Empress Liu Jin’gui – The miserly Empress

Empress Liu Jin'gui

Empress Liu’s story has often been seen as a morality tale. She has been known as a villainous empress who deserved her just deserts when she was forced to commit suicide. She disowned and had her own father flogged, deserted her husband in his final moments, and caused her son’s death. It was not until her final moments that she realized all the harm her evil deeds had done and became remorseful. Empress Liu realized that she was to blame for the downfall of the Later Tang Dynasty. Her love of wealth, pleasure, and power had caused her to hurt all those she loved and forced her to lose everything, including her own life.

Empress Liu was born in Cheng’an in Weizhou Prefecture (modern-day Cheng’an in Shandong Province) around 895 C.E.[1] Her full name was Liu Jin’gui.[2] Her father was originally named Liu Kui, but he was renamed Liu Shanren (which meant “mountain people” [3]) because he sold medicinal herbs from the mountains.[4] Liu Jin’gui was an only child, and her mother was killed during a raid.[5] 

In the last years of the declining Tang Dynasty, Prince Li Keyoung attacked Cheng’an when Liu Jin’gui was six years old.[6] During the attack, Liu Jin’gui was abducted and forced to become a servant in Prince Li Keyoung’s household.[7] Liu Jin’gui was a maid to Lady Cao, the second concubine of Prince Li Keyoung.[8] Under Lady Cao’s guidance, Liu Jin’gui was taught to play the reed pipe, dance, and sing.[9] She grew into a very beautiful and desirable young woman.[10] 

In 908 C.E., Prince Li Keyoung died. His eldest son, Li Cunxu, became the Prince of Jin. To comfort her grieving son, Lady Cao brought the thirteen-year-old Liu Jin’gui to sing for Prince Li Cunxu.[11] Prince Li Cunxu had desired Liu Jin’gui for a long time and desperately wanted to have her.[12] Not wishing to deprive her son of the girl he wanted, Lady Cao gave Liu Jin’gui to him.[13] She became his concubine. She quickly bore Prince Li Cunxu a son named Li Jiji. Prince Li Cunxu was very happy with his newborn son and believed that Li Jiji looked like him.[14] He spoiled Liu Jin’gui and gave her the title of Lady of Wei.[15] Lady Liu also accompanied Prince Li Cunxu on his military campaigns to overthrow the newly formed Later Liang dynasty (which was formed in 907 C.E.) and become the next Emperor of China.[16]

Liu Shanren heard that his daughter had become a noblewoman. He went to Prince Li Cunxu’s palace to see her. When Lady Liu learned that her father was at the palace to visit her, she was embarrassed because of her father’s lowly origins.[17] She believed that if Prince Li Cunxu learned of her father’s humble background, she would no longer be in his favour.[18] Lady Liu refused to acknowledge her father.[19] She told Prince Li Cunxu that her father had died long ago.[20] She ordered her father to be expelled from the palace and have him flogged.[21] Liu Shanren was tossed out onto the palace gates and was beaten with a cane.[22] Her poor, badly beaten father left the palace gates in tears, and he was heartbroken that his daughter had disowned him.[23] Lady Liu made an important official named Zhang Quanyi her adopted father.[24]

In 923 C.E., Prince Li Cunxu overthrew the Later Liang dynasty and formed his own dynasty known as the Later Tang. He ascended the throne as Emperor Zhuangzong. Emperor Zhuangzong wanted to make Lady Liu his Empress. However, he already had a main wife named Lady Han and a consort named Lady Yi, who was of a higher status than Lady Liu.[25] However, his officials wished to fulfill Emperor Zhuangzong’s desires by agreeing to install Lady Liu as the Empress.[26] Therefore, Lady Liu was invested as Empress.[27] Lady Han and Lady Yi became Emperor Zhuangzong’s concubines.[28]

Empress Liu became the real power behind the throne because Emperor Zhuangzong gradually became lazy after overthrowing the Later Liang dynasty.[29] She promoted her favourite singers and eunuchs.[30] Empress Liu was also a fervent believer in Buddhism and heavily persuaded Emperor Zhuangzong to convert to Buddhism.[31] She corresponded with military officers and accompanied her husband to visit ministers in their mansions.[32] However, Empress Liu was best known for being a miser.[33] 

In 925 C.E., Empress Liu refused to pay Emperor Zhuangzong’s soldiers.[34] When the situation became dire, she decided to give the soldiers gifts.[35] One soldier was very critical of her and said, “What’s the use of this when my wife and children have already died of hunger?” [36] It was not long until all the soldiers refused to serve the imperial family.[37] 

When an official named Guo Congqian rebelled against the Later Tang Dynasty, Emperor Zhuangzong was struck with an arrow to the chest, and he fell down on the palace’s steps.[38] As he was bleeding, he asked his Empress to come and see him.[39] Empress Liu refused to see him because she was packing her valuables and money so she could flee the capital.[40] Emperor Zhuangzong died, and Empress Liu fled the capital with her brother-in-law named Li Cunwu.[41] They took the most precious gold, silver, and jewellery with them.[42] They fled to the city of Jinyang and became lovers.[43]

Li Siyuan (Emperor Zhuangzong’s adopted son) ascended the throne as Emperor Mingjong. Empress Liu’s son, Prince Jiji, led a failed attempt to gain the throne.[44] Knowing he would die of treason because of his failed rebellion, Prince Jiji hung himself.[45] Her lover, Li Cunwu, was killed by his personal bodyguards. Empress Liu knew that Emperor Mingjong would soon come for her.[46] To save herself, she shaved her head and became a Buddhist nun.[47] Emperor Mingjong sent an imperial edict to Jinyang and ordered Empress Liu to kill herself.[48] This time, Empress Liu recognized all the evil deeds she had done and became remorseful.[49] She realized all the harm she had caused her loved ones. Her last words were: “I gave up my father and departed from my husband. I should answer for my evil. I have wiped out the Li’s imperial power, and I have wiped out my own.” [50] Then, she hung herself. She died in 926 C.E. at the age of thirty-one. Empress Liu was given the posthumous title of Empress Shenminjing.[51]Thus, it was not until the final moments of her life that she realized she had harmed the dynasty that her husband had once created. The Later Tang dynasty did not survive long after her death as it fell eleven years later.


Ruizhi, S. (2015).” Empress Liu”. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed Z.Yaolin, trans.). London: Routledge. pp. 235-240.

McMahon, K. (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Liu, N. (2014). “Liu, Empress of Emperor Zhuangzong of Later Tang.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II: Tang Through Ming 618 – 1644. (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed. J. Eagleton, trans.). NY: Routledge. pp. 259-260.

[1] Liu, 2014

[2] Ruizhi, 2015

[3] Ruizhi, 2015, p. 235

[4] Ruizhi, 2015

[5] Ruizhi, 2015

[6] Liu, 2014

[7] McMahon, 2013

[8] Liu, 2014

[9] Liu, 2014

[10] Liu, 2014

[11] Ruizhi, 2015

[12] Liu, 2014

[13] Liu, 2014

[14] Liu, 2014

[15] Ruizhi, 2015

[16] McMahon, 2013

[17] Liu, 2014

[18] McMahon, 2013

[19] McMahon, 2013

[20] Ruizhi, 2015

[21] McMahon, 2013

[22] McMahon, 2013

[23] Ruizhi, 2015

[24] Liu, 2014

[25] Liu, 2014

[26] Liu, 2014

[27] Liu, 2014

[28] Liu, 2014

[29] Liu, 2014

[30] Liu, 2014

[31] Liu, 2014

[32] Liu, 2014

[33] Liu, 2014

[34] Liu, 2014

[35] Liu, 2014

[36] Liu, 2014, p 260

[37] Liu, 2014

[38] Liu, 2014

[39] Ruizhi, 2015

[40] Ruizhi, 2015

[41] Ruizhi, 2015

[42] Ruizhi, 2015

[43] Ruizhi, 2015

[44] Ruizhi, 2015

[45] Ruizhi, 2015

[46] Ruizhi, 2015

[47] Liu, 2014

[48] McMahon, 2013

[49] Ruizhi, 2015

[50] Ruizhi, 2015, p. 240

[51] Liu, 2014

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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