Imperial Honoured Consort Wan – How an Emperor fell in love with his nursemaid




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Alyssia Chia in Sleuth of the Ming Dynasty as Imperial Consort Wan (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Imperial Honoured Consort Wan’s love story with Emperor Xianzong is a strange one because she was originally his nursemaid and seventeen years older than him. Because of Emperor Xianzong’s love for her, Imperial Honoured Consort Wan would reign as his Empress in all but name. For centuries chroniclers have been puzzled over this relationship and believed that it was sorcery that made the Emperor fall for his nursemaid.[1] Chinese television has even portrayed her as an evil seductress who uses potions to bewitch the Emperor. Some examples include Virtues of Harmony, where she is portrayed by Stephanie Che and The Emperor’s Harem, in which Tavia Yeung played the infamous consort. Imperial Honoured Consort Wan is even portrayed negatively in The Sleuth of the Ming Dynasty, where she is played by Alyssia Chia. Yet, it seems that it was not sorcery that made Emperor Xianzong love Imperial Honoured Consort Wan. The truth is more likely psychological. What is clear is that Imperial Honoured Consort Wan was Emperor Xianzong’s true love.[2] All he ever wanted was to spend the rest of his life with her.[3]

Imperial Honoured Consort Wan was born in 1430 C.E. in Zhucheng (modern-day Shandong Province).[4] Her birth name was Wan Zhen’er. Her father, Wan Gui, was a minor official. He had committed a crime and was exiled to Bazhou (south of modern-day Beijing).[5] When she was three years old, she became a palace maid to Empress Dowager Sun.[6] Empress Dowager Sun was fond of Wan Zhen’er and took care of her.[7] Empress Dowager Sun even acted as Wan Zhen’er’s mentor, and Wan Zhen’er would remember her teachings for the rest of her life.[8] 

When Wan Zhen’er was twenty years old, Empress Dowager Sun appointed her as nursemaid to the heir apparent, the three-year-old Zhu Jianshen (the future Emperor Xianzong).[9] Zhu Jianshen was the grandson of Emperor Xuanzong and Empress Dowager Sun. His father was Emperor Yingzong, who was captured by the Mongols and was their prisoner.[10] Since his father was a captive, his uncle became Emperor Daizong. When Emperor Yingzhong was finally released from prison, Emperor Daizong immediately placed Emperor Yingzhong and his son, Zhu Jianshen, under house arrest.[11] Zhu Jianshen would remain under house arrest for seven years.[12] It was during this period that he became very attached to Wan Zhen’er.[13] He viewed her as his companion and protector.[14] Before Zhu Jianshen ascended the throne at the age of seventeen, he already had intimate relations with Wan Zhen’er.[15] 

In 1464 C.E., Zhu Jianshen ascended the throne as Emperor Xianzong. Emperor Xianzong made Wan Zhen’er enter his harem by making her a consort.[16] Consort Wan Zhen’er was thirty-four years old. Because she was his nurse, he could not make her his official Empress as he so desperately desired.[17] Instead, he made a member of the aristocratic Wu family his Empress.[18] Despite making another woman his Empress, Emperor Xianzong was still heavily influenced by Consort Wan Zhen’er.[19] Historians have described Consort Wan Zhen’er as clever and submissive to the Emperor’s wishes.[20] Whenever the Emperor visited her, she would greet him wearing a military uniform.[21] 

Empress Wu was reportedly so disgusted with the relationship between Emperor Xianzong and Consort Wan Zhen’er that she flogged Consort Wan Zhen’er.[22] Emperor Xianzong was so mad at his Empress that he immediately deposed her and installed a new empress in her place.[23] Empress Wu was Empress for only one month.[24] The new Empress was a female from the Wang family.[25] Empress Wang was smarter than the previous Empress and did not openly resent the relationship between Emperor Xianzong and Consort Wan Zhen’er.[26] Empress Wang would remain childless. The relationship between Emperor Xianzong and Consort Wan Zhen’er also puzzled his mother, Empress Dowager Zhou. Empress Dowager Zhou asked her son what feature of Consort Wan Zhen’er made her so beautiful to her son that he could not resist her.[27] Emperor Xianzong replied, “When she caresses me, I feel peaceful. It has nothing to do with beauty.” [28]

In 1466 C.E., Consort Wan Zhen’er gave birth to Emperor Xianzong’s first son.[29] The pleased Emperor was so ecstatic that he made Wan Zhen’er Honoured Consort.[30] This was the highest rank below the Empress.[31] However, the baby died within a year, and Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er never gave him another child.[32] Nevertheless, the Emperor did not want to have another child with any woman besides Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er.[33] 

For some time, Emperor Xianzong remained faithful to Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er, but the ministers became worried about the state of China because it had no heir.[34] They begged the Emperor to provide an heir.[35] Reluctantly, Emperor Xianzong agreed and did his duty.[36] Chroniclers have said that Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er was against the Emperor having any children and would kill any woman who was pregnant.[37] Yet, modern historians find this unlikely.[38] 

It has often been a constant theme for Chinese chroniclers to paint powerful women in the imperial harem as ruthless women who frequently murdered their rivals.[39] Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er was secure in the Emperor’s love.[40] She had no need to get rid of the other concubines.[41] She knew the importance of the Emperor to have an heir. The fact that Emperor Xianzong would have eleven sons and six daughters proves that Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er did not eliminate her pregnant rivals.[42] The heir apparent was Emperor Xianzong’s third son, Zhu Youcheng (the future Emperor Xiaozong). His mother was Ji, a female scribe.[43] It was said that Ji was poisoned soon after she presented her son to the court.[44] Again, modern historians view this as slander from the chroniclers.[45] Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er had no need to kill the Crown Prince’s mother.[46] Thus, Lady Ji most likely died of natural causes.

Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er was Empress in all but name.[47] Chroniclers have said that she remained in his favour because she provided him with obscene literature and love potions.[48] One chronicler even stated that she hired a sorcerer named Li Zixing to keep the Emperor in favour.[49] Yet, modern historians believe this to be false.[50] The real reason why she has remained in the Emperor’s favour was because he had been attached to her since childhood.[51] Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er had always been his companion and protector.[52] His deepest desire is to live his entire life with her.[53] Thus, the reason why she remained in favour was because she was Emperor Xianzong’s “one true love” [54].

Honoured Consort Wan Zhen’er lived an extravagant lifestyle.[55] Yet, her greatest fault was that she let corrupted eunuchs have a lot of power during her unofficial reign.[56] One eunuch was Wang Zhi, who was in charge of the Secret Service.[57] During his four year appointment from 1476-1480 C.E., he was brutal to both court officials and nobles.[58] He would be known as one of the four “eunuch dictators.” [59] The eunuchs also took lands from poor soldiers and would sell court positions to the highest bidder.[60]

Honoured Consort Wan died of illness in 1487 C.E. It was said that she died in the midst of a seizure.[61] She was fifty-seven. Emperor Xianzong was very heartbroken by her death.[62] He never could cope with her loss.[63] Realizing that he could not live without her, Emperor Xianzong followed her in death seven months later.[64] He was thirty-nine years old. Honoured Consort Wan was buried on Mount Tianshou. She was given the posthumous title of “Respectful Solemn Imperial Honoured Consort” [65].

Sources:

Inf.News. (n.d.). “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”. Retrieved December 28, 2021 from https://inf.news/en/history/b10a18fcc18ebac1c1a38a551f886106.html.

Lin Y. (2014). “Wan, Honored Consort of Ming.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II: Tang Through Ming 618 – 1644. Edited by Xiao Hong Lee, L. & Wiles, S. Routledge. pp. 407-408

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

Weatherford, J. (2010). The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. NY: Broadway Books.


[1] McMahon, p. 100

[2] Weatherford, p. 256

[3] Weatherford, p. 170

[4] Lin, p. 407

[5] Lin, p. 407

[6] Lin, p. 407

[7] Lin, p. 407

[8] Lin, p. 407

[9] Lin, p. 407

[10] McMahon, p. 99

[11] McMahon, p. 95

[12] McMahon, p. 95

[13] Weatherford, p. 170

[14] Weatherford, p. 170

[15] Weatherford, p. 170; Lin, p. 407

[16] Lin, p. 407

[17] Weatherford, p. 170

[18] Weatherford, p. 170

[19] Lin, p. 407

[20] McMahon, p. 99; Lin, p. 407

[21] McMahon, p. 99

[22] Lin, p. 407

[23] Lin, p. 407

[24] Lin, p. 407

[25] Lin, p. 407

[26] Lin, p. 407

[27] Lin, p. 407

[28] Lin, p. 407

[29] McMahon, p. 99

[30] McMahon, p. 99

[31] McMahon, p. 99

[32] Lin, p. 407

[33] McMahon, p. 99

[34] McMahon, p. 99

[35] McMahon, p. 99

[36] McMahon, p. 99

[37] McMahon, p. 99

[38] Inf.News, “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”, paras. 5-7

[39] Inf.News, “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”, paras. 5-7

[40] Inf.News, “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”, para. 5

[41] Inf.News, “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”, para. 5

[42] Lin, p. 408

[43] Lin, p. 408

[44] Lin, p. 408

[45] Inf.News, “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”, paras. 5-7

[46] Inf.News, “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”, para. 5

[47] Lin, p. 407

[48] McMahon, p. 100

[49] McMahon, p. 100

[50] Inf.News, “Wan Zhener: What magic power does the elder maid have, so that the emperor who is 17 years younger than himself is obsessed for a lifetime?”, paras. 7-9

[51] Weatherford, p. 170

[52] Weatherford, p. 170

[53] Weatherford, p. 170

[54] Weatherford, p. 256

[55] Lin, p. 408

[56] Lin, p. 408

[57] Lin, p. 408

[58] Lin, p. 408

[59] Lin, p. 408

[60] Lin, p. 408

[61] Lin, p. 408

[62] Weatherford, p. 256

[63] Weatherford, p. 256

[64] Weatherford, p. 256

[65] Lin, p. 408






About Lauralee Jacks 93 Articles
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. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. 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 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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