Empress Wei Zifu- The Persecuted Empress

Emperor Wu of Han

At first glance, Wei Zifu’s rise from dancer to Empress seems like a Cinderella story. However, Wei Zifu’s later years have the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. Empress Wei Zifu was the second longest reigning Chinese empress in history, reigning for 38 years. However, despite her accomplishments, she eventually fell out of favour with the Emperor.

Wei Zifu was born around 148 B. C. 1 She was a woman of humble beginnings. Her father died when she was still a child, and her mother was a servant to Princess Pingyang, the older sister of Emperor Wu. Wei Zifu learned to sing, play music, paint, play chess, and write calligraphy. 2 Therefore, Wei Zifu was accomplished in the arts.

It was in March of 139 B. C. that Emperor Wu met Wei Zifu. He stopped by Princess Pingyang’s home after going to the northern suburb of Chang’an to make sacrifices to his local ancestors. 3 Princess Pingyang hosted a banquet for her brother and provided him with lovely girls who sang and danced for him. One of these girls was Wei Zifu. Immediately upon seeing her, he became attracted to her. 4 In order to please her brother, Princess Pingyang sent Wei Zifu to the palace at his request, and she became the Emperor’s concubine. 5

Wei Zifu quickly attracted the jealousy of Empress Chen. Empress Chen and Emperor Wu’s marriage had been strained recently. 6 Emperor Wu loved Empress Chen deeply, but because she could not produce a son, his attentions turned to Wei Zifu. However, Emperor Wu was aware of his empress’s jealousy, and he did not want to ruin his marriage with her. 7He cast Wei Zifu aside and tried to make amends with his wife. 8 His wife continued to spend great sums of money on drugs in hopes of producing a male heir. 9 Meanwhile. Wei Zifu spent lonely hours in the palace.

Wei Zifu was about to leave the palace and return to Princess Pingyang’s home when she was invited to an audience with the emperor. 10 Emperor Wu was so moved by Wei Zifu’s tears that his love for her rekindled and he convinced her to remain in the palace. 11 This triggered jealousy from Empress Chen and she plotted to get rid of her. 12 The queen’s plot was discovered, but this time she plotted to kill Wei Zifu’s whole family. 13 The Queen’s behaviour disgusted Emperor Wu, and he promoted Wei Zifu to the highest ranking concubine in his harem. 14 She became Lady Wei and gave birth to three daughters. 15

Empress Chen, who hated to see Wei Zifu being favoured by her husband, resorted to witchcraft. In 130 B. C., Chen was deposed on the charge that she instructed a witch to curse Wei Zifu. 16 The edict stated that Empress Chen had “broken the law by engaging with sorcery with the witches and is unworthy of being Empress.” 17 Empress Chen’s life was spared, but she had to give up her imperial seal and was sent to live in Changmen Palace, where she lived out the rest of her lonely days. 18

A year after Empress Chen was deposed, Lady Wei gave birth to a son named Liu Ju. After gaining the longed-for heir, Emperor Wu made Wei Zifu his empress in 128 B.C, who was now twenty-eight. 19 As empress, Wei Zifu promoted her family members to high status. Her brother, Wei Qing, and her nephew, Huo Qubing, became two of Han dynasty’s most celebrated generals. Her sister’s stepson was elevated to the most powerful positions in government as Marshal of State. 20 The promotions that the Emperor gave to the Wei clan were made into a popular song, “Don’t be delighted in giving birth to a son, don’t be disappointed with a daughter, Can’t you see Wei Zifu is becoming an overlord!” 21

As decades passed, Empress Wei Zifu’s beauty began to fade, and she eventually lost favour with the emperor. The Emperor turned his attentions to his other concubines. Emperor Wu didn’t think his son Liu Ju would be a good emperor because of his soft nature. Both Empress Wei Zifu and Liu Ju became insecure in their positions. However, the Emperor reassured them of their positions. He entrusted state matters to his son and his palace affairs to Empress Wei Zifu.

In spite of her high status, Wei Zifu became the victim of palace intrigue. An official named Jiang Chong had a falling out with Empress Wei Zifu and Crown Prince Liu Ju. In 91 B. C. Jiang Chong implicated Empress Wei Zifu’s daughters of witchcraft and put them to death. Then, he accused Empress Wei Zifu and Crown Prince Liu of witchcraft. In retaliation, Crown Prince Liu planned to arrest Jiang Chong and execute him. Unfortunately, Emperor Wu was falsely reported from a messenger of Jiang Chong that the Crown Prince Liu planned to assassinate him and was planning a rebellion. Emperor Wu sent his soldiers to end it. The prince was defeated in battle and hanged himself. His wife, concubines, sons, and daughters were executed. Only his grandson survived because he was a baby. Empress Wei Zifu was deposed, stripped of her imperial seal, and ribbon. Then, she committed suicide.

After this catastrophe, Emperor Wu and his ministers were at a loss about what to do. One minister spoke up to address the wrong done to the heir apparent. Emperor Wu did not pardon his son and wife publicly but investigated the matter privately. He learned the truth of what really happened and put Jiang Chong and all his family to death. 22 He regretted the death of his son and built palaces to commemorate him. In 74 B.C. Empress Wei Zifu’s great grandson became Emperor. 23 He officially cleared her name, rebuilt her mausoleum, and gave her the title of Wei, The Thoughtful Empress. 24 Thus, Empress Wei Zifu was given some of the recognitions that she deserved after her death. 25

Notes:

  1. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 1
  2. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 1
  3. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 1
  4. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 1
  5. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 1
  6. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  7. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  8. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  9. McMahon, 2013 p. 71
  10. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  11. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  12. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  13. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  14. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  15. Peterson, 2016, Queen Wei para. 2
  16. Lee et al., 2015 Chen Jiao para. 2
  17. Lee et al., 2015 Chen Jiao para. 2
  18.  Lee et al., 2015 Chen Jiao para. 2
  19. Sharpe, 2007 p. 218
  20. Liu and Kinney, 2014, Introduction p. XIX
  21.  Sharpe, 2007, p. 218.
  22. Sharpe, 2007 p. 219
  23. Liu and Kinney, 2014, Introduction p. XIX
  24.  Lee et al., 2015 Wang Wengxu p. 206
  25. Sources:

    McMahon, Keith. Women Shall Not Rule Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to
    Liao. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Print.
    Peterson, Barbara Bennett. “Queen Wei.” Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early
    Twentieth Century. Place of Publication Not Identified: Routledge, 2015. N. pag. Print.
    Lee, Lily Xiao Hong., A. D. Syrokomla-Stefanowska, and Sue Wiles. Biographical Dictionary of
    Chinese Women. Armonk, NY.: M.E. Sharpe, 2007. Print.
    Liu, Xiang, and Anne Behnke Kinney. “Introduction.” Introduction. Exemplary Women of Early
    China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang. New York: Columbia UP, 2014. XV-XXXII. Print.

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