Empress Liu E – The great Empress (Part two)

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

In my previous article, I chronicled Empress Dowager Liu E’s humble origins as an orphan who entertained people on the streets and rose to become the regent of Northern Song China. Empress Liu E was said to be one of the greatest empresses of China, but she was not evil.[1] She was known to be fair, just, and merciful.[2] Empress Dowager Liu E’s regency would inspire many female regents.[3] The most notable is Empress Dowager Cixi, who adopted her model of regency.[4] This article focuses on her regency and shows her accomplishments.

Once Empress Dowager Liu E became regent, the ministers pleaded with her to attend court audiences behind a curtain.[5] Empress Dowager Liu E agreed to their demands. As regent, Empress Liu E became the unofficial ruler of Northern Song China.[6] Historical records state that Empress Liu E was fair, impartial, and merciful when conducting state matters.[7] She sent many imperial edicts and appointed imperial envoys in her own name.[8] Empress Dowager Liu E took pains to ensure that Emperor Renzong had an excellent education and was skilled in Confucian classics.[9] She always took the time to accompany him to his classroom and oversaw every aspect of his education.[10] Empress Dowager Liu E also liked wearing clothes made of rough materials and ordered her servants to also live a frugal lifestyle.[11] Empress Dowager Liu E also took care of Emperor Zhenzong’s relatives.[12] 

When Emperor Renzong came of age, Empress Dowager Liu E refused to hand over the reins of power to him and remained as the unofficial ruler of Northern Song China.[13] She even performed the ritual ceremony of ploughing and ancestral worship in the imperial temple, which were acts reserved solely for the Emperor.[14] Empress Liu E allowed her ministers to debate at court.[15] While she sometimes had a violent temper, she loved receiving criticism and followed their advice.[16] She was also very forgiving to her enemies if they ever showed her true repentance.[17] A few examples in which she followed her ministers’ sage advice was that she should never be like Wu Zetian, who took the throne of China for herself.[18] She also believed that Emperor Renzong’s birth mother, Li, should be buried as the mother of an emperor rather than a palace maid.[19]

Empress Dowager Liu E also bestowed honours on those who helped her during her youth.[20] She gave many honours to Gong Mei, who may have been her former husband, and honoured his family as well as his ancestors.[21] She even promoted Zhang Qi, whom she lived with for twelve years.[22]  However, Empress Dowager Liu E’s most shining and controversial moment was in 1033 C.E.[23] Empress Dowager Liu E decided to wear the Emperor’s robes and crown to conduct an ancestral worship ceremony.[24] No woman except Wu Zetian has ever worn the Emperor’s robe before.[25] Many ministers objected to her wearing the Emperor’s robe and crown, but Empress Dowager Liu E ignored their objections.[26] This was her greatest triumph because it symbolized her as the ruler of Northern Song China rather than an empress dowager.[27]

In 1033 C.E., Empress Dowager Liu E died at the age of 64.[28] Emperor Renzong finally had the reins of power fully bestowed on him.[29] However, it was not until after Empress Dowager Liu E’s death that Emperor Renzong learned that she was not his birth mother.[30] Emperor Renzong was shocked and felt betrayed by her deception.[31] He was so angry at Empress Dowager Liu E that he would not forgive her until he reburied his birth mother and gave her a funeral befitting the mother of the Emperor.[32] He also made his birth mother the posthumous Empress Dowager Zhangyi.[33] After Emperor Renzong honoured his birth mother, he felt obligated to honour his adopted mother.[34] He gave Empress Liu E the posthumous title of Empress Zhangxian Mingsu.[35]

Despite the opposition of her ministers, Empress Dowager Liu E proved to be a dedicated and effective regent.[36] She listened to her ministers’ criticism and allowed for debate in court. Under her regency, her nation became peaceful and prosperous.[37] She promoted talented people and stripped the incapable ministers of their titles.[38] She made many just laws that benefited her nation.[39] Due to her willingness to adapt, she won the hearts of the people of China. Her portrait is currently on display in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.[40] She is also popular in Chinese culture. A recent drama that is based on her life premiered in 2021 is called Palace of Devotion, where she is portrayed by the famous Liu Tao. Therefore, through the empress dowager’s influence and importance in Chinese history, Empress Dowager Liu E’s accomplishments will never be forgotten.


Chaffee, J. (2001). “The Rise and Regency of Empress Liu (969—1033).” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies31, 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] Ping, 2010

[3] Ching-Chung, 2014

[4] Ping, 2010

[5] Ping, 2010

[6] Ching-Chung, 2014

[7] Ping, 2010

[8] Ching-Chung, 2014

[9] Ping, 2010

[10] Ping, 2010

[11] Ping, 2010

[12] Ping, 2010

[13] Ching-Chung, 2014

[14] Ching-Chung, 2014

[15] Ching-Chung, 2014

[16] Chaffee, 2001; Ching-Chung, 2014

[17] Ching-Chung, 2014

[18] Ching-Chung, 2014

[19] Ching-Chung, 2014

[20] Ching-Chung, 2014

[21] Ching-Chung, 2014

[22] Ching-Chung, 2014

[23] McMahon, 2016

[24] McMahon, 2016

[25] McMahon, 2016

[26] McMahon, 2016

[27] McMahon, 2016

[28] Ping, 2010

[29] Ching-Chung, 2014

[30] Ping, 2010

[31] Ping, 2010

[32] Ping, 2010

[33] Ping, 2010

[34] Ping, 2010

[35] Ping, 2010

[36] Ping, 2010; Ching-Chung, 2014; Chaffee, 2001

[37] Chaffee, 2001

[38] Ching-Chung, 2014; Chaffee, 2001

[39] Ching-Chung, 2014; Chaffee, 2001

[40] Ching-Chung, 2014

About Lauralee Jacks 177 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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