Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning – The nefarious Consort who destroyed the Ming Dynasty

Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning

Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning is known as one of the most controversial figures in China. Many historians have accused Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning of causing the Ming dynasty’s downfall.[1] Did Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning deserve the blame? She has been accused of seducing Emperor Shenzong of Ming and trying to interrupt the rightful succession by primogeniture.[2] Was she an ambitious and scheming concubine, or was she an innocent scapegoat?

Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning was born in Shuntian Prefecture in Daxing District (modern-day Beijing) in 1568 C.E.[3] She was from a wealthy family.[4] She was given an education where she learned to read and write.[5] In 1581 C.E., the imperial court held selections for the Emperor’s harem because Emperor Shenzong of Ming (also known as the Wanli Emperor) did not manage to produce a son.[6] She entered the selection and was chosen to be one of the nine concubines to enter the Emperor’s harem.[7]

Once Lady Zheng entered Emperor Shengzong’s harem, she immediately became his favourite. In 1582 C.E., she rose to the status of Shupin, which meant “Pure Concubine” [8]. In 1583 C.E., she rose to Defei, which meant “Virtuous Consort” [9]. In 1584 C.E., she was promoted to Guifei, which meant “Honoured Consort” [10]. This title of Guifei is what Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning is most commonly referred to in historical texts.[11]

Zheng Guifei bore Emperor Shenzong six children, which was more than he had with any of his other wives.[12] Zheng Guifei’s first child was Emperor Shengzong’s second daughter named Princess Yunhe. On 19 January 1585 C.E., she gave birth to Emperor Shengzong’s second son named Zhu Changxu. However, the child died shortly afterwards. On 22 February 1586 C.E., Zheng Guifei bore Emperor Shengzong’s third son named Zhu Changxun. Emperor Shengzong was so ecstatic at the birth of his third son that he made Zheng Guifei the Imperial Honoured Consort, which was the rank below the Empress.[13] This meant that second to Empress Wang Xijie, Zheng Guifei was the most powerful woman in the country.

Many courtiers criticized Emperor Shengzong for favouring Zheng Guifei.[14] He discussed this criticism with his grand secretary saying, “They say I am lustful and that I lavish favour on Honoured Consort Zheng. It’s simply that she takes good care of me. Wherever I go in the palace, she is sure to accompany me. She always sees carefully to my needs, whether day or night.” [15] Emperor Shengzong’s statement emphasized that it was not necessarily Zheng Guifei’s beauty that attracted him. It was her devotion and care for him that Emperor Shenzong liked most about her.[16] Therefore, Emperor Shenzong deeply and genuinely loved Zheng Guifei.[17] It was his deep love for her that would brew trouble for the empire on the matter of succession.[18]

For nearly two decades, Emperor Shengzong refused to name a Crown Prince. This is because he was trying to find a way to make Zheng Guifei’s son, Zhu Changxun, the heir.[19] However, Zhu Changxun was not his eldest son. The eldest son was Zhu Changluo, whom he had with Consort Wang. The tradition was for his eldest son to be installed as the Crown Prince.[20] However, Emperor Shenzong tried to fight against tradition by stating that Zheng Guifei was a worthy mother of the Crown Prince.[21] However, he was met with much opposition by his ministers until he finally gave way and made Zhu Changluo the Crown Prince in 1601 C.E.[22]

Zheng Guifei received criticism and suspicion from the court because of Emperor Shenzong’s efforts to make her son the Crown Prince.[23] She was seen as “crafty, wicked, and merciless” [24]. Her reputation grew worse when an assassin snuck into the Crown Prince’s rooms to attack the Crown Prince and harmed several eunuchs.[25] While there is no substantial evidence, the court suspected Zheng Guifei.[26] Zheng Guifei confronted the Crown Prince. She fell to her knees and told him she was innocent.[27] The Crown Prince was moved by her pleas and deemed her innocent.[28]

On 7 May 1620 C.E., Empress Wang Xijie died. With the empress position vacant, Emperor Shenzong wanted to invest Zheng Guifei as Empress.[29] However, he died three months later, on 18 August 1620 C.E. He gave a posthumous edict for his son to still carry out the investiture ceremony for Zheng Guifei.[30] However, his son refused to carry his edict out, and Zheng Guifei was not invested as Emperor Shenzong’s Empress.[31]

After Emperor Shenzong’s death, little is known about Zheng Guifei.[32] We know that she did some calligraphy after Emperor Shenzong’s death.[33] Her calligraphy has been described as “beautiful and neat.” [34] In 1630 C.E., Zheng Guifei became ill and died shortly afterwards. She was buried at Mount Yingquan.

Zheng Guifei’s grandson, Zhu Yousong, became Emperor in 1644 C.E. He honoured his grandmother by making her the posthumous Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning. Zhu Yusong’s reign did not last long. In 1646 C.E., he was captured and killed by the Qing. Shortly afterwards, the Ming dynasty fell, and a new dynasty known as the Qing was created.[35]

It is still unclear whether Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning is innocent of the accusations laid at her feet.[36] What is clear is that Emperor Shenzong loved her. He wanted to show his love for her by trying to make her Empress and her son the next Emperor.[37] However, Emperor Shenzong’s love for Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning turned out to be his greatest weakness.[38] Love had made Emperor Shenzong a weak leader rather than the strong and decisive ruler that the Ming dynasty needed.[39] Many historians claim that Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning’s story illustrates the weak leadership of Ming dynasty emperors.[40] Due to Emperor Shenzong’s blindness in his love for Grand Empress Dowager Xiaoning, the fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing dynasty were inevitable.[41]


Caizhong, W. & Aixiang, S. (2015). “Zheng Guifei”. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 303-306.

Lin, Y & Lee, L. X. H. trans. (2014). “Zheng, Consort of the Wanli Emperor, Shenzong, of Ming.” 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. 617-619.

McMahon, K. (2016). Celestial Women: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Song to Qing. NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[1] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2015

[2] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2015

[3] Lin and Lee, 2014

[4] Lin and Lee, 2014

[5] Lin and Lee, 2014

[6] Lin and Lee, 2014

[7] Lin and Lee, 2014

[8] Lin and Lee, 2014, p. 618

[9] Lin and Lee, 2014, p. 618

[10] Lin and Lee, 2014, p. 618

[11] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2015

[12] McMahon, 2016

[13] Lin and Lee, 2014

[14] McMahon, 2016

[15] McMahon, 2016 p. 132

[16] McMahon, 2016

[17] McMahon, 2016

[18] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2015

[19] Lin and Lee, 2014

[20] Lin and Lee, 2014

[21] Lin and Lee, 2014

[22] Lin and Lee, 2014

[23] Lin and Lee, 2014

[24] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2015, p. 303

[25] Lin and Lee, 2014

[26] Lin and Lee, 2014

[27] Lin and Lee, 2014

[28] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2015

[29] Lin and Lee, 2014

[30] Lin and Lee, 2014

[31] Lin and Lee, 2014

[32] McMahon, 2016

[33] Lin and Lee, 2014

[34] Lin and Lee, 2014, p. 618

[35] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2014

[36] Lin and Lee, 2014

[37] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2014

[38] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2014

[39] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2014

[40] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2014

[41] Caizhong and Aixiang, 2014

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!

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.