Teaching Module

Ancient China

Biography of Empress Deng [Literary Excerpt]


This biography details the childhood of Empress Deng of the Later Han dynasty. Here she is noted for her precocious intelligence, beauty, and filial piety. She was named empress to Emperor He in 102 CE. The emperor died four years later and Empress Deng served as virtual regent for one infant emperor who died in 106 CE. She dominated the government through the reign of another boy who came to the throne at age twelve and even after he had come of age in 109 CE. Her biographer relates the omens to similar signs that presaged the reigns of sage kings of antiquity in order to justify her unusual non-conformance to traditional gender roles. The narrative also tries to naturalize her active political involvement by suggesting that it was a Heavenly reward bestowed on her through the merit of her male relatives. Her filial piety is noted through her forbearance of her grandmother's painful haircut and her deep mourning for her father.

It is important to note that the relationship between actual children and the virtue of filial piety is not as clear as it might seem. Throughout the Han dynasty, the concept of filial piety was primarily associated with the duties and attitudes of adult offspring toward their parents. This is not to say that young children were not expected to obey and revere their parents. Children were clearly taught about filial piety, but they were normally not in a position to practice it. What is emphasized in the concept of xiao: that offspring cheerfully provide financial support to aged parents, produce offspring to carry on ancestral sacrifices, and preserve and bring honors (through public recognition) to the good name of the family--duties small children normally cannot perform.


Hou Han shu. 10B [the Biographies of the Empresses]. Translated by Anne Kinney. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1965, 418-30. Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

Empress Deng (81-121 CE), who had the personal name of Sui, was the granddaughter of the Grand Tutor Deng Yu. Her father, Shun, was governor of the protectorate over the Qiang people; her mother, Yin Shi, was the daughter of a younger cousin of Empress Guanglie. When the Empress Deng was five years old, her paternal grandmother, being fond of her, cut the child's hair. The grandmother was old, and because of poor eyesight she wounded the forehead of the empress, who suffered the pain without a word. Those near her seeing this wondered at it and questioned her. The empress answered, "It is not that it did not hurt. Grandmother loves to cut my hair. As it is hard to wound an old person's feelings, so I bore the pain." At six years of age the empress was able to read the Historical Reader; at twelve she recited the Book of Poetry and the Confucian Analects. Whenever her elder brothers studied the classics or history, she would interrupt by asking difficult questions. Her interest was in ancient books and records, and she never paid any attention to home duties. Her mother often scolded her, saying, "You do not learn needle-work with which you may make garments; instead you set your heart on studies, don't you? Are you hoping to win a post at the Imperial Academy?” The empress repeatedly disobeyed her mother, performing women's tasks during the day but studying the classics at night. Her family gave her the nickname, "The Student," while her father marveled at her and consulted her in all things.

In the fourth year of the Yungyuan period, (92 CE), she should have entered the group to be admitted to the women's apartments of the palace, but her father died. Day and night the empress wept bitterly; for three years she would not take any salt in her food. Her deep grief destroyed her looks; her relatives did not recognize her. During this time she dreamt of touching the heavens, vast and clear, as if in the form of a stalactite, and lifting her head, she drank from it. When she inquired of an interpreter of dreams, he said that the sage-king Yao dreamt of grasping and ascending the heavens. The dynastic-founder Tang dreamt that he reached up to heaven and licked it. These are all signs of Sage Kings, whose auspicious omens are beyond description. A physiognomist upon seeing the future empress was startled and said, "Here is the likeness of the founder Tang."1 Her family privately rejoiced, but did not dare to spread these prognostications abroad. The empress' uncle, her father's younger brother Gai, said, "It is often heard that he who saves the lives of a thousand persons shall have descendants honored with ranks of nobility, and my elder brother Shun (the empress' father) is such a recipient because in his commission to repair Shiqiu River he saved in a year the lives of several thousand persons. The way of Heaven may be trusted; it is certain that his family will be rewarded with blessings! In former days the Grand Tutor Yu once remarked, 'I, a leader of a million troops, never once killed a single man uselessly.' Among his descendants there must be one who will be ennobled."

In 95 CE the future empress again was chosen, together with others, to enter the palace. She was five feet and five inches tall, beautiful in manner and figure, so entirely different from ordinary young women that all those around her were startled. In 96 CE, in the winter, at the age of sixteen she was made an honorable lady of the court. She was reverent, solemn and cautious. Her manner was measured and correct. She served Empress Yin deferentially, at all times terrified and trembling. In dealing with those of her own rank, she invariably deferred to others. She was kind, generous, and polite even to the palace attendants, servants, and slaves. The emperor delighted in her greatly.

1 A physiognomist is a fortune teller who predicts fate based on a person's physical features.

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).