Empress Ulanara – Did she cut her hair?




Ulanara as portrayed in Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace (2018)(Screenshot/fair use)

Empress Ulanara was one of Emperor Qianlong’s three empresses. She was originally a concubine and was eventually promoted to empress. She initially maintained a respectful relationship with the emperor. However, she suddenly fell out of favour. Many historians believe that the reason for this unexpected breach is because she cut her hair. It was forbidden for an imperial concubine to cut one’s hair and for Empress Ulanara to violate this custom seems to be an act of rebellion. After their rift, Emperor Qianlong never forgave Empress Ulanara.

Empress Ulanara was the daughter of a company commander named Narbu. Her family belonged to the Manchu Plain Yellow Banner. She became Emperor Qianlong’s concubine when he was still a prince. She was seven years younger than him. In 1737, after Qianlong ascended to the throne, the emperor gave Ulanara twenty sui and gave her the title of Consort Xian.[1] She was said to be “gentle and loyal”[2] and quickly struck a friendship with the Empress Dowager.[3]With the Empress Dowager’s insistence, she was promoted to Honored Consort Xian in 1745.[4] 

In 1748, during a tour of eastern China, Empress Xiaoxian suddenly drowned, leaving the position of empress vacant.[5] The empress dowager selected Ulanara to administer the affairs of the six palaces, which was a task that was given solely to the Empress.[6] Emperor Qianlong refused Ulanara the task, but through the empress dowager’s persuasion, he made Ulanara Imperial Honored Consort (a rank below the empress) and let her manage the affairs of the six palaces.[7] In 1750, Ulanara was officially invested as empress. She gave birth to Qianlong’s twelfth prince in 1752, a daughter in 1753, and another son in 1755.[8]

Empress Ulanara was very respected in the palace, and she often accompanied the emperor on his tours to inspect different provinces. However, in 1765, in the middle of his Southern tour, the emperor unexpectedly expelled Empress Ulanara from his procession and sent her back to Beijing by boat on 7 April.[9] Were there any signs that there were rifts between the couple during the tour?

The procession started out normal like all his other tours. The couple was accompanied by the empress dowager, Honored Consort Ling and Consort Rong. While making their way south, there were many entertainments that were arranged for them. There were fireworks and lantern feasts.[10] Empress Ulanara also celebrated her birthday en route. She was given extra dishes for breakfast and dinner.[11] Everything looked well between the emperor and Empress Ulanara. On the day of 7 April, there initially seemed to be no sign that Empress Ulanara’s downfall had arrived. The group had reached Hangzhou and were served breakfast at Jiaoshi Mingquin, a scenic spot.[12] She was given gifts of food by the emperor, but later on that day, the emperor surprised everyone by announcing through imperial decree for his son-in-law to send Empress Ulanara back to Beijing.[13] On 8 June when he finally arrived back in Beijing, the emperor announced his wish to depose the Empress. However, he faced opposition from his ministers. Emperor Qianlong finally stopped discussing Empress Ulanara’s deposition. Instead, the Emperor ordered her four gifts to be taken back. This meant that all the privileges that the empress had enjoyed for over thirty years were rescinded.[14] The emperor reduced her servants and her provisions. Thus, Empress Ulanara ceased to exist, except in name only.[15] It was as if she was a living ghost.

What had Empress Ulanara done on the tour that made the emperor suddenly dislike her? While the cause is officially unknown, there are pseudo historical records, and many historians believe that the falling out between Ulanara and the emperor was because the empress had cut her hair.[16] According to one pseudo historical report, the empress was disgusted by Qianlong’s all night orgies with captured local women that were held during the Southern tour.[17] When the emperor wanted to make one woman his consort, the empress objected.[18] She begged the emperor not to take any more concubines.[19] She threatened that she would leave the imperial family and become a Buddhist nun.[20] When her request was denied, the empress protested in anger by shearing off her hair with scissors.[21]Cutting one’s hair was a violation of Manchu customs, for it was seen as a rejection of the ruling Manchu dynasty.[22] Emperor Qianlong saw Empress Ulanara’s haircut as an offence to his ancestors. This story is accepted by historians as a plausible explanation for her falling out.

Empress Ulanara died the following year of her downfall in 1767. She was forty-nine years old. The emperor was hunting in Mulan when he heard the news.[23] Once he learned of his empress’s death, he did not return to the capital but wrote an imperial decree about her funeral arrangements. He decreed:

“According to the memorial sent by ministers in Beijing, the empress died on 19 August. From the time she was appointed empress, she did not do a single immoral thing. Last spring, we accompanied the dowager traveling to Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. When We were enjoying the trip the empress’s temperament suddenly became abnormal. She could not fulfill her filial duty to the empress dowager. Her behavior became even more abnormal, almost to the point of madness, when We arrived in Hangzhou. We, therefore, sent her back to Beijing hoping she could recuperate in the imperial palace. After a year, her illness had become even more serious, and she eventually died. This is because the empress was not blessed with the good fortune to receive the love of the dowager and enjoy Our grace for long. As a matter of fact, her strange behavior deserved her deposition. We have already been extremely gracious in allowing her to retain the title of empress. Her funeral arrangements should not follow the procedure of that of Empress Xiao Xian Chun, but should follow the rites for an honored consort. We appoint the ministers of the palace to take charge of the matter. This imperial decree is written for all to know.”[24]

This announcement of Empress Ulanara’s downgraded funeral arrangements caused an uproar in the palace.[25] Palace official Li Yunming presented a memorial asking for the emperor to observe the three years of mourning for the Empress.[26] The emperor responded by shackling Li Yunming in chains and exiling him to Yili, where he spent the rest of his life.[27] Empress Ulanara was not given an individual grave but was buried in the underground palace of Imperial Honored Consort Chunhui.[28] There were no offerings for her during the Qingming festival, the festival of lost souls, winter’s solstice, New Year’s Eve or even on her death anniversary.[29] 

Empress Ulanara had lived in the palace for over thirty years. She gained favour and power early in life. However, as powerful as she was, her downfall was even quicker. Although the full story is not known, it is clear she did something to disgrace the emperor. From then on, she lived a life in banishment and loneliness.

Sources:

Hung, Ho-fung. Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in

     the Mid-Qing Dynasty. Columbia University Press, 2013.

Lim, S. K. Chinese Imperial Women. Asiapac, 2016.

Shanpu, Yu, et al. “Empress Ula Nara.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: v. 1: The

     Qing Period, 1644-1911, edited by Lily Xiao Hong Lee et al., Routledge, 2015, pp. 356–358.


[1]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[2]Shanpu, et. al, p. 358

[3]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[4]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[5]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[6]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[7]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[8]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[9]Hung, p. 40.

[10]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[11]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[12]Shanpu, et. al, p. 356

[13]Shanpu, et. al, pp. 356-357

[14] Shanpu, et. al, p. 357

[15] Shanpu, et. al, p. 357

[16] Hung, p. 40 and Lim p. 130

[17] Hung, p. 40

[18] Hung, p. 41

[19] Lim, p. 130

[20] Hung, p. 40

[21] Hung, pp. 40-41

[22] Hung, p. 41.

[23]Shanpu, et. al, p. 357

[24]Shanpu, et. al, p. 357

[25]Shanpu, et. al, p. 357

[26]Shanpu, et. al, p. 357

[27]Shanpu, et. al, pp. 357-358

[28]Shanpu, et. al, p. 358

[29]Shanpu, et. al, p. 358






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