Empress Widow Li


July 1, 2022

Empress Dowager Li (Pingyin Chinese Lǐ, characters 李; 1546–1614), posthumously named Empress Xiao-ting (Chinese in Czech transliteration Siao-ting tai-chou, Pinyin Xiàodìng tàihòu, characters 孝定太后), was a Chinese empress dowager, one of the secondary wives of Lung-ching, emperor of the Chinese Ming Empire, and mother of his successor Wan-li. After Lugqing's death, she succeeded the infant Wanli as head of government and supervised the education of the emperor, while Grand Secretary Zhang Yucheng and the highest-ranking eunuch of the imperial palace, Feng Pao, ran the state administration. She did not interfere in politics, except for the dispute over the appointment of the heir to the throne (formally, however, family matters of the imperial family), in which she supported the rights of the emperor's eldest son. Instead of politics, she concentrated on religion: she was a devout Buddhist, surrounded herself with the leading Buddhist monks of the time, and with her influence and financial resources she extensively supported Buddhist monasteries, especially in the 1970s and 1980s and to a somewhat lesser extent after 1601.


Mrs. Li was born in 1546, the daughter of Li Wei († 1584), a mason from the Beijing suburb of Chuo, a descendant of soldiers resettled from Shanxi to Beijing at the beginning of the 15th century. She received a good education and from 1550 she was one of the maids, later concubines of Lung Qing, the crown prince of the Chinese Ming Empire, and from 1567 the emperor. In 1563, she gave birth to a son, Chu I-yun, Lung Ching's third, but the two elders (from other women) died in childhood in 1559 and 1562. Chu I-yun received the title of Prince of Yu, and in 1568 he was appointed crown prince. With Lung Qing, she had one more son, Chu Iliou, Prince of Liou from 1571, and three daughters – Chu Yao-e (朱堯娥, 1565–1590), Chu Yao-jing (朱堯媖, 1567–1594 and Chu Yao- yuan (朱堯媛, † 1629) who received the titles of Princess Shou-yang (壽陽公主), Princess Jung-ning (永宁公主) and Princess Zhuei-an (瑞安公主). After Lung Qing's accession to the throne, she was promoted to a noble lady (kuei-fei). She enjoyed the emperor's favor, but managed to maintain good relations with his (childless) empress, otherwise the main rival for the emperor's attention. The dexterity and wisdom with which she was able to work with rivals and competitors was displayed throughout her life and contributed in no small way to her success. She was capable, wise, decisive, but sensitive and able to limit herself and not exceed her competences. In 1572, Lung Qing died and her son Chu Yiyun ascended the throne as the emperor of the Wanli era. Lady Li was given the title of Empress Dowager and, in accordance with the law, headed the government during her son's minority. She formed an alliance with First Grand Secretary Zhang Yucheng and the highest-ranking eunuch of the Imperial Palace, Feng Pao; the trio then jointly ruled the Ming Empire - Zhang controlling the government, Feng Pao the imperial eunuchs, and Lady Li overseeing Wan-li's upbringing while not interfering in political decision-making. Until 1578, at the request of the government, the empress dowager stayed in the emperor's palace more than in her palace to supervise his upbringing. She led him to study, responsibility and modesty. She raised him with great care, but also strictness. Wan-li's filial devotion and respect for his mother cultivated by a strict upbringing prevented him from openly contradicting her throughout his life. The alliance of Mrs. Li, Zhang Yucheng, and Feng Pao successfully ruled the country for ten years, until Zhang's death in 1582. The position at the head of the government brought her prestige and recognition, although in accordance with the rules established by the first Ming emperor Chung-wu, she stayed away from politics and only occasionally tried to intervene: for example, because of her Buddhist belief in the wrongness of any killing, she asked Zhang Yucheng to temporarily abolish the death penalty; however�