Empress Erzhu Ying’e – The wife of three Emperors

Empress Erzhu Ying'e
(public domain)

Empress Erzhu Ying’e was the daughter of the most powerful man in Northern Wei. Her father, Erzhu Rong, helped bring down the Northern Wei dynasty. Empress Erzhu Ying’e was married to three emperors. Empress Erzhu Ying’e’s life was turbulent from the moment she first entered the palace to become a consort to Emperor Xiaoming to the moment where she died at the hands of her stepson while being sexually assaulted. Empress Erzhu Ying’e witnessed the fall of the Northern Wei dynasty and watched as her dynasty split into two kingdoms. They were the Western Wei (which would eventually become Northern Zhou after her death) and the Northern Qi. She knew her kingdom where she had once reigned as Empress would never be the same.

Empress Erzhu Ying’e was born in 514 C.E. Her father was Erzhu Rong, the chieftain of the nomadic Jie tribe.[1] As Erzhu Rong’s daughter, Erzhu Ying’e was described to be a skilled archer.[2] Erzhu Ying’e entered the imperial palace and became a Consort to Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei.[3] She never bore him a child due to political events that would shape her destiny.[4]

Even though Emperor Xiaoming was of age, he had no power.[5] The true ruler was his mother, Empress Dowager Hu. Emperor Xiaoming wanted to rule on his own, so he asked his father-in-law Erzhu Rong for help.[6] When Empress Dowager Hu’s ministers found out that Emperor Xiaoming had requested outside help, they killed him.[7] Empress Dowager Hu sent Emperor Xiaoming’s concubines, including Consort Erzhu Ying’e, to a Buddhist monastery to become nuns.[8]

When Erzhu Rong learned about the death of his son-in-law, he was furious.[9] He gathered his army and made his way to the capital gates. He threatened to storm it unless Empress Dowager Hu provided a suitable Emperor to the Northern Wei.[10] After unsuccessfully installing two Emperors (one of whom was Consort Erzhu Ying’e’s step-daughter named Empress Yuan), Erzhu Rong was so frustrated that he chose an Emperor himself.[11] He chose Emperor Xiaowen’s grandson named Tuoba Ziyou as the next Emperor.[12] He fetched his daughter, Consort Erzhu Ying’e, from the monastery and made her marry Tuoba Ziyou.[13] This was so she could become the next Empress.[14] Erzhu Rong immediately became the most powerful man in Northern Wei. Erzhu Rong’s army stormed the gates and attacked the capital. Erzhu Rong’s army slaughtered thousands of officials and their families. Most of them were Han Chinese.[15] Erzhu Rong’s army even drowned Empress Dowager Hu.[16] After the massacre, Tuoba Ziyou was installed as Emperor Xiaozhuang and Consort Erzhu Ying’e was installed as Empress.[17]

Emperor Xiaozhuang had no power and was a figurehead.[18] The real ruler was Erzhu Rong. Emperor Xiaozhuang was unhappy with his situation.[19] He wanted to be a true ruler, and he believed that in order to rule for himself, he would have to kill Erzhu Rong.[20] Emperor Xiaozhuang found the opportunity when Empress Erzhu Ying’e bore him a son in 530 C.E.[21]

Emperor Xiaozhuang invited Erzhu Rong to the palace to see his daughter and his grandson.[22] The ecstatic grandfather entered the palace, unaware of the death trap that awaited him.[23] As soon as he entered the palace, Erzhu Rong was taken to see the Emperor. Once he arrived at the Emperor’s audience chamber, he found Emperor Xiaozhuang seated upon the throne.[24] Immediately, the Emperor’s guards surrounded Erzhu Rong.[25] Realizing he had walked into a death trap, Erzhu Rong immediately attacked Emperor Xiaozhuang, but Emperor Xiaozhuang overpowered his attack.[26] The Emperor’s guards relentlessly hacked Erzhu Rong to death.[27] There is no mention of how Empress Erzhu Ying’e felt about her father’s murder.

Emperor Xiaozhuang’s happiness was short-lived. When Erzhu Rong’s clan found out about his murder, they were furious at Emperor Xiaozhuang.[28] The Erzhu clan gathered their army, arrived at the capital’s gates, and demanded Emperor Xiaozhuang to release Erzhu Rong’s body to them.[29] Emperor Xiaozhuang refused and declared Erzhu Rong a traitor.[30] The Erzhu clan was so devastated about not getting Erzhu Rong’s body back that they continued to wail outside the gates.[31] Emperor Xiaozhuang was moved by their grief and gave them Erzhu Rong’s death certificate.[32] Yet the Erzhu clan was not satisfied by the death certificate.[33] They wanted Erzhu Rong’s body, and they vowed revenge.[34] Emperor Xiaozhuang quickly gathered his military, but he was defeated.[35] Erzhu Zhao (Erzhu Rong’s nephew) deposed and captured Emperor Xiaozhuang. Erzhu Zhao also raped all of Emperor Xiaozhuang’s concubines.[36] He did not harm Empress Erzhu Ying’e but killed her infant son because he was of Emperor Xiaozhuang’s blood.[37] The Erzhus took Emperor Xiaozhuang back to their homeland and held him hostage in the Sanji Monastery.[38] On 23 January 531 C.E., Erzhu Zhao strangled Emperor Xiaozhuang.

The Erzhus continued to control the Northern Wei court. However, a subordinate under Erzhu Rong named General Gao Huan wanted power for himself.[39] He defeated the Erzhu clans and established a puppet Emperor in 534.[40] Then, the puppet Emperor moved his capital to Chang’an.[41] This became known as the Western Wei.[42] Gao Huan enthroned another Emperor, and his capital was Ye.[43] This was known as the Eastern Wei.[44] Thus, the Northern Wei dynasty was split into two kingdoms.[45] Gao Huan’s son, Gao Yang, would soon dissolve the Eastern Wei dynasty and establish his own dynasty known as the Northern Qi.[46]

Gao Huan was never an Emperor during his lifetime.[47] He was posthumously made Emperor Shenwu after his son, Gao Yang, became Emperor of Northern Qi. Gao Huan made many political marriages.[48] One of his wives was Empress Erzhu Ying’e. This marriage was to show that he was Erzhu Rong’s heir.[49] The marriage also allowed him to gain the wealth that the Erzhu clan had once held.[50] Because she was once an empress, Gao Huan treated her with more respect than his first wife, Lou Zhaojun.[51] He gave her the title of “Great Consort.” [52] Whenever she was in his presence, he made sure he was in proper attire and addressed himself as “Your Humble Official.” [53] Consort Erzhu Ying’e bore him two sons named Gao You and Gao Ning.

In 545 C.E., Consort Erzhu Ying’e met Gao Huan’s new wife, the Ruanruan Princess, en route to Gao Huan’s harem. One day, the Ruanruan Princess wanted to show her archery skills.[54] She aimed her arrow at a bird flying in the sky and hit it. Consort Erzhu Ying’e then aimed her arrow at the sky and hit a flying bird.[55] Impressed with his wives’ archery skills, Gao Huan said, “Both my wives are worthy of crushing bandits.” [56]

Gao Huan died in 547 C.E., and Consort Erzhu Ying’e entered the Buddhist monastery and became a nun.[57] Gao Huan’s second son named Gao Yang became Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi.[58] Consort Erzhu Ying’e stepped out of her retirement as a nun.[59] He made her sons kings. Gao You became the King of Pengcheng, and Gao Ning became The King of Huashan.[60] Emperor Wenxuan honoured Consort Erzhu Ying’e by giving her the title of “Princess of Pengcheng.” [61] In 556 C.E., Emperor Wenxuan respected Princess Erzhu Ying’e until one day he was so heavily intoxicated that he no longer saw her as his stepmother.[62] Emperor Wenxuan became enamoured by Princess Erzhu Ying’e and wanted to have intimate relations with her.[63] Princess Erzhu Ying’e refused because he was her stepson.[64] Angry that Princess Erzhu Ying’e kept rejecting his advances, Emperor Wenxuan killed her with his bare hands.[65] 

The daughter of Erzhu Rong and who was once the Empress of Northern Wei came to such a tragic end in the most horrible way. Empress Erzhu Ying’e seemed to be the pawn of her clan’s ambitions and barely received any respect from the men around her. Her relationship with her first husband, Emperor Xiaoming, was so short-lived that she did not produce a child. Her second husband used her son’s birth as a means to kill her father. Yet, it was her third husband who gave her the respect she deserved. It is a pity that Empress Erzhu Ying’e did not receive respect from her stepson, who only viewed her as a sexual object. Yet, Empress Erzhu Ying’e was a powerful witness to the fall of the Northern Wei dynasty and the rise of the Northern Zhou dynasty and the Northern Qi dynasty. China would not be reunified until the Sui dynasty in 581 C.E.[66]


DayDayNews. (12 October 2019). “A legendary woman who married three emperors one after another and was a queen but was eventually killed by her stepson”. Retrieved on 20 December 2021 from https://daydaynews.cc/en/history/177214.html.

Luo, M. (2019). The politics of place-making in the records of Buddhist monasteries in Luoyang. T’Oung Pao105(1-2), 43–75. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10512p02.

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.

Xiong, V.C. (2016). Capital Cities and Urban Form in Pre-Modern China: Luoyang, 1038 BCE to 938 CE (Asian States and Empires). NY: Routledge.

[1] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[2] McMahon, p. 166

[3] McMahon, p. 165

[4] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[5] Waldherr, p. 60

[6] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[7] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[8] DayDayNews, “A legendary woman who married three emperors one after another and was a queen but was eventually killed by her stepson”, para. 5

[9] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[10]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[11]Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[12] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[13] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[14] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[15] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[16] Waldherr, p. 60

[17] Luo, p. 44

[18] Luo, p. 44

[19] Xiong, p. 107

[20] Xiong, p. 107

[21] Xiong, p. 107

[22] Xiong, p. 107

[23] Xiong, p. 107

[24] Xiong, p. 107

[25] Xiong, p. 107

[26] Xiong, p. 107

[27] Xiong, p. 107

[28] Xiong, p. 108

[29] Xiong, p. 108

[30] Xiong, p. 108

[31] Xiong, p. 108

[32] Xiong, p. 108

[33] Xiong, p. 108

[34] Xiong, p. 108

[35] Xiong, p. 108

[36] Xiong, p. 108

[37] DayDayNews, “A legendary woman who married three emperors one after another and was a queen but was eventually killed by her stepson”, para. 7

[38] Xiong, p. 108

[39] Luo, p. 44

[40] Luo, p. 44

[41] Luo, p. 44

[42] Luo, p. 44

[43] Luo, p. 44

[44] Luo, p. 44

[45] Luo, p. 44

[46] Luo, p. 44

[47] McMahon, p. 164

[48] McMahon, p. 165

[49] McMahon, pp. 165

[50] McMahon, pp. 165-166

[51] McMahon, p. 166

[52] McMahon, p. 166

[53] McMahon, p. 166

[54] McMahon, p. 166

[55] McMahon, p. 166

[56] McMahon, p. 166

[57] McMahon, p. 166

[58] McMahon, p. 166

[59] DayDayNews, “A legendary woman who married three emperors one after another and was a queen but was eventually killed by her stepson”, para. 10

[60] DayDayNews, “A legendary woman who married three emperors one after another and was a queen but was eventually killed by her stepson”, para. 10

[61] DayDayNews, “A legendary woman who married three emperors one after another and was a queen but was eventually killed by her stepson”, para. 10

[62] McMahon, p. 166

[63] McMahon, p. 166

[64] McMahon, p. 166

[65] McMahon, p. 166

[66] McMahon, p. 145

About Lauralee Jacks 183 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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