The Dugu Sisters – Three Sisters, Three Empresses, Three Successive Chinese Dynasties

The three Empresses in The Legend of Dugu (Screenshot/Fair Use)

In the sixth century, there lived a general named Dugu Xin. He came from a non-Chinese clan that was said to have a vast network of connections and influences throughout the various kingdoms of China.[1] Dugu Xin was a military general who had served both the Northern Wei and Western Wei dynasties.[2] He eventually became Duke of Henai during the Northern Zhou dynasty. As much power and influence that he wielded, he was no match for his daughters. Three of his daughters played a pivotal role during three different Chinese dynasties.[3] This would change the history of China forever. In order to paint a more comprehensive look at these three different queens, I am not going to discuss them by age, but rather by discussing the history of the Chinese dynasties.

Empress Mingjing (Empress of Northern Zhou Dynasty)

Empress Mingjing was Dugu Xin’s eldest daughter.[4] She married Yuwen Yu, the Duke of Ningdu Commandery.[5] It is possible they may have known each other before their marriage because their fathers had fought alongside each other while serving in the Western Wei military.[6] Thus, Lady Dugu became a duchess. Lady Dugu could have remained in history as a duchess. However, events were happening within the Zhou dynasty that would change her life forever.

Yuwen Yu’s cousin, Yuwen Hu, was the regent to the emperor of the Zhou dynasty.[7] In 557, Yuwen Yu’s brother, Yuwen Jue, led a coup against Yuwen Hu and the emperor of Zhou.[8] He usurped the throne from the emperor and proclaimed himself as the Emperor Xiaomin of the Zhou dynasty.[9] Later historians would call his reign the start of the Northern Zhou dynasty.[10] This was because there were many changes to the Chinese dynasty, including the naming of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) as the capital.[11]

In the first year of Emperor Xiaomin’s reign, Lady Dugu’s father, Dugu Xin, was implicated in a plot to kill Yuwen Hu, the powerful former Zhou regent.[12] There is no evidence on whether he was involved.[13] Dugu Xin was stripped of his posts and was forced to commit suicide.[14] There is no record of how Lady Dugu and her sisters felt about their father’s death.

Meanwhile, Lady Dugu’s husband, Yuwen Yu, became a pillar of state and was given the office of regional inspector of Qizhou.[15] Yuwen Yu would not rest long, for soon, he would be the next emperor.

Emperor Xiaomin planned to get rid of Yuwen Hu. Before Emperor Xiaomin could act, Yuwen Hu deposed and killed Emperor Xiaomin.[16] Yuwen Hu then made Yuwen Yu emperor in 558. He became Emperor Ming.[17] Lady Dugu became empress.[18] Her reign as empress was short-lived because she died three months later on 14 May 558.[19] She was buried with the rights of an empress. The emperor did not live long after her death. In 560, he was poisoned, most likely by Yuwen Hu.[20] He died at the age of 27.

Empress Dugu (Empress of Sui Dynasty)

Of the three Dugu sisters, she is perhaps the most famous, documented, and influential. We actually know her real name, Dugu Qieluo.[21] She was the seventh and youngest daughter of Dugu Xin. At the age of 14, she was engaged to Yang Jian, who was 16.[22] Yang Jian’s father, Yang Zhong, had fought under Dugu Xin while serving Northern Wei and Western Wei dynasties. Yang Zhong reached a prominent position during the Northern Zhou dynasty and was granted the dukedom of Sui.[23]

Dugu Qieluo and Yang Jian fell madly in love with each other.[24] Yang Jian was handsome and had many extraordinary talents.[25] Yang Jian swore to Dugu Qieluo that he would never have any children with any other woman.[26] It was an oath that he would uphold most of the time throughout their long marriage, even when he was crowned emperor.[27] By not having any concubines while his wife was alive was unprecedented in Chinese history.[28] He would become China’s monogamous emperor.

In 568, Yang Jian became the Duke of Sui after his father’s death, and Dugu Qieluo became Duchess.[29] Dugu Qieluo gave birth to five sons and three daughters. As Empress Mingjing’s sister, she was granted respect and prominence in the Northern Zhou Dynasty. Her eldest daughter, Yang Lihua, would be empress to Xuan of Northern Zhou.[30] During his son-in-law’s reign, they began to grow so powerful that their power eclipsed that of the emperor. By the time Dugu Qieluo’s eight-year-old grandson, Emperor Jing, ascended the throne, Yang Jian already had complete control of the court.[31] Emperor Jing quickly yielded the throne to his grandfather, which Yang Jian accepted.[32] Yang Jian became Emperor Wen and started the Sui dynasty, named after his dukedom. Dugo Qieluo became empress.[33]

Because Emperor Wen did not have any concubines, Empress Dugu became very influential. They often discussed politics and state. She would accompany him to the court hall and hired eunuchs to keep her appraised of the topics discussed in court.[34] She also advised him if she did not agree with any of his decisions. Because of her influence over her husband, the palace nicknamed the couple, “the two emperors”.[35] This shows how much the emperor loved and respected her. In 589, China became reunited under the Sui dynasty. They had defeated the other dynasties, and now the only dynasty was the Sui.

Empress Dugu was known to be frugal and cut down many expenses. She wore plain, simple, clothes and forbade the palace women from wearing extravagant clothes.[36] Due to her influence, the emperor and the crown prince also began to live a frugal life.[37]However, Empress Dugu was not entirely benevolent, and Emperor Wen was not entirely faithful.

Historians have described her to be overly jealous and possessive of the emperor.[38] She closely guarded the emperor’s access to women from the back palace[39] and constantly reminded him about the oath he made to her at 16.[40] However, one day when Empress Dugu fell ill, Emperor Wen began to see a slave, who was a descendant of a rebellious official, and had sexual relations with her.[41] When Empress Dugu found out about the affair, she had the woman killed.[42] Emperor Wen was so mad at his wife that he got on a horse and rode twenty miles away from the palace until his ministers caught up with him.[43] They persuaded him to come back to the palace, and Emperor Wen reluctantly agreed. Once he arrived back at the palace, the empress cried and begged for his forgiveness.[44] Once the officials hosted a banquet in their honour, the couple reconciled.[45]

Historians also criticised Dugu for changing the heir apparent from their eldest son to their second eldest son, Yang Guang.[46] This would change the course of Chinese history and would bring about the end of the short-lived Sui dynasty. Empress Dugu disliked her eldest son because he had many concubines.[47] In 591, when the crown princess died from an illness, Empress Dugu believed that it was because one of the crown prince’s concubines had poisoned her.[48] She blamed the crown prince for the death and convinced Emperor Wen to name Yang Guang crown prince instead.[49] Yang Guang seemed to live frugally and showed Empress Dugu that he loved his wife, which pleased his mother. This was only an act to get to the throne because when he became emperor, he was a tyrant.[50] He gave the opportunity for Empress Dugu’s nephew, Li Yuan, to overthrow the Sui dynasty and found the Tang dynasty.

On 10 September 602, Empress Dugu died at the age of fifty.[51] After her death, Emperor Wen was greatly saddened but had taken two concubines.[52] He died in 604 and was buried with Empress Dugu. Empress Dugu seemed to be a very influential and respected figure. In a time of polygamy, she favoured the belief of a monogamous marriage. She saw the creation of Sui dynasty and the reunification of Sui. However, her decisions with the changing of the crown prince would end the Sui dynasty and the beginning of the Tang.

Empress Yuanzhen (Posthumous Empress of Tang Dynasty)

Empress Yuanzhen was the fourth daughter of Dugu Xin.[53] She married Li Bing, the Duke of Tang.[54] Duchess Dugu gave birth to Li Yuan.[55] After his father’s death in 572, Li Yuan inherited the duchy of Tang. He overthrew the Sui dynasty and formed the Tang dynasty named after his fiefdom.[56] He became Emperor Gaozu of Tang. As emperor, he honoured his mother by posthumously making her empress. She is known in history as Empress Yuanzhen.

There have been some major political families throughout history. Think about the Borgias, the Windsors, the Kennedys. However, it is difficult to imagine any other family of women who had so much influence wielded over the history of a nation. These three daughters of Dugu Xin were truly remarkable for they became empresses in different dynasties.


Eisenberg, Andrew. Kingship in Early Medieval China. Brill, 2008.

Knechtges, David R., and Taiping Chang, editors. “Yuwen Yu (534-560), Emperor Ming of

    Northern Zhou Dynasty (r. 557-560).” Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature (Vol. 3

    and 4): A Reference Guide, Part Three And Four, Brill, 2014, pp. 2114–2116.

Lewis, Mark Edward. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. The Belknap Press of

     Harvard University Press, 2009.

Long, Laura. “Dugu, Empress of Emperor Wen of Sui.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese

    Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E.-618 C.E., edited by Lily Xiao Hong Lee et al.,

    M.E. Sharpe, 2007, pp. 275–278.

McMahon, Keith. Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to

     Liao. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

Xiong, Victor Cunrui. Historical Dictionary of Medieval China. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

[1] Long, p. 275

[2] Long, p. 275

[3] Lewis, p. 201

[4] Long, p. 275

[5] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[6] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114; Long, p. 275

[7] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[8] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[9] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[10]Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[11]Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[12]Eisenberg, p. 145

[13]Eisenberg, p. 145

[14]Eisenberg, p. 145

[15] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[16] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[17] Long, p. 275

[18] Long, p. 275.

[19] Long, p. 275

[20] Knechtges & Chang, p. 2114

[21] Long, p. 275

[22] Long, p. 275

[23] Long, p. 275

[24] Long, p. 275

[25] Long, p. 275

[26] Long, p. 275

[27] McMahon, p. 182

[28] McMahon, p. 182

[29] Long, p. 275

[30] McMahon, p. 182, Long, p. 276

[31] Long, p. 276

[32] Long, p. 276

[33] Long, p. 276

[34] Long, p. 276

[35] Long, p. 276

[36] Long, p. 277

[37] Long, p. 277

[38] McMahon, p. 182, Long, p. 277

[39] McMahon, p. 182

[40] Long, p. 277

[41] Long, p. 277

[42] Long, p. 277

[43] Long, p. 277

[44] Long, p. 277

[45] Long, p. 277

[46] Long, 277

[47] Long, 277-278

[48] Long, p. 278

[49] Long, p. 278

[50] Long, p. 278

[51] Long, p. 278

[52] Long, p. 278

[53] Xiong, p. 25

[54] Xiong, p. 154

[55] Xiong, p. 154

[56] Xiong, p. 154

About Lauralee Jacks 84 Articles
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. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. 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 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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