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Few textual characteristics of this chapter require comment. Its eulogy, like that in the preceding chapter, opens with a remark by Pan Piao, but, like that chapter, this one shows no characteristics that would lead us to consider it more than the other annals to be the work of Pan Piao. Pan Ku might easily have quoted a passage from his father's eulogy in a chapter that was largely his own composition.
Summary of the reign
This chapter constitutes the chronological summary covering one of the long reigns in the dynasty, which lasted twenty-six years, from 33 to 7 B.C. It was a peaceful period, when the traditional practises were largely continued without change. The government was entrusted to the Wang clan, that of the Emperor's mother; her brothers, one after another, controlled affairs, while the Emperor took his pleasure in amusement, music, banquets, incognito excursions, and in his harem.ere driven to sporadic rebellions, none of which, however, became serious. Certain events within the imperial harem influenced history more vitally than anything else.
The beginning of the future Grand Empress Dowager née Wang's career
Many casual happenings cooperated to bring Emperor Ch'eng to the throne. About 52 B.C., while his father, Emperor Yüan, was still only Emperor Hsüan's Heir-apparent, the Heir-apparent's favorite concubine became ill and died. Either in sincerity or because she wished to keep her husband true to her, she told the future Emperor Yüan, before she died, that her death had been the result of magical imprecations by his other concubines. He believed her, became ill with grief, and would have nothing to do with his other women. His father, Emperor Hsüan, became worried, and told his Empress to pick out some of his Daughters of Good Family (the next to the lowest grade of imperial concubines) for the Heir-apparent. Five girls were offered to the sorrowing Heir-apparent, who had no desire for any of them. Out of respect for his mother, he forced himself to say, "One of these will do." The harem official thought he meant the girl nearest him, who happened to be the only one dressed in red; consequently she was sent to the Heir-apparent's apartments.
This girl, Cheng-chün, the future Grand Empress Dowager née Wang, was the daughter of a minor official in one of the capital bureaus. She had been betrothed twice, and each time her betrothed had died. The diviners had foretold that she would become honorable, so she had been taught to write and to play the lute, and had been presented to the imperial harem. At this time, she was in her nineteenth year. The Heir-apparent had been married for seven or eight years and had had several tens of women in his apartments, but he had had no children; the first time that this new girl was summoned, she was favored and conceived. In 51 B.C., she gave birth to the future Emperor Ch'eng. Emperor Hsüan was delighted with the babe, his grandson, called him the Heir-apparent of the Heir-apparent, and often had the child by him. When Emperor Yüan came to the throne, this child was in his third year and was made Heir-apparent. His mother was accordingly made the Empress. Cheng-chün's father was made a marquis, and her uncle was given an official position. The favoring of relatives (cf. p. 292) is a Confucian moral principle.
Shih(3) Tan frustrates an intrigue to change the Heir-apparent
When the Heir-apparent grew up, he proved generous and respectful, but he gave himself up to drinking, music, and banqueting. His father thereupon concluded that this son was incapable. The Emperor's second son, Liu K'ang(1a), who had been made King of Ting-t'ao, showed much ability and skill, and was beloved by his father, who kept the boy by him. He also highly favored the child's mother, the Brilliant Companion née Fu. In 33 B.C., when Emperor Yüan was seriously ill, this Brilliant Companion and her son were constantly in attendance upon him, while the Empress née Wang and her son did not often see the Emperor. He thought seriously of changing the succession, and several times asked what previous emperors had done when they changed their heirs.
Emperor Yüan had previously appointed, as the protector of his Heir-apparent, Shih(3) Tan, an intimate companion of the Emperor, who was a younger son of the clan to which the Emperor's great-grandmother had belonged. Shih(3) Tan, who was attending upon the Emperor, took the opportunity when the Emperor was alone to speak in behalf of the Heir-apparent. He pointed out that the Heir-apparent had had that position for more than ten years because he was the Emperor's eldest son and had consequently become known to the people and the officials, so that a change in the succession might bring about a rebellion. Emperor Yüan was impressed by this reasoning. He considered that his Empress née Wang had been very respectful and careful and that his Heir-apparent had been loved by Emperor Hsüan, so he did not change the Heir.
The Wang clan controls the government. Their deeds
Just as Emperor Yüan had put his maternal relatives into control of the government, so Emperor Ch'eng promptly put his mother's relatives into the dominating positions. Wang Feng, the eldest brother of his mother, was made Commander-in-chief, General-in-chief, and Intendant of the Affairs of the Masters of Writing and an associate of Hsü Chia, who had been Commander-in-chief and General of Chariots and Cavalry for seven years previously. Hsü Chia was the father of Emperor Ch'eng's first Empress and a maternal uncle of Emperor Yüan. Wang Feng's concurrent titles were higher than those of Hsü Chia, and, in three years, the latter retired because of age, after which Wang Feng alone controlled the government.
The dominating position in the government became again, as previously in the time of Emperors Chao and Hsüan, the Intendant of Affairs of the Masters of Writing. In 29 B.C., the eunuch office of Palace Writer was abolished. As Intendant, Wang Feng could determine what matters came to the attention of the Emperor, who was supposed to ratify all important appointments and enactments. When Wang Shang(1a) (a different person from the Wang Shang(1b), who was a brother of Wang Feng) was Lieutenant Chancellor and accused a Grand Administrator of crime, his memorial was suppressed by Wang Feng, so that nothing could be done. Wang Feng soon had Wang Shang(1a) dismissed (cf. 82: 2a). Emperor Ch'eng was young and deferred to his uncle, who watched over the Emperor's every action. When the famous scholar, Liu Hsin(1a), was first presented to the Emperor, the latter was delighted and wanted to make Liu Hsin(1a) a Regular Palace Attendant. Just as he was about to be installed, one of the Emperor's entourage told the Emperor that he should first consult Wang Feng. Emperor Ch'eng wanted impatiently to proceed with the installation, but Wang Feng's man insisted, and Emperor Ch'eng communicated with Wang Feng. When the latter refused permission, the matter was dropped. Thus Wang Feng dominated the government both through his position and by his ascendency over his imperial nephew. He came to be cordially hated by many in the court.
In order to prevent the domination of the government by a single person, two Intendants of Affairs of the Masters of Writing had been created. Chang Yü(3), a Confucian scholar and Erudit, who had been Emperor Ch'eng's teacher and was later made Lieutenant Chancellor, had been made Intendant along with Wang Feng. The Confucian scholar, however, feared the power of Wang Feng, and several times pronounced himself ill and asked to resign. This permission was refused, and he was not allowed to resign until 20 B.C., when he was retired on account of age. The Confucian could not hold his own against the Emperor's close relative.
Wang Feng's power did not go unchallenged; in 25 B.C., Wang Chang, an outspoken official, in a private audience, took advantage of an eclipse to tell Emperor Ch'eng that special visitations came because of deeds done by high officials, and pointed out Wang Feng's derelictions. But Wang Feng's cousin, Wang Yin, who was concealed and listening to the conversation, reported the matter to Wang Feng. The latter promptly pronounced himself ill, retired to his residence, and asked to retire on account of age. When Emperor Ch'eng's mother heard of it, she wept and refused to eat. Emperor Ch'eng was to kind-hearted to hurt his mother or had become accustomed to be dominated by her; he had also come to rely upon his uncle and found he could not do without him, so he replied that Wang Feng should arise and do his best. Later the latter had a Master of Writing memorialize Wang Chang's offenses; he was sent to prison, where he died, and his family was exiled. Thereafter the power of Wang Feng remained unchallenged. He chose the incumbents of all the positions in the government and filled the bureaucracy with his adherents.
Before Wang Feng died in 22 B.C., Emperor Ch'eng came to see him and promised to make Wang Feng's brother the next Commander-inchief. Wang Feng, however, recommended Wang Yin. The latter was accordingly made Commander-in-chief, General of Chariots and Cavalry, and Intendant of Affairs of the Masters of Writing. Hsieh Hsüan, who later became Lieutenant Chancellor, was also made Intendant.
The Wang clan thus rose from obscurity to the control of the empire because one girl of the clan had happened to give birth to the Emperor. Eight members of the clan had already been made marquises; two more were later also enfeoffed. Members of the clan vied with one another in extravagance. They had several dozen women in their harems, hundreds or thousands of slaves, musicians, singers, dogs, and horses. Their residences were large and contained earthen hills, cave gates, high pavilions, passage-ways, etc. Wang Shang1b, a brother of Wang Feng, borrowed from Emperor Ch'eng the Ming-kuang Palace, north of Ch'ang-lo Palace in Ch'ang-an, in order to live in it to escape the heat of summer. He had the city-wall of Ch'ang-an pierced, in order to let the Feng River into his residence, where he made a large pond. On his boat he had feather coverings and curtains all around; his oarsmen sang songs of Yüeh as they rowed. When Emperor Ch'eng visited Wang Shang's residence and saw the pierced city-wall, he was displeased, but said nothing. Later he saw the earthen hill in the park of Wang Feng's residence, and became angry. These deeds violated imperial prerogatives. He was told that another brother, Wang Li(5), sheltered guests in his house who made a practise of robbery. Emperor Ch'eng reprimanded Wang Yin; the brothers, Wang Shang, Wang Li(5), and Wang Ken, came to the Emperor carrying axes and headsman's blocks on their backs, begging pardon for their crimes. Again the kind-hearted and timid Emperor could not bear to execute them or make them suffer, so they escaped punishment.
When Wang Yin died in 15 B.C., his position was given to Wang Shang(1b), the eldest living brother of Wang Feng. He was made Commander-inchief, General of the Guard, and Intendant of Affairs of the Masters of Writing. When he died in 11 B.C., his next younger brother, Wang Li(5), was in line for the vacancy, but he had committed a crime, so Wang Li(5) was passed over and his next younger brother, Wang Ken, was made Commander-in-chief, General of Agile Cavalry, and Intendant of Affairs of the Masters of Writing. He controlled the government for the next five years.
The rise of Wang Mang
In 7 B.C., Wang Ken retired on account of age. His position was taken by Wang Mang but not without an interval of struggle and intrigue. Wang Ken's sister's son, Shun-Yü Chang, had shown ability and so had been made a marquis and had been elevated to be one of the ministers. He naturally thought that he would succeed Wang Ken, and had even gone so far as to discuss who should be given prominent government positions. But Wang Ken's elder brother's son, Wang Mang (who later usurped the throne), was intensely ambitious and wanted the place. He took care to wait upon Wang Ken in his illness and to find out about Shun-Yü Chang's doings. The latter had many wives and concubines and indulged much in music and women, not restraining himself by the laws. He had taken the widowed sister of the dismissed Empress née Hsü as a concubine, and had received bribes from the dismissed Empress to the value of more than ten million cash, on the promise that he would induce the Emperor to make her the Junior Empress. Wang Mang told Wang Ken about Shun-Yü Chang's deeds, adding that the latter had rejoiced at the illness of Wang Ken, because he expected to succeed the latter in control of the government. Wang Ken became angry and had Wang Mang inform the Empress Dowager née Wang about the matter, who in turn had Wang Mang repeat his information to Emperor Ch'eng. Shun-Yü Chang was dismissed and ordered back to his estate.
As he was leaving, Wang Jung, the heir of Wang Ken's elder brother, Wang Li(5), called upon Shun-Yü Chang, and the latter took the opportunity to send some valuable jewels to Wang Li(5), who accordingly spoke the Emperor Ch'eng in behalf of Shun-Yü Chang. Emperor Ch'eng became suspicious and had the officials investigate. They arrested Wang Jung, and his father made him commit suicide, in order to prevent the government from securing information. Thereupon Emperor Ch'eng became even more suspicious, and had Shun-Yü Chang arrested and tortured. He told about making sport of the dismissed Empress née Hsü and of his promise to her; his crime was adjudged to be treason, and, in 8 B.C., he died in prison. His family was exiled; Wang Li(5) was exiled from the capital to his estate; the dismissed Empress was sent poison; and several dozens of persons were sentenced.
Wang Ken recommended Wang Mang for his position, and in 7 B.C. the latter was made Commander-in-chief and Intendant of Affairs of the Masters of Writing. In five months, Emperor Ch'eng died; three months later Wang Mang resigned to make way for the new Emperor's maternal relatives.
Thus the Wang clan ruled the empire for a quarter-century by virtue of being relatives of the Emperor's mother. She supported them against any threat to displace them, and the weak Emperor was glad to be relieved from the burdens of government. Their conduct is hardly admirable. Wang Feng merely continued the traditions of his predecessors, while Wang Ken was known for his avarice. The quality of the government declined considerably. The Lieutenant Chancellor and Grandee Secretary had become virtual subordinates of the Commanderin-chief.
Imperial economies and grants
A superficial perusal of this "Annals" gives the impression that Emperor Ch'eng's reign was a good one. He had the best of intentions and indeed probably thought of himself as a good ruler. He followed Confucian models and continued his father's practise of instituting economies in the government. Some twenty-five palaces and a prison in Shang-lin Park were abolished (10: 2a, 3a). The imperial carriages and stables were reduced (4a).
The great imperial sacrifices removed to the capital
A great economy was effected in 32 B.C. at the suggestion of the Confucian, K'uang Heng, by moving the imperial sacrifices to the Supreme One, to the Five Lords on High, and to Sovereign Earth, from Kan-ch'üan Palace at Yün-yang (in the present central Shensi), from Fen-yin in Ho-tung Commandery (in the present western Shansi), and from Yung (Feng-hsiang, in the present western Shensi), respectively, to the capital, where places for these sacrifices were established to the south and north of the capital. The practise, which was continued down to Ch'ing times, that the altar for the imperial sacrifices to Heaven and Earth should be at the imperial capital, was thus inaugurated. This change was not, however, made without qualms, especially as at the time of the change, a storm uprooted more than a hundred great trees at the Kan-ch'üan altar. When, in 14 B.C., Emperor Ch'eng was still without an heir, the Empress Dowager restored the imperial sacrifices to their former places, and thereafter Emperor Ch'eng traveled bi-annually to those places to perform the usual sacrifices. Immediately after his death, however, the altars at Ch'ang-an were restored, just as certain imperial ancestral temples, which Emperor Yüan had abolished and restored, were finally abolished when he died.
In addition to these economies, grants of taxes, noble ranks, money, oxen, wine, silk, etc. were made at intervals of every few years; amnesties were granted every two or three years; and approximately every three years the Emperor asked for the recommendation of capable persons for government service. In 18 B.C., a much lower price was put upon noble ranks. In 15 B.C., noble ranks, official positions, and tax remissions were given to those who made large contributions at the time of a famine. When, in 16 B.C., it became apparent that more than four years' work was insufficient to complete a second and grander tomb for the Emperor, this tomb was given up and the Court Architect, who had planned the second tomb, was punished, together with Ch'en T'ang, who had planned to benefit by the real-estate development connected with the second tomb. The imperial edicts show a sincere desire to secure a good and beneficent government and to benefit the people. These edicts, however, had little effect, for the Wang clan, not the Emperor, was selecting the officials, and Emperor Ch'eng did little without the consent of this clan.
Corrupt government brings popular distress and rebellions
The character of the government administration must have declined considerably and official oppression of the people must have increased greatly, for in this reign there occurred a phenomenon that had been absent since the reign of Emperor Wu---several sporadic revolts occurred in various parts of the empire. There were droughts in 31 and 18 B.C. In 29, the Yellow River broke a dike and overflowed 32 prefectures in four commandaries to a depth of thirty feet, because the central government, through false economy, had refused to repair the dike. The dike was immediately mended. There were floods again in 30, 29, 27, 23, and 17 B.C. These, however, do not seem to have been much more than the usual number of such calamities in north China.
Yet in 17 B.C., there were many vagrants and roving people on the roads (p. 10b)---people who had been driven away from their homes for one reason or another---another phenomenon largely absent since the time of Emperor Wu. In 22 B.C., there was an armed rebellion among those sentenced to work as slaves in the government iron works at Ying-ch'uan commandery (in the present central Honan). The rebellion overran nine prefectures. In 17 B.C., there was a similar revolt among the government criminals in Kuang-han Commandery (in the present Szechuan), which lasted for ten months, overran four prefectures, and produced a band said to have numbered ten thousand persons. In the winter of 14/13 B.C., there was a revolt in Ch'en-liu Commandery (the present central Honan), in which the Grand Administrator was killed. Its leader was assassinated by some treacherous followers and the revolt collapsed. The next month, the greatest of these revolts arose among the government slaves in the iron works at Shan-yang Commandery (the present southwestern Shantung). This revolt spread over nineteen commanderies and kingdoms. It was put down in the same year.
Since the officials had almost unchecked power over the people, unless the Emperor took the trouble to consider the people's petitions, a set of corrupt officials could easily tyrannize and oppress the common people, until rebellion became a welcome relief from suffering. Those sentenced to penal servitude would naturally be treated the worst, and hence would be the first to rebel. In this reign, as in that of Emperor Wu, official oppression, caused by imperial negligence in the oversight of the bureaucracy and consequent official corruption and oppression, brought about bitter suffering on the part of the common people in the provinces and consequent revolts.
Divine visitations and prodigies
This reign is unique in the number of visitations and prodigies recorded. Fires, comets, eclipses, fogs, flies, droughts, floods, earthquakes, avalanches, murders, meteors, and thunders dot the pages of this chapter, few years being without several visitations. The recording of these portents is undoubtedly due to the increasing acceptance of Han Confucianism by intelligent people, with its doctrine that Heaven, as the state god, is interested in state happenings and consequently sends visitations (tsai) as warnings whenever anything wrong is allowed to occur, following them by prodigies (yi), if the warnings were not heeded. As a natural consequence, people looked for portents whenever things began to go wrong, and found a portent in any strange event. The reporting of portents was thus a means of criticizing the government---one which could hardly be punished or stopped, since portents were supposed to be sent by Heaven, not by men. Ever since the time of Emperor Wu, criticism of the government had been more or less repressed and ofttimes punished; the reporting of portents thus became a safe outlet for peoples' feelings. It is furthermore probable that most, if not all, of these portents were reported by the people to the high officials, such as Commandery Grand Administrators, and memorialized to the throne by the latter, since, except for those persons who could go to the imperial palace in person, ordinary people could not petition the emperor. Thus the large number of portents in this reign is an indication of the reaction by the people, and especially by the higher officials, to the character of the central government.
There were several systems of portent-interpretation; they are summarized in the "Treatise on the Five Elements," ch. 27, of which W. Eberhard has made a study in his "Beiträge zur kosmologischen Spekulation der Chinesen der Han-Zeit" (Baessler-Archiv, B. 16, H. 1-2). Since, however, portents were merely strange chance events and could not be fabricated to fit the situation, due to the danger of detection and punishment, and since they had to be interpreted to fit the actual evils of the time, no system of portent-interpretation could fit all cases; we find diverse interpretations for the same portent from different authorities and for the same sort of event at different times. It is therefore not surprising that Pan Ku, after a long discussion of portents, should have concluded that they are "obscure, profound, dark, and impenetrable." (HS 100 A: 16a). In his "Memoirs," he records many instances in which an interpretation of a portent produced a correct prophecy of the future, but he characteristically also records instances in which reliance upon portents led to error and calamity. The interpretation of portents was thus, even in Han times, a pseudo-science not wholeheartedly accepted by the best minds.
Emperor Ch'eng was usually affected by these portents; his edicts testify to his acceptance of the Confucian doctrine that they are warnings sent by Heaven to the ruler. Sometimes, however, he was not so sure of their meaning. In 16 B.C., after an eclipse of the sun and several earthquakes, people memorialized that these portents came because of the Wang clan. But the aged Confucian scholar, Chang Yü(3), told Emperor Ch'eng that it is very difficult to know the causes of portents and that Confucius rarely spoke of strange events or of supernatural beings, so that the Emperor should not pay attention to the sayings of ignorant Confucians and should pay attention to the government. Emperor Ch'eng was glad to have his cherished relatives thus exonerated. On the other hand, when, in 7 B.C., a strange appearance among the stars, an avalanche, and an earthquake were all blamed upon the highest official in the government, Emperor Ch'eng had this exacting and cruel Confucian Lieutenant Chancellor, Chai Fang-chin, commit suicide, saying that these signs showed he had not done his duty. Thus the Confucian doctrine could be used upon a Confucian official who had made use of portents in his criticism of others.
The status of Confucianism
During this reign, Confucianism reigned supreme as the official philosophy and religion. The famous Liu Hsiang(4) was given the task of making a catalogue of the Imperial Private Library, the greatest library in the empire, in the course of which he prepared and published standard editions of some important books. He did this, for example, with the works of the great philosopher, Hsün-tzu. An Internuncio was sent about the empire to seek for lost books, and the `ancient text' classics and explanations probably entered the Imperial Private Library at this time (cf. p. 5b, 6a, n. 6.1). Pan Yu, a great-uncle of Pan Ku, assisted Liu Hsiang4 in this undertaking and read much aloud to the Emperor (100 A: 4b). The results of this cataloguing are to be found in the "Treatise on Arts and Literature" (HS ch. 30).
Emperor Ch'eng's personal character
In his personal character, Emperor Ch'eng was dignified, kindly, affectionate, gentle, and docile. In the spirit of "yielding to others," he allowed his mother and uncles to control the government; his kindliness and timidity prevented him from punishing their derelictions. He became a heavy drinker and spent much time in banqueting, drinking, watching dances, and other forms of sport. In the earlier part of his reign, Emperor Ch'eng was inclined to the study of the classics, and had two Confucian authorities, Chen K'uan-chung and Chang Yü(3), expound the classics in a hall at the palace. Certain of the imperial attendants, such as Pan Po, another great-uncle of Pan Ku, were ordered also to study with these scholars. This amusement, however, palled upon the Emperor after some years, and he stopped studying.
In 20 B.C., a favorite nobleman, Chang Fang, whose mother was the Emperor's aunt and who had married a sister of the Empress née Hsü, invented a new amusement---Emperor Ch'eng went out incognito, like a mere noble, with a following consisting of only a dozen persons, calling himself a member of Chang Fang's household. He thus attended cockfights and horse-races. The Emperor's mother became worried, and at last made him send Chang Fang away to the border, urging her son to associate more with Confucians like Pan Po, who warned against intoxication. Emperor Ch'eng then revived his love for learning. He remained, however, the dilettante, seeking amusement in Confucian studies just as he had in horse-racing.
Lack of an heir induces the Emperor to change his Empress and distribute his favors
The events that throw the most light upon the age, upon conditions within the forbidden apartments of the imperial palace, and upon Emperor Ch'eng's character are connected with his doing away of his two natural sons for the love of a woman, so that he was left without a natural heir. Such a deed would seem almost unbelievable, but, after his sudden death, an industrious Director of the Retainers, whose duty it was to investigate the actions of the officials at the capital, ferreted out the facts and memorialized the depositions of eye-witnesses: certain eunuchs, slave-women in the imperial palace, and chamberlains to the Brilliant Companion née Chao. This sensational memorial is quoted in the "Memoir of the Imperial Relatives by Marriage."
Emperor Yüan's mother had been assassinated soon after the birth of her first child and Emperor Yüan sorrowed at that fact. Hence he selected the daughter of her first cousin to be the consort of his Heir-apparent. This girl later became the Empress née Hsü. She was intelligent and accomplished and good at the clerkly style of writing. When she was married, the future Emperor Ch'eng was delighted with her, which overjoyed his father. From the time that she was married until Emperor Ch'eng ascended the throne, she was continually favored by the Heir-apparent, and he rarely approached his concubines. But her children all died in infancy. She had a son who died young; after her husband ascended the throne, she bore him a daughter, but this babe died also.
One of the prime duties of a filial son, especially of an emperor, according to Confucian teaching, is to have a son. The Emperor's mother and her clan were worried at the lack of an heir, for, if another line came to the throne, their power would be gone. The Confucian explainers of visitations, especially the famous Liu Hsiang(4) and Ku Yung, blamed the visitations upon the imperial harem. Thus the Emperor's conscience, his mother and relatives, and outstanding Confucians combined to urge him to cease favoring only his beloved wife. In economizing government expenses, he reduced the allowance for the Empress's apartments and for the harem. The sensitive Empress protested, and Emperor Ch'eng replied, citing the portents alleged to have been directed against her. Thus a coolness developed.
The Emperor's first new favorite was a great-aunt of Pan Ku, a well-educated woman who understood the Odes and the admonitory writings for women. She had been selected for the imperial harem when he first ascended the throne. She first became a Junior Maid, the eleventh rank among the imperial concubines, but in a little while the Emperor took quite a fancy to her and made her a Favorite Beauty, the second rank. She was installed in the Residence of Increasing Perfection, the third hall in the imperial harem. She remained his prime favorite for some years, and bore him two children, one of whom was a boy, who died when a few months old. Once when the Emperor was going on an excursion to a country lodge, he wanted this Favorite Beauty née Pan to ride in the same chariot with him, but she refused, saying that according to the histories, sage princes always kept famous subjects by their sides; only decadent princes spent most of their time with concubines. Emperor Ch'eng approved highly of her reply; it also commended her to the Empress Dowager.
After 20 B.C., Emperor Ch'eng planned to spread his favors among many concubines in order to secure an heir, and so the Favorite Beauty née Pan introduced to him a maid of hers, Li P'ing. This girl was also favored and made a Favorite Beauty. She had risen from humble station, and so Emperor Ch'eng gave her the surname Wei, in memory of Emperor Wu's famous Empress née Wei, who likewise rose from humble people. Through his evil precedents, such as his selection of a singing girl to be his Empress and his bestowal of high positions upon relatives, Emperior Wu ultimately ruined his dynasty.
About this time, when Emperor Ch'eng was one day traveling incognito, he passed by the residence of the Imperial Princess of Yang-o. The Princess had music performed for him. (The ancient `music' included dancing.) There he first saw the later famous beauty, Chao Fei-yen. This girl had originally been a Palace Maid, one of a class of slave-girls, aged seven and over, who were reared in the imperial palaces to work there. She came from a very humble family, which was so poor that when she was born, the family decided to abandon her. But the babe was still alive on the third day, so she was reared. When she was grown, she was put into the household of the Princess of Yang-o, and studied singing and dancing, so that she came to be called Fei-yen, lit., "flying swallow." When Emperor Ch'eng saw this girl dance, he was delighted with her and summoned her to his harem, where she became his prime favorite. She had a younger sister, who was then also summoned and favored. Both sisters were made Favorite Beauties.
The Empress née Hsü had now lost the Emperor's favor, and naturally tried every means of regaining it and of securing an heir. Her widowed sister performed magical rites to attract the Emperor to the Empress and to injure his concubines who were with child, especially a Beauty née Wang, who was pregnant, and also to injure the Wang clan, which the sisters regarded as having been responsible for the portents that had caused the Emperor to turn away from the Empress. In 18 B.C., Chao Fei-yen accused the Empress of having performed magical rites and of having even pronounced imprecations against the Emperor. The Empress Dowager née Wang was infuriated that a girl of her own clan should have been injured; her eldest brother, Wang Feng, had died just a few years previously, and now black magic was probably suspected to have caused his death. The accused ladies were examined; the Empress's sister and a few others were executed. The Empress was herself probably guiltless, for she was merely dismissed and sent to live in a separate palace. Her relatives, the Hsü clan, were all banished from the capital.
Chao Fei-yen had also accused the Favorite Beauty née Pan, but the latter replied that life and death are fated; wealth and honor are bestowed by Heaven. She said she had lived an upright life but had not yet been blessed with the greatest happiness (a living imperial son). If now she had done evil and tried to get the spirits and gods to aid her, if they had knowledge of human activities, how could she hope not to be accused by them of disloyalty to her lord; whereas if they had no knowledge, what good would it have done her to appeal to them? Hence she said she had not participated in any magical rites. Emperor Ch'eng was so delighted with her reply that he gave her a hundred catties of actual gold.
It is noteworthy that there were no such general excitement and wholesale executions at this time as in the time of the black magic and witchcraft case near the end of Emperor Wu's reign. The difference is probably due to the increased influence of Confucianism (which was sceptical of magic and spirits), and to the higher degree of civilization then attained in court circles. The reply of the Favorite Beauty née Pan, who came of a highly educated family, indicates the attitude of the best people at this time.
The Favorite Beauty nevertheless saw that eventually she might be injured by the clever Fei-yen, so she asked for permission to withdraw from the harem and devote herself to caring for the Empress Dowager. Her request was granted, and she retired from the intrigues of the court.
Emperor Ch'eng's infatuation with the clever singer and dancer continued, and he now wanted to make her his Empress. But his mother made difficulties, for she resented that this girl had come from such humble circumstances. Emperor Ch'eng, however, had his boon companion, who was also his mother's nephew, Shun-Yü Chang, smooth matters over, and finally secured his mother's consent. At last, in 16 B.C., Fei-yen was made Empress and her father was made a marquis.
Emperor Ch'eng's infanticide of his two sons for love of the Brilliant Companion née Chao
After her elevation, Emperor Ch'eng gradually lost interest in her, and came to favor her younger sister more than anyone else. This latter girl was made a Brilliant Companion (the highest rank among the imperial concubines) and was installed in the Sun-bright Residence, the first of the eight halls in the imperial harem. Her residence was painted and adorned with gold and jewels as no place in the harem had ever before been decorated. She retained Emperor Ch'eng's favor until his death, and he promised her never to be faithless to her.
The philandering Emperor's attention could not, however, be kept from wandering. In 12 B.C., an educated slave-girl, Ts'ao Kung, became pregnant. She had been employed to teach the difficult Book of Odes to the Empress, Chao Fei-yen. This girl told her mother, who was also a government slave in the palace, that she was with child by the Emperor. In due time, she bore a son on whose forehead there were stubborn hairs like those of Emperor Yüan. This child constituted a great danger for the Empress and the Brilliant Companion née Chao, for neither sister had any children. If this child became the Heir-apparent, his mother would be made Empress and the Chao sisters would lose their influence.
Within a few days, a eunuch came to the Assistant at the harem prison (who testified later to what he had done), bringing an imperial edict ordering that Ts'ao Kung, her child, and her six slaves should be taken to the palace prison, and that no one should even ask the sex of the child or who was its father. The third day after, another edict was brought to the Assistant, asking whether the infant was dead yet. A little later the messenger returned, saying that the Brilliant Companion and the Emperor were very angry, and asking the Assistant why he did not kill the babe. He replied that whether he did or did not kill the child, he would have to die, so he wrote the Emperor a memorial saying that it did not matter by whom the Emperor's heir was born. When the messenger brought the Emperor this reply, the latter merely looked at the messenger fixedly. That night the Assistant was brought an order to give the child to another eunuch, who was ordered to select a wet-nurse for the babe, and not to allow the matter to leak out. The child was then seven or eight days old. The third day after, another edict was brought to the Assistant, together with a small sealed box and an order that he must himself give its contents to the woman and that she must drink it. In it were two packages of drugs and a little written message from Emperor Ch'eng, "I am commanding you, Wei-neng [the `style' of Ts'ao Kung], to try hard to drink this medicine. You cannot again enter Our presence, which you yourself know." After protesting in vain and lamenting that she had no means of giving information about her newly born son to the Emperor's mother, who would probably have saved the babe, Ts'ao Kung drank the poison. Her slaves were summoned by the Brilliant Companion née Chao and were made to strangle themselves. The wet-nurse cared for the babe to its eleventh day, when a eunuch came with an imperial edict to take it away, and it disappeared. Such was the penalty of successfully attracting a philandering Emperor whose favorite was a determined woman. It is not difficult to imagine what happened between the Emperor and his Brilliant Companion.
Emperor Ch'eng loved hunting and similar amusements, so did not remain continually in Wei-yang Palace. At the large Shang-lin Park, some miles west of Ch'ang-an, some imperial concubines were kept at the Lodge for Wetting and Bathing the Hair. In 11 B.C., a certain Beauty née Hsü was summoned to the Ornamented House in that Lodge, conceived, and in due time gave birth to a boy. Among the fourteen ranks of imperial concubines, the Beauties ranked fifth, so that this child could not be disposed of as easily as the child of a mere slave.
To prove his sincerity, Emperor Ch'eng in person brought the news of the child's birth to the Brilliant Companion née Chao. She reproached him with unfaithfulness to her and her sister. A eunuch later testified that he overheard her say to the Emperor, "You are always deceiving me. You said that you came from the Empress; if you have been coming from the Empress, how has it come about that the Beauty née Hsü should have had a son? Must an Empress née Hsü be again set up?" In her desperation, she struck herself with her fists, beat her head against the wall and doorposts, and threw herself down to the ground from her bed. She wept and declared she would not eat, saying, "Where will you now put me? I want to go home."
Emperor Ch'eng replied that he had purposely told her about the birth in order to prove his own sincerity and faithfulness to her, for she could not otherwise have known about the child being born in a lodge outside the capital. He evidently considered that occasional attentions to other concubines outside of the Palace did not constitute unfaithfulness to his favorite. In order to convince her, Emperor Ch'eng likewise refused to eat. Finally the Brilliant Companion said, "If your Majesty thinks that you are right, why do you not eat? Your Majesty constantly said to me, `I promise not to turn my back upon you.' But now that this Beauty had a child, you will eventually turn you back upon your promise. What do you mean to do?"
Emperor Ch'eng replied, "I promise that for the sake of the ladies née Chao I will not set up the Beauty née Hsü as the Empress, and I will bring it about that nobody in the world surpasses the ladies née Chao. Do not be worried."
Later the Emperor and the Brilliant Companion went to this Lodge in Shang-lin Park. A eunuch afterwards testified that he was ordered to take a green sack containing a letter to the Beauty née Hsü. He was told, "The Beauty will have something to give to you. Bring it and put it in the Ornamented House south of the curtain." She took her babe and put it into a reed basket, sealed it, and gave it with a written reply to the eunuch. He took them, and placed them where he had been directed, then left. The Emperor and the Brilliant Companion seated themselves in this room, and the Emperor ordered one of his companion's chamberlains, who later testified to the occurrence, to open the basket. Before the sealed knot had been opened, the Emperor ordered all the three chamberlains out of the room. He himself closed the door and remained alone with the Brilliant Companion. In a moment he opened the door and called them back, ordering them to take the sealed basket to the Assistant at the harem prison. They were told that in the basket there was a dead child and that he should bury it near the gate and should let no one know of it. He buried it below the wall of the prison. Thus Emperor Ch'eng himself disposed of his only sons.
It was then an ancient custom, even in the noblest houses, that when a male or female babe was born, it was laid upon a couch or on the ground; if the head of the family did not pick it up, the babe was not reared. Emperor Ch'eng was thus quite within his rights in disposing of his own sons. Yet when, several months after Emperor Ch'eng's successor had ascended the throne, this infanticide became known, it caused a very great stir. There indeed grew up a general feeling that Emperor Ch'eng had acted contrary to the will of Heaven in destroying his sons, and that the Han dynasty had lost the mandate of Heaven. The troubled economic condition of the country aided in spreading this feeling, and in the next reign, prophets appeared with recipes for renewing the lost Mandate of Heaven (cf. Glossary, sub Hsia Ho-liang). Wang Mang later took advantage of this feeling to usurp the throne. Although the Empress née Chao and her sister, the Brilliant Companion, had assisted Emperor Ai to the throne, when the fact became known that the Brilliant Companion had been responsible for these infanticides, even though the Brilliant Companion was already dead, Emperor Ai dismissed her brother and nephew from their marquisates, made them commoners, and exiled them together with their families. Because of his debt to the Empress nee Chao, Emperor Ai did not push the matter further.
Public opinion did not, however, unanimously condemn the infanticide; one Grandee-remonstrant (whose office corresponded to the Ch'ing dynasty's Censors) memorialized that the matter was not serious, for the Emperor had himself had his own children killed. Some intelligent people thus justified Emperor Ch'eng's action. Immediately after the death of Emperor Ai in 1 B.C., when the Wang clan again came into power, the Empress née Chao was, however, degraded and exiled to another palace; a few months later she was dismissed and made a commoner, whereupon she committed suicide. Thus died a famous Chinese beauty.
The appointment of an Heir-apparent and the Emperor's death
It remains to speak of the succession to the throne and of Emperor Ch'eng's death. When Emperor Ch'eng remained without heirs, his first cousin, Liu Hsin(5), the son of the Liu K'ang whom Emperor Yüan had once planned to make his heir, came to pay court to Emperor Ch'eng a few years before the latter's death. Liu Hsin(5)'s grandmother, the Brilliant Companion née Fu, secretly bribed Chao Fei-yen and the latter's sister, the Brilliant Companion nee Chao, together with others, so that in 8 B.C., Liu Hsin(5) was finally made the Heir-apparent. Four months later Emperor Ch'eng died quite suddenly. He had not been ill. On the night of April 16, 7 B.C., he slept in the White Tiger Hall. It had been arranged that the next morning two vassal kings were to take their leave and on that day K'ung Kuang was to be installed as Lieutenant Chancellor. His seal and charter had already been prepared. In the evening, Emperor Ch'eng was well; towards the next dawn, he tried to arise with his trousers and stockings on, but dropped his clothes and could not speak. In the morning, when the clepsydra marked the tenth division, he died. The people blamed the Brilliant Companion. The Empress Dowager had the officials investigate what had happened in the harem that the Emperor should have become ill, and the Brilliant Companion committed suicide. It was, of course, suspected that the Emperor had been poisoned; it is however quite possible that he died of apoplexy. He was in his forty-fifth year of age. So ended the reign of a loving and kindly playboy, who was forced to choose between his heir and his childless beloved, and chose the latter.
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|Published by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia|