Top 5 Chinese Empresses You Should Know About
1. Empress Lü Zhi (吕雉), 241–180 BC
Lü Zhi was the empress of Han Dynasty founder Liu Bang. A capable, albeit vicious woman, she was recognised as a competent leader in the early years of the dynasty, during which she assisted with domestic affairs. Such political involvement established for her important connections, and today, it is agreed upon that she was the driving force behind the assassination of Han Xin and Peng Yue. Lü Zhi and her husband grew wary of the power and influence that these two had as founding generals of the Han Dynasty. Upon Liu Bang’s death and the coronation of her son as Emperor Hui, Lü Zhi moved quickly to exterminate her rivals and consolidate power. From 195 to 180 BC, she controlled all imperial affairs. She also brutally executed several other sons of Liu Bang to secure her own position.
Among her various acts of cruelty, Lü Zhi is most notorious for her torture of Concubine Qi, one of Liu Bang’s favourite consorts. Lü Zhi ordered her lackeys to blind Concubine Qi, remove her tongue, and chop off all her limbs before imprisoning her in a pigsty and labeling the mutilated woman as “human swine.” On hearing of her handiwork, Emperor Hui was so disgusted with his mother that he fell ill and thereafter withdrew from imperial management. Sadly, this did not punish Lü Zhi. Instead, it transferred even more power to her. Lü Zhi continued to rule over the Han Dynasty with fear and might, until her death by illness in 180 BC.
2. Empress Wu Zetian (武則天), AD 624–705
Wu Zetian is, of course, most famous for being the only female emperor of China. However, she long controlled the imperial court before claiming the dragon throne for herself in AD 690. To a great extent, it could be said she was already the de facto ruler of Tang Dynasty China, while still the empress of Emperor Tang Gaozhong.
Presumedly born in AD 624 as Wu Mei, the future empress entered the imperial court at age fourteen to be the Consort Wu of Emperor Taizong. The shrewd Taizong, one of China’s greatest rulers, distrusted the young consort, and upon his death, Wu was sentenced to permanent confinement in a monastery on the grounds that she did not produce any heirs. However, by then Wu had seduced the future Emperor Gaozong and was soon summoned back to court. She became Gaozong’s favourite consort and bore him two sons. She also became increasingly involved with imperial management, and upon Gaozong’s incapacitation by illness in AD 660, took over the administration outright. This lasted until AD 690 when she declared herself Emperor or Empress Regnant.
Today, depending on which materials you read or watch, Wu Zetian could be considered as a ruthless, power-hungry monster, or an enlightened embodiment of feminism in a feudal society. Indeed, her reign itself is also one of great contradictions. Under her rule, China greatly expanded with society progressing steadily towards a golden age. Within the imperial court, however, endless bloody intrigues occurred, with Wu Zetian herself directly responsible for the death of many royal clan members. To put it in another way, perhaps the only possible testament to her reign is the Wordless Stele at her tomb in Qianling Mausoleum today. The great empress left a blank stele for future generations to judge her life. It is up to you to determine if she was a brutal monster or one of history’s most capable women.
3. Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang (孝莊太后), AD 1613–1688
Of all five Chinese empresses mentioned on this list, Xiaozhuang is undoubtedly the least known. The mother of Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty, Xiaozhuang, maiden name Bumbutai, largely kept a low profile and never interfered in imperial politics. Throughout the reign of her son and grandson, she was also greatly respected for her wisdom and insight.
Originally a concubine of Hong Taiji, the mastermind behind the conquest of Ming Dynasty China, Bumbutai was conferred the title of Empress Dowager when her six-year-old son was enthroned as the Emperor Shunzhi. In 1661, after Shunzhi abruptly died and seven-year-old Xuanye ascended the throne as Emperor Kangxi, Bumbutai’s title was further elevated to that of Grand Empress Dowager. Of note, Bumbutai was never an empress consort in her lifetime. This was only conferred upon her by Kangxi after her death. Throughout her supervision of the young emperors, she was also renowned for her frugality. Bumbutai was said to have disliked birthday celebrations, for she felt they were wasteful and unnecessary.
On the whole, Xiaozhuang comes close to being the perfect Chinese empress. She refrained from interfering with imperial politics and fulfilled her courtly duties faithfully. In fact, the only controversy involving her is that of her relationship with Dorgon, the imperial regent during Shunzhi’s younger years. In 1651, Shunzhi posthumously removed Dorgon’s titles and even had his uncle’s body exhumed and flogged. Some historians, therefore, theorize that Dorgon was the actual father of Shunzhi, while others think Xiaozhuang could have secretly married Dorgon after Hong Taiji’s death.
4. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后), AD 1835–1908
More famous than even Wu Zutian, the Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty is the name that most often comes to mind when recalling female Chinese rulers. An imperial concubine of Emperor Xianfeng, then the dowager and regent of Emperors Tongzhi and Guangxu, Cixi is often blamed for bringing down the Qing Empire. Many also regard her as the culprit behind China’s repeated defeats at the hands of European imperial powers.
Born in 1835 to the Manchu Yehenara clan, Cixi was chosen in 1851 to be the Consort Yi of Emperor Xianfeng. After Xianfeng died while fleeing invading European forces, Cixi was conferred Empress Dowager status with the coronation of her son as Emperor Tongzhi. For the entirety of Tongzhi’s reign, till his unexpected death at age 18, Cixi steadily consolidated power and executed rivals, to the extent she practically became the ruler of China. After Tongzhi’s death, she further tightened her hold on power throughout Emperor Guangxu’s 33-year reign. In a much-lamented tragedy of pre-modern China, she survived Guangxu who despised her. Cixi died one day after Guangxu. Right after putting an infant Puyi on the dragon throne.
As mentioned above, Cixi is nowadays vilified as the reason for China’s many humiliations at the hands of other imperial powers. This is partly unjustified, for the decline of China began long before Cixi. On the other hand, Cixi does in many ways represent the worst of feudal China, be it her fondness for sycophantic courtiers and eunuchs, her refusal to modernise, her lavishness, or her despotic control of three emperors. Given that she ruled over China for half a century, right up until the country’s faltering entry into the modern era, Cixi influence will continue to be debated for a long time. Of note, in recent years people have become more sympathetic in their assessment of her.
My parents are divorcing because of a western palace dowager!
In modern spoken Chinese, the “dowager of the western palace” is a colloquial term for a wicked mistress. The term “lord old Buddha” refers to a despotic matron. Both terms originated from Cixi. She influenced modern Chinese culture more so than all other Chinese empresses.
5. Jiang Qing (江青), AD 1914–1991
Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong, is not an actual empress. However, her deeds easily qualify her as one. Be it in ambition, ruthlessness, or political shrewdness, Jiang Qing rivals all the Chinese empresses mentioned above. Arguably, it could also be said she was the deadliest one of all. Her fanaticism wrecked millions of lives during the tumultuous years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Originally an actress, Jiang Qing married Mao in 1938, and in 1949 became the inaugural First Lady of the People’s Republic of China. She remained actively involved in Communist politics, serving as Mao’s secretary and then as the head of propaganda, before being appointed to spearhead Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. Through her latest position, Jiang Qing amassed extensive social-political powers as a member of the notorious Gang of Four, in the process becoming one of the most powerful figures in Communist China. After Mao died of a heart attack in 1976, support for her within and outside the Central Committee waned, leading to her arrest on Oct 6, 1976. Though sentenced to death, her sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment. Jiang Qing committed suicide in 1991, adamant to the end that she did no wrong.
In retrospect, it is perhaps fair to say that Jiang Qing was no more than an extension of Mao. She herself gave the infamous quote of being only a biting dog of the Chairman, and Mao Zedong did openly endorse her actions during the Cultural Revolution. Regardless, Jiang Qing’s ambition and radicalism permanently impacted China’s development in ways that might never be redeemed. In every sense, she was a vicious empress who wielded disastrous powers, hungry to dominate the whole of China. The many myths associated with her tyranny and downfall continue to be discussed in books and movies today.
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© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong