inside to outside because she has a beautiful heart. What makes a woman truly beautiful is her good virtue. Below are three examples from China's ancient empresses to use as models. They set good examples as virtuous wives and empresses for later generations.
I. Empress Yin Lihua of the East Han Dynasty
Yin Lihua (5 – 64 AD) from Xinye County1, Nanyang City, was the second empress of the Founding Emperor, Liu Xiu, of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD). She was a descendant of Guan Zhong (720 – 645 BC), famed prime minister of the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period.
Five years after Emperor Liu Xiu unified the nation, Yin Lihua was made empress. According to historical records, Empress Yin was benevolent and devotedly pious. She was full of compassion and kindness. Her father died when she was seven. She cried whenever her father was mentioned although several dozen years had passed. Empress Yin was dignified and gentle, modest and thrifty. She set a good example as a virtuous wife and good empress for later generations.
Shortly after the Eastern Han Dynasty was founded, the Emperor did not yet have an empress, so both Guo Shengtong and Yin Lihua were crowned Imperial Consorts (the Ladies). At that time, Guo gave birth to a son, Liu Jiang, the crown prince (heir apparent), but Emperor Liu Xiu wanted to name Yin as empress because of her “motherly role-model of virtue.” In ancient times, the highest glory a female could achieve is to become an empress. Yet, Yin was so humble that she declined the position of empress, citing that she was not fit for the important role. Liu Xiu therefore made Guo Shengtong empress. Afterward, Emperor Liu Xiu wanted to make Yin Lihua's brothers marquesses, but Yin again declined, citing that according to etiquette, brothers of someone who is not the empress should not be made marquesses. The Emperor then tried to reward Yin with jewelry, but she declined this also, saying that the nation had just been stabilized, many things still needed to be done, and wouldn't having so much jewelry be extravagant?
After 17 years, Emperor Liu Xiu deposed Empress Guo because “she had continuously complained about her lack of favor,” and made the Lady, Consort Yin, empress instead.
Empress Yin was still humble and pleaded with Liu Xiu to treat the deposed Empress Guo Shengtong, who had slandered her many times, with lenience and compassion. Moreover, Empress Yin greatly favored and cared for the deposed crown prince, Liu Jiang, and Guo's youngest son Liu Yan, the Prince of Zhongshan. Empress Yin often told her sons and grandchildren to treat Guo Shengtong's family kindly. She reminded them that Guo Shengtong had been their imperial mother or grandmother of 17 years, and should be treated as such.
Emperor Ming of Han dynasty Liu Zhuang (28 – 75 AD) did so, and Yin's grandson Liu Da (57 – 88 AD), Emperor Zhang of Han dynasty, was ever mindful of treating them with compassion. Throughout the Han Dynasty's subsequent imperial families, there were no incidents of deposed crown princes and princes not born to the empress being killed. This moral behavior and practice is inseparable from Emperor Liu Xiu and Empress Yin Lihua's model behavior and teaching.