Areas of rule under the Liao dynasty. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Johanna Strong

Shulü Ping, nicknamed Yueliduo but known formally as Empress Yingtian, was born in 878 or 879 in Khitan territory to a father who was an official of the Yaonian tribe.

Before 907, she married Emperor Abaoji and she became Empress of the Liao dynasty of China. She later gave birth to 3 of Abaoji’s 5 children.

Though the traditional view was that imperial women shouldn’t concern themselves with politics – even as regents – Yingtian frequently demonstrated her political and military acumen. She independently commanded roughly 5,000 mounted horsemen and had further cavalry available to her while the emperor was away. She chose well-trained men for the army and her military prowess even foiled a rebellion. Even more uniquely, she accompanied Abaoji on campaign.

Politically, Yingtian advised Abaoji on how to eliminate his rivals, including a plan in which he hosted a banquet, plied his guests with alcohol, and then killed them. She was also present when Abaoji received ambassadors and, unlike previous consorts and empresses, did not do so from behind a screen.

Yingtian is credited with involvement in 2 imperial successions and is further praised for changing expectations of widows in Khitan society. Whereas they were traditionally expected either to kill themselves at their husband’s death or to remarry a relative of her dead husband, when Abaoji died in 926 Yingtian chose to honour the death sacrifice by cutting off her right hand and having it buried with her husband. She then continued to rule and was influential throughout the reign of her son, though she was now known as Zhenlie and then Chunqin Huanghou.

When her son died and Shizong was named Emperor, Yingtian attempted to regain power, but she was unsuccessful.Yingtian died in exile in 953 and was given military funerals and then buried near her husband’s tomb.

Recommended Reading

Hang Lin, “The Khitan Empress Dowagers Yingtian and Chengtian in Liao China, 907-1125,” in A Companion to Global Queenship, ed., Elena Woodacre, 183-194 (Leeds: ARC Humanities Press, 2018).

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