Empress Xiaowu – How an Emperor mourned the loss of his beloved consort




(public domain)

Empress Xiaowu’s love story with Emperor Wudi was very tragic. She was known to be one of the most beautiful women in the Han dynasty. She had a meteoric rise to become the Emperor’s favourite. Yet, she knew that the Emperor’s affections for her were fickle. When she fell ill and lost all her beauty, she knew that the Emperor would neglect her and no longer love her. Thus, she did all she could to keep the Emperor from seeing her face. When she died, the Emperor mourned her so much that he hired a magician to contact her spirit. He continued to grieve for her so profoundly that he made her his posthumous Empress. This is the tragic tale of an Emperor’s loss of his beloved consort.

Around 140 B.C.E., Empress Xiaowu was born in Zhongshan (modern-day Ding county) Hebei province.[1] Her first name is unknown. She came from a family of singers and dancers and was trained in these arts.[2] Her brother, Li Yannian, was an accomplished musician and poet. However, he committed a crime, and his punishment was castration and feeding the Emperor’s hounds for a certain amount of time.[3] Still, Li Yannian was well-liked by Emperor Wudi, and he often sang and danced for him.[4] It was on one of the occasions that he decided to sing a song about his sister that he had composed:

“There is a beautiful lady in the north

She is the most attractive in the world

The more you see her, the more you love her

She is so rarely found that you would give up

Everything for a glance at her.”[5]

This song so intrigued Emperor Wudi that he wanted to know the girl who inspired the song. Li Yannian told him that he was singing about his sister.[6] Curious about Li Yannian’s sister, he summoned her to court. Once she arrived, she began to dance for Emperor Wudi. Emperor Wudi was so entranced by her beauty that he fell in love with her at first sight.[7] He married her, and she became his fourth wife.[8]

Consort Li became Emperor Wudi’s favourite, and Li Yannian was promoted for bringing them together.[9] In 120 B.C.E., Emperor Wudi founded a music institution. He named Li Yanning in charge of the institution and promoted him to the official in charge of musical affairs. It was a status that was equal to the rank of a magistrate province.[10] Shortly after her brother’s promotion, Consort Li bore the Emperor a son named Liu Bo.[11]

However, Consort Li’s happiness with the Emperor was brief. After giving birth to Liu Bo, she fell ill and remained confined in her bed.[12] Emperor Wudi often visited her, but she hid her face under the covers. The reason why she had hidden from him was because she had lost her beauty.[13] She feared that if he looked at her, he would neglect her and find her repulsive. She also feared that the Emperor would stop her family from receiving the privileges that they were currently enjoying.[14] Still, the Emperor begged to look at her. He said that if she did, he would give her family high offices.[15] She refused and said, “It is up to Your Majesty to assign offices as you please. It does not depend on one glimpse of me.” [16] 

Emperor Wudi became angry, and he stopped his visits until he was allowed to look at her. Consort Li’s sisters begged her to let the Emperor see her face, but she again refused and said, “Then what hope would there be that he would ever think kindly of me again and remember to take pity on my brothers?” [17] After she said those words, Consort Li died.[18] 

The Emperor never saw her ruined face. Her dearest wish came true that he would always remember her remaining beautiful.[19] Heartbroken over her death, Emperor Wudi buried Consort Li with the honours bestowed to an Empress.[20] He promoted her brothers. Li Guangli was made the Ershi General and Marquis of Haixi, and Li Yannian was the Director of Imperial Music.[21]

Emperor Wu never stopped mourning the loss of his beloved consort.[22] He ordered her portrait to be painted and hung in his palace.[23] He missed her so much that he wanted to contact her from the dead.[24] He hired the magician, Shao Weng, to perform a ritual to summon her spirit.[25] During the ritual, a beauty that resembled Consort Li appeared before them.[26] However, the Emperor did not get a closer look at her or a chance to talk with her.[27] This made him long for her even more that he wrote a poem about that summoning event:

“Is it she?

Is it not?

I stand gazing from afar:

Timid steps, soft and slow,

How long she is in coming.”[28]

Emperor Wudi had the court set his poem to music and would frequently listen to it.[29] In 87 B.C.E., Emperor Wudi died. In his will, he asked for Consort Li to be posthumously made Empress Xiaowu (which meant Empress of the Pious Wu).[30] His request was granted, and she was made Emperor Wudi’s posthumous Empress. Empress Xiaowu’s son became the Prince of Chengyi.[31] Her grandson, Liu He, briefly became the Emperor of China. Empress Xiaowu hid her ravaged face from her love. Yet, frozen in death, she remained a glow in his memories.

Sources:

Lidong, 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. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Yunhun, L. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (B. B. Peterson, Ed.; T. Mingxia, Trans.). London: Routledge.


[1] Yunhun, p. 63

[2] Yunhun, p. 63

[3] Yunhun, p. 63

[4] Yunhun, p. 63

[5] Yunhun, p. 63

[6] Lidong, p. 154

[7] McMahon, p. 72

[8] Yunhun, p. 63

[9] Yunhun, pp. 63-64

[10] Yunhun, pp. 63-64

[11] Yunhun, p. 64

[12] McMahon, p. 72

[13] Yunhun, p. 64

[14] Yunhun, p. 64

[15] Lidong, p. 154

[16] Lidong, p. 154

[17] Lidong, p. 155

[18] Lidong, p. 155

[19] Yunhun, p. 64

[20] Lidong, p. 155

[21] Lidong, p. 155

[22] McMahon, p. 72

[23] Lidong, p. 155

[24] McMahon, p. 72

[25] Lidong, p. 155

[26] Lidong, p. 155

[27] Lidong, p. 155

[28] Lidong, p. 155

[29] Lidong, p. 155

[30] Lidong, p. 155

[31] Yunhun, p. 65






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