Fourteenth century image of Xu. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Amy-Jane Humphries

Empress Renxiaowen, known as Empress Xu, (1362-1407) was the third empress of the Ming dynasty. The Ming ruled much of what is now eastern China for 276 years from 1368 to 1644. Xu’s father, Xu Da, was a famous general who served under the first Ming emperor.

Xu was born in the city of Yingtian, now known as Nanjing. It was rebuilt by the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu, and made the dynastic capital. The favour that Xu’s father enjoyed with the first emperor meant that the family was close to the court.  

Image of the Hongwu Emperor from National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

In 1376, Xu married Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, the fourth son of the Hongwu emperor. Together, the pair had seven children – four daughters and three sons. As the fourth son, it was not thought likely that Zhu Di would inherit the throne.

During her time as a Princess of Yan, Xu was mentored by the Empress Ma, Hongwu’s wife, in the matters of being a Ming consort. Empress Ma had several daughters-in-law and she organised regular study groups on the classics for the royal women in the palace.

Image of Empress Ma from National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

Xu’s destiny changed when Zhu Bao, the eldest son of Hongxu, died prematurely in 1392. His son, Zhu Yunwen, succeeded the throne when Hongxu died in 1398. Zhu Yunwen was enthroned as the Jianwen emperor and shortly afterwards began a purge of his princely uncles.

Image of the Jianwen Emperor, Qing dynasty. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

This resulted in a civil war which saw the Jianwen emperor deposed by Zhu Di, who became the Yongle Emperor. Xu was thus catapulted to the role of empress and her life, along with that of her children, changed forever.

Image of the Yongle Emperor, Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum Taipei. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

Empress Xu was a literary patron, producing a conduct guide and a Buddhist sutra translation amongst other works. She also wrote a book entitled ‘Book Encouraging Benevolence’ which was meant to educate a wider audience to do good in their lives.

Empress Xu died in 1407, of illness. On her deathbed she was said to have counselled her husband to love his people, appoint talented officials, be gracious to his clan and not have favourites. The annals remember her as a strong-willed figure with her father’s spirit.

Recommended Reading

Lily Xiao Hong Lee and Sue Wiles, eds., Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang through Ming 618-644 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

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