Empress Wang – The usurper’s daughter

Empress Wang happened to be the daughter of one of China’s most notorious usurpers. Her tragic life showed that she was a pawn in her father’s ambitions. Due to her father’s will, she married Emperor Ping. Yet, when her father usurped the throne for himself, she very rarely defied him except on minor occasions. In the end, Empress Wang has been known in history for her famous last words and by choosing her own death rather than having her fate be chosen by the hands of her enemies.

Empress Wang (also formerly known as Empress Xiao Ping Wang Huangshou) was born around 9 B.C.E.[1] She was the daughter of Wang Mang and his wife, Lady Wang.[2] Her great-aunt was Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun, who was the current regent to Emperor Ping.[3] The Grand Empress Dowager appointed Wang Mang as Commander-in-Chief to help Emperor Ping with his duties to the throne.[4]

Wang Mang was the unofficial regent of the Han dynasty. Still, Wang Mang hungered for more power and wanted to strengthen his rule by marrying his daughter to Emperor Ping.[5] He knew that Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun would oppose the match, so he came up with a clever ploy.[6] In 4 C.E., at the age of thirteen, Wang was a candidate for the selection of palace women to Emperor Ping.[7] Wang Mang pretended to withdraw his daughter from the competition, claiming he believed his daughter to be an unsuitable candidate for Emperor Ping because of her humble background.[8] However, many petitions from scholars, commoners, and court officials were submitted to Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun, asking her to appoint Wang Mang’s daughter as Empress to Emperor Ping.[9] Due to the overwhelming volume of petitions, Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun had no choice but to accept his daughter as Empress.[10]

In 4, C.E., Wang married Emperor Ping and became Empress. Shortly after his daughter’s investiture as Empress, Wang Mang was made Duke Anshan and was given the title of “Steward-Regulator of the State”.[11] This title was higher than Prince or Marquis.[12] In 5 C.E., Emperor Ping died. Wang Mang became regent to the new Emperor, Liu Ying. The new Emperor was the great-great-grandson of Emperor Xuan, and to the greatest advantage to Wang Mang, he was only a one year-old.[13]

In 9 C.E., Wang Mang deposed Liu Ying and made him Duke Ding’an.[14] Wang Mang usurped the throne and made himself Emperor.[15] He established his own dynasty called the Xin.[16] Emperor Wang Mang made his young widowed daughter Empress Dowager.[17] 

However, Emperor Wang Mang did not want his daughter to remain a widow for the rest of her life.[18] He wanted her to remarry to suit his own personal interests.[19] Thus, he changed his daughter’s title from Empress Dowager Wang to “Illustrious Princess of the Imperial Clan.” [20] Emperor Wang Mang wanted Empress Wang to marry the son of Sun Jian, the Duke of Chengxing and who helped put Wang Mang on the throne.[21]

Empress Wang was said to be very obedient to her father.[22] She did not attend any court meetings because she often pleaded illness as an excuse.[23] However, Empress Wang refused to remarry because she was still mourning the loss of Emperor Ping, whom she deeply loved.[24] When her suitor paid a visit to her, Empress Wang pretended to be ill.[25] Yet, she had enough strength to order her suitor’s bodyguards to be whipped in the dungeons.[26] Empress Wang refused to get out of bed, and eventually, Emperor Wang Mang abandoned all his plans for his daughter’s remarriage.[27]

In 23 C.E., Wang Mang was overthrown by the armies of the Han dynasty.[28] Weiyang Palace, the imperial palace, burned.[29] Empress Wang realized that there was no hope in her situation.[30] She was filled with remorse for being a pawn in her father’s ambitions.[31] She said her famous last words, “How can I face the Han imperial family with a clear conscience?”[32] Immediately after she said those words, she threw herself into the fiery flames of the burning Weiyang Palace.[33]

The words and actions of Empress Wang give us a glimpse into her psyche.[34] She knew that what her father had done was wrong, but she rarely defied him.[35] On the few occasions that she did defy him by refusing to remarry and feigning illness shows that the Empress could have the potential to stand up to her father.[36] Because of her submissiveness to her father’s will, Empress Wang was filled with remorse and guilt at the end of her life.[37] Thus, Empress Wang’s tragic life has often been seen as a morality tale, for one should always have the courage to stand up for what one believes to be right and not be a passive, silent bystander.[38]


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

Mu, M. (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.

Waldherr, K. (2008). Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, From Cleopatra to Princess Di. NY: Bloomsbury Books.

[1] Mu, p. 201

[2] Mu, p. 201

[3] Mu, p. 201

[4] Mu, p. 201

[5] Waldherr, p. 49

[6] McMahon, p. 92

[7] Mu, p. 201

[8] McMahon, p. 92

[9] McMahon, p. 92

[10] McMahon, p. 92

[11] Mu, p. 201

[12] Mu, p. 201

[13] Mu, p. 201

[14] Mu, p. 201

[15] Mu, p. 201

[16] Mu, p. 201

[17] Mu, p. 201

[18] Mu, p. 201

[19] Mu, p. 201

[20] Mu, p. 201

[21] Mu, p. 201

[22] Mu, p. 201

[23] Waldherr, p. 49

[24] Waldherr, p. 49

[25] Mu, p. 201

[26] Mu, p. 201

[27] Mu, p. 201

[28] Mu, p. 202

[29] Mu, p. 202

[30] Waldherr, p. 49

[31] Mu, p. 202

[32] Mu, p. 202

[33] Waldherr, p. 49; Mu, p. 202

[34] Mu, p. 202

[35] Mu, p. 202

[36] Mu, p. 202

[37] Mu, p. 202

[38] Waldherr, p. 49

About Lauralee Jacks 110 Articles
I am a third grade 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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