Empresses of China — Ultimate Introduction to Imperial Harems of Ancient China
What Are Empress of China, Imperial Concubines, and Empress Dowager?
In imperial harems of ancient China, an emperor would have many women in his royal palace, who followed strict hierarchies. Some of them obtained power and influenced history, some encountered cruel and tragic endings.
Empress (in Chinese Huang Hou) was the wife of the emperor, and the mother of all the emperor's kids, including those who were given birth by imperial concubines.
Empress would have a grand coronation ceremony and had been respected as half-monarch and the mother of the empire.
Imperial Concubines were other women of the emperor and were designated into several hierarchies.
In certain circumstances, such as the current empress passed away or got abolished, they had the chance to be promoted as the new empress.
Empress Dowager usually was the mother of the current emperor, and sometimes the person in charge of the empire if the emperor was too young.
Imperial Jade Seal of Lv Zhi (? — 180 BC) the First Empress of China — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
How Many Wives Can A Chinese Emperor Have?
Generally, a Chinese emperor would have one living empress, since if an empress passed away before the emperor, she would still have the empress' title.
However, the empress was also a position with political power, some emperors didn't have any empresses, in order to maintain their absolute authority, such as Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), and Emperor Xianzong of Tang (778 — 820).
As for imperial concubines, an emperor usually would have several of them, based on his personal wish, and the political and economic situations of the empire.
What Were the Obligations and Authorities of the Empress?
With certain differences in each dynasty, in general, the empress as a political position should be in charge of:
Holding important sacrificial ceremonies;
Managing the whole Imperial Harems.
As half-monarch of the empire, an empress of China had some honorable privileges:
To have a grand coronation ceremony;
To accept greetings equally as the emperor;
To have her oldest son as the crown prince;
To be the mother of all kids of the emperor, including those who were given birth by imperial concubines;
To be respected as Empress Dowager after the current emperor passed away, no matter if the new emperor was her birth son or not.
As for Imperial Concubines, in general circumstances, their main responsibilities include serving the emperor, following the empress' lead, and giving birth to and raising kids.
Normally, the empress couldn't get involved in the empire's reign; however, some very ambitious ones had played important roles in politics and the imperial court as empresses, such as Dugu (544 — 602) and Wu Zetian (624 — 705).
How Was An Empress of China Chosen?
In ancient China, generally, a newly enthroned emperor would confer his married wife as the new empress, and concubines as imperial consorts.
However, because of the paramount power and honor, and the influence on the empire's future, selecting the empress had been considered a national affair.
It was firstly an important political decision, then considered the emperor's personal life.
Therefore, besides how, where the empresses were selected had been more crucial.
Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD): Everyone is possible. Royal princess like Chen A'jiao (first empress of the Emperor Wu of Han), official's daughter like Empress Deng Sui, civilian like Xu Pingjun (first empress of Emperor Xuan of Han), to slave singer like Empress Wei Zifu.
Song Dynasty (960 — 1279): Mostly from generals' families.
Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368): Mostly from Mongol noble clans.
Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644): Mostly from civilians or low-rank officials' families, to avoid the empress' clan to manipulate politics.
Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912): Mostly from Manchu and Mongol noble clans.
Why Some Empresses Abolished in History?
Even the empresses of China obtained paramount honor and power, and most of them came from or had support from noble and strong clans, some of them still got abolished by the emperor, because:
The empress committed crimes, such as Empress Zhang (queen of Emperor Suzong of Tang) that initiated a failed coup;
The empress did something immoral, such as Empress Xu (queen of Emperor Cheng of Han);
The empress' clan failed in political conflicts, such as Empress Huo (queen of Emperor Xuan of Han);
The empress' husband, the emperor got abolished, such as Empress Cao (queen of Emperor Xian of Han);
The empress lost the emperor's love.
In this situation, usually, there's another imperial concubine who had obtained the emperor's love and later would get the queen's crown. Such as Empress Guo (queen of Emperor Guangwu of Han), Empress Wang (queen of Emperor Gaozong of Tang, who then made Wu Zetian his next queen), and Empress Hu (queen of Emperor Xuanzong of Ming).
After an empress was abolished, she usually would be moved to a remote palace and live the rest of her life there.
Where Did Chinese Empresses Live?
In ancient China, an empress usually had her own palace, not very far away from the emperor's.
Throughout the history of ancient China, only a few couples that were deeply in love lived together in the same palace, such as Emperor Wen of Sui and Empress Dugu, Emperor Taizong of Tang and Empress Zhangsun, and Emperor Xiaozong of Ming and Empress Zhang.
Double-Dragon Golden Pendant of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) — Anhui Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
What Did Empresses Wear?
In the history of ancient China, empresses' attires differed in each dynasty, but they also had some common rules.
Hui Yi or Di Yi
Dark blue robes with Chinese Dragons and auspicious bird patterns, for the most important ceremonies, such as grand sacrificial and worship ceremonies, coronation, and weddings.
Red and Yellow
Generally, the most honorable red and yellow colors were exclusively used by the empress.
Other imperial concubines would wear other colors based on their hierarchies.
Extravagant Ceremonial Crowns of Empresses of China
In Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), empresses used different types of gold hairpins to decorate their hair and show their authority.
Since the Sui Dynasty (589 — 619), Flower-Tree Crown (in Chinese Hua Shu Guan) was the official ceremonial crown of the empress.
The Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) mainly followed Sui's style, with slightly simplified versions.
Presumptive Ceremonial Outfits (left for agricultural rites and right for meetings) of Empresses of Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), by Yangmeijianwu and Yanwang.
In the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), empresses would wear well decorated Gugu Crown, a cap crown that the married women wore in Mongolian tradition.
Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) recovered the Phoenix Crown, with slight differences in each emperor's reign period.
In Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), the style of empresses' crowns had changed, however, the Phoenix was still used as the main decorative pattern.
What Would Happen to Women in Imperial Harems if the Emperor Passed Away?
When an emperor passed away, a new emperor would ascend to the throne, and move to the imperial palace together with his women.
As for women of the departed emperor, their endings differed significantly:
The empress would be respected as empress dowager;
If the empress didn't give birth to the new emperor, his biological mother would be respected as a dowager, but inferior to the empress dowager;
Imperial concubines that had sons mostly were allowed to move out of the royal palace, to live with their sons in Feudatory lands;
High-ranked imperial concubines with no kids, some would be well-provided in nice palaces in the royal palace, and some may go home;
Low-ranked imperial concubines that without any kids, usually would be sent to guard the departed emperor's mausoleum, and spend the rest of their lives there;
In some eras, all imperial concubines without kids would be buried alive, to accompany their departed emperor in the afterworld.
List of Influential and Notable Chinese Empresses
Lv Zhi the Empress Gao of Han (? — 180 BC):
The first Empress of China, and the first woman that ruled a unified feudal empire.
As the wife of Liu Bang the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, Lv Zhi accompanied her husband from a civilian to the emperor of the unified Han Empire.
After Liu Bang passed away, Lv Zhi became the empress Dowager and reigned the empire as the real monarch.
Dou Yifang the Empress Xiaowen (? — 135 BC):
Starting from an imperial maid in Empress Lv's palace, Dou Yifang later was sent to serve a prince who later ascended to the throne as Emperor Wen of Han.
After her husband passed away, Dou gradually obtained power, significantly influenced politics during her son's reign period, and abolished reforms that were implemented by her grandson the Emperor Wu of Han.
Wang Zhi the Empress Xiaojing (? — 126 BC):
Remarried to the crown prince who later enthroned to be the Emperor Jing of Han.
As an imperial concubine, Wang Zhi found a great opportunity to ally with a powerful princess, together they made the emperor abolish the current crown prince.
Later, Wang Zhi was promoted as the empress, her son as the new crown prince, who was later enthroned as the accomplished Emperor Wu of Han.
Wei Zifu the Empress Si or Empress Xiaowu Wei (? — 91 BC):
The second empress of Emperor Wu of Han, and the first empress had an independent Posthumous Title, the "Si", which means to remember and memorize.
From a slave singer in a princess' palace, Wei Zifu impressed the emperor, give birth to the crown prince, later become the empress that managed the imperial harems well, and brought the empire two great generals (brother Wei Qing and nephew Huo Qubing) that achieved unprecedented military success in defeating Xiongnu.
In her late years, she sent troops to support her son that got framed up, and committed suicide after they failed.
Xu Pingjun the Empress Gong'ai (88 BC — 71 BC):
The beloved wife of Emperor Xuan of Han, fell in love with and accompanied her husband from a civilian to the monarch of the Han Empire, but was poisoned by political enemies.
Wang Zhengjun the Empress Xiaoyuan (71 BC — 13 AD):
Had never been loved by her husband the Emperor Yuan of Han, however, Empress Wang lived long enough to become Empress Dowager and Grand Empress Dowager.
However, unexpectedly, her nephew Wang Mang whom she had been supporting, later usurped the throne and ended the Han Empire.
Zhao Feiyan the Empress Xiaocheng Zhao (? — 1 BC):
A beautiful dancer that impressed the Emperor Cheng of Han, Zhao seized every opportunity to be nominated as the empress, and then the Empress Dowager after her husband passed away.
After failing in a political conflict, she got abolished to a civilian and committed suicide.
Yin Lihua the Empress Guanglie (5 — 64):
Married Liu Xiu when he was a civilian, but stayed as an imperial concubine after her husband reestablished the Han Empire, because of political concerns.
Until the newly built empire was finally stabilized, Liu Xiu finally gave the empress' crown to the love of his life Yin Lihua.
Deng Sui the Empress Hexi (81 — 121):
As an imperial concubine, Deng Sui earned the love of Emperor He of Han, because of her stunning beauty, decency, and kind personality. Hence, the emperor abolished his first wife and made Feng Sui his second empress.
After the emperor passed away, Deng Sui became empress dowager and reigned the empire as a capable monarch.
Cao Jie the Empress Xianmu (196 — 260):
The last empress of the Han Dynasty, the second wife of Emperor Xian of Han.
Her big brother forced the emperor to abdicate the throne and ended the Han Dynasty, despite her strong objections.
Afterward, she accompanied her husband and lived a peaceful life in their vassal state.
Empress Zhangsun or the Empress Wende (601 — 636):
One of the most benevolent, talented empresses in ancient China, the beloved wife of Emperor Taizong of Tang.
Born into a general's family, Zhangsun was brave, and smart, and had accompanied her husband from a general, a duke, a prince, and the crown prince, to one of the greatest emperors of China.
Empress Wu Zetian (624 — 705):
Starting as a low-rank imperial concubine of Emperor Taizong of Tang, Wu found her way to a high-rank imperial consort and then the empress of the Emperor Gaozong of Tang.
After her second husband passed away, she reigned the empire as empress dowager, later as the only female emperor in the history of China.
Empress Wei (? — 710):
Empress Wei was the beloved queen of Li Xian the Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (656 — 710), whose early life had been controlled and manipulated by Li Xian's mother Wu Zetian.
After Wu passed away, Empress Wei and her youngest daughter, Princess Anle (684 — 710) tried to seize power, as ambitious as Wu but failed tragically due to their incapability and greediness.
Yang Guifei (719 — 756):
Beloved imperial consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, Yang had never been given the crown as the empress.
But as the highest-ranked and most beloved imperial consort of the emperor, she had been respected and treated as a real empress, and her family obtained paramount power.
When a large-scale rebellion war caused huge destruction and seriously declined the empire, Yang took the blame for seducing the emperor and empowering her incapable brother, with her own life.
Liu E the Empress Zhangxian Mingsu (969 — 1033):
Liu was sold by her first husband to a prince who later ascended to the throne as Emperor Zhenzong of Song.
Among the emperor's big imperial harems, Liu was promoted level-by-level, until she adopted a baby boy that was given birth by one of her maids and was finally nominated as the empress.
After her husband passed away, Liu reigned the empire as empress dowager, as an ambitious and successful monarch.
Cao the Empress Cisheng Guangxian (1016 — 1079):
Second wife of the Emperor Renzong of Song, a well-respected, moral empress of Song.
After her husband passed away, she assisted the next two successive emperors and reigned the empire well.
Xiang the Empress Qinsheng (1046 — 1101):
Wife of Emperor Shenzong of Song, a kind, capable empress. After her husband passed away, as the empress dowager, she successively supported two princes to ascend to the throne.
One was Emperor Zhezong of Song, an accomplished monarch; another was the Emperor Huizong of Song, an exceptional artist but a horrible sovereign that ended the Song Empire.
Zhu Lian the Empress Renhuai (1102 — 1128):
Wife of Emperor Qinzong of Song, an incapable monarch that lost the capital city to the Jurchen Jin Dynasty and ended his empire.
When Song's royals were captured and forced to migrate northward, the empress committed suicide.
Li Fengniang the Empress Ciyi (1145 — 1200):
One of the most manipulative empresses in history, she alienated the relationship between her husband, the Emperor Guangzong of Song, and her in-laws.
Because of her inappropriate behaviors and strong influences on her husband, powerful officials and grand empress dowager allied together to ask the emperor to abdicate the throne and step back from politics.
Chabi the Empress Zhaorui Shunsheng (? — 1281):
The wife of Kublai Khan, very smart and decisive, and contributed to assisting her husband to compete and win the throne of the Mongol Empire.
Afterward, she was nominated as the empress and had a grand coronation ceremony, and supported Kublai Khan in establishing the Yuan Dynasty as a benevolent queen and a smart politician.
Empress Ma or Empress Xiaocigao (1332 — 1382):
A well-respected, virtuous empress, married her husband Zhu Yuanzhang when he was an officer in an uprising army, supported and accompanied him through all intense wars, until he founded the Ming Dynasty, and was crowned as the empress.
Empress Xu or Empress Renxiaowen (1362 — 1407):
A brave and smart girl, the daughter of Xu Da, a great marshal that contributed significantly to establishing the Ming Dynasty.
She was the true love of her husband Zhu Di and played important roles in supporting his snatching of the throne and reigning the empire as a great monarch.
Empress Zhang or Empress Chengxiaozhao (? — 1442):
Zhang was the empress of Emperor Renzong of Ming, who departed a few months after he was enthroned.
Empress Sun or Empress Xiaogongzhang (1399 — 1462):
A beautiful imperial consort and true love of Xuande Emperor, who abolished his first queen to make her the honorable empress.
When her son Zhu Qizhen encountered a big military loss and put the empire in danger, Sun put the empire's interest first and helped Ming survive this crisis.
Empress Qian or Empress Xiaozhuangrui (1426 — 1468):
After a grand wedding and coronation ceremony, Qian became the loved wife and empress of Emperor Zhu Qizhen.
After her husband lost a big war, got captured by nomadic enemies, then imprisoned by his brother, she accompanied him through the worst times.
Until Zhu Qizhen got the throne back, Qian was respected for the second time as the empress by her beloved husband, even though she didn't have any kids and faced strong challenges from other ambitious imperial concubines.
Empress Wang or Empress Xiaozhenchun (? — 1518):
Second empress of the Chenghua Emperor, but never had the emperor's love. In the emperor's imperial harems, the most beloved and respected woman was Consort Wan.
However, after the emperor passed away, Wang had been respected and well provided as empress dowager and grand empress dowager, until she passed away peacefully.
Empress Zhang or Empress Xiaokangjing (1471 — 1541):
Beloved empress of Hongzhi Emperor, the only emperor of China that had one wife.
However, the new emperor didn't treat her very well, which made Zhang live desolate and bleak in her late years.
Li the Empress Dowager Xiaoding (1546 — 1614):
Li was a high-rank imperial consort of the Longqing Emperor and was respected as the empress dowager after her son ascended to the throne as Wanli Emperor.
Since Wanli was enthroned when he was only nine years old, Li had been quite strict with the young emperor and trusted brilliant Zhang Juzheng as the regent who brought the empire a great reign.
Later, Li also played important role in supporting her oldest grandson as the crown prince.
Wang Xijie the Empress Xiaoduanxian (1564 — 1620):
Wang was the longest reign empress of China and the respected wife of the Wanli Emperor.
During her 42 years being the empress, she had been respected, loved, and trusted by her husband, the entire imperial harems, and Ming's officials.
Zhang Yan the Empress Yi'an (1606 — 1644):
After having been selected as the empress for her stunning beauty and decency, Zhang Yan was loved and respected by her husband the Tianqi Emperor.
Later, she played an important role in persuading her husband to give the throne to his mature younger brother, instead of a baby that would be manipulated by the eunuch group.
When a peasant rebellion army broke into the capital city, Zhang committed suicide, on the same day as the current Chongzhen Emperor and his queen Zhou, Empress Xiaojielie.
Bumbutai the Empress Xiaozhuangwen (1613 — 1688):
She was an imperial consort of Emperor Taizong of Qing and was respected as empress dowager after her son ascended to the throne as the Shunzhi Emperor.
As a successful politician, she assisted her son, and later her grandson the Kangxi Emperor, in stabilizing, expanding, and flourishing the empire.
Empress Xiaoshengxian (1693 — 1777):
An imperial consort of Yongzheng Emperor, mother of Qianlong Emperor, one of the most longevity empress dowagers in history.
Empress Nara (1718 — 1766):
Second empress of Qianlong Emperor, promoted from an imperial consort. Her relationship with the emperor had been quite good until they had a big fight, and the reason is still unknown.
Nara passed away about a year later and was buried using an imperial consort's ceremony.
Qianlong Emperor didn't officially abolish her as the queen and didn't nominate another empress after her death.
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 — 1908):
An imperial consort of Xianfeng Emperor, and later got promoted as empress dowager after her son ascended to the throne as Tongzhi Emperor.
Empress Dowager Longyu (1868 — 1913):
Longyu was assigned to be the empress of Guangxu Emperor, by her powerful aunt Empress Dowager Cixi.
But in this political marriage, she was never liked by the emperor.
After Guangxu Emperor passed away, Cixi supported the three-year-old Pu Yi as the new emperor, and Longyu became the empress dowager.
In the year 1912, as the last empress dowager in the history of China, on behalf of the young emperor, Longyu promulgated the Imperial Rescript of Emperor Xuantong's Abdication, which ended the Qing Dynasty.
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