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Empress Dowager Feng — A Remarkable Politician of Northern Wei and Her Legendary Life

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

From a noble girl to a slave maid, to an honored queen, and then a powerful empress dowager who reigned her kingdom well, Feng used her exceptional gorgeousness, excellent political talent, and determined strong personality. 

Empress Dowager Feng assisted two kings, seized power through coups and her political talent, and implemented a series of reforms that flourished her empire.


Additionally, she maintained relationships with some handsome and helpful lovers.

She brought a remarkable reign to the Northern Wei Empire, bestowed upon the kingdom an exceptional emperor, Yuan Hong, and led a brilliant life herself.

Empress Dowager Feng of Northern Wei

Turmoil and Counterattack of Feng


Feng's grandfather was the last king of Northern Yan (407 — 436), who was assassinated after the empire perished. 

Feng's father complied with the Northern Wei Dynasty and served as a noble official. However, he soon became involved in a rebellion and was executed.

Her older brother escaped from the kingdom, and Feng was sent to the royal palace as a slave maid.

Luckily, her aunt was an imperial concubine of the current king, who had always looked after Feng.

Furthermore, Feng met and impressed the current crown prince, who fell deeply 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

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

Distinctive Customs of the Xianbei Northern Wei Dynasty in Selecting the Queen

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

Hence, the nomadic minority Xianbei had particular customs regarding the queen and inheritance system.  

In Northern Wei, the emperor could not decide which woman would be his queen; he could only nominate candidates.  

Later, these candidates had to craft a gold (or copper) statue by hand.


Whoever successfully crafted a statue would be considered the queen chosen by heaven.


If no one succeeded, they continued to select new candidates until one was completed.

Green Glass Bowl of the Northern Wei

Green Glass Bowl of the Northern Wei — Datong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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


Perhaps she was fortunate, possessed keen insight, or received invaluable guidance from her aunt, who held a position of influence within the royal court.

After winning the emperor’s heart, Feng gained everyone’s support and became the queen at the age of 14.

Painted Relief Sculpture of Northern Wei that Carved with A Flying Fairy Playing Traditional Chinese Instrument (Pai Xiao)

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

Losing Her Beloved Husband and Obtaining Power

Another unique 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 be able 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 well and lived happily with her husband.

Unearthed Portrait Brick of Noble Women of the North and South Dynasties

Portrait Brick of Noble Women of the Northern and Southern Dynasties — National Museum of China

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

Feng was grieved when people were burning the late emperor’s belongings and immediately rushed into the fire.

She got rescued very soon.

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

Empress Dowager Feng in History of China Became A Real Politician

Empress Dowager Feng: 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 Empress Dowager Feng was only 23. 

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

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

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

The government was stable two years later, and Feng had her first grandson. She was pleased and gave all the power back to Emperor Tuoba Hong. 

Painted Dancing Pottery Figurine of Northern Wei

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

Feng's Retirement and Conflict with the Emperor

Even though 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 though 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

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

Some people speculated that Tuoba Hong's interests lay in Taoism and Buddhism rather than politics, while others believed that his relationship with Feng soured after he killed her lover.


Consequently, Feng allegedly forced him to leave.

Despite his resignation, Tuoba Hong continued to lead the army, achieving victory in many wars and earning widespread respect from civilians.

Feng ultimately initiated a coup and imprisoned Tuoba Hong, who died a month later.


Many people believed Feng poisoned him because his outstanding achievements and good reputation posed a threat to her power.

Gold Earrings Decorated with Gems of Northern Wei

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

Second Reign: Returning to Power in the Empire

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

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

Empress Dowager Feng contributed significantly to bringing Han culture into the Xianbei-dominated Northern Wei Empire.

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

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

Yungang Grottoes of Northern Wei, A UNESCO World Heritage Site

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 for Emperor Xiaowen

When Empress Dowager Feng was reining the empire, she always took Yuan Hong with her and explained every political decision carefully. 

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. 

Feng was intelligent, decisive, insightful, and outstanding as a monarch.

As a ruler, she was kind and forgiving; even when a cook accidentally left some insects in her food, she didn't blame anyone.

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

Eaves Tile of Northern Wei, Carved with "Fu Gui Wan Sui" (Wealth and Longevity)

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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