Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
1. Empress Lü Zhi (吕雉), 241–180 BC
Lü Zhi was the powerful empress consort of Han Dynasty founder Liu Bang. A capable albeit truly vicious woman, she was recognized as a competent administrator in the early years of the dynasty, during which she actively assisted with domestic affairs.
Such political involvement established important connections for this notorious Chinese empress. Today, it is also agreed upon that she was the mastermind behind the assassinations of Han Xin and Peng Yue, two Han Dynasty founding generals whose influence Lü Zhi and Liu Bang had become wary of.
Following Liu Bang’s death and the coronation of her son as Emperor Hui, Lü Zhi further moved to exterminate rivals and consolidate power. From BC 195 to BC 180, she successfully controlled all imperial affairs with an iron fist. She also brutally executed several other sons of Liu Bang so as to secure her position.
Among her various acts of cruelty, Lü Zhi is most notorious for the torture and mutilation of Concubine Qi, one of Liu Bang’s favourite consorts. She ordered lackeys to remove Qi’s tongue and to blind her, before chopping off all the concubine’s limbs and imprisoning the mutilated woman in a pigsty.
Thereafter, she named the wretched Qi a “human swine.”
On hearing Lü’s handiwork with Qi, Emperor Hui was so disgusted, he fell ill and withdrew from imperial management. Sadly, this did not thwart Lü Zhi. On the contrary, it transferred even more power to the ruthless empress.
Lü Zhi then continued to lord over the Han Dynasty with fear and might, until her death by illness in BC 180.
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, this ambitious woman long controlled the imperial court before claiming the dragon throne for herself in AD 690. To a great extent, it could even be said that she was already the de facto ruler of Tang Dynasty China while still the empress consort of Emperor Tang Gaozong.
Simply put, Gaozong was meek and sickly, furthermore incapacitated by illness for most of his reign. From AD 665 till Gaozong’s passing, Wu Zetian dominated the Chinese court. She effectively ruled in place of her husband for near three decades.
Born in AD 624 as Wu Mei, the future empress and emperor entered the imperial court at age fourteen to be the Consort Wu of Emperor Taizong. Upon Taizong’s passing in AD 649, she was forced to become a nun at Ganye Temple as she has produced no heir. This was in accordance with Tang Dynasty laws.
Wu, however, did not remain at Ganye Temple for long. For a start, it is generally believed that Wu already had an affair with Gaozong, i.e., Taizong’s heir, when the latter was still alive. In AD 650, Gaozong also visited Ganye Temple, during which his empress of then, Empress Wang, “recruited” Wu to divert Gaozong’s attention away from a favored consort. She eventually even welcomed Wu back to the court.
This was a huge mistake on Wang’s part. The reinstated Consort Wu steadily replaced all other women as Gaozong’s favorite. Worse, all sorts of palatial intrigues and accusations cumulated with Wu replacing Wang as empress.
From then on, Wu became increasingly involved with imperial management and upon Gaozong’s incapacitation by illness in AD 665, outright took over administration of the Tang Empire. This regency then lasted till AD 690, when she declared herself Emperor, or Empress Regnant, after disposing her own sons, the emperors Zhongzong and Ruizong.
Wu subsequently ruled the Middle Kingdom as China’s first-ever female emperor. This lasted 15 years till she was disposed in AD 705 by a palace coup.
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Today, depending on which materials one reads or watches, Wu Zetian could be considered as a ruthless and power-hungry tyrant or an enlightened embodiment of feminism in feudalistic China.
Indeed, her reign itself is also one of great contradictions. Under her rule, China expanded greatly, with society steadily progressing towards a golden age. Within the imperial court, however, endless bloody intrigues dominate, with Wu Zetian herself directly responsible for the death of many royal clan members.
To put it in another way, the only possible testament to Wu’s reign is perhaps the Wordless Stele at her tomb in Qianling Mausoleum. The great empress, female emperor, left a blank stele for future generations to judge her life with. To her, it is up to you to regard her as a brutal monster, or one of history’s most capable women.
3. Empress Liu (刘皇后), AD 969–1033
The life of Northern Song Dynasty Empress Zhangxian Mingsu (章献明肃皇后), maiden name Liu Er, is the stuff of fairy tales. Indeed, her extraordinary life was the heart of a long television drama series in 2018.
An orphan raised as a singer, Liu was sold by her first husband to Zhang Qi, an official in the palace of Prince Zhao Yuanxiu. There, she earned the earnest love of the prince, who was just one year older than her.
After Zhao Yuanxiu ascended the throne in AD 997 as Song Zhenzong, Liu was conferred the title of “Beautiful Lady” consort in AD 1004. Down the road, she was also conferred higher-ranking titles before becoming empress. Most importantly, she adopted and cared for a young Zhao Zhen, the prince who would become the next Song emperor.
As empress, Liu was respected for her astute judgment and managerial abilities, and in the final two years of her husband’s reign, was the actual administrator of the Song Empire. Throughout much of her adoptive son’s reign, she remained a political force to be reckoned with too. As Zhao Zhen ascended the throne at age 12, Liu (as dowager) ruled in his place as regent. Defying protocol, Liu did not step down after Zhao Zhen reached adult age.
Notably, Liu Er is also the only other woman in Chinese history besides Wu Zetian to don emperor robes during ancestral worship. This was granted to her in her final days. *
On the flipside, Liu was criticized throughout her “reign,” and beyond, for not returning power to the emperor when the latter became of age. Though overall a fair ruler who was open to criticism, she was guilty too of occasionally favoring relatives.
Some journals furthermore claim Liu bamboozled Zhao Zhen for decades. The emperor didn’t know Liu wasn’t his birth mother till after her death.
Like the other powerful women on this list, Empress Liu’s legacy will continue to inspire discussion for a long time.
* So as not to completely defy tradition, the robes Liu Er wore had lesser adornments and no sword.
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 thinking of powerful female Chinese rulers.
An imperial concubine of Qing Emperor Xianfeng, and the dowager and regent of Emperors Tongzhi and Guangxu, Cixi is often blamed as the woman who brought down the Qing Empire. Many also regard her as the culprit for China’s repeated defeats at the hands of European colonial powers.
Born in 1835 to the Manchu Yehenara clan, Cixi was chosen in 1851 to be the Consort Yi of Xianfeng. After Xianfeng died in 1861 while fleeing invading European forces, she was conferred Empress Dowager status when her son ascended the throne as Emperor Tongzhi.
For the rest 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 passing, Cixi further tightened her hold on power during Emperor Guangxu’s subsequent 33-year reign. When the young Guangxu attempted to reform China in 1898, Cixi staged a coup d'état that resulted in the death of several activists and the emperor himself placed under house arrest.
In a much-lamented tragedy of pre-modern China, Cixi even survived Guangxu, who deeply despised her. The powerful dowager died one day after Guangxu. Right before her passing, she also performed one final absurd act. The “Dragon Lady” installed a brawling, infant Puyi as her dynasty’s eleventh emperor.
Was Cixi a Villain?
As mentioned above, Cixi is frequently vilified as the culprit for China’s many humiliations at the hands of other imperial powers. This is partly unjustified, given the decline of Qing Dynasty China began long before her time.
That said, Cixi did in many ways represent the worst of feudal China. Be it her fondness for sycophantic courtiers and eunuchs, her resistance to modernization, her lavishness, or her despotic control of three emperors.
With her having lorded over China for half a century, right till the country’s faltering entry into the modern era, Cixi will also continue to be debated for a long time. Of note, pop entertainment appraisals of her in recent years have trended towards being more sympathetic.
My Parents Are Divorcing Because of a Western Palace Dowager!
In modern spoken Mandarin, the “empress of the western palace” is a colloquial term for a wicked mistress. The term “lord old Buddha” also 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, wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, is not an actual empress, of course. However, her deeds and personality easily qualify her as one.
Be it in ambition, ruthlessness, or political shrewdness, Jiang Qing rivals any Chinese empress in history. Arguably, it could even be said that 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 subsequently remained actively involved in Chinese Communist politics, serving as Mao’s secretary and head of propaganda. In 1966, her power achieved a new height when she was tasked with spearheading Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
In the years that followed, Jiang further amassed extensive social-political powers as a member of the notorious Gang of Four, in the process also becoming one of the most powerful and feared figures in Communist China. Notoriously, she even had the adopted children of political rival, Zhou Enlai, tortured and killed.
After Mao died of a heart attack in 1976, support for her within and outside the Central Committee finally waned, leading to her arrest on Oct 6, 1976. Though later sentenced to death, her sentence was ultimately commuted to life imprisonment. “Madam Mao” committed suicide in 1991, adamant to the end that she did no wrong.
The Wickedest Chinese Empress of All?
In retrospect, it is perhaps fair to say Jiang Qing was no more than an extension of Mao.
During her trial, she infamously declared that she was only the “biting dog of the Chairman.” Mao Zedong himself also openly endorsed his wife’s 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 entire Chinese race.
The many myths associated with her tyranny and downfall will continue to be discussed in Chinese books and movies for a long time.
Other Noteworthy Chinese Empresses
The following empresses are also noteworthy for their prominent roles in Chinese history.
Empress Jia Nanfeng (贾南风)
The first empress consort of the intellectually-disabled Emperor Hui of the Jin Dynasty, Jia Nanfeng is reviled as a villainous woman who provoked the devastating War of the Eight Princes. Between AD 291 and 300, she dominated the court, progressively expanding her influence by conspirating with princes, i.e., royal relatives like Sima Wei. Ultimately, she even schemed to have the crown prince murdered. Jia ultimately suffered her comeuppance when Prince Sima Lun staged a coup. She was forced to commit suicide but by then, the fragile Jin Dynasty was already irredeemably damaged.
Empress Xiaogongzhang (孝恭章皇后)
Empress Xiaogongzhang, family name Sun, was the second empress of the fifth Ming Dynasty emperor, Ming Xuande. A beauty, she was regularly involved with court matters following her investiture as empress. After her young son, Ming Yingzong, ascended the throne, she also lost a political battle with her mother-in-law and was temporarily censured. Most importantly, Sun continued to influence the court when Yingzong was captured by Mongolians during a disastrous expedition. She retained a revered position during the subsequent reign of Ming Daizong (her stepson) too. Chinese historians continue to debate Sun’s role, and responsibility, in the tumultuous events of those years.
Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang (孝莊太后)
Maiden name Bumbutai, the consort of Qing Dynasty founder Hong Taiji occupies a quiet but notable spot in the history of her dynasty. The mother of the short-lived Emperor Shunji, she was respected for her frugality, prudence, and political insight. During the early reign of her grandson, Kangxi, she was furthermore instrumental in the removal of Oboi, a powerful regent whose influence rivaled that of the young emperor. So it’s said, Bumbutai was such a frugal and sensible person, she disliked the extravagant lifestyles of the Forbidden City. She even disliked lavish birthday celebrations.
Queen Lu Was Ruthless and Cruel
The notorious Lü Zhi was as beautiful as she was cruel, as she was scheming.
The Demonization of Empress Wu
Wu Zetian’s political career saw the murder of many relatives. But was Imperial China’s only female emperor that brutal a person? Did such murders even happened?
China’s Cultural Revolution, Explained
Though the most notorious character, Jiang Qing was but one of several masterminds of China’s devastating Cultural Revolution.
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- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, June 8). Empress Lü. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empress_L%C3%BC.
- Lauralee. (2018, January 18). Empress Lu Zhi of Han - China's first reigning Empress. History of Royal Women. https://www.historyofroyalwomen.com/the-royal-women/empress-lu-zhi-han-chinas-first-reigning-empress/.
- Mark, E. (2021, June 10). Wu Zetian. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Wu_Zetian/.
- 孝庄文皇后. 到百科首页. (n.d.). https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E5%AD%9D%E5%BA%84%E5%A4%AA%E5%90%8E. [In Chinese]
- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Cixi. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cixi.
- Chang, J. (2014). Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched modern China. Anchor Books.
- Crossley, Pamela (2014). "In the Hornet's Nest". London Review of Books.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Ced Yong
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on November 21, 2017:
Thank you so much, Nathan!
Nathan on November 21, 2017:
Great Job it is well written once again PS. IF I WAS A TEACHER I WOULD GIVE YOU AN A PLUS!