Women and Power
Ching-Chung, Priscilla, Palace Women of the Northern Sung, Hinsch,
Bret, Women in Early Imperial China, pp 1-13, 15-26.
Twitchet, Denis, Cambridge History of China, v.1; Qin: pp 21-102; 130-9;
Former Han: 173-187; 190; 213-222; (v3), Ch 5: Kao-tsung (reign
649-83) and the empress Wu: the inheritor and the usurper, pp. 242-
279; Ch 6: The reigns of the empress Wu, Chung-tsung and Jui-tsung
(684-712), pp. 290-320;
Women and Power
Palace Women and Power (dynasties of Han origin)
– Marriage Policy of the Han 汉
– Palace Women and Court Politics
– The Usurpation of Wang Mang
Jin 晋 Dynasty
– The Power of Empress Jia
– The Power of the Regent
– Preventing Women from Obtaining Power
– Recruitment and Retirement
– Recruitment of Palace Women
The unification of China in 221 B.C.E.
under the Qin Shi Huangdi 秦始皇帝 was
the beginning of imperial China.
Previous to centralization, when the states
needed allies, they had to choose consorts
from outside of their own state.
The families of these women were
powerful as they were the rulers of the
Once China was centralized, the emperor
was supreme and he chose his consorts
from within China.
– The women no longer had the outside support and authority of
their families as their fathers were not kings.
Centralization meant that all power resided in the person of the
emperor and those who gained his favor would share his power or
even control him and assume his power.
– The emperor, being supreme, was remote from his officials and
ambitious officials had to use palace women as a way to influence
and control the emperor.
Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.- 220 C.E.) was broken into two periods:
– Eastern Han (206 B.C.E.-8 C.E.)
– Western Han (9-220)
The dynasty was interrupted by the usurpation of Wang Mang (45
B.C.E.-23), the nephew of the Grand Empress Dowager Wang
Zhengjun (71B.C.E.-13; aged 84).
Wang Mang was a co-regent with the Grand Empress Dowager for
three different reigns.
– The first was for her grandson; when the grandson died, another
emperor came to the throne and Wang had to resign.
– At the death of this emperor, Wang again became co-regent for
another two short-lived emperors and at the death of the second
one, he decided to usurp the throne.
Palace Women and Power
There were several ways for women or their families to gain power
and control court politics:
– The empress who seized power because of her position:
Help her husband to govern as he is in ill health and increasingly controls
power until he is no longer able to rule.
Rule as a regent in the name of her son/titular son, or for her grandson, if
he is too young to rule and may, or may not, give up power after he comes
– Powerful male relatives used the women to exercise influence or
control the emperor; these relatives may continue to marry their
daughters into the palace and control the court for several reigns.
They might also introduce a woman to him so that he would become so
obsessed with her so that he was no longer interested in government.
Han Dynasty: Marriage Policy
The marriage policy was very flexible in early Han as the founder of
the dynasty was a commoner; the wives did not come from powerful
– Lady Wang, the wife of Jingdi 景帝 (r.157-141 BCE) and the
mother of Wudi 武帝 (r.140-87BCE), had been married before
and had even given birth to a daughter.
When a fortune-teller told Wang‟s mother that her daughters would be rich
and famous, she took her daughter away from her husband and gave her to
Jingdi when he was the heir-apparent 太子.
There was tension between the Han emperors and their more class-
conscious officials over the choice of empresses as many women were
promoted because they had the favor of the emperor and not on the
basis of their virtue or family background.
Han Dynasty: Marriage Policy (2)
The officials wrote memorials condemning women of low status being
– They said that only the daughters of princes and nobles possessing
territory were worthy to wed a ruler.
During the latter part of the Han (after the usurpation of Wang
Mang (45BCE-23 CE), imperial wives came from families of
powerful lineages as the emperors were not able to centralize their
power and needed the support of these powerful familes.
These consort families became powerful in court and in government
and struggles between these great families and the eunuchs was one of
the reasons for the fall of the Han.
Palace Women and Court Politics
The Han dynasty was a period of time when women and their families
exercised great power.
During the Former or Eastern Han two Empress Dowagers attended
court and controlled the government.
In the Later or Western Han, nine emperors were under the control of
Empress Dowagers and six Empress Dowagers attended court.
Although women were the way to obtain and to maintain a family’s
established position of prominence the families were extremely
– The power and positions of the women and their families were
dependent on the life span of the women.
– Once the women died, the families may be exterminated.
Example: The Liang family –
Palace Women and Court Politics (2)
– It rose when it helped Guangwudi, the first emperor of the
Western Han, conquer the Northwest and it intermarried with
– It fell when the head of the family was dismissed on charges of
corruption, jailed and executed.
– It recovered when a niece entered Zhangdi’s 章帝 (r.76-88) harem
and had a son who would become Hedi 和帝 (r.89-105).
– It provided empresses for Shundi 順帝 (r.125-144) and Huandi 桓
帝 (r.146-148) .
– The Liang family dominated the government under Shundi and
Huandi but after the empress died, the Liang family was not able
to place another family member as empress.
– The emperor resented the control of the Liang family and turned
to the eunuchs for support and drove the Liang family from
Han Dynasty: Palace Women and Court Politics
The Empress who would seize power
Empress Lü 吕, wife of Liu Bang 劉邦, was the first in the Han 汉
dynasty to seize power after the death of her husband.
Her son, Huidi 惠帝 (r.195-188B.C.E.) was young when he became
emperor and she became regent.
When he became an adult he was unable to cope with his domineering
mother who actually ruled during his reign.
After his death she placed two different infants on the throne but she
was the de facto ruler.
Sima Qian 司马迁 entitled his chapter covering the period as “Basic
Annals of Empress Dowager Lü 太后本记” and credited her as being
a good ruler.
From then on, whenever a woman became too powerful the officials
would remind her not to become another Empress Lü.
Han Dynasty: Palace Women and Court Politics
Women who were used by Male Relatives
Empress Shangguan 上官 was the granddaughter of two of the three
regents for the young, Zhaodi 昭帝 (r.87-74B.C.E.).
Her paternal grandfather resented the maternal grandfather, Huo
Guang 霍光 (d.68 B.C.E.), for having more power.
Zhaodi sided with Huo Guang and her father’s family lost the power
struggle and was killed.
Her maternal grandfather, Huo Guang, dominated government.
When Zhaodi died, another young man was chosen to succeed.
Huo Guang convened a group of ranking officials and asked his
granddaughter to dethrone him as he did not properly perform the
mourning rites and had behaved in a disrespectful and irresponsible
The young empress (15 sui), his granddaughter, approved the
memorial to depose him and enthroned another prince selected by
Huo Guang – Xuandi 宣帝 (r.74-49B.C.E.).
Han Dynasty: Palace Women and Court Politics :
An Emperor is Obsessed
Chengdi 成帝 (32-7BCE); was obsessed by Zhao Feiyan 赵飞燕, a
slave-entertainer in the service of the imperial princess.
– He took Zhao Feiyan and her sister into his harem and she became his favorite
and was named empress after the previous empress was deposed.
Since the emperor was not interested in governing his mother,
Empress Dowager Wang Zhengqun and her elder brother, Wang
Feng, acted as co-regents – after Wang Feng died, he was succeeded
by ED Wang‟s cousins and brothers until Wang Mang 王莽 became
Neither of the Zhao sisters had any children but they made the
emperor kill the baby boys born to him by other palace women so
when the emperor died there was no heir and the Grand Empress
Dowager Wang named Chengdi‟s nephew, Aidi 哀帝 (r.6-1BCE), as
emperor but he also died after ruling for a short time.
The Usurpation of Wang Mang
Wang Mang had served as a co-regent to Chengdi but had to resign
when Aidi came to the throne.
After the death of Aidi, Grand ED Wang chose a young boy, Pingdi
平帝 (r.1BCE-5CE) to succeed and Wang Mang again became regent
and named his daughter as empress.
But, Pingdi also did not reign long and an infant was chosen as the
successor and Wang became the Acting Emperor but the young
emperor also died.
– After having repeatedly served as regent for several reigns, Wang
Mang decided to proclaim himself emperor of a new dynasty, Xin
The Power of Empress Jia
The Jin dynasty (265-420) 晉朝 was founded by the Sima family
which united China after the Three Kingdoms Period – the dynasty
is divided into Western Jin (265-316) and Eastern Jin (316-420).
The first Jin emperor, Sima Yan, divided his new empire into 19
provinces and appointed princes to manage these regions and
power was decentralized.
He named his son, Sima Zhong 衷 (r.265-420) as heir at age 7, but
he boy was soon found to be developmentally disabled.
Sima Zhong was married to Empress Jia 賈 (256-300) when he was
12; she was 2 years older than he was.
The Power of Empress Jia (2)
When the young man inherited the throne under the regents named by
his father, his wife, Empress Jia, conspired with the eunuchs and
others against the regents.
– She had her husband issue an edict declaring that the regent had
committed crimes and should be removed from his posts.
– There were 8 powerful princes at this time and Empress Jia began
getting rid of them.
The empress and the Jia clan remained in power until 300 when she
deposed and assassinated the heir to the throne.
The prince who commanded the imperial guards, took this
opportunity to kill Empress Jia and her faction.
There were a total of 8 regents during the Song dynasty (960–1279).
– Of the 166 years of the Northern Song (960–1127), regents ruled
for 25.5 years.
Regents had different styles based on their personalities and the times
they lived in:
– Regents who ruled as defacto sovereigns (ED Liu; Gao);
– Regents who ruled keeping low profiles (ED Cao, Xiang);
– Regents who ensured the succession (Meng);
– Regents who ruled through influencing the emperor (ED Yang);
– Regents who ruled at times of defeat (ED Xie).
Song Dynasty: Regents who Ruled as defacto Sovereigns:
Empress Dowager Liu 刘
Empress Dowagers Liu 刘 (d.1033) was the most ambitious and
aggressive of the Northern Song regents.
– She had risen to power through control of her husband when he
was ill and unofficially took over the administration of the empire.
– She had no sons but took the son (Renzong: r.1022-1063) of a
palace woman and claimed that he was her biological son – he did
not know of this until after her death.
As the “biological” mother she was regent for Renzong for 11 years
(1022-1033) and refused to retire when he came of age.
When she died she even left a will stipulating that another palace
woman should succeed her as regent even though Renzong was
Song Dynasty: Regents who Ruled as defacto
Sovereigns: Empress Dowager Gao 高
Grand Empress Dowager Gao 高 (1031-1093), principal consort of
Yingzong (r.1063-1067), and the natural mother of Shenzong (r.1068-
1086), ruled as regent for her grandson, Zhezong (r.1086-1100).
As regent, she ruled for eight years as the de facto ruler.
Gao had disagreed with her son„s policies of reform – Wang Anshi 王
安石 (1021-1086) – and so she recalled the conservative, Sima Guang
司马光 (1019-1086), to head the government to reverse Wang Anshi‟s
She was extremely strict with her relatives refusing to grant them
She was considered a good ruler and was praised as “a sage among
Song Dynasty: Regents who ensured the succession:
Empress Dowager Meng 孟
Meng (1077-1135) was chosen by ED Gao as Zhezong‟s (r.1086-1100)
empress but was deposed after Gao‟s death.
When the Jin – Gold (1115-1234) attacked the capital, Meng was not
living in the palace as she had been deposed and so was not taken captive.
Meng had the unique distinction of serving as regent twice although both
were of short duration.
The Jin had placed a puppet, Zhang Bangchang (d.c.1130), on the throne
and to gain legitimacy, Zhang named Meng as his regent.
When Meng learned that Prince Kang, one of the sons of Huizong
(r.1101-1126), a brother of Qinzong, the last emperor of the Northern
Song, had arrived at Kaifeng, she sent her brother with a letter declaring
him as the legitimate emperor, and retired from her regency.
– Zhang was forced to retire and committed suicide.
Regents who ensured the succession:
Empress Dowager Meng (2)
In 1129, Gaozong was defeated in battle at Yangzhou and two
discontented leaders of his bodyguard forced him to abdicate in favor
of his three-year-old son and Meng again served as regent.
– Gaozong‟s loyal followers were able to restore him as emperor and
so Meng retired from her regency after only 25 days.
– In the same year, Gaozong sent her into Jiangsi (when he was
again threatened by the Jin) so that if he were captured or killed
she would represent the legitimacy of the dynasty.
– The Jin understood her powers as a senior widow and tried to
Gaozong felt very indebted to her and treated her as if she was his
own mother and rewarded her relatives generously naming about 80 of
them to posts.
Song Dynasty: Regents during times of defeat:
Empress Dowager Xie 谢
During times of defeat, the empress dowager would often remain
behind to negotiate and sign the terms of surrender while the young
emperor fled from the capital.
An example of such a woman was Xie.
– Xie was the empress for Lizong (r.1224-1264) and was regent for
the adopted heir, Duzong.
– Xie stopped the massacre of the Song population by negotiating
surrender terms with the Mongols in which she only asked for the
lives of the people of Hangzhou, the Song House, and that the
Song ancestral temples not be destroyed.
– She became ill when the royal captives were to be taken north and
so stayed behind until she had recovered.
The Power of the Regent
There were three historical conditions under which the mother or
the grandmother of the emperor could govern as regent:
– When the emperor was too young to govern –17 sui seemed to have been the
– When the emperor was too ill to attend to affairs;
– When the emperor was unexpectedly removed.
A senior widow was preferred as regent as:
– She had no legitimate right to become emperor and her role was seen as
– It was dangerous to select regents from among the emperor’s brothers or uncles
who could usurp the throne.
Strong regents were defacto rulers.
Weak ones were figureheads, delegating authority to her relatives or
to civil officials, who made decisions in her name.
The Power of the Regent (2)
Female rulers fall into three types:
– Ruling directly as regents refusing to retire even when the
emperors came of age
– Filling in while the emperor was sick or when the emperor was
young and acting on the advice of the top officials.
– Taking charge temporarily while a new emperor is named.
The power of these women appeared to contradict the Confucian role
prescribed for women.
Therefore, many palace women who exercised power are often
stereotyped as the Dragon Lady such as Cixi in he Qing.
– Reaction to this stereotype is mixed: many respected the dragon
lady’s decisiveness, ingenuity, and effectiveness.
– Others distrust her, finding her ruthless, cunning and cruel.
Despite negative feelings towards female rule, it was a necessity and
many women were praised as being great rulers.
Preventing Women and their families
from Obtaining Power
Power by the imperial women and their families meant less power for
– They repeatedly warned the emperor about preventing the power
of these groups.
– They reminded regents about the dangers of becoming another
Empress Dowager Lü.
The emperors were also aware of these dangers and tried to find ways
to prevent it.
– Song emperors forbade the husbands of the princesses from
having real positions although they had titles and the money that
went along with the titles.
– Ming emperors only brought in consorts from commoner families
with no power. 25
Song Dynasty: Recruitment and Retirement:
Methods of Entry into the Palace
Where did these palace women come from?
– A study of the women of the Northern Song show the following:
Marriage as principal consort.
Marriage as secondary consort (acquired as principal consort is
Entry through summons (may have been acquired as captive
through conquest, recommended for beauty, etc.).
Entry through nationwide recruitment to staff palace.
Other methods – unknown.
Song Dynasty: Recruitment
Methods of Entry into the Palace
Ratio Percentage Ranks Achieved
Marriage as principal consort 14/92 15.22 All empresses
Marriage as secondary consort 2/92 2.17 All empresses
Entry through summons 12/92 13.04 4 empresses;
7 imperial consorts
1 minor wife
Possible recruitment 57/92 61.96 5 empresses; 19 imperial
consorts; 33 minor wives
Unknown means 7/92 7.61 3 empresses; 2 imperial
consorts; 2 minor wives
Song Dynasty: Recruitment and Retirement
Family background 15 empresses; 3 imperial consorts; 2 minor wives
Imperial favour 7 empresses; 1 imperial consort; 1 minor wife
Entering the nunnery 3 imperial consorts; 1 minor wife
Birth or children 5 empresses; 3 imperial consorts; 3 minor wives
Combination of imperial 7 imperial consorts
favour & birth of children
Combination of birth of children & longevity 6 imperial consorts
Longevity 3 imperial consorts; 3 minor wives
Meritorious service 3 imperial consorts; 2 minor wives
Patronage 1 empress; 2 imperial consorts
Unknown 19 minor wives
Song Dynasty: Recruitment and Retirement
Women were released from the palace through:
– Consorts, when deposed, were sent to auxiliary palaces or to the
– General releases of palace women and married off with dowries
Intervals for releases varied from 1-30 years (Song Renzong released women
in 1039 and then did not do so again until 1059).
During Song Huizong‟s reign they were released annually; the
numbers released ranged from 24-600.
– During the Qing, women were released at age 25.
– Since they have served in the palaces they were to be honored above
– But many men married them for the dowries.
– Some resold them into prostitution.
Recruitment of Palace Women
During the Ming (1368-1644) founding period, political marriages to
cement alliances, were an important part of the strategy of the
founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, for establishing himself as emperor of
In the final edition of his Ancestral Instructions, he announced a change
of policy and stated that the daughters of men of high rank must never
be chosen as consorts for the imperial princes.
Imperial wives should be “girls of good families” 良家女--
commoners, whose fathers held no official or noble positions.
– Daughters of the rich and powerful should be excluded from the
– The criteria used was that the girls be healthy young virgins
between the ages of about 10 and 20 sui.
This policy was based on two reasons:
– Ming founders and their wives were all commoners but there was
an increasing growth of powerful families.
– Fear of the power of women and their families.
Recruitment of Palace Women (2)
The senior woman in the imperial family, either the empress dowager
or the empress, would issue an imperial order to the Ministry of Rites,
instructing the officials to begin the recruitment when the heir-
apparent and other princes came of age and were ready to be married.
The Ministry of Rites then issued a public decree which specified the
number of women to be selected and the regions which were to
Other recruitments were conducted in secret as officials were often
opposed to them – especially if it was to be done during a period of
Recruitment of Palace Women (3)
An account of the recruitment:
– The first phase was overseen by the eunuchs.
– In the first month of the year, more than 5,000 girls, between 13 and 16 sui,
were brought to the palace gates by their parents, who were given gifts of
money as compensation.
– The girls were divided into groups of 100 for the first inspection and those who
were too tall, too short, too fat and unhealthy were dismissed – 1,000.
– The remaining girls were again divided into groups of 100 and the eunuchs
looked at their ears, eyes, mouths, noses, hair, skin, waists, necks, arms and
backs. If any of these were not acceptable, they were dismissed.
– The eunuchs then listened to the girls’ voices as they said their names and ages
and if the voice was too strong, too weak, or too hesitant, they were dismissed –
– On the third day, the eunuchs measured the girls’ hands and feet and made
them walk a short distance and if their wrists were too short, feet too large or
behavior too reckless or hasty, they were dismissed – 1,000.
Recruitment of Palace Women (4)
During the second phase, the remaining girls were inspected by palace
They were taken to a private room where matrons inspected them
physically, smelled their armpits and felt their flesh.
Only 300 passed this final inspection and all of these became members
of the imperial household.
These girls were kept in the palace for one month, during which time
the imperial women of the older generation became familiar with their
personalities and their conversational abilities and judged their
strength or weakness and their wisdom or lack of it.
50 girls, all to be consorts or concubines, passed this stage of the
These girls were then inspected by the senior imperial woman during
the third phase.
Recruitment of Palace Women (5)
These women were tested in writing, mathematics, poetry, painting
and other arts and the three most outstanding ones would be selected.
These three were again physically inspected and presented to the
emperor who made the final decision.
– The chosen one would be around 15 sui with a face like that of the goddess
– Her complexion would be like the rosy morning mist reflected in the snow, like
hibiscus flowers emerging from water.
– Her hair like a spring cloud and her eyes like autumn waves.
– Her mouth like a red cherry and her nose like a perfectly shaped vase. Her teeth
delicate and pure.
– She would have a strong chin, a broad forehead and a long neck.
– When she walked, it would be like water flowing from a hidden spring.
– She was to be totally without blemish and without any sign of disease.
Recruitment of Palace Women (6)
There were other criteria for selection of women for special duties:
– Wet-nurses needed to have a rich supply of milk and be free from
– Sedan chair carriers need to have natural, unbound feet and were
usually recruited from Fujian Province, where there were many
women whose feet were not bound.
The sedan chair carriers were also chosen from families that
could not afford to bind their daughters‟ feet.
Most of the chair carriers were probably Hakka as they did not
bind the feet of their women.
There was resistance to the recruitment and so most women were
recruited from near the two capitals and military garrisons where there
was greater control.
Han and non-Han Imperial Women
“Imperial marriage in the Native Chinese and non-Han State, Han to
“The Harem in Northern Wei Politics, 398-493 AD: A Study of Tuoba
attitudes towards the institution of empress dowager and regency
governments in the Chinese dynastic system during early Northern Wei”
in Holmgren, Jennifer, Marriage, Kinship and Power in Northern China. The
Northern Wei (398-493):
“Family, Marriage and Political Power in Sixth Century China: A study of
the Gao Family of the Northern Qi, c.520-550”, in Holmgren, Jennifer,
Marriage, Kinship and Power in Northern China. pp VI, 1-50.
“ Politics of the Inner Court under the Hou-chu (Last Lord of the
Northern Qi, ca. 565-73” in Dien, Albert E., ed., State and society in early
medieval China, pp 269-330.