Empress Yuan – One of the world’s shortest-reigning rulers




Empress Yuan remains one of China’s most controversial monarchs. She has often been considered one of the world’s shortest-reigning monarchs in history.[1] At only fifty days old, she ruled as a female empress for only one day.[2] For centuries, she has been overlooked as a ruler by ancient historians simply because she was a girl who seemed to make no mark in history.[3] However, in the last few decades, Chinese historians are slowly acknowledging the fact that she was the first female queen regnant in Chinese history.[4] This means that Empress Wu Zetian was not the only female queen regnant because, in actuality, she had a predecessor.[5] Therefore, Empress Yuan is gradually gaining an important place in Chinese history.

Empress Yuan was born on 12 February 528 C.E. We do not know her first name.[6] We only know her surname Yuan because that was the surname for the imperial family.[7] Her father was the eighteen-year-old Emperor Xiaoming, and her mother was Consort Pan. It would seem that as a newborn princess, she was unlikely to ascend the Chinese throne as a sovereign. However, turbulent events would quickly sweep Princess Yuan into the midst of a power struggle.

Emperor Xiaoming did not have any power.[8] The real ruler of the empire was his mother, Empress Dowager Hu. Empress Dowager Hu had no intention of letting go of her reigns of power and giving them to her son.[9] This frustrated Emperor Xiaoming because he was of an age to rule for himself.[10] He requested outside help by asking Erzhu Rong, the nomadic chieftain of the Jie tribe, to come to his aid.[11] When Empress Dowager Hu’s ministers found out that Emperor Xiaoming had requested outside help, they killed their Emperor.[12] Furious that Emperor Dowager Hu’s ministers had committed regicide, Erzhu Rong gathered his army and arrived at Northern Wei’s capital gates.[13]

Empress Dowager Hu feared that he would invade the capital. To prevent this, she had to find a new Emperor.[14] However, Emperor Xiaoming did not have a son. He only had one child, Princess Yuan.[15] She decided that she had no choice but to make her Emperor.[16] On 1 April 528 C.E., Princess Yuan ascended the throne as Emperor. Empress Yuan was only fifty days old. Empress Dowager Hu would still be regent. When Erzhu Rong learned that Empress Dowager Hu had made her granddaughter Emperor, he was furious.[17] There had never been a female emperor on the throne.[18] Erzhu Rong considered Empress Yuan to be ineligible and demanded Empress Dowager Hu to find another candidate, or he would storm the capital’s gates.[19] On 2 April 528 C.E., Empress Dowager Hu deposed Empress Yuan and placed Emperor Xiaoming’s two-year-old cousin named Yuan Zhao on the throne instead.[20] Therefore, Empress Yuan was only Emperor for a day.

Erzhu Rong was still displeased with this new choice of ruler because Empress Dowager Hu would still have power.[21] Therefore, he decided on his choice of heir.[22] He chose Emperor Xiaowen’s grandson to be the next Emperor and made him marry his daughter.[23] Erzhu Rong immediately became the most powerful man in Northern Wei. Erzhu Rong’s army stormed the gates of the capital. On 17 May 528 C.E., Empress Dowager Hu and Emperor Yuan Zhao were drowned by Erzhu Rong’s army in the Yellow River.[24] Erzhu Rong killed thousands of officials and their families.[25] Most of whom were Han Chinese.[26] It is not known what happened to Empress Yuan after her deposition since she is no longer mentioned in historical records.[27] Modern historians believe that she may also have been killed by Erzhu Rong’s army.[28] Thus, while she seems to have had an unremarkable reign, modern historians are slowly acknowledging Empress Yuan’s importance in history. Hopefully, one day, Empress Yuan will officially get the recognition she deserves.

Sources:

History Collection (2019). “16 Rulers who Reigned for Less than 50 Days”. Retrieved on 29 December 2021 from https://historycollection.com/16-rulers-who-reigned-for-less-than-50-days/14/.

Inf.News (n.d.) “The first female ruler-she was enthroned a hundred years earlier than Wu Zetian”. Retrieved on 29 December 2021 from https://inf.news/en/history/7a584cb417a7c8aa4d89b8e3ca9fbd7d.html.

Lau, L. M. & Ching-Chung, P. (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.

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

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


[1] History Collection, “16 Rulers who Reigned for less than 50 days”, para. 1

[2] Lau & Ching-Chung; pp. 298-299

[3] Inf.News, “The first female emperor-she was enthroned a hundred years earlier than Wu Zetian”, para. 17

[4] Inf.News, “The first female emperor-she was enthroned a hundred years earlier than Wu Zetian”, para. 17

[5] Inf.News, “The first female emperor-she was enthroned a hundred years earlier than Wu Zetian”, para. 17

[6]  Inf.News, “The first female emperor-she was enthroned a hundred years earlier than Wu Zetian”, para. 16

[7] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[8] Waldherr, p. 60

[9] Waldherr, p. 60

[10] Waldherr, p. 60

[11] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[12] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[13] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[14] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 298

[15] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[16] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[17] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[18] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[19] Lau & Ching-Chung, pp. 298-299

[20] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[21] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[22] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[23] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[24] McMahon, p. 145; Waldherr, p. 60

[25] Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[26]  Lau & Ching-Chung, p. 299

[27] Inf.News, “The first female emperor-she was enthroned a hundred years earlier than Wu Zetian”, para. 18

[28] Inf.News, “The first female emperor-she was enthroned a hundred years earlier than Wu Zetian”, para. 18






About Lauralee Jacks 98 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!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.