Wei Zifu: Empress Wei


Caroline Young, artwork and text

QFWF, September 7th 2021 

Wei Zifu was the second wife of the famous Emperor Wu of Han (157 BCE-87 BCE). She was born to a lowly servant in the household of Princess Pingyang, a sister of Emperor Wu.

Empress Wei, shown alongside a screen painting of a phoenix, which symbolizes the empress

At a certain point, Emperor Wu became disenchanted with his first wife, Empress Chen, who was an older cousin, at least 8 years his senior.
The marriage was arranged when the emperor was a child of 5, and was strictly for political reasons. The actual wedding ceremony was performed a few years later.

Empress Chen was spoiled and abusive toward her young husband, prohibiting him from taking concubines.
To make things worse, she was unable to produce children, thus giving the emperor’s political enemies an excuse to depose him in favor of a distant uncle, Liu Han. The inability to propagate the royal bloodline was a serious matter.

In the spring of 139 BCE, Emperor Wu paid a casual visit to his sister. Sensing his unhappiness and boredom, the Princess Pingyang summoned her in-house dancers.
This was the first time the emperor set his eyes on the beautiful Wei Zifu, and he immediately fell in love with her.

When he returned to the capital at Chang An, he brought along Wei Zifu and her half-brother, Wei Qing, to serve as stable-boy.
Upon hearing about the arrival of the new girl, the extremely jealous and intolerant Empress Chen made sure the emperor would abandon any thought of keeping her as a concubine. She was relegated to the role of a lowly serving maid and was largely forgotten.

A year later, feeling hopeless about her life in the palace, Wei Zifu blended into a group of palace maids who were soon to be released from service.
Emperor Wu happened to be there that day, inspecting the expulsion process, and love sparked again when he saw the tearful girl pleading to go home.

By then, the emperor had consolidated his power, and no longer had to appease his wife. Wei Zifu was asked to stay, and fell pregnant shortly thereafter.
This was exciting news for Emperor Wu, who was upset over being partially blamed for Empress Chen’s infertility.
He officially made Wei Zifu his concubine, and she went on to bear him three daughters.

In 130 BCE, Empress Chen was found guilty of resorting to witchcraft to curse her rival, in an attempt to regain her husband’s love.
Following a huge investigation, which saw the execution of over 300 people, Empress Chen was deposed and exiled.

In 128 BCE, Consort Wei gave birth to Emperor Wu’s first son, Liu Ju, and the ecstatic emperor immediately made her his official wife, Empress Wei.
Liu Ju was later created Crown Prince in 122 BCE.

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As an adopted child of Chinese-American expatriates, I have always been intrigued by how the Chinese culture explained the mysteries of the universe.