Ki – The Tarnished Image of the Last Mongolian Empress

Empress Ki as portrayed in the TV series Empress Ki (screenshot/fair use)

Empress Ki’s rise to power is truly astonishing. She was forced to leave her homeland of Goryeo (Korea) to become a female tribute to the Yuan dynasty. She became a palace servant and eventually climbed the ranks to be empress. She still remains largely unpopular. When the popular Korean drama, Empress Ki, aired on television, historians criticised it for being too sympathetic.[1] University professor Yoon Suk Jin claimed he worried that by portraying Empress Ki as a warrior, it would lead to building a positive image of her.[2] Did Empress Ki deserve her negative reputation or was she vilified? It was said that history was written by the victors.

Empress Ki’s history was written in the Ming dynasty, a dynasty that succeeded Yuan’s.[3]  The Ming dynasty blamed Empress Ki for the downfall of the Mongolian dynasty because of her “corruption and extravagance”.[4]She did not have a favourable reputation in her home country of Goryeo. The early Joseon dynasty accounts portray her family as ambitious and pleasure seeking.[5] In fact, one of her brothers was listed in the “Traitors” section in the History of Goryeo.[6] Empress Ki did betray her native country by invading her homeland. Her family prospered from Empress Ki’s position and often abused their power. However, she was actively involved in many philanthropic works and continued to sponsor Buddhism.[7] She was also responsible for promoting Korean culture in China.[8]

Empress Ki was born in Goryeo and was the daughter of a lower-level official named Ki Ja-Ho.[9] In the 1320s, she was sent as a female tribute to the Mongolian capital of Daidu and became a palace maid. As a servant, she was assigned to be responsible for the Emperor’s tea, which gave her access to the emperor, Toghon Temur.[10] She was said to be extremely beautiful and had many artistic talents.[11] 

The emperor was immediately attracted to Ki. They shared a love of painting, poetry, and astronomy.[12] Ki was officially named a concubine in 1533.[13] This incurred the wrath of Toghon Temur’s empress, Tanashiri. Empress Tanashiri was worried about Lady Ki having influence over Toghon for being his favourite.[14] It was said that on one occasion, Empress Tanashiri tortured Lady Ki with a white-hot iron brander.[15] Empress Tanashiri planned to get rid of Lady Ki, but political intrigue at court began to cause the Empress’s downfall.[16]

In 1335, two years after Lady Ki was made a concubine, a minister named Bayan began to achieve considerable power. He removed Empress Tanashiri’s father from power and purged his relatives.[17] Empress Tanashiri was confined under house arrest and was later executed by poison. With the position of empress vacant, the emperor planned to install Lady Ki as his empress.[18] However, Bayan persuaded the emperor to marry a Mongol girl of the Khongirad tribe.  The new Empress was Bayan Khutugh. Official accounts depicted Empress Bayan as a retiring woman free from jealousy.[19] She did not openly resent the emperor and Lady Ki’s relationship.[20] In 1339, Lady Ki gave birth to a son named Ayushiridara. The emperor was still not satisfied with Empress Bayan’s position and wanted to raise Lady Ki’s status. In 1340, Empress Bayan fell out of power. She still retained her title as empress but was sent away from the palace.[21] One month after Empress Bayan’s downfall, Lady Ki was promoted to Second Imperial Consort.[22] Thus, Lady Ki reigned as empress in all but name.

As the unofficial empress, Lady Ki created a special government agency where she wielded a wide-ranging authority regarding tax collection.[23] This secured Lady Ki’s finances. In 1356, she would eventually gain income through her investment in maritime trade.[24] To consolidate her power in the palace, Lady Ki gained many supporters. She gave many Korean-born eunuchs positions within her special government agency.[25] One of these men was Park Bul-hwa, who would be her closest servant. Lady Ki also installed many Korean palace women.

Gradually, the emperor began to lose interest in state affairs and gave power to Lady Ki to run the State.[26] Lady Ki became the unofficial monarch of China. It was said that she learned how to rule by reading Woman’s Book of Filial Piety and reading history books on past great Chinese empresses.[27] However, not everyone was happy with Lady Ki’s power in the Mongolian court. In 1348, a Chinese censor blamed Lady Ki of dykes, earthquakes, and the increase of bandits.[28] He said that the only way to end these disasters would be for the emperor to reduce Lady Ki’s position.[29]

Lady Ki used her power and money for philanthropic works. In 1358, famine and disease struck the capital city of Daidu. Lady Ki ordered her officials to distribute porridge to the hungry. She used her funds to bury over ten thousand corpses and had monks perform funeral services.[30] 

Lady Ki’s family also enjoyed a wealth of privileges. Under the Yuan empire, her father was posthumously made a king. [31]Her mother was granted the honor of having visits from the Goryeo king and was granted official visits to the capital of Daidu.[32] One of her older brothers, Ki Cheol, was granted immense authority over the Goryeo monarch.[33] He would also serve as a manager in the Liaoyang Branch Secretariat in 1553.[34] Another brother would be named Minister of the Left of the Liaoyang Branch Secretariat as well as Manager of Governmental Affairs and Grand Minister of Education.[35] 

However, her family’s promotion caused resentment in the Goryeo court. The Goryeo court charged her younger brother Ki Sam-man of abusing his influence and had him executed in 1351.[36] Despite her younger brother’s execution, King Gongmin still believed that Lady Ki’s family could help Goryeo establish good relations with the Yuan empire. He sent gifts to Lady Ki and promoted her brother Ki Cheol.[37] However, King Gongmin was still disgusted with how Lady Ki’s family abused their power. In 1356, King Gongmin led a purge against Lady Ki’s family.  He exterminated them and declared Goryeo to be independent of the Yuan empire.[38] The death of her family angered Lady Ki. She retaliated by naming a new Goryeo king and sent her son on a military expedition against Goryeo. This military expedition failed and Goryeo maintained its independence.[39]

 In 1365, Empress Bayan died. Lady Ki was made empress. However, Empress Ki was only officially empress for three years when Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, rebelled against the Yuan dynasty. This forced Empress Ki, Toghon Temur, and Ayushiridara to flee to their Mongol homelands.[40]

What happened afterwards is like a blank page. This is because The History of The Yuan ended with the imperial family’s flight.[41] Toghon Temur died on 30 May 1370 of dysentery. Ayushiridara was proclaimed ruler of the Great Yuan and remained Zhu Yuanzhang’s enemy until his death in 1378.[42] It is unclear if Empress Ki ever became the empress dowager.[43] Her death remains a mystery. Although we do not know much about her later life, what is clear is that she was a strong and powerful leader.  Regardless of whether Empress Ki deserves her negative reputation, it is clear that she made a massive impact on Chinese history.

Sources:

Hwang, Kyung Moon. A History of Korea. 2nd ed., Palgrave Essential Histories, 2016.

MacDonald, Joan. “‘Empress Ki’ Reigns Over The Ratings But Not Without Controversy.”

     KDramaStars6 Nov. 2013,

     https://www.kdramastars.com/articles/11805/20131106/empress-ki-reigns-but-not-without-controversy.htm

McMahon, Keith. Celestial Women: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Song to Qing.

     Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Robinson, David M. Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia Under the Mongols. Harvard University

     Press, 2010.


[1] Macdonald, para. 1

[2] Macdonald, para. 3

[3] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[4] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[5]Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[6] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[7] Robinson, p. 123

[8] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 5

[9] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 3

[10] Robinson, p. 118

[11] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 3

[12] Robinson, p. 119

[13]  Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 3

[14] Robinson, p. 119

[15] Robinson, p. 119

[16] Robinson, p. 119

[17] Robinson, p. 119

[18] Robinson, p. 119

[19] Robinson, p. 119

[20] Robinson, p. 119

[21] Robinson, p. 119

[22] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 3

[23] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[24] Robinson, p. 120

[25] Robinson, p. 120

[26] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[27] McMahon, p. 67

[28]  Robinson, p. 119

[29] Robinson, p. 119

[30] McMahon, p. 67

[31] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[32] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[33] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[34] Robinson, p. 125

[35] Robinson, p. 125

[36] Robinson, pp. 125-126

[37] Robinson, p. 126

[38] McMahon, p. 67

[39] McMahon, p. 67

[40] Hwang, “ Chapter 6: The Mongol Overlord Period: Goryeo Women in the Mongol Empire”, para. 4

[41] McMahon, p. 67

[42] Robinson, p. 286

[43] Robinson, p. 286



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