A Qing dynasty illustration of Lady Gan
Pei County, Jiangsu
Gong'an County, Hubei
Lady Gan (died c. 210) was a concubine of Liu Bei, the founding emperor of the state of Shu Han in the Three Kingdoms period of China and Liu Shan's mother. She was later posthumously honoured as Empress Zhaolie.
Lady Gan was born to a family of commoners from Pei (沛), which is in present-day Pei County, Jiangsu) though a diviner predicted a bright future in store for her. When Liu Bei visited Yu Province, he stayed in Xiaopei (小沛; present-day Pei County, Jiangsu), where he met Lady Gan and took her as his concubine. By the time she turned eighteen, Lady Gan had already matured into a seductive beauty.
Liu Bei had a three-foot-tall jade figurine that he kept in Lady Gan's apartment. He's reputed to have spent his days planning military strategy, retreating to the apartment at night: It is said that Lady Gan's body was as white and sleek as the jade figurine and that it was difficult to tell them apart. Realizing that Liu Bei's other concubines were extremely jealous of her and the jade figurine, Lady Gan wisely admonished Liu Bei for cherishing such a bewitching trifle, telling him that infatuation gives rise to suspicion. He heeded her warning and disposed of the jade figurine.
Since Liu Bei lost several wives during this time, Lady Gan was in charge of family affairs. On several occasions, she was captured by Liu Bei’s enemies but always managed to emerge from the experience unharmed, and she succeeded in keeping his household together through such crises. A common misinterpretation is that she was Liu Bei's first wife, though he liked her and trusted her enough to put her in charge of his household.[a] She followed Liu Bei to Jing Province later, where she gave birth to Liu Shan. During the Battle of Changban, Liu Bei was forced to abandon her and Liu Shan, but she and her son were both saved by Zhao Yun. She was buried in Nan Commandery (南郡; around present-day Jingzhou, Hubei), her death probably was what prompted the offer of marriage between Liu Bei and Lady Sun, since Liu Bei no longer had someone to manage his household or raise his son.
In 221, after Liu Bei established the state of Shu Han and became its first emperor, he posthumously honoured Lady Gan as "Lady Huangsi" (皇思夫人), which literally means "the Lady whom the Emperor misses". Lady Gan's remains were excavated from Nan Commandery for reburial in Shu territory (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing), but Liu Bei died before this was completed.
Later, after Liu Shan succeeded his father, Liu Bei, as the emperor of Shu, the chancellor Zhuge Liang wrote a memorial to Liu Shan, suggesting that Lady Gan be honoured and buried together with Liu Bei. Liu Shan obliged and posthumously honoured his mother as "Empress Zhaolie" (昭烈皇后) to match his father's posthumous title, "Emperor Zhaolie".
Lady Gan first appears in Chapter 15 of the novel alongside Liu Bei's other consort Lady Mi. The two of them had been treated well by Lü Bu who sought to maintain his alliance with their husband. They were also used as a bartering chip to ensure Guan Yu's loyalty to Cao Cao. Lady Gan urged her brother-in-law to escape upon hearing news of Liu Bei's whereabouts. She also provided him with advice during the journey, even helping pacify Zhang Fei who mistook his brother's ties to Cao Cao as treachery.
After reuniting with her husband, Lady Gan, bore him a son, Liu Shan. On the night of the birth a white crane alighted on the yamen, sang some forty notes (number of years her son would reign), and flew into the west (place he would reign). During parturition an unknown fragrance filled the room. Once Lady Gan had dreamed that she swallowed the stars of the Northern Dipper and conceived as a result—hence the child's milkname, Ah Dou, or Precious Dipper. She was among those Zhao Yun saved when the conflict at Changban occurred. Her death in Chapter 54 inspired Zhou Yu to entrap Liu Bei in Wu by arranging a marriage between him and Lady Sun.