Queen Dowager Zhao – The scandalous mother of the first Qin Emperor

Wu Jinyan as Empress Dowager Zhao Ji in Legend of Hao Lan (Screenshot/Fair use)

Queen Dowager Zhao’s life was full of turbulence and scandal. She lived during the Warring States period. The Warring States period was a time when the seven states of China–Qin, Chu, Zhao, Wei, Han, Yan, and Qi–declared independence from the ruling Zhou dynasty and warred with each other.[1] Zhao Ji was a dancer and singer from Zhao. She was once a concubine of Lu Buwei, but she happened to catch the eye of the hostage Qin prince, Zhi Chu. Prince Zhi Chu married her, and when he became King of Qin, he made her his Queen. However, Zhao Ji’s greatest legacy was not that she rose from humble beginnings, but that she was the mother of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi reunited all of China and became the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty.

Zhao Ji’s earlier origins are currently unknown. She was born and grew up in Zhao.[2] Zhao Ji was known to be a very beautiful singer and dancer.[3] She became a concubine of Lu Buwei, a wealthy merchant.[4] However, Zhao Ji happened to catch the eye of Lu Buwei’s best friend, Prince Zhi Chu, who was the grandson of the Qin ruler and Zhao’s hostage.[5] The moment she began to perform for them, Prince Zhi Chu was immediately smitten with her and asked Lu Buwei to give her to him.[6]

Zhao Ji was given to Prince Zhi Chu and lived with him for several years in Zhao.[7] She gave him a son named Ying Zheng, the future Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, in 259 B.C.[8] Ancient sources state that Zhao Ji was having an affair with Lu Buwei behind Prince Zhi Chu’s back and that Ying Zheng was actually Lu Buwei’s son.[9] However, modern historians believe that Zhao Ji’s alleged affair with Lu Buwei is a fabrication that was made to discredit Ying Zheng’s legitimacy because he was hated during his lifetime for conquering all seven states.[10]

Zhao Ji would soon learn that being Prince Zhi Chu’s wife was dangerous. The states of Qin and Zhao had been hostile to each other for two years. When Qin attacked Handan city, the Zhao court became infuriated and decided to kill their hostage Prince.[11] However, Lu Buwei helped Prince Zhi Chu escape, where he made his way back home to Qin.[12] He left behind Zhao Ji and his son, Ying Zheng, both of whom were at the mercy of the Zhao court. Over the years, Lu Buwei helped Zhao Ji’s parents rise to wealth and influence.[13]  Their prominence helped them to lobby for the release of their daughter and grandson and arranged for them to go into hiding.[14] They were released and lived close to another royal hostage, a Prince from Yan. He quickly became best friends with Ying Zheng.[15]

In 251 B.C., King Zhaoxiang of Qin died, leaving his son, Prince An Guo as the new king.[16] This made Prince Zhi Chu Crown Prince. As Crown Prince, Prince Zhi Chu requested the return of his wife and son.[17] His father agreed and gave Zhao Ji and Ying Zheng an official escort to Qin.[18] King An Guo ruled for a year until he died of illness. King An Guo’s death made Prince Zhi Chu the next King of Qin. Zhao Ji was named Queen of Qin, and Ying Zheng became Crown Prince.[19] Because Lu Buwei had helped him escape to Qin, King Zhi Chu awarded him a large fiefdom and made him his prime minister. [20] 

King Zhi Chu died three years later, leaving his kingdom to his son, Ying Zheng, the throne.[21] Because Ying Zheng was a minor, Zhao Ji became Queen Dowager and ruled as regent in his stead. Lu Buwei still kept his position as prime minister.[22] It is at this point in history that ancient sources state that Lu Buwei reignited his affair with Zhao Ji.[23] As King Ying Zheng grew up, he began to suspect the prime minister’s affair with his mother.[24] To keep himself safe from suspicions, Lu Buwei appointed Lao Ai to be Zhao Ji’s lover.[25] It was said that Lao Ai had great power, but he was not intelligent.[26] Nevertheless, Zhao Ji was said to have fallen in love with him and bore him two sons.[27] 

When Ying Zheng learned of his mother’s affair with Lao Ai, he was furious. He killed Lao Ai and sent Zhao Ji to a crumbling palace in Yong (modern-day Fengxiang County in Shaanxi).[28] Zhao Ji was eventually recalled back to court when a visitor from Qi told the Emperor that exiling his mother would give the other states a negative image of him.[29] King Ying Zheng built his mother a palace where one source claims that she was placed under house arrest until her death which occurred seventeen years later.[30] However, another source claims she lived in “comfort and security” [31] until she died in 228 B.C. As for Lu Buwei, he was also implicated in Zhao Ji’s scandal with Lao Ai, but he was pardoned because of his contribution to saving King Zhi Chu.[32] However, he suspected that King Ying Zheng would dispose of him, so he committed suicide by consuming poison in 235 B.C.[33]

Zhao Ji is mostly known in history for her affairs with both Lu Buwei and Lao Ai. Historians believe that her promiscuity traumatized her son so much that he was never able to appoint an Empress or trust another woman again.[34] Still, Zhao Ji’s story has managed to become a popular figure in Chinese culture. She has appeared in the popular manga, Kingdom. She was played by Gong Li in the 1998 movie, The Emperor and the Assassin and by Chen Yisha in the 2017 hit tv series, The King’s Woman. She was also the main subject in the popular 2019 tv series, The Legend of Haolan played by The Story of Yanxi Palace’s star, Wu Jinyan. Zhao Ji’s story has managed to fascinate people’s imaginations for two millennia, and her enduring legacy will continue to live on.


Chen, Xirui. “The Ideology and Significance of the Legalists School and the School of Diplomacy in the Warring States Period.” 4th International Conference on Modern

Management, Education Technology and Social Science (MMETSS 2019). Atlantis Press, 2019.

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong; Stefanowska, A. D.; Wiles, Sue. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E. Routledge, 2015.

Mah, Adeline Yen. A Thousand Pieces of Gold: Growing Up Through China’s Proverbs. Published by HarperCollins, 2003.

“Why Did Emperor Qin Shi Huang Not Determine the Empress?” Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Empress, Why Qin Shi Huang Didn’t Determine Empress?, Travel China Guide, 19

June 2019, https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/terra_cotta_army/qin-shihuang-empress.htm.

[1] Chen, p. 593

[2] Lee, p. 251

[3] Lee, p. 251; Mah, p. 24

[4] Lee, p. 251; Mah, p. 24

[5] Mah, p. 24

[6] Mah, pp. 24-25; Lee, p. 252

[7] Lee, p. 252

[8] Lee, p. 252

[9] Lee, p. 252

[10] Lee, p. 252

[11] Mah, p. 25

[12] Lee, p. 252

[13] Mah, p. 26

[14] Mah, p. 26

[15] Mah, p. 26

[16] Mah, p. 30

[17] Mah, p. 30

[18] Mah, p. 30

[19] Mah, p. 30

[20] Lee, p. 252

[21] Lee, p. 252

[22] Lee, p. 252

[23] Lee, pp. 252

[24] Lee, pp. 252

[25] Lee, p. 252

[26] Lee, p. 252

[27] Lee, p. 252

[28] Lee, p. 252

[29] Lee, p. 252; Mah, p. 33

[30] Mah, p. 33

[31] Lee, pp. 252-253

[32] Lee, p. 253

[33] Lee, p. 253; Mah, p. 34

[34] “Why Did Emperor Qin Shi Huang Not Determine an Empress,” para. 3

About Lauralee Jacks 178 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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