Empress Cao Jie – The last Empress of the Han Dynasty




Empress Cao Jie as portrayed by Wang Yuwen in Secret of the Three Kingdoms

Empress Cao Jie was the last Empress of the Han Dynasty. She was the second Empress of Emperor Xian, the last Emperor of the Han Dynasty. Empress Cao Jie was the daughter of Cao Cao, who was a military tyrant who controlled the Han Empire. Despite being from a family that caused the fall of the Han Dynasty, Empress Cao Jie has often been deemed a hero.[1] She is seen as a loyal wife who tried to protect both her husband and the Han Dynasty.[2]

In circa 196 C.E., Empress Cao Jie was born in Xuchang.[3] Her father was the infamous military tyrant named Cao Cao (who would later be posthumously known as Emperor Wu of Wei).[4] She had numerous brothers and sisters. During the last years of the Han Dynasty, it was very chaotic.[5] There were many wars and uprisings that would cause the downfall of the Han Dynasty.[6] Cao Cao eventually came out as the victor of these wars and had complete control of the Han court.[7] Emperor Xian was his puppet.[8] In 213 C.E., Cao Cao declared himself the Duke of Wei.[9]

Two months later, Cao Cao presented his three daughters—Cao Xian, Cao Jie, and Cao Hua—as potential concubines for Emperor Xian.[10] Emperor Xian accepted them and gave them each the title of Worthy Lady.[11] Cao Xian and Cao Jie immediately entered the palace. Cao Hua was still a child, so she had to be sent home for a year before she could enter the palace as an imperial concubine.[12] Afterwards, Minister Wang Yi and Marquis Ting of Anyang came to his home to congratulate him on his daughters being made imperial concubines.[13]

In late 214 C.E., Cao Cao learned that Empress Fu Shou had plotted an assassination attempt. He deposed Empress Fu Shou and imprisoned her. On 8 January 215 C.E., Empress Fu Shou died. Empress Fu Shou’s death left the Empress position vacant. On 6 March 215 C.E., Cao Jie was officially invested as Empress of China. Empress Cao Jie bore Emperor Xian a daughter named Liu Man.

On 15 March 220 C.E., Cao Cao died. He was succeeded by his son, Cao Pi. Unlike Cao Cao, who was content with having a puppet Emperor, Cao Pi desired the throne for himself.[14] Cao Pi immediately forced Emperor Xian to abdicate.[15] Cao Pi gave Emperor Xian the title of Duke of Shanyang. Empress Cao Jie became Duchess of Shanyang. Her daughter Liu Man was made Princess Changle.

Cao Pi sent for emissaries to the former Empress Cao Jie, requesting her to send over the imperial seal and ribbon.[16] The former Empress Cao Jie refused several times to see the emissaries.[17] At last, she gave in. One by one, she reprimanded the emissaries for the “crime of usurpation.” [18] In a fit of rage, she threw the imperial seal and ribbon.[19] The emissaries were ashamed.[20] They kept their heads down and did not look at her as she cursed them with the words: “You will not be blessed by heaven!” [21] The emissaries dared not speak.[22] They quickly picked up the seal and ribbon, dusted off the dust, and hurried out of the room.[23]

The former Emperor and Empress left the palace and lived in retirement as the Duke and Duchess of Shanyang.[24] The Han Dynasty was officially abolished. Cao Pi ascended the throne as Emperor Wen of Wei. However, he only reigned in the Wei kingdom.[25] China was broken into three kingdoms known as the Three Kingdoms era.[26] In 220 C.E., Liu Bei did not recognize Cao Pi as his Emperor and declared himself the Emperor of Shu. In 222 C.E., Sun Quan also did not recognize Cao Pi as his Emperor. He made himself Emperor of Wu. Thus, China was divided.[27] These events were dramatized in the infamous classic historical fiction novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Duchess Cao Jie continued to live peacefully with her husband, the former Emperor Xian, until his death on 21 April 234 C.E.[28] He was given a funeral with the rites of an Emperor.[29] After Emperor Xian’s death, she remained a widow for twenty-six years.[30] She died on 2 July 260 C.E. She was given a funeral with the rites of an Empress.[31] She was buried beside Emperor Xian in Shan Tomb.[32] She was given the posthumous title of Empress Xuanmu.

Empress Cao Jie has often been seen as a hero. As the daughter of Cao Cao, it was expected that she would be loyal to her father and brother.[33] Yet, she was loyal only to her husband, Emperor Xian.[34] She tried to protect her husband and his dynasty by refusing to hand over the imperial seal and ribbon.[35] Since then, Empress Cao Jie has been seen as a virtuous wife who followed her husband’s wishes instead of her family’s interests.[36] Confucian scholars have admired Empress Cao Jie for nearly two thousand years.[37] They have used her as a model for an ideal wife.[38]

Sources:

iNews. (n.d.). “Cao Cao’s daughter, the last empress of the Han Dynasty, scolded Cao Pi for one incident and cursed him not to die”. Retrieved on 9 October 2023 from https://inf.news/ne/history/ee3e3e4652325b39a98d1e7149ad52aa.html.

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

Wang, B. (2015). “Cao Jie, Empress of Emperor Xian”. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E. (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.). NY: Routledge. pp. 113-114.


[1] Wang, 2015

[2] Wang, 2015

[3] Wang, 2015

[4] Wang, 2015

[5] Wang, 2015

[6] Wang, 2015

[7] McMahon, 2013; Wang, 2015

[8] McMahon, 2013

[9] Wang, 2015

[10] Wang, 2015

[11] Wang, 2015

[12] Wang, 2015

[13] Wang, 2015

[14] iNews, n.d., “Cao Cao’s daughter, the last empress of the Han Dynasty, scolded Cao Pi for one incident and cursed him not to die”

[15] McMahon, 2013

[16] Wang, 2015

[17] Wang, 2015

[18] Wang, 2015, p. 114

[19] McMahon, 2013

[20] Wang, 2013

[21] Wang, 2013, p. 114

[22] iNews, n.d., “Cao Cao’s daughter, the last empress of the Han Dynasty, scolded Cao Pi for one incident and cursed him not to die”

[23] iNews, n.d., “Cao Cao’s daughter, the last empress of the Han Dynasty, scolded Cao Pi for one incident and cursed him not to die” 

[24] Wang, 2013

[25] McMahon, 2013

[26] McMahon, 2013

[27] McMahon, 2013

[28] Wang, 2015

[29] iNews, n.d., “Cao Cao’s daughter, the last empress of the Han Dynasty, scolded Cao Pi for one incident and cursed him not to die”

[30] Wang, 2015

[31] Wang, 2015

[32] Wang, 2015

[33] Wang, 2015

[34] Wang, 2015

[35] McMahon, 2013

[36] Wang, 2015

[37] Wang, 2015

[38] Wang, 2015






About Lauralee Jacks 188 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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