In ancient China, empresses were regarded as the “mother of the nation”, but, honestly, most of them were little more than fashion accessories. Of the hundreds of empresses in history, only a few can claim to have truly made a difference (for better or worse). Like the athletes at the Olympics, all are important, but only a few achieve something special and attain immortality. Today, we’ll introduce you to a few empresses you really should get to know.
Most Powerful Empress
Image of Wu Zetian from TV Empress Wu Zetian [163.com]
Obviously every Chinese knows the story of Wu Zetian’s, so we can’t skip her. After all, she was the first “female emperor” of China.
Concubine to Emperor Taizong, Wu married her husband’s son, Li Zhi, after his untimely death; Li Zhi would become Emperor Gaozong. In 655, Wu officially became Gaozong’s new empress, and then Emperor Gaozong began to suffer from a continuous illness. Wu Zetian became administrator of the court, a powerful position, and began to wrest power from her ailing husband. After Emperor Gaozong’s death in 683, Wu’s ambitions became even more obvious. After three of her four sons died or were exiled, she took the throne from her youngest son and proclaimed the Zhou Dynasty.
Historians regard Wu as a cruel ruler, but they also admit she had made huge contribution to history. During her reign the Chinese empire extended its territorial limits, the governmental examination system was further developed, and and culture blossomed. She built a “Wordless Stele （无字碑）” in her mausoleum in the hopes that her contributions and mistakes would be evaluated fairly by later generations.
Most Feared Empress
Image of Lü Zhi from TV play Legend of Chu and Han [sctv.com]
As the empress of Emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, the founder of the Han Dynasty, Lü Zhi was one of the earliest and most outstanding female politicians in Chinese history. Some even regard her as another “female emperor”, but apart from her political talents, she was well known for her cruelty.
Lü played very important roles in the deaths of Han Xin and Peng Yue, two of Emperor Gaozu’s subjects and who contributed greatly to the founding of the Han Dynasty. In 196 BC, Han was accused of participating in a rebellion. Lü feared Han’s growing influence in the military and decided to kill him. She summoned Han to meet her in the palace where she ambushed, tortured, and murdered him. Han’s entire clan was exterminated soon after. Not long after Han’s death, it was rumored that Peng Yue was intending to rebel. Peng was demoted and sentenced to exile in a remote county. Peng pleaded with Empress Lü to let him return to his hometown. Lü pretended to agree, but when Peng was brought to court, he was summarily executed along with his entire clan. His corpse was then minced and salted like meat.
But the most inhuman act of Empress Lü came to Emperor Gaozu’s Concubine Qi. Empress Lü hated Qi because Emperor Gaozu favored her and had the intention of replacing Lü’s son with Qi’s son as crown prince. But, unfortunately for Qi, eventually Lü won the contest, and then sought revenge. She had Qi’s limbs chopped off, eyes gouged out, ears sliced off, forced her to drink a potion that made her mute, and threw her into a latrine. She called Qi a “human swine (人彘)” .
Most Beautiful Empress
Image of Zhao Feiyan from TV show A Motherly Model of the Nation [sina.com.cn]
In theory, ancient emperors should choose empresses according to their family background and virtue, so few empresses were famous for their appearance. But Zhao Feiyan, as the empress of Emperor Cheng of Han, was the exception. She was famous for her breathtaking beauty, especially her slight, skinny frame. The idiom 环肥燕瘦 (Huan was plump and Yan was skinny) refers to Zhao and Yang Yuhan, a famously buxom Chinese beauty, meaning that every woman is attractive in her own way.
Literally meaning “flying swallow,” Feiyan was not her real name; she was called this because people said that watching her dance was like watching a birds in the sky. Legend has it that Zhao could dance on the human palm. Once Zhao was dancing on a boat in the Lake of Taiye, and, suddenly, a strong wind came along and Zhao was so light that she was almost blown away. Luckily the musicians grabbed her feet in time.
Most Faithful Empress
True love was never a necessity for imperial marriage. In most cases, the emperor and empress were more like cooperative partners than husband and wife. But Emperor Yingzong of the Ming Dynasty was apparently a lucky man, because his empress, surnamed Qian, loved him deeply. Qian married Emperor Yingzong at the age of 16 and their marriage was peaceful and happy until, in 1449, the emperor was convinced by eunuch Wang Zhen to face the Oriat Mongol leader Esen, who later became Khan, on the battlefield. The defeat was devastating, and the emperor was captured. Knowing that Esen would threaten the Ming court with the captive emperor, officials decided to depose Emperor Yingzong and hand the throne to his younger brother.
After that, people were preoccupied with the war and the only person who seemed to care about the missing emperor was his wife, Qian. In the palace, there was little she could do to save her husband. She had given all her savings and jewelry in attempts to ransom her husband, but failed. Without any other solution, Qian cried day and night. Sorrow and illness destroyed her health, crippling her and causing her to go blind in one eye. But, in 1450, the Yingzong Emperor was sent back by Esen to meet his crippled empress. Though they were soon imprisoned by the current emperor, they had a happy reunion. Emperor Yingzong then took back his throne, with Qian still empress, until his death in 1464.
Most Jealous Empress
Ancient women were not allowed to be jealous; they could even be divorced for it. If your husband had a concubine, you had to treat her well to show your generosity. As the wife of the son of heaven, it was even rarer for an empress to be jealous. But, when it came to Li Fengniang, wife of Emperor Guangzong of the Song Dynasty, things were completely different.
Once the emperor was washing his hands, and found that the palace maid holding the basin had beautiful hands. So the emperor praised her. Then, in the afternoon, Li sent a gift box to the emperor. The emperor opened it and found that pair of hands. The emperor was seriously scared and became ill for several days.
Longest Reigning Empress
Wang Xijie, the empress of the Emperor Shenzong of the Ming Dynasty, was the longest-reigning empress in Chinese history: 42 years. But surprisingly, according to the records, her appearance, talents, and even family background were nothing special. She even didn’t have any sons and her husband didn’t particularly like her. The emperor had many concubines and favored some of them more than Wang; he once even threatened to depose Wang and make Concubine Zheng his empress. But Wang kept her position. It was said Wang was always very gentle and amiable, so the emperor’s mother liked and supported her. She knew she couldn’t compete with other women in the palace, so she chose to be generous, careful, and humble. So, the emperor and his concubines couldn’t find any excuse to replace her. After her death, she was buried together with the emperor as his official wife.
Shortest Reigning Empress
This most unwanted gold medal goes to Empress Wang, empress of Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty, who held the title for only a few hours. Before she became empress, she had been the emperor’s consort for many years. She gave birth to the crown prince and went through war and chaos together with her husband. But, when they finally put down the revolt and came back to the capital, Wang became seriously ill. The emperor decided to bestow on her the title with empress, hoping that such a happy event would cure her illness. But in less than half a day after the ceremony finished, she died.
A similar situation occurred to Empress Xiaoyiren in the Qing Dynasty, the Emperor Kangxi’s cousin. In 1689, the emperor conferred on her the title of empress, but she died next day. So, she gets the silver medal.
Cover image from sohu.com