Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun – The fall of the Western Han Dynasty




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Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun has been known in history for causing the fall of the Western Han dynasty. However, unlike many last empresses of a Chinese dynasty, Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun has been portrayed sympathetically by historians. She was known as a long-suffering empress who tried her best to manage a declining dynasty. Her greatest fault was doting on her relatives. Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun has also been seen as a heroine who would defy her nephew’s usurpation of the throne.

Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun was born around 71 B.C.E in Dongpinlin (east of modern-day Jinan in Shandong Province).[1] She was from an aristocratic family that claimed descent from the state of Qi’s rulers from the Warring States era.[2] Her grandfather was one of Emperor Wu’s imperial envoys. Her father, Wang Jin, was a judge in Wei Prefecture (modern-day Darning District in Hebei Province).[3] Her mother’s name is unknown, but her family surname was Li.[4] Early in her childhood, Wang Jin would desert her mother and marry other women.[5] When Wang Zhengjun became Empress Dowager, she sent an imperial order forcing her father to go back to her mother.[6] Wang Jin had a total of 12 children.[7] Four of them were daughters, and eight of them were sons.[8] Wang Zhengjun’s full-blooded siblings were two brothers.[9]

Wang Zhengjun was well-educated, and she was well-versed in music and history.[10] In 57 B.C.E., she was sent to the palace to enter Crown Prince Liu Shi’s harem. In 51 B.C.E, Consort Wang Zhengjun gave birth to Liu Shi’s first son, who would later be the future Emperor Cheng. Emperor Xuan was so joyous at the birth of his grandson that he gave him the name of Liu Ao. Ao meant “galloping steeds,” and it reflected his grandfather’s hopes for his grandson to further the expansion of the Han empire.[11] Emperor Xuan also made Wang Zhengjun Liu Shi’s chief wife, and she became Princess Consort.[12] After Princess Wang Zhengjun gave birth to an heir, her husband lost interest in her, and she never bore him another child.[13]

Liu Ao was Emperor Xuan’s favourite grandson. He made it clear that Liu Ao was to succeed his father and gave him the title of “Grandson Successor.”[14] In 49 B.C.E., Emperor Xuan died. Liu Shi became Emperor Yuan. Wang Zhengjun became Empress Xiaoyuan.[15] Liu Ao was made Crown Prince. Emperor Yuan was so disgusted with Liu Ao’s indulgence of pleasure and drinking that he wanted to make Prince Gong (his favourite son by his beloved concubine, Lady Fu) Crown Prince instead.[16] Yet, he was met with dissent by both his officials and his empress, who reminded him of Emperor Xuan’s love for his grandson so that he would not make any changes. Wang Zhengjun soon began promoting her family members.[17]

In 33 B.C.E, Emperor Yuan died. Liu Ao became Emperor Cheng. Wang Zhengjun was made Empress Dowager. As Empress Dowager, Wang Zhengjun became directly involved in politics and began to make decisions on state affairs.[18] She gave her five surviving brothers vast territories within the Han empire. They became known as “The Five Vassals.” [19] Thus, Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun and her brothers were the true rulers of the empire, while the emperor remained a figurehead.[20] They made all the decisions regarding the empire. The Wang brothers were very powerful but disliked for their corruption. They were known for having a lavish lifestyle, bribery, and constantly demanding money and grain from peasants.[21]

One of these Wangs was Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun’s nephew, Wang Mang. He was very ambitious. His lust for power would eventually lead him to usurp the throne in 9 C.E. Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun promoted him and let him make decisions in both military and civil affairs.[22]

In 7 B.C.E, Emperor Cheng died. Since he was childless, his nephew, Liu Xin, became Emperor Ai. Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun and her family continued to maintain power.[23] In 1. B.C.E., Emperor Ai died, and he too had no children. Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun still wished to continue ruling and had no desire to retire.[24] She made her wishes known to Wang Mang. He installed another of Emperor Cheng’s nephews. This new emperor was a frail nine-year-old.[25] He became known as Emperor Ping. Wang Zhengjun became Grand Empress Dowager and was made regent.[26] As Regent, Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun faced many problems within the Han empire. She found that instead of a glorious Han, her country was on the brink of an economic collapse.[27] The state revenues had declined.[28] The peasants were taxed while the landowners were not.[29] There was a high population in the country, and the empire was still suffering from the aftermath of slave revolts that took place two decades before she became regent.[30]

While Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun was dealing with these difficulties, Wang Mang desired the throne for himself. He began to build supporters and get rid of his rivals.[31] Wang Mang made his son Prime Minister.[32] He made his daughter empress by marrying her to Emperor Ping.[33] In 5 C.E., Emperor Ping died at the age of fourteen. Wang Mang then appointed Liu Ying, the great-great-grandson of Emperor Xuan, and made himself regent instead of Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun.[34]  

In January 9 C.E., Wang Mang shocked everyone when he usurped the throne and made himself emperor. He asked Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun to give him the imperial seal and ribbon, which symbolized the emperor’s authority.[35] Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun was so angry with her nephew that she threw the seal and ribbon to the ground and shouted curses at him.[36] 

As Emperor, Wang Mang changed the dynasty’s name from Han to Xin (which means “New”).[37] He gave Wang Zhengjun the title of Grand Empress Dowager Mother Wen.[38] He also destroyed Emperor Yuan’s temple.[39] The destruction of her husband’s temple so greatly distressed Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun that she resisted all attempts of Emperor Wang Mang’s efforts to please her.[40] She no longer dined with him and ate only with her personal attendants. She never obeyed any of his edicts.[41] When Emperor Wang Mang ordered his court to wear yellow instead of black to honour a new calendar, Grand Dowager Empress Wang Zhengjun ordered her supporters to continue to wear black and use the Han calendar.[42] 

In 13 C.E., Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun died at the age of 84. She had ruled for nearly fifty years.[43] Yet, her greatest mistake was giving her nephew too much power that would end the Western Han dynasty.[44] Still, Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun remains a hero in Chinese history because she refused to give her nephew the imperial seal and ribbon.[45] A popular television show called The Queens was based upon her life. The actress who played her was Yuan Li. Through popular media, Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun’s valiant efforts will never be forgotten.

Sources:

Fanzhong, F. & Peterson, B. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (B. B. Peterson, Ed.; C. Gengduo, Trans.). London: Routledge.

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. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Milburn, O.(2021). The Empress in the Pepper Chamber: Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction. Seattle: University of Washington Press.


[1] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[2] Milburn, p. 59

[3] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[4] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[5] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[6] McMahon, p. 85

[7]McMahon, p. 85

[8] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[9] McMahon, p. 85

[10] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[11] Fanzhong & Peterson p. 78

[12] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[13] Lidong, p. 213

[14] Lidong, p. 213

[15] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[16] McMahon, p. 86

[17] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[18] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 78

[19] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 79

[20] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 79

[21] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 79

[22] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 79

[23] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 80

[24] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 80

[25] Lidong, p. 214

[26] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 80

[27] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 80

[28] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 80

[29] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 80

[30] Fanzhong & Peterson pp. 80-81

[31] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 81

[32] Fanzhong & Peterson, 81

[33] McMahon, p. 87

[34] Lidong, p. 214

[35] Lidong, p. 214

[36] Lidong, p. 214

[37] Lidong, p. 214

[38] Lidong, p. 214

[39] Lidong, p. 214

[40] Lidong, p. 214

[41] Lidong, p. 214

[42] Lidong, p. 214

[43] Fanzhong & Peterson, p. 81

[44] Lidong, 214

[45] McMahon, p. 85






About Lauralee Jacks 98 Articles
I am a third grade 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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