The Empress Poisoner of China
About two centuries before Christ a woman came to the head of affairs in China whose deeds recall the worst of those which have long added infamy to the name of Lucretia Borgia. As regards the daughter of the Borgias tradition has lied: she was not the merciless murderess of fancy and fame. But there is no mitigation to the story of the empress Liuchi, who, with poison as her weapon, made herself supreme dictator of the great Chinese realm.
The death of the great emperor Kaotsou left two aspirants for the throne, the princes Hoeiti, son of Liuchi, and Chow Wang, son of the empress Tsi. There was a palace plot to raise Chow Wang to the throne, but it was quickly foiled by the effective means used by the ambitious Liuchi to remove the rivals from the path of her son. Poison did the work. The empress Tsi unsuspiciously quaffed the fatal bowl, which was then sent to Chow Wang, who innocently drank the same perilous draught. Whatever may have been the state of the conspiracy, this vigorous method of the queen-mother brought it to a sudden end, and Hoeiti ascended the throne.
The young emperor seemingly did not approve of ascending to power over the dead bodies of his opponents. He reproved his mother for her cruel deed, and made a public statement that he had taken no part in the act. Yet under this public demonstration secret influences seem to have been at work within the palace walls, for the imperial poisoner retained her power at court and her influence over her son. When the great princes sought the capital to render homage to the new emperor, to their surprise and chagrin they found the unscrupulous dowager empress at the head of affairs, the sceptre of the realm practically in her hands.
They were to find that this dreadful woman was a dangerous foe to oppose. Among the potentates was Tao Wang, Prince of Tsi, who, after doing homage to the young emperor, was invited to feast with him. At this banquet Liuchi made her appearance, and when the wine was passed she insisted on being served first. These unpardonable breaches of etiquette—which they were in the Chinese code of good manners—were looked upon with astonishment by the visiting prince, who made no effort to conceal his displeasure on seeing any one attempt to drink before the emperor.
Liuchi, perceiving that she had made an enemy by her act, at once resolved to remove him from her path, with the relentless and terrible decision with which she had disposed of her former rivals. Covertly dropping the poison, which she seems to have always had ready for use, into a goblet of wine, she presented it to the prince of Tsi, asking him to pledge her in a draught. The unsuspicious guest took the goblet from her hand, without a dream of what the courtesy meant.
Fortunately for him, the emperor, who distrusted his mother too deeply to leave her unobserved, had seen her secret act and knew too well what it meant. Snatching the fatal bowl from the prince's hand, he begged permission to pledge his health in that wine, and, with his eyes fixed meaningly on his mother's face, lifted it in turn to his royal lips.
The startled woman had viewed the act with wide eyes and trembling limbs. Seeing her son apparently on the point of drinking, an involuntary cry of warning burst from her, and, springing hastily to her feet, she snatched the fatal cup from his hand and dashed it to the floor. The secret was revealed. The prince of Tsi had been on the very point of death. With an exclamation of horror, and a keen invective addressed to the murderess, he rushed from that perilous room, and very probably was not long in hastening from a city which held so powerful and unscrupulous a foe.
The Chinese Borgia's next act of violence found a barbarian for its victim. The Tartar chief Mehe sent an envoy to the capital of China, with a message which aroused the anger of the empress, who at once ordered him to be executed, heedless of the fact that she thus brought the nation to the brink of war. Four years afterwards Hoeiti, the emperor, died, leaving vacant the throne which he had so feebly filled.
It is not to be supposed that Liuchi had any hand in this closing of a brief and uneventful reign. Her son was in no sense in her way, a useful shield behind which she held the reins of government. But she was in no haste to fill the vacant throne, preferring to rule openly as the supreme power in the realm. In order to consolidate her strength, she placed her brothers and near relations in the great posts of the empire, and strengthened her position by every means fair and foul.
It soon became evident, however, that this ambitious scheme could not be carried through. Throughout the land went up a cry for a successor to the dead emperor. In this dilemma the daring woman adopted a bold plan, bringing forward a boy who she declared was the offspring of her dead son, and placing this child of unknown parents upon the vacant throne. As a regent was needed during the minority of her counterfeit grandson, she had herself proclaimed as the holder of this high office.
All this was very little to the taste of the ministers of the late emperor. Never before had the government of China been in the hands of a woman. But they dared not make an effort to change it, or even to speak their sentiments in too loud a tone. Liuchi had ways of suppressing discontent that forced her enemies to hold their peace. The only one who ventured to question the arbitrary will of the regent was the mother of the nominal emperor, and sudden death removed her from the scene. Liuchi's ready means of vengeance had been brought into play again.
For years now the imperious empress ruled China unquestioned. Others who ventured on her path may have fallen, but the people remained content, so that the usurper seems to have avoided any oppression of her subjects. But these years brought the child she had placed on the throne well on towards man's estate, and he began to show signs of an intention to break loose from leading-strings. He was possessed of ability, or at least of energy, and there were those ready to whisper in his ear the bitter tale of how his mother had been forced to swallow Liu-chi's draught of death.
Stirred to grief and rage by these whispers of a fell deed, the youthful ruler vowed revenge upon the murderess. He vowed his own death in doing so. His hasty words were carried by spies to Liuchi's ears, and with her usual promptness she caused the imprudent youth to be seized and confined within the palace prison. The puppet under whom she ruled had proved inconvenient, and there was not a moment's hesitation in putting him out of the way. What became of him is not known, the prison rarely revealing its secrets, but from Liuchi's character we may safely surmise his fate.
The regent at once set to work to choose a more pliant successor to her rebellious tool. But her cup of crime was nearly full. Though the people remained silent, there was deep discontent among the officials of the realm, while the nobles were fiercely indignant at this virtual seizure of the throne by an ambitious woman. The storm grew day by day. One great chief boldly declared that he acknowledged "neither empress nor emperor," and the family of the late monarch Kaotsou regained their long-lost courage on perceiving these evidences of a spirit of revolt.
Dangers were gathering around the resolute regent. But her party was strong, her hand firm, her courage and energy great, and she would perhaps have triumphed over all her foes had not the problem been unexpectedly solved by her sudden death. The story goes that, while walking one day in the palace halls, meditating upon the best means of meeting and defeating her numerous foes, she found herself suddenly face to face with a hideous spectre, around which rose the shades of the victims whom she had removed by poison or violence from her path. With a spasm of terror the horrified woman fell and died. Conscience had smitten her in the form of this terrific vision, and retribution came to the poisoner in the halls which she had made infamous by her crimes.
Her death ended the hopes of her friends. Her party fell to pieces throughout the realm, but a strong force still held the palace, where they fiercely defended themselves against the army brought by their foes. But their great empress leader was gone, one by one they fell in vain defence, and the capture of the palace put an end to the power which the woman usurper had so long and vigorously maintained.