Wei – The ambitious twice-crowned Empress (Part one)

Michelle Yim as Wei in Deep in the Realm of Conscience (2018)(Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Wei was crowned Empress of China twice. She was the wife of Emperor Zhongzong and was the daughter-in-law of Wu Zetian. Empress Wei has been known to be one of the most ruthless empresses in Chinese history. Even historian Song Ruizhi described Empress Wei as “evil” [1] and “hypocritical.” [2] Historians believe that she received her just deserts when she was killed by her own soldiers in nothing but her underwear, and her head was displayed in the Eastern Market as a traitor.[3] They also believe that she was worthy of being demoted to commoner status.[4] Yet, did Empress Wei deserve her nefarious reputation?

History has often been written by the victors, and Empress Wei’s story is no exception.[5] She was caught in a power struggle with Princess Taiping and Emperor Xuanzong and ultimately lost. Thus, her enemies wrote her history and embellished many aspects of her life so that it is hard to separate fact from fiction.[6] She was accused of murdering her husband and was described as having affairs with multiple men, in which one of them was a lowly groom.[7] Yet, it seems that her greatest crime was that she meddled in state affairs in which women were not allowed to interfere.[8] She also dared to follow her mother-in-law’s example by daring to attempt to take the throne for herself and become the next Empress regnant of China.[9] Yet, Empress Wei ultimately lost, and her story has frequently been seen as a caution for a woman to not try to take the Chinese throne for herself.[10] Thus, Empress Wei was seen as a threat in a patriarchal society.[11]

Empress Wei was born around 665 C.E. Her first name remains unrecorded.[12] She was born in Jingzhao (modern-day Xi’an).[13] Her father was Wei Xuanzhen, a prefect of Yu Prefecture. Later, Empress Wu would send him into exile.[14] Her mother was Lady Cui, and she had four brothers. Later, her mother and her brothers would be murdered by Ning Chengji and his brothers, who were leaders of ethnic populations in Jingzhao.[15]

In 680 C.E., Lady Wei married Li Xian (the Crown Prince of Tang Dynasty) and became his second Crown Princess.[16] The first Crown Princess died of starvation because her mother offended Empress Wu. Li Xian was the son of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu. In late 683 C.E., Crown Prince Li Xian ascended the throne as Emperor Zhongzong. Emperor Zhongzong made Crown Princess Wei the Empress.[17] 

Within a few weeks, Emperor Zhongzong was deposed by Empress Wu, who installed her other son Li Dan as Emperor Ruizong.[18] The reason why Emperor Zhongzong was dethroned was because he wanted to promote Empress Wei’s father to a high position.[19] When his chief minister protested against the promotion, Emperor Zhongzong claimed to have wished to give the throne to his father-in-law.[20] However, it seems unlikely that Emperor Zhongzong may have wished to make his father-in-law Emperor.[21] Most historians believe this was simply an excuse for Empress Wu to dethrone him.[22] Emperor Zhongzong was not as pliable as Empress Wu would hope.[23] He was not willing to be manipulated by his mother and was building his own power base (which included his father-in-law).[24] Thus, Emperor Zhongzong was Emperor for less than two months.

Emperor Zhongzong was demoted to Prince of Luling. Empress Wei was also demoted as Princess of Luling. She was not yet twenty when she had to go into exile.[25] They were exiled to Fengling (modern-day Fang-Xian district in Hubei Province), where they spent fourteen years.[26] During those fourteen years, Prince Li Xian was very afraid his mother would murder him.[27] He feared every edict that came to the capital, fearing it was a death sentence.[28] One day, when an edict came to the capital, Prince Li Xian was about to commit suicide before listening to the decree. Princess Wei said to her husband, “Disasters and blessings come by turns. They are unpredictable. If you have to die, you can’t escape it, but why hasten it?” [29] Her words persuaded her husband not to commit suicide. Princess Wei also gave birth to four daughters. The youngest was Princess Anle, who would play a prominent role in Empress Wei’s story. She also gave birth to a son named Prince Yide.

Empress Wu was in her seventies, and she was the Empress regnant of China. She had created her own dynasty known as the Zhou dynasty. However, she had no Crown Prince. Her ministers begged Empress Wu to choose a Crown Prince to inherit her dynasty.[30] She finally succumbed to her ministers’ pleading. In the spring of 698, Empress Wu brought Prince Li Xian and Princess Wei to the capital.[31] Later that year, Prince Li Xian was made Crown Prince for the second time, and Wei was Crown Princess. However, Li Xian was Crown Prince in name only.[32] Empress Wu did not listen to her son.[33] Her court was ruled by her favourites, the Zhang brothers. No one except the Zhang brothers had access to her, and she issued decrees on her own.[34] Crown Princess Wei’s son had criticized the Zhang brothers, so Empress Wu executed him.[35] Thus, Princess Wei had no surviving sons to succeed her husband after he died.[36] Despite what Empress Wu did to her son, Princess Wei admired the Empress’s rise to power.[37] It gave her hope that a woman could usurp the throne for herself.[38] She harboured the ambition that she would one day be an empress regnant of China like Empress Wu.[39]

In 705 C.E., there was a palace coup that killed the Zhang brothers, deposed Empress Wu as ruler,  and reinstated Emperor Zhongzong as Emperor for the second time. Princess Wei was again invested as Empress. Empress Wei had been truly powerless during her first time as Empress. Her powerlessness caused her only son to die. However, she learned her lessons from Empress Wu on how to gain power. Her dream was to be an empress regnant of China. In the next article, I will examine how Empress Wei gained power and also look at her reputation. It was during Empress Wei’s second reign as Empress that ancient chroniclers have blackened her reputation because of her involvement in governmental affairs in which women had no right to interfere.[40]

Read part two here.


Chen, S., Lee, L.X. H., & Long, L. (trans.). (2014). “Wei, Empress of Emperor Zhongzong of 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.). NY: Routledge.

Doran, R. (2016). Transgressions Typologies: Constructions of Gender and Power in Early Tang China. Harvard University Asia Center. 

Idema, W. L. & Grant, B. (2004). The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China. (1st ed). Harvard University Asia Center Publications Program.

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

Ruizhi, S. (2015).” Empress Wei”. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge.

[1] Ruizhi, 2015, p. 205

[2] Ruizhi, 2015, p. 204

[3] Ruizhi, 2015

[4] Ruizhi, 2015

[5] Idema & Grant, 2004

[6] Idema & Grant, 2004

[7] Ruizhi, 2015; Doran, 2016

[8] Ruizhi, 2015

[9] Chen, et al., 2014

[10] McMahon, 2013

[11] McMahon, 2013

[12] Chen, et al., 2014

[13] Chen, et al., 2014

[14] Ruizhi, 2015

[15] Ruizhi, 2015

[16]Chen, et al., 2014

[17] Chen, et al., 2014

[18] Chen, et al., 2014

[19] Chen, et al., 2014

[20] Chen, et al., 2014

[21] Chen, et al., 2014

[22] Chen, et al., 2014

[23] Chen, et al., 2014

[24] Chen, et al., 2014

[25] Chen, et al., 2014

[26] Chen, et al., 2014

[27] Chen, et al., 2014

[28] Chen, et al., 2014

[29] Chen, et al., 2014, p. 437

[30] Chen, et al., 2014

[31] Chen, et al., 2014

[32] Chen, et al., 2014

[33] Chen, et al., 2014

[34] Chen, et al., 2014

[35] McMahon, 2013

[36] McMahon, 2013

[37] Chen, et al., 2014

[38] Chen, et al., 2014

[39] Chen, et al., 2014

[40] Ruizhi, 2015

About Lauralee Jacks 186 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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