Royal Family, Regents, Nobles, and EunuchsFurther information: Government of the Han Dynasty and History of the Han Dynasty
At the apex of Han society was the emperor, a member of the Liu family and thus a descendant of the founder Emperor Gaozu (r. 202 –195 BCE). His subjects were not allowed to address him by name; instead they used indirect references such as "under the steps to the throne" (bixia 陛下) or "superior one" (shang 上). If a commoner, government minister, or noble entered the palace without official permission, the punishment was execution. Although the Commandant of Justice—one of the central government's Nine Ministers—was in charge of meting out sentences in court cases, the emperor not only had the ability to override the Commandant's decision, but also had the sole ability to draft new laws or repeal old ones. An emperor could pardon anyone and grant general amnesties. Although the emperor often obeyed the majority consensus of his ministers in court conferences (tingyi 廷議), his approval was still needed for any state policy decision and he sometimes even rejected the majority opinion.
The emperor's most powerful relative was the empress dowager, widow to the previous emperor and usually the natural mother of the emperor. If the grandmother of an emperor—the grand empress dowager—was still alive during his reign, she enjoyed a superior position over the empress dowager. Emperors often sought the approval of the empress dowager for their decisions. If an emperor was only a child, he acted merely as a figurehead while the empress dowager dominated court politics. She not only had the right to issue edicts and pardons, but if the emperor died without a designated heir, she had the sole right to appoint a new emperor. Below the empress dowager were the empress and imperial concubines. Although she was the wife of the emperor, the empress's position at court was not secure and she could be removed by the emperor. However, the empress did enjoy the submission of concubines as her subordinates, who advocated the elevation of their sons over the empress's at their own peril.
In the early Western Han, imperial relatives and some military officers who had served Emperor Gaozu were made kings who ruled over large semi-autonomous fiefs, but once the non-related kings had died off, an imperial edict outlawed all non-Liu family members from becoming kings. The emperor's brothers, paternal cousins, brother's sons, and emperor's sons—excluding the heir apparent—were made kings. The emperor's sisters and daughters were made princesses with fiefs. Although the central government eventually stripped away the political power of the kings and appointed their administrative staffs, kings still had a right to collect a portion of the taxes in their territory as personal income and enjoyed a social status that ranked just below the emperor. Each king had a son designated to be heir apparent, while his other sons and brothers were given the rank of marquess and ruled over small marquessates where a portion of the taxes went to their private purse. Although kings and marquesses enjoyed many privileges, the imperial court was at times aggressive towards them to check their power. Starting with Emperor Gaozu's reign, thousands of noble families, including those from the royal houses of Qi, Chu, Yan, Zhao, Han, and Wei from the Warring States Period, were forcibly moved to the vicinity of the capital Chang'an. In the first half of Western Han, resettlement could also be imposed on powerful and wealthy officials as well as individuals who owned property worth more than a million cash.
The position of regent (officially known as General-in-Chief 大將軍) was created during Emperor Wu's reign (r. 141–87 BCE) when he appointed three officials to form a triumvirate regency over the central government while the child Emperor Zhao (r. 87–74 BCE) sat on the throne. Regents were often relatives-in-law to the emperor through his empress's family, but they could also be men of lowly means who depended on the emperor's favor to advance their position at court. Eunuchs who maintained the harem of the palace could also gain a similar level of power. They often came from the middle class and had links to trade. In the Western Han, there are only a handful of examples where eunuchs rose to power since the official bureaucracy was strong enough to suppress them. After the eunuch Shi Xian (石顯) became the Prefect of the Palace Masters of Writing (中尚書), Emperor Yuan (r. 48–33 BCE) relinquished much of his authority to him, so that he was allowed to make vital policy decisions and was respected by officials. However, Shi Xian was expelled from office once Emperor Cheng (33–7 BCE) took the throne. No palace eunuch would obtain comparable authority again until after 92 CE, when the eunuchs led by Zheng Zhong (d. 107 CE) sided with Emperor He (r. 88–105 CE) in a coup to overthrow the Dou 竇 clan of the empress dowager. Officials complained when eunuchs like Sun Cheng (d. 132 CE) were awarded by Emperor Shun (r. 125–144 CE) with marquessates, yet after the year 135 CE the eunuchs were given legal authority to pass on fiefs to adopted sons. Although Emperor Ling (r. 168–189 CE) relinquished a great deal of authority to eunuchs Zhao Zhong (d. 189 CE) and Zhang Rang (d. 189 CE), the eunuchs were slaughtered in 189 CE when Yuan Shao (d. 202 CE) besieged and stormed the palaces of Luoyang.
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