Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan

Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan (上官太皇太后) (personal name unknown) (89 BC(?) – 37 BC), also known as Empress Shangguan (上官皇后), Empress Xiaozhao (孝昭皇后) and Empress Dowager Shangguan (上官太后), was an Empress, Empress Dowager and Grand Empress Dowager during han dynasty and wife to Emperor Zhao. Her father was Shangguan An (上官安), the son of Shangguan Jie (上官桀). Her mother was the daughter of Huo Guang. She was a key figure in a number of political incidents during the middle han dynasty, and she spent her entire adult life as a Grand Empress Dowager and a widow without family. Both sides of her family were wiped out in two separate mass executions as punishment accessories of the people who dared usurp the throne. She remains the youngest person in history to assume the both titles of Empress Dowager and Grand Empress Dowager.

Background and marriage to Emperor Zhao

Lady Shangguan's grandfathers Huo Guang and Shangguan Jie (along with ethnic Xiongnu official Jin Midi) were co-regents for the young Emperor Zhao, who ascended the throne in 87 BC at age seven. Huo was the primary regent. At that time, Lady Shangguan herself was a toddler.

It is not clear when Lady Shangguan's parents married, but what was clear was that it was while her grandfathers were colleagues in Emperor Wu's administration and great friends. However, after Jin, a moderating influence in the co-regency, died in 86 BC, they began to have conflicts, because Shangguan Jie was unhappy with his lesser role in the co-regency. in 84 BC, Shangguan Jie wanted to marry the five-year-old Lady Shangguan to the emperor. Huo initially refused, believing her to be too young. Shangguan Jie turned elsewhere for support of his plan. Lady Shangguan's father Shangguan An was a friend of Emperor Zhao's sister and caretaker Princess Eyi's lover, Ding Wairen (丁外人). He encouraged Ding to persuade the princess on the soundness of the marriage—reasoning that the Shangguans' power would be firmer with the marriage, and that they could then help Ding legitimize his relationship with Princess Eyi. Princess Eyi agreed, and later in 84 BC, the young Lady Shangguan was created an imperial consort. In 83 BC, she was created empress

As Empress

Because of her young age (and her husband's young age as well), it was unlikely that Empress Shangguan had significant power at court after they were married. In 80 BC, however, she would suffer the first major tragedy in her life—the destruction of her paternal clan, the Shangguans.

Because of her young age (and her husband's young age as well), it was unlikely that Empress Shangguan had significant power at court after they were married. In 80 BC, however, she would suffer the first major tragedy in her life—the destruction of her paternal clan, the Shangguans.

Later that year, the conspirators would try again. Their plan was for Princess Eyi to invite Huo to a feast, and then to, at the feast, ambush Huo and kill him, and then depose Emperor Zhao and make Prince Dan emperor. (However, allegedly, the Shangguans conspired to instead, once Prince Dan stepped into the capital, to have him killed, and for Shangguan Jie to declare himself emperor. ) The conspiracy was revealed by a servant of Princess Eyi, and the conspirators were arrested and executed with their entire clans. Princess Eyi and Prince Dan committed suicide. Empress Shangguan was spared, however, because of her young age and her status as Huo's granddaughter.

In 74 BC, Emperor Zhao died at age 20. Empress Shangguan, then 15, became a widow and would be for the rest of her life. The young couple was childless, and Emperor Zhao did not have any other concubines who had children either. (It is not clear whether the marriage was ever consummated, although it was likely given the tendency for early marriage and childbirth in those days, even for imperial couples. )

Role in the subsequent succession crisis

Empress Shangguan's grandfather Huo rejected Liu Xu (劉胥), the Prince of Guangling and the only surviving son of Emperor Wu, from succession, because Emperor Wu himself did not favor Prince Xu, who was known for being compulsive in his actions. He therefore turned to Prince He of Changyi, as Emperor Wu's grandson. Empress Shangguan was probably not consulted about the selection process. When Prince He ascended the throne, Empress Shangguan became empress dowager.

As Empress Dowager (The brief reign of Prince He of Changyi)

Once he became emperor, Prince He immediately began to give unlimited promotions to his subordinates from Changyi. He also failed to observe the period of mourning properly, but rather feasted day and night and went out on tours. Prince He's behavior as emperor surprised and disappointed Huo, who pondered his options. At the suggestion of the agricultural minister Tian Yannian (田延年), he began to consider deposing the new emperor. After consulting with other officials, Huo took action.

Huo and the other officials summoned a meeting of high level officials and announced the plan to depose the emperor, forcing those other officials to go along at the pain of death. They then, in group, went to Empress Dowager Shangguan's palace to report to her Prince He's offenses. She agreed with their plan, and immediately ordered that Prince He's Changyi subordinates be immediately barred from the palace, and those subordinates (some 200) were then arrested by Zhang. She then summoned Prince He, who still did not know what was going to happen. He only knew something was wrong when he saw Empress Dowager Shangguan seated on her throne and wearing a formal dress made of jewels, and the officials lined up next to her.

Huo and the top officials then offered their articles of impeachment against Prince He, and these articles were read out loud to the empress dowager. Empress Dowager Shangguan verbally rebuked Prince He. The articles of impeachment listed these as the main offenses that Prince He committed as emperor:

Refusal to abstain from meat and sex during the period of mourning

Failure to keep the imperial seal secure

Improperly promoting and rewarding his Changyi subordinates during the period of mourning

Engaging in feasts and games during the period of mourning

Offering sacrifices to his father during the period of mourning for his uncle

Empress Dowager Shangguan approved the articles of impeachment and ordered Prince He deposed.

For nearly a month—although initially it appeared that the period might last even longer—Empress Dowager Shangguan heard reports and ruled on all important matters of state. It was during this time that she began to learn the Confucian classics from Xiahou Sheng (夏侯勝).

The ascension of Emperor Xuan

After Prince He was removed as emperor, Huo Guang made a second search for a suitable successor to the throne. How the process went is not exactly clear, but at some point, at the recommendation of Bing Ji (丙吉), Huo reached out to a commoner—the grandson of former Crown Prince Liu Ju, the son of Emperor Wu and Empress Wei Zifu who committed suicide in 91 BC after being forced into an unsuccessful rebellion against his father—and therefore Empress Shangguan's grand nephew.

Huo then formally submitted the proposal to Empress Dowager Shangguan, who approved it. To avoid having a mere commoner ascend the throne, she first created him the Marquess of Yangwu, and on the same day, he ascended the throne as Emperor Xuan. Empress Dowager Shangguan was given the title of Grand Empress Dowager—the title she would hold the rest of her life.

As Grand Empress Dowager

After Emperor Xuan became emperor, Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan, still a teenager, faded from the public eye. Apparently, to pass her time, she would often receive her Huo relations as guests, and Emperor Xuan's empress Xu Pingjun often had meals with her. She and Empress Xu appeared to have a cordial relationship, and she was in all likelihood not involved in the plot of her grandmother Xian (顯), who murdered Empress Xu in 71 BC by poisoning her to allow her daughter (and Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan's aunt) Huo Chengjun to become empress. Oddly enough, Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan's relationship with her aunt and empress appeared to be cooler than her relationship with Empress Xu, perhaps because the empress was an aunt to her.

Huo Guang died in 68 BC. After Huo's death, his sons, sons-in-law, and grandnephews remained in important posts and were made marquesses. The Huo family lived luxurious lives and acted as if it were the imperial household. Emperor Xuan, unhappy about the Huos' arrogance, began to gradually strip their actual powers while formally keeping their titles impressive.

In 67 BC, Emperor Xuan made his son Liu Shi (劉奭, later Emperor Yuan), by the deceased Empress Xu, crown prince, an act that greatly angered Lady Xian, who instructed her daughter to murder the crown prince. Allegedly, Empress Huo did make multiple attempts to do so, but failed each time. Around this time, the emperor also heard rumors that the Huos had murdered Empress Xu, which led him to further strip the Huos of actual power.

In 66 BC, Lady Xian revealed to her son and grandnephews that she had, indeed, murdered Empress Xu. In fear of what the emperor might do if he had actual proof, Lady Xian, her son, her grandnephews, and her sons-in-law formed a conspiracy to depose the emperor. Their plan was to ask Empress Dowager Shangguan to invite Emperor Xuan's grandmother Lady Wang, Prime Minister Wei Xiang (魏相), and Empress Xu's father-in-law and the deceased Empress Xu's father Xu Guanghan (許廣漢), planning to ambush them and kill them (whom the Huos considered political rivals), and then depose Emperor Xuan and make Huo's son Huo Yu (霍禹) emperor. The plot was discovered, and the entire Huo clan was executed, leaving Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan, who apparently was not involved in the plot, entirely without family.

The only reference to Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan after that was that she greatly honored her teacher Xiahou by wearing mourning clothes for him when he died (although it is not clear when that happened). She herself died in 37 BC, during the reign of Emperor Xuan's son Emperor Yuan, and she was buried with her husband Emperor Zhao.

Titles from birth to death

89 BC – 84 BC: Lady Shangguan

84 BC – 83 BC: Consort Shangguan

83 BC – 74 BC: Empress Shangguan

74 BC – 74 BC: Empress Dowager Shangguan

74 BC – 37 BC: Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan

Personal information

Paternal Grandfather

Shangguan Jie, Marquess of Anyang

Maternal Grandfather

Huo Guang, Marquess of Xuancheng


Empress Huo Chengjun


Shangguan An, Marquess of Sangle


Emperor Wu of Han


Consort Zhao

Last update 05-06-2012

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