Empress Wang (Gaozong)

Empress Wang (c. 628 – between 16 November–3 December 655[4]) was an empress of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. She was the first wife and empress of Emperor Gaozong and became empress shortly after he became emperor in 649. She, however, did not bear any sons for him and was not favored. Therefore, in apprehension that one of his concubines, Consort Xiao, who was both favored and had a son, might seek to displace her, she recommended a former concubine of Emperor Gaozong's father Emperor Taizong, Consort Wu (later known as Wu Zetian), to be Emperor Gaozong's concubine as well, hoping to divert favor from Consort Xiao. Soon, however, Consort Wu became dominant in the palace and overwhelmed both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, eventually accusing them of using witchcraft and conspiracy to poison against Emperor Gaozong. Emperor Gaozong reduced both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao to commoner rank and put them under arrest in 655, replacing Empress Wang with Consort Wu. Soon, as recorded in the New Book of Tang and Zizhi Tongjian, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were cruelly executed on the new Empress Wu's orders; Executed in one of four horrific tortures in ancient China.

Empress Wang
Empress consort of the Tang dynasty
Tenure12 February 650[1] – 16 November 655[2]
PredecessorEmpress Zhangsun
SuccessorChen Shuozhen (as self-proclaimed Empress Regnant of China)
Empress Wu (as Empress Consort, regent, Dowager, and Regnant of the Zhou Dynasty)
Bornc. 628[3]
Bing Prefecture, Tang Dynasty
Died3 December 655(655-12-03) (aged 26–27)
Chang'an, Tang Dynasty
SpouseEmperor Gaozong of Tang
FatherWang Renyou
MotherLady Liu (daughter of Liu Ze and sister of Liu Shi)


It is not known when the future Empress Wang was born, although it is known that she was from Bing Prefecture (并州, roughly modern Taiyuan, Shanxi). Her father Wang Renyou (王仁佑) was a son of Wang Sizheng (王思政), a major general for Western Wei, and during the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang, Wang Renyou served as magistrate of Luoshan County (羅山, in modern Xinyang, Henan). Emperor Taizong's aunt Princess Tong'an had married Wang Renyou's uncle Wang Yu (王裕) and had heard that Wang Renyou's daughter was both beautiful and gentle. Princess Tong'an thus recommended to Emperor Taizong that he make Lady Wang one of his daughters-in-law. Emperor Taizong agreed, taking her to be the wife and princess of his ninth son Li Zhi, the Prince of Jin. In 643, after Li Zhi became crown prince, replacing his older brother Li Chengqian (who was deposed for plotting to overthrow Emperor Taizong), Princess Wang became crown princess. Her father Wang Renyou was promoted to the post of prefect of Chen Prefecture (陳州, roughly modern Zhoukou, Henan).

As empressEdit

In 10 July 649, Emperor Taizong died,[5] and Li Zhi took the throne as Emperor Gaozong. He created Crown Princess Wang empress in spring 650. He also created her father Wang Renyou the Duke of Wei and her mother Lady Liu the Lady of Wei. Wang Renyou soon died thereafter, and was posthumously given the honor of being Sikong (司空), one of the Three Excellencies. Her uncle Liu Shi became one of the chancellors.

Despite the length of the marriage that Empress Wang had with Emperor Gaozong, she did not bear him a son, and by the time that she became empress, he had already had four sons with his concubines—and the mother of the fourth son Li Sujie, Consort Xiao, who had also given birth to two daughters (the later Princesses Yiyang and Gao'an), was particularly favored. Liu Shi suggested to Empress Wang that she suggest that Emperor Gaozong's oldest son Li Zhong, whose mother Consort Liu was of low birth, be made crown prince, so that she could be endeared to him. Empress Wang was able to persuade Emperor Gaozong's powerful uncle Zhangsun Wuji to support the plan, and in 652,[6] Li Zhong was created crown prince.

By this point, however, Empress Wang was facing a major threat from a different romantic rival. When Emperor Gaozong was crown prince, he had been attracted by the beauty of one of Emperor Taizong's concubines, Consort Wu. After Emperor Taizong's death, all of his concubines who did not bear children were housed at Ganye Temple (感業寺) to be Buddhist nuns. In either 650 or 651,[7] when Emperor Gaozong was visiting Ganye Temple to offer incense to Buddha, when he saw Consort Wu. Both of them wept. When Empress Wang heard this, she, wanting to divert Emperor Gaozong's favor from Consort Xiao, secretly instructed Consort Wu to grow her hair back, while suggesting to Emperor Gaozong that he take her as a concubine. Consort Wu was intelligent and full of machinations, and therefore, when she first returned to the palace, she acted humbly and flattered Empress Wang, who trusted her greatly and recommended her to Emperor Gaozong. Soon, Emperor Gaozong became enamored with Consort Wu. Both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao lost favor, and soon, they realized the seriousness of the situation and joined forces to try to alienate Consort Wu from Emperor Gaozong, but were unsuccessful. In particular, Empress Wang was described as being unable or unwilling to make friends among Emperor Gaozong's other concubines, ladies in waiting, and servants, a situation aggravated by the fact that her mother Lady Liu and uncle Liu Shi were disrespectful to the other concubines. By contrast, Consort Wu cultivated relationships with other concubines, ladies in waiting, and servants, particularly those that Empress Wang had offended, and she further distributed the rewards she received with them. So Consort Wu took virtual control of the palace from the hands of Empress Wang, who was in charge of it, without her getting a whiff of the matter, and Consort Wu encouraged the crew both near her and at the palace door to spy on and slander Empress Wang.

However, the situation came to a head in 654. Consort Wu had given birth to a daughter, and after birth, Empress Wang visited her. Shortly thereafter, the child was found dead and the Empress Wang accused of murdering the girl. Consort Wu took this opportunity to convince Emperor Gaozong that Empress Wang had killed their daughter and she wants to get rid of Empress Wang in this way (Historians believe that Lady Wu's ambitions were such that she killed her daughter to oust Empress Wang.)

In summer 655, Consort Wu accused Empress Wang and Lady Liu of using witchcraft to try to gain favor back for Empress Wang, and in response, Emperor Gaozong barred Lady Liu from the palace and exiled Liu Shi. Despite this, he did not immediately depose Empress Wang. In fall 655, he summoned the chancellors Zhangsun, Chu Suiliang, Li Ji, and Yu Zhining to the palace to discuss the matter—a meeting that Li Ji declined to attend. Chu fervently opposed deposing Empress Wang and pointed out that Consort Wu was previously Emperor Taizong's concubine and, therefore, taking her was considered incest. Two other chancellors not invited to the meeting, Han Yuan and Lai Ji, also submitted opposition. However, after Emperor Gaozong asked Li Ji for his opinion, Li Ji responded, "This is your family matter, Your Imperial Majesty. Why ask anyone else?" Emperor Gaozong thus became resolved to depose Empress Wang, and in winter 655—November 16[2]—both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were deposed and reduced to commoner rank. Their mothers and brothers were exiled to the modern Guangdong region, while Empress Wang's father Wang Renyou's posthumous honors were stripped.

After removalEdit

Six days after Empress Wang's removal,[8] Consort Wu was created empress. By order of the new Empress Wu, like criminals, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were put under arrest inside the palace, at a building that had its doors and windows tightly sealed, with only a hole on the wall to deliver food, and they were rarely fed. One day, after the coronation of Empress Wu, Emperor Gaozong thought of them and decided to visit them, and when he saw the conditions they were in, he was saddened, calling out, "Empress, Shufei [Consort Xiao's title], where are you?" Empress Wang wept and responded, "We have been found guilty and reduced to be maidservants. How can we still be referred to by honored titles?" She also begged, "If Your Imperial Majesty considered our past relationships and will allow us to again see the light of day, please rename this place 'Huixin Courtyard' (回心院, meaning "the courtyard of a returned heart")." Emperor Gaozong was initially receptive, responding, "I will do so right away." However, when Empress Wu heard this, she was enraged, and she by issued their death warrants, and sent people to cane Empress Wang and Consort Xiao 100 times each and cut off their hands and feet. She then had them put into large wine jars, saying, "Let these two witches be drunk to their bones!"[9] When Empress Wang was informed the orders, she bowed and stated, "May His Imperial Majesty live forever, and may Zhaoyi [(昭儀, Empress Wu's title as a concubine, implicitly refusing to acknowledge her as empress)] be favored forever. Dying is within my responsibility." However, Consort Xiao cursed Empress Wu, "Wu is a treacherous monster! May it be that I be reincarnated as a cat and she be reincarnated as a mouse, so that I can, for ever and ever, grab her throat." Empress Wang and Consort Xiao suffered for several days inside the wine jars before dying, and Empress Wu had their bodies taken out of the jars and beheaded. (When Empress Wu heard of Consort Xiao's curse, she forbade the palace personnel from keeping cats as pets, and even ordered the banning of cats as pets in the capital, Chang'an, but thereafter often dreamed of Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, with scattered hair and bleeding limbs, seeking to kill her. She thereafter initially moved to Penglai Palace (蓬萊宮), but continued to dream of them, and therefore eventually spent most of her time in the eastern capital Luoyang and not in the capital Chang'an, where these events occurred.) Soon after Empress Wang's and Consort Xiao's deaths, at Empress Wu's urging, Emperor Gaozong also had Empress Wang's and her clan's surname changed to Mang (蟒, meaning "boa constrictor") and Consort Xiao's and her clan's surname changed to Xiao (梟, meaning "owl"). Only after Empress Wu's own death in 705 were their clans' proper surnames restored.

However, it is controversial that Empress Wang was allowed to suffer the torture for a few days, to her death. Another assumption is that Empress Wang was strangled to death with Emperor Gaozong's approval.

Modern depictionsEdit

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. ^ Volume 199 of Zizhi Tongjian recorded that Wang was made empress on the bingwu day of the 1st month of the 1st year of the Yonghui era of Tang Gaozong's reign. This date corresponds to 12 Feb 650 on the Gregorian calendar [(永徽元年)春,正月,...丙午,立妃王氏为皇后。]
  2. ^ a b Volume 200 of Zizhi Tongjian recorded that the deposition of Empress Wang and Consort Xiao took place on the jiyou day of the 10th month of the 6th year of the Yonghui era of Tang Gaozong's reign, which corresponds to 16 Nov 655 on the Gregorian calendar. [(永徽六年)冬,十月,己酉,下诏称:“王皇后、萧淑妃谋行鸩毒,废为庶人,母及兄弟,并除名,流岭南。”]
  3. ^ Historical sources did not indicate the year of Empress Wang's birth.
  4. ^ The last recorded activity involving Empress Wang and Consort Xiao in Zizhi Tongjian with a defined date was their deposition in volume 200. This took place on the jiyou day of the 10th month of the 6th year of the Yonghui era of Tang Gaozong's reign, which corresponds to 16 Nov 655 on the Gregorian calendar. ((永徽六年)冬,十月,己酉,下诏称:“王皇后、萧淑妃谋行鸩毒,废为庶人,母及兄弟,并除名,流岭南。”) Volume 51 of the Old Book of Tang recorded that both women were strangled in the 10th month of the 6th year of the Yonghui era of Tang Gaozong's reign; said month ends on 3 December 655 in the Gregorian calendar. (永徽六年十月,废后及萧良娣皆为庶人,囚之别院。武昭仪令人皆缢杀之)
  5. ^ According to Taizong's and Gaozong's biographies in the Old Book of Tang, Taizong died on the jisi day in the 5th month of the 23rd year of the Zhenguan era of his reign. This date corresponds to 10 Jul 649 on the Gregorian calendar. [(贞观)二十三年五月己巳,太宗崩。] Old Book of Tang, vol.4.
  6. ^ Volume 86 of the Old Book of Tang recorded that Li Zhong was made crown prince in the 3rd year of the Yonghui era of Tang Gaozong's reign. [(永徽)三年,立忠为皇太子]
  7. ^ The modern historian Bo Yang, based on the fact that Empress Wu's oldest son Li Hong was born in 652, fixed the date of this incident as 650, but 651 is also a possibility. See Bo Yang Edition of Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 47.
  8. ^ Volume 200 of Zizhi Tongjian recorded that Wu was made empress on the yimao day of the same month as Empress Wang's deposition, which was 6 days later.
  9. ^ This account is per the New Book of Tang, which the Zizhi Tongjian accepted, but the Old Book of Tang indicated that they were strangled. Compare New Book of Tang, vol. 76 "唐書 列傳 第一至十". Archived from the original on 2008-02-19. Retrieved 2008-02-19. and Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 200. (永徽六年十月,废后及萧良娣皆为庶人,囚之别院。武昭仪令人皆缢杀之) Old Book of Tang, vol. 51 .
Chinese royalty
Preceded by Empress consort of the Tang dynasty
650 – 27 November 655
Succeeded by