Daughter of Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei

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Daughter of Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei
10th Emperor of Northern Wei
Reign1 April 528
PredecessorEmperor Xiaoming
SuccessorYuan Zhao
Born12 February 528
Luoyang, Northern Wei
(present-day Luoyang, Henan, China)
Full name
Family name: Yuan (元)
Given name: Unknown
Era name and dates
Wutai (武泰): 1st month – 4th month, 528[note 1] (Chinese calendar)
February – June, 528 (Gregorian calendar)
FatherEmperor Xiaoming
MotherPan Wailian

The unnamed daughter of Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei (12 February 528 – ?) was briefly the emperor of Northern Wei (386–534), a Xianbei dynasty that ruled Northern China from the late fourth to the early sixth century AD. She bore the surname Yuan (Chinese: ; pinyin: Yuán), originally Tuoba.[note 2] Yuan was the only child of Emperor Xiaoming (r. 515–528), born to his concubine Consort Pan. Soon after her birth, her grandmother the Empress Dowager Hu, who was also Xiaoming's regent, falsely declared that she was a boy and ordered a general pardon. Emperor Xiaoming died soon afterwards. On 1 April 528, Empress Dowager Hu installed the infant on the throne for a matter of hours before replacing her with Yuan Zhao the next day. Xiaoming's daughter was not recognised as an emperor (huangdi) by later generations. No further information about her is available.[3]


Empress Dowager Hu (d. 528), known posthumously as Empress Dowager Ling, was originally one of Emperor Xuanwu's (483–515, r. 499–515) consorts; she gave birth to his only living heir Yuan Xu (510–528). Following Xuanwu's death, Yuan Xu ascended the throne as Emperor Xiaoming, and Hu was honoured as Consort Dowager, and soon Empress Dowager.[4] Because Emperor Xiaoming was still young, she became his regent.[4] To exert her power as the highest ruler of Northern Wei, she addressed herself as Zhen (Chinese: ; pinyin: Zhèn), a first-person pronoun reserved for use by the emperor after the Qin dynasty. Officials addressed her as Bixia (Chinese: 陛下; pinyin: Bìxià), an honorific used when addressing the emperor directly.[5]

When Emperor Xiaoming grew up, however, his mother refused to hand authority over to him. She successfully eliminated many of her opponents, including favourites of the emperor.[6] The ancient Chinese historians who wrote the official history of the Northern Wei portrayed her as promiscuous.[7] Both her lifestyle and her ruling style elicited widespread dissatisfaction among officials and from her son.[8] Emperor Xiaoming gathered the people to oppose her and executed her lover Yuan Yi (元怿) in 520,[9] causing deep hatred from his mother.[10] After several failed attempts to overthrow the empress dowager, Xiaoming secretly ordered General Erzhu Rong to send troops to the capital Luoyang to coerce her into handing over the authority.[11] When she learned about the plot, she discussed strategies with the officials who supported her.[12]

As these events were occurring, on 12 February 528, Consort Pan, one of Emperor Xiaoming's nine concubines, gave birth to a daughter.[13][14] Empress Dowager Hu falsely declared that the child was a son;[13] she issued an edict the following day, ordering a general pardon and changing the emperor's reign title from Xiaochang (孝昌) to Wutai (武泰).[15][16]

Accession to the throne[edit]

On 31 March 528, Emperor Xiaoming suddenly died in Xianyang Palace (显阳殿).[17] The following day (1 April 528), Empress Dowager Hu declared the 50-day-old baby girl Yuan the new emperor, while she herself continued to be regent.[18] She ordered another general pardon. As the year of Emperor Xiaoming's reign had not ended, the era name was not changed and the name "Wutai" remained in use. Empress Dowager Hu continued to be effectively in power.[18]


Just a few hours later,[citation needed] Empress Dowager Hu issued an edict[19][20] to dethrone the infant Emperor and declared that Yuan was a girl. She placed Yuan Zhao—son of the deceased Yuan Baohui (元宝晖), Prince of Lintao—on the throne instead.[21] Yuan Zhao ascended the throne on 2 April 528, the day after Empress Dowager Hu issued the edict.[22]

As he was too young to rule, Yuan Zhao was made a puppet emperor under Empress Dowager Hu.[23] The series of events involving her son's death and the installation of the infant girl and the three-year-old Yuan Zhao on the throne occurred to ensure the continuation of her regency.[23]


Because Empress Dowager Hu replaced the emperor in an unbridled manner, General Erzhu Rong sent in troops to overthrow her, stating that she had deceived Heaven as well as the Imperial Court by letting the infant girl succeed to the throne.[24] Erzhu Rong made Yuan Ziyou (507–531) emperor.[25] Not long after, Erzhu Rong sent troops to occupy the capital Luoyang, and Empress Dowager Hu and Yuan Zhao were held captive. They were delivered to his camp at Heyin (河阴). Empress Dowager Hu begged him for mercy, but he refused and had her and Yuan Zhao drowned in the Yellow River.[26] Erzhu later killed thousands of Han Chinese officials and their families who had served at the Northern Wei court during her regency.[27][28] This massacre is known as the Heyin Incident (河阴之变).[29] Erzhu Rong became the highest authority of the empire. From that time on, political power fell into the hands of powerful ministers and warlords. Gao Huan and Yuwen Tai were generals during the Erzhu Rong era who respectively controlled Eastern Wei and Western Wei following the split of the dynasty,[30] while Erzhu controlled the northern part of the empire. This division eventually led to the downfall of the dynasty.[28]

For the acts she committed during her regency, Empress Dowager Hu was discredited and became infamous in history for causing the downfall of the dynasty.[31][32]


Yuan's status as an emperor (huangdi) remains controversial and is not recognised by many. Official historical records have never listed her as a legitimate sovereign because she was a puppet under Empress Dowager Hu and reigned for less than a day. She was also an impostor for the throne as a boy. Hence, Wu Zetian remains as the first and only recognised female huangdi in Chinese history.[33] Researcher Cheng Yang (成扬) believes that the fact that Yuan was the "first female in history to ascend the imperial throne" cannot be denied despite it being a plot by Empress Dowager Hu. According to Cheng, Wu Zetian was not the only female huangdi, but the only one to have reigned over the empire.[34] Luo Yuanzhen (罗元贞), another researcher on Wu, thinks that modern historians should not acknowledge Yuan's title as Huangdi as ancient Chinese historians did not.[33]


  • Parents:
    • Yuan Xu, Emperor Xiaoming (孝明皇帝 元詡; 510–528)
    • Chonghua, of the Pan clan (充華 潘氏), personal name Wailian (外憐)

In fiction and popular culture[edit]

Yuan briefly appeared in Chapter 47—Xiao Baoyin's rebellion and capture by Erzhu Rong (Chinese: 萧宝夤称尊叛命 尔朱荣抗表兴师) of the Romance of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (Chinese: 南北史演义) of Republic of China novelist Cai Dongfan's Popular Romance of Dynasties (Chinese: 历朝通俗演义); the story largely conforms with the historical account.[35]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ This was the last era name of Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei. After his death, it remained in use during the short reigns of his daughter and Yuan Zhao.[1]
  2. ^ The surname of the Wei ruling family was changed from Tuoba to Yuan by Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471–499).[2]


  1. ^ Chen (陳), Junqiang (俊強); Gao (高), Mingshi (明士) (2005). 皇恩浩蕩: 皇帝統治的另一面 [Infinite Royal Graciousness: The Other Side of an Emperor's Reign] (in Chinese). Wu-Nan Book Inc. (五南圖書出版股份有限公司). p. 305. ISBN 9571139947. Retrieved 2014-05-25.
  2. ^ Lei (雷), Haifeng (海锋) (2013). 历代经典文丛——处事绝学 [Ancient Classics – Secrets of doing things] (in Chinese). Green Apple Data Center. p. 302. Retrieved 2014-05-25.
  3. ^ 历史上短命的皇帝有哪些 [Short-lived emperors in history]. Shangdu.com (in Chinese). Henan Culture Web (河南文化网). 2013-07-16. Archived from the original on 2013-12-02. Retrieved 2013-11-17.
  4. ^ a b Imz (2007-09-21). "Ups and Downs of Empress Dowager Hu of the Northern Wei Dynasty". www.womenofchina.cn. Retrieved 2013-11-20.
  5. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 13, "Biographies of Empresses" (後改令稱詔,羣臣上書曰陛下,自稱曰朕).
  6. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 13, "Biographies of Empresses" (太后自以行不修,惧宗室所嫌,于是内为朋党,防蔽耳目,肃宗所亲幸者,太后多以事害焉).
  7. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 13, "Biographies of Empresses" (时太后得志,逼幸清河王怿,淫乱肆情,为天下所恶).
  8. ^ LAU Lai Ming; Priscilla Ching-chung (2007). "Hu, Consort of Emperor Xuanwu of Northern Wei". In Lily Xiao Hong Lee; A. D. Stefanowska (editors-in-chief) (eds.). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E.-618 C.E. M.E. Sharpe Inc. p. 298. ISBN 978-0-7656-1750-7.
  9. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 22 (正光元年七月,叉與劉騰逼肅宗於顯陽殿,閉靈太后於後宮,囚懌於門下省,誣懌罪狀,遂害之,時年三十四。)
  10. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 13, "Biographies of Empresses" (时太后得志,逼幸清河王怿,淫乱肆情,为天下所恶...于禁中杀怿...胡氏多免黜...母子之间,嫌隙屡起).
  11. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152 (密诏荣举兵内向,欲以胁太后).
  12. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 13, "Biographies of Empresses" (郑俨虑祸,乃与太后计...).
  13. ^ a b Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152 (乙丑,魏潘嫔生女,胡太后诈言皇子).
  14. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 9, "Basic Annals of Suzong IX" (乙丑...皇女生,祕言皇子).
  15. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152 (丙寅,大赦,改元武泰).
  16. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 13, "Biographies of Empresses" (母子之间,嫌隙屡起。郑俨虑祸,乃与太后计,因潘充华生女,太后诈以为男,便大赦改年).
  17. ^ 北朝研究 [Research on the Northern Dynasties] (in Chinese). 平城北朝研究会. 1993. p. 42. Retrieved 2014-05-25. 武泰元年(528年)二月,肃宗暴崩于显阳殿。
  18. ^ a b Book of WeiBiographies of EmpressesBiography of Empress Ling (太后乃奉潘嫔女言太子即位).
  19. ^ Book of WeiBasic Annals of Suzong
  20. ^ History of the Northern DynastiesBasic Annals of Wei IVBasic Annals of Suzong, Emperor Xiaoming
  21. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152 (潘充华本实生女,故临洮王宝晖世子钊,体自高祖,宜膺大宝。百官文武加二阶,宿卫加三阶).
  22. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152 (甲寅,太后立皇女为帝...乙卯,钊即位).
  23. ^ a b Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152 (钊始生三岁,太后欲久专政,故贪其幼而立之).
  24. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 152 (又以皇女为储两,虚行赦宥。上欺天地,下惑朝野).
  25. ^ Mei (梅), Yi (毅) (2008). 華麗血時代:兩晉南北朝的另類歷史(下) [History of Jins and Northern and Southern Dynasties (II)] (in Chinese). Hyweb Technology Co. Ltd. p. 173. ISBN 9866410099. Retrieved 2014-05-25.
  26. ^ Book of Wei, vol. 13, "Biographies of Empresses" (荣遣骑拘送太后及幼主于河阴。太后对荣多所陈说,荣拂衣而起。太后及幼主并沉于河).
  27. ^ Lily Xiao Hong Lee; A. D. Stefanowska; Sue Wiles, eds. (2007). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E.-618 C.E. M.E. Sharpe Inc. p. 299. ISBN 978-0-7656-1750-7. Retrieved 2013-11-20.
  28. ^ a b Keith McMahon (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-4422-2290-8. Retrieved 2013-11-20.
  29. ^ Xie (谢), Zhiqiang (志强) (2013). 不可不知的万事由来 [The Origin of All Things You May Not Know] (in Chinese). Green Apple Data Center. p. 19. Retrieved 2014-05-25.
  30. ^ Whiting, Marvin C. (2002). Imperial Chinese Military History: 8000 BC-1912 AD. Writers Club Press (iUniverse). pp. 235–236. ISBN 0595221343. Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  31. ^ "灵后妇人专制。" History of the Northern DynastiesBiographies of Imperial Consorts
  32. ^ 宋其蕤 (Song Qirui). "Chapter 4: 亡国艳后:胡灵皇后" [The Infamous Empress Dowager Hu]. 北魏女主论 [Female Supremacy of Northern Wei] (in Chinese). 中国社会科学出版社 (China Social Sciences Press). ISBN 7-5004-5904-1.
  33. ^ a b Was Wu Zetian China's only female huangdi? (Chinese: 武则天是不是中国的唯一女皇?) of the appendix of Collections of Wu Zetian by Luo Yuanzhen (罗元贞), Shanxi People's Press, 1987, cited from the Historical Knowledge (Chinese: 历史知识) magazine, 1985 Issue 5, Chengdu, China
  34. ^ 成扬 (Cheng Yang) (1985-09-20). "中国历史上的第一个女皇帝" [First Empress regnant of China]. 历史知识 (Historical Knowledge). Chengdu, China. 1985 (5): 35.
  35. ^ Cai Dongfan. 萧宝夤称尊叛命 尔朱荣抗表兴师 [Xiao Baoyin's rebellion and capture by Erzhu Rong]. 南北史演义 [Romance of the Northern and Southern Dynasties] (in Chinese). Bookfree.com.cn. Archived from the original on 2013-12-26. Retrieved 2013-11-17.

Further reading[edit]

  • 史海阳 (Shi Haiyang). "北魏宣武帝胡皇后" [Empress Hu, wife of Emperor Xuanwu of Northern Wei]. 中国皇后传 [Biography of Empresses of China] (in Chinese). 中国人事出版社 (China Personnel Press). ISBN 7-80139-000-8.
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor Xiaoming of Northern Wei
Emperor of Northern Wei
Succeeded by
Yuan Zhao