Hu Shanxiang – The Gracious Yet Deposed Empress

Deng Jiajia as Hu Shanxiang in Ming Dynasty (2019)(Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Hu Shanxiang’s tragic tale has moved the hearts of China for centuries. She is often seen as a pitiful, kind, and helpless woman, while her successor, Empress Sun, is depicted as a femme fatale. Empress Hu Shanxiang was the first wife of the Xuande Emperor (also known as Emperor Xuanzong). Because she could not bear the emperor a son, she was deposed and replaced by an empress who did give him the long-awaited heir. Empress Hu Shanxiang’s life is indeed tragic because she was powerless, and her situation was often at the mercy of her own husband.

On 20 May 1402 C. E., Empress Hu Shanxiang was born in Jining (modern-day Shandong Province).[1] Her father was Hu Rong. He was a company commander.[2] Her mother is unknown.[3] In 1417, she was selected to be consort to Zhu Zhanji, the imperial grandson-heir. When Zhu Zhanji’s father, Emperor Renzong, ascended the throne, Hu Shanxiang was appointed crown princess.[4] A year later, Zhu Zhanji ascended the throne to become Emperor Xuanzong, and Hu Shanxiang was invested as empress.

Empress Hu Shanxiang was known to be a barren and sickly woman.[5] She also irritated her husband with her displeasure of his frequents visits outside the capital.[6] Therefore, Emperor Xuanzong often ignored his wife and constantly complained about her to his mother.[7] Instead, he preferred to be in the company of his favourite concubine, Honored Consort Sun.[8] When Honored Consort Sun gave birth to his son (the future Emperor Yingzong), Emperor Xuanzong’s affections for her were established.[9] He decided to depose Empress Hu Shanxiang and enthrone Honored Consort Sun.[10]

In 1428, Emperor Xuanzong ordered Empress Hu Shanxiang to memorialize her abdication. Empress Hu Shanxiang knew that she could not stop her dethronement and asked for a new empress to be immediately installed.[11] Emperor Xuanzong asked Honored Consort Sun to be the new empress. Honored Consort Sun initially declined the proposal by insisting that Empress Hu Shanxiang would eventually have sons that would take precedence over her own son. Through Emperor Xuanzong’s persistence, Honored Consort Sun finally agreed.[12] 

After Emperor Xuanzong decreed Empress Hu Shanxiang’s abdication, he sent her to Chang’an Palace. There, he gave her the title, “Immortal Teacher of Quietude and Motherly Love,” which was given to empresses who were ordered by emperors to become Daoist nuns.[13] Empress Hu Shanxiang’s dethronement was regarded with sympathy throughout the entire country.[14] One of the former empress’s sympathizers was her mother-in-law, Empress Dowager Zhang.[15] Hu Shanxiang was often invited to dine at the Empress Dowager’s palace and was seated in a higher position than Empress Sun.[16]

In 1442, Empress Dowager Zhang died, and Hu Shanxiang was made a consort.[17] She appeared on the list of sacrifices to be made by other palace women.[18] This means that she no longer shared equal status with Empress Sun that she had often enjoyed when her mother-in-law was alive. With Empress Dowager Zhang gone, she no longer had a powerful benefactor that sympathized with her situation. Alone and with no powerful supporter, Consort Hu Shanxiang fell ill and died a year later on 5 December 1443.[19]

Hu Shanxiang was buried at Jinshan and was given the rites fit for a concubine and not an empress.[20] In 1462, after Empress Dowager Sun’s death, Emperor Yingzong’s wife begged her husband to restore Hu Shanxiang’s title as empress.[21] She said that Hu Shanxiang “was virtuous and gracious, yet she was deposed.”[22] In 1463, Hu Shanxiang’s empress title was restored.[23] He also built a mausoleum for her that befits an empress.[24] Thus, the bane of this empress’s existence was not the transgressions of her own doing, but it was the regretful fact that she could not give the emperor a son.


“Hu Shanxiang: After the first abolition of the Ming Dynasty, people all over the world sympathized with her, just because it was absurd” (2020)DayDayNews. Retrieved 7, April, 2021.

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

Yanqing, L. (2014). “Hu Shanxiang, Empress of the Xuande Emperor, Xuanzong of Ming.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II: Tang Through Ming 618 – 1644. Edited by Xiao Hong Lee, L. & Wiles. S. Routledge. pp.134-135.

[1] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[2] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[3] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[4] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[5] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[6] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[7] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[8]Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[9]Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[10] McMahon, 2016, p. 90

[11] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[12] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[13] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[14] “Hu Shanxiang: After the first abolition of the Ming Dynasty, people all over the world sympathized with her, just because it was absurd,” 2020, para. 31

[15] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[16] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[17] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[18] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[19] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[20] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[21] McMahon, 2016, p. 91

[22] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[23] Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

[24]Yanqing, et al., 2014, p. 134

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!


  1. I just finished watching all 60 episodes of “Ming Dynasty” (an excellent show, by the way). I’m sure the story wasn’t entirely historically accurate but, in it, Sun and Hu were depicted as full- blooded sisters. Also, again according to the show, Hu did have a son, though after Sun’s son was born. According to the show, Zhanji preferred Sun to Hu from the beginning. Also, Hu is depicted as being conniving, devious and ambitious. While I get “artistic license”, I wonder which of these portrayals of Hu and Sun are more accurate.

    • After doing a bit of research, it appears that the show I referred to is almost entirely fictional- Hu and Sun were not sisters, Hu did not have a son and there quite a few other discrepancies from the historical record. While I think this is an excellent show and I would watch it again, I would advise to not take the depictions in it as historically accurate because they are not.

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