Empress Dowager Hu – The woman who brought down the Northern Wei Dynasty

Empress Dowager Hu has often been blamed for causing the downfall of the Northern Wei dynasty.[1] Empress Dowager Hu was a consort of Emperor Xuanwu. However, he never appointed her as Empress because he already had one.[2] When her son ascended the throne at the age of five, she became Empress Dowager and ruled as regent for her son.[3] She ruled like an Emperor and most likely viewed herself as one.[4] Her reign has often been seen as disastrous. Her official biographer even named her “The Last Bad Ruler”[5]. She was not even honoured in death because she received an insulting posthumous title.[6] However, recently she has garnered more sympathy among modern historians.[7] Thus, Empress Dowager Hu remains one of China’s most controversial historical figures.

Empress Dowager Hu was born in Anding (modern-day Gansu Province) sometime around 490 C.E.[8] Her first name remains unrecorded. She was of ethnic Han Chinese origin.[9] Her father, Hu Guozhen, was a minister in education.[10] Her mother was a member of the prominent Huangfu clan.[11] Her aunt was a Buddhist nun who often taught Buddhism in the imperial palace.[12] Because of her aunt’s prominence in the palace, Hu became a Consort to Emperor Xuanwu.[13]

It was said that many of Emperor Xuanwu’s concubines dreaded getting pregnant because they feared his second empress, Gao. Empress Gao was suspected of poisoning his first Empress immediately after she bore him a son.[14] The son died shortly afterwards. It is most likely that Empress Gao poisoning the first empress was merely a rumour and that she died in childbirth.[15] Nevertheless, the fear of being killed was very apparent among the concubines, and they went through extreme measures to prevent themselves from getting pregnant.[16]

Despite being afraid of Empress Gao, Consort Hu saw how beneficial it was to provide a son for Emperor Xuanwu.[17] When she became pregnant, she often prayed for a son.[18] In 510 C.E., she gave birth to a son named Yuan Xu. Emperor Xuanwu gave his newborn son a palace of his own and placed him in the care of wet nurses.[19] When he was two years old, he became the Crown Prince.

In 515 C.E., Emperor Xuanwu died, and the five-year-old Yuan Xu ascended the throne as Emperor Xiaoming. Empress Gao was appointed regent and made Empress Dowager, and Consort Hu was made “Imperial Mother.”[20] Empress Dowager Gao viewed Consort Hu as a powerful rival.[21] She tried to murder Consort Hu.[22] However, Consort Hu had the protection of a powerful faction that opposed the Gao clan.[23] The faction eventually deposed Empress Dowager Gao. Empress Dowager Gao was sent to a nunnery, where she died a year later.[24]

After Empress Dowager Gao’s deposition, Consort Hu was made Empress Dowager and regent.[25] The first thing she did was to make her father a Duke.[26] Empress Dowager Hu became the unofficial ruler of China.[27] She issued edicts using the terminology not as an Empress Dowager but as an Emperor.[28] Yet throughout her reign, she encountered a series of economic and social problems.[29] Empress Dowager Hu loved competing in archery contests, travelled to the countryside, and took many pleasure trips to picturesque spots.[30] These activities were reserved solely for the Emperor.[31] Thus, it is most likely that Empress Dowager Hu saw herself not as an Empress Dowager but as an Emperor.[32] It was said that Empress Dowager Hu had many lovers and gave them important government positions.[33] She had also fallen in love with a General named Yang Baihua, who fled south so that his name would not be connected with hers.[34] Heartbroken, Empress Hu composed a poem.[35] It went:

“In the second and third months of spring,

The willows flower all at once.

One night, the spring breeze  came into my boudoir,

But the willow flower flew to the South.

Lovesick, supported by feeble legs I came out and picked a willow flower;

tears wet my blouse.

Autumn is gone and Spring is here,

I wish the pair of swallows would take a willow bloom into their love nest.”[36]

Tuoba Cha, Empress Dowager Hu’s brother-in-law, was unhappy with Empress Dowager Hu. He viewed her as a neglectful ruler who ignored state affairs for more pleasurable and leisurely activities.[37] He conspired with a eunuch to form a coup d’etat to oust her as regent.[38] The coup was successful. In 520 C.E., Empress Dowager Hu was forced to abdicate as regent and was placed under house arrest.[39] She was forbidden to meet her son.[40] In 525 C.E., Empress Dowager Hu teamed up with her son to remove Tuoba Cha as regent. Tuoba Cha was ousted, and Empress Dowager Hu was regent once again.[41]

It was said that this Second Regency of Empress Dowager Hu was what led to the fall of the Northern Wei dynasty.[42] She appointed incapable ministers, and many of her policies proved to be failures.[43] Despite having a bad reign, she did set up regional offices in which it became more accessible for the subjects to submit petitions.[44] She also built Buddhist temples.[45]

Emperor Xiaoming was very unhappy that his mother was still regent, and he wanted to rule for himself.[46] He asked the nomadic chieftain of the Jie tribe named Erzhu Rong for help.[47] When Empress Dowager Hu’s advisors found out about Emperor Xiaoming asking for outside help, they were so angry that they murdered the Emperor.[48] Erzhu Rong was so outraged over Emperor Xiaoming’s murder that he arrived at the capital’s gates with his army.[49] Empress Dowager Hu tried to prevent him from storming the capitals gates by making Emperor Xiaoming’s infant daughter the new Emperor on 1 April 528 C.E.[50] This was unprecedented.[51] Never before was there a female ruler.[52] The fifty day-old infant would reign for a day when Erzhu Rong expressed his discontent with the new ruler.[53] On 2 April 528 C.E., Empress Dowager Hu deposed her granddaughter and placed Emperor Xiaoming’s two-year-old cousin named Yuan Zhao on the throne instead.[54]

Erzhu Rong was still displeased with Empress Dowager Hu’s choice of Emperor.[55] He selected Emperor Xiaowen’s grandson and made him marry his daughter so that she could become the next Empress.[56] Then, his army stormed inside the capital gates. Empress Dowager Hu quickly fled the palace, and she sought sanctuary in a Buddhist temple.[57] She disguised herself as a nun and shaved off her hair.[58] Erzhu Rong’s army tracked her down and captured her.[59] On 17 May 528 C.E., Empress Dowager Hu was drowned by his army in the Yellow River.[60] Her remains were given to her sister, and her sister placed them in the Shuangling Buddhist Temple.[61] She was given the posthumous title Empress Dowager Ling. This title was not very flattering and was an insult for it means “The Unattentive Empress”[62].

Many modern historians have been more sympathetic to Empress Dowager Hu’s reign than the ancient chroniclers.[63] They believe Empress Dowager Hu was not as bad as the chroniclers have often depicted her.[64] Empress Dowager Hu tried to be a good ruler, but she let more pleasurable pursuits get in the way of governing.[65] Thus, her greatest fault was that she gave in to the temptations to pursue her personal pleasures.[66] Still, historians have often credited her as the woman who brought down the Northern Wei dynasty.[67] Less than thirty years later, Northern Wei was split into two dynasties: the Northern Qi and the Northern Zhou dynasty.[68] China would not be reunified until the Sui dynasty in 581 C.E.[69] 


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.

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

Waldherr, K. (2008). Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, From Cleopatra to Princess Di. NY: Bloomsbury Books.

[1] McMahon, p. 143

[2] McMahon, p. 143

[3] McMahon, p. 143

[4] McMahon, p. 143

[5] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[6] Waldherr, p. 60

[7] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[8] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[9] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[10] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[11] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[12] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[13] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[14] Waldherr, p. 60

[15] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[16] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[17] Waldherr, p. 60

[18] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[19] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[20]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[21]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[22] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[23] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[24] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[25] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[26] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[27] McMahon, p. 143

[28] McMahon, p. 143

[29] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 297

[30] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[31] McMahon, p. 143

[32] McMahon, p. 143

[33] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[34] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[35] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[36]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[37] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[38] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[39] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[40] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[41] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[42] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298; McMahon, p. 143

[43] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[44] Waldherr, p. 60

[45] Waldherr, p. 60

[46] Waldherr, p. 60

[47] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[48] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[49] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[50] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[51] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[52] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[53] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[54] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[55] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[56] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[57] Waldherr, p. 60

[58] Waldherr, p. 60

[59] Waldherr, p. 60

[60] McMahon, p. 145; Waldherr, p. 60

[61] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[62] Waldherr, p. 60

[63] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299  

[64] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[65] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[66] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299  

[67] McMahon, p. 143

[68] McMahon, p. 145

[69] McMahon, p. 145

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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