Queen Dowager Xuan – China’s first Empress Dowager

Queen Dowager Xuan as portrayed in the TV series The Legend of Mi Yue (screenshot/fair use)

Queen Dowager Xuan was one of the most powerful women in ancient China. She is known in history as the first Empress Dowager in Chinese history. She lived during the Warring States period when China was divided. It was not yet united until the reign of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. She was the de facto ruler for her son, the king of the Qin kingdom, for forty-one years.  During this tumultuous period in Chinese history, she is considered to be an adept politician.  

Queen Dowager Xuan was born around 325 B.C. in the kingdom of Chu. She was an imperial concubine to King Hui Wen of the Qin kingdom. She was known as Lady Mi Bazi.[1] She gave birth to a son named Ce.[2] In 311 B.C., King Hui Wen died. He chose his favourite concubine’s son, Dang, to be his successor. Dang became King Wu in 307 B.C. During a contest of physical strength; King Wu was lifting a ding (a bronze cooking vessel that was an ancient symbol of authority) when he miscalculated the drop and broke his shins.[3] This led to his death.

The death of King Wu gave Lady Mi Bazi the opportunity to make her son the next king. King Wu had no sons, and his brothers were his successors. Lady Mi Bazi enlisted the help of her step-brother, Wei Ran, who was also a high court official. Eventually, they were able to make Ce king. Ce became King Zhaoxiang. Upon his accession, Lady Mi Bazi became Queen Dowager Xuan[4] because King Zhaoxiang was still a boy when he took the throne. Queen Dowager Xuan reigned in his stead.[5] She would rule for her son for forty-one years.[6] 

Even though Zhaoxiang was the King of Qin, his male family members still wanted the throne for themselves.[7] In 305 B.C, his uncle, Prince Zhuang, rebelled against him.[8] However, the rebellion was unsuccessful because Queen Dowager Xuan and Wei Ran crushed the rebellion.[9] Prince Zhuang was killed. Because of their stamp-down of the attempted coup, Queen Dowager Xuan and Wei Ran solidified their power. Together, they formed a triumvirate with the prime minister.[10]

Because Queen Dowager Xuan was born in Chu, she managed to maintain good relations with the kingdom. When the Chu kingdom attacked the Han kingdom in 306 B.C., the Han asked for her aid. Queen Dowager Xuan refused to help them.[11] A year later, she persuaded her son to marry a Chu princess. King Zhaoxiang made her his queen. The kingdom of Qin also conquered the Shangyong region and gave it to the Chu kingdom.[12] Their good relationship would continue until 302 B.C. when they became strained. This was because, in order to keep the peace, the two countries held prestigious hostages from the other kingdom[13]. One of the Qin hostages was a Chu prince named Heng. In order to gain his freedom and return to his homeland, he killed a Qin official.[14] This caused a rift between the two nations.

It was also said that Queen Dowager Xuan controlled policies through her charm and sex appeal.[15] The nomadic tribe of Yiqurong lived northwest of the Qin kingdom, and they posed a constant threat of invasion. When the King of Yiqu came to congratulate King Zhaoxiang’s accession to the throne, Queen Dowager Xuan seduced him and had an affair with him.[16] The love affair would last for thirty years.[17] According to historian Keith McMahon, this affair is seen as an effort to gain a political alliance.[18] She produced two sons by the King of Yiqu.[19] When the King of Yiqu finally let his guard down against the Qin kingdom and was blinded by his love for her, Queen Dowager Xuan chose her moment to act.[20] In 272 B.C., she assassinated him in her palace. She then sent her troops to kill the Yiqurong people.[21] Thus, the nomadic kingdom was no more, and she was able to strengthen her borders.[22]

Throughout her reign, Queen Dowager Xuan gave her kinsmen important posts at court.[23] Wei Ran eventually became her prime minister. She made state decisions without the king’s approval, and all documents went for her approval and not the king’s.[24] However, in 266 B.C. in the forty-first reign of King Zhaoxiang, the king suddenly turned on her.[25] He cut off her power. He replaced Wei Ran as prime minister with Fan Sui. He also banished all of Queen Dowager Xuan’s allies. This ended her rule.[26]

In 265 B.C., Queen Dowager Xuan fell ill. Near her death, she wished to be buried with her lover, Wei Choufu (ironically it means “ugly man”, but in reality, he was very handsome).[27] However, Minister Young Rui persuaded her from making the decision.[28] When she died, King Zhaoxiang buried her on Mt. Li.[29] Some historians credited Queen Dowager Xuan as actually being the owner of the Terracotta army instead of Qin Shi Huang.[30] 

Even though Queen Dowager Xuan’s image has been passed down to us as a wanton queen, many historians consider her to be an astute politician. She was the first Empress Dowager in Chinese history. She ruled capably for forty years. She was a woman who cared more about her kingdom than her own personal feelings. She used her cunning wiles and sex appeal as a means to an end. Because of this, we can see why Chinese historians called her an “outstanding stateswoman”.[31]


McMahon, Keith. “Chapter 2: The Polyandrous Empress: Imperial Women and Their Male

     Favorites.” Wanton Women in Late-Imperial Chinese Literature: Models, Genres,

     Subversions and Traditions, edited by Mark Stevenson and Wu Cuncun, BRILL, 2017, pp.


Sima, Qian. “Shi Ji 72: The Biography of the Marquis of Rang.” Records of the Grand Historian,

      Columbia University Press, 2011.

“Terracotta Army ‘Belonged to a Woman’.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 13 Aug.


Yunhuan, Luo, and Chen Yuchun. “Qin Xuan.” Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the

       Early Twentieth Century, edited by Barbara Bennett Peterson, Routledge, 2016.

[1] Sima, “Shi Ji 72: The Biography of the Marquis of Rang” para. 2

[2] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 1

[3] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 1

[4]  Sima, “Shi Ji 72: The Biography of the Marquis of Rang” para. 2

[5] Sima, “Shi Ji 72: The Biography of the Marquis of Rang” para. 5

[6] McMahon, p. 33

[7] Sima, “Shi Ji 72: The Biography of the Marquis of Rang” para. 4

[8] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 3

[9] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 3

[10] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 3

[11] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 4

[12] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 4

[13] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 4

[14] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 4

[15] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 5

[16] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 5

[17] McMahon, p. 33

[18] McMahon, p. 33

[19] McMahon, p. 33

[20] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 5

[21] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 5

[22] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 5

[23] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 6

[24] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 6

[25] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 6

[26] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 6

[27] McMahon, p. 33

[28] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 7

[29] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 7

[30] “Terracotta Army ‘Belonged to a Woman”, para. 4

[31] Yunhuan and Yuchun, “Qin Xuan” para. 8

About Lauralee Jacks 84 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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