Empress Wang (Gaozong)

Empress Wang
Empress Consort of the Tang Dynasty
Tenure 650–27 November 655
Predecessor Empress Zhangsun
Successor Heavenly Empress Wu
Born Bing Prefecture, Tang Dynasty
Died 655
Chang'an, Tang Dynasty
Spouse Emperor Gaozong of Tang
House Wang (noble family; by birth)
House of Li (by marriage)
Father Wang Renyou
Mother Lady Liu[1]

Empress Wang (王玉燕) (died approximately 655 AD.[2]) was an empress of the Chinese dynasty 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 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, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were executed on the new Empress Wu's orders.


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. She thus recommended to Emperor Taizong that he make her one of his daughters-in-law, and 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 empress

In 649, Emperor Taizong died, 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 the support the plan, and in 652, 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,[3] 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.

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.

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 27[4]—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 removal

Six days after Empress Wang's removal, Consort Wu was created empress. 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. One day, 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 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!"[5] 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, 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 able to suffer the torture for few days to death. Another assumption is that Empress Wang was hanged to death upon emperor's approval.

Titles from birth to death

Notes and references

  1. Daughter of Liu Ze
  2. The timing of Empress Wang's and Consort Xiao's deaths was not clearly indicated in the Old Book of Tang and the New Book of Tang. The Zizhi Tongjian placed their deaths in 655. See Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 200.
  3. 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.
  4. 兩千年中西曆轉換
  5. 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 and Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 200 with Old Book of Tang, vol. 51 .
Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Zhangsun
Empress of Tang Dynasty
Succeeded by
Wu Zetian
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