Empress Huo Chengjun – The murderer’s daughter




Yang Rong as portrayed by Huo Chengjun from Love Yunge from the Desert (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Huo Chengjun has often been portrayed in Chinese television as an ambitious and scheming empress who was finally given her just deserts by coming to an unfortunate end.[1] In the Chinese drama Love Yunge From the Desert, Empress Huo Chengjun was the main villain. However, audiences were moved when the actress, Yang Rong, who played Empress Huo Chengjun in the drama, portrayed her as a woman whom viewers loved to hate but at the same time gained the viewers’ sympathy.[2]

Huo Chengjun was the second Empress of Emperor Xuan. She became an empress when her mother, Lady Xian, poisoned the first empress, Xu Pingjun. Emperor Xuan was unaware that he married the daughter of his wife’s murderer. He loved her and spoiled her. While she has often been described as an evil empress by ancient chroniclers, modern historians view her with more sympathy.[3] They describe Empress Huo Chengjun as a pawn to her mother’s ruthless ambitions.[4] Some historians even suggested that she may not have wanted to marry Emperor Xuan at all but was forced to by her family.[5] Thus, Empress Huo Chengjun’s tragedy was that she never lived a life of her own but was a puppet who did her mother’s bidding.

Empress Huo Chengjun was from Pingyang in Hedong (modern-day Linfen District in Shanxi Province).[6] Her birth date is unknown. Her parents were Huo Guang and Lady Xian.[7] She had an older sister who married Shangguan An, and their daughter became Empress to Emperor Zhao.

Her father, Huo Guang, was the most powerful man in China.[8] He was the unofficial regent of China when the imperial throne was vacant. He chose Liu Xun to be the next Emperor. Liu Xun became Emperor Xuan in 74 B.C.E. Huo Guang wanted his daughter, Huo Chengjun, to be Emperor Xuan’s Empress.[9] However, Emperor Xuan refused and wanted his wife Xu Pingjun to be his Empress because he loved her deeply.[10] Because Xu Pingjun had been with him when he was poor and had no prospects, Emperor Xuan believed she deserved the position.[11] Emperor Xuan stubbornly fought for Xu Pingjun to be made Empress that, at last, Huo Guang and the other ministers had no other choice but to accept the Emperor’s will.[12]

Xu Pingjun was invested as Empress in December 74 B.C.E. Huo Chengjun remained in her parents’ household. As her parents contemplated her future marriage prospects, Huo Guang had already accepted the fact that his daughter would never be an empress.[13] However, his wife still hoped that Huo Chengjun could still be an empress.[14] There was only one obstacle in her daughter’s way. It was Empress Xu Pingjun.[15] Lady Xian believed that Empress Xu Pingjun could be easily eliminated.[16] Lady Xian’s opportunity came when Empress Xu Pingjun was about to give birth to a second child.[17] Lady Xian bribed Empress Xu Pingjun’s female doctor named Chunyu Yan to poison the Empress.[18]

Shortly after Empress Xu Pingjun gave birth to a second son, Chunyu Yan poisoned her by adding aconite to her medication.[19] The Empress suffered from a severe headache and died in misery.[20] The doctors, including Chunyu Yan, were charged with neglecting the care of Empress Xu Pingjun.[21] They were quickly imprisoned, and Huo Guang was put in charge of the investigation. When Huo Guang found out that his wife was, in fact, the murderer, he quickly covered up the truth of Empress Xu Pingjun’s death.[22] Huo Guang let all the doctors go.[23] Thus, Emperor Xuan did not know about the true cause of his beloved wife’s death.[24]

Due to his wife’s request, Huo Guang submitted a memorial to ask for his daughter to be brought to the palace.[25] Emperor Xuan agreed.[26] Huo Chengjun entered the palace. In April 70 B.C.E., Huo Chengjun was appointed as Empress.[27] Emperor Xuan cherished his new Empress and showered her with his affections.[28] He seemed to love her genuinely.[29] Ancient chroniclers have praised Empress Xu Pingjun, who lived simply and practically as Empress and have heavily criticized Empress Huo Chengjun’s lavish lifestyle.[30] In fact, Empress Huo Chengjun was so extravagant that she gave each of her subordinates gifts that equalled $10,000 cash.[31] However, modern historians are more sympathetic to Empress Huo Chengjun’s extravagant lifestyle.[32] This was because Empress Xu Pingjun knew poverty and how to economize.[33] As Huo Guang’s daughter, Empress Huo Chengjun, had always lived a luxurious lifestyle, and it was all she knew.[34] She never experienced poverty the way Empress Xu Pingjun did.

Empress Huo Chengjun visited Changle Palace every five days in respect to her niece, Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan.[35] Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan never formed a close relationship with Empress Huo Chengjun the way she did with Empress Xu Pingjun. This was because they both found it awkward that the aunt had to pay respects to the niece due to imperial hierarchy.[36]

Huo Guang died in 67 B.C.E. Because Empress Huo Chengjun remained childless, Emperor Xuan named Liu Shi (Empress Xu Pingjun’s son) as his successor.[37] This angered Empress Huo Chengjun’s mother, Lady Xian, so much that she refused to eat and vomited blood.[38] Lady Xian said that because Liu Shi was “born of a commoner (Xu Pingjun), he was not entitled to the position of the heir apparent”.[39] She believed that by making Liu Shi the Crown Prince, it would prevent the prospects of her daughter’s sons that she might bear in the future.[40]

Lady Xian pressured her daughter to poison Liu Shi.[41] After much persuasion, Empress Chengjun reluctantly agreed.[42] She invited Liu Shi to her palace to dine with her. The plot failed because his attendants pre-tasted his food.[43] The failed attempt on the heir apparent quickly led to the truth about Empress Xu Pingjun’s death.[44] Lady Xian refused to admit that all was lost. She conspired with her sons-in-law and her male relatives to depose Emperor Xuan and place a Huo member on the throne.[45] The plot was quickly revealed to Emperor Xuan.[46]

Emperor Xuan was disgusted by his in-laws and his Empress’s actions.[47] Emperor Xuan no longer loved Empress Huo Chengjun. Ever since Empress Huo Chengjun tried to kill his son, he saw her as “evil and immoral.” [48] He executed the Huo clan, including Lady Xian.[49] He deposed Empress Huo Chengjun by issuing an edict. It said:

“Huo Chengjun is not worthy of being a mother of the people and an empress. She is not fit to serve the imperial temple as an empress. She must leave the palace and must relinquish her imperial seal and ribbon.”[50]

Empress Huo Chengjun was deposed in 66 B.C.E.[51] She was sent to Zhaotai Palace. She was an empress for five years. Twelve years later, in 54 B.C.E., she was sent to Yunling Residence.[52] Shortly after her arrival, she committed suicide and was buried in Kunwu Pavilion (modern-day Laotian District in Shanxi Province).[53]

Empress Huo Chengjun was truly a tragic figure. Unlike Empress Xu Pingjun, who was faithful to her husband, Empress Huo Chengjun was not faithful to her husband. Instead, she chose her evil mother over her husband. Emperor Xuan loved her, cherished her, and even spoiled her. Yet, she made a fatal mistake by following her mother’s order to kill the heir apparent. Instead, she should have just been a faithful wife and established a close relationship with her stepson.[54] If Empress Huo Chengjun had done these two things, her ending would have been very different.[55]

Sources:

DayDayNews. (2019, December 2). “The villain role Yang Rong has played: Huo Chengjun is both hateful and pitiful, she is at the peak of her appearance”. Retrieved December 26, 2021, from https://daydaynews.cc/en/entertainment/247904.html.

DayDayNews. (2019, December 23). “Huo Chengjun: Behind her was the most powerful family in the Han Dynasty, but in the end it ended her life by suicide”. Retrieved December 26, 2021 from https://daydaynews.cc/en/history/281542.html.

Inf.News. (n.d.). “Why does Huo Chengjun think she is the queen of course? Greed and arrogance give birth to stupidity”. Retrieved December 26, 2021 from https://inf.news/en/history/299726cea123294fc6d07d328fc91ea5.html.

Kinney, A. B. (2004). Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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.

Wang, X. (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] DayDayNews, “Huo Chengjun: Behind her was the most powerful family in the Han Dynasty, but in the end it ended her life by suicide”, para. 15

[2] DayDayNews, “The villain role Yang Rong has played: Huo Chengjun is both hateful and pitiful, she is at the peak of her appearance”, para. 4

[3]DayDayNews, “Huo Chengjun: Behind her was the most powerful family in the Han Dynasty, but in the end it ended her life by suicide”, para. 15

[4] Wang, p. 153

[5] DayDayNews, “Huo Chengjun: Behind her was the most powerful family in the Han Dynasty, but in the end it ended her life by suicide”, para. 15

[6] Wang, p. 152

[7] Wang, p. 152

[8] Wang, p. 152

[9]Kinney, p. 143

[10] Waldherr, p. 37

[11] Waldherr, p. 37

[12] Kinney, p. 143; McMahon, p. 75

[13] Wang, p. 152

[14] Wang, p. 152

[15] Wang, p. 152

[16] Wang, p. 152

[17] Wang, p. 152

[18] Kinney, p. 143

[19] Waldherr, p. 37

[20] Kinney, p. 143

[21] Wang, p. 227

[22] Kinney, pp. 143-144

[23] Kinney, pp. 143-144

[24] McMahon, p. 75; Waldherr, p. 37

[25] Wang, p. 152

[26] Wang, p. 152

[27] Wang, p. 152-153

[28] McMahon, p. 75; Waldherr, p. 37

[29] McMahon, p. 75

[30] Wang, p. 153

[31] Wang, p. 153

[32] Inf.News, “Why does Huo Chengjun think she is the queen of course? Greed and arrogance give birth to stupidity”, para. 14

[33] Inf.News, “Why does Huo Chengjun think she is the queen of course? Greed and arrogance give birth to stupidity”, para. 8

[34] Inf.News, “Why does Huo Chengjun think she is the queen of course? Greed and arrogance give birth to stupidity”, para. 14

[35] Wang, p. 153

[36] Wang, p. 153

[37] Wang, p. 153

[38] Wang, p. 153

[39] Wang, p. 153

[40] Wang, p. 153

[41] Wang, p. 153

[42] Wang, p. 153

[43] Wang, p. 153

[44] McMahon, p. 75; Wang, p. 153

[45] McMahon, p. 75

[46] McMahon, p. 75

[47] Wang, p. 153

[48] Wang, p. 153

[49] Wang, p. 153

[50] Wang, p. 153

[51] Kinney, p. 144

[52] Wang, p. 153

[53] Wang, p. 153

[54] Inf.News, “Why does Huo Chengjun think she is the queen of course? Greed and arrogance give birth to stupidity”, para. 18

[55] Inf.News, “Why does Huo Chengjun think she is the queen of course? Greed and arrogance give birth to stupidity”, para. 18






About Lauralee Jacks 83 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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