|Tenure 128–90 BC|
Died 91 BC, Chang'an
Name Empress Zifu
|Mother Madam Wei (衛媼)|
Predecessor Empress Chen
Spouse Emperor Wu of Han
|Successor Grand Empress Dowager Shangguan|
Children Liu Ju, Princess Zhuyi, Princess Yangshi, Princess Wei the Eldest
Siblings Wei Qing, Wei Shaoer, Wei Junru, Wei Zhangjun, Wei Guang, Wei Bu
Nephews Huo Qubing, Wei Buyi, Wei Deng, Wei Kang
Similar People Emperor Wu of Han, Wei Qing, Princess Pingyang, Huo Qubing, Lady Li
Wei Zifu (Traditional Chinese: 衛子夫; Simplified Chinese: 卫子夫; pinyin: Weì Zǐfū) (died 91 BC), posthumously known as Empress Xiaowu Si (孝武思皇后) or Wei Si Hou (衛思后, "Wei the Thoughtful Empress"), was an empress during ancient China's Han Dynasty. She was the second wife of the famous Emperor Wu and his spouse of 49 years, and stayed as his empress for 38 years, the second longest in Chinese history (behind only the 42-year reign of Empress Wang, the wife of Ming Dynasty's Wanli Emperor, who came over 1,600 years later). She was the mother of Emperor Wu's heir apparent, Crown Prince Liu Ju, as well as the older half-sister of the famed general Wei Qing, the younger aunt of Huo Qubing, the step-aunt of Han statesman Huo Guang and the great-grandmother of Liu Bingyi.
- Family background and early years
- Encountering Emperor Wu and consortship
- As Empress
- The Crown Prince revolt and death
- Posthumous rehabilitation
Family background and early years
Wei Zifu was born from humble means out of a serf family. She was the fourth child and the youngest daughter of a lowly housemaid/servant at the household of Princess Pingyang (平陽公主), Emperor Wu's older sister. Her father presumably died around the time of her birth, as there were little historic records of most of her family members. Her younger half-brother Wei Qing, born not long after her, was an illegitimate child from an extramarital affair by his mother with a low-level official serving the Princess's household. When Wei Zifu was still young, she was recruited as a singer at the princess' estate, where she was also trained in dancing and the Four Arts.
Encountering Emperor Wu and consortship
Emperor Wu's relationship with his newlywed first wife, Empress Chen, started to strain not long after he ascended to the throne at age 16. Empress Chen was an older cousin who was at least 8 years his senior, and their union was arranged from the political alliance between his mother Consort Wang Zhi (王夫人) and his paternal aunt Eldest Princess Guantao (館陶長公主), when he was barely 6 years old. The marriage was consummated at some point after Emperor Wu was then created the crown prince, but soon soured after Empress Chen was unable to bear him any children after many years. This tension further deteriorated after the young Emperor Wu, whose political survival at the time relied heavily on lobbying from his aunt/mother-in-law after the defeat of his ambitious reform in 140 BC by his grandmother Grand Empress Dowager Dou, was forced to submit to the spoilt and abusive behavior of Empress Chen.
After conducting an annual ceremonial ritual at Bashang (灞上) in the spring of 139 BC, Emperor Wu took the opportunity to pay a casual visit to his sister, whose household happened to be nearby. Princess Pingyang, intending to imitate the deeds of her aunt Princess Guantao, had prepared a collection of young women to offer for her brother's concubinage in order to establish herself political leverage (girls from lowly background, such as Wei Zifu, were not included). However, the plan did not work — all her candidates failed to impress the young emperor. Realizing her brother was disappointed and bored, the Princess called in her in-house dancers for entertainment. This time, Emperor Wu set his eyes on Wei Zifu and had immediately fallen for her beauty. Taking the opportunity of visiting the restroom, the young emperor took advantage upon and consummated with the young singer, whom the observant Princess Pingyang had ordered to follow in and serve as a handmaid. Now excited over the romantic encounter, Emperor Wu immediately conferred a thousand piece of gold to his sister as reward, who in turn offered the new girl to him as a gift. Emperor Wu then took Wei Zifu back to Chang'an, bringing along her younger half-brother Wei Qing as well to serve as a palace stableboy.
However, what Wei Zifu would later experience on was far from a lovely cinderella story. Upon hearing the arrival of the new girl, the extremely jealous and intolerant Empress Chen made sure Emperor Wu would abandon his idea of keeping Wei Zifu as a concubine. Wei Zifu was then demoted to an insignificant palace maid and was largely neglected. More than a year later, feeling hopeless with her life inside the palaces, Wei Zifu blended into a queue of palace maids waiting to be expelled (normally those who were too aged or incompetent in palace services) in the hope of getting out. Coincidentally, Emperor Wu happened to be there inspecting the expulsion process, and love soon re-flamed when he saw the tearful girl pleading to go home. By this point, Emperor Wu had consolidated enough political power and no longer had to appease Empress Chen. Wei Zifu was made to stay and fell pregnant very shortly later.
This was exciting news for Emperor Wu, who was upset over being partially blamed for Empress Chen's infertility. His throne was previously under threat due to his political clash with conservative factions led by his grandmother during the failed 140 BC reform, and many nobles schemed of deposing him under the excuse of "being incapable of fathering children" (the inability to propagate royal bloodline was a serious matter), and making his distant uncle Liu An the successor. Wei Zifu's pregnancy cleared Emperor Wu's name and silenced his political enemies, and ensured her becoming favored over Empress Chen.
Empress Chen became exceedingly jealous, but could now do little to Wei Zifu as she was under Emperor Wu's direct protection. Empress Chen's mother, Princess Guantao, then tried to take vengeance by attempting to kidnap and murder Wei Qing, who was then serving as a horseman in Jianzhang Camp (建章營, Emperor Wu's royal guards). However, Wei Qing was rescued from the princess' estate by his friends — a group of palace guards led by Gongsun Ao (公孫敖), who also reported the entire incident to Emperor Wu. In response to the incident and as a sign of annoyance towards Empress Chen and her mother, Emperor Wu publicly made Wei Zifu a consort (夫人, a concubine position lower only to the Empress), and appointed Wei Qing the triple role of Chief of Jianzhang Camp (建章監), Chief of Staff (侍中) and Chief Councillor (太中大夫), effectively making him one of Emperor Wu's closest lieutenants. Consort Wei then went on to monopolize Emperor Wu's love for over a decade, and bore him three daughters.
In 130 BC, Empress Chen was found to have resorted to witchcraft to curse other concubines in attempt to restore her husband's love to her. Following a huge investigation/crackdown under the widely feared prosecutor Zhang Tang (張湯), which saw the execution of more than 300 people, Empress Chen was officially deposed for this misconduct against imperial moral standards, and exiled out of Chang'an to the remote and lonely Long Gate Palace (長門宮), a suburban household that Princess Guantao once offered to Emperor Wu as a gift for tolerating her scandalous relationship with her godson Dong Yan (董偃).
The deposition of Empress Chen had left the position open, and Emperor Wu now had no official principal spouse. In 129 BC, Wei Qing, who was already a member of Emperor Wu's "insider circle" (內朝) of government officials, led an army of 10,000 cavalry and scored the first proper Han victory against Xiongnu. The following year, Consort Wei gave birth to Emperor Wu's first son, Liu Ju, and the overjoyed Emperor Wu (who was already 29 years of age when the son was born) immediately made her empress later that year. Liu Ju was later created crown prince in 122 BC.
After Wei Zifu became Empress, Wei Qing, now considered part of Emperor Wu's extended family, would be entrusted to more prominent roles in the war effort against Xiongnu, and was appointed the Generalissimo (大將軍) of All Armed Forces after his crushing victory over Xiongnu's Worthy Prince of the Right (右賢王) in 124 BC. Empress Wei's nephew Huo Qubing was also a distinguished military tactician with a series of highly successful campaigns over the control of the Hexi Corridor. By 123 BC, the Wei family had five marquesses and achieved top family honor, a remarkable feat for a clan from serf background. Despite the fact that the rise of the Wei family largely owed credit to the military talent of Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, Wei Zifu was often seen as the backbone of the family. A contemporary folk song sang:
Because the great achievements of this Wei family, many later Han emperors considered marrying concubines with the surname Wei as a way of attaining good fortune.
During her tenure, Wei Zifu was recorded as a modest, careful and low-key empress, who tried her best to keep her clan members in line and out of trouble. The legendary historian Sima Qian, despite often displaying a skeptical and condescending attitude towards Emperor Wu's extended families, described Empress Wei as "fine in virtues" (嘉夫德若斯).
As the years went by, Emperor Wu's sexual attraction to Empress Wei faded and he began to favor other concubines, including Consort Wang (王夫人), Consort Li (李夫人, the sister of Li Guangli and Li Yannian) and Lady Zhao (趙婕妤, mother of Liu Fuling). However, he continued to respect Empress Wei's judgment and entrusted her to govern palace affairs when he was absent from the capital, and assigned her son Crown Prince Liu Ju as the regent for governmental affairs.
The Crown Prince revolt and death
In his advanced age, Emperor Wu became paranoid and suspicious over the possible use of witchcraft against him. A series of witchcraft persecutions would begin, and large numbers of people, many of whom were high officials and their families, were accused of witchcraft and executed, usually with their clans. Soon, these witchcraft persecutions would become intertwined in the succession struggles and erupt into a major catastrophe.
In 94 BC, Emperor Wu's youngest son Liu Fuling was born to Lady Zhao, and Emperor Wu was ecstatic in having a child at the advanced age of 62. Lady Zhao herself was introduced to Emperor Wu by some warlock, and was also known as "Consort Fist" (拳夫人) or "Consort Hook" (鉤弋夫人) due to legend that she was born with a contractured clenched fist, which somehow magically opened up when Emperor Wu massaged it, revealing a jade hook in the palm. Because her pregnancy of Liu Fuling purportedly lasted 14 months long — same as the mythical Emperor Yao — Emperor Wu decided to name her household "Gate of Yao's Mother" (堯母門). This led to speculations that Emperor Wu wanted to get rid of the 38-year-old Liu Ju and replace him with the 3-year-old Liu Fuling as crown prince instead. While there was no evidence that Emperor Wu actually intended to do anything as such, there began to be conspirators against Crown Prince Liu Ju and Empress Wei over the next year.
One of the conspirators would be Jiang Chong (江充), a high-ranking legal official known for his ruthlessness and opportunism. Jiang once had a run-in with Liu Ju after arresting one of the crown prince's assistants for improper use of an imperial road, and feared that Liu Ju would seek payback after ascending to the throne. Another conspirator was Emperor Wu's chief eunuch Su Wen (蘇文), who was in charge of managing Emperor Wu and Lady Zhao's living matters, and had previously tried to frame the Crown Prince by falsely accusing him of committing adultery with Emperor Wu's palace maids.
The first trial began in early 91 BC with Prime Minister Gongsun Ao (Empress Wei's brother-in-law) and his son, leading to their unexplained suicide in jail and the execution of their clan. Liu Ju's sisters Princess Zhuyi and Princess Yangshi as well as cousin Wei Kang (衛伉, Wei Qing's eldest son) were also accused of involvement in witchcraft and executed, effectively removing almost all of his political allies in the Han court. With the sanctioned witch-hunts already on the way, Jiang Chong and Su Wen decided to strike while the iron is hot and move against Liu Ju, once again with the accusation of witchcraft. Because the physically deteriorating Emperor Wu was then vacationing at his summer palace in Ganquan (甘泉, in modern Xianyang, Shaanxi), he relied heavily on the likes of Jiang and Su for day-to-day information. Jiang, with approval from Emperor Wu, searched through various palaces, planted voodoo dolls and pieces of cloth with mysterious writings in the house of the "perpetrators", then condemned the victim on the spot. Eventually he reached the palaces of Liu Ju and Empress Wei, created so much digging that there were barely any space to lay a bed, and announced that he found overwhelming evidence of crime particularly at the Crown Prince's household.
Liu Ju was shocked by this and forced to consult his close advisers. His teacher Shi De (石德), invoking the infamous story of Zhao Gao's scheme to murder Ying Fusu and raising the possibility that Emperor Wu might already be deceased, suggested Liu Ju to start an uprising and rid the villains. Liu Ju initially hesitated and wanted to speedily proceed to Ganquan Palace and explain himself to his father, but when he found out that Jiang Chong's messengers were already on their way to report the false accusations, he decided to accept Shi's suggestion. He sent an individual to impersonate a messenger from Emperor Wu, and arrested Jiang and his co-conspirators — except for Su Wen, who escaped. He then denounced and personally executed Jiang, and reported his actions to his mother. Empress Wei, faced with the dilemma between her husband and son, chose to support her son and authorized Liu Ju to rally her palace guards and recruit civilian militias in preparation to defend himself against retaliation by the conspirators.
At the same time, Su Wen ran to Ganquan Palace and told Emperor Wu that the Crown Prince was committing treason. Emperor Wu, not believing it and correctly (at this point) concluding that Liu Ju were merely angry at Jiang Chong, send a messenger back to Chang'an to summon his son for explanation. This messenger, a low-ranking eunuch, did not dare to proceed to the capital city, but instead returned and falsely reported to Emperor Wu that Liu Ju was going to kill him. By now enraged and really believing his son was going to overthrow him, Emperor Wu ordered his nephew, Prime Minister Liu Qumao (劉屈犛), to lead the regular Han army and put down the rebellion. The two forces then battled in the streets of Chang'an for five days, but Liu Qumao's forces prevailed after it became clear that Prince Ju did not have his father's authorization. Liu Ju was forced to flee the capital with two of his sons, and the rest of his family were killed, except a months-old grandson, Liu Bingyi, who was thrown into prison.
Shortly after Liu Ju's escape, Emperor Wu sent two officials to Empress Wei's palace to seize her seal (i.e. suspending her rights in preparation to depose her). Wei Zifu committed suicide in response, and was buried with a small coffin in Tongbai (桐柏) on the east side of an avenue outside Fu'ang Gate (覆盎門, the eastmost south gate of Chang'an). Most of her clan members were wiped out in the turmoil. Crown Prince Liu Ju was later tracked down and cornered in Hu County (湖縣) by local officials eager for rewards, and committed suicide when it became obvious he could not escape. His two sons were also killed.
Not long afterwards, Emperor Wu began to realize that the witchcraft cases during 91 BC were often false accusations. In 89 BC, when Tian Qianqiu (田千秋), then the superintendent of Emperor Gao's temple, filed a report claiming that "a white-haired old man" told him in a dream that for the offense of armed uprising, Liu Ju would at most be caned, not killed, as a punishment, Emperor Wu had a revelation about what really happened. Furious over the realization that the conspirators exploited his trust and plotted his son's death, he had Su Wen burned alive, Jiang Chong's immediate and extended family executed, and killed every official promoted for tracking down the Crown Prince. He also promoted Tian Qianqiu to prime minister, and made major policy change rectifying the ideals supported by his dead son. To express his regret over causing his son's death, Emperor Wu also built the Palace of Son-Grieving (思子宮) and Platform of Longing for Return (歸來望思台), officially rehabilitating Liu Ju's name.
18 years after her death, her great-grandson Liu Bingyi ascended to the throne in 74 BC as Emperor Xuan. Emperor Xuan then had his great-grandmother's name officially cleared and rebuilt her tomb to a larger mausoleum cared by 1000 men, and gave her the posthumous title Wei Si Hou (衛思后, literally meaning "Wei the Thoughtful Empress"). Her new tomb, due to its remote location and relative humbleness, escaped the looting by tomb raiders later.