Empress Chen Jiao

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Empress Chen of Wu 孝武陳皇后
Empress of Western Han Dynasty
Reign 141–130 BC
Predecessor Empress Wang Zhi
Successor Empress Wei Zifu
Died c. 110 BC
Spouse Emperor Wu of Han
Full name
Family name: Chen 陳
Given name: Jiao 嬌 (Not in official history)
Father Chen Wu, Marquess of Tangyi
Mother Liu Piao, Princess Guantao

Empress Chen of Wu (孝武陳皇后), also known as Deposed Empress Chen (陳廢后) and in unofficial history as Chen Jiao (simplified Chinese: 陈娇; traditional Chinese: 陳嬌; pinyin: Chén Jiaō; Wade–Giles: Ch'en Chiao) or as her milk name A'Jiao (阿嬌), was an empress during Han Dynasty. She was the older cousin and first wife of Emperor Wu of Han until her deposition in 130 BC for committing witchcraft.

Early life and arranged marriage[edit]

Empress Chen was the daughter of Chen Wu (陳午), the Marquess of Tangyi (堂邑侯), and Liu Piao (劉嫖), the Eldest Princess Guantao (館陶長公主, the older sister of Emperor Jing of Han). She also had two brothers, Chen Xu (陳須) and Chen Jiao (陳蟜). There were no authentic historical records of her real name, and the well-known name "A'Jiao" came from a pseudohistoric fable titled Hanwu Stories (漢武故事), thought to be written during the Wei-Jin period.

Princess Guantao initially proposed to marry her teenage daughter to Liu Rong (劉榮), Emperor Jing's eldest son and crown prince at the time, as well as son of his favourite concubine, Lady Li (栗姬). However, Lady Li rudely rejected the proposal as she was upset that Princess Guantao often procured new concubines for Emperor Jing (therefore gaining his favour at the expense of Lady Li). A greatly humiliated and frustrated Princess Guantao then approached Consort Wang Zhi, another concubine favoured by Emperor Jing, and offered to marry her daughter to Consort Wang's 5-year-old son Liu Che, Emperor Jing's tenth (and arguably the favourite) son and then the Prince of Jiaodong (膠東王). Consort Wang, who had been watching quietly from the sidelines, saw her opportunity and welcomed the proposal immediately. This political marriage secured an alliance between them. They then plotted together to ensure that Emperor Jing became increasingly annoyed at Lady Li. Coupled with Lady Li's own foolishness, it eventually resulted in the deposition of Liu Rong, who was demoted from crown prince to the Prince of Linjiang (臨江王) in 150 BC and exiled out of the capital Chang'an. Lady Li died soon after, and Liu Rong was arrested two years later for illegally seizing imperial shrine lands and committed suicide in custody.

However, the union between Liu Che and Chen was not initially approved by Emperor Jing, as their age difference was inappropriate (Chen was at least 8~9 years older than Liu Che). According to Hanwu Stories, during a royal gathering, Princess Guantao held the young prince in her arms and asked him whether he wanted to marry a girl. After rejecting the choice of dozens of palace maids, Princess Guantao eventually showed her daughter to Liu Che, who bragged that he would "build a golden house for her" if they were married.[1] (This inspired the Chinese idiom "Putting Jiao in a golden house" 金屋藏嬌, which later ironically became a term for keeping a mistress rather than a wife.) Princess Guantao then used the tale as proof that the marriage was destined to happen to convince Emperor Jing, who finally agreed to the arranged marriage.

Liu Che was later created crown prince at the age of 7, and formally married Chen as the empress-designate some years later. When Emperor Jing died in early 141 BC, the 16-year-old heir apparent Liu Che ascended to the throne as Emperor Wu, and formally made his newly-wed wife Empress not long after.

As Empress and loss of favour[edit]

The Han Dynasty up to this point was run according to a Taoist wu wei (無為而治) ideology, championing economic freedom and government decentralization. Foreign policy-wise, periodic heqin was used to maintain a de jure "peace" with the nomadic Xiongnu confederacy to the north. These policies were important in stimulating economic recovery following the post-Qin Dynasty civil war, but not without drawbacks. The non-interventionist policies resulted in loss of monetary regulation and political control by the central government, allowing the feudal vassal states to become dominant and unruly, culminating in the Rebellion of the Seven States during Emperor Jing's reign. Nepotism among the ruling classes also stagnated social mobility, as well as encouraged rampant disregard of laws by nobles, which led to the rise of local despots who bullied and oppressed other civilians. The heqin policy also failed to protect the Han borders against Xiongnu raids, with the nomadic cavalries invading as close as 300 li from the capital during Emperor Wen's reign. Prominent politicians like Jia Yi (賈誼) and Chao Cuo (晁錯) had both previously advised on the necessity to important policy reforms, but neither Emperor Wen nor Emperor Jing was willing to implement such changes.

Unlike the emperors before him, the young Emperor Wu was unwilling to put up with the status quo. Less than a year after his ascension, based on advice from Confucian scholars, Emperor Wu launched an ambitious reform, known in history as the Jianyuan Reforms (建元新政). However, his reforms threatened the interests of existing noble classes, and was swiftly defeated by his grandmother, Grand Empress Dowager Dou, who held real political power in the Han court. His two noble supporters, Dou Ying (竇嬰) and Tian Fen (田蚡), both had their positions stripped; and his two mentors, Wang Zang (王臧) and Zhao Wan (趙綰), were impeached, arrested and forced to commit suicide in prison. Emperor Wu, who was now deprived of any allies, was subjected to conspiracies to have him removed from the throne.

At this point, Empress Chen had already married Emperor Wu for years but failed to achieve any pregnancies. In an attempt to remain the centre of his attention, she also prohibited him from keeping other concubines. The fact that the young and energetic Emperor Wu was still childless had been used by his political enemies as an excuse to consider deposing him (the inability to propagate the royal bloodline was a serious matter) and replace him with his distant uncle Liu An (劉安), the King of Huainan (淮南王), who was a renowned figure of Taoist ideology. Emperor Wu's political survival now relied heavily on the lobbying of his aunt/mother-in-law Princess Guantao, who served as a mediator for the Emperor's reconciliation with her mother, Grand Empress Dowager Dou. Princess Guantao wasted no opportunities to exploit this leverage, and constantly made excessive demands from her son-in-law. Emperor Wu, already unhappy with Empress Chen's infertility and poor behavior, was further enraged by her mother's greed, but had to tolerate such abuse under the advice by his mother Empress Dowager Wang to stay put and wait for his chance. He then spent the next few years pretending to be docile, hedonistic and having given up all political ambitions, but in reality was secretly recruiting supporters.

While attending an annual spring ceremonial ritual at Bashang (灞上) in 139 BC, during the second year of his reign, Emperor Wu decided to pay a casual visit to his older sister's household on the way back. His sister, Princess Pingyang (平陽公主), who had long intended to imitate her aunt Princess Guantao and establish herself some political leverage, had prepared a collection of young women to offer for her brother's concubinage. However, her plan did not work out, as none of her candidates managed to impress Emperor Wu. Realizing her brother was disappointed and bored, she called in her in-house dancers for entertainment. This time, Emperor Wu set his eyes on a beautiful young singer called Wei Zifu (衛子夫) and had immediately fallen in love with her. Following a romantic encounter with Wei Zifu, Emperor Wu immediately conferred a thousand pieces of gold to his sister as a reward, who in turn offered the new girl to him as a gift. However, after returning to Chang'an, Emperor Wu was forced to abandon Wei Zifu as an insignificant palace maid and neglected her for over a year under pressure from Empress Chen. They did not meet again until Wei Zifu attempted to leave the palace by blending into a queue of maids due to be expelled. With the old love renewed, Wei Zifu soon fell pregnant, effectively clearing Emperor Wu of any speculation of infertility. This ensured her becoming his favourite concubine.

The sudden rise of a love rival enraged Empress Chen, but she could do little as Wei Zifu was now under the Emperor Wu's direct protection. Princess Guantao then tried to seek vengeance for her daughter, and after finding out that Wei Zifu had a half-brother named Wei Qing (衛青) serving as a horseman in Jianzhang Camp (建章營, Emperor Wu's royal guards), she sent men to kidnap and murder Wei Qing. However, Wei Qing was rescued by his friends, a group of palace guards led by Gongsun Ao (公孫敖), who also reported the whole incident to Emperor Wu. As a sign of annoyance towards Empress Chen and her mother, Emperor Wu publicly made Wei Zifu a consort (夫人, a concubine lower only to the empress), appointed Wei Qing to the Chief of Jianzhang Camp (建章監), Chief of Staff (侍中) and Chief Councillor (太中大夫), promoted several other members of the Wei family, and rewarded everyone who contributed to Wei Qing's rescue. Consort Wei Zifu then went on to monopolize Emperor Wu's love for over a decade and bore him three daughters.

Empress Chen, now having openly fallen out with Emperor Wu, was largely neglected. Frustrated and jealous, she tried in vain to regain her husband's attention by threatening suicide multiple times, which only made Emperor Wu more angry at her. Helpless and despairing, she again turned to her mother to vent her anger. Her mother then confronted and accused Princess Pingyang of sabotaging her daughter's marriage, but was simply brushed off with the statement that Empress Chen lost favour purely because of her own infertility. Baffled by the argument, Empress Chen then spent over 90 million coins seeking treatment, to no avail. However, because Emperor Wu no longer visited her palace since the Wei Qing incident, it was already impossible for her to achieve a pregnancy.

Witchcraft and deposition[edit]

Now having completely lost her husband's love, Empress Chen bore great jealousy and hatred towards Consort Wei. She eventually resorted to the occult as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the situation, and was approached by a witch named Chu Fu (楚服), who claimed she had magical tricks that could help to restore the Emperor's love, as well as curse any concubines Empress Chen disliked. Completely convinced by the witch, Empress Chen conducted rituals with Chu Fu day and night, drank potions, created nailed voodoo dolls of Consort Wei, and slept together "like husband and wife" with Chu Fu dressed in men's garment.[2]

Witchcraft was a capital offence according to Han laws, especially if it involved noble families. Empress Chen's association with Chu Fu was soon discovered, and Emperor Wu assigned the infamously feared prosecutor Zhang Tang (張湯) to investigate. After Zhang's massive crackdown, Chu Fu was arrested and executed by decapitation, along with more than 300 other accused individuals. Emperor Wu then issued an edict officially deposing Empress Chen from the position of empress in 130 BC, and exiled her out of the capital Chang'an and placed her under house arrest at the Long Gate Palace (長門宮), a suburban household that Princess Guantao once offered to Emperor Wu as a gift for tolerating her private scandals, although Emperor Wu had promised her aunt that the ex-empress would be supplied with all the daily living necessities.

Two years later in 128 BC, Consort Wei gave birth to Emperor Wu's first son, Liu Ju, and was created empress for her contribution to the royal bloodline. Her brother Wei Qing and nephew Huo Qubing would go on to become the most esteemed military general in Han history, further consolidating her position. In 122 BC, Liu Ju was also created crown prince. With the secure establishment of Empress Wei, any chance of Empress Chen's reinstatement was all but gone.

Later life[edit]

The now deposed Empress Chen spent the rest of her life in the cheerless, lonely Long Gate Palace. Still refusing to give up, she hired the famous poet Sima Xiangru to compose a song later known as The Ode of Long Gate (長門賦), hoping it would draw Emperor Wu's sympathy. Although some scholars claimed that Emperor Wu was so touched by the song that he revisited and loved her again, these claims are likely to be just inaccurate fantasies. Historical records indicate that though Emperor Wu rewarded Sima Xiangru for his work, Empress Chen never had any success recapturing Emperor Wu's heart.

One year after Empress Chen's deposition, her father Chen Wu died.[3] The widowed Princess Guantao, who was already having an adulterous relationship with her 18-year-old godson Dong Yan (董偃),[4][5] was focussed on her young lover and no longer bothered to care about her daughter's misfortune. When Emperor Wu learned of this, he let the scandal slip as a leverage in exchange for Princess Guantao's now submissive behaviour. A few years after Dong's death at the age of 30,[6] the grieving Princess Guantao died in 116 BC, leaving behind a will to be buried with Dong instead of her late husband.[7] During her filial mourning period, her two sons (Empress Chen's brothers) got into a dispute over the inheritance, each committed adultery[8] and incest,[9] and were prosecuted as a result. They both committed suicide the same year and had their marquisates removed. With the downfall of her family, Empress sank further into depression.

A few years later, the ex-Empress Chen died alone, about 20 years after she was deposed, and was buried east of the Langguan Pavilion (郎官亭) in Baling County (霸陵縣), about 30 li northeast of Chang'an, outside of her ancestral cemeteries.

Age difference to Emperor Wu[edit]

As there are no reliable historical records of Empress Chen's birth year, it is almost impossible to accurately calculate her age difference to Emperor Wu. However, Chen Jiao was originally intended to marry Liu Rong, Emperor Wu's eldest brother. Though Liu Rong's birth year was also omitted in historical records, it was possible to estimate his age by looking at historical records.

One of Emperor Wu's older brothers, Liu Fei (劉非, Emperor Jing's fifth son), was recorded to be 12 years older than Emperor Wu, he was about 15 years old during the Rebellion of the Seven States,[10] while the young Liu Che was only 3. Between Liu Rong and Liu Fei, there were two brothers born to Lady Li (Liu Rong's mother) and one brother born to Liu Fei's mother, meaning Liu Rong was at least 2 years older than Liu Fei and hence at least 14 years older than Emperor Wu. At the time of Princess Guantao's proposal, Liu Rong would have been around the age of 20, meaning that Chen Jiao would have to be at least in the mid-teens (otherwise she would be too young for marriage). Considering Liu Che was only 5 years old at the time of arranged marriage, the age difference between him and his cousin fiancée would be at least 8-9 years.


  1. ^ 數歲,長公主嫖抱置膝上,問曰:“兒欲得婦不?”膠東王曰:“欲得婦。”長主指左右長御百餘人,皆雲不用。末指其女問曰:“阿嬌好不?”於是乃笑對曰:“好!若得阿嬌作婦,當作金屋貯之也。”長主大悅,乃苦要上,遂成婚焉。
  2. ^ 然皇后寵送衰,驕妒滋甚。女巫楚服,自言有術能令上意回。晝夜祭祀,合藥服之。巫著男子衣冠幀帶,素與皇后寢居,相愛若夫婦。
  3. ^ 明年,堂邑侯午薨,主男須嗣侯。
  4. ^ 主寡居,私近董偃。
  5. ^ 午死,主寡居,年五十餘矣,近幸董偃。始偃與母以賣珠為事,偃年十三,隨母出入主家。左右言其姣好,主召見,曰:「吾為母養之。」因留第中,教書計相馬御射,頗讀傳記。至年十八而冠,出則執轡,入則侍內。
  6. ^ 董君之寵由是日衰,至年三十而終。
  7. ^ 後數歲,竇太主卒,與董君會葬於霸陵。
  8. ^ 元鼎元年,侯須坐母長公主卒,未除服奸,兄弟爭財,當死,自殺,國除。
  9. ^ 元鼎元年,侯蟜坐母長公主薨未除服,奸,禽獸行,當死,自殺,國除。
  10. ^ 吳、楚反時,非年十五,有材氣,上書自請擊吳。

Further reading[edit]

  • Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E - 618 C.E., p. 114-
  • Shiji, Sima Qian
  • Book of Han, Ban Gu


Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Wang Zhi
Empress of Western Han Dynasty
141 BC–130 BC
Succeeded by
Empress Wei Zifu