Shulü Ping – The Empress who cut off her hand to prevent herself from being sacrificed

Shulü Ping

In the early days of the Liao Dynasty, there was a custom that when a husband died, his widow must be buried alive with her late husband at his funeral. However, one widow did not want to sacrifice herself. To keep herself alive, she cut off her right hand as a substitute for her death. This widow was Empress Dowager Shulü Ping. She was legendary for being a skilled warrior, a brilliant military strategist, and a capable politician. Empress Dowager Shulü Ping proved to be a fighter to the very end.

Empress Dowager Shulü Ping was born on 19 October 879 C.E. On her father’s side, she was of Uighur ancestry.[1] The Uighurs were people of Turkish origins who had lived for centuries in North China.[2] Her father was Po Gu, the leader of the Yaonian clan.[3] Her mother was the daughter of the King Yongdesh of the Khitan kingdom.[4] Shulü Ping’s childhood nickname was Yueliduo.[5]

Shulü Ping was fourteen years old when she was married to Abaoji, who was the great-nephew of her mother and the grandson of King Yongdesh. In 901 C.E., Abaoji was the chief of the Yila tribe. In 903 C.E., Abaoji commanded the Khitan army.[6] In 907 C.E., Abaoji was made King of Khitan and Shulü Ping became queen.[7] However, King Abaoji wanted to adopt Chinese customs in his empire. In 916 C.E., Abaoji declared himself Emperor of the Khitan Empire.[8] He made Shulü Ping Empress and renamed her as Yingtian which meant “Empress of brilliant Earth in response to Heaven.”[9] Because the Khitan did not have last names, he made surnames permanent in Khitan.[10] He made his last name Yelü and Shulü Ping’s last name was Xiao.[11] In 947 C.E., the Khitan Empire was renamed the Liao Dynasty.[12]

Empress Yingtian gave birth to three sons.[13] It was said that she was an excellent fighter and a brilliant military strategist.[14] She often consulted with her husband on military matters.[15] They launched military campaigns against the northwest.[16] Empress Yingtian commanded her own encampment that consisted of two hundred thousand cavalry.[17] She repelled the attack of the Shi Wei tribes.[18] Therefore, Empress Yingtian began to gain respect from people in the northwest.[19]

The Khitan dynasty became a strong and respected nation, and many warlords often sought their alliance.[20] Li Sheng, the Emperor of Southern Tang Dynasty, sent him petroleum that could start fires for his military campaigns.[21] However, Empress Yingtian advised her husband against using petroleum because it was very risky.[22] They also maintained a good relationship with Prince Li Keyoung.[23] However, they became enemies with Prince Li Keyoung’s son, Li Cunxu, the founder of the Later Tang Dynasty (See the article about Empress Liu Jin’gui for more information about Li Cunwu’s background).[24] 

In 922 C.E., Prince Li Cunxu attacked the state of Zhengzhou, in which Emperor Abaoji had a vested interest. Empress Yingtian advised her husband not to go to war for Zhengzhou because of Prince Li Cunxu’s military strength.[25] Emperor Abaoji did not heed his wife’s advice and suffered defeat at the hands of Prince Li Cunxu.[26] Empress Yingtian also recommended Han Yanhui.[27] He became Emperor Abaoji’s most capable minister.[28] Han Yanhui adopted the Tang Dynasty administration system, created an efficient taxation system, and settled disputes among the tribes.[29]

In 926 C.E., Emperor Abaoji suddenly fell ill and died while launching a battle against the Koreans.[30] In Khitan, it was custom for the widow to be buried alive with her deceased husband at his funeral.[31] When the officials requested her to die with her husband, Empress Yingtian protested by saying, “My children are young, and the country has no leader.”[32] Then, she cut off her own right hand and buried it in her husband’s coffin at the funeral.[33] The officials deemed Empress Yingtian’s right hand as a suitable substitute for her sacrifice. She was called the “Empress Dowager With a Missing Hand.”[34] 

After the sacrifice, Empress Dowager Yingtian became regent to her eldest son, Yelü Bei. However, Empress Dowager Yingtian preferred her second son, Yelü Deguang, as the Emperor instead.[35] With the help of the ministers, she successfully deposed Yelü Bei and made Yelü Deguang Emperor in 927 C.E.[36] Yelü Deguang became known as Emperor Taizong. Yelü Bei left the Khitan kingdom and moved to the Later Tang kingdom where he became a famous painter and poet.[37] Emperor Taizong was merely a puppet emperor.[38] Empress Dowager Yingtian was the actual ruler.[39] She made all the decisions on state matters.[40] Empress Dowager Yingtian made her niece marry Emperor Taizong’s son.[41] Empress Dowager Yingtian also advised her son on military matters.[42]

In 947 C.E., Emperor Taizong died after he successfully invaded the Later Jin Dynasty kingdom.[43] He was succeeded by Yelü Bei’s son named Yelü Wuyu, who ascended the throne as Emperor Shizong.[44] Empress Dowager Yingtian was angry that her grandson ascended the throne and wanted her youngest son, Yelü Lihu, to become the Emperor.[45] She waged a civil war against Emperor Shizong in favour of Yelü Lihu but ultimately lost.[46] Emperor Shizong banished her and Yelü Lihu to Zuzhou (modern-day Balingzur in Inner Mongolia).[47] Once she arrived, she was placed under house arrest for seven years until her death on 1 August 953 C.E.[48] She was seventy-four years old. She was buried beside her husband Emperor Abaoji in Zu Mausoleum.[49] 

Even though Empress Dowager Shulü Ping ultimately lost against Emperor Shizong, she was one of the most powerful women of her time. She fought in battles, planned brilliant military campaigns, and even defied the customs of sacrificing herself at her husband’s funeral. Furthermore, she deposed one ruler and installed another one she deemed worthy. She was so powerful during the reign of Emperor Taizong that she was the de facto ruler of the Khitan kingdom. This proved that she was accomplished in both military and state affairs. It is no wonder that Empress Dowager Shulü Ping won the admiration of the Chinese people and why her name has become legendary throughout the nation.


Yunhuang, L. (2015). “Xulu Ping”. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed., Z. Binzhong, Trans.). London: Routledge. pp. 251-254.

Li, M. (2014). “Shü Ping, Empress of Emperor Taizu of Liao.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II: Tang Through Ming 618 – 1644. (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.). NY: Routledge. pp. 364-367.

McMahon, K. (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ping, S. (2010). The Feudal Empresses of Ancient China (Imperial Cultures of China Series (English Edition)). Beijing, China: China Intercontinental Press.

[1] Yunhuang, 2015

[2] Li, 2014

[3] Yunhuang, 2015

[4] Yunhuang, 2015

[5] Li, 2014

[6] Li, 2014

[7] Li, 2014

[8] Li, 2014

[9] Li, 2014, p. 364

[10] McMahon, 2013

[11] McMahon, 2013

[12] Li, 2014

[13] McMahon, 2013

[14] Li, 2014

[15] Li, 2014

[16] Yunhuang, 2015

[17] Li, 2014

[18] Yunhuang, 2015

[19] Yunhuang, 2015

[20] Li, 2014

[21] Li, 2014

[22] Li, 2014

[23] Li, 2014

[24] Li, 2014

[25] Li, 2014

[26] Li, 2014

[27] Li, 2014

[28] Li, 2014

[29] Li, 2014

[30] Li, 2014

[31] McMahon, 2013

[32] Li, 2014, p. 366

[33] Li, 2014

[34] Yunhuang, 2015, p. 252

[35] McMahon, 2013

[36] Li, 2014

[37] Li, 2014

[38] Ping, 2010

[39] Ping, 2010

[40] Ping, 2010

[41] Ping, 2010

[42] Li, 2014

[43] Li, 2014

[44] McMahon, 2013

[45] Yunhuang, 2015

[46] McMahon, 2013

[47] Yunhuang, 2015

[48] Li, 2014

[49] Li, 2014

About Lauralee Jacks 162 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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