Sun – The Blemished Reputation of a Ming Dynasty Empress




sun
Tang Wei as Sun Ruowei, Empress Sun in Ming Dynasty (2019)(Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Sun was the second empress of the Xuande Emperor (also known as Emperor Xuanzong). For centuries, Empress Sun has been portrayed in a negative light in Chinese history. She has often been called “Generation Demon Empress.”[1] When the popular television series Ming Dynasty (which is centered on her life and starred the famous Tang Wei as Empress Sun) aired, it was criticized for portraying her as a virtuous empress.[2] Did Empress Sun deserve her unflattering title?

In 1403, C.E., Empress Sun was born in Zouping (modern-day Shandong Province).[3] There is no historical record of her first name. Her father was Sun Zhong, an assistant magistrate in Yongcheng District.[4] Her mother’s identity still remains unknown to this day.[5] As unassuming as her early life was, she made her mark on Chinese history.

Empress Sun was known to be a local beauty.[6] When the crown princess (the future Empress Zhang, who also grew up in the Yongcheng District) visited her hometown, she heard about Empress Sun’s beauty.[7] Curious about the young girl’s beauty, Crown Princess Zhang brought Empress Sun to the palace.[8] There, Empress Sun received praise from the palace women.[9]

The Yongle Emperor ordered his wife, Empress Xu, to care for and educate the young girl.[10] In 1417, Empress Sun was selected to be a consort to Zhu Zhanji, who was the imperial grandson-heir.[11] When Zhu Zhanji became Emperor Xuanzong in 1425, she became Honored Consort Sun, which was the second-highest position after the empress.[12]

Legends say that Honored Consort Sun was a manipulative and enchanting beauty.[13] When she saw that Emperor Xuanzong began to be tired of Empress Hu because of her infertility, Honored Consort Sun seized her opportunity.[14] She used more effort to seduce him.[15] Even though the emperor’s affections for her grew, Honored Consort Sun was still childless.[16] Therefore, she stole another woman’s son as her own.[17] This child would be the future Emperor Yingzong.[18] However, historians believe that this story is false.[19] The child was indeed Honored Consort Sun’s son because it would be the motive that Emperor Xuanzong used to appoint Sun as his empress.[20] Emperor Xuanzong would not have made her empress if he believed Yingzong was not her child.

In 1428, Emperor Xuanzong proposed to depose Empress Hu and install Honored Consort Sun as the new empress.[21] At first, Honored Consort Sun refused and said that Empress Hu would eventually have a son that would take precedence over her own son.[22] However, Emperor Xuanzong insisted and finally, Honored Consort Sun agreed. Thus, the emperor appointed her as Empress Sun. By dethroning Empress Hu and installing a new empress, Emperor Xuanzong started a custom for his successors. Four of his successors would dethrone their first wives in favour of a new empress.[23]

The investiture of Empress Sun was a very grand affair. In the palace, the investiture ceremony of the empress is the most important ceremonial event.[24] Empress Sun wore a ceremonial robe decorated with twelve rows of pheasants and a “headdress with nine dragons and four phoenixes.”[25] Empress Sun would wear this same ceremonial clothing for court audiences and other important ceremonies.[26] She would fast for three days where she would announce her investiture at the Temple for Imperial Ancestors.[27] Once her formal announcement was made, the palace held congratulatory banquets, one for the emperor and the other for the empress.[28]

After Empress Sun was invested, she held court in her residence and regularly met with eunuchs and female officials.[29] Her official duties included personnel evaluation, approving budgets, and planning royal marriages. [30]Emperor Xuanzong’s consorts and imperial princesses would make regular visits to her.[31] She reported daily to her mother-in-law, Empress Zhang on family affairs.[32] She also performed the rites at the ancestral altar.[33] On special occasions, the empress would dine with the emperor at his residence.[34]

Seven years after she became Empress, Emperor Xuanzong died. Empress Sun’s son, Yingzong, became emperor. Because Emperor Yingzong was eight years old, she was appointed Empress Dowager.[35] During the Battle of Tumu Fortress in 1449, Emperor Yingzong was taken prisoner in the North.[36] Empress Sun ordered Yingzong’s brother, Zhu Qiyu, to be in charge of state affairs.[37] He was immediately installed as Emperor Daizong. Empress Dowager Sun was also given two honorary characters, “Shangsheng” (which translates to rise up), to her title.[38] During Emperor Yingzong’s imprisonment, Empress Dowager Sun repeatedly sent him warm clothes.[39]

When Emperor Yingzong was finally released from prison, he returned to the capital. Once he arrived, Emperor Daizong immediately placed Yingzong under house arrest[40]. During his imprisonment, Empress Dowager Sun made regular visits to him.[41] In 1459, the leader of the coup, “Seizing the Door,” sought Empress Dowager Sun’s approval to restore Emperor Yingzong to the throne.[42] The coup was successful, and Emperor Yingzong became emperor. Upon his restoration, Empress Dowager Sun’s title was further expanded upon.[43] In 1462, Empress Dowager Sun died of illness. She was given the posthumous title of “Xiaogong”[44]. She was buried in the Jingling Mausoleum.[45]

Empress Sun seemed to be well-respected as a Dowager Empress by both Emperors Yingzong and Daizong. They both expanded her Empress’s titles. She seemed to be a dutiful empress and mother. How Empress Sun got her negative reputation that lasted for centuries is truly puzzling because Empress Sun seemed to be deeply respected in her lifetime. One can only speculate that this came about from the fact that she was a strong woman, and strong women were seen as a threat in ancient China.

Sources:

“Sun Ruowei is portrayed as a generation of virtuous queens, but history is not like this. The image of the queen dowager is completely opposite to that of film and television dramas” (2020). DayDayNews. Retrieved 6, April, 2021. https://daydaynews.cc/en/history/757750.html.

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

Yanqing, L. (2014). “Sun, Empress of the Xuande Emperor, Xuanzong of Ming.Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II: Tang Through Ming 618 – 1644. Edited by Xiao Hong Lee, L. & Wiles, S. Routledge. pp. 381-383.


[1]Sun Ruowei is portrayed as a generation of virtuous queens, but history is not like this. The image of the queen dowager is completely opposite to that of film and television dramas”, 2020, para. 30

[2] “Sun Ruowei is portrayed as a generation of virtuous queens, but history is not like this. The image of the queen dowager is completely opposite to that of film and television dramas”. 2020, para. 3

[3] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 381

[4] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[5] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[6] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[7] Yanqing, et al, 2014,p. 382

[8]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[9]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[10]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[11]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[12]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[13]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[14] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[15] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[16]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 381

[17]Yanqing, et al, 2014,  p. 381

[18]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 381

[19] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[20] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[21]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[22]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[23] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[24] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[25] McMahon, 2016 p. 91

[26] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[27] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[28] McMahon, 2016, pp. 91-92

[29] McMahon, 2016, p. 92

[30] McMahon, 2016, p. 92

[31] McMahon, 2016, p. 92

[32] McMahon, 2016, p. 92

[33] McMahon, 2016, p. 92

[34] McMahon, 2016, p. 92

[35] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[36] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[37] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[38] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[39]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382  

[40] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[41]Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382  

[42] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[43] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[44] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382

[45] Yanqing, et al, 2014, p. 382






1 Comment

  1. Just finished watching all 60 episodes of “Ming Dynasty” – an excellent show! I agree with the fact that she was a strong woman and was seen as a threat. I’m sure the film was not entirely historically accurate but it definitely sparked my interest to learn more about her, which is how I came across this article.

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