Zhao Feiyan — A Civilian Born, Gorgeous Dancer Queen of the Han Dynasty

Zhao Feiyan (45 BC — 1 BC), also named Zhao Yizhu, was quite famous for her stunning beauty and excellent dancing skills in the history of China.

From a civilian to the queen of Emperor Cheng of Han (51 BC — 7 BC), and then the Empress Dowager that respected by the Emperor Ai of Han (27 BC — 1 BC), Zhao Feiyan relied not only on her exceptional gorgeousness but also her schemes, political talent and insight.

However, destiny didn’t always favor her.

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty —  Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Gorgeous Dancer that Impressed the Emperor

Zhao Feiyan and her sister Zhao Hede were born into a poverty civilian’s family, so they were sent to a princess’ mansion, where they learned singing and dancing. 

One day, the current Emperor Cheng of Han Liu Ao came to the princess’ place and fell in love with Zhao Feiyan at first sight. He was quite obsessed with her exceptional dancing skill and beauty and took her back to the royal palace immediately.  

Later, the emperor was told that Zhao Feiyan’s younger sister named Zhao Hede, was even more beautiful. Then he welcomed Hede to his palace as soon as he could and nominated her as honored imperial consort as well.

Zhao Feiyan was very slender and beautiful, and she could dance in a delicate golden tray. She and her sister’s talents deeply attracted the emperor, who spent most of his free time with them.

Strong “ Romantic Rivals” of Zhao Feiyan

However, Zhao Feiyan was not satisfied, even she already got an honorable royal title, countless treasures, and the emperor’s love and attention. 

She and her sister started to compete with their strong “romantic enemies”. 

Emperor Cheng of Han had a male lover named Zhang Fang, they were truly in love before. After his mother, Empress Dowager Wang demoted Zhang Fang to a remote place, they still kept sending love letters to each other. 

Empress Xiao Cheng Xu (? — 8 BC), the current queen of the emperor, was a beautiful, decent, highborn girl. She married Liu Ao at a young age, and in the first ten years of their marriage, she almost got the emperor’s full attention and love. 

Gilding Copper Wine Cup (Er Bei) and Its Shelf of the Han Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

After their little son and daughter all passed away young, and the queen grew older, the emperor started to like other women. However, she was still the honored queen, let alone she came from the Xu Clan (Emperor Liu Ao’s grandmother’s clan).

Ban Jieyu (48 BC — 2 BC), was the emperor’s favorite woman after the queen. Besides her outstanding appearance, she was also a talented poet and literature in the history of China.  

She never abused her power and kept persuading the emperor to care more about his empire, and to stay self-disciplined and benevolent. Hence, the Empress Dowager Wang, the emperor, and officials all liked, and highly respected Ban.

Eliminating of Competitors

 

Zhao Feiyan and her sister together, they demanded the emperor to stop writing to Zhang Fang. Afterward, Zhang Fang never heard from the emperor again, until death.

A few months after Zhao Feiyan and her sister came to the royal palace, she reported to Empress Dowager Wang that the current queen had been implementing witchcraft to curse the Wang Clan and the emperor, and Ban Jieyu was an accomplice as well. 

It was not clear whether the queen Xu tried to curse the Wang Clan, or the Zhao sisters, but Xu did use witchcrafts.  

Hence, Xu was abolished. She tried everything to get her crown back in the next few years, including bribery; after having been found out, she was forced to commit suicide.

Unearthed Amulet (Ya Sheng Pai) of the Han Dynasty that was Used to Curse Other People, Defeat Evilness, or To Pray for Good Luck — Hebei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ban Jieyu, however, defended herself perfectly when the emperor was inquiring about her.

 

She insisted that if deities and ghosts are smart and perceptive, they won’t listen to evil people’s prayers; if they are not, then it’s even more useless to do those things.

The emperor was persuaded. But Ban was aware that Zhao Feiyan and her sister would do more things to attack her in the future. 

So, Ban applied to move into the Empress Dowager Wang’s palace to serve her and left the emperor to the Zhao sisters. 

After the emperor passed away, Ban applied to guard his mausoleum, until she passed away.

Queen Zhao Feiyan and Her Reign of the Royal Palace

After those romantic rivals all gone, Zhao Feiyan told the emperor that she wanted to be the queen. 

However, the Empress Dowager Wang didn’t agree, since Zhao came from an ordinary family. 

Hence, Zhao Feiyan bribed Empress Dowager Wang’s nephew, who could speak good things for her.

Then, the emperor awarded Zhao’s father a high rank, noble title. Two months later, he finally nominated the “highborn” Zhao Feiyan as his queen and promoted her sister Zhao Hede.

Feiyan and Hede had no babies during more than 10 years of them being with the emperor; other imperial concubines didn’t have any alive kids either.

Some believed Hede, maybe Feiyan herself included, killed two babies of the emperor. 

Unearthed Lacquer Plate of the Han Dynasty — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Zhao Feiyan’s Political Investment 

When the emperor got older but childless, many officials started to suggest him to adopt a boy from other royal families to be the heir. 

Zhao Feiyan seized this opportunity, and recommended Liu Xin, a nephew of the emperor, and played an important role in making him be the crown prince.

One year after the heir was settled, Emperor Liu Ao died in Zhao Hede’s bed, out of sudden. 

Liu Ao had been strong and healthy, hence, his sudden death aroused wide suspicions and critics against Hede. Most people believed that she seduced the emperor to eat or do something unusual, which led to his departure. 

Then, Zhao Hede knew she had no choice, and committed suicide.

Eyebrow Pencil and Its Raw Stone of the Han Dynasty — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Afterward, Liu Xin, also respected as Emperor Ai of Han, ascended to the throne. 

At that time, many people considered Zhao Feiyan and Zhao Hede as a whole and accused Feiyan also need to take responsibility for emperor Liu Ao’s sudden death.    

But as one of the strongest supporters of Liu Xin’s enthronement, Zhao Feiyan was well protected by her political followers and respected as honored Empress Dowager by the new emperor. 

 

The former powerful Wang Clan, however, was gradually weakened and estranged by the new emperor Liu Xin.

Deer Shaped Bronze Artifact (Tong Zhen) of the Han Dynasty Decorated with Shell that was used to Press Sitting Mat — National Museum of China  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Unfortunate Ending of Zhao Feiyan

Zhao Feiyan lived a comfortable, honored life as the Empress Dowager until 7 years later, Emperor Liu Xin dead out of sudden.

It was quite unexpected that the emperor departed as a 25-year-old young man, and left the empire with no child, nor legit heir. 

The former Empress Dowager Wang immediately took over the Han Empire’s imperial seal and summoned back her nephew Wang Mang, the former powerful regent that was demoted by Emperor Liu Xin.

The Wang Clan then enthroned a 9-year-old kid as the new emperor, while Wang Mang as the most powerful regent.

Afterward, Emperor Liu Xin’s former supporters were eliminated. 

Zhao Feiyan and Liu Xin’s queen had their noble titles removed, and were sent to imperial mausoleums, as civilians to guard there.  

They committed suicide the day they arrived at the graves and were poorly buried nearby. 

Posthumous Reputation in History and Literature 

After Zhao Feiyan’s death, her former political enemy, the Wang Clan, criticized her and her sister Zhao Hede for seducing Emperor Liu Ao, having killed the emperor’s babies,  involving in political issues that jeopardized the Han Empire’s reign.  

Zhao Feiyan did seduce her husband, implemented schemes to get herself the queen’s crown, and recommended Liu Xin, a qualified emperor, to the Han Empire.

But for the rest of the crimes that people accused her, there’s no concrete evidence.

However, ironically, the righteous regent Wang Mang, about a decade later, usurped the throne, ended the Han Dynasty, and established his new empire.

Gradually, more gossips and stories of the Zhao sisters were made up in novels, including that they cheated on the emperor, faked pregnancy, stole a baby from out of the royal palace, and how they used pills to stay beauty and allure, etc.

The truth probably will be buried in history forever. But with no doubt, Zhao Feiyan was stunningly beautiful, exceptionally great at dancing, and quite smart and decisive in seizing opportunities to get what she wanted.  

Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty, With Inscriptions "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness) — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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