Empress Liu E – The great Empress (Part one)

Liu Tao as Liu E in Palace of Devotion (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Dowager Liu E of Northern Song is known as one of China’s three greatest empresses.[1] She played an important role in the history of the Song Dynasty. She was the first regent of the Northern Song Dynasty and created a new model of female regency that her successors would follow.[2] Empress Dowager Liu E was also the second woman in Chinese history after Empress Wu Zetian to wear the Emperor’s robe and crown.[3] Because of her importance in Chinese history, I have written two articles. The first article chronicles Empress Dowager Liu E’s rise from humble beginnings.

Empress Dowager Liu E was born in 969 C.E. Her early origins are unclear. According to her official biography in the Song History chronicle, she was from a Taiyuan family that had migrated to Sichuan.[4] Her grandfather was Liu Yanqing, a general who fought under the Later Jin dynasty.[5] Her father was Liu Tong, a prefect in Jiazhou.[6] Liu E’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her, and her father died sometime in her infancy.[7] She was raised by her maternal relatives.[8] She was very skilled with the hand drums and became a street entertainer.[9]

At the age of fourteen, a silversmith by the name of Gong Mei brought Liu E to the imperial capital of Kaifeng and introduced her to Zhao Heng.[10] Zhao Heng was the Prince of Xiang and the future Emperor Zhengzong. Prince Zhao Heng immediately fell in love with Liu E and desired to make her his concubine.[11] According to the ancient chronicle, Sequential Long Work of the Mirror of Comprehensive Aid to Governance, Liu E and Gong Mei were married, but he could not financially support his wife.[12] He had no choice but to give her to the prince.[13]

Prince Zhao Heng loved Liu E so much that he spent an exorbitant amount of time with her rather than devoting time to his princely duties.[14] Unfortunately for Liu E, Zhao Heng’s nanny named Madame Qinguo disapproved of her because of her lowly origins.[15] She voiced her concerns to his father, Prince Zhao Guanyi, who recently noticed his son was always looking exhausted in his presence.[16] Madame Qinguo replied that it was because of Liu E.[17] Prince Zhao Guanyi expelled Liu E from Prince Zhao Heng’s palace.[18]

Prince Zhao Heng had no choice but to hide Liu E in the house of his trusted subordinate named Zhang Qi.[19] Liu E spent twelve years hiding in Zhang Qi’s house.[20] After Liu E’s expulsion, Prince Zhao Heng was married to Lady Pan.[21] Zhao Heng shortly afterwards became the Crown Prince of Northern Song, and Lady Pan became Crown Princess.[22] However, Crown Princess Pan died of illness six years later at the young age of twenty-two.[23] After Crown Princess Pan’s death, Crown Prince Zhao Heng remarried Lady Guo, who became the new Crown Princess.[24]

On 8 May 997 C.E., Zhao Heng ascended the throne as Emperor Zhenzong of Northern Song. Emperor Zhenzong made his wife, Guo, the empress. However, his heart still longed for Liu E.[25] He wanted her to enter his imperial harem.[26] In 1004 C.E., Liu E, who was over thirty years old, entered Emperor Zhenzong’s harem with the lowly rank of Beauty.[27] In 1009 C.E., she rose to the middle rank with the title of Virtuous Deportment.[28] In 1012 C.E., Liu E received a higher rank of Virtuous Consort.[29] When Empress Guo died in 1007 C.E., Emperor Zhenzong wanted to make Consort Liu E his empress but was met with opposition from his ministers because of her lowly origins.[30] Emperor Zhenzong could do nothing but wait for the right opportunity to make her empress.[31] He made Gong Mei Consort Liu E’s official brother.[32] The one thing that Consort Liu E did not have was a son. She remained childless.[33]

From the moment Emperor Zhenzong ascended the throne in 997 C.E., he did not produce a child.[34] It was not until 1010 C.E. that he finally had a son with a maid named Li.[35] The son would be the future Emperor Renzong. Because Consort Liu E was in her early forties, she knew she would always remain childless.[36] She wanted to adopt the infant.[37] With Emperor Renzong’s permission, Consort Liu E took the infant away from his birth mother and raised him as her own.[38] From that moment on, the future Emperor Renzong believed that Consort Liu E was his real mother.[39]

In the middle of 1012 C.E., Emperor Zhenzong genuinely loved Consort Liu E.[40] He decided that he would not wait any longer to make her his empress.[41] Despite the ministers’ objections, he officially invested Liu E as empress.[42] Many historians have often wondered how Empress Liu E managed to keep Emperor Zhenzong so enthralled for decades that he fought against his ministers to make her his empress. Historians have found this to be very puzzling, especially since she may have lost her beauty due to being in her forties.[43] The answer lies in her intelligence, her passion for politics, and her skills in diplomacy.[44] These were the traits that made Emperor Zhenzong rely on her and trust her.[45] Her understanding of politics gave Emperor Zhenzong the reassurance that when he retired for the night, his empress would take care of the rest of the remaining state matters for him.[46] Empress Liu E was also skilled in managing the imperial harem.[47] Because of her efficiency in running both the court and the harem, Emperor Zhenzong trusted her enough to run the empire in his stead.[48]

In 1020 C.E., Emperor Zhenzong fell into a serious illness from which he could never recover.[49] Empress Liu E became the unofficial ruler of the empire.[50] In 1022 C.E., Emperor Zhenzong’s illness grew rapidly worse. Emperor Zhenzong’s successor was twelve years old, and it was clear he needed a regent.[51] The obvious choice of regent was Empress Liu E. However, the ministers’ opposed her appointment as regent.[52] They begged Emperor Zhenzong not to make Empress Liu E regent.[53] Emperor Zhenzong refused their request and made it clear that Empress Liu E would be the regent.[54] Emperor Zhenzong then died. He was fifty-five years old.[55] Empress Liu E’s adopted son ascended the throne as Emperor Renzong. Liu E became the Empress Dowager and was appointed regent.[56]

Empress Liu E’s rise was astonishing. Despite her scandalous beginnings as an entertainer who made her living drumming on the street and possibly a silversmith’s wife, she managed to attract the man who would become Emperor. While she faced many obstacles, she eventually entered the Emperor’s harem and became empress. She would prove to be indispensable to Emperor Zhenzong and took care of his state affairs for him as well as successfully managed the imperial harem. This proves that Empress Liu E and Emperor Zhenzong’s relationship was built on trust and love. Emperor Zhenzong saw his wife’s potential as a capable ruler. Therefore, he appointed her to be regent after his death. The next article focuses on Empress Dowager Liu E’s regency and the contributions she made to Northern Song China. Under her regency, Empress Dowager Liu E became the unofficial sovereign of Northern Song China.

Read part two here.


Chaffee, J. (2001). “The Rise and Regency of Empress Liu (969—1033).” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, 31, 1–25.

Ching-Chung, P. (2014). “Liu, Empress of Emperor Zhenzong of Northern Song.” 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. 254-257.

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

Ping, S. (2010). The Feudal Empresses of Ancient China (Imperial Cultures of China Series (English Edition))Beijing, China: China Intercontinental Press.

[1] Ping, 2010

[2] Ching-Chung, 2014; Chaffee, 2001

[3] McMahon, 2016

[4] Chaffee, 2001

[5] Chaffee, 2001

[6] Chaffee, 2001

[7] Ping, 2010; Chaffee, 2001

[8] Chaffee, 2001

[9] Chaffee, 2001

[10] Chaffee, 2001

[11] Ching-Chung, 2014

[12] Ping, 2010

[13] Ping, 2010

[14] Ching-Chung, 2014

[15] Ching-Chung, 2014

[16] Ching-Chung, 2014; McMahon, 2016

[17] McMahon, 2016

[18] McMahon, 2016

[19] Ping, 2010

[20] Ping, 2010

[21] Ping, 2010

[22] Ping, 2010

[23] Ping, 2010

[24] Ping, 2010

[25] Ping, 2010

[26] Ping, 2010

[27] Ping, 2010

[28] Ching-Chung, 2014

[29] Ching-Chung, 2014

[30] Ping, 2010

[31] Ping, 2010

[32] Ching-Chung, 2014

[33] Ching-Chung, 2014

[34] Ching-Chung, 2014

[35] Ching-Chung, 2014

[36] Chaffee, 2001

[37] Ching-Chung, 2014

[38] Ching-Chung, 2014

[39] Ching-Chung, 2014

[40] Ping, 2010

[41] Ping, 2010

[42] Ping, 2010

[43] Chaffee, 2001; Ching-Chung, 2014

[44] Chaffee, 2001; Ching-Chung, 2014

[45] Chaffee, 2001, Ching-Chung, 2014

[46] Chaffee, 2001; Ching-Chung, 2014

[47] Chaffee, 2001; Ching-Chung, 2014

[48] Chaffee, 2001; Ching-Chung, 2014

[49] Ching-Chung, 2014

[50] Ching-Chung, 2014

[51] Ching-Chung, 2014

[52] Ching-Chung, 2014

[53] Ching-Chung, 2014

[54] Ching-Chung, 2014

[55] Ching-Chung, 2014

[56] McMahon, 2016

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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