Shangguan – China’s youngest Grand Empress Dowager

Empress Dowager Shangguan
Mao Xiaotong as Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan in Love Yunge from the Desert (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan was one of China’s youngest empresses. She became an empress at six years old. She was made Empress Dowager and Grand Empress Dowager at the age of fifteen. Yet, historians have praised her for being a successful interim ruler for the periods between the reigns of Emperor Zhao and Emperor Xuan. Even though she was young, Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan used her powerful position to issue edicts capably.[1] With her power, she demoted an unworthy emperor and installed a worthy emperor. Historians have used her as a model example of how an Empress Dowager should rule.[2]

When Emperor Wu of Han died in 87 B.C.E., he left two regents to run the empire because his youngest son, Emperor Zhao, was seven years old.[3] The two regents, Shangguan Jie and Huo Guang, were in-laws.[4] Shangguan Jie’s son married Huo Guang’s daughter. Their daughter was the future Empress Shangguan. After she was born in 89 B.C.E., she was sent to live with the Princess of Gai (who was Emperor Zhao’s older sister).[5] Thus, she knew her husband from an early age.

In 83 B.C.E., the two regents decided to make their granddaughter empress[6]. The six-year-old Shangguan married the twelve-year-old Emperor.[7] Shortly after his granddaughter’s investiture as Empress, Shangguan Jie was given the title of Marquis of Sanle.[8] It would seem that the two regents got along in peace, but they did not. Trouble started brewing as the two regents swiftly became enemies.

The two regents could not have been more different. Shangguan Jie was known for being power-hungry and often indulged himself in sensual pleasures and alcohol.[9] He was never satisfied with his position and lusted for more power. On the other hand, Huo Guang was known for being virtuous and devoted to his country.[10] Gradually, he began to assume complete control of the court. This angered Shangguan Jie because he hungered for power. Shangguan Jie teamed up with the Princess of Gai and her lover, Ding Wairen, to eliminate Huo Guang.[11] The Princess of Gai had no love for Huo Guang because he refused to promote her lover.[12] Their plan was to murder Huo Guang, depose Emperor Zhao and install another of Emperor Wu’s sons on the throne with Shangguan Jie as the regent and given the rank as Prince.[13] Shangguan Jie disliked the idea and wanted to depose Emperor Zhao and make himself Emperor, but he finally agreed to the Princess of Gai and Ding Wairen’s plans.[14]

It was not long until Huo Guang found out about their plans. Empress Shangguan could do nothing as her husband pronounced death sentences on her grandfather, Shangguan Jie, and her father.[15] Ding Wairen was sentenced to death with the Empress’s father and grandfather.[16] The Princess of Gai was forced to commit suicide.[17] Prince Liu Dan, whom her grandfather plotted to put on the throne, hung himself.[18] Liu Dan’s wife and concubines were not involved in the conspiracy but were forced to commit suicide.[19] Emperor Zhao also declared that his wife played no part in the conspiracy and allowed her to maintain her position as Empress.[20]

In 74 B.C.E., Emperor Zhao died. He was twenty-one years old.[21] Empress Shangguan was fifteen.[22] They had no children. Shangguan was made Empress Dowager and was appointed to the position of regent.[23] However, she was merely a figurehead. The true ruler was her grandfather, Huo Guang.[24] Huo Guang chose Emperor Wu’s grandson, Liu He, as the next Emperor.

Huo Guang found him unsuitable.[25] Under her grandfather’s guidance, Empress Dowager Shangguan issued an edict deposing him as Emperor.[26] He was Emperor for only twenty-seven days. Thus, the throne was vacant until a suitable candidate was installed. Empress Dowager Shangguan continued to be regent.[27] Even though Empress Dowager Shangguan was only a figurehead as regent, Huo Guang decided it was time to give his granddaughter a formal education.[28] Under the tutelage of Xiahou Sheng, she was well-versed in Confucian principles.[29]

At long last, Huo Guang settled on Liu Bingyi, Emperor Wu’s great-grandson. His great-grandmother Empress Wei Zifu and grandfather Liu Ju were implicated on the charges of witchcraft and committed suicide.[30] Emperor Wu ordered a mass execution on all of Liu Ju’s household.[31] Liu Bingyi’s parents, Prince Liu Jin and Wang Wengxu, were killed in the massacre.[32] As an orphan, he was raised by his great-grandmother Zhengjun (his father’s maternal grandmother).[33] Around the age of fifteen, he married Xu Pingjun.[34] Liu Bingyi was well-educated in history and literature.[35] Thus, he seemed a suitable candidate for Huo Guang and Empress Dowager Shangguan. Empress Dowager Shangguan issued an imperial edict installing him as the next Emperor.[36] He became known in history as Emperor Xuan.

Once Emperor Xuan was installed, Shangguan was made Grand Empress Dowager, and she retired to Changle Palace.[37] When Emperor Xuan died in 49 B.C.E., she became Great Grand Empress Dowager upon the ascension of Emperor Yuan.[38] She died in 37 B.C.E. and was buried next to Emperor Zhao in Pingling.[39] Historians have praised her for being a successful interim ruler during the transition of the reigns from Emperor Zhao to Emperor Xuan.[40] Through her tutelage of her wise and virtuous grandfather, historians praised her by writing, “her charge of state affairs put men to shame.” [41]


Bao, S. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E. (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.). NY: Routledge.

McMahon, K. (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

[1] McMahon, p. 74

[2] Bao, p. 189

[3] Bao, p. 187

[4] Bao, p. 187

[5] Bao, p. 187

[6] Bao, p. 187

[7] Bao, p. 187

[8] Bao, p. 187

[9] Bao, p. 187

[10] Bao, p. 187

[11] Bao, p. 187

[12] Bao, p. 187

[13] Bao, p. 187

[14] Bao, p. 187

[15]Bao, p. 188

[16] Bao, p. 188

[17] Bao, p. 188

[18] Bao, p. 188

[19] Bao, p. 188

[20] Bao, p. 188

[21] Bao, p. 188

[22] McMahon, p. 74

[23] Bao, p. 188

[24] Bao, p. 188

[25] McMahon, p. 74

[26] Bao, p. 188

[27] Bao, p. 188

[28] Bao, p. 189

[29] Bao, p. 189

[30] McMahon, p. 74

[31] McMahon, p. 74

[32] Bao, p. 189

[33] Bao, p. 189

[34] Bao, p. 189

[35] Bao, p. 189

[36] McMahon, p. 74

[37] Bao, 189

[38] Bao, p. 189

[39] Bao, p. 189

[40] Bao, p. 189

[41] Bao, p. 189

About Lauralee Jacks 153 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!

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