Xu Pingjun – The poisoned Empress

Su Qing as Xu Pingjun from Love Yunge from the Desert (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Xu Pingjun has always been portrayed as a tragic figure in Chinese television. She has been portrayed by Su Qing in the Chinese television series Love Yunge from the Desert, where viewers watched her heart-breaking end. Despite being tragically murdered at the early age of eighteen, she seemed to be a woman of devotion and faithfulness. Empress Xu Pingjun married the future Emperor Xuan when he was poor and had very few prospects. Emperor Xuan loved Xu Pingjun for her devotion to him. He fought against his ministers to make her Empress. Thus, Empress Xu Pingjun was deeply loved and respected by her husband. He honoured her memory by making her son his successor.

Empress Xu Pingjun was born around 89 B.C.E. Her father was a eunuch named Xu Guanghan.[1] Xu Guanghan was serving under Emperor Wu when he accidentally took another servant’s saddle and put it on his own horse.[2] The penalty for stealing while serving the Emperor was death, but the Emperor was merciful and castrated him instead.[3] Xu Guanghan became a supervisor of the women’s sickroom in the women’s quarters.[4]

When Xu Pingjun was fourteen, she was betrothed to Ouhou’s son. Ouhou was the Director of Palace Servants.[5] Her betrothed died before the wedding could take place.[6] However, Ouhou suggested that Xu Pingjun should marry Liu Xun, the Imperial Great-Grandson.[7] Had it been under normal circumstances, Xu Pingjun would never have been considered worthy of marrying Liu Xun.[8] However, Liu Xun’s grandfather, the Crown Prince Liu Ju, had been falsely accused of witchcraft, and Emperor Wu ordered a mass execution on the Crown Prince Liu Ju’s household.[9] Liu Xun’s parents, Liu Jin and Wang Wengxu, were murdered in the massacre.[10]

Liu Xun was the only survivor of the mass murder, and he was only a few months old at the time of the mass execution.[11] An official named Bing Ji took pity on the infant and protected him from the massacre.[12] The baby was immediately put in prison. Bing Ji became Liu Xun’s custodian.[13] Bing Ji felt sorry for the baby because he knew that the Crown Prince was innocent of witchcraft.[14] Bing Ji selected two female prisoners to become Liu Xun’s wet nurses. He visited Liu Xun every day to see how the baby was faring.[15] Eventually, Bing Ji learned that Consort Shi’s (Liu Xun’s paternal grandmother) mother named Zhenjun was still alive and placed the child in her care.[16] Thus, his paternal great-grandmother raised Liu Xun herself.[17]

When Xu Guanghan heard of this proposal between his daughter and Liu Xun, he merely accepted it.[18] He made no outward signs that he considered Liu Xun to be an unworthy husband for his daughter.[19] On the other hand, Xu Guanghan’s wife made no secret that she found Liu Xun to be a lowly candidate for her daughter.[20] She wanted her daughter to marry a more advantageous man.[21] Liu Xun was a commoner who seemed to have very few prospects.[22] He seemed destined to remain in political obscurity.[23] Despite his wife’s blatant objections, Xu Guanghan let the marriage arrangements carry on.

Xu Pingjun married Liu Xun, and a year later, she bore him a son named Liu Shi (the future Emperor Yuan).[24] In 74 B.C.E., Liu Xun ascended the throne as Emperor Xuan.[25] Xu Pingjun was made “Lady of Handsome Fairness”.[26] This was the highest status of a concubine.[27] Thus, she was not yet made Empress.[28]  Huo Guang, the man who helped put Emperor Xuan on the throne, wanted his daughter, Huo Chengjun, to be Emperor Xuan’s Empress instead.[29] However, Emperor Xuan wanted Xu Pingjun to be his Empress.[30] He loved her because she had been with him when he was poor and had no prospects.[31] He refused to let politics control his heart.[32] Emperor Xuan fought so hard to make Xu Pingjun empress that at last, the ministers and Huo Guang had no choice but to let Xu Pingjun become Empress.[33]

In December 74 BC.E., Xu Pingjun was invested as Empress.[34] Because Xu Guanghan had committed a crime, he was not given a noble title which was the custom for fathers of empresses.[35] Instead, he was given a lowly rank with the title of “Lord of Changcheng”.[36] She established a close and respectful relationship with Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan (Huo Guang’s granddaughter). [37]In 72 B.C.E., Empress Xu Pingjun was pregnant again. All seemed well for Empress Xu Pingjun. She happily awaited the birth of her next child and was not aware that there was someone who was planning her death.

While everyone had reluctantly accepted Xu Pingjun as Empress, there was one who did not. Huo Guang’s wife, Lady Xian, still hoped that her daughter Huo Chengjun would become Empress.[38] She plotted to poison the Empress. She bribed Xu Pingjun’s female doctor named Chunyu Yan to poison the Empress.[39] Shortly after Empress Xu Pingjun gave birth to her second son in 71 B.C.E., Chunyu Yan took the opportunity to poison her by adding aconite to her medication.[40] It was not long until Empress Xu Pingjun had a severe headache. Concerned, Empress Xu Pingjun asked Chunyu Yan if her medication had been poisoned, but Chunyu Yan denied it.[41] Empress Xu Pingjun’s headache grew worse, and she died in misery.[42] Empress Xu Pingjun was eighteen years old. Her second son would die shortly after her.

The doctors, including Chunyu Yan, were immediately imprisoned and investigated for neglecting the care of Empress Xu Pingjun.[43] When Huo Guang (who was oblivious to his wife’s evil doings) found out what his wife had done, he immediately covered it up and let the doctors go.[44] Emperor Xuan, who did not know that his beloved wife was murdered, made Huo Chengjun his Empress.[45] He cherished Huo Chengjun and showered her with his affections.[46] Empress Huo Chengjun’s happiness would be short-lived because Emperor Xuan would eventually come to learn the truth about his first empress’s death.[47] He would depose Empress Huo Chengjun five years after her investiture, and twelve years after her deposition, she would commit suicide.[48]

Empress Xu Pingjun was Empress for only three years.[49] She was buried in the tomb of Dunan in the South During Gardens.[50] She was given the posthumous title of Empress Gong’ai, which meant “Reverent and Pitiable Empress”.[51] Empress Xu Pingjun’s son named Liu Shi ascended the throne as Emperor Yuan in 49 B.C.E.


Kinney, A. B. (2004). Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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

Waldherr, K. (2008). Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, From Cleopatra to Princess Di. NY: Bloomsbury Books.

Wang, X & 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.

[1] McMahon, p. 75

[2] McMahon, p. 75

[3] McMahon, p. 75

[4] Wang, p. 226

[5] Wang, p. 226

[6] Wang, p. 226

[7] Wang, p. 226

[8] McMahon, p. 75

[9] Wang, p. 226

[10] Wang, p. 226

[11]Bao, p. 188

[12] Bao, p. 188

[13] Bao, p. 188

[14] Bao, p. 188

[15] Bao, p. 188

[16] Bao, p. 189

[17] Bao, p. 189

[18] Wang, p. 226

[19] Wang, p. 226

[20] Wang, p. 226

[21] Wang, p. 226

[22] Wang, p. 226

[23] Wang, p. 226

[24] Wang, p. 226

[25] Wang, p. 226

[26] Wang, p. 226

[27] Wang, p. 226

[28] Wang, p. 226

[29] Kinney, p. 143

[30] Waldherr, p. 36

[31] Waldherr, p. 36

[32] Waldherr, p. 36

[33] Kinney, p. 143

[34] Wang, p. 227

[35] Wang, p. 227

[36] Wang, p. 227

[37] Wang, p. 153

[38] Wang, p. 227

[39] Wang, p. 227

[40] Waldherr, p. 36

[41] Wang, p. 227

[42] Kinney, p. 143; Wang, p. 227

[43] Wang, p. 227

[44] Kinney, pp. 143-144; Wang, p. 227

[45] McMahon, p. 75; Waldherr, p. 37

[46] McMahon, p. 75; Waldherr, p. 37

[47] Waldherr, p. 37

[48] Waldherr, p. 37

[49] Wang, p. 227

[50] Wang, p. 227

[51] Wang, p. 227

About Lauralee Jacks 83 Articles
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. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. 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 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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