The Five Most Influential Chinese Empresses

The Five Most Influential Empresses

Artist Xiang Li has painted more than 200 Chinese Empresses spanning all dynasties in Chinese history. All her paintings are done in Chinese watercolor on silk. Each is a marvel to behold, especially because she has painted all the Empresses based on her decades of research in historical Chinese literature. Li did not have much visual historical content such as portraits, and images as reference material. The historical visual content of these Empresses is very scarce.

With more than 200 Empress paintings from Li, we thought it would be helpful to provide our readers with a small list of the five most influential empresses in Chinese History as a starting point for their journey of historical Chinese art appreciation. Our follow-up blog posts will continue to spotlight other empresses, for example, ‘The Five Less Popular Chinese Empresses You Should Know About’ (for their special qualities, good deeds, and accomplishments).

For this blog post, we are focusing on the five MOST influential Chinese Empresses who had a decisive impact on Chinese history. It would be important to highlight that it was not easy for these empresses to rise to the position of an ’empress’ as they had to compete with hundreds of other young women in the emperors’ harem. They could become empresses either by bearing sons or by plotting and scheming against other harem women, empresses, and powerful men in the court. As a result, these empresses wielded great behind-the-scenes power and greatly influenced (positively and negatively) many generations to come!

This list of the ‘five most influential’ is based on online research and interviews with Li.

What were the most influential Chinese Empresses?

1. Empress Lü Zhi (241-180 BC) – Han Dynasty

Empress Lü Zhi was the first woman to assume the title ‘The First Empress of China’.

She was the empress consort of Gaozu, the founding emperor of the Han dynasty. Lü played a crucial role in her husband’s rise to power and the establishment of the Han dynasty. She was known for her involvement in crafting laws and customs during Gaozu’s reign. She held significant influence and control over the court, effectively governing on behalf of her son. Lü’s rule was marked by cruelty and ruthlessness, which included executions of her rivals. Lü is often recognized as the first woman to have ruled over a united China for 15 years, surpassing the political influence of her predecessors.

Lu Zhi, one of the five most influential Chinese Empresses

Listen to Empress Lu Zhu’s speaking portrait and see the painting details here

Sources of smaller empress images gathered on the right from here, and here

2. Empress Jia Nanfeng (257 – 300 AD) – Western Jin Dynasty

She is commonly seen as the villainous empress in Chinese history.

As the person who provoked the War of the Eight Princes, Empress Jia Nanfeng led to the Wu Hu rebellions and the Jin Dynasty’s loss of northern and central China. Between 291 to 300, she ruled the Jin empire from behind the scenes by dominating her developmentally disabled husband.

Read more and look at the details of Li’s painting here

The source of the image on the right is here.

3. Empress Zhangsun (601 – 636 AD) – Tang Dynasty

She was known as “the civil, virtuous, serene, and holy empress”.

She was the wife of Emperor Taizong and the mother of Emperor Gaozong. She was very well-educated and wrote many books. During her tenure as empress, she served as a loyal assistant and honest advisor to her husband.

Read more and look at the details of Li’s painting here

The source of the image on the right is here.

4. Empress Wu Zetian (625 – 705 AD) – Tang Dynasty

She was the first and only Woman Emperor of China!

Yes, we wrote that correctly. She was the first female emperor (not empress) of China. Many women before her tried and failed, making Wu Zetian one of the most recognizable women of Chinese history.

With her exceptional intelligence, extraordinary competence in politics, and inordinate ambition, she ruled as the “Holy and Divine Emperor” of the Second Zhou Dynasty (690–705) for fifteen years.

Read more and look at the details of Li’s painting here

The source of the images on the right is here.

5. Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) – Qing Dynasty

Empress Cixi was a towering figure of monarchy for the Chinese people for almost 50 years, the longest-serving Empress Dowager in Chinese history.

Although she was not the official Emperor of China, she was the de facto head for her underage son who was the King. She rose the ranks from being a mere concubine to becoming the son-bearing Empress. Her style of governance was non-traditional and she was known for embracing technological and military advancements. She was also responsible for many societal reforms and had a great impact on the Chinese arts and culture of her time. She was the first Chinese Royal who allowed Western artists to paint her portraits with the intent of being exhibited internationally. Three of her original oil portraits painted by Hubert Vos and Katherine Carl reside in famous museums in the USA. Also, see below for an interesting online photo essay on Cixi by MIT. She was quite an influencer of her time!

However, Xiang Li’s painting of Empress Cixi below is the only known Chinese watercolor on silk painting in recent times.

Read more and look at the details of Li’s painting here

Paintings on the right (inside a collage):

What makes Li’s empress portraits different and unique?

While there aren’t as many Chinese empresses with portraits created from the ancient days that have been preserved til this day, it isn’t hard to see the rigidity and strict structure when it comes to paintings and photos of emperors and empresses.

Typically they would sit still without a smile. Perhaps it was a way to portray their power. However, it’s a loss for modern-day citizens like us to understand and imagine the context of the world in which they were living in.

Li broke the barriers by studying much beyond what was presented to her. Instead, she went many steps further to also design and capture these historical figures’ expressions, accessories, personal interests (writing, music, etc.), families/friends, and other companions, even their pets.

Li believes the people under her brushstrokes weren’t living and influencing alone. Rather, they needed help from others, their thoughts and actions were also largely influenced by the historical period and others around them.

Your Reflections

We’d love to go back to you and ask what you have learned from these female figures. Do you have a favorite? Did anyone, or any event you find interesting or peculiar? Please share your reflections with us in the comments below.

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