Mi Yue: Legendary Woman Behind China's 1st Imperial Dynasty

January 28, 2016
Editor: Kate Wu

Still of The Legend of Mi Yue [China Daily]

The recent hit TV drama The Legend of Mi Yue has sparked renewed interest in the story of the first influential stateswoman in the history of China, who lived over 2,000 years ago.

Mi Yue played a significant role in the ascendance of clan that went on to become the biggest power during the Warring States period (476–221 BC), which eventually united China under the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

The word Mi (Chinese: 芈) was a surname for the royal clan in the state of Chu, one of the strongest powers in the southern part of the entire region of the Warring States.

In the TV drama, Mi was depicted as the princess of Chu. However, historians pointed out that she was just a daughter of a royal clan.

Mi Yue herself is commonly known by historians as Mi Ba Zi (Ba means "eight") since she was the eighth wife of the Ying Si, the King of Qin, the farthest west of the states.

In history, she did not enjoy such a high status in the king's heart as is depicted on TV. Her advantage over other concubines, however, lay in the fact that she had three sons and her half brother Wei Ran served as a high-ranking official.

The story is not without its complications. Ying Si's father had adopted a series of reform measures initiated by a statesman called Shang Yang. The political reforms were revolutionary for its time and set the course for Qin to become militarily more powerful and ruthless than the other states.

Ying Si continued these policies but sentenced the reformer to death on conspiracy accusations.

Ying Si was later succeeded by Ying Dang, who, somewhat bizarrely, died suddenly while lifting a cauldron the third year into his reign (307 BC).

With the assistance of Wei Ran, Mi's son Ying Ji then took to the throne. As he was still young, Mi ruled the kingdom on his behalf, becoming Empress Dowager Xuan, the first empress dowager in Chinese history.

During her reign, she appointed Wei Ran as the chancellor and granted great power to Mi Rong, her other half brother, and Ying Li and Ying Xian, her other two sons. The four were called Four Nobles of the Qin at the time.

She continued the reform policies put forward by Shang Yang domestically whilst waging wars against other states under the leadership of army officer Bai Qi.

In 288 BC, Ying Ji, no longer content with his tile of King, called himself West Emperor, which was symbolic of how much Empress Dowager Xuan and her chancellor had achieved in making the kingdom stronger.

During the Warring States period, lobbyists played a major role in politics and diplomacy. In 271 BC, Fan Sui, from the state of Wei, won the trust of Ying Ji for his military and diplomatic strategy. Fan later instigated conflicts between the king, his mother and the Four Nobles, suggesting the king to enhance his own reign.

Ying revoked the power of Empress Dowager Xuan and sent the Four Nobles to exile in 266 BC. Empress Dowager Xuan died the second year after her power was removed. She was buried in Zhi Yang, Li Shan, in today's eastern part of Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

The tomb of the Terracotta Warriors, dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, has long been regarded as for Emperor Qin Shi Huang. However, recently some scholars have raised doubts, claiming that they were buried for Empress Dowager Xuan. The debate has so far reached no certain conclusions.

(Source: history.gmw.cn & baike.baidu/Translated and edited by Women of China)

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