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The Harem in Northern Wei Politics. 398-498 A.D.

: A Study of T'o-pa Attitudes towards

the Institution of Empress, Empress-Dowager, and Regency Governments in the Chinese
Dynastic System during Early Northern Wei
Author(s): J. Holmgren
Source: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1983), pp.
Published by: Brill
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Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. XXVI, Part I


POLITICS - 398-498 A.D.:
A study of T'o-pa attitudes towards the institution of empres
empress-dowager, and regency governments in the
Chinese dynastic system during early Northern Wei *)


(Australian National University)

The Chinese experience during Han and Chin revealed two m

weaknesses in the dynastic system of succession. Ideally, the li
succession passed through the first son of the empress. When a m
or imbecile came to the throne, his mother, the empress, was appoi
regent to deal with the affairs of state in concert with senior mem
of the outer bureaucracy. Problems arose when the roles of em
and mother of the heir apparent failed to coincide within one wom
a situation which frequently led to intrigue and murder in the ha
and factional strife in the outer bureaucracy.
Problems also arose at the end of the regency. Legally, the sy
provided no place for the continuation of female and distaff p
once the emperor reached maturity. In practice, however, the
tution of a regency government headed by the empress-dowage
provide distaff relatives with the opportunity to exercise perman
influence on the throne; an influence which circumvented the
ditional power-structure within the established bureaucracy.

*) The following abbreviations are used in this paper:

CTS Chiu T'ang-shu SE #f (Peking, 1975)
HJAS Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
MS Monumenta Serica
PFEH Papers on Far Eastern History
PS Pei-shih b 5 (Peking, 1974)
TCTC Tzu-chih t'ung-chien ~ ~ Ai (Hongkong, 1971)
WS Wei-shu (Peking, 1974).

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In this way, the harem posed a

literati 1). Sometimes the latter
by acting with him against the
their own position was threaten
and his maternal relatives. In
potential threat to the authorit
Chinese anxieties about eunuchs, women, and distaff relatives in
government are well-known, as are the numerous cliches and stereo-
types on this subject in Chinese literature and historical writings. Less
well understood, however, is the historical development of these
cliches and how individual women in Chinese history managed to
overcome the social and legal restrictions of their time to actively
participate in government affairs.
In an earlier paper on the traditional T'o-pa system of government,
it was shown how the fraternal system of succession and the power-
structure of the T'o-pa elite in the third and fourth centuries effectively
excluded women and their relatives from political power. It was also
shown how the founder of the Northern Wei state, T'o-pa Kuei 1i
(r. 398-409), deliberately passed over the mother of his eldest son for
the position of empress, and how, in the last year of his life, he tried
to rid the harem of elements dangerous to the stability of the leader-
ship: he forced the mother of his eldest son to commit suicide, and,
before his own murder in 409, was planning to do away with the mother
of his second son 2). The present paper traces the subsequent history
of T'o-pa Kuei's law on the compulsory suicide of the mother of the
heir-apparent and the adaptation of the T'o-pa elite to the Chinese
system of imperial succession during the fifth century. In particular, it

I) See Tao Tien-yi, 'The System of Imperial Succession during China's Former
Han Dynasty (20o6 B.C.-9 A.D.)', PFEH x8 (1978) 171-91; Yang Lien-sheng,
'Female Rulers in Imperial China', Studies of Governmental Institutions in Chinese
History Edit. J. L. Bishop (Harvard Yenching Institute Studies 23, Harvard Uni-
versity Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1968) pp. 55-169.
2) J. Holmgren, 'Women and Political Power in the Traditional T'o-pa elite; a
preliminary study of the Biographies of Empresses in the Wei-shu', in press, MS 3 .

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deals with T'o-pa adaptation to the institution of empres

dowager, and regency governments during early Northe
shows how individual women in the Northern Wei harem m
cope with the restrictions placed on their participation in p
fairs. As with the earlier study, the main sources for this w
found in the chapter on empresses, the biographies of T'o-
and in the imperial annals of the Wei-shu (WIS) written
century 3).

The Early Fifth Century

Appointments of Heir-apparents

T'o-pa Kuei, the first emperor of Northern Wei, never actually

confirmed his eldest son heir-apparent. The Chinese historians obscure
this fact by pointing out that in 403 A.D. T'o-pa Ssii I was given the
title Prince of Ch'i *E and senior positions in the government4).
This, however, did not constitute right to inherit the throne: all
Kuei's sons were enfeoffed and given high ranking responsible posi-
tions in the bureaucracy in that year 5). The murder of Kuei's half-
brother, T'o-pa Yi Wi, and the forced suicide of Lady Liu V1 in 409
A.D., suggest that this was the year in which Kuei decided his eldest
son should succeed him. However, Ssui was never officially proclaimed
heir-apparent in the Chinese manner.
Ssii's annals in WS 3 are not part of Wei Shou's sixth century text.
This chapter of the WIS comes from Wei Tan's M * history of Northern
Wei via the seventh century Pei-shib (PS). We do not know, therefore,
how Wei Shou, in the sixth century, dealt with the question of Ssii's

3) WS was written by Wei Shou ~ & (506-72) under the rulers of Northern Ch'i
(550-77). The original text, however, was substantially revised during early T'ang
during compilation of the Pei-sbih (PS). Some of Wei Shou's chapters were later
lost and then recompiled in the tenth century by Sung historians using PS and
other, now non-extant, texts. One of these chapters was WS 13, the biographies of
Northern Wei empresses. See Li Cheng-fen iE IW 'Wei-shu yiian-liu-k'ao M *
R ~1 Kuo-hsiieh chi-k'an 2 no. 2 (1929) 363-87.
4) WS 3, P. 49.
5) TCTC p. 3554; WS 2, p. 41.

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succession. The fact that his

and replaced by Wei Tan's ve
towards the Chinese system o
the historians of early T'ang 6
Table i below sets out the succession of rulers in Northern Wei

during the early part of the fifth century. It shows that neither T'o
Kuei nor his successor, Ssii, appointed an official heir-apparent.
like his father, gave all his sons top-ranking posts in the governmen
soon as they proved competent. In this alone, early Northern W
government differed radically from the Chinese where the empero
paternal relatives had no effective administrative or political power
The third emperor, Northern Wei Shih-tsu, appointed his elde
son, T'o-pa Huang A, heir-apparent when the latter was only f
years old 7). It is worth noting here that Huang's mother had pa
away in the year of his birth, thus leaving her relatives virtually p
erless in the event of Shih-tsu's sudden death 8). However, Huang d
one year before Shih-tsu, and upon Shih-tsu's death in 453 A.D.9), t
T'o-pa selected Huang's brother, Han M for the throne 10). K
tsung's claim was apparently ignored. In the Chinese system of succ
sion, Kao-tsung as Huang's eldest son and eldest grandson of the
emperor had unquestionable right to the throne.

When Han was murdered by the eunuch, Tsung Ai ,, T'o-

Yii ?,, another of Kao-tsung's uncles, was made emperor 11). On
6) Li Cheng-fen, pp. 366-70.
7) WS 3, pp. 6i-2; WS 4a, p. 80.
8) WS I3, p. 327.
9) WS 4b, pp. 105-7 gives the date of Huang's death as Cheng-p'ing I (452)
Shih-tsu's death as Cheng-p'ing 2 (45 3). WS 5, p. Iii states that Kao-tsung cam
the throne in Cheng-p'ing 2 (45 3). TCTC pp. 3971-4 and 3980-I has Huang's d
as 451 and Shih-tsu's death, Yii's murder, and Kao-tsung's succession as 452.
io) T'o-pa Han was a son of Shih-tsu by his concubine nee Shu ff. See WS
p. 418 for his biography. Han's main support came from Lan Yen *49 and H
i: fn1L, officials of 1Hsien-pi descent. His opposition came from Hsieh T'i a
T'ai-yuan ;k f who was probably Chinese since the Hsien-pi Hsieh clan of t
time was still settled in Tai. See WS 33 p. 995 for Hsieh T'i's biography.
Ii) See WS 94, PP. 3012-3 for the biography of Tsung Ai; WS 18, pp. 434-5
the biography of T'o-pa Yii.

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Table I

Appointments of Heir-apparents during the first half of the Fifth Century

Emperor Heir-appa

Temple name Taboo Year Year, age, length Name

Name enthroned of reign
of first official
announcement of heir

T'ai-tsu Kuei 386 A.D. * * *

T'ai-tsung SsiU 409 * *
Shih-tsu T'ao 423 432 24yrs 9yrs Huang
--------- Yii 453
Han 45 3
Kao-tsung Chun 453 456 16 3 Hun

* no official appointment.

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after Yi.'s death in that same year did

young Kao-tsung 12). It is interesting
are recorded as having been given a
preserving the fiction that the T'o-pa
no way from that of the Chinese.
Thus, for the T'o-pa of the early fi
Chinese concept of primogeniture was
traditional needs formerly fulfilled by th
The provision of a capable male leader,
was more important than adherence to
When the Chinese system of successi
and inexperienced member of the clan
ship tended to revert to its former tra
Concomitant with T'o-pa anxieties a
concern over the role of women as em
the Chinese system of imperial success
the fifth century show that while the
to an easier accommodation with the c
not abandon its belief that women had
ment and that the important affairs o
hands of the most experienced of the

Appointments of Consorts

The method of appointment of the f

the forced suicide of the mother of th
Kuei's reign, implied an uneasiness
empress and a strong fear in tradit
usurpation of male authority 13). Tab
remained substantially unchanged thro
table sets out the dates of appointm
Kuei's successors. It shows that two o
century never appointed legal consorts

12) Yii's brothers, Chien M and T'an M als

13) J. Holmgren, 'Women and Political Pow

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ians describe Lady Yao A as T'ai-tsung's empress, they also m

clear that this was a posthumous title given to her in the last y
last years of T'ai-tsung's reign. As far as we know, none of T'ai-
wives were given the title of empress during their lifetimes. Sim
Emperor Hsien-tsu (r. 465-471) never appointed an empress.

Table z

Appointments of Empresses during the Fifth Century

Emperor Empress
Emperor Year Year Ethnic origins
enthroned appointed first
living empress

T'ai-tsu 386 A.D. 400 A.D. Mu-jung Hsien-pi

T'ai-tsung 409 * *
Shih-tsu 423 43 z Ho-lien Hsiung-nu
Kao-tsung 453 456 Feng Hsien-pi
Hsien-tsu 465 * *
Kao-tsu 471 493 Feng Hsien-pi

* no appointment.

The third emperor, Shih-tsu, did not appoin

he had been on the throne for nine years. By
four years old. Emperor Kao-tsu, the last rule
waited twenty-two years after his enthronem
empress. Only Emperor Kao-tsung, in the
complied with Chinese customary procedure b
three years after his accession 14).
The hypothesis that the appointment of an
necessary and potentially dangerous by the T'o
ened by an examination of the type of woman
in the fifth century. All empresses at that ti
families of recently conquered non-Chinese st

14) The dates for the appointment of empresses in

the annals of the first four emperors, and WS 13, pp.

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T'ai-tsung's 'posthumous empress'

of Later Ch'in (see below). Wittfogel
compulsory suicide made powerful
daughters to the royal house with
forced to take in these captive concub
the royal line 15). The facts do not
were well past their infancy when
empress in 400 A.D.; their mothers
pendent and very powerful non-Chin
eldest son, Huang, was four year
appointed empress, and his mothe
bine 17). Thus, the T'o-pa did not h
to continue the royal line. There were
why these captive concubines were se
other women in the harem.

Captive or slave concubines such the ladies Mu-jung, Ho-lien, and

Feng had few, if any, influential relatives at court. Such women were
preferred as empresses simply because their families posed no threat to
the authority of the T'o-pa elite-namely the emperor's paternal
relatives; his uncles, cousins, nephews, and brothers. The families of
the captive concubines had been decimated and scattered, and the few
relatives they had at court were totally beholden to the goodwill of the
T'o-pa elite.
Table z also suggests that the position of empress at the T'o-pa
court was deliberately used by the elite for political purposes. The

i5) Wittfogel and Feng, History of Chinese Society-Liao (907-z112) (Macmillan,

New York, 1949) p. 146.
16) T'o-pa Ssii's mother, Lady Liu, came from a branch of the Hsiung-nu clan of
Northern Han (304-319) and Former Chao (319-329). Her people were settled in
north-western China and were also known as the Tu-ku X t, the Ho-lien, and the
T'ieh-fu ~i ~ Liu. See Selected Worksr of Peter A. Boodberg Edit. Alvin P. Cohen
(University of California Press, I979) pp. 47-73. T'o-pa Shao's mother was his
father's aunt. She came from the Hsien-pi Ho-lan U clan of Tai. See J. Holmgren,
'Women and Political Power'.
17) T'o-pa Huang's mother came from the Ho-lan clan which had prod
T'o-pa Kuei and his son, Shao. See n. I6 above.

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appointment of an empress was a lure used to capture the loy

recently conquered peoples: in 397, T'o-pa Kuei had conquered
and Western Shantung which had been subject to the Mu-jung
of Later Yen; in 431, Shih-tsu had pacified Shensi which had
subject to the Ho-lien, rulers of Hsia (413-43 1). Thus, the appoin
of Mu-jung Pao's V daughter to the position of empress in 40
and the elevation of Ho-lien Po-po's 0bS daughter in 432, were ti
moves aimed at the integration of Mu-jung and Ho-lien subjec
the T'o-pa empire 18).
Lady Yao's posthumous elevation to the rank of empress c. 420
also politically motivated. When Lady Yao was first taken int
tsung's harem, her father, Yao Hsing AM, was very much ma
his own state of Later Ch'in (3 84-417). He was thus in a posit
demand that his daughter be accepted as T'ai-tsung's empress
tsung, like his father 19), used the metal-devination ritual to
formal ratification of her position as empress. After the coll
Later Ch'in before the armies of Liu Yu VJ 1 in 417 20), T'ai-
changed his mind about Lady Yao's status-deciding to give h
title of empress 'despite the divination result' 21). Her status as em
at the T'o-pa court in P'ing-ch'eng c. 420 would have been a
useful symbol of integration for the large number of aristo
refugees who had fled to Northern Wei after the collapse of

It is likely that Lady Yao died before this decision could be put
effect. The statement in her biography that she declined the app
ment is almost certainly fictitious-a device used by the histor
give her some moral credibility and explain why T'ai-tsung h
empress 22). The majority of empress' biographies from this
Northern Wei history are short factual sketches, recording only

18) See WS 13, pp. 325 and 327.

19) See J. Holmgren, 'Women and Political Power'.
zo) See WS 95, PP. 20o82-5.
21) WS I3, p. 325.
22) ibid.

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name, children, death, and posthumous

of the ladies nee Yao and Tou W does th
the bare facts and impute a degree of m
Since the Yao and Tou families were f
compilation of the PS in the seventh
historians expanded Wei Shou's earlie
show their humanity, compassion, and
we can tell, Lady Yao played no part a
matters. She did not give birth to a T'o
It is therefore difficult to see why she
graphy at all were it not for the fact th
consort. The presence of this biogra
reluctance to appoint official consor
cultural bias in our source material and the

to discuss the process of T'o-pa ada

In summary, it seems that the appo
considered politically dangerous and q
elite during the fifth century. Appoi
therefore infrequent. Whenever an em
not from an allied Chinese, Hsien-pi, or
the royal clan of a recently defunct s
were without the usual horde of eager
leadership. Moreover, their appointmen
in that they hastened the integration o
Northern Wei empire.

Mothers and Foster-mothers of T'o-pa Emp

The institution of the law on compuls

the heir-apparent, and the plan to m

23) WS I3, PP. 322-7.

24) The Tou were distaff relatives in early
produced T'ang T'ai-tsung (r. 627-650). See C
2163-4. The Yao produced several importan
probable connection between the ancestors of t
Later Ch'in, see Yao Wei-yiian ;2, Pei
1962) pp. 319-2I.

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was part of a systematic attempt by the first Northern

rid the harem of women whose families posed a threat t
of the leadership. This obsession with eliminating fe
power from the affairs of state also appears in the
towards the appointment of heir-apparents and empres
century (see above) and can be further seen in the biogr
women who gave birth to eldest sons in the fifth centu
Lady Tu ft gave birth to T'ai-tsung's eldest son in 408
one year before T'ai-tsung's accession, and although s
high status family of sinicized Hsien-pi origins 26), Lad
considered for the position of empress. Moreover, it
son was taken from her and assigned to the care of a w
status 27). Similarly, T'o-pa Huang's eldest son, Kao-t
from his mother and given to a slave concubine to
together with the history of appointments of conso
parents in the fifth century, these facts suggest that
tsu, and T'o-pa Huang, like T'o-pa Kuei before th
concerned to eliminate female and distaff influence on
that by the middle of the century the leadership had de
pronged attack on this problem: an effective distinc
between women as mothers and women as empresses
who produced sons were not to be elevated to the rank
their lifetime; eldest sons were to be taken from their
and assigned to the care of a concubine with few influen
court; women were to be chosen as consorts on the
previous lack of children and their low social status.

25) WS 13, p. 326; WS 4a, p. 69.

26) See J. Holmgren, 'Women's biographies in the Wei-shu
Australian National University, I979) pp. 42-4.
27) Lady Tu died in 420 when Shih-tsu was twelve years ol
likely that his foster-mother was appointed to look after him we
See WS I3, p. 326; WS 4a, p. 70.
z8) Huang's own mother from the Ho-lan dan had died in the ye
428 A.D. See WS 13, p. 327. The name of his foster-mother has no
His son, Kao-tsung, was given to Lady Ch'ang to rear-see belo
tsung's mother, Lady Yii-chiu-lu JIA kM, died in 45z, several
succenssion. See WS 13, p. 3z27

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These measures enabled the T'o-pa

both as consorts and mothers of fu
politics in the first part of the fifth
could not guard against, however,
slave empress who managed to take
the incoming emperor. The combinat
part of the century eventually g
access to the outer court and govern


As far as we know, none of T'o-pa Kuei's wives came from Chinese

families. Marriage alliances under the first emperor remained much as
they had been at the beginning of the fourth century 29). Kuei's wives
came from the Hsien-pi Mu-jung, Ho-lan, and Tuan R clans, as well as
the Hsiung-nu Liu, and Wu-huan Wang -E families 30). It is probable
that women from such families as the Mu-jung and Wang provided the
T'o-pa leadership with one of its main avenues of contact with Chinese
culture at the beginning of the fifth century. None of these women,
however, had any direct influence on the course of T'o-pa politics
during their day.
T'ai-tsung's concubines nee Yao, Tu, and Mu-jung came from
families with a much longer history of association with Chinese culture
than the T'o-pa. In addition, one of his concubines, by name Yin q,
seems to have been a Chinese woman 31). In Shih-tsu's day, at least two
royal concubines came from Chinese families 32), and Shih-tsu's heir-

29) See J. Holmgren, 'Women and Political Power'.

30) WS 16, p. 389.
31) Yao Wei-yiian's work shows that no non-Chinese group is known to have
taken the Chinese family name Yin. There was a Chinese clan of that name which
served the Chin and Southern Dynasties. See TCTC p. 3736 ff. on empress-dowager
nee Yin of Liu Sung. Yin Cheng ftE, who came from T'ien-shui X* k, is the only
official of that name to receive a biography in the northern histories. See Cbou-sbu
48, p. 87. It is therefore probable that T'ai-tsung's concubine nee Yin came from a
low-status Chinese family in the north. See WS 17, p. 413.
32) They were the concubines nee Shu and Fu 0. It is also possible that his
concubines nee Fu {K, and Yiieh 9t! also came from Chinese families. However, there
were non-Chinese families which adopted these names. See WS I13, PP. 3oo7-14;
Yao Wei-yiian, pp. 134 and 224; WS i8, p. 417-

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apparent, T'o-pa Huang, had at least four Chinese wives 33). By Ka

tsung's time, in the middle of the century, at least half the know
number of harem women were Chinese 34). Thus, despite the impo
sibility of determining the exact percentage of Chinese women in th
harem at any one time 35), our records suggest a gradual increase in t
numbers of Chinese women entering the harem during the fifth century.
At the same time, the sources also show that none of these wome
came from aristocratic or influential Chinese families. Given T'o-
reluctance to confer special status upon concubines from influent
Hsien-pi and Hsiung-nu families, it is likely that the absence of aris-
tocratic Chinese women in the harem was due as much to T'o-pa
policy as to Chinese reluctance to enter into marriage alliances with th
T'o-pa rulers. Again, this may be seen as a reflection of T'o-pa concer
about Chinese and non-T'o-pa infiltration of the powers of the tr
ditional elite through the institution of the harem and distaff perogatives
in regency governments.

The Latter Part of the Fifth Century

The Foster Empress-dowager

Kao-tsung's foster-mother nee Ch'ang A" had been taken into th

T'o-pa harem during Shih-tsu's war with Northern Yen 36). Her statu
as a captive concubine, with few relatives of influence at court, led t
her appointment as foster-mother for Shih-tsu's eldest grandson. Lad
Yti-chiu-lu (d. 45 z), Kao-tsung's natural mother, was a member of th
Juan-juan *iX aristocracy. By Shih-tsu's time, the Juan-juan posed th

33) These women came from the Meng :, Yang 0, and Yiian A families. WS
I9a, p. 441. For the history of these families under T'o-pa rule during the fifth an
sixth centuries, see J. Holmgren, 'Women's Biographies' pp. 56-7 n. 48-50o an
pp. 15 y-6.
34) WS 2o, p. 25.
35) The WS gives no geographical origins for women who produced imperial
princes. Therefore, in cases where the family name was used by both Chinese and
non-Chinese clans, it is impossible to be sure about the ethnic origins of the women.
Moreover, only those women whose sons survived to adult age are listed in WS.
36) See TCTC pp. 3853-63.

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only serious external threat to T'o-pa

chiu-lu was apparently kept well-awa
mative years 37).
As Kao-tsung's foster-mother, Lady
to influence the young ruler when he
we can speculate that she had played
for his claim to the throne after Shih
the death of Kao-tsung's mother in 45
in his favour after the death of his p
same year (see above).
It was to the benefit of harem wom
T'o-pa adopt in its entirety the Chines
leadership still adhered to the princip
and distaff relatives had little hope of
the state. Thus, in 456, three years
infant son, aged two, was formally p
only the second such appointment in
state 39). At the same time, the capti
house of Northern Yen, was procla
natural mother of Kao-tsung's you
suicide 41).
Our sources state that Lady Ch'ang w
duction of the law on forced suicide
parent 42). The early appointment of
and the appointment of consort fro
Yen, can be seen as carefully designed
mother to maintain her privileged po

37) WS 13, pp. 3z7-8. On her family, see

pp. 1816-7.
38) She was made foster empress-dowager at the end of 45 2 and empress-dowager
in 453. WS 5, PP. IIX-2; WS 83a, pp. 1817-8.
39) WS 6, p. Izs.
40) WS 5, p. I 15.
41) W'S 13, p. 331.
4 2) ibid.

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way for a possible government dominated by the old Liaotun

from Northern Yen 43). The ease with which she accomp
plans is indicative of the continuing anxiety within the T'o-
ship about female and distaff interference in political matter
a captive concubine herself, Lady Li *, the mother of K
child-heir, was a Chinese woman from the south. Memb
family served the rulers of Liu Sung (420-477) 44). Little
needed in her case to persuade the leadership to revive t
compulsory suicide. The previous execution of empress Feng
and the disappearance of her uncle and brother 45), made he
to the rank of empress very attractive. Her slave status might
that no child of hers by Kao-tsung would have prior cla
throne over the appointed heir-apparent. In addition, her yo
her little chance of influencing the upbringing of the heir-a
In 460, Lady Ch'ang died 46). Five years later, Kao-tsun
her 47), and empress Feng, at the age of twenty-three, mad
bid for power as regent for the new emperor, Hsien-tsu. Sh
particularly successful. Hsien-tsu was already eleven years ol
years 465-7 saw a three-way power struggle between the T'o
the empress-dowager, and a faction led by the Lieutenant Ch
Yi Hun l f, for control of the regency. Yi Hun was the f
eliminated. It is probable that the T'o-pa leadership, uneasy
growing power, temporarily sided with the empress-do
bring about his downfall 4). After Yi Hun's execution, the

43) I.e. the Feng and Ch'ang families. See WS 83a, pp. 18 17-23.
44) Her father was Li Fang-shu *i & a of Meng V Prefecture in Anhui.
Emperor Wen (r. 424-453) of Liu Sung. His daughter had been captu
during a war with Northern Wei. She entered the household of T'o
grandson of T'ai-tsung. Jen was executed in 453 and his household
palace at P'ing-ch'eng. See WS 13, p. 331; WS 17, p. 405; WS 5, p. II
45) Her father, Feng Lang PA, had been executed sometime between 44
His brother, Mo 2, fled to the Juan-juan, and his son, Hsi R, was taken
among the Ch'iang in Shensi. See WS 83a, pp. 1818-9; WS 13, p. 328.
46) WS 5, P. Ix8.
47) WS 5, P. I23.
48) Most of the records about Yi Hun have been expunged from t
history. WS 6, pp. 125-6 states that between 465 and 466, his power cam
that of all the T'o-pa princes.

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dowager (Empress-dowager Wen-m

dominated court policy for less than a y
by Hsien-tsu 49). The emperor had prob
T'o-pa aristocracy in his effort to end th
Empress-dowager Wen-ming's failu
regency for the Northern Wei state sh
day were still uneasy about the pote
system to provide harem women and di
political power. With their own pow
premacy, the T'o-pa elite, as a minority
civil administration, had to be extreme
access to the emperor and the importa
government. The potential power of di
the emperor was a most dangerous thr
held by male members of the royal clan
Hsien-tsu never appointed an official
matter probably coincided with that of
empress-dowager herself. The appointm
blocked any future opportunity for th
government affairs in the advent of an
she played on Hsien-tsu's fear of a rep
first years in power to dissuade him f
Certainly, the emperor's behaviour in 4
government, and fear of Wen-ming
thinking in the last years of his life (se
In 469, Hsien-tsu appointed his two
heir-apparent 50). Hung's mother had p
Unfortunately, we know nothing of th
However, we do know that at birth, he

49) TCTC p. 4141 states that she abdicated

look after Hsien-tsu's first son. WS 13, p. 328 s
50) WS 6, p. 129.
51) WS 13, p. 331, the biography of Lady L

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assigned to the care of the empress-dowager 52). Thus, it seems th

although the T'o-pa were still anxious to separate heir-apparent from
natural mother, and to make a distinction between empress and mothe
of the heir-apparent, they were unable to stop the empress-dowag
from using her position of influence in the harem to control the up
bringing of the eldest son. Wen-ming's authority as empress-dowager
and surrogate mother to the heir-apparent, as well as the absence of
legally appointed consort in the harem, finally proved successfu
against T'o-pa resistance to her participation in government affairs.
Hsien-tsu was fully aware of Wen-ming's potential to dominate the
government in the event of his death. In 471, he thus tried to retire
from court and hand the throne, not to his four year old son and heir
but to one of his own paternal uncles 53). The accounts of this attem
to revert to the traditional system of fraternal succession are extreme
interesting. The seventh century chapter on empresses in WS 13
ignores the events of this year. Similarly, the ninth century chapter
the IWS which contains the biography of Hsien-tsu's paternal unc
Tzui-t'ui eT-, has only a brief reference to this event despite its im
portance for the relationship between the empress-dowager and t
T'o-pa elite and the course of Northern Wei history in the decade
following Hsien-tsu's death 54). The most detailed account survives in
the sixth century biography of T'o-pa Yun . 55), who, of all the T'o-p
princes, put forward the most persuasive arguements against Tz
t'ui's succession 56). It is probable that the survival of this chapter of
Wei Shou's work was due in part to Yiin's role in persuading the
T'o-pa to keep to what T'ang historians considered the correct (i
Chinese) succession procedure. Again, we can see the reluctance o
seventh century historians to discuss in detail heterodox or non

52) WS 13, p. 328.

53) WS 6, pp. 131-2.
54) IS 13, PP. 328-30; WS i9a, p. 443.
55) WS 19b, pp. 461-2.
56) Naturally, Yiin and son, Ch'eng a, were to become favorites of Kao-tsu a
he empress-dowager in later years. WS 19b, pp. 461-8o.

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Chinese values and customs. It is prob

provided a full discussion of the even
Although Hsien-tsu did hand the thr
he managed to keep Wen-ming from
title T'ai-shang k?t and acting as co-r
Once again Wen-ming was denied s

This was the period when antagonism between Hsien-tsu and t

empress-dowager came to a head. In 470, in preparation for his retir
ment, Hsien-tsu had pruned the civil administration of Wen-min
supporters-particularly her Chinese allies. Unfortunately, the sevent
century historian deals with the events of this year by dwelling on t
empress-dowager's immorality; the righteous Hsien-tsu had We
ming's lover or lovers executed, and the empress-dowager, in a fit o
pique, had Hsien-tsu poisoned 58).
By the time Wen-ming was rid of Hsien-tsu, Kao-tsu was alread
nine years old. The legal period of the regency was drawing to an en
Only three or four years remained in which the empress-dowager w
entitled to make political decisions in her own right. However, t
years of struggle with Hsien-tsu had given her considerable insig
into the T'o-pa mind and the workings of the Northern Wei bureau-
cracy. She had also had nine years of effective psychological cont
over the young emperor. Psychologically, if not legally, her position
court was very secure. As Kao-tsu grew older, her influence thus did
not decline, but increased. Throughout her life, she tutored, counselle
and even physically punished Kao-tsu 59). The TCTC records that
the age of ten the young emperor had childishly contemplated poisoni
her when a present she had given him was not to his liking. She,
turn, sometimes considered deposing him. However, the relationsh

57) He was the second emperor in Chinese history to voluntarily adopt t

title. Several emperors of Northern Ch'i and Northern Chou were to follow
example. See TCTC pp. 4164-6; P. A. Boodberg, 'Marginalia to the Histories of t
Northern Dynasties' Part I HJAS 3 (i938) 235-8.
58) WS 13, p. 328; TCTC pp. 4154-5 and 4187.
59) WS 7b, p. 186.

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between them never deteriorated to the extent that she was willing to
go against the advice of her ministers on this matter 60).
Kao-tsu did not appoint an official consort until three years after
Wen-ming's death. By that time, he had been emperor for twenty-
two years and was twenty-six years old. The timing of the appointment
of his first official consort suggests that it was the empress-dowager's
wish that he not appoint a consort until after her death. In a system
where women came to power and kept power through the emotional
blackmail of one man, an empress-dowager could not be sure she
would keep her position of authority in the harem even when a member
of her own family gained the ruler's affections. Thus, it was left to
T'o-pa P'i 2E, one of the empress-dowager's favorites, to suggest in
493 that her niece be established as consort 1).
Apart from her effective psychological control of the emperor, Wen-
ming used several other methods to maintain her position of authority
in the government. By promoting well-respected and capable officials
who were not from her own family, she avoided the mistakes of her
predecessors in Han and Chin who had been tools in the hands of their
relatives. In some ways, circumstances favoured the empress-dowager;
on coming to power, her brother Feng Hsi had been her only close
relative. She was thus able to share the traditional positions for distaff
relatives at court between him and members of the Ch'ang clan of
Liaotung 62). When her brother's behaviour became too overbearing
at court, she would send him out into the provinces for a time 63).
Another method of maintaining her authority was to keep Kao-tsu's
own maternal relatives from power. Here, the empress-dowager's
biographer is very critical of her behaviour. He accuses her of denying
Kao-tsu any knowledge of his maternal ancestry 64). This is nonsense.
The TCTC and the biography of Kao-tsu's mother, Lady Li, both state

60o) TCTC pp. 4194 and 4402; WS 7b, p. 186.

61) WS 13, p. 332.
62) IFS 83a, p. 1817.
63) See WIS 83a, pp. 1819-zo.
64) WIS 13, p. 330.

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that she had been given the p

year of Hsien-tsu's death ). T
his maternal relatives. Wen-
persecuting Kao-tsu's materna
nating against officials with th
raphy (a T'ang revision) substan
that the persecutions did no
mediate family. One of Wen-m
k NW, and, as her biographer p
in her favours to Li Yi 0 of Ch
of those said to have been un
bring down Li Yi and his bro
schemed Li Hsin's downfall sev
no compunction about executin
Wen-ming's desire to keep Kao
was in form with the traditiona
She must have been aware of t
of the T'o-pa leadership in this
probable that the paragraph
accusing her of unjust behaviou
a seventh century interpolati
Chinese families with the name Li.

Inside the imperial apartments, the empress-dowager was ruthless:

she filled the key positions in the harem with Feng Hsi's daughters, and
brought Feng Hsi's sons into the palace as companions for Kao-tsu;
they were later married off to T'o-pa princesses 70). Like the empress-
dowager nee Ch'ang before her, she also forced Kao-tsu to put into
effect the law on compulsory suicide for the mother of the heir-

65) WS 13, p. 331; TCTC p. 4194.

66) WS 13, p. 331.
67) WS 83a, pp. 1824-6.
68) WS 13, pp. 328-30.
69) WS 46, pp. 1039-42.
70) WS 83a, pp. x818-23.

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Kao-tsu's eldest son, Hsiin u in , had been born in 483. His

Lady Lin #t, had come from a sinicized Hsiung-nu clan
eastern Kansu. She had been taken into the harem after the execution

of her father by Yi Hun, and her family seems to have had connections
with the Feng and Ch'ang families from Liaotung. Kao-tsu probably
favoured this woman with the empress-dowager's approval. However,
after Hsiin's birth, the empress-dowager insisted that Lady Lin be
forced to commit suicide 71). Once this was done, Wen-ming again had
control of the eldest son's upbringing. Hsiin, however, was not officially
appointed heir-apparent until the age of ten. This was in keeping with
the traditional desire among the T'o-pa to see competence and inde-
pendence in the elected leader 72).
Wen-ming's ruthless behaviour towards other women in the harem
was calculated to give her the essential base from which to build
political power in the outer bureaucracy. In the light of general be-
haviour in the harem in other periods of Chinese history, her actions
seem relatively mild. She was perhaps lucky in having a ready-made law
enabling her to get rid of rivals in an acceptable manner.
Despite Wen-ming's personal standing with many members of the
Chinese aristocracy at court, her period in power saw increasing tension
between the leadership at P'ing-ch'eng and the great families of the
north-eastern plain. Under earlier T'o-pa rulers, Chinese leaders had
been given more or less free reign in provincial civilian administration
in return for political loyalty to the dynasty. Wen-ming's patronage of
sinicized and mixed ethnic groups at court threatened to dismantle the
myth of Chinese superiority in civil and fiscal management and open
the way for greater Hsien-pi and T'o-pa participation in the civil
affairs of the empire. Even more radical was the empress-dowager's

71) WS 13, p. 332.

72) WS 7b, p. 172.
73) J. Holmgren, 'Court and Province in North China during the fifth and sixth
centuries: a study of north-western Shantung under the T'o-pa rulers of Northern
Wei (398-534)' (Unpublished manuscript, Dept. Asian Civilizations, Australian
National University, 1979).

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attempt at land re-distribution

undisguised attack on the privil
the provinces. It met with littl
problems of the court in P'ing
tually prompted the emperor t
could be closer to his main area
conscription and taxation proc
of the empire 75).
The move to Loyang in 493 w
personal and psychological ind
was ruler in his own right, aw
Empress-dowager Wen-ming.
been unable to escape her influen
his ministers had been chosen b
up under her tutelage; and she
next to hers on Mt. Fang ; 6ii. O
went back to the north. His m
empty shell, and the last paragr
the sadness of Kao-tsu's ultimate
Since the empress-dowager's fa
Ch'i and early T'ang social life
we might suspect the historian
icizing her behaviour. However,
on empresses in WS 13 seems co
sections of the WS and in the T
see that the biographies of her
full range of stereotypes and p
Her older niece is given the blac
vices of suspicion, jealousy, im
ambition are laid at her door.

74) WS 13, p. 330.

75) See Pei Ch'i-shbu 40, pp. 5 28-9; Pe
3; SAi-shu 71, pp. 1644-5; CTS I85a, pp

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trayed as a model of saintly virtue-unobtrusive, and compliant.

Predictably, the older sister receives far more attention from the
historians than the younger 7). These two portraits are reminiscent
of the juxtaposition between good and evil found in Liu Hsiang's VJ ir
book of female exemplars compiled in the Han period 77), and Wei
Cheng's f t book of good and evil princes compiled in early T'ang 78).
It seems that the latter part of the sixth and early seventh centuries saw
a revival of interest in the north in this type of didactic literature 79).
Internal evidence in the IS tends to destroy or question the image
of Wen-ming's older niece as a wicked and ruthless woman. While
the biography of the younger Feng consort states that she was degraded
through the machinations of her older sister 80), the latter's biography
admits that Kao-tsu had always intended the older sister to be empress.
Apparently, an illness in 493 A.D. had caused her to miss out on the
initial appointment 81).
Another charge which can be more or less dismissed is her alleged
involvement in the death of Lady Kao iAi. Lady Kao was the mother
of Kao-tsu's second son, T'o-pa K'o %I. She died unexpectedly just
after her son was appointed heir-apparent in 497. The historians are
very guarded in their accusation against the empress. The words
'some said' imply that the rumours were known or suspected to be
unfounded 82). Ssu-ma Kuang ?r l ), in the TCTC, is equally as
guarded. Hu San-hsing -iM-, however, in his commentary to the
TCTC, seems to have had little doubt about her guilt 83). Lady Kao's
biography tells us that after her death, a close parental-child relation-

76) WS 13, pp. 332-5.

77) Liu Hsiang, Ku lieb-nl chuan -?i J & X transl. O'Hara, The Position of Women in
Early China (Orient Publishing Co., Hongkong, i955).
78) See H. J. Wechsler, Mirror to the Son of Heaven: Wei Cheng at the court of T'ang
T'ai-tsung (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1974) p. I14.
79) See J. Holmgren, 'Women's Biographies' Ch. 6-7, pp. 178-264.
8o) WS 13, p. 332.
8I) WS I3, p. 333.
82) WS 13, p. 335.
83) TCTC p. 4411.

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ship developed between her son

fourteen years old at the time 85
have.chosen to ignore rumours ab
mother's death if they had been c
that he was weak-willed and infat
more likely that the rumours abo
death stemmed from a later per
witchcraft against Kao-tsu.
According to empress Feng's b
Lady Ch'ang S, practised witchc
before he discovered her sexu
also state that she was anxious to
However, her biographers also adm
tions about her immorality and
ignored the evidence presented to
the palace. The biographers attrib
the name of the Feng family 8s).
piety and respect for his deceas
Wen-ming. It also provides a sim
for the very perplexing question
and the relationship between her,
pa princes at court.
The empress' biographers adm
Kao-tsu's brothers over her inf
K'o. K'o's paternal uncles were d
female regency after Kao-tsu's dea
had been young and inexperienced
dowager to control them. Her n
grown men, seasoned in militar
They expected to have the full po
senior members of the T'o-pa hou

84) WS 13, p. 335.

85) He was born in 483. WS 8, p. 19p.
86) WS 13, pp. 333-5.

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According to WS 13, Kao-tsu, on his death-bed, ordered the secret

suicide of his consort. Conveniently, it was his brothers, Hsiang 9,
and Hsieh AM, who received this command. Whether or not Kao-tsu
actually did give such an order is immaterial: as his brother, T'o-pa
Hsi 0 remarked during the empress' funeral, 'If it hadn't been for the
emperor's last command, we brothers would have been forced to ge
rid of her ourselves ...' 87).
The revelation of this hatred between the empress and Kao-tsu's
brothers shows that the T'o-pa leadership at the end of the fifth century
still feared female and distaff influence on the throne, and that this fear
found an echo of sympathy in the minds of Chinese historians. How-
ever, despite the apparent similarity between T'o-pa and Chinese at-
titudes towards women in government, the foundation of T'o-pa
anxieties was somewhat different to that of the Chinese. While both

groups saw the harem and distaff power as a threat to their own political
security, the T'o-pa fear was related to their position as an alien and
minority group whose power was based almost solely on military
domination and personal ties with the emperor. Distaff power was seen
as an avenue for the Chinese literati, or other non-T'o-pa groups, to
infiltrate and subvert the traditional powers alloted to the emperor's
paternal relatives. In the normal Chinese system, male members of the
imperial family had no effective power. There, the harem threatened
the authority of the established literati who controlled the civil bureau-
In WS 13, concentration on empress Feng's immorality, connivance
of the eunuchs at her misconduct, and her heterodox religious practices
in the inner palace, reflect traditional Chinese values and anxieties
about the harem and women in the dynastic system. Kao-tsu's dying
words about the lessons to be learnt from the Han dynasty 88ss, like those
attributed to T'o-pa Kuei in 409 89, may be those of a Chinese historian

87) WS 13, pp. 334-5.

88) WS 13, p. 3 34.
89) WS 3, P. 49; J. Holmgren, 'Women and Political Power'.

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attempting to fit T'o-pa history into the mould

values. However, it is also possible that by the en
T'o-pa contact with Chinese culture was re-infor
about female and distaff participation in politic
genuine rapprochement between the two cultur

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