Empress Dowager Bo

Empress Dowager Bo (薄太后), known as Consort Bo (薄姬) when her husband was alive, and more formally as either Empress Dowager Xiaowen (孝文太后) or (rarer) Empress Gao (高皇后) (died 155 BC) was an imperial concubine for Emperor Gao of Han (Liu Bang) who would, unanticipated by her, become the mother of an emperor.

Early years

The future Empress Dowager Bo's father, Gentleman Bo (薄翁), came from Wu County (吳縣, in modern Suzhou , Jiangsu ). He had an adulterous affair with a Lady Wei (魏媼), the daughter of a member of the Wei royal family. Empress Dowager Bo was born of this union.

According to Chinese historical works except the Book of Han, Lady Bo was, when she was young, the prettiest concubine of Wei Bao (魏豹), the Prince of Wei. Wei Bao was once allied with Gaozu of Han to defeat Xiang Yu's force, but later betrayed Liu Bang by defecting to Xiang Yu's camp. Unlike other defectors who switched side again at the Liu Bang's final victory over Xiang Yu by rejoining Liu Bang, Wei Bao remain loyal to Xiang Yu to the end. After Han Xin conquered Wei, Wei Bao and his entire family were brough in front of Liu Bang waiting to be executed. It was too late for Wei Bao to regret and his begging was ignored until he noticed that Liu Bang could not take his eyes off Lady Bo. Utilizing this opportunity, Wei Bao managed successfully to have his life spared by Liu Bang by giving Lady Bo to Gaozu of Han as his concubines. Historical records did not provide the information on whether other members of Wei Bao's family were spared as well, but it was likely the case.

However, Lady Bo was not much favored, and after only one occasion of sexual relationship, Liu Bang never saw her again. However, that rare occasion of Liu Bang had sexual relations with her was enough to make her pregnant and bore him Prince Liu Heng, and when Liu Bang heard the news, he made Prince Liu Heng the Prince of Dai, after he declared himself emperor. The birth of her son elevated her status from Lady Bo to Consort Bo, and unlike many other concubines, was not confined to the palace, but accompanied her son to the remote Principality of Dai (modern northern Shanxi and northwestern Hebei ) to be the princess dowager. Dai was not a rich domain to begin with, and on top of that, the region was under constant threats and attacks from Xiongnu. Although Consort Bo could not live a luxurious lifestyle as the princess dowagers (for her son would not either later when he became an emperor), she still managed to have a relatively comfortable life. Nonetheless, Consort Bo had to work in the occupation she previously had, as a seamstress to help out. (According to the Book of Han, Lady Bo returned to her previous occupation as a seamstress when on one occasion when Liu Bang, then the Prince of Han, saw her among the group of seamstresses, he made her one of his concubines. But all of the rest of the story depicted in the Book of Han is same as other Chinese historical works). Such rather difficult living conditions in comparison to other consorts had an unexpected benefit: unlike other consorts who became Empress Lü Zhi's victims due to her jealousy, Empress Lü Zhi was very sympathetic to Consort Bo and frequently sent financial helps, partially because Lady Bo and her son posed no threat to Empress Lü Zhi's quest of power.

Rise to the top

In 180 BC, after the death of her mistress, Emperor Gao's wife Grand Empress Dowager Lü, and after the officials then slaughtered the Lü clan, they offered the throne to Prince Heng over his nephew Emperor Houshao -- whom they accused of not being imperial blood. Prince Heng consulted Princess Dowager Bo, who could not decide either. It was later, after they dispatched Princess Dowager Bo's brother Bo Zhao (薄昭) to the capital Chang'an to observe the situation and to ascertain the officials' good faith that Prince Heng chose to accept the throne.

Later years

After Prince Heng took the throne as Emperor Wen, Princess Dowager Bo was honored as empress dowager, even though she had not previously been an empress. She was largely unassuming as empress dowager, and did not exert anywhere close to the influence that Empress Dowager Lü asserted over Emperor Hui or even her daughter-in-law, Empress Dou, would later assert over her grandson Emperor Jing. The one major instance in which she asserted her influence was in 176 BC. At that time, Zhou Bo (周勃), who had been instrumental in Emperor Wen's becoming emperor and who had by that time retired to his march, was falsely accused of treason and arrested. Empress Dowager Bo, believing in Zhou's innocence, famously threw her scarf at Emperor Wen, stating:

Before became emperor, Zhou was in control of the imperial seal, and commanded the powerful northern guards. How ridiculous is it that he did not commit treason then, but now plans to use his small march as the base for a rebellion?

It was at least partly due to her influence that Emperor Wen eventually released Zhou.

She either did not try to intercede similarly (as appears more likely) or was ineffective in her intercession, when her brother Bo Zhao killed an imperial messenger -- a crime far more serious than ordinary murder -- in 170 BC. Even though Bo Zhao was her only sibling, Emperor Wen, although not having the heart to execute him publicly, eventually pressed him into committing suicide.

Empress Dowager Bo married one of her relatives' daughter to her grandson, then-Crown Prince Qi, during her son's reign. After Emperor Wen died in 157 BC and Crown Prince Qi succeeded him as Emperor Jing, Empress Dowager Bo became grand empress dowager. There was no recorded instance of her trying to assert political influence after that. She died just two years later in 155 BC. (This would prove disastrous for Empress Bo, Emperor Jing's wife, as she, now without support, was soon deposed. )

After she died, she was enshrined in a temple of her own, not in her husband's temple, because only one empress could be enshrined in an emperor's temple, and Empress Lü was already enshrined in Emperor Gao's temple. However, later, during Emperor Guangwu's reign, he effectively reversed their positions by enshrining Empress Dowager Bo as "Empress Gao" and demoting Empress Dowager Lü to a separate temple.

Last update 18-04-2012

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