Yan Ji – The Machiavellian Empress

Empress Dowager Yan has been known as one of the most devious Empresses in China’s history. She has often been described as a ruthless woman who tried to prevent her stepson, Liu Bao, from taking his rightful place as Emperor. Yet, Empress Dowager Yan has shown her potential to be a capable regent during her short regency. She was a patron of Buddhism and tried to promote the religion in court. Yet, history is written by the victors, and since Empress Dowager Yan ultimately lost the battle for power, she has been known in history for her nepotism.

Empress Dowager Yan was born sometime around 101 C.E. Her original name was Yan Ji. Yan Ji’s great aunts were concubines to Emperor Ming.[1] Her grandfather, Yan Zhang, was an officer in charge of the imperial army under Emperor Ming.[2] Her father was Yan Chang, and he did not have a public career until Yan Ji entered the palace.[3] Even though the Yan clan had a few connections to the throne, they were not a prominent family.[4] Yan Ji was well educated.[5] She was known to be very intelligent and beautiful.[6]

In 114 C.E., Yan Ji became a concubine to Emperor An. Emperor An was immediately attracted to her.[7] He made her father his advisor.[8] A year later in 115 C.E., Yan Ji was appointed Empress. It was said that she dominated Emperor An’s affections and appointed her relatives for court positions.[9] Her father was given the title of Marquis of North Yishun and supervised the imperial army.[10]

It was also believed that Empress Yan eliminated her rivals.[11] One of those rivals was Honored Lady Li, who gave birth to the Emperor’s only son Liu Bao.[12] Shortly after Lady Li gave birth, the Empress poisoned her.[13] Liu Bao was then placed in the care of two wet nurses.[14] Empress Dowager Deng was very fond of him.[15] Emperor An had no more children, and Liu Bao became the Crown Prince.[16]

After Empress Dowager Deng died and the Deng clan was extinguished, Empress Yan kept promoting her family.[17] Her family now controlled all the influential positions at court.[18] Thus, Empress Yan was secure in her position as Empress. However, she wanted to depose Liu Bao as Crown Prince.[19] She told the emperor falsehoods about Liu Bao.[20] Emperor An believed it and demoted his son as Prince Jinyin.[21]

In 125 C.E., Emperor An died of a disease in Yie county while touring the Han empire with his Empress.[22] Empress Yan did not want Liu Bao to become Emperor. She kept Emperor An’s death a secret and made her way to the palace.[23] She promoted herself as Empress Dowager and declared herself regent.[24] To consolidate her power, she controlled the army by promoting her brother Yan Xian as general of the imperial army.[25] In order to hold on to her power, she needed to install a puppet Emperor.[26] She selected Emperor An’s cousin, Liu Yi, to be the next Emperor.[27] He was five years old, and she found him to be easy to control.[28] Thus, Liu Yi ascended the throne as Emperor Shao. Under her regency, Empress Dowager Yan eliminated anyone who opposed her rule. One of these was General Geng Bao, who was Emperor An’s maternal uncle.[29] He was demoted and forced to commit suicide.[30] She continued to promote her family members.

In 125 C.E., Emperor Shao fell ill. This put Empress Dowager Yan in an insecure position. She quickly sought an Emperor who was young enough to control.[31] Yet, Emperor Shao died before Empress Dowager Yan could find a suitable candidate.[32] Immediately after the Emperor’s death, there was a coup d’état led by Wang Kang and Sun Chen against her.[33] They murdered the Empress’s supporters and installed Liu Bao as Emperor.[34] He ascended the throne as Emperor Shun. Empress Dowager Yan tried to fight back by sending General Feng Shi to attack the rebels.[35] However, General Feng Shi betrayed her by declaring his loyalty to Emperor Shun.[36] Emperor Shun’s army ultimately defeated Empress Dowager Yan when they achieved victories over her brothers’ armies.[37] Empress Dowager Yan’s brothers were arrested and executed.[38] Empress Dowager Yan was arrested and sent to a secondary palace.[39] The rest of the Yan family were exiled to modern-day southern Vietnam.[40] Empress Dowager Yan died in 126 C.E. Many historians believe that she was murdered.[41] She was buried beside Emperor An in Luoyang.[42] Thus, all of Empress Dowager Yan’s schemes and ambitions brought about her ultimate downfall.


Fanzhong, Y. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed., Z. Jing, Trans.). London: Routledge.

De Crespigny, R. (2016). Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 A.D. Boston: Brill.

[1] De Crespigny, p. 207

[2] Fanzhong, p. 117

[3] De Crespigny, p. 207

[4] De Crespigny, p. 207

[5] Fanzhong, p. 117

[6] Fanzhong, p. 117

[7] De Crespigny, p. 209

[8] Fanzhong, p. 117

[9] Fanzhong, p. 118

[10] De Crespigny, p. 207; Fanzhong, p. 118

[11] De Crespigny, p. 207; Fanzhong, p. 118

[12] De Crespigny, p. 207

[13] De Crespigny, p. 207

[14] De Crespigny, p. 207

[15] De Crespigny, p. 207

[16] De Crespigny, p. 207

[17] De Crespigny, p. 210

[18] Fanzhong, p. 118

[19] Fanzhong, p. 118

[20] Fanzhong, p. 118

[21] Fanzhong, p. 118

[22] Fanzhong, p. 118

[23] De Crespigny, p. 218; Fanzhong, p. 118

[24] Fanzhong, p. 118

[25] Fanzhong, pp. 118-119

[26] Fanzhong, p. 119

[27] De Crespigny, p. 218

[28] De Crespigny, p. 218

[29] De Crespigny, p. 210; Fanzhong, p. 119

[30] Fanzhong, p. 119

[31] Fanzhong, pp. 119-120

[32] Fanzhong, pp. 119-120

[33] Fanzhong, p. 120

[34]De Crespigny, p. 490; Fanzhong, p. 120

[35] Fanzhong, p. 120

[36] Fanzhong, p. 120

[37] Fanzhong, p. 120

[38] De Crespigny, p. 490

[39] Fanzhong, p. 120

[40] Fanzhong, p. 120

[41] Fanzhong, p. 120

[42] Fanzhong, p. 120

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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