Empress Wang (Gaozong)

Empress Wang (c. 628 – between 16 November–3 December 655) was an empress of the Chinese 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 and conspiracy to poison 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, as recorded in the New Book of Tang and Zizhi Tongjian, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were cruelly tortured and 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. Princess Tong’an thus recommended to Emperor Taizong that he make Lady Wang one of his daughters-in-law. 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 10 July 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.

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 16[2]—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. By order of the new Empress Wu, like criminals, 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, and they were rarely fed.

However, it is controversial that Empress Wang was allowed to suffer the torture for a few days, to her death. Another assumption is that Empress Wang was strangled to death with Emperor Gaozong’s approval.

Spouse: Emperor Gaozong of Tang

Emperor Gaozong of Tang (21 July 628 – 27 December 683), personal name Li Zhi, was the third emperor of the Tang dynasty in China, ruling from 649 to 683; after January 665, he handed power over the empire to his second wife Empress Wu (the future Wu Zetian), and her decrees were carried out with greater force than the decrees of Emperor Gaozong’s. Emperor Gaozong was the youngest son of Emperor Taizong and Empress Zhangsun; his elder brothers were Li Chengqian and Li Tai.

More from Xiang Li Art