Empress Ma (Hongwu)

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Empress Ma

Empress Ma, formally Empress Xiaocigao (1332–1382) was a Chinese Empress Consort of the Ming Dynasty, married to the Hongwu Emperor and acting as his political adviser and secretary, exerting a large amount of influence during his reign.[1]


Early life[edit]

Ma was from a poor background, born in modern-day Suzhou, Anhui Province, in what was then the Yuan Empire. It is noted that she did not have bound feet, which most women above the working class had in contemporary China. All that is known of her parentage is that her mother, who died when she was young, was surnamed Zheng, and that her father had fled with her to Dingyuan (in modern-day Anhui Province) after he had killed someone.[2]

Her father came into contact with and befriended the founder of the Red Turban Army, Guo Zixing, who was both affluent and influential. He took Ma in and educated her, and adopted her when her father died. In 1352, he married her to one of his officers, Zhu Yuanzhang, the future Hongwu Emperor.[3]

Military Campaigns[edit]

Ma would accompany her husband on his campaigns, caring for and supporting him, while also being actively involved in political and military affairs, as well as managing his own affairs. One example of her involvement was when Zhu Yuanzhang took his forces across the Yangtze River to engage Yuan soldiers, leaving Ma to comfort the families of the soldiers left in Hezhou (in present-day Anhui Province). She encouraged the forces that remained with her to defend their city.[4]

In 1363, during the Battle of Lake Poyang, the future empress was a beacon of strength and resolve during a widespread panic that had developed with the oncoming forces of rival Chen Youliang, who was also rebelling against the Yuan and whose forces almost matched those of Zhu Yuanzhang in size and strength. Ma distributed valuable goods to the soldiers to encourage them to continue fighting.


When Zhu Yuanzhang became emperor in 1368, he named Ma as his empress. In spite of her elevation, Ma continued to remain humble, economic and just, and kept to her simple habits all her life. She played an important political role and acted as a political adviser and secretary, keeping control of state documents. On several occasions, she reproached the emperor and prevented him from committing acts of injustice, such as when she prevented him from executing the academician Song Lian.

Empress Ma took great care for the wellbeing of the people, encouraging tax reductions as well as reducing the burden of heavy work obligations. She was pivotal in encouraging her husband to create a granary in the Ming capital, Nanjing, which would provide food for the families of students who were attending the national university there.

The Hongwu Emperor did not like her involvement in politics and state affairs, and attempted to curb this by establishing regulations that prohibited empresses and consorts from intervening in state affairs. He also forbade women below the rank of empress and consort from leaving the palaces unattended. Empress Ma reacted by telling her husband that as he was the father of the people, she was their mother; how then could their mother stop caring for the comfort of her children?[5]

Famous for her humility and plain living, the empress continued wearing common clothing until they were old and worn out. She provided blankets and curtains woven of rough silk to orphans and widows, and gave leftover material to the wives of princes so that they would come to appreciate and value sericulture.


There is no mention in her official biography that Empress Ma ever gave birth to any children. For a long period of time, it was believed she was the mother of the first five of her husband's twenty-six sons. Modern historians believe she produced no offspring, but instead was given the emperor’s first five sons to raise as her own.

Ma maintained good relations with her husband’s concubines and palace women, ensuring impartial reprimand to those who violated the law for any reason (this she did in order to spare them from her husband’s infamously cruel temper).

She concerned herself with her adopted sons’ education, selecting renowned Confucian scholars for their educators, and personally oversaw the instruction of their wives in etiquette and ritual. She ordered a compilation of the deeds of wise and virtuous empresses and consorts during the Song Dynasty, as well as an observation of the palace regulations that existed during that era, which she would teach to the palace women in study groups. She had a tremendous impact on the future empress of the Yongle Emperor, Xu Yihua.[6]


In the fall of 1382, the empress grew ill. Before she died, she again offered counsel to her husband, that he value talent, listen to the advice of his ministers, be careful in deciding matters, and ensure he finished all he set out to do.

Empress Ma was buried at Xiaoling Mausoleum in Nanjing, and was granted the posthumous title Xiaocigao.[7]


  1. ^ Lily Xiao Hong Lee; Sue Wiles (13 March 2014). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 282–284. ISBN 978-0-7656-4316-2. 
  2. ^ Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644
  3. ^ Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644
  4. ^ Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644
  5. ^ Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644
  6. ^ Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644
  7. ^ Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644
Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Gi
Empress of China
Succeeded by
Empress Xiaominrang