Wei Zifu and her younger brother, Wei Qing, were children of Dame Wei, a concubine or lady-in-waiting who lived in the household of the marquis of Pingyang. Although the two siblings would eventually rise to the highest levels of Chinese society, they began their lives in humble stations—Wei Zifu became a singing girl in Princess Pingyang’s household, while Wei Qing worked as a servant.
Princess Pingyang was the sister of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), and the emperor one day decided to pay his sister a visit. Upon the emperor’s arrival, Princess Pingyang wined and dined him, throwing a feast in his honor. As well as food and drink, the princess also provided entertainment. The highlight of the evening was a song performed by Wei Zifu, a performance which left Emperor Wu completely smitten with the singer. Wei Zifu reportedly encouraged his interest and, as Emperor Wu’s historian and palace secretary put it, the emperor “bestowed his favour on her” before the day was done (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 49). Thoroughly pleased with the singing girl’s company, Emperor Wu arranged with Princess Pingyang for Wei Zifu to be sent to the imperial palace.
Although Wei Zifu had caught the emperor’s eye and was invited to the palace, that did not mean that she was the only woman in the emperor’s life. Quite the contrary, Emperor Wu already had an empress, Chen Jiao, whom he had married for a political alliance that put him on the throne. In addition to Empress Chen’s presence, there were many other concubines in the palace who could threaten Wei Zifu’s position.
While Wei Zifu battled it out with rival concubines and the empress for Emperor Wu’s affection, her brother, Wei Qing, slowly began to climb the social ladder back in Pingyang. He eventually left his job as a servant and momentarily became a shepherd. Yet, he disliked the occupation and once again sought out different work. He finally found his calling by joining the military, eventually becoming a horseman in service to the marquis of Pingyang. At this time, Wei Qing had no fame or recognition in the Han Empire—to his peers, he was just a common warrior. Nevertheless, despite his low profile, one powerful woman sent men to hunt down Wei Qing. The woman in question was Empress Chen, and her intentions for the young horseman were not pleasant.
From around 139-130 BCE, Empress Chen and Wei Zifu clashed for Emperor Wu’s attention. The former singing-girl had some advantages in the battle; besides her endearing personality, enticing physique and beautiful voice, Wei Zifu also had a quality that would drive any monarch mad—she was fertile. During the rival women’s near-decade battle, Wei Zifu bore Emperor Wu three daughters, whereas Empress Chen produced no children. The empress knew that if Wei Zifu ever gave birth to a boy, then the emperor would gladly and without any reservation proclaim Wei Zifu to be the new empress. Therefore, Empress Chen’s stress grew each time Wei Zifu became pregnant. Before long, Empress Chen became so distraught that she sent out agents to scour the empire for blackmail or leverage to use against Wei Zifu. As a result of this intelligence gathering, the empress learned of Wei Qing and she ultimately decided to have him kidnapped.
Empress Chen’s henchmen captured Wei Qing with ease and hauled him off to an unknown location. It is not known how long Wei Qing was held hostage, and similarly vague are the conditions Empress Chen wanted in exchange for his release. Whatever the case, Wei Zifu reportedly refused to meet the empress’ demands. After the concubine’s steadfast refusal, Empress Chen eventually ordered her henchmen to kill poor Wei Qing. Yet, as the story goes, Wei Qing’s worried friends in the army were able to track down the kidnappers and free their comrade before any serious harm was done. Once the hostage was free, a report of the incident was brought to the emperor, who found Empress Chen’s conduct displeasing. In the aftermath of the odd episode, Emperor Wu lavished rewards and titles on Wei Zifu’s relations. Her brother, the kidnapped Wei Qing, was especially favored—he became a superintendent of the palace guard and then a palace counselor.
Empress Chen eventually was deposed from her position in 130 BCE, a dramatic fall that was in high contrast to the ascendance of Wei Zifu and Wei Qing. In 129 BCE, Wei Qing achieved the rank of general in the military and by 124 BCE, he had become the general-in-chief of Emperor Wu’s forces. His sister, Wei Zifu, became a top contender for Emperor Wu’s affection after the ousting of Empress Chen and she eventually became the new empress in 128 BCE, after giving birth to a son named Liu Ju.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Mural from the Dahuting Tomb of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, excavated in 1960-1961, [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.