Empress Wei and Princess Anle — Ambitious but Failed Power Seizure

Empress Wei (? — 710) was the beloved queen of Li Xian the Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (656 — 710), and Li Guoer the Princess Anle (684 — 710) was their youngest daughter.

 

Their early lives had been controlled and manipulated by Li Xian's mother Wu Zetian (624 — 705), the only female emperor of China.

 

After Wu passed away, Empress Wei and Princess Anle tried to seize power, as ambitious as Wu, but failed tragically due to their incapability and greediness.

Tang Dynasty Painted Figurine of Noble Woman Riding Horse

Tang Dynasty Painted Figurine of Noble Woman Riding Horse — Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Enthronement and Abolishment

 

Li Xian was the third son of Empress Wu. His first brother died young; his second older brother displeased Wu, got banished, and was then forced to commit suicide by Wu.

 

Hence, Li Xian became the crown prince and was enthroned after his father Emperor Gaozong (628 — 683) passed away.

 

Wei married Li Xian when he was the crown prince, and became the queen after he was enthroned.

 

Li Xian loved Wei deeply and empowered Wei's family right after he got the throne.

 

This displeased his mother Wu, who abolished Li Xian only 55 days after his enthronement.

 

Li Xian's younger brother (the fourth son of Wu) was supported as the new puppet emperor, while he was demoted as a prince, relocated and half imprisoned in another city.

Unearthed Gilding Copper Knocker (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of Li Xian (the Second Son of Empress Wu Zetian and Emperor Li Zhi)

Gilding Copper Knocker (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of the Second Son of Empress Wu Zetian — Qianling Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Instability and Fear Under Wu's Reign

 

To Li Xian, the imprisoned life was full of fear.

Many royals from the Li clan and officials were opposed to Wu's sovereignty over the Tang Empire, so they initiated many rebellions against Wu.

These rebellions burst out in many different places, but they all had the same purpose and claim: to support Li Xian back to the throne.

They were all conquered by Wu's army, and the royals from the House of Li were all executed by Wu.

Li Xian was quite fearful the whole time, though he had never been involved in any of these rebellious armies.

Emperor Wu Zetian also would send officials to teach and warn him, which many times, made him want to commit suicide.

Painting of Queen Wu Zetian Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty

Painting of Empress Wu Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China

During this unstable and unsettling life, Wei was the only woman that accompanied Li Xian through all the ups and downs and encouraged him through all the life and death crises.

Their youngest daughter Li Guoer was born during this period. This beautiful and cute girl brought her parent many happy moments in that difficult era.

A few years later, Wu changed her mind, moved them back to the capital city, and announced Li Xian as the crown prince for the second time.

However, their promoted titles didn't bring them improved living conditions.

Li Xian and Wei's only son and another daughter were executed by Wu, after having been framed for rebellion.

Que Buildings in Fresco on Mausoleum of Prince Yide, Grandson of Empress Wu Zetian (624 — 705).

Que Buildings in Fresco on Mausoleum of Prince Yide, the Wrongly Executed Only Son of Li Xian and Wei. 

Gaining and Abusing Power

When Wu was sick in bed, some powerful officials allied with Li Xian's younger brother and Princess Taiping, initiated a coup to ask Wu to give the throne back to Li Xian.

A few months later, Wu passed away; Li Xian obtained the throne and power and selflessly shared it with his queen Wei and Princess Anle.

The new emperor indulged their desires both out of a sense of love and as a means of compensating them for their difficult years together.

He gave them everything they asked for and ignored all illegal behaviors they committed.

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Cup of Tang — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

They sold political positions, murdered officials who opposed them, wrongfully occupied lands belonging to others and engaged in other illegal activities.

Li Guoer also got pregnant before she was married, and then cheated on her first husband.

What's more, Li Guoer’s secret ambition was to become the second female emperor in the history of China, just as her grandmother Wu Zetian had done before.

And Empress Wei also supported this idea, since her only son was executed, and she didn't want to support another imperial concubine's son.

To achieve this end, she and Empress Wei insulted and falsely accused the crown prince (an imperial concubine's son) of wrongdoing in an attempt to steal his title and be designated as “crown princess.”

Building Complex of Daming Palace

Building Complex of Daming Palace, the Royal Palace of the Tang Dynasty, Based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

Failed Coup with Tragic Ending

However, the title of the "crown princess", the legit inheritance of the empire, was one thing the emperor would not allow.

Li Xian's patience with Princess Anle's misdeeds finally wore out when she and her husband murdered an important imperial censor.

Realizing that the emperor’s attitude might have changed, Empress Wei and Princess Anle poisoned the emperor.

There are other sayings that Anle didn't nominate as "crown princess" because of other powerful officials' strong opponents, and Wei and Anle didn't poison Emperor Li Xian.

After Emperor Li Xian passed away, Empress Wei, with the support of Princess Anle and female chancellor Shangguan Wan'er, supported a teenage prince (whose mother was an imperial concubine of Li Xian) and reigned the country as the empress dowager.

Unearthed Copper Mirror Decorated with Mythical Animals and Grape Patterns

Copper Mirror of Tang Dynasty — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

At the same time, they started to plan to dispel other royals that may threaten their consolidating and expanding power.

According to some different sayings, Wei planned to claim herself as the female emperor as Wu Zetian did before, and nominate Anle as her heir to the throne.

However, before they could obtain the throne, the deceased emperor’s nephew Li Longji and Princess Taiping initiated a counter-coup and stopped them.  

Empress Wei and Princess Anle were killed by soldiers in this coup, their royal titles were banished, and the Wei clan got perished as well.

The throne, then went to Li Dan, the father of Li Longji, also the brother of Princess Taiping.

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Inscriptions on Mount Tai Written by Li Longji (the Gold Characters on the Right) After He was Enthroned, to Memorize the Grand Fengshan Ceremony