Many empresses in Chinese history played significant roles. Often referred to by scholars as “secondary monarchs,” they played different roles (good or bad) in histories of the dynasties. Here is a list of top 10 most famous empresses in Chinese history.
1. Empress Lv Zhi 吕雉 (241 BC – 180 BC)
Lv Zhi, commonly known as Empress Lü, was the empress consort of Emperor Gaozu Liu Bang, the founder and first ruler of the Han Dynasty. Lv Zhi was considered as a ruthless, unfeeling and cruel empress. After Emperor Gaozu’s death she had Concubine Qi, whom she deeply hated, put to death in a cruel manner. She also had Concubine Qi’s son Liu Ruyi poisoned to death. Also she was responsible for the deaths of Han Xin. Lv Zhi dominated the political scene for 15 years until her death in 180 BC.
2. Empress Jia Nanfeng 贾南风 (257–300)
Empress Jia was first wife of Emperor Hui of Jin Dynasty (265–420). She is remembered for her endless plotting and ambition as well as the levels of violence that she was prepared to use. She provoked the War of the Eight Princes, leading to the Wu Hu rebellions and the Jin family’s loss of northern and central China.
3. Empress Zhangsun 长孙皇后 (601-July 28, 636)
Empress Zhangsun was the wife of Emperor Taizong and the mother of Emperor Gaozong in Chinese dynasty Tang Dynasty. Empress Zhangsun’s valuable contribution to China’s prosperity and stability in the early seventh century won her the name “good assistant to the emperor to Taizong,” a name she justly deserved as she was one of the best empresses in imperial China.
4. Wu Zetian 武则天 (625-705)
Wu Zetian is a famous empress and the only female emperor in Chinese fuedal history. She was the empress of Emperor Gaozong in Chinese Tang Dynasty. Se was considered an autocrat, ruthless in her desire to gain and keep power. And she was also a woman doing a “man’s job,” she managed to effectively rule China during one of its more peaceful and culturally diverse periods.
5. Empress Wei 韦皇后 (died July 21, 710)
Empress Wei was the second wife of Emperor Zhongzong, who reigned twice, and during his second reign, she tried to emulate the example of her mother-in-law Wu Zetian and seize power. After Emperor Zhongzong’s death in 710—a death traditionally believed to be a poisoning she carried out together with her daughter Li Guo’er the Princess Anle—which gave her the power to become the empress dowager, but in just a short time she was overthrown and killed by Emperor Zhongzong’s nephew Li Longji and Emperor Zhongzong’s sister Princess Taiping.
6. Empress Xiao 萧皇后 (566 – 648)
Empress Xiao was an empress of the Chinese Sui Dynasty. Her husband was Emperor Yang of Sui. Princess Xiao was said to be meek and intelligent, and she was talented both in reading text and in fortunetelling. Empress Xiao She charmed six monarchs with her glamour in warring times and survived the ups and downs of the dynasty change. Eventually, she was buried with honor after the bitterness she had suffered through the years.
7. Empress Gao (1032–1093) 高皇后
Empress Gao was a Chinese Empress consort of the Song Dynasty, married to Emperor Yingzong of Song. After emperor Yingzong died Emperor Shenzong succeeded to the throne. Gao was honored as Empress Dowager. Emperor Shenzong was ill in his later years, so Empress Dowager Gao held court from behind a screen. “In the nine years when the empress dowager managed state affairs, the court was peaceful and the country was stable,” according to historical records.
8. Empress Ma 马皇后(1333-1382)
Empress Ma married Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder and first emperor of Ming Dynasty. When Zhu Yuanzhang was at war she made clothes and shoes for soldiers to support her husband’s military campaign. Hence Zhu Yuanzhang appreciated and respected her very much when he came to the throne, and often adopted her suggestions and advices while governing the country. Emperor Zhu made several attempts to look for her cognation to offer official posts for them, only to be refused by Empress Ma. In treating ministers and generals of outstanding military achievements, she also advised Zhu not to slaughter them.
9. Empress Xiaoduan Wen 孝庄文皇后 (1600 – 1649
Empress Xiaoduanwen, one of the Mongol Borjigit clan, was the first Empress Consort of Hong Taiji of the Qing Dynasty. She was also honored as Mother of the Qing Dynasty by later generations, had assisted three emperors in her lifetime. During that period, the Qing Dynasty was undergoing a crucial transition from turmoil to stability. She tried hard to help the emperors reconcile the conflicts and strife within the imperial court, maintain social order and promote the unification of the country in the earlier years of the Qing Dynasty. Thus, she made great contributions in helping the emperors consolidate their ruling in the Central Plains.
10. Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 (1835 —1908)
Empress Dowager Cixi was consort of the Xianfeng emperor, mother of the Tongzhi emperor, adoptive mother of the Guangxu emperor, and a towering presence over the Chinese empire for almost half a century. Ruling through a clique of conservative, corrupt officials and maintaining authority over the Manchu imperial house, she became one of the most powerful women in the history of China.