No other woman in the Early Han held the same amount of influence as Empress Lü throughout her various titles as Empress, Empress Dowager, and then Grand Empress Dowager. Stories recounting her manipulative nature paint a picture of a scheming empress using her imperial power to bestow favors and political positions to her own clan. This essay argues that Empress Lü used the lack of precedence for her position as Empress Dowager to manipulate court officials into granting power to her clan, which caused political unrest late in her life and resulted in the destruction of the Lü clan. To support this claim, this essay will discuss the exceptional nature of Empress Lü's power and the extent of her ability to manipulate the court, and then this paper will provide evidence of a Lü clan extermination after the death of the empress that held power for fifteen years after her husband died – in a nation with no precedence for this kind of rule.
Lü Zhi (241–180 BC), commonly known as Empress Lü and Empress Dowager Lü, was the empress consort of Emperor Gaozu (256–195 BC), the founder and first ruler of the Han Empire. The consort earned her title by bearing Liu Ying (210–188 BC), who would later become Emperor Hui of Han. As such, Lü Zhi was the first woman to assume the title Empress of China, a title for which there had been no prior precedence. The later death of her husband in 195 BC resulted in the empress holding her power as a dowager, or a widow with a title from her late husband. Since Lü Zhi did not hold formal power through an office, and instead wielded a ceremonial position in the ruling household, her ability to manipulate the court without legal ramifications was amplified, and due to both her age and her sway over the ruling men as wife, mother, and grandmother, it became possible for the empress to grant positions of power to her clan, Lü, late in her life.
Even once her husband, Emperor Gaozu, had been victorious over Xiang Yu (232–202 BC), there were still many unstable areas in the empire at the beginning of his reign in 202 BC which required the nascent government to launch military campaigns to pacify rebellious regions. Gaozu placed Empress Lü Zhi and the crown prince Liu Ying in charge of the capital Chang'an and making key decisions in court, assisted by the state ministers. During this time, Lü Zhi proved herself to be a competent administrator in domestic affairs, and she quickly established strong working relationships with many of Gaozu's officials, who admired her for her capability and feared her for her ruthlessness. This mix of fear and admiration stemmed from Lü Zhi's involvement in the deaths of Han Xin and Peng Yue (both died 96 BC), two of Emperor Gaozu's subjects who demonstrated unfaithfulness and presented opposition to the young Han Empire.
In 196 BC Gaozu left the capital Chang'an to suppress a revolt started by Chen Xi, the Marquis of Yangxia. A year before, Chen Xi met Han Xin before departing from...