Madam Wang was a Chinese noblewoman who could trace her ancestry back to the ancient kingdom of Yan. Helped by her noble blood, Madam Wang and her sister were both accepted into the imperial palace, where they became concubines of Liu Qi, the heir apparent of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE). At the time when Liu Qi ascended to the throne in 157 BCE, henceforth being known as Emperor Jing, Madam Wang was pregnant with the new emperor’s child. The baby boy was born in 156 BCE and was named Liu Che. He would eventually become Emperor Wu, one of China’s most famous emperors, but, at the time of his birth, Liu Che and Madam Wang were a long way from power.
In the time before his ascendance to the throne, Emperor Jing had been cajoled into an arranged marriage by his grandmother, Empress Dowager Bo. Jing disliked the woman and they produced no sons, but she was named empress when the new emperor succeeded his father. Therefore, when Madam Wang gave birth to her son, she still remained one of many concubines ranked below the empress.
A change came in 155 BCE, when Empress Dowager Bo died. With the pressure of his respected grandmother gone, Emperor Jing quickly dismissed the empress from the arranged marriage and appointed as his heir the eldest son born from his concubines. While this was a positive step for Madam Wang, she was still far from power—her son was not the oldest of Emperor Jing’s male children. Instead, the title of heir apparent was bestowed on Liu Rong, whose mother was a certain Lady Li.
For years, Madam Wang could not escape the shadow of Lady Li. Although Emperor Jing apparently never named her as his empress, Lady Li’s position as the mother of the heir held enormous clout. Nevertheless, there were other powerful women who knew how to pull strings in the court of Emperor Jing. In particular, Empress Dowager Dou (Jing’s mother) and the Elder Princess (Liu Piao, Jing’s sister) held sway over the emperor. The former of the two, Empress Dowager Dou, seemed to restrain herself from dabbling too much in politics, with the exception of actively encouraging her husband and son to practice the virtues of Daoism. The Elder Princess, in contrast, was apparently less subdued in wielding her influence.
Shortly after Liu Rong was named heir apparent, the Elder Princess began reaching out to the heir’s mother, Lady Li. A marriage was proposed between Liu Rong and one of the Elder Princesses own daughters. Lady Li, however, was apparently jealous of the princess’ influence or she possibly saw the Elder Princess as a dangerous mother-in-law to Liu Rong. Whatever the case, Lady Li rejected the offer and did not allow her son to marry the Elder Princess’ daughter. Unfortunately for Lady Li, this was the beginning of the end for her imperial ambitions.
Liu Piao, the Elder Princess, was evidently outraged by Lady Li’s rejection and pledged to destroy the woman’s reputation. Not long after Lady Li’s fateful decision, Madam Wang received an interesting proposal—the Elder Princess suggested a marriage between her own daughter, Lady Chen, and Madam Wang’s son, Liu Che. Unlike her rival, Madam Wang accepted the offer. With their agreement reached, the Elder Princess and the concubine formed an alliance and plotted the downfall of their common foe.
The pair launched a two-prong attack against Lady Li. Elder Princess Liu Piao exploited Emperor Jing’s trust in her sisterly advice to criticize Lady Li on a daily basis, while also heaping praise on Madam Wang and her son, Liu Che. Meanwhile, Madam Wang skillfully manipulated the government ministers to a devastating effect. According to the Han historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Madam Wang successfully tricked the grand messenger into forcefully insisting to Emperor Jing that Lady Li needed to be granted the title of empress. The emperor mistakenly believed that an impatient Lady Li had put the idea in the grand messenger’s head, a thought that made the emperor very angry. Whatever the truth may have been, Emperor Jing made some drastic family reevaluations in his seventh year of rule. In 150 BCE, Emperor Jing refused to see Lady Li any longer and removed her son from the position of heir apparent. Within months, Emperor Jing declared Madam Wang to be his empress and named her son, Liu Che (future Emperor Wu, r. 141-87 BCE), as his heir.
Picture Attribution: (Chinese mural [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and pixabay.com).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.