Top 5 Chinese Empresses You Should Know About

Updated on October 26, 2018
CYong74 profile image

Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

1. Empress Lü Zhi (吕雉), 241–180 BC

The empress consort of Han Dynasty founder Liu Bang is one of the most vicious Chinese empresses to have ever reigned.
The empress consort of Han Dynasty founder Liu Bang is one of the most vicious Chinese empresses to have ever reigned.

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 earned her fame as China's only female emperor. However, she long controlled the imperial court as empress consort before ascending the dragon throne.
Wu Zetian earned her fame as China's only female emperor. However, she long controlled the imperial court as empress consort before ascending the dragon throne.

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.

Modern Opinions

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

Virtuous and wise, Qing Dynasty Empress Dowager Xiaoshuang became a model example for all Chinese empresses thereafter.
Virtuous and wise, Qing Dynasty Empress Dowager Xiaoshuang became a model example for all Chinese empresses thereafter.

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

Historical photo of Empress Dowager Cixi. She is often blamed for China's various defeats by European imperial powers.
Historical photo of Empress Dowager Cixi. She is often blamed for China's various defeats by European imperial powers.

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 is not an actual empress, but she certainly ruled like one.
Jiang Qing is not an actual empress, but she certainly ruled like one.

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Kuan Leong Yong

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        14 months ago from Singapore

        Thank you so much, Nathan!

      • profile image

        Nathan 

        14 months ago

        Great Job it is well written once again PS. IF I WAS A TEACHER I WOULD GIVE YOU AN A PLUS!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)