Empress Gi

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Empress Gi
Empress of the Yuan dynasty
Empress Dowager
Reign 1340–1369/70 (29–30 years)
Born 1315
Died 1369/70 (aged 54–55)
Spouse Toghon Temür
Issue Biligtü Khan Ayushiridara
Father Gi Ja-o

Empress Gi (or Ki; Hangul기황후; 1315–1369/70), known as Empress Qi (or Ch'i; 奇皇后) in Chinese and Öljei Khutuk (Өлзий хутуг) in Mongolian, was one of the primary empresses of Toghon Temür of the Yuan dynasty and the mother of Biligtü Khan Ayushiridara. She was from a Korean aristocratic family.


Öljei Khutuk, the Mongolian name by which she came to be known, was born to Gi Jao (hanja: 奇子敖 ) in Haengju (hanja: 幸州 , modern Goyang) in Goryeo. She had an elder brother named Gi Cheol (hanja: 奇轍 , Mongolian: Bayn Bukha). She became a concubine of Toghon Temür and was the mother of Ayushiridara. Lady Gi (also known as Lady Ki) was born into a lower-ranked aristocratic family of bureaucrats.[1] Until the late 19th century, Korean society was divided into 14 castes with the royalty at the top and slaves at the bottom. In 1333, the teenage Lady Gi was sent as "human tribute" to China as the Korean kings had to provide a certain number of beautiful teenage girls to serve as concubines of the Mongol Emperors once every three years.[1] Lady Gi did not wish to leave her family in Korea, and was taken to China very much against her will as she had no desire to be "human tribute".[2] The concubines of the Emperor were his slaves and in effect the Emperor's harem was glorified sexual slavery. After she arrived in China, Gi chose to make the best of her situation by being the best concubine she could be.[2] Extremely beautiful and skilled at dancing, conversation, singing, poetry, and calligraphy, she quickly become the favorite concubine of Toghon Temür as she able to provide him with a degree of sexual satisfaction that his other concubines could not.[1] The Emperor fell in love with Lady Gi and it was soon noted that Toghon Temür was spending far more time in her company than he was with the first empress Danashri.[3]

After the primary empress Danashri was executed on 22 July 1335 in a purge because of the rebellion of her brother Tankis (Tangqishi),[4] When Toghon Temür tried to promote Lady Gi to secondary wife, which was contrary to the standard practice of only taking secondary wives from the Mongol clans, it created such opposition at court to this unheard of promotion for a Korean woman that he was forced to back down.[1] Toghon Temür tried to install Öljei Khutuk as the empress. However Bayan of the Merkid, who held real power, opposed it. In 1339, when Lady Gi gave birth to a son, whom Toghon Temür decided would be his successor, he was finally able to have Lady Gi named as his secondary wife in 1340.[1] As the favorite wife of the emperor, Lady Gi was a very powerful woman in China and as a result the "Korean style" in women's fashions and hairstyles become all the rage in China.[5] The "Korean style" also extended to ideals about female beauty, and after Lady Gi's rise, Korean concubines become very popular with the Mongol and Chinese elites as it become almost de rigueur for an official to have at least one Korean concubine as a status symbol.[5] When Bayan was purged, Öljei Khutuk became the secondary empress in 1340 (the primary empress was Bayan Khutugh of the Khongirad).

Toghon Temür increasingly lost interest in governing as his reign went on. During this time power was increasingly exercised by Lady Gi, who become the real ruler of China.[3] Gi had a special office devoted entirely to imposing taxes for her own personal use, and she became known for her corruption and lavish spending on palaces and luxury goods, making her a much hated figure in China.[3] In Korea itself, Lady Gi's family, who all enjoyed influential positions thanks to her power, were equally hated for their corruption.[3] Lady Gi had the Emperor gave her parents the titles of "king" and "queen" whom the official Goryeo king had to pay homage to, and the Gi family were infamous for abusing their positions to steal the property and slaves of other Korean aristocrats.[3] Lady Gi's older brother Gi Cheol was appointed the commander of the Mongol Eastern Field Headquarters-making him in effect the real ruler of Korea-owning to her influence.[3] Lady Gi never returned to Korea after being sent as "human tribute" to China, but she closely monitored Korean affairs, and warned her siblings and parents to try to control their greed as her family become more and more unpopular.[3] Her son Ayushiridara was designated Crown Prince in 1353. Using her Korean eunuch Bak Bulhwa (Hangul박불화; hanja朴不花) as her agent, she began a campaign to force the emperor to pass the imperial throne to her son Ayushiridara. However her intentions became known to the emperor and he grew apart from her.

Depending on Öljei Khutuk's position in the imperial capital, her elder brother Gi Cheol came to threaten the position of the king of Goryeo, which was a client state of the Mongols. King Gongmin of Goryeo exterminated the Gi family in a coup in 1356. Öljei Khutuk responded by selecting Tash Temür as the new king of Goryeo and dispatched troops to Goryeo. The Mongol troops were defeated by the army of Goryeo while attempting to cross the Yalu River.

Within the Mongol capital an internal strife was fought between supporters and opponents of the Crown Prince. An opposition leader, Bolud Temür, finally occupied the capital in 1364. Ayushiridara fled to Köke Temür who supported him, but Öljei Khutuk was imprisoned by Bolud Temür. Bolud Temür was overthrown by Köke Temür the next year. Once again, she tried to install her son as Khagan, this time with the support of Köke Temür, but in vain. After Bayan Khutugh died, Öljei Khutuk was elevated to the primary empress.

The collapse of the Mongol rule of China in 1368 forced her to flee to Yingchang. In 1370, Toghon Temür died and Ayushiridara ascended to the throne. Empress Gi became Empress Dowager, but soon after that went missing. The official History of Goryeo listed the Gi family under the section "Traitors" and devoted much space to denouncing Gi family for their arrogance and corruption.[5] Likewise, after the Ming dynasty to power in 1368, an official history of the Yuan dynasty was written where Lady Gi was singled out as one of the main reasons for the fall of the Yuan.[3] In her own lifetime, Lady Gi was hated figure in both Korea and China, but as the effective ruler of China (a nation whose population numbered about 60 million in her lifetime) during the later part of Toghon Temür's reign made her the most powerful Korean woman in history, making her the object of enduring fascination in Korea, all the more so because of the traditionally low status of women in Korea.[3]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Kyung Moon Hwang A History of Korea, London: Palgrave, 2010 page 56
  2. ^ a b Kyung Moon Hwang A History of Korea, London: Palgrave, 2010 page 59.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kyung Moon Hwang A History of Korea, London: Palgrave, 2010 page 57
  4. ^ Association for Asian Studies. Ming Biographical History Project Committee; Luther Carrington Goodrich (15 October 1976). Dictionary of Ming biography, 1368-1644. Columbia University Press. p. 1291. 
  5. ^ a b c Kyung Moon Hwang A History of Korea, London: Palgrave, 2010 page 58.


  • Чулууны Далай; Нямбуугийн Ишжамц; Найдангийн Дангаасүрэн (1992). Монголын түүх. Улаанбаатар: Эрдэм. 
Preceded by
Bayan Khutugh
Consort of Toghon Temür
Succeeded by
Khatun of the Mongols
Succeeded by
Empress Gwon
Empress of China
Succeeded by
Empress Ma (Hongwu)