Fun Facts about Chinese Culture and History

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Empress Ma Xiuying of Ming Dynasty — A Virtuous Queen and Her Great Love Story

Empress Ma (1332 — 1382), posthumous title as Empress Xiao Ci Gao, was one of the most highly respected queens in the history of China, for her virtue, kindness, power, modesty, and benevolence.

She was the wife, queen, and lifetime love of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).

She accompanied her husband from an ordinary soldier to an excellent monarch, and had played an important role in establishing of the Ming Empire.

A Well Educated Girl Marrying to A Brave, Young Soldier

Empress Ma, named Ma Xiuying in some unofficial histories, was born into a rich family; as the only child of her parents, she was literate, elegant, polite, and quite kind.

However, her mother passed away when she was little. Later, her father was forced to escape from an enemy, and had to entrust Ma to his best friend Guo. Soon, her father passed away in other places too. 

Her foster father Guo was rich and ambitious. Seeing many forces started to rebel the reign of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), he also organized an army and occupied some cities as his military base.

Soon, Guo found one of his soldiers named Zhu Yuanzhang was quite brave and intelligent; so Guo married his foster daughter Ma to this young man, and promoted him.

Zhu Yuanzhang and Ma Xiuying had spent a happy life since after, who always loved and respected each other. 

Together, they had 5 sons (in official history documents) and 2 daughters, and adopted nearly 30 children as well. Most of them grew into exceptional generals that contributed significantly in the establishment of the Ming Dynasty.

Unearthed Gold Tablet, Carved with the Testament of Exceptional General Mu Ying the King of Qianning, the Adoptive Son of Empress Ma and Hongwu Emperor — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Love of Ma Xiuying and Zhu Yuanzhang

Ma’s husband Zhu Yuanzhang was an orphan suffering in a chaotic period, who lived all by himself, and used to beg for food for a long time. 

After they got married, Ma became the first person in the world that truly loved Zhu Yuanzhang, who just got promoted from an ordinary soldier. 

Soon, because of Zhu Yuanzhang’s exceptional talent, he achieved more and more successes and reputation among soldiers. 

At the same time, he also encountered more jealousy from other generals in their army. Later, Zhu Yuanzhang was imprisoned after having been framed up, and didn't get any food for days. 

During that captive period, Ma Xiuying always saved her own meal, hid and secretly sent to her husband, even some hot foods scalded her skin frequently, she never gave up.  

Meanwhile, she gave most of her money that her father left her, to her adoptive parents and others who might be helpful. Finally, thanks to her efforts, her husband was released safe and sound. 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Wrote on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum

After Zhu Yuanzhang was free, he decided to recruit an army on his own. 

During the first few years, when he only had a few thousands of soldiers and were surrounded by many aggressive enemies, they experienced quite a difficult time.

Even under that circumstance, unlike other armies, Zhu Yuanzhang commanded his soldiers do farm works and supply themselves, instead of expropriating food or resources from civilians.  

Ma Xiuying started to make shoes and clothes for soldiers herself as well; soon she donated all of her money and jewelry in exchange for daily uses of the army.

When Zhu Yuanzhang once was injured, she carried him on her back until they arrived a safer place, which saved his life in one of the most dangerous battles. Their first son drew this on a painting later, to memorize their great love.

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

The Perfect, Virtuous Empress Ma Xiuying

When Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty and became the Hongwu Emperor, Ma Xiuying was nominated as the honorable Empress Ma.

She was still modest, frugal and helpful, as always.

She refused the emperor’s awarding of noble titles to her ordinary family members, saying that a big, powerful clan of the queen was not good for a kingdom. 

Meanwhile, as honorable queen of a rich country, Empress Ma kept doing many things herself, like cooking and sewing. 

She also taught her kids to stay modest and diligent, and to remember their parents’ difficult struggles.

Consequently, her kids were all well educated and accomplished, none of them were spoiled, arrogant, or extravagant. 

As a great wife, mother, and queen, she was perfect, and took good care of everyone around, include all imperial concubines and their children.

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of Prince Zhu Tan, the Son of An Imperial Concubine and Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Empress Ma As A Benevolent Savior 

With more and more remarkable achievements that Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang had reached, and the more power he had gained, he became suspicious and outrageous.

He founded a secret imperial agency to monitor officials, and to fight against their corrupt activities or potential rebellions. 

Throughout the history of China, Hongwu emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was one of the strictest monarchs to officials; he considered them as the servants of civilians, and had executed many of them for corruption, even though some of them just took a small amount of briberies. 

During that time, Empress Ma was the only person that could influence his decisions.

Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang trusted Empress Ma completely, who kept persuading him to stay calm, and to remember other people’s contributions and to see their bright sides. 

For many times, Empress Ma made the emperor changed his commands, and had saved countless lives.

Hence, she was highly respected by her husband and kids, all officials and generals, and most civilians of the Ming Dynasty. 

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival, Genre Painting of the Capital City Nanjing of the Ming Dynasty by Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552) — Liaoning Museum

Depart of Empress Ma

When Empress Ma was seriously sick, she refused all types of sacrificial ceremonies to pray for her health or recovery. 

She insisted that the life and death is the law of nature, and there’s no need to waste money to try and go against it.   

After having persuaded her husband to trust talented people, to stay kind and modest, and wished him a prosperous empire, many bright officials and happy civilians, she passed away because of sickness when she’s 50.

Large numbers of civilians spontaneously attended her seeing off funeral; nearly all the officials and civilians cried for her, let alone her beloved husband and other family members. 

After her death, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang haven't nominated another queen. Over a decade later, he passed away, and was buried together with his beloved wife.  

Their mausoleum, the Xiaoling of Ming, is located in Nanjing city, and intact. 

Rich and poor, dangerous and stable, life and death, they have never been separated, from the moment that she married to him.   

The Mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Empress Ma — Ming Xiao Ling in Nanjing City