An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Empress Yuan 元后 Wang Zhengjun 王政君

Jan 13, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Zhengjun 王政君 (71 BCE-13 CE), posthumous title Empress Yuan 元后, was the main consort of Emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE) of the Former Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), the mother of Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE), and aunt of the usurper Wang Mang 王莽.

Her father Wang Jing 王禁 was clerk for the Chamberlain for Law Enforcement (ting weishi 廷尉史). According to legend, she once dreamt that the moon entered her bosom, and a fortune-teller prognosticated that she would become a high lady. Zhengjun's father thereupon cared for her education, taught her reading and writing and playing the zither. With the age of 18 sui she was able to enter the imperial palace as a court maid-in-waiting and attracted the favour of Crown Prince Liu Shi 劉奭 shortly after the death of his concubine, Lady Sima 司馬氏.

She gave birth to Liu Ao 劉驁, who was proclaimed heir apparent after the accession of Liu Shi to the throne (known as Emperor Yuan). Zhengjun herself was, as mother of the crown prince, promoted to the rank of Lady of Handsome Fairness (jieyu 婕妤, see female officials) and immediately after to that of Empress (huanghou 皇后). Later on, Lady Fu 傅昭儀 won the favour of Emperor Yuan and he planned to depose Prince Liu Ao and instead name Lady Fu's son Liu Kang 劉康, Prince Gong of Dingtao 定陶共王, heir apparent.

Wang Zhengjun sought the support of palace attendant (shizhong 侍中) Shi Dan 史丹, who had such an influence on the emperor that Liu Ao remained heir apparent. Liu Ao consequently succeeded his father to the throne (known as Emperor Cheng). His mother, now called Empress Dowager (huang taihou 皇太后), had her brother Wang Feng 王鳳 appointed General-in-chief serving as commander-in-chief (da sima da jiangjun 大司馬大將軍), so that he had control of all civilian and military matters.

The family Wang became more and more powerful during the reigns of the emperors Cheng, Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7-1 BCE) and Ping 漢平帝 (r. 1 BCE-5 CE), with the help of Wang Zhengjun who acted as regent for the under-age emperors. When the latter acceeded to the throne, Wang Zhengjun, meanwhile senior Grand Empress Dowager, made her nephew Wang Mang General-in-chief and bestowed the greatest favours upon him that allowed him virtually to be treated with the same ritual court protocol as the emperor himself.

In spite of all these favours, she was not very content with Wang Mang's usurpation in 8 CE by founding the Xin dynasty 新 (8-23 CE), but was already too old to impede him to take this step. She was buried with greatest honours in the tomb mound Weiling 渭陵, together with her husband, Emperor Yuan.

Chen Quanli 陳全力, Hou Xinyi 侯欣一, ed. (1991). Houfei cidian 后妃辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe), 16.
Xue Hong 薛虹, ed. (1998). Zhongguo huangshi gongting cidian 中國皇室宫廷辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 784.