Empress Chen Jiao and Empress Wei Zifu

Chinese watercolor, on silk. The Chinese Empresses Collection
Painted by Xiang Li
~ 36 x 90 inches

Their Stories

Empress Chen Jiao (left)

Empress Chen Jiao, also known as Empress Dowager Xiaocheng, was the first wife of Emperor Wu of Han. She was the daughter of Chen Wu, the Marquess of Tangyi. Despite being Emperor Wu’s first wife, the couple had no children together, which led to significant tension in their marriage.

Empress Chen Jiao had a turbulent tenure as Empress, characterized by the Emperor’s disfavor and various scandals, such as alleged witchcraft practices and illicit relationships. Emperor Wu eventually deposed her as Empress in 130 BC and she spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity.

Empress Wei Zifu (right)

Empress Wei Zifu was the second wife of Emperor Wu and one of the most famous Empresses in the history of China. She started her life in the palace as a lowly dancer and singer but caught the Emperor’s attention with her beauty and talent.

Despite her humble origins, she rose through the ranks to become Empress and gave birth to Emperor Wu’s heir, Liu Ju. However, her time as Empress was fraught with court intrigues and her powerful family was eventually purged in the infamous “Witchcraft Scandal” of 91 BC.

Her son, Liu Ju, was falsely implicated in a rebellion and committed suicide, while Wei Zifu herself also reportedly committed suicide due to the distress caused by these events.

Like with any historical figures, please note that accounts of their lives can vary greatly, often influenced by the views of later historians and the political climate of the time.

Their Spouse

Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝 (156 – 29 March 87 BC), formally enshrined as Emperor Wu the Filial (Chinese: 孝武皇帝), born Liu Che (劉徹) and courtesy name Tong (通), was the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of ancient China, ruling from 141 to 87 BC. 

His reign lasted 54 years – a record not broken until the reign of the Kangxi Emperor more than 1,800 years later and remains the record for Han Chinese emperors. His reign resulted in a vast expansion of geopolitical influence for the Chinese civilization, and the development of a strong centralized state via governmental policies, economic reorganization, and promotion of a hybrid Legalist–Confucian doctrine.

In the field of historical social and cultural studies, Emperor Wu is known for his religious innovations and patronage of the poetic and musical arts, including the development of the Imperial Music Bureau into a prestigious entity. It was also during his reign that cultural contact with Western Eurasia was greatly increased, directly and indirectly.

During his reign as Emperor, he led the Han dynasty through its greatest territorial expansion. At its height, the Empire’s borders spanned from the Fergana Valley in the west, to northern Korea in the east, and to northern Vietnam in the south. Emperor Wu successfully repelled the nomadic Xiongnu from systematically raiding northern China, and dispatched his envoy Zhang Qian into the Western Regions in 139 BC to seek an alliance with the Greater Yuezhi and Kangju, which resulted in further diplomatic missions to Central Asia. Although historical records do not describe him as being aware of Buddhism, emphasizing rather his interest in shamanism, the cultural exchanges that occurred as a consequence of these embassies suggest that he received Buddhist statues from Central Asia, as depicted in the murals found in the Mogao Caves.

Emperor Wu is considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history due to his strong leadership and effective governance, which made the Han dynasty one of the most powerful nations in the world. Michael Loewe called the reign of Emperor Wu the “high point” of “Modernist” (classically justified Legalist) policies, looking back to “adapt ideas from the pre-Han period.” His policies and most trusted advisers were Legalist, favoring adherents of Shang Yang. However, despite establishing an autocratic and centralized state, Emperor Wu adopted the principles of Confucianism as the state philosophy and code of ethics for his empire and started a school to teach future administrators the Confucian classics. These reforms had an enduring effect throughout the existence of imperial China and an enormous influence on neighboring civilizations.

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