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Empress Deng: A Just and Capable Ruler in Second Century China

In my search for women to write back into history…I’ve discovered three (so far) in The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the Revolutionary Invention, by Alexander Monro.

Monroe is suggesting that the inventor of paper was a Chinese second-century government official named Cai Lun. While Cai is “traditionally credited with inventing paper in A.D. 105… papermaking is in fact at least three centuries older than this, but it was nevertheless Cai who refined paper for more widespread use and who first appreciated the enormous choice of possible ingredients.” However, it was the Empress Deng who rose “up like a conductor and signaled the launch of Cai’s carefully honed substance across China, in a quest to harmonize the country to this new medium.” [Page 13]

“Deng Sui was the granddaughter of a Han prime minister. (Sometimes translated as Chancellor, this was the highest administrative post and involved setting the government budget.) She was born in 81 in Nanyang in the cattle country of the near North. By the age of six she knew Confucius’s Book of Documents and at 12 she had read the Classic of Poetry and the Analects, according to her official biography. When Deng’s mother complained that she did no housework, the young girl used her nights to study instead, and became known as ‘the scholar’. Deng’s father realized she was far more able than any of her brothers, and he often discussed business with her… In 95, she joined the Imperial harem as one of its best-looking women. Enthusiastic historians wrote that Deng was 7 feet two, that she was courteous and modest and that she dressed plainly for banquets. She fascinated Emperor He too.

"When the Empress died in 102, Deng was chosen to take over as leading lady of the Empire. In 106, while China was in the midst of a financial crisis, the Emperor died and Deng took his place; she ruled the Empire for the next decade and a half with conspicuous competence. (Female supreme rulers were a rarity in Imperial China.)

"Twice she opened the imperial granaries to feed the hungry; she repaired waterways and cut court ritual and banquets. She ate only one meal a day, reduced the fodder for the imperial horses, slashed marquisate revenues (the income landlords received from the land they rented out), cut manufacturing and sold offices and titles. She dealt with serious rebellions in the West and South, as well as crippling floods, droughts and hailstorms in several parts of the empire.

"She possessed an exceptional aptitude for the stratagems of territorial politics too, but her legacy was, above all, in the arts. She remained bookish throughout and opposed the tired formulas of official teaching. She created new positions for scholars with high values… Even as Empress, she maintained her interest in classics, history, math and astronomy. She even called 70 members of the Deng and Imperial families to study the classics together and oversaw their examinations herself. One of the major projects sponsored during her rule was the standardization of the five classics, and she chose Cai Lun to supervise proceedings in the imperial library, situated in the eastern Pavilion of the Imperial Palace.

“.… Deng refused all tributes from abroad. Instead she insisted on receiving annual gifts of paper and ink… Following his success, Deng promoted ‘the paper of Master Cai’ at court, which marked paper's first appearance at the highest levels of the Empire; it had previously been viewed as beneath the elite.

"Deng died in 121, the same year that Cai’s paper received official sanction… Following her death, Deng’s enemies at court hounded her family and household with accusations of treason, and they ordered Cai to report to the Minister of Justice. He bathed, put on his robes of state, and drank poison. Cai’s legacy was a new kind of paper, made from plants that grew rapidly and spanned much of China. Through the rest of the second century A.D., paper gained in quality and dropped in price, becoming widespread for the first time thanks to Cai’s craftsmanship and Deng’s foresight.” [Pg. 59-61]

Another woman in the story of paper who is often overlooked is Fu Nu, the “scholar-daughter” [page 43] of Fu Sheng, devotee of the Book of Documents which was a tremendously important Confucian classic in China. Fu Sheng was a scholar at a time when the Emperor declared that anyone who discussed the Confucian classics should “suffer execution and his corpse should be put on show by way of warning. Anyone who used the past to criticize the present should be killed with his family.… As the campaign to burn the books and killed the scholars took hold, Fu blinded himself, feigned madness and probably fled from home. When the old learning was revived under the Qin’s successor dynasty, the Han Emperor when sent a scribe to visit the aged scholar.” Fu dictated the Book of Documents from memory and his daughter translated his dialect into Mandarin for a scribe. [42 – 43]

Also mentioned is the book The History of the Han Dynasty “which is among Imperial China’s best-loved official histories, written by Ban Gu and his sister, Ban Zhao.” [pg. 43]


I'm looking forward to seeing what other women might be in this book. And I will definitely be altering the Wikipedia page on Empress Deng, as it is very sparse in describing her important achievements and is a little heavy on the jealousy between women in court.

From: The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the Revolutionary Invention, by Alexander Monro. (Borzoi Books, an imprint of Knopf) 2014

#EmpressDeng, #AlexanderMonro, #womeninhistory, #historyofChina