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Child Emperor vs Empress Dowager: Regency in the Western Xia

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

For the State of Xia, located in northern China, the period from 1048 to 1099 was a particularly turbulent time in which its throne was inherited by three consecutive child emperors. Court intrigue and poison plots were rife, policy swung from one direction to the other, and geopolitical relations were put under severe strain.

Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, China as we now know it consisted of several separately governed states. The State of Xia, the setting to this story, is shown below in green.

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Image by Douglasfrankfort / Wikimedia Commons

Even when viewed against Xia’s rocky history, the “regency period” between 1048 and 1099 stands out as especially turbulent. Over this half century, its throne was inherited by three consecutive child kings, which locked the state in a prolonged and relentless tussle for power between the kings themselves, their regents, other figures of influence, and the neighboring states. Coups and poison plots were rife, policy swung from one direction to the other, and geopolitical relations were put under severe strain.

The first baby emperor, Yizong

The regency period began with the sudden assassination of Xia’s first emperor, Jingzong. My previous article “The Upstart King: Jingzong of Xia”, takes a closer look at this headstrong and ambitious ruler.

Jingzong had maintained peace and his own primacy by the means of marriage alliances with women from various powerful Xia clans, most of which had by now produced potential heirs. In 1048, one of Jingzong’s elder sons botched an assassination attempt, stabbing Jingzong in the face before fleeing for his life. The son was swiftly captured and killed at the hands of another powerful clan. When Jingzong died soon afterwards, Xia was plunged into a power vacuum, as each of the in-law clans vied to install their own young prince as the new emperor.

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A baby boy emerged from the chaos as heir. Yizong (r.1048–1068), then barely a year old, would spend the remaining twenty years of his life as ruler of Xia.

Detail from a Xia painting

Regency and agency

With Yizong probably not yet able to walk, let alone rule, the power behind the throne passed into the hands of the boy’s protectors. Just like in other monarchies worldwide, the regency was theoretically a temporary affair, lasting only until the young emperor was old enough to rule by himself. But in practice, the reins to power could be relinquished with considerable reluctance, if at all. Indeed, by the time a child-king comes of age, his adult regent will have enjoyed several years’ headstart at garnering influence at court, in the military, and in society in general.

Thus a teenage monarch can face an additional rite of passage: he must first set about turning the tables on his regent, who, to complicate matters, in Chinese contexts was typically his mother.

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Throughout history, there are examples of kings and emperors who lacked the spirit, inclination or capacity to rise up and reclaim their birthright. After all, these young men led lives of unparalleled luxury and leisure. Why voluntarily take on the administrative graft of governance when one was already busy enough attending to one’s enormous personal harem?

Fragment of two young monks from an excavated Xia painting

Still, this cushy life did not satisfy Yizong, who had clearly inherited his father’s ambition. Ever since his mother had been killed as a result of court intrigue in 1056, Yizong had acted as the puppet of her brother, his uncle. At around fourteen years of age, he decided he was no longer willing to play along.

And so, in 1061, backed up by the family of his “accomplice” (as more than one historian terms her), a new wife from the Liang clan, he had his uncle executed for an alleged plot and set about consolidating his power.

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But unfortunately for Yizong, it was not to last. In 1068, he was wounded in battle and died soon afterwards.

As a result, for the second time in a row the State of Xia found itself host to a precarious regency setup. Yizong’s reign can be read as a kind of pilot episode for the years of drama which were about to play out between the young Liang empress and her seven-year-old son, the future Emperor Huizong. Both were longer-lived, and accordingly, their struggle was more drawn out.

The Empress Dowager Liang

Let us view the situation through Empress Liang’s eyes for a moment. Aged around twelve, she had supposedly been married to a son of Yizong’s regent-uncle, who was at that point the de facto ruler of Xia. Now a member of the royal circle, she came into contact with the young monarch, and the couple entered into an affair. Yizong may have been a puppet emperor, but he was the emperor nonetheless, and thus beyond reproach in such matters. Before long, Yizong had taken her as one of his own consorts.

This was Yizong’s first act of defiance against his regent-uncle. At first glance, stealing one of his cousin’s wives might seem quite a minor way to rebel. Perhaps the uncle did not think it even worth intervening. But that alone was enough to seal his fate. Like many others over the coming decades, the mistake of underestimating the well-connected and politically savvy Liangs was his downfall.

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As soon as the regent-uncle was out of the picture, The Liang clan became increasingly active in court. Her younger brother, Liang Yimai assumed a particularly prominent position, both in civil affairs and in the military.

Meanwhile Empress Liang bore a son, the soon-to-be Emperor Huizong (1061–1086), and a daughter soon after. After a few years, her husband suddenly died aged only twenty, leaving the young empress in a situation unprecedented in the history of her state.

A Xia depiction of the Planet Venus

It is here good to remember that the pre-modern Chinese language sources from which we learn about the Xia court are not necessarily friendly to the figures involved. Traditional historiography shows no kindnesses to females in positions of power. The role of regent, the accidental role of Empress or Queen Dowager, was the only institutional route to power in such systems, and to Confucianist schools of thought, female rulership, and especially good female rulership, was an inversion of the natural state of the world, and therefore the woman in question must not be depicted in a positive light. We have already seen how the emphasis on her remarriage gives off an incestuous (by definitions of the time) and illicit vibe, and also discreetly casts doubt on Huizong’s legitimacy as successor.

As a result, it is hard to reach a fair conclusion on Empress Dowager. Was she really as power-hungry and controlling as the damning depictions we have? Any positive details of her time in power are unlikely to have been preserved.

The Struggle

The young Emperor Huizong’s reign was marked not just by domestic struggle, but by regular conflict with their southern neighbors, the Song.

In many ways, the regency served its purpose well as Huizong got on with his studies and the general business of growing up. Uncle Liang and the Empress Dowager managed to hold things together through a diplomatically tense period which now and then spilled over into outright war. Plus, despite the hostile relations with Song, those with Liao to the east and the Tibetans to the west were much improved.

Just like for his father Yizong before him, it was when Huizong came of age and began exert his own influence that the situation got sticky. He enacted several policy reversals, and with a confidant named Li Qing, hatched a secret plan to return Xia territory to Song.

At this point, the Empress Dowager had had enough, and decided to ground her rebelling son. Huizong was sent away from the capital and kept under supervision at a garrison. Symbolically speaking, the removal of the emperor from the capital, as the seat of power, was a powerful move. Both at home and abroad, it sent a clear signal as to which faction had the upper hand.

This was not without consequences, however. Intelligence of Huizong’s imprisonment quickly reached the Song court. The History of Song recounts that upon seeing that Xia was in a state of domestic disarray, with Huizong “on the brink of execution,” Song decided to seize this “once in a millennium” opportunity to launch a large-scale attack on Xia. This was done on the supposedly heroic pretext of rescuing the aggrieved Emperor, with the end goal of reinstalling him as a newly loyal vassal to the Song.

A five-pronged attack was launched, but due to disorganization and lack of cooperation between generals, was not as successful as it might have been. Nevertheless, the key town of Lanzhou was taken and held by the Song, while the south of Xia suffered greatly on account of the Song armies’ rampage.

Upon his release, Huizong was married to his cousin, a daughter of Liang Yimai, in a blatant attempt to keep Huizong within the Liang sphere of influence. Considering how a marriage alliance with a powerful outside clan (their own) had so efficiently brought down the previous regent, it certainly made sense from the Liangs’ perspective to keep it in the family. The year was 1083.

And perhaps it worked. With the emperor chastened by the imprisonment experience, the episode was followed by a few years of failed attempts to reclaim Lanzhou and other land now held by the Song, without any factional struggle between Huizong and the Liangs on record.

Then, in 1085, Liang Yimai and the Empress Dowager Liang both died, presumably of natural causes. One would have thought the coast was finally clear for Huizong. But he, too, died in 1086, leaving behind yet another child emperor, his three-year-old son.

An emperor peering at longevity talismans, excavated from Xia.

Yet another regency?

History certainly looked set to repeat itself as Xia’s second Empress Dowager Liang stepped out to assume regency over the new Emperor Chongzong. But as it turned out, Chongzong was the king who broke this cycle of regency and strife.

Help came from outside, this time in a more swift and effective manner than the Song’s boisterous and self-serving incursion. Apparently, in 1099, the Empress Dowager was poisoned by an envoy visiting from Liao, the eastern neighbors.

Chongzong was then about sixteen, and age which squarely between those that his father and grandfather had begun to resist their respective regents. The difference was that he would reign for another forty years. By his death in 1139, he had managed to finally set his state on a more stable path.

The path to power for a child king can be a rocky one. But the very nature of his situation gives him one advantage, and that is time. Sometimes, simply outliving the regent is all it takes.

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

Top Image: Western Xia pottery sculpture on display at the Xixia Museum. Photo by BabelStone / Wikimedia Commons

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