Though an often overlooked aspect of Chinese history, empresses played important roles in the past and were often very influential in the politics of their time. Empresses usually rose from humble beginnings and found favor with the emperor’s court because of their beauty and clever wit. Eventually, they would be promoted from concubines to empresses by the emperor himself.
Perhaps the most famous Chinese empress of all time was Cixi (also known as Tzu-Hsi), called a ‘dowager empress’ because she seized control of the government after her husband, the emperor, died. Her son was only 5 years old when he claimed the throne, and Cixi, having been appointed one of his regents and possessing great influence, was able to control the government secretly through her son. Empress Cixi reigned through the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and was a key figure in modernizing and reforming China at that time.
Mystery, intrigue and turmoil often surrounded the reigns of Chinese empresses, who usually ruled underhandedly or by force after their husbands died. For instance, Empress Liang Na put too much trust in her brother, Liang Ji, who eventually poisoned the newly crowned emperor who was only 7 years old. Another Empress, Yan Ji of the East Han Dynasty, was corrupt and fearful of losing power. She poisoned a rival concubine and, after a series of battles, lost power and was confined to her palace until her death.
One empress that has always been regarded positively in Chinese history is Dou Yi of the Western Han Dynasty. Empress Dou was a firm proponent of Daoism and influenced her son and husband, who were both emperors during her lifetime, to follow its tenets, especially the respect of nature and thriftiness of life. Empress Dou was one of the earliest female political figures in China and still holds certain affection among the Chinese for her views.
Throughout the 5,000 years of Chinese history, many empresses have held sway at one time or another. Although during some periods there were few women in power, other eras saw the rise and fall of dozens of empresses. The most famous of these have now been honored, and sometimes fictionalized, in Chinese folklore, and also appear in artwork like scroll paintings and vases.