On 4 August 221 Lady Zhen, the wife of Cao Pi of Wei of the Three Kingdoms, died. This event has been chosen as today’s episode by Eric Dickerson, a long-time friend of HistoryPod who supports the podcast through Patreon. If you enjoy HistoryPod and would like to join Eric and my other valued supporters, you can find out full details at http://www.patreon.com/historypod
Lady Zhen’s death is well worthy of featuring in today’s podcast due, in large part, to the way it highlights the difficulties historians face as a result of the vastly different accounts that emerged in the years that followed. With almost no surviving primary documents from the time we are forced to rely on a very limited number of sources, which makes ensuring historical accuracy incredibly difficult. The fact that we know the exact date of her death while the details of how she died are uncertain is primarily due to the brevity of the royal scribes’ record keeping.
The key text which records biographical information about Lady Zhen is the Sanguozhi or Records of the Three Kingdoms. This is generally seen as the authoritative work on the period, although there is recognition that elements of the text are subjective historical interpretations. For example, the members of the different dynasties are referred to by different titles in order to suggest a hierarchy of significance: the Wei rulers are referred to as ‘emperors’, whereas Shu leaders are ‘Lords’, and the Wu aren’t even given a formal title.
The account of Lady Zhen’s death is further confused by a later edition of the Sanguozhi which added a number of biographical details from alternative sources that had been excluded from the original version. Interestingly these additions generally reflected the Lady in a favourable light, although it has been suggested that they came from sources that were biased towards her family and so may have been purposely omitted from the original for political reasons.
So what do the accounts say about Lady Zhen’s death? The most commonly accepted version states that she was ordered by her husband, Cao Pi, to take her own life after he grew tired of her complaining that he had begun to favour his new concubine Guo Nüwang. Her body was then reputedly defiled on the orders of the concubine by having her face covered with her hair and her mouth stuffed with rice husks. These actions were intended to make her both blind and mute in the afterlife. In dramatic contrast, the alternative account says Lady Zhu died naturally of an illness, having turned down an offer from Cao Pi to become Empress saying that she was unfit for the position.
It is known that Lady Zhen’s son, Cao Rui, granted his mother the posthumous title ‘Empress Wenzhao’ shortly after he came to power in 226. This suggests that he continued to hold his mother in high regard despite her being shown less respect from the rest of the royal court in the years after her death. This evidently adds some support to the account that she was ordered to take her own life. Furthermore there is evidence that Cao Rui ordered the body of his stepmother Guo Nüwang, who by the time of her death had been made Empress Dowager Guo, to be defiled in the same way as that of Lady Zhen.
Recent years have seen a rise in interest in Lady Zhen thanks to her appearance as a playable character in a series of video games, but it could be argued that the historical controversy around her death is vastly more engaging than anything a fictional game could produce.