Princess Liji – A Vicious Beauty




By Yug CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Princess Liji was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in ancient China. However, she used her beauty for ruthless actions. She is best known for turning “the Jin succession from a worthy heir-apparent to her own son.”[1] The disruption of the succession led to the suicide of her step-son Prince Shensheng, who was once the Crown Prince of Jin.[2] The death of the crown prince threw the state of Jin into disorder for five successive dynasties.[3] Because of her ruthless actions, Princess Liji is often portrayed as a witch and wicked stepmother in Chinese literature.

Princess Liji lived during the Spring and Autumn period, which lasted from 771 to 476 B.C. E.[4] During this period, the Zhou dynasty was in decline, and its rulers were merely figureheads. The real power were the states, Jin, Qin, Qi, and Chu.[5] Princess Liji lived right before the Warring States Period, when the Zhou dynasty had fallen, and the states became independent until they were reunited by the Qin emperor.[6] Thus, during the Spring and Autumn period, they did not really answer to the Zhou emperor. Instead, the Jin state had its own small dynasty.[7] Jin was one of the most powerful states in China. It had a “metropolitan culture”.[8] The Jin state consisted of other sub-regions ruled by powerful warlords that answered to the Duke of Jin.[9] The political upheaval during the Spring and Autumn period played a significant role in Princess Liji’s story.

In the mid-seventh century B. C. E., Princess Liji was the daughter of the chief of Li Rong, which was an ethnic group from Western China.[10] In 672 B. C. Duke Xian of Jin defeated the Li Rong tribe and killed her father.[11] He took two of the women from his tribe to be his concubines, one of whom was Liji. Upon seeing Liji, he was immediately smitten because of her beauty. He desired to make her his main wife. Before he could act, he decided to consult a divination to see if Liji would make a good wife.[12] After receiving a negative response, he decided not to make her his principal wife.

As a concubine, Liji quickly became his favourite.[13] She bore him two sons. When Duke Xian’s principal wife Qi Jiang died, Liji was made Duke Xian’s main wife.[14] However, Liji still was not satisfied. She dreamed of making her son Xiqi become the next ruler of Jin.[15] There was only one obstacle in her way. Duke Xian had already named her step-son, Shensheng the Crown Prince of Jin. Prince Shensheng was known to have a prestigious background. He was the grandson of Duke Huan of Qi.[16] It is at this point in history that Chinese historians have portrayed Prince Shensheng as the virtuous, innocent victim and Princess Liji as the wicked and manipulative step-mother.[17]

Princess Liji persuaded her husband to exile Prince Shensheng and two of his other sons away from court under the pretence of defending Jin’s territories.[18] While Prince Shensheng was away, she began to plant seeds of suspicion in her husband’s ear, casting more doubt about his son.[19] She kept telling him that his son was planning a secret rebellion against him so that Duke Xian began to fear his son.[20]

It was not until 656 B. C. E. that Princess Liji ultimately planned to get rid of her step-son and place her son upon the throne. When Prince Shensheng returned to the capital to make sacrifices for his deceased mother, Qi Jiang, he brought meat and wine for his father.[21] Princess Liji poisoned the food and wine to frame the prince, then made a public display of feeding the food to the dog and the wine to a servant girl.[22] Both the dog and the servant girl died instantly, and Prince Shensheng was blamed for trying to kill his father.[23] The people were set to kill Shensheng for the fake murder attempt. Prince Shensheng realised there was no way out of the situation, so he hung himself.[24]

After Prince Shensheng committed suicide, Liji decided to get rid of her husband’s other sons.[25] She told her husband that two of his sons were trying to revolt against him. Duke Xian tried to order the death of his two sons, but they managed to flee before any harm could come to them. Liji’s son, Xiqi, became heir apparent to the throne of Jin.[26]

It is assumed that she stopped scheming altogether since she accomplished her ultimate goal. However, the price that Princess Liji paid was not worth it. When Xiqi became the Duke of Jin in 651, he was assassinated by General Li Ke a month after his succession.[27] The bloodshed did not end there. Xiqi’s brother, Zhuozi, ended up on the throne. [28]His term also lasted a month when he was also killed by Li Ke. Li Ke also “whipped and killed” Princess Liji.[29] Two pretenders sat on the Jin throne until Duke Xian’s son Chong’er claimed it in 636 B. C. E.[30] 

Thus, Princess Liji ended up a victim of her own ambitions. She succeeded in getting her son on the throne, but it all ended in violence. Was she as evil as she has been portrayed? There is no way of knowing right now, as much of the records of her life are ancient and prone to bias. I found it interesting that she did not try and get direct revenge on her husband, who had killed her father and made her a concubine. Maybe the divination was right; she was not fit to be a main wife. Then again, one day historians may show a different view of Princess Liji.

Sources:

Eno, R. (2010).  1.7. Spring and Autumn China (771-453). Indiana University, PDF.

Kinney, Anne Behnke (2014). Exemplary Women of Early China. Columbia University Press.

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong; Stefanowska, A. D.; Wiles, Sue (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese

    Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E. Routledge.

Raphals, Lisa Ann (1998). Sharing the Light: Representations of Women and Virtue in Early

    China. N.Y.

Tong, Xiao (2014). Wen xuan or Selections of Refined Literature, Volume III: Rhapsodies on

   Natural Phenomena, Birds and Animals, Aspirations and Feelings, Sorrowful Laments,

   Literature, Music, and Passions. Princeton University Press.


[1] Raphals, p. 62

[2] Kinney, p. 28

[3] Lee, p. 42

[4] Eno, p. 2

[5] Eno, p. 3

[6] Eno, p. 42

[7] Eno pp. 6-7

[8] Eno, p. 7

[9] Eno, p. 7

[10] Lee, et. al., p. 42

[11] Lee, et.al.,  p. 42

[12] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[13] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[14] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[15] Tong, p. 92

[16] Eno, p. 17

[17] Tong, p. 92

[18] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[19] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[20] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[21] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[22] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[23] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[24] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[25] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[26] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[27] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[28] Lee, et. al., p. 41

[29] Lee, et. al., p. 41






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