Zhao Feiyan – Her notorious reputation as a wanton Empress




Zhao Feiyan
Zhao Feiyan as portrayed in The Queens (2008)(Screenshot/Fair Use)

Zhao Feiyan (also known as Empress Xiaocheng) was the second empress of Emperor Cheng of Western Han. She has been known in history for being so wanton that she has been the main protagonist in many lewd Chinese pieces of literature. For millennia, writers have depicted her as an empress whose thirsts for sensual appetites can never be quenched. Indeed, Empress Zhao Feiyan’s story has so appalled ancient chronicler Liu Xiang that he began to compose his classic, Biographies of Exemplary Women, to remind the Emperor to choose a virtuous empress.[1] Even today, Empress Zhao Feiyan’s name denotes immorality and licentiousness. Did Empress Zhao Feiyan deserve her notorious reputation?

It seems that Empress Zhao Feiyan’s early life as a dancer doomed her reputation from the start. Ancient chroniclers have always emphasized her dancing background because it meant to inform the reader to be wary of her and to dislike her immediately.[2] Yet, Empress Zhao Feiyan’s story was originally written by her enemies. Indeed, the first biography of the Empress was written by Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu‘s great-nephew Ban Gu in The History of the Han Dynasty.[3] Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu was a rival for the Emperor’s favour, and this meant that her first biographer was biased towards her.[4] Thus, while Empress Zhao Feiyan was the winner in competing for the Emperor’s favour, she ultimately lost because Ban Gu was the first to blacken her reputation.

Some empresses in Chinese history have originally been dancers (such as Wei Zifu). However, none of them has the villainous reputation that Empress Zhao Feiyan had.[5] Modern scholars believe that the reason why Empress Zhao Feiyan had the worst reputation was that she failed in her duty as an empress.[6] She was childless and did not give the Emperor a son.[7] This was seen as a serious offence by ancient chroniclers, and they believed that Empress Zhao Feiyan deserved her vile reputation.

Empress Zhao Feiyan was born in 32 B.C.E.[8] Her name was originally Feng Yizhu.[9] Her parents lived in the capital of Chang’an. They were destitute, and she was forced to roam the streets looking for food with her younger sister, Hede.[10] One day, they were adopted by Zhao Lin and were given the surname Zhao.[11] Feng Yizhu became a servant in Yang Anzhu’s household and learned to dance and sing.[12] She became a talented dancer and was known as “Feiyan” (which means “Flying Swallow”).[13]

In 18 B.C.E., Emperor Cheng visited Yang Anzhu’s mansion.[14] He watched Zhao Feiyan dance and was immediately captivated. He desired to have her and her sister, Zhao Hede, as his concubines. He brought them back with him to his palace and gave them the title of “Jieyu” (which was the third rank in the Emperor’s harem and two ranks below the Empress).[15] However, Imperial Consort Zhao Feiyan was not happy with her position and wanted more. She conspired with her sister to get rid of her rival, Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu, and accused her of witchcraft.[16] Once she was out of the way, she and her sister were the Emperor’s sole favourites. Emperor Cheng was in an unhappy relationship with Empress Xu.[17] Thus, the Zhao sisters took the opportunity to accuse her of witchcraft.[18] While Emperor Cheng realized that the charges against Empress Xu were false, he had no desire to maintain his relationship with her.[19] He demoted Empress Xu.[20] 

With the Empress position vacant, he decided to make Zhao Feiyan his Empress.[21] His mother, Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun, refused because of Zhao Feiyan’s lowly background.[22] Through the Emperor’s persistence, she began to relent and finally agreed to let Zhao Feiyan become Empress.[23] Thus, in 16 B.C.E., she was enthroned as Empress. Zhao Hede was made “Zhaoyi” (second in rank, which meant “Empress-in-Waiting”).[24] Unfortunately, when she became Empress, Emperor Cheng lost interest in her and poured his affections on her sister.[25] 

During her years as Empress, the two sisters killed all the Emperor’s children to keep their position secured.[26] Modern historians believe this to be false because it seems like a literary pattern for empresses with nefarious reputations to kill their rivals’ children.[27] Ancient chroniclers have also criticized Empress Zhao Feiyan’s lavish lifestyle.[28] However, modern scholars have said that it was a duty for the Empress to set new fashion styles and to give allies expensive gifts.[29] Ancient chroniclers have also claimed that Empress Zhao Feiyan was trying to end her childlessness by having affairs with multiple men.[30] One of her lovers was Qing Anshi, who was also featured in obscene literature for being her favourite and the source of conflict with her sister.[31] However, modern historians believe that the Empress having love affairs is false.[32] It was unlikely that an empress would have any love affairs because she was cloistered in a strict imperial harem and would be constantly watched. [33] Word would have surely reached the Emperor.

In 7 B.C.E., Emperor Cheng died of what modern historians believe to be a stroke.[34] Because Zhao Hede Zhaoyi was intimate with the Emperor right before his death, she was accused of killing him. Zhao Hede Zhaoyi was forced to commit suicide.[35] Thus, Empress Zhao Feiyan lost her beloved sister and her partner in many conspiracies. She successfully installed the reign of Emperor Ai and was made Empress Dowager.[36] He also promoted her family.[37] The newly made Zhaos were seen as rivals to the Wang family. Therefore, the Wangs decided to eliminate them.[38] The Zhao family were stripped of all their titles and were made commoners.[39] 

When Emperor Ai died in 1 B.C.E., a nine-year-old ascended the throne. He was Emperor Ping. The Wang family had complete control of the court.[40] They stripped Zhao Feiyan of her title as Empress Dowager.[41] They demoted her to a commoner and sent her to the North Palace (which was a residence for deposed empresses).[42] Zhao Feiyan was so depressed about her situation that once she entered the North Palace, she committed suicide.[43] Over time, Empress Zhao Feiyan’s reputation continued to grow worse. She has been depicted in lewd Chinese literature.[44] A few of them are The Scandalous Life of Zhao FeiyanThe Unofficial Biography of Flying Swallow, and The Sensational History of Flying Swallow.[45] It is hard to separate fact from fiction when bitter enemies spread her initial stories. It makes one wonder what she may actually have been like as an empress.

Sources:

Chi-kin, A. (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., C. William., Trans.). 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.

Xiaoming, Z. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.;H. Yucheng, Trans.). London: Routledge.


[1] Milburn, p. 59

[2] Milburn, p. 35

[3] Milburn, p. 54

[4] Milburn, p. 54

[5] Milburn, p. 170

[6] Milburn, p. 4

[7] Milburn, p. 4

[8] Xiaoming, p. 86

[9] Xiaoming, p. 86

[10] Xiaoming, pp. 86-87

[11] Chi-kin, p. 245

[12] Xiaoming, pp. 86-87

[13] Xiaoming, p. 87

[14] Xiaoming, p. 87

[15] Chi-kin, p. 245

[16]McMahon, p. 77

[17] Milburn, p. 58

[18] McMahon, p. 77

[19] Milburn, p. 58

[20] Milburn, p. 58

[21] McMahon, p. 79

[22] Chi-kin, p. 246

[23] Chi-kin, p. 246

[24] Milburn, p. 23

[25] Xiaoming, p. 88

[26] Xiaoming, p. 88

[27] Milburn, p. 83

[28] Milburn, p. 61

[29] Milburn, p. 61

[30] Xiaoming, p. 88

[31] McMahon, p. 81

[32] Milburn, p. 175

[33] Milburn, p. 175

[34] Milburn, p. 171

[35] Milburn, p. 62

[36] Chi-kin, p. 246

[37] Chi-kin, p. 246

[38] Chi-kin, p. 246

[39] Chi-kin, p. 246

[40] Chi-kin, p. 247

[41] Chi-kin, p. 247

[42] Milburn, p. 62 &171

[43] Chi-Kin, p. 247

[44] McMahon, p. 81

[45] Milburn, p. 5; McMahon, p. 81-83






About Lauralee Jacks 84 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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