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

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

In my last article, I discussed how Empress Wei was powerless when she first became Empress and how Empress Wu Zetian gave her the aspirations to become the next Empress regnant of China. This article will examine how Empress Wei held onto power. One example is how she created her own power base at court. This article will also look at Empress Wei’s notorious reputation as a traitor. History was written by the victors, and it is evident when examining Empress Wei’s story that she was the loser in a power struggle.[1] Had Empress Wei been able to maintain power, she would have met her aspirations as an Empress regnant of China.[2] Yet, she had to compete against powerful enemies who also desired the throne. Therefore, if she had won the power struggle, Empress Wei may not have been known as a traitor to the Tang dynasty.[3]

In 705 C.E., Crown Prince Li Xian deposed his mother, Empress Wu and ascended the throne as Emperor Zhongzong. Crown Princess Wei became Empress. Initially, Emperor Zhongzong seemed like a good ruler.[4] He reduced taxes, released thousands of palace maids from the palace, and reformed laws and punishments.[5] He also proposed new ideas in the government and listened to criticism from his officials, and even settled old court cases.[6] These acts were successful, but he soon proved to be a weak ruler because Empress Wei started to become involved in state affairs.[7] Because they shared fourteen years in exile, Emperor Zhongzong dearly loved his wife and trusted her.[8] He allowed Empress Wei to be the unofficial ruler of China.[9]

As the unofficial ruler of China, Empress Wei established her own power base.[10] They included Imperial Consort Shangguan Wan’er, Wu Sansi, and her daughter, Princess Anle.[11] Empress Wei was said to have had an affair with Wu Sansi to keep him in her clique.[12] Empress Wei was also  said to have multiple affairs with men, including a lowly groom.[13] Empress Wei having multiple lovers including Wu Sansi seems to be false since it seems a literary pattern by her enemies to slander the ambitious Empress’s reputation by accusing her of promiscuity.[14] According to historian Rebecca Doran, chroniclers of the Tang Dynasty often accuse powerful women of having affairs simply to ruin her reputation for meddling in politics.[15] Historian Keith McMahon also stated that chroniclers of the Tang Dynasty believe that if a woman lusts after power, then she must desire to have many love affairs with multiple men.[16] Thus, according to the chroniclers of the Tang Dynasty only a wanton woman would desire to have power.[17] Therefore, these allegations of Empress Wei’s adultery were simply to blacken her reputation because she was a powerful empress.[18]

Empress Wei let her clique roam free in the palace.[19] They did not like to listen to criticism and would have ministers murdered if they did not agree with them.[20] One of the ministers they had executed was Yan Yingrong, a military officer whom Emperor Zhongzong liked. Therefore, Empress Wei enjoyed many privileges and powers under her husband.[21]

On 3 July 710 C.E., Emperor Zhongzong died. Ancient chroniclers accuse Empress Wei of poisoning him.[22] However, modern historians doubt this claim.[23] The chroniclers were the Empress’s enemies,[24] and Emperor Zhongzong was her protector.[25] As long as he was alive, Empress Wei was very powerful.[26] With Emperor Zhongzong gone, Empress Wei was vulnerable because she had many enemies.[27] One of them was Princess Taiping. She was also forming her own power base and was harbouring the same ambition to be an Empress regnant of China like Empress Wu.[28] Empress Wei delayed announcing the news until she could install a successor whom she could control.[29] She installed Emperor Zhongzong’s son by another woman named Li Chongmao as Emperor Shang.[30] Because he was fifteen, Empress Wei found him easy to manipulate.[31] This was only temporary because Empress Wei was planning on becoming the Empress regnant of China like her mother-in-law.[32]

However, Emperor Shang did not rule long because Empress Wei had many powerful enemies.[33] Among them was Princess Taiping and her nephew Li Longji (the future Emperor Xuanzong).[34] On 21 July 710 C.E., Princess Taiping, Li Longji, and Xue Chongjian staged a palace coup. Many of her guards joined Li Longji’s rebellion, and it completely caught her off guard.[35] Clothed in nothing but her underwear, Empress Wei attempted to flee.[36] However, the soldiers she had hired to protect her killed her as a favor to Li Longji, to whom they pledged their allegiance.[37] 

Empress Wei was killed on 21 July 710 C.E. She was betrayed by her own soldiers who were supposed to protect her.[38] Princess Anle and the rest of her faction were also killed on that very night.[39] The heads of Empress Wei, Princess Anle, Imperial Consort Shangguan Wan’er and the rest of the faction were displayed as traitors on the top of the Eastern Market.[40] Empress Wei was stripped of her Empress title and was demoted to commoner status.[41] She is known as Commoner Wei in the Old History of the Tang Dynasty and Commoner née Wei in the New History of the Tang Dynasty.[42] Since then, Empress Wei’s reputation has become worse because she dared to try to be an empress regnant of China.[43] She has often been seen as a traitor who deserved to be demoted to a commoner.[44] However, history was written by her enemies who feared her because she almost usurped the throne.[45] They did not want another female ruler like Wu Zetian.[46] Empress Wei was a strong, powerful woman who governed military affairs and built her own power base. Due to her meddling in state affairs in which women were not allowed to interfere, she was seen as a threat in Tang Dynasty China.[47]


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] Idema & Grant, 2004

[2] McMahon, 2013

[3] Idema & Grant, 2004

[4] Ruizhi, 2015

[5] Ruizhi, 2015

[6] Ruizhi, 2015

[7] Ruizhi, 2015

[8] Ruizhi, 2015

[9] Chen, et al., 2014

[10] Chen, et al., 2014

[11] Chen, et al., 2014

[12] Chen, et al., 2014

[13] Ruizhi, 2015

[14] Doran, 2016

[15] Doran, 2016

[16]McMahon, 2013 

[17] McMahon, 2013

[18] Doran, 2016

[19] Chen, et al., 2014

[20] Ruizhi, 2015

[21] McMahon, 2013

[22] Ruizhi, 2015

[23] McMahon, 2013; Idema & Grant, 2004

[24] Idema & Grant, 2004

[25] McMahon, 2013

[26] McMahon, 2013

[27] McMahon, 2013

[28] McMahon, 2013

[29]Ruizhi, 2015

[30] Chen, et al., 2014

[31] Ruizhi, 2015

[32] Chen, et al., 2014

[33] Chen, et al., 2014

[34] Chen, et al., 2014

[35] Chen, et al., 2014

[36] Ruizhi, 2015

[37] Chen, et al., 2014

[38] Chen, et al., 2014

[39] Chen, et al., 2014

[40] Chen, et al., 2014

[41] Chen, et al., 2014

[42] Chen, et al., 2014

[43] McMahon, 2013

[44] Chen, et al., 2014

[45] McMahon, 2013

[46] McMahon, 2013

[47] Ruizhi, 2015

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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