Han dynasty

Empress Zhao Feiyan

“From poverty to prominence”

Zhao Feiyan, also known as Consort Zhao, was a prominent figure in ancient Chinese history. She lived during the Western Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BCE to 9 CE. Zhao Feiyan’s story is filled with intrigue, power struggles, and tragedy.

Her Story

A story of intrigue, power struggles, and tragedy

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Zhao Feiyan, also known as Consort Zhao, was a prominent figure in ancient Chinese history. She lived during the Western Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BCE to 9 CE. Zhao Feiyan’s story is filled with intrigue, power struggles, and tragedy.

Born in the early 1st century BCE, Zhao Feiyan was the daughter of a minor official named Zhao Bing. She grew up in poverty but possessed exceptional beauty and talent. Her life took a significant turn when she caught the attention of Emperor Cheng, the seventh emperor of the Western Han Dynasty.

Emperor Cheng was captivated by Zhao Feiyan’s beauty and took her as one of his many consorts. He was known for his indulgent lifestyle and excessive spending, and Zhao Feiyan quickly adapted to the luxurious life of the imperial court. She used her charm and wits to win the emperor’s favor, becoming one of his favorite consorts.

However, Zhao Feiyan’s rise to power was not without its challenges. She faced stiff competition from another consort named Empress Xu, who held a higher rank and enjoyed greater influence. Empress Xu was jealous of Zhao Feiyan’s beauty and closeness to the emperor, and she resented the attention Zhao Feiyan received.

To secure her position, Zhao Feiyan employed various tactics, including flattering the emperor, staging elaborate performances, and engaging in politics. She was cunning and manipulative, using her charm and influence to gain favors and amass wealth. Zhao Feiyan became one of the wealthiest women in the Han Dynasty, acquiring vast estates, luxurious clothing, and exquisite jewelry.

Despite her success, Zhao Feiyan’s life was marked by tragedy. Emperor Cheng died at a young age, and power struggles ensued among his successors. Empress Xu’s faction gained the upper hand, and they sought revenge against Zhao Feiyan and her sister, Consort Zhao Hede.

Empress Xu accused Zhao Feiyan and her sister of various crimes, including witchcraft and conspiracy. The accusations were most likely fabricated, but they served as a pretext to remove Zhao Feiyan from power. Both Zhao Feiyan and her sister were stripped of their titles and banished from the imperial court.

With their fall from grace, Zhao Feiyan and her sister faced a bleak future. They lived in poverty, struggling to survive. Their extravagant wealth had been confiscated, and they were left with nothing. The once powerful and influential consort now faced the harsh realities of life outside the palace walls.

Zhao Feiyan’s story serves as a cautionary tale of the transitory nature of power and the dangers of court politics. Despite her initial success and opulent lifestyle, she ultimately faced a tragic downfall. Her beauty and cunning were not enough to protect her from the fickleness of political fortunes.

Today, Zhao Feiyan’s story is remembered as a vivid example of the intrigues and complexities of life in ancient China’s imperial court. Her rise and fall continue to captivate historians and enthusiasts, offering insights into the lives of women in positions of power during the Western Han Dynasty.

Her Spouse

Emperor Cheng of Han (51 BC – 17 April 7 BC) was an emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty ruling from 33 until 7 BC. He succeeded his father Emperor Yuan of Han. Under Emperor Cheng, the Han dynasty continued its growing disintegration as the emperor’s maternal relatives from the Wang clan increased their grip on the levers of power and on governmental affairs as encouraged by the previous emperor. Corruption and greedy officials continued to plague the government and, as a result, rebellions broke out throughout the country. Emperor Cheng died childless after a reign of 26 years (both of his sons by concubines died in infancy; one of them starved to death and another was suffocated in prison, both the babies and the mothers were killed by the order of the favorite Consort Zhao Hede, with the implied consent of the Emperor Cheng). He was succeeded by his nephew Emperor Ai of Han.

About this Portrait

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

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