Empress Xiaoyuan (孝元皇后)

Empress Wang Zhengjun

(Chinese: 王政君; 71 BC – 13 AD)

 

She was officially known as the Empress Xiaoyuan (孝元皇后), later and more commonly known as Grand Empress Dowager Wang, born in Yuancheng (modern Handan, Hebei), was an empress during the Western Han dynasty of China, who played important roles during the reigns of five successive Han emperors—her husband, her son, her two step-grandsons, and her step-great-grandnephew—

Later (according to traditional historians, unwittingly) led to the usurpation of the throne by her nephew Wang Mang. She is largely viewed sympathetically by historians as an unassuming and benevolent if overly doting woman who suffered much in her long life, who tried to influence the empire as well as she could, and who was not a party to her nephew’s machinations, but whose failure, leading to the downfall of the Western Han Dynasty, was her over dependence on her clan (the Wangs).

Marriage 

In the middle of the 50s BC, Consort Sima, the favorite consort of Crown Prince Liu Shi (later Emperor Yuan) died from an illness. Crown Prince Shi was grief-stricken and became ill and depressed himself. His father, Emperor Xuan, was concerned, so he had his wife, Empress Wang (unrelated to Wang Zhengjun) select the most beautiful of the young ladies in waiting and had them sent to Crown Prince Shi.

Wang Zhengjun was one of the ladies in waiting chosen. She bore him his firstborn son, Liu Ao (later Emperor Cheng) circa 51 BC. Prince Ao became Emperor Xuan’s favorite grandson and often accompanied him.

In 49 BC, Emperor Xuan died, and Crown Prince Shi became emperor. In 48 BC, he created then-Consort Wang, as the mother of his firstborn son, empress. Her father was created the Marquess of Yangping. (His title was later inherited by his son and Empress Wang’s brother Wang Feng (王鳳), who would later play a large role in government.)

During The Reign Of  Emperor Yuan

In 47 BC, Emperor Yuan created Prince Ao, Empress Wang’s son, Crown Prince.

 

During The Reign Of Emperor Cheng

After the death of Emperor Yuan and the accession of Emperor Cheng, Empress Wang became Empress Dowager. As Empress Dowager, Empress Dowager Wang was kind but overly doting on her son and her brothers. Emperor Cheng was very trusting of his uncles (Empress Dowager Wang’s brothers) and put them in important roles in government.

During The Reign Of Ai

When Emperor Ai ascended the throne, Empress Dowager Wang received the title that she is later most known for—Grand Empress Dowager Wang. Initially, out of respect for her, Emperor Ai, while consolidating his own power base, left the Wangs, including Wang Mang, largely in the posts that they had been in.

However, the influences of Emperor Ai’s grandmother Consort Fu would soon be shown. Consort Fu was not content with her title of Princess Dowager of Dingtao; rather, she also wanted to be empress dowager. Grand Empress Dowager Wang was willing to let her have the title, and it was by her edicts that Consort Fu was also given the title Grand Empress Dowager (with a difference—Fu had the unique title, not again to be used, of Ditaitaihou (帝太太后) compared with Wang’s regular title of Taihuangtaihou (太皇太后)); in an analogous manner, Emperor Ai’s mother Consort Ding was also given the title of Empress Dowager (Ditaihou, 帝太后; cf. Zhao Feiyan’s title of Huangtaihou, 皇太后)).

Consort Fu was not content with titles, however, but did everything she could to control her grandson’s administration. Part of her agenda involved the removal of the Wangs from government. Grand Empress Dowager Wang had no desire to contend with Fu, however, and voluntarily ordered members of the Wang family to resign and turn over power to the Fus and the Dings. Her humility and willingness to yield greatly impressed the people and the officials in government, and as the incompetence of Emperor Ai became apparent, the people and the officials—who were largely against the Wangs during the reign of Emperor Cheng—all clamored for the return of the Wangs. This yearning came partly from a thorough miscarriage of justice perpetrated by Consort Fu in 6 BC when she, still bearing a grudge from her struggles with her former romantic rival Consort Feng Yuan (who by that time was Princess Dowager of Zhongshan and the grandmother of Prince Liu Jizi of Zhongshan), falsely accused Consort Feng of practicing magic, forced her to commit suicide, and executed and exiled a large number of her family. In response, in 2 BC, Emperor Ai recalled Wang Mang to the capital to attend to Grand Empress Dowager Wang.

In 1 BC, Emperor Ai died without an heir, and this left the imperial household in immediate turmoil—during which Grand Empress Dowager Wang would play an important role.

During The Reign Of Wang Mang

Wang Mang initially wanted to abolish Grand Empress Dowager Wang’s title and give her a new title, but she immediately indicated that she was greatly offended at his suggestion. In response, he kept her title but gave her an additional one — Wenmu (文母), implying that she was a cofounder of his dynasty. She never acknowledged the new dynasty, and when Wang Mang changed the calendar and the holidays as well as the uniform of the imperial household attendants, she ordered her ladies in waiting to continue to observe the Han calendar and wear the Han uniforms. He tried to attend to her needs earnestly to try to please her, but his attempts failed.

Circa 12, Wang Mang destroyed Emperor Yuan’s temple and built another one, intended for Grand Empress Dowager Wang after her death. When she found out that her husband’s temple had been destroyed, she was greatly saddened and cursed Wang Mang. She died in the spring of 13, and Wang Mang buried her, as was customary, in the same tomb as Emperor Yuan, but dug a trench between her and Emperor Yuan.

Reference:

  • Yap, Joseph P. (2009). Wars With The Xiongnu, A Translation from Zizhi tongjian. AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.A. ISBN 978-1-4490-0604-4. Chapters 11-16.
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