Empress Xiaoshengxian – The respected mother of a filial son

Empress Xiaoshengxian
Betty Sun as Empress Xiaoshengxian in Empresses in the Palace (Screenshot/Fair use)

Empress Xiaoshengxian was one of the most respected empresses in Chinese history. She was given many privileges that very few imperial Qing women ever held. She was the mother of Emperor Qianlong. Empress Xiaoshengxian’s relationship with her son was very warm and close. Emperor Qianlong ensured that his mother was provided with honour and comfort. Through her son, she enjoyed wealth and privilege that very few imperial Chinese women ever enjoyed.

Empress Xiaoshengxian was born on 1 January 1693. Her first name was never recorded. Her family was under the Manchurian Trimmed Yellow Banner.[1] Her father was Niohuru Lingju.[2] When Empress Xiaoshengxian’s son became the Qianlong Emperor, the posthumous Lingju would be ennobled with the title of Duke.[3] Empress Xiaoshengxian came from a poor family in Chengde.[4] Ever since she was six, she would shop in the markets looking for daily necessities.[5]

When she was thirteen, she happened to see a group of ladies making their way into the palace as candidates for the imperial concubine selection.[6] Curious about the selection, she followed the ladies into the palace doors.[7] When the palace officials found that she was not on the candidate list, they told Prince Yinzhen, the fourth son of Emperor Kangxi.[8] Prince Yinzhen told them to include her in the last group.[9] Empress Xiaoshengxian was tall and pretty.[10] The palace officials sent her to Prince Yinzhen. She was given the rank of Princess.[11]Initially, Princess Niohuru was not favoured.[12] Prince Yinzhen doted on his primary wife, Princess Ulanara (the future Empress Xiaojingxian), and his other concubines, Geng, Li, and Nian.[13]

In the summer of 1710, Prince Yinzhen contracted a contagious disease. No one wanted to take care of him for fear of contracting the deadly disease.[14] Only Princess Niohuru bravely agreed to nurse him.[15] She nursed him for two months until he recovered. The Prince was grateful to her and began to favour her.[16] A year later, she gave birth to his fourth son, Hongli (the future Emperor Qianlong). When Prince Hongli was eleven-years-old, he was taken to see Emperor Kangxi. Emperor Kangxi liked him and raised him for six months.[17] He also admired Princess Niohuru and praised her as “a person with good fortune.” [18]

On 27 December 1722, Prince Yinzhen ascended the throne as Emperor Yongzheng. Emperor Yongzheng gave Princess Niohuru the title of Imperial Consort Xi.[19] When Empress Xiaojingxian died, she was promoted to “Honored Consort of the West” (the rank just below the Empress) and was put in charge of Emperor Yongzheng’s imperial harem.[20] Emperor Yongzheng died on 8 October 1735. He chose Consort Xi’s son, Prince Hongli, to be the next Emperor. Prince Hongli ascended the throne as Emperor Qianlong. Emperor Qianlong made Honored Consort Xi the Empress Dowager (the highest rank a Qing imperial woman could ever achieve).[21] He gave her the title of “Chongqing”.[22] 

Emperor Qianlong found the palaces of the previous Qing empress dowagers to be unsuitable for his mother.[23] He built a new palace for her.[24] It was his first priority as Emperor.[25] The new palace was completed in 1736, and the Emperor named it the Palace of Longevity and Health. Empress Dowager Chongqing moved into it in 1736. She would reside there for two months each year for the rest of her life.[26] The rest of the year was spent travelling or in other Qing palaces.[27] The Palace of Longevity and Health was located on the western side of the Forbidden City and was very elaborate.[28] It consisted of three buildings: the Main Hall, Rear Hall, and Rearmost Hall.[29] They included areas for court ceremonies and religious activities.[30] It also included the empress dowager’s private living quarters and a theatre where she could watch Chinese opera.[31] Empress Dowager Chongqing was also attended by sixteen palace maids and ninety eunuchs.[32]

Emperor Qianlong’s relationship with his mother was very close.[33] Emperor Qianlong always paid her the utmost respect. He would regularly visit his mother at the Palace of Longevity and Health.[34] He even waited in the side hall of the Palace until his mother received him.[35] She often accompanied him on his inspections throughout the country.[36] Whenever he was separated from his mother, he would send her letters.[37] When Empress Dowager Chongqing fell ill in 1747, Emperor Qianlong stayed nearby.[38] He visited his mother every day and checked her medication until she was well.[39]

Empress Dowager Chongqing and Emperor Qianlong frequently discussed the weather because of the Emperor’s concern about the droughts in his country.[40] Empress Dowager Chongqing also advised him on military and political matters with Emperor Qianlong.[41] This was a rare privilege for a Qing imperial woman. Qing imperial women were not allowed to interfere in politics, but Emperor Qianlong looked to his mother for advice.[42] One example was in the promotion of Fuheng (Emperor Qianlong’s brother-in-law). In 1748, Fuheng suppressed a rebellion in Jinchuan (modern-day Sichuan Province).[43] She advised her son to reward Fuheng by ennobling him as a Duke.[44] Emperor Qianlong agreed to the decision and made Fuheng “Duke of Loyalty and Bravery.” [45] In reverence to his mother, Emperor Qianlong also gave Empress Dowager Chongqing credit for military success and gave her another honorary title.[46]

Every year on Empress Dowager Chongqing’s birthday, the Emperor would hold grand banquets for her.[47] However, Empress Dowager Chongqing’s sixtieth, seventieth, and eightieth birthdays were her most elaborate.[48] The whole nation celebrated.[49] She received priceless gifts, including the 108-volume Kanjur Sutra.[50] Paintings of her portrait were commissioned for her.[51] On those three birthdays, the ministers were promoted, the common people were not taxed, and a general amnesty for prisoners was granted.[52] Because Empress Dowager Chongqing had been honoured with many gifts from her son, she had a fine art collection.[53] She had many pieces of jade objects, wish-granting sceptres, books, paintings, and calligraphy works.[54] She also had ceramics and lacquerware.[55] When Empress Dowager Chongqing turned eighty, the Emperor was impressed with his mother’s old age. The Emperor wrote, “[I] reached sixty while [my] mother has lived to eighty years, who has ever seen a precedent in history?” [56] On 2 March 1777, Empress Dowager Chongqing died. She was 86 years old. Her last recorded words were:

“I have already reached the ripe old age of 86. I have been mothering the state and enjoying the respectful care [of the emperor] for forty-two years. Thanks to the accolades [bestowed upon me], I received three honorific titles. Three grand celebrations were held for my birthdays. Now the great state is unified, and I enjoy a family of five generations. Looking back in history, this is indeed a rare circumstance. As I revel in many blessings and good fortune in old age, I have no more regrets.”[57]

Empress Dowager Chongqing asked the Emperor to mourn for her for a hundred days.[58] He did as she wished. She was buried in the East Tailing Mausoleum. Emperor Qianlong gave his mother the posthumous title of “Empress Xiaoshengxian.” [59] Her memorial tablet was moved to the Imperial Ancestral Temple, and a general amnesty was granted to all prisoners.[60] 

Empress Xiaoshengxian had enjoyed honour, wealth, and privilege for 42 years. She had a filial son who gave her the devotion and respect she deserved. Emperor Qianlong put his mother first before all others. His first priority as Emperor was building her an elaborate palace for her comfort and enjoyment. Emperor Qianlong’s filial devotion to his mother ensured that Empress Xiaoshengxian died with no regrets. Empress Xiaoshengxian has recently been an icon in popular culture. A hit tv drama called Empresses in the Palace (where she is portrayed by the famous Betty Sun) is loosely based upon her life. She is also portrayed by Vivian Wu in Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace and by Song Chunli in the Story of Yanxi Palace. Due to the use of popular culture, Emperor Qianlong’s filial respect for his mother will never be forgotten.


Chang, M. G. (2007). A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring and Construction of Qing Rule, 1680-1785 (Harvard East Asian Monographs). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shu, L. (2018). “Empress Dowager Chongqing and the Palace of Longevity and Health”. Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912. (D. Y. Wang, Ed., J. Stewart, Ed.). Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum.

Wang, D. & Shing, S. W. (2015). “Empress Xiao Sheng Xian of the Niohuru Clan”. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women v. 1: The Qing Period, 1644-1911 (1st ed.). (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; C. Lau, Ed.; A.D. Stefanowska,. Ed.; S. Wiles, Asst. Ed.) NY: Routledge.

[1] Wang & Shing p. 352

[2] Chang, p. 102

[3] Wang & Shing p. 352

[4] Chang, p. 101

[5] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[6] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[7] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[8] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[9] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[10] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[11] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[12] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[13] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[14] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[15] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[16] Wang & Shing, p. 352

[17] Wang & Shing, pp. 352-353

[18] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[19] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[20] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[21] Shu, p. 78

[22] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[23] Shu, p. 78

[24] Shu, p. 79

[25] Shu, p. 79

[26] Shu, p. 79

[27] Shu, p. 79

[28] Shu, p. 80

[29] Shu, p. 80

[30] Shu, p. 80

[31] Shu, p. 80

[32] Shu, p. 84

[33] Shu, p. 84

[34] Shu, p. 84

[35] Shu, p. 84

[36] Chang, p. 102

[37] Shu, p. 84

[38] Shu, p. 84

[39] Shu, p. 84

[40] Shu, p. 84

[41] Shu, p. 84

[42] Shu, p. 84

[43] Shu, p. 84

[44] Shu, p. 84

[45] Shu, p. 84

[46] Shu, p. 84

[47] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[48] Shu, p. 84

[49] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[50] Shu, p. 84

[51] Shu, p. 84

[52] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[53] Shu, p. 85

[54] Shu, p. 85

[55] Shu, p. 85

[56] Shu, p. 86

[57] Shu, pp. 86-87

[58] Wang & Shing, p. 353

[59] Wang & Shing, p. 354

[60] Wang & Shing, p. 354

About Lauralee Jacks 162 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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