Top 5 Chinese Empresses You Should Know About
1. Empress Lü Zhi (吕雉), 241–180 BC
Lü Zhi was the empress consort of Han Dynasty founder Liu Bang. A capable albeit 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 for her important connections, and today, it is agreed that she was the driving force behind the assassination of Han Xin and Peng Yue, two founding generals of the Han Dynasty whose power and influence Lü Zhi and Liu Bang became wary of. Upon Liu Bang’s death and the coronation of her son as Emperor Hui, Lü Zhi moved quickly to further exterminate rivals and consolidate power. From BC 195 to BC 180, she controlled all imperial affairs with an iron fist. She also brutally executed several other sons of Liu Bang to secure her 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. She ordered lackeys to blind and remove the tongue of Concubine Qi, chop off all her limbs, before imprisoning her in a pigsty and naming the mutilated woman as a “human swine.” On hearing her handiwork, Emperor Hui was so disgusted with his mother he fell ill and thereafter withdrew from imperial management. Sadly, this did not thwart Lü Zhi. Instead, it transferred even more power to her. 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 she was already the de facto ruler of Tang Dynasty China, while still the empress consort of Emperor Tang Gaozong. Gaozong was meek and sickly, and was incapacitated by illness for most of his reign. From AD 665 till Gaozong’s passing, Wu Zetian dominated the Chinese court, ruling in place of her husband.
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 one reads or watches, Wu Zetian could be considered as a ruthless and power-hungry monster, 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 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, 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 Dowager Xiaozhuang (孝莊太后), AD 1613–1688
Of all five Chinese empresses mentioned in 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 and this title was only conferred upon her by Kangxi after her death. Throughout her supervision of the young emperors, Bumbutai was renowned for her frugality. It was said that she disliked birthday celebrations, for she felt they were wasteful and unnecessary.
On a whole, Xiaozhuang comes close to being the perfect Chinese empress. In the sense she refrained from interfering with imperial politics and that she 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. Others suggest 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 thinking of powerful female Chinese rulers. An imperial concubine of Emperor Xianfeng, then 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 colonial European 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 during Emperor Guangxu’s subsequent 33-year reign. In a much-lamented tragedy of pre-modern China, she survived Guangxu, who deeply despised her. Cixi died one day after Guangxu, right after installing the infant Puyi on the dragon throne.
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, for the decline of China began long before her time. On the other hand, Cixi did 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 lorded over China for half a century, right till the country’s faltering entry into the modern era, Cixi will continued to be debated for a long time. Of note, 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, 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.
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 stated she was only the “biting dog of the Chairman.” Additionally, Mao Zedong himself 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 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