Lady Zhen

Lady Zhen
Lady Zhen
Empress Wenzhao of Cao Wei
Spouse Yuan Xi
Cao Pi, Emperor Wen of Wei
Cao Rui, Emperor Ming of Wei
Princess Dongxiang
Posthumous name
Empress Wenzhao 文昭皇后
"Cultured And Diligent Empress"
Father Zhen Yi
Mother Lady Zhang
Born 26 January 183
Zhongshan Commandery, Han
Died 4 August 221 (aged 38)
Burial Yangling[1]

Lady Zhen (183–221), formally known as Empress Wenzhao (文昭皇后; "Cultured and Diligent Empress"), was the first wife of Cao Pi, the first ruler of the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Her personal name is unknown. She was posthumously honored as an empress because her son Cao Rui later became emperor. Some historians refer to her as Zhen Luo (甄洛) or Zhen Fu (甄宓); many sources refer to her as Zhen Ji (甄姬), but this is a title rather than a name.



Early life and marriage to Yuan Xi

A descendant of Xin Dynasty General-in-chief Zhen Han, Lady Zhen was from Zhongshan Commandery (around present-day Baoding, Hebei). Her father Zhen Yi (甄逸) was a district magistrate. Her mother, Lady Zhang (張氏), came from Changshan (around present-day Shijiazhuang, Hebei). Lady Zhen's father died when she was two. Despite her father's early death, however, her family remained wealthy, and during the wars at the end of the Han Dynasty her family aided other families during times of chaos. As a child about ten years old, Lady Zhen urged her family to open their surplus grain and stop taking advantage of their neighbors selling off valuables.[2]

When Lady Zhen became older (although it is not known what year, she was at least 13), Yuan Shao, the warlord in control of Ji Province (冀州, covering present-day Hebei) married her to his son Yuan Xi. When Yuan Shao later sent Yuan Xi to be the governor of You Province (幽州, covering present-day Beijing, Tianjin, and western Liaoning), however, she did not accompany him but remained at the Yuan clan's headquarters at Yecheng to serve her mother-in-law. Yuan Xi and Lady Zhen do not appear to have had any children.

Marriage to Cao Pi

Yuan Shao was defeated by Cao Cao at the Battle of Guandu in 200, and died in 202. After his death, his sons Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang became involved in internecine struggles over their father's vast domain. Cao Cao played the two brothers off against each other and eventually conquered all of the Yuans' territory. During the campaign against the Yuans, Cao Cao captured Yecheng in 204 and gave her to his son Cao Pi, who admired her for her beauty, even though her husband Yuan Xi was still alive at this point (and would remain so until 207).[2] Eight months later, she gave birth to Cao Rui, leading to incessant gossip that Cao Rui was actually biologically Yuan Xi's son, not Cao Pi's, although that appeared to be rather unlikely given that Yuan Xi had been away from Yecheng for quite some time before the marriage.

Nevertheless, the rumors became a source of tension between Cao Pi and Lady Zhen. Cao Pi's favorite, Guo Nüwang, took full advantage of the rumors to increase the tension. Eventually, Lady Zhen lost favor with Cao Pi when she began to complain to him that the ladies Guo, Li, and Yin were more favored than her. When he forced Emperor Xian of Han to abdicate and established Cao Wei in 220, he set up his capital at Luoyang but did not summon Lady Zhen from Yecheng to join him. Lady Zhen's upset at this was reported by Lady Guo, further angering Cao Pi. In 221, he sent messengers to force her to commit suicide. Lady Guo became empress the next year.[2]

Later developments

After Lady Zhen's son Cao Rui became emperor in 226, he honored her posthumously as an empress, although he also honored Empress Guo as empress dowager. In 235, Empress Guo died under controversial circumstances—with many historians[who?] believing that Cao Rui had found out her role in Lady Zhen's death. At some point during Cao Rui's reign, Consort Li told him Empress Dowager Guo's role in Lady Zhen's death, and further told him that after Lady Zhen died, it was at Empress Dowager Guo's suggestion that she was buried with her hair covering her face and her mouth filled with rice grain shells—so that even after her death she would be unable to complain to the Judge of the Underworld for justice. Cao Rui became enraged and confronted Empress Dowager Guo, who could not deny her involvement directly. He then forced her to commit suicide, and, while he buried her with the honors due an empress, he had her face covered with her hair (so that she will never see sunlight ever again), and her mouth filled with rice grain shells (so that she can never say anything in the afterlife).

Many popular stories speculated that the reason for Lady Zhen's death was that she carried on an affair with Cao Pi's brother Cao Zhi—a speculation not supported by evidence and are improbable.[3] Some more fantastical accounts alleged that she had an affair with his father Cao Cao as well. For example, the Shishuo Xinyu, in which Cao Cao conquers Ye to obtain Lady Zhen.[4]

Personal name issue

Lady Zhen's personal name has not survived. All near-contemporary sources (such as Chen Shou's Records of Three Kingdoms and Xi Zaochi's Annals of Han and Jin) refer to her variously as "Lady Zhen" (甄氏), "Madame Zhen" (甄夫人), "Empress Zhen" (甄后), or merely "the Empress" (后).

The attachment of the names Fu (Chinese: ; pinyin: ) and Luo (Chinese: ; pinyin: Luò) to Lady Zhen came about due to the legend of a romance between her and Cao Zhi, which Cao Zhi specialist Robert Joe Cutter concludes to be "a piece of anecdotal fiction inspired by the [Luo Shen Fu (洛神賦; Rhapsody on the Goddess of the Luo)] and taking advantage of the possibilities inherent in a triangle involving a beautiful lady, an emperor, and his romanticized brother."[5]

A tradition dating back at least as far as an undated, anonymous note edited into Tang Dynasty author Li Shan's annotated Wen Xuan has Cao Zhi meeting the ghost of the recently deceased Empress Zhen, and writing a poem originally entitled Gan Zhen Fu (感甄賦; Rhapsody on Being Moved by Lady Zhen). Afterwards, Cao Rui finds this poem about his uncle's love for his mother, and changes the title to Luo Shen Fu (洛神賦), which could be translated as Rhapsody on the Goddess of the Luo or Rhapsody on the Divine Luo, this second interpretation presumably referencing Lady Zhen's personal name, Luo.[6] If true, this would be a forename unique to early China, as the word 洛 has been a toponym since it entered the language.

The poem contains references to the spirit of the Luo River, named Consort Fu (宓妃), interpreted as a proxy for Empress Zhen by those who believed in Cao Zhi's infatuation with her. This interpretation becomes less allusive if Empress Zhen's personal name was actually Fu.


  • Father
    • Zhen Yi (甄逸), magistrate of Shangcai district
  • Mother
    • Lady Zhang (張氏)
  • Brothers
    • Zhen Yu (甄豫), died young
    • Zhen Yan (甄儼), grandfather of future Empress Huai
    • Zhen Yao (甄堯)
  • Older sisters
    • Zhen Jiang (甄姜)
    • Zhen Tuo (甄脫)
    • Zhen Dao (甄道)
    • Zhen Rong (甄榮)
  • Husbands
    • Yuan Xi, second son of warlord Yuan Shao
    • Cao Pi, Emperor Wen of Cao Wei, father of Cao Rui and Princess Dongxiang
  • Son
    • Cao Rui (205 – 22 January 239), initially the Prince of Pingyuan (created 222), later the Crown Prince (created 226), later Emperor Ming of Cao Wei
  • Daughter
    • Princess Dongxiang (東鄉公主)

Modern references

Lady Zhen is featured as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi video game series. She is referred to as "Zhen Ji" ("Lady Zhen" in Chinese) in the games.

Ada Choi played Zhen Luo (Lady Zhen) in the 2002 Hong Kong television series Where the Legend Begins produced by TVB.


  1. ^ She was originally buried in Yecheng, but in 230 her son Emperor Ming had her body reinterred with proper honours near present-day Anyang. Qin Jincai, ed (1990). 中国帝王后妃大辞典 [Dictionary of Chinese Empresses and Consorts]. Shijiazhuang: Hebei People's Publishing House. p. 75. ISBN 7-202-02284-2/Z. 
  2. ^ a b c Chen Shou (1977) [280]. "卷 5: 文昭甄皇后". In Pei Songzhi. 三國志 [Records of the Three Kingdoms]. Taibei: Dingwen Printing. pp. 159–164. 
  3. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe. "A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD)".
  4. ^ Yiqing, Liu. A New Account of the Tales of the World. Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Books Press, 2002. 763. Print.
  5. ^ Cutter, Robert Joe (1983). Cao Zhi (192–232) and His Poetry, PhD Diss.. Tacoma: University of Washington. p. 287. , cited in Cutter, Robert Joe (Oct – Dec 1992). "The Death of Empress Zhen: Fiction and Historiography in Early Medieval China". Journal of the American Oriental Society 112 (4): 577–583. JSTOR 604472. 
  6. ^ Xiao Tong and Li Shan, ed (1977) [531]. "卷 19.11–12". Wen Xuan. Beijing: Zhonghua Publishing. pp. 269–270. 

See also

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