Empress Xiao Chuo – The intelligent and victorious Empress

xiao chuo
Tiffany Tang in The Legend of Xiao Chuo (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Xiao Chuo’s story proves that there is an extraordinary woman behind a great man. Empress Xiao Chuo’s son, Emperor Shengzong, was one of the Liao Dynasty’s greatest rulers. However, it was his mother who paved the way to his greatness. Empress Xiao Chuo would make many reforms that greatly benefitted her country and her people. She also won three military battles against the mighty Northern Song Dynasty. Empress Xiao Chuo proved to be a politically capable regent who often advocated peace between her neighbours. Thus, Empress Xiao Chuo remains one of China’s most legendary empresses.

Empress Xiao Chuo was born in 953 C.E. Her real name was Xiao Chuo, but her childhood name was Yanyan.[1] Her father was Xiao Shiwen, who was the Prime Minister of the Liao dynasty.[2] Her mother was Princess Yelü Lubugu, the daughter of Emperor Taizong of Liao. Xiao Chuo had two older sisters named Xiao Hunian and Lady Xiao. Xiao Chuo was known to be an intelligent girl.[3] She also excelled in the military arts.[4] Her father once happily said, “This daughter will become a high minded girl.” [5] His words would soon prove to be true.[6]

According to contemporary accounts, Xiao Chuo was once engaged to the Han Chinese official Han Derang.[7] However, Emperor Jingzong ordered her to enter the palace to become his concubine, and Xiao Chuo was forced to cancel her engagement to Han Derang.[8] Nevertheless, Han Derang would play a major role throughout her life. She always relied on him for both political and military affairs.[9] Empress Xiao Chuo would request that after Han Derang died, he be buried beside her in the imperial tomb.[10] Therefore, historians are debating whether Empress Xiao Chuo and Han Derang were lovers throughout their lives, as claimed by contemporary accounts.[11] Some historians and contemporary witnesses even believe Empress Xiao Chuo and Han Derang had a secret marriage after Emperor Jingzong’s death and had a son together.[12] The fact that Han Derang never married, had no children, and devoted his life to serving Empress Xiao Chuo, as well as her request to have him buried beside her in death, makes it plausible for historians to believe that there was more to the relationship than the typical courtier-ruler relationship.[13] If it is true that they were lovers, Empress Xiao Chuo was the last Chinese Empress in history to openly flaunt her lover in the public eye.[14]

After Xiao Chuo broke off her engagement with Han Derang, she became a middle-ranked concubine to Emperor Jingzong.[15] In 969 C.E., Emperor Jingzong appointed Consort Xiao Chuo as Empress.[16] Empress Xiao Chuo bore Emperor Jingzong four sons and three daughters.[17] Because Emperor Jingzong was often ill, Empress Xiao Chuo became the de-facto ruler of the Liao dynasty.[18] In the official documents, she used the imperial “I”, which only the Emperor was allowed to use.[19] In 982 C.E., Emperor Jingzong died. Empress Xiao Chuo was thirty years old.[20] Their eldest son was eleven years old.[21] He ascended the throne as Emperor Shengzong.[22] Empress Xiao Chuo was made regent for her young son.[23] In 983 C.E., she was granted the title of Empress Dowager Chengtian.[24] Empress Dowager Chengtian made a series of financial, legal, and administrative reforms that greatly benefited her country.[25] History of Liao Dynasty wrote of her, “Shengzong may be considered the most successful of the Liao’s emperors; most of his success must be attributed to his mother’s instruction.” [26]

One of the first reforms she enacted was to free the slaves.[27] She lifted bans for slave owners to free their slaves without permission.[28] She also made slavery for those in debt to gain their freedom by working as peasants or craftsmen.[29] Thus, those who were slaves became subjects within the kingdom.[30] She also released many prisoners who were not of Khitan ethnicity.[31]

Empress Dowager Chengtian revised their taxation policy to uniformed taxation.[32] She also made many reforms to policies that discriminated against the Han Chinese.[33] Empress Dowager Chengtian appointed many Han Chinese to government posts and relied on their intellect.[34] Han Derang was appointed Prime Minister of the Liao Dynasty and General of the Imperial Army.[35] Because Han Derang had both military and political control, he was the most powerful man beneath the emperor of the Liao Dynasty.[36] During the battle against the Northern Song, Han Derang would be deemed a hero.[37] Due to Empress Dowager Chengtian’s reforms, the Liao Dynasty became a feudalized nation and was able to strengthen itself against its powerful neighbour, the Northern Song Dynasty.[38]

In 986 C.E., Emperor Taizong of Northern Song invaded the Liao kingdom.[39] However, Empress Dowager Chengtian, Emperor Shengzong, and Han Derang led an army of 200,000 soldiers and defeated the Northern Song.[40] In 989 C.E., the Northern Song again attacked the Liao and suffered defeat. In 1005 C.E., the Northern Song invaded once more. Empress Dowager Chengtian was over the age of fifty and personally commanded her own troops of 10,000 men. Empress Dowager Chengtian’s personal army and the Liao Imperial Army commanded by Han Derang fought against the Northern Song. Eventually, the two kingdoms came to a truce known as the “A Peace Pact at Tanzhou”.[41] Under this treaty, the Northern Song had to deliver 100,000 taels of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk per year to the Liao Dynasty.[42] The Northern Song Emperor had to address Empress Dowager Chengtian as his aunt and Emperor Shengzong as his brother.[43] Thus, for one hundred years, the two kingdoms established peaceful relations with each other.[44]

Once the Northern Song was no longer a threat, Empress Dowager Chengtian turned her eye on her other neighbours, the Western Xia Dynasty and Korea.[45] She established friendly relations with the Western Xia Dynasty.[46] However, the Liao Dynasty and Korea had hostile relations.[47] In 993 C.E., Empress Dowager Chengtian attacked Korea, and the two nations came to a peace treaty.[48] The peace between Korea and the Liao would be maintained for twenty years.[49] Korea would send ten students to Liao to study and learn their language and customs.[50] In return, a princess of the Liao dynasty would marry their Korean king.[51]

On 23 December 1009 C.E., Empress Dowager Chengtian died at the age of fifty-seven.[52] Envoys from Western Xia, Northern Song, and Korea attended her funeral.[53] She was buried alongside Emperor Jingzong in the Qian Mausoleum.[54] When Han Derang died in 1011 C.E., he was also buried with her.[55] Han Derang would be the only courtier buried in an imperial tomb during the Liao dynasty. In 1052 C.E., Empress Xiao Chuo was given the title of “The Intelligent Empress”.[56] 

Empress Xiao Chuo has been praised positively by contemporary chroniclers.[57] However, historical fiction has painted her as a villain solely for entertainment.[58] In the novel, Generals of the Yang Clan, Empress Xiao Chuo is portrayed as an ugly old hag and a vapid woman who caused the downfall of her own dynasty.[59] Even Korean dramas like to portray her in a negative light. In The Iron Empress, where she is portrayed by Shim Hye-Jin, Empress Xiao Chuo is a villain who kidnaps and terrorizes the protagonist. However, many Chinese dramas try to redeem the reputation that was given to her by historical fiction writers. Empress Xiao Chuo was the protagonist in the 1995 movie, Great Liao’s Empress Dowager, where she is portrayed by Mu Qing. However, she has been introduced to many international viewers with the popular 2020 television drama, The Legend of Xiao Chuo, in which the famous actress Tiffany Tang portrays her as a great and heroic empress who sacrificed her love to make her nation strong. Therefore, because Empress Xiao Chuo has been praised by both contemporary and modern historians, it is best to forget the villainous reputation that has been made from historical fiction and view her as the great empress who strengthened a weak nation.[60]


Ruizhi, S. & Ma, Li, trans. (2015). “Empress Dowager Xiao”. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 257-261.

Li, M. (2014). “Xiao Chuo, Empress of Emperor Jingzong of Liao.” 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. pp. 481-484.

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

[1] Li, 2014

[2] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[3] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[4] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[5] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015, p. 257

[6] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[7] McMahon, 2013

[8] McMahon, 2013

[9] Li, 2014

[10] Li, 2014

[11] McMahon, 2013

[12] McMahon, 2013

[13] McMahon, 2013

[14]McMahon, 2013

[15]Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[16] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[17] Li, 2014

[18] Li, 2014

[19] Li, 2014

[20] Li, 2014

[21] Li, 2014

[22] Li, 2014

[23] Li, 2014

[24] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[25] Li, 2014

[26] Li, 2014, p. 482

[27] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[28] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[29] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[30] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[31] Li, 2014

[32] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[33] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[34] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[35] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[36] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[37] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[38] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[39] McMahon, 2013

[40] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[41] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[42] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[43] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[44] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[45] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[46] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[47] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[48] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[49] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[50] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[51] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[52] Li, 2014

[53] Li, 2014

[54] Li, 2014

[55] Li, 2014

[56] Li, 2014

[57] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[58] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[59] Ruizhi and Ma, 2015

[60] Ruizhi and Ma, 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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