Empress Dowager Feng – The captive princess who married into the dynasty that destroyed her family




Empress Dowager Feng as portrayed in The Princess Weiyoung (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Grand Empress Dowager Feng’s life is a story of tenacity. She was a princess whose homeland was destroyed by the Northern Wei dynasty. She was a captive and was forced to become a servant by her enemies. She even became an empress of the dynasty that destroyed her kingdom and scattered her family. Despite her tragic beginnings, she rose to be sole regent twice. She proved to be a formidable ruler. Grand Empress Dowager Feng was a remarkable woman who proved to be a survivor.

Grand Empress Dowager Feng lived during the Northern Wei Dynasty. The dynasty was founded by the Tuoba clan. The Tuoba clan was not Han Chinese.[1] Instead, they came from a nomadic tribe that came from the steppe region north of China called the Xianbei.[2] During the first century C.E., the Xianbei had allied with the Eastern Han to help fight the Xiongnu (known in the West as the Huns).[3] In the middle of the fourth century C.E., they established the Dai kingdom (modern-day Inner Mongolia).[4] In 386 C.E., they became the rulers of North China and established the Northern Wei dynasty.[5] Their capital was Pingcheng (modern-day Taiyuan in Shanxi Province).[6] They adopted Chinese customs and merged fully into the Chinese population at the start of the Tang Dynasty in 618 C.E.[7]

Grand Empress Dowager Feng was of Xianbei origins.[8] Her grandfather was Emperor Wentong of the short-lived Northern Yan dynasty. In 442, she was born in Chang’an (modern-day city of Xi’an).[9] Yet, she grew up in Xindu (modern-day city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province).[10] Her mother was from the Wang clan of Lelang. When the Northern Wei destroyed the Northern Yan dynasty, her family was scattered.[11] Princess Feng’s father was executed sometime during the first ten years of her life.[12] The fate of her mother remains unknown.[13] Her only brother, Prince Feng Xu, had fled to the nomadic Qiang tribes (modern-day Shaanxi Province).[14] At a very young age, Princess Feng was brought to the Northern Wei palace as a servant.[15] Yet, her paternal aunt (a Princess of the Northern Yan dynasty and the concubine of Emperor Taiwan of Northern Wei) took in Princess Feng.[16] She raised her and gave her niece an excellent education.[17]

In 455, at the age of thirteen, Princess Feng was selected as a concubine to Emperor Wencheng.[18] She was made “Noble Concubine”.[19] In 456, she was appointed “Empress”.[20] Empress Feng had no children with Emperor Wenchang. In 465 C.E., Emperor Wencheng died. Empress Feng was twenty-three years old.[21] It was said that she was so upset over her husband’s death at his funeral that she threw herself into a fire and lost consciousness.[22] Emperor Xianwen (Emperor Wucheng’s son whom he had with Lady Li) ascended the throne at age eleven.[23] Feng became Empress Dowager.

In 466 C.E., Empress Dowager Feng led a palace coup, ousted, and executed Yi Hun (Emperor Xianwen’s regent). Then, she declared herself regent.[24] She was said to be a good regent. She promoted reforms in administration, taxation on land, and social customs.[25] Yet, her greatest fault was that she relied heavily on her lover, Li Yi, and his brothers.[26] In 467 C.E., she transferred her power to Emperor Xianwen.[27] It is unclear whether this was forced or voluntary.[28] In 470 C.E., Emperor Xianwen eliminated Empress Feng’s supporters.[29] He also killed Empress Feng’s lover, Li Yi, and his brothers.[30] In 471 C.E., Emperor Xianwen abdicated in favour of his three-year-old son. This was because he was tired of worldly affairs and wanted to pursue his interest in Buddhism.[31] His three-year-old son ascended the throne as Emperor Xiaowen. In 475 C.E., Empress Dowager Feng killed the retired emperor through poison and declared herself sole regent for the second time.[32] She was given the title Grand Empress Dowager.[33] This time, she was more successful. She was now the real ruler, and she would rule until her death in 490 C.E.[34]

Grand Empress Dowager Feng proved to be an excellent regent.[35] Even though she took male lovers, she found capable officials to run the empire.[36] She promoted her brother and let her nephews marry Tuoba princesses.[37] Two of her nieces would become empresses of Emperor Xiaowen. She promoted both the Chinese and the mixed ethnic groups at court. This was seen as offensive to the Chinese elite because it threatened their position within the Northern Wei court.[38] 

Grand Empress Dowager Feng died in 490 C.E. Emperor Xiaowen was so grieved by her death that he refused to eat and drink for five days.[39] He also abstained from alcohol and meat for three years out of respect for her.[40] Emperor Xiaowen gave Grand Empress Dowager Feng a simple burial as she had wished.[41] Her tomb on Mount Fang was thirty square feet, and no funeral objects were buried with her.[42] Grand Empress Dowager Feng has proven to be an extraordinary woman.

Even though Grand Empress Dowager Feng was married to a dynasty that destroyed her home and her family, she proved to be a capable regent for more than a decade.[43] She left a stable empire and had the people’s best interests at heart.[44] Because of her love for her people, she has become a popular icon in Chinese media. There are two dramas that are based upon her life. The first drama is Empress Feng of the Northern Wei Dynasty, where she is portrayed by Jacklyn Wu. The second drama is more recent and popular. It is currently on Netflix called The Princess Weiyoung, where she is portrayed by the famous Tiffany Tang. She is even featured in the hit drama Untouchable Lovers, where she is portrayed by The Story of Yanxi Palace’s star Wu Jinyan. Grand Empress Dowager Feng’s story shows a woman who is able to make the best of her horrible situation.

Sources:

Caizhong, W & Aixing, S. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.; Z. Zhongliang, Trans.). London: Routledge.

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

Lau, L. M. & Ching-Chung, P. (2015). 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.


[1] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[2] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[3] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[4] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[5] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[6] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[7] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[8] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 280

[9] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 280-281

[10]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[11]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[12] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[13]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281  

[14]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281  

[15] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[16] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[17] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[18]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281  

[19] Caizhong & Aixiang, p. 160

[20] McMahon, p. 139

[21] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[22] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[23] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 281

[24] McMahon, p. 139

[25] McMahon, p. 139

[26] McMahon, p. 139

[27] Caizhong & Aixiang, p. 160

[28] McMahon, p. 139

[29] Lau & Ching-Chung,p p. 281-282

[30] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282

[31]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282

[32]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282

[33]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282

[34]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282

[35]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282

[36] McMahon, p. 140; Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282  

[37]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282

[38] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 282  

[39] McMahon, p. 140

[40] McMahon, p. 140

[41] Caizhong & Aixiang, p. 162

[42] Caizhong & Aixiang, p. 162

[43]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 283

[44] Caizhong & Aixiang, p. 162






About Lauralee Jacks 93 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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