Many ancient Chinese consorts and concubines in the courts of emperors and kings undoubtedly led dramatic lives, but few women shared the bizarre experiences of Lady Nao. While most concubines spent a lifetime jostling with rival women in the harem of a single ruler, Lady Nao became a favored concubine of at least three different kings. What made Lady Nao’s life even more dramatic, however, was that the three kings she served were all closely related.
Little is known of Lady Nao’s origin, but she eventually became a concubine of King Liu Fei, a son of Emperor Jing, who was appointed first as the ruler of Runan, then Jiangdu, from around 155 to 129 BCE. Liu Fei was an accomplished general and when he was not flexing his muscles on the battlefield, he could be found planning the construction of new palaces and towers in his kingdom. During his reign, Lady Nao steadily worked her way up the ranks of the palace women, eventually becoming Liu Fei’s favorite concubine sometime before the king’s death around 129 BCE.
Evidently, Lady Nao was not only favored by the late King Liu Fei, but also by his heir, Liu Qian. Said to have been a man of wicked character, Liu Qian reportedly began his reign by dragging Lady Nao into scandal. The historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) wrote, “He [Liu Qian] had also developed a great liking for his father’s favorite concubine, Lady Nao; after his father died, but before the funeral had even taken place, he sent someone at night to fetch Lady Nao and had relations with her in the mourning quarters where he was staying” (Shi Ji, 59). King Liu Qian kept Lady Nao as a concubine, and once again she became one of the king’s favorite palace women. Yet, Liu Qian’s reign quickly descended into madness and he was accused of all sorts of misdeeds. From nefarious magic, to incest and treasonous plotting, there were few crimes that were not pinned on Liu Qian. The scandalous king eventually committed suicide around 122 BCE, when agents of Emperor Wu arrived in his kingdom to investigate the charges.
Sometime after the suicide of Liu Qian, Lady Nao was invited to the court of a third king, Liu Pengzu of Zhao. Awkwardly, he was the half-brother of Liu Fei and an uncle of Liu Qian. Nevertheless, the long-lived King Liu Pengzu reportedly treated Lady Nao with great affection and gave her some much-needed stability. Liu Pengzu continued to rule until around 100 BCE or later, and no further information was recorded about Lady Nao while she remained in his kingdom.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Woman from a depiction of Qingming in peace, c. Ming dynasty (1368–1644), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.