Empress Dowager Feng — Remarkable Female Politician and Her Legendary Life

Feng (442 — 490), respected as Empress Dowager Feng or Empress Wenming, was an influential monarch of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 — 534). 

From a noble girl to a slave maid, to honored queen, and then powerful empress dowager that reigned her kingdom well, Feng used not only her exceptional gorgeousness, but also excellent political talent, and determined strong personality. 

Empress Dowager Feng had assisted two kings, grasped power through coups and her political talent, implemented a series of reforms that flourished her empire while keeping some handsome and helpful lovers. 

She brought to the Northern Wei Empire a great reign and an exceptional emperor Yuan Hong, and to herself a brilliant life.

Turmoil and Counterattack in Feng’s Childhood

 

Feng’s grandfather was the last king of Northern Yan (407 — 436) that got assassinated after the empire perished. 

Feng’s father complied with the Northern Wei Dynasty and served there as a noble official. However, her father soon got involved in a rebellion and was executed. 

Feng’s big brother escaped out of the kingdom, and Feng was sent to the royal palace as a slave maid.   

Luckily, Feng's aunt was the current king’s imperial concubine, who had always looked after Feng. 

What’s more, Feng met with and impressed the current crown prince, who deeply fell in love with her. 

Soon, the crown prince Tuoba Jun (440 — 465), respected as Emperor Wencheng of Northern Wei, ascended to the throne, married Feng, and nominated her as an imperial concubine. 

Blue Glass Earrings of Northern Wei — Datong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Special Customs of the Xianbei Northern Wei

Northern Wei was a regime that was founded by Xianbei people in northern China during the North and South Dynasties (420 — 589). 

Hence, the nomadic minority Xianbei had some special customs regarding the queen and inherit system.  

In Northern Wei, the emperor could not decide which woman to be his queen, and could only nominate candidates.  

Later, these candidates need to handmade a gold (or copper) statue.

 

Whoever successfully made one would be considered the queen that is chosen by heaven. If no one could succeed, then they kept choosing new candidates until one completed.

Feng was selected as a candidate and successfully made a perfect gold statue. 

Maybe she was lucky, or smart, or had been given useful tips by her aunt. 

Anyway, after having won the emperor’s heart, Feng gained everyone’s support and became the queen when she was 14. 

Painted Relief Sculpture of Northern Wei that Carved with A Flying Fairy Playing Traditional Chinese Instrument (Pai Xiao) — Qingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Losing of Beloved Husband and Obtaining of Power

Another special custom of the Northern Wei was that after nominating a crown prince, his birth mother would be executed. That way, the mother and her clan won’t have the opportunity to manipulate politics. 

Hence, after Feng became the queen, Emperor Wencheng nominated his first son as crown prince, executed his birth mother, and asked Feng to raise and parent this boy. 

Feng treated the crown prince very well and lived a happy life with her husband.

However, unfortunately, her husband departed at a young age. 

When people were burning the late emperor’s belongings, Feng was extremely sad and rushed into the fire out of sudden.

She got rescued very soon.

After the suicidal behavior and months of grief, Feng became a calm, mature empress dowager.

Empress Dowager Feng as An Exceptional Politician

 

At that time, the crown prince Tuoba Hong (454 — 476), respected as Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei, ascended to the throne. However, he was only 11 years old, and the Empress Dowager Feng was only 23. 

Hence, a powerful general, who's also the regent, rebelled.  

Empress Dowager Feng, in the next a few months, found perfect allies and defeated this rebel decisively. 

Afterward, Feng was in actual charge of the empire, while teaching Tuoba Hong how to be a good monarch. 

Two years later, the government is stable, and Feng had her first grandson. She was very happy and gave all the power back to Emperor Tuoba Hong. 

Painted Dancing Pottery Figurine of Northern Wei — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Feng’s Retired Life and Conflicting With the Emperor

Even she was a grandmother, an empress dowager, Feng was only 25 years old when she retired. 

Hence, she had some romantic relationships with some handsome lovers. 

Emperor Tuoba Hong, the boy that Feng raised, however, was not happy with her romantic relationships, especially those who got involved in politics.

Hence, he sentenced Feng’s favorite lover to death, even he knew it was a frame-up, and then abdicated the throne to his 4-year-old first son. 

Blue Glass Cup of Northern Wei — Datong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Some people said that Tuoba Hong believed in Taoism and Buddhism and didn’t like politics; more people believed that his relationship with Feng turned bad after he killed her lover, so Feng forced him to leave.

Anyhow, this resigned Tuoba Hong still led the army won many wars and were widely respected by civilians.

Feng, ultimately, initiated a coup and imprisoned Tuoba Hong, who passed away out of sudden a month later.

 

Many people believed that Feng poisoned him to death because she was threatened by his excellent achievements and good reputation. 

Gold Earrings Decorated with Gems of Northern Wei — Datong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Second Time of Reigning the Empire

Afterward, Feng took power back and was in charge of the kingdom again, in the name of assisting her grandson Yuan Hong (467 — 499), respected as Emperor Xiaowen.

She found a good opportunity and executed the minister who framed up her lover before, then implemented a series of reforms that improved the administrative system in government, developed agriculture and economy. 

Empress Dowager Feng contributed significantly in bringing Han culture in the Xianbei dominated Northern Wei Empire.

Under her reign, more people were given land and lived stable lives, while officials working efficiently and diligently. 

Feng was a brilliant monarch, and the Northern Wei Empire kept flourishing.

Yungang Grottoes, A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Were Constructed During Empress Dowager Feng and Emperor Xiaowen's Reigns — Datong, Shanxi Province 

Sincere Love and Support to the Emperor Xiaowen

When Empress Dowager Feng was reining the empire, she always took Yuan Hong with and explain carefully regarding her decisions. 

Though she was strict and had been involved with some other handsome guys, Yuan Hong, another excellent monarch in the history of China, always loved and respected her. 

As a monarch, Feng was smart, decisive, insightful, and outstanding.

As a master, she was nice and forgiving, even when a cook accidentally left some insects in her food, she still didn’t blame anyone.

After Feng departed, her grandson Yuan Hong buried her using an emperor’s ceremony, and inherited her policies perfectly, and further developed their kingdom. 

Eaves Tile of Northern Wei, Carved with "Fu Gui Wan Sui" (Wealth and Longevity) — Northern Dynasties Museum of Datong (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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