Ulanara, the Step Empress

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Ulanara, the Step Empress
Step Empress Ulanara.PNG
Empress of the Qing dynasty
Tenure 1750–1766
Predecessor Empress Xiaoxianchun
Successor Empress Xiaoyichun
(Empress Xiaoshurui was the actual living successor)
Born (1718-03-11)11 March 1718
Died 14 July 1766(1766-07-14) (aged 48)
Beijing, China
Burial Eastern Qing tombs, China
Spouse Qianlong Emperor
Issue Yongqi
unnamed daughter
Father Narbu
Ulanara, the Step Empress
Traditional Chinese 繼皇后烏喇納喇氏
Simplified Chinese 继皇后乌喇纳喇氏

The Step Empress (11 March 1718 – 14 July 1766), of the Ulanara clan, was the second Empress Consort of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty. Her personal name is not recorded in history, so she is referred to as either "the Step Empress" or "Lady Ulanara".

Family background[edit]

Lady Ulanara was born in the Manchu Ula clan, a subgroup of the Nara clan, which was under the Bordered Yellow Banner. Her father, Narbu (那爾布), was a zuoling (佐領; a military rank). Her ancestor was Wangginu (王機褚/旺吉努), the first beile (a noble title) of the Huifa area.

Becoming Empress[edit]

Lady Ulanara became a secondary consort of Hongli (Prince Bao), the fourth son of the Yongzheng Emperor, sometime during the Yongzheng Emperor's reign (1722–1735). When the Yongzheng Emperor died in 1735, Prince Bao succeeded his father and was enthroned as the Qianlong Emperor. After his coronation, the Qianlong Emperor granted Lady Ulanara the rank of Consort under the title "Consort Xian" (嫻妃). He promoted her to Noble Consort Xian (嫻貴妃) later.

In 1748, the Qianlong Emperor's first empress consort, Lady Fuca, died. The emperor's mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing nominated Lady Ulanara to replace Lady Fuca as her son's new empress consort. The Qianlong Emperor delayed Lady Ulanara's promotion to Empress until the mourning period for Lady Fuca was over, because he believed that it would be an insult to Lady Fuca if he designated another consort as Empress during the mourning period. Lady Ulanara was first promoted to "Imperial Noble Consort Xian" (嫻皇貴妃) and put in charge of the emperor's harem, making her an acting Empress.

In 1750, Lady Ulanara accompanied the Qianlong Emperor on his tours to places such as the tombs of his predecessors (the Eastern Qing tombs and Western Qing tombs), Mount Wutai, and various cities in southern China. About half a month after the tours, the emperor officially instated Lady Ulanara as the new Empress. In 1752, Lady Ulanara gave birth to the Qianlong Emperor's 12th son, Yongqi. One year later, she gave birth to the emperor's fifth daughter.

Losing favour[edit]

Lady Ulanara accompanied the Qianlong Emperor on his fifth tour to southern China in 1765.

Things went smoothly initially; the emperor even celebrated Lady Ulanara's birthday during the trip. On 28 February, the emperor instructed his servants to deliver food to the empress. In the evening, however, only three consorts were seen dining with the emperor. Lady Ulanara was never seen in public after that day.

It was revealed later that on 28 February, the Qianlong Emperor had Lady Ulanara sent back to Beijing via waterways, and ended his tour to southern China. After returning to Beijing, he ordered the four monuments he granted to Lady Ulanara during her four promotion ceremonies to be recalled. He also gradually reduced the number of servants Lady Ulanara had, until the empress was only left with two maids by July. This was the number of servants low-ranking consorts had. Lady Ulanara died a year later at the age of 48.

It remains a mystery as to why Lady Ulanara fell out of the Qianlong Emperor's favour in such an abrupt and rapid manner. According to pseudo-historical records of the time, Lady Ulanara lost favour with the emperor because she cut her hair. By Manchu custom, Lady Ulanara was allowed to cut her hair only when either the Qianlong Emperor or Empress Dowager Chongqing died. Since both the emperor and his mother were alive and well at the time, Lady Ulanara had committed a grave faux pas by cutting her hair because doing so was interpreted as cursing the emperor and the empress dowager.

However, since Lady Ulanara was a Manchu herself and had lived in the Forbidden City for years, it is assumed that she would be familiar with such customs. Hence, historians are baffled by the question of why she cut her hair. Some[who?] speculate that Lady Ulanara cut her hair in protest against the Qianlong Emperor's tour to southern China because she believed that he had travelled there in search of women to be his new concubines.

Death and funeral[edit]

The Qianlong Emperor was on a hunting excursion at the Mulan Hunting Grounds (木蘭圍場) near Beijing when he received news of Lady Ulanara's death. He did not end his excursion immediately and head back to the Forbidden City. Instead, he ordered his 12th son, Yongqi, who was born to Lady Ulanara, to return to the palace.

By the Qianlong Emperor's order, Lady Ulanara's funeral was ostensibly scaled down to that of an Imperial Noble Consort (one rank below the Empress), but in reality, the ceremony was much worse than it seemed. At an Imperial Noble Consort's funeral, princesses, nobles, and high-ranking court officials were required to attend the mourning processions, but this aspect was absent for the empress's funeral.

For consorts and concubines of her class, Lady Ulanara was expected to have her own mausoleum or a gravestone at the very least. However instead, she was laid to rest in the Yuling Mausoleum in the Eastern Qing tombs next to Imperial Noble Consort Chunhui in a way similar to how servants were buried beside their masters. Her death was also not recorded in official histories.

Once, a historian begged the Qianlong Emperor to organise a funeral befitting that of an empress for Lady Ulanara, but the emperor exiled him to northwestern China near the Ili River. Years later, a scholar pleaded with the Qianlong Emperor to reconsider the entire affair, but the emperor responded with anger and had the scholar executed.

See also[edit]


  • 清宮檔案 [Imperial Archives of the Qing Palace] (in Chinese). 
  • 清皇室四譜 [Imperial Genealogy of the Qing Imperial Clan] (in Chinese). 
  • Ho, Chuimei; Bronson, Bennet (2004). Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong (Illustrated ed.). Merrell. ISBN 1858942039. 
  • Rawski, Evelyn S. (1998). The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (Reprint ed.). University of California Press. ISBN 052092679X. 
  • Wan, Yi; Shuqing, Wang; Yanzhen, Lu; Scott, Rosemary E. (1988). Daily Life in the Forbidden City: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912 (Illustrated ed.). Viking. ISBN 0670811645. 
  • Zhao, Erxun (1928). Draft History of Qing (Qing Shi Gao) (in Chinese). 
Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Xiaoxianchun
Empress of China
Succeeded by
Empress Xiaoyichun
(Empress Xiaoshurui was the actual living successor)