- It seemed unlikely that the teenage girl would achieve anything in her life: but fate would take her to the top of the ladder
- Yet even when she was the most powerful woman in the land, she faced an impossible decision, asked to prove her loyalty by killing the man she loved
- Two thousand years later, the decisions she made are still being debated
TWENTY-THREE CENTURIES ago, a girl set off on a journey of 700 kilometers to join the harem of the emperor. At the time, Mi Yue (羋月), aged 15, was just one of many unimpressive princesses in the palace of a land called Chu, in what is today Hubei, in the east of China. She was assigned to travel to a place then called Xianyang, now part of Shaanxi, in north central China.
On her arrival, she became one of the many concubines of King Huiwen (惠文王) of Qin State (秦國), which was main part of China at that time.
Some young women in that position quickly rise to power, but this seemed to be not the destiny of Mi Yue. Although she was intelligent and beautiful, the jealousy of the King’s wife meant that she could not rise to the nobility.
THE ROYAL BABY
Even when Mi Yue, at the age of 17, bore the king a son, Ying Ji (贏稷), she remained a humble concubine, kept down by the queen and her rival concubines. Things went from bad to worse when her son became a teenager. The mother and son were sent away to the state called Yan as part of a political deal.
While they were away, in the year 311 BC, the King died, and his eldest son took the throne. The new ruler loved to show off his physical strength, and one day, about three years into his reign, he lifted a heavy bronze cauldron. He snapped bones in his legs and bled to death.
There was chaos in Qin state as different people jockeyed for power.
SEEING HER CHANCE
Watching from afar, the ruler of Yan and Mi Yue saw an opportunity. The boy, Jing Yi, was smuggled out of Yan and sent on a roundabout route to return to his home in Qin. Mi Yue’s brother was a military man, General Wei Ran, and he used his forces to suppress rival candidates to the throne.
Their plan worked. So young Jing Yi, aged 18, became the new King of Qin. At the time, the law said that rulers had to be 20, so Mi Yue became the acting emperor – which meant a woman was ruling China. She was given the title “Tai Hou” (太后), which means Empress Dowager, or royal widow. She would have been in her early 30s at that time.
That was when her 41-year period of top-level power began.
But the drama in her life was far from over. One of the people who attended the ceremony when Ying Ji ascended to the throne was Lord Yiqu (義渠王), leader of a “barbarian” tribe. He was entranced by Mi Yue, and they developed a relationship which would last 30 years—with peace between the two groups being a result.
However, Emperors like to expand and unify their lands – and her son Ying Ji was no different. As the leader of the Qin, he eventually decided that they needed to unify the kingdom by taking over the Yiqu lands, which meant that someone had to kill its leader. He asked his mother make the decision: to help the country by killing the man who was her de facto husband, the mother of her youngest children.
Finally Mi Yue made the agonizing decision and agreed to eliminate Lord Yiqu—and that’s what she did.
After his death, the vast land in the west was swallowed up into the Qin territory.
Mi Yue retired to the harem after a couple of years and no longer had any involvement in political affairs.
LOVE OR DUTY
Today, more than two centuries later, people are still discussing her decision. She was Lord Yiqu’s partner – but she was also the Empress Dowager of Qin, so perhaps she had had no choice but to sacrifice her love for the national interest.
Looking back from so far in the future, we will never know why Mi Yue became the lover of Lord Yiqu, but we can infer from their decades-long relationship that sincere love truly existed between the two of them. She died at the age of 73, an unusually old age for those times.
In 2004, archaeologists in Shaanxi Province, the birthplace of the Qin Dynasty (秦朝), discovered a tomb of huge scale containing a large number of burial objects, indicating an affluent person’s grave.
They noticed that it differed from the typical style of Qin State graves. Instead of the normal black terra-cotta warriors, most of these objects were painted in red, which was the preference of the Chu people at that time—Mi Yue, as mentioned, had been born and raised in Chu.
Among the burial objects, the most conspicuous was a bronze chariot with six horses, an item reserved only for emperors at that time. With these clues, and further research, scholars concluded that this was the tomb of Mi Yue.
LESSONS FOR TODAY
As a woman in a feudal society two thousand years ago, historians of the past often criticized Mi Yue because of her gender and her affair with barbarian Lord Yiqu. But the story of her life, rising from a lowly position as a Chu princess to becoming a determined and tenacious Empress Dowager, Mi Yue’s achievements cannot be dismissed. The huge tomb and the chariot statuette show that she considered to be of the highest rank when she died.
Today, her foresight and pursuit of independence and freedom make her a role model for women in modern society.
In 2015, the TV series “Legend of Mi Yue” became a popular show on TV, and no doubt her amazing story will be retold many times. It encapsulates one of the hardest decisions that a person ever has to take – to choose between love and duty.
Screen images in this article come from The Legend of Mi Yue, produced by Dongyang Flowers Film and Television Culture Co. Ltd, Ruyi Xinxin Pictures, and Xianggela Film and Television Culture Dissemination Co. Ltd.