Empress Ma Mingde, the First Lady of the Country
(Clearwisdom.net) "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."
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."
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