Empress Dowager Xiaojing – The Wanli Emperor’s greatest shame

(public domain)

Empress Dowager Xiaojing was truly one of the most pitiful empresses of the Ming dynasty. She was originally a palace maid who happened to catch the eye of Emperor Shenzong of the Ming Dynasty (also known as the Wanli Emperor). Because of her lowly status, she quickly became Emperor Shenzong’s greatest shame and embarrassment.[1] He would treat her cruelly for the rest of her life. Despite her husband’s abuse and neglect, she became the mother and grandmother of Ming dynasty emperors.

On 27 February 1565 C.E., Empress Dowager Xiaojing was born in Beizhili in Xin’an District (modern-day Hebei Province).[2] She was from a commoner family named the Wangs. In 1578 C.E., she became a palace maid to Empress Dowager Xiaoding.[3] One day when the eighteen-year-old Emperor Shenzong of the Ming Dynasty was visiting his mother’s palace, he asked for a basin of water to wash his hands.[4] Maid Wang brought him the basin.[5] Maid Wang was older than him but was very pretty.[6] He liked her immediately and favoured her.[7] He rewarded her services with a hair ornament.[8]

Even though Emperor Shenzong was still having intimate relations with Maid Wang, he was deeply ashamed of their liaisons because she was only a palace maid.[9] He wanted to keep their relationship secret.[10] When Maid Wang became pregnant, Emperor Shenzong refused to acknowledge that he had any intimate relations with her.[11] When Empress Dowager Xiaoding confronted her son with the records of the exact date of his intimacy with Maid Wang, Emperor Shenzong was so embarrassed that he “blushed.”[12] The news of their liaisons became known to the public.[13]

Empress Dowager Xiaoding promoted Maid Wang to Obedient Consort and moved her into Jingyang Palace.[14] On 28 August 1582 C.E., Consort Wang gave birth to a son named Zhu Changluo (the future Emperor Taichang of the Ming Dynasty). However, Emperor Shenzong did not acknowledge his son.[15] He did not even honour her by promoting her.[16] In 1584 C.E., Consort Wang gave birth to his fourth daughter, Princess Yunmeng.[17] After the birth of her daughter, Emperor Shenzong ignored her and confined her to her own palace.[18] She spent the rest of her life in confinement.[19] Emperor Shenzong bestowed all his affections and love on his favourite consort, Zheng Guifei.[20]

In 1586 C.E., Zheng Guifei gave birth to his third son, Zhu Changxun. Emperor Shenzong wanted to make Zheng Guifei’s son the next emperor.[21] However, it was tradition for the emperor’s eldest son to inherit the kingdom.[22] Emperor Shenzong fought for fifteen years to make Zhu Changxun the Crown Prince.[23] However, he was met with stern opposition from his ministers.[24] At last, he gave way and made Consort Wang’s son, Zhu Changluo, the Crown Prince.[25] Even after he named Zhu Changluo the Crown Prince, Emperor Shenzong did not even bother to promote Consort Wang.[26] It was not until the birth of her grandson in 1606 C.E. that Emperor Shenzong finally honoured her by promoting her to the rank of Imperial Honoured Consort.[27] Imperial Honoured Consort Wang continued to be neglected, and she often spent her days crying.[28] It was said that she cried so much that she became blind.[29]

In 1611 C.E., Imperial Honored Consort Wang fell ill. Her son, Zhu Changluo, went to see her and discovered that the doors to her palace were locked.[30] He had to find someone to get the keys so he could visit her.[31] Imperial Honoured Consort Wang’s last words to her son were, “You’ve grown up now. I will die of no regrets.”[32] On 18 October 1611 C.E., Imperial Honoured Consort Wang died. In 1620 C.E., Zhu Changluo ascended the throne as Emperor Taichang. However, he died one month after his enthronement.[33] His son, Zhu Youjiao, ascended the throne as Emperor Xizong of the Ming Dynasty. Emperor Xizong made his grandmother the posthumous Empress Dowager Xiaojing.[34] He also reburied her in the Dingling Mausoleum next to Emperor Shenzong.[35]

Ever since Empress Dowager Xiaojing met Emperor Shenzong, her life was mostly unhappy. She spent thirty miserable years in neglect and confinement. As the mother of the heir apparent, she did not receive any privileges at all. Instead, she was mistreated by her husband, who saw her only as an embarrassment. It was not until her death that she finally received the privileges that she was deprived of in life.


Lin, Y & Lee, L. X. H. trans. (2014). “Wang, Empress Dowager of Ming.” 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. 409-411.

McMahon, K. (2016). Celestial Women: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Song to Qing. NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[1] McMahon, 2016

[2] Lin and Lee, 2014

[3] Lin and Lee, 2014

[4] McMahon, 2016

[5] McMahon, 2016

[6] Lin and Lee, 2014

[7] McMahon, 2016

[8] McMahon, 2016

[9] McMahon, 2016

[10] Lin and Lee, 2014

[11] Lin and Lee, 2014

[12] McMahon, 2016, p. 131

[13] McMahon, 2016

[14] Lin and Lee, 2014

[15] Lin and Lee, 2014

[16] Lin and Lee, 2014

[17] McMahon, 2016

[18] Lin and Lee, 2014

[19] Lin and Lee, 2014

[20] Lin and Lee, 2014

[21] Lin and Lee, 2014

[22] Lin and Lee, 2014

[23] Lin and Lee, 2014

[24] Lin and Lee, 2014

[25] Lin and Lee, 2014

[26] Lin and Lee, 2014

[27] Lin and Lee, 2014

[28] Lin and Lee, 2014

[29] Lin and Lee, 2014

[30] Lin and Lee, 2014

[31] Lin and Lee, 2014

[32] McMahon, 2016, p. 132

[33] Lin and Lee, 2014

[34] Lin and Lee, 2014

[35] Lin and Lee, 2014

About Lauralee Jacks 186 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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