Illustration of Empress Dowager Chengtian from the novel Xiu Xiang Bei Song Zhi Quan Zhuan by Xiong Damu (1892). Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Catherine Capel

Empress Chengtian was one of the most well-known and powerful women in the Liao Dynasty, taking after her aunt Empress Yingtian. She was born in 953 and was from a noble Khitan family who had produced many empresses and they were known for being involved in government affairs.

She married Emperor Jingzon two months after her father, Xiao Siwen, was appointed as northern prime minister and northern chancellor. They had six children together and their eldest son would become Emperor Shengzong.

In the later years of Jingzon’s reign, there were many battles and the emperor’s illness prevented him from leading effectively. In his place, generals and government officials went to Chengtian for strategic and political advice.

One such example of this was in 892 when Chengtian, along with her closest advisor Han Derang, protected the kingdom by stripping princes of their military titles and taking their wives and children as hostages to combat the rising power of the emperor’s male relatives.

Her administrative position was underpinned by her use of the title zhen which was usually only used by the emperor.    

Shengzon, Jingzong’s successor, was only eleven years old when his father died in 982. Chengtian was named as dowager empress and regent. The Liao had been under military threat before Chengtian assumed the regency from the Jurchen in the north and Danxiang or Tanghut in the west.

In 986, Chengtian commanded 10,000 cavalry and then she and her son battled against Song soldiers and were victorious.

In 1009, Chengtian arranged for the coronation of her son and formally transferred power to him after twenty-seven years as regent. She died that same year and was buried next to her husband in the Qian Mausoleum.

Recommended Reading

Bret Hinsch, Women in Song and Yuan China (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020)

Li Meng, “Xiao Chu, Empress of Emperor Jingzong of Liao,” in Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women Tang Through Ming, 618-1644 eds., Lily Xiao Hong Lee and Sue Wiles, 481-484 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)

Lin Hang, “Empress Dowagers on Horseback: Yingtian and Chengtian of the Khitan Liao (907–1125),” Acta Orientalia Hung 73 (2020): 585–602.

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