The term waiqi 外戚 refers to the relatives of one's wife or mother. In the perspective of historiography, waiqi were the kinsmen of an imperial consort. Throughout history, but particularly during the Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang 唐 (618-907) periods, kinsmen of empresses had great influence on political issues, had the power to issue edicts in place of the emperor, and even regulated the imperial succession. It was common that kinsmen of empresses were granted high positions in the central government or even the military. In the early centuries of the imperial period, empresses were often seen as "battering rams" of their families to gain political influence.
A precedent case from pre-imperial times was Marquis Rang 穰侯 (Wei Ran 魏冉), who was the uncle of King Zhaoxiang 秦昭襄王 (r. 306-251) of the regional state of Qin 秦, as half-brother of Queen Dowager Xuan 秦宣太后, consort of late King Huiwen 秦惠文王 (r. 337-311), and the first female person who was bearing the title of "Dowager" (taihou 太后). Marquis Rang influenced the throne succession, commanded military campaigns, acted as royal chief counsellor, and amassed a fortune in legal and semi-legal ways.
The universal history Shiji 史記 created a bibliographic chapter for the waiqi ministers Dou Ying 竇嬰 (d. 131 BCE) and Tian Fen 田蚡 (d. 131 BCE), ch. 107 Wu Qi[hou] Wu Anhou liezhuan 魏其武安侯列傳. The former was a nephew of Emperor Wen's 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) consort Empress Dou 竇太后, the latter a brother-in-law of Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE). The same book also includes a separate collective biography of eminent persons (49 Waiqi shijia 外戚世家), which presents the biographies of empresses and their relatives. The official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 also includes a chapter on kinsmen of empresses (97-98 Waiqi zhuan 外戚傳). Similar chapters on kinsmen of empresses and consorts are found in the history books Jinshu 晉書 (ch. 93), Weishu 魏書 (ch. 83), Beiqishu 北齊書 (ch. 48), Beishi 北史 (ch. 80), Suishu 隋書 (ch. 79), Jiu Tangshu 舊唐書 (ch. 183), Xin Tangshu 新唐書 (ch. 206), Songshi 宋史 (ch. 463-465), Jinshi 金史 (ch. 120 Shiji liezhuan 世戚列傳), and Mingshi 明史 (ch. 300). While the biographies of consorts are found in the same chapters, the Houhanshu 後漢書 was the first dynastic history where the biographies of empresses and consorts were assembled separately.
The earliest example of interference by kinsmen of an empress in imperial times is the case of Empress Dowager Lü 呂太后 (d. 180 BCE). After the premature death of her son, Emperor Hui 漢惠帝 (r. 195-188), she became female regent (linchao tingzheng 臨朝聽政) of two young child emperors in succession. At the same time she ennobled some kinsmen of her as marquesses (hou 侯), later as kings or princes (wang 王). When the Empress Dowager died, her nephews were killed on the pretext of high treason. There seemed to have been the rule in early imperial China that an empress dowager reigning for her son was allowed to issue case-related orders (ling 令), but not to promulgate general edicts (zhi 制). The promulgation of issuing edicts by a reigning empress dowager (linchao chengzhi 臨朝稱制) or her brothers was therefore an illegal interference into political matters (shanquan zhuanzheng 擅權專政).
Even if the relatives of the many consorts of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) did not get a grip on politics, quite a few of them held high positions, like Huo Guang 霍光 (d. 68 BCE), who was General-in-chief serving as Commander-in-chief (da sima da jiangjun 大司馬大將軍), or the competent generals Li Guang 李廣 (d. 119 BCE), Li Ling 李陵 (d. 74 BCE), Li Guangli 李廣利 (d. 88 BCE, brother of Lady Li 李夫人), Wei Qing 衛青 (d. 105 BCE, brother of Empress Wei Zifu 衛子夫) and Huo Qubing 霍去病 (d. 117 BCE, nephew of Wei Zifu and brother of Huo Guang).
One might say that the Former Han dynasty was ended by the custom of giving high responsibilities into the hands of relatives of empresses. The father of Wang Zhaojun 王政君 (71 BCE-13 CE, Empress Yuan 漢元后), consort of Emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE), Wang Jing 王禁 (99-42 BCE), was clerk for the Chamberlain for Law Enforcement (ting weishi 廷尉史). When Zhaojun's son was enthroned as Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE), her brother Wang Feng 王鳳 (d. 22 BCE) was appointed General-in-chief serving as commander-in-chief, a title that was in 1 BCE conferred upon her nephew Wang Mang 王莽 (45 BCE-23 CE). Wang Mang now ruthlessly arrested his opponents of the Ding 丁 (consort of Emperor Ping 漢平帝, r. 1 BCE-5 CE) and Fu 傅 (consort of Emperor Ai 漢哀帝, r. 7-1 BCE) families, and forced them to commit suicide or had them executed. In 1 CE he was appointed Grand Mentor to the Emperor (taifu 太傅, see Three Dukes), was ennobled as Duke of Anhan 安漢公 and bestowed the honorific title of Steward-Regulator of the State (zaiheng 宰衡). When Emperor Ping died, Wang Mang enthroned a two-years old child, Ruzi Ying 孺子嬰 (r. 6-8 CE) as the new ruler, but two years later discharged the child emperor and adopted the title of emperor himself, founding the short-lived Xin dynasty 新 (8-23 CE).
Another example for the overthrow of a dynasty by kinsmen of empresses is Yang Jian 楊堅 (541-604), who was brother-in-law of Emperor Xuan 北周宣帝 (r. 578-579) of the Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581), and acted as Counsellor-in-chief and regent of the child emperor Jing 北周靜帝 (r. 579-581), but then decided to found his own dynasty, the Sui 隋 (581-618).
Many relatives of empresses were ennobled and given the title of marquis (hou 侯). In official documents, this type of title is called waiqi enze hou 外戚恩澤侯 "marquis by grace because of kinship". In the early Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE), there were as much as 45 persons bearing this title (Zhang 1990, Lü 1994). The Hanshu includes a table listing of such persons ennobled during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE - ch. 18 Waiqi enze hou biao 外戚恩澤侯表).
There were many occasions that eunuchs tried to influence questions of succession and also political matters. In 88 CE, when Emperor Zhang 漢章帝 (r. 76-88 CE) died and the ten-sui old Emperor He 漢和帝 (r. 88-105 CE) was enthroned, Empress Dowager Dou 竇太后 (d. 97) reigned for him, while her brother Dou Xian 竇憲 (d. 92) controlled the central government and issued edicts in place of the emperor. History books narrate how the whole house of Dou enriched themselves and terrorized the capital. In 92 CE, Emperor He was able to get the support of the court eunuch Zheng Zhong 鄭眾 (d. 114), who managed to extinguish the house of Dou and was rewarded with the title of Township Marquis of Chaoxiang 鄛鄉侯.
The regency of Emperor An 漢安帝 (r. 106-125) was dominated by Deng Zhi 鄧騭 (d. 121), brother of Empress Dowager Deng 鄧太后 (80-121). After her death, the emperor conspired with the eunuchs Li Run 李閏 and Jiang Jing 江京 (d. 125) and killed all men of the house of Deng. For their services, the eunuchs became trusted confidents of the emperor, yet not without giving way to Yan Xian 閻顯 (d. 125), the brother-in-law of Emperor An, whose consort was Empress Yan 閻太后 (d. 126).
The accession of Emperor Shun 漢順帝 (r. 125-144) was managed by a group of court eunuchs led by Sun Cheng 孫程 (d. 132), who killed Yan Xian and enthroned the young Prince of Jiyin 濟陰. All of them were rewarded by titles of nobility. Yet at the same time, Emperor Shun promoted his uncles Liang Shang 梁商 (d. 141) and Liang Ji 梁翼 (d. 159) to high military positions. Liang Ji and his sister, Empress Dowager Liang 梁太后 (116-150), engineered the enthronement in succession of the child emperors Chong 漢沖帝 (r. 144-145 CE), Zhi 漢質帝 (r. 145-146 CE), and Huan 漢桓帝 (r. 146－167). For more than 20 years, Liang Ji was regent for several emperors. He made his relatives boundlessly rich and powerful. On the very day of his sister's death in 159 CE, he ennobled five persons as marquesses.
In 167, Emperor Ling 漢靈帝 (r. 167-189) succeeded to the throne, but the empire was reigned by Empress Dowager Dou 竇太后 (i.e. Dou Miao 竇妙, d. 172). Her brother Dou Wu 竇武, was made General-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) and wielded greatest power. Knowing that the eunuchs build an influential group in the inner court (the so-called "Ten Palace Attendants", shi changshi 十常侍), Dou Wu and Grand Mentor (taifu 太傅, see Three Dukes) Chen Fan 陳蕃, planned to annihilate the chief eunuchs, but the latter were in a better position, conspired with the imperial bodyguard, and had Dou Wu and Chen Fan killed. The succession of the under-age Prince Liu Bian 劉辯 (r. 189 CE) to the throne gave the empire into the hands of Empress Dowager He 何太后 (d. 189). Her brother, General-in-chief He Jin 何進 (d. 189) allied with general Dong Zhuo 董卓 (d. 192), but failed. The eunuch staff of 2,000 persons was finally massacred by general Yuan Shao 袁紹 (d. 202). This episode was also the end of the domination of kinsmen of empresses, and warlords took over control of the empire.
The official dynastic history of the Later Han period, Houhanshu, therefore includes one collective bibliography on eunuchs (78 Huanzhe liezhuan 宦者列傳), and one of relatives of empresses (79 Waiqi liezhuan 外戚列傳).
There are two reasons for the turbulent history of relatives of empires during that age. Many of them enriched themselves or overextended their social and political positions. In addition to that, the one or other brother of an empress dowager tried to preserve his power beyond the death of his sister, the Empress Dowager, and against the family of the then-incumbent empress. Empress Dowager Lü therefore married her son to his cousin, a procedure that would not give rise to an external family. The story of Yang Jun 楊駿 (d. 291), father-in-law of Emperor Wu 晉武帝 (r. 265-289) of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420), shows how the family of an Empress Dowager (in this case, Empress Dowager Yang 楊后, i.e. Yang Zhi 楊芷, 259-292) lost her power to the next generation, namely the family of Empress Jia 賈后 (Jia Nanfeng 賈南風, 257-300). She was the consort of Emperor Hui 晉惠帝 (r. 290-306) and launched a slandering campaign against the regent Yang Jun and his clan, and urged Emperor Hui to remove important military commanders like Sima Liang 司馬亮 (d. 291) and Sima Wei 司馬瑋 (271-291). After she seized power, her cousin Jia Mi 賈謐 became the most influential powerholder at the court. Jia Mi and Empress Jia were killed during a rebellion of the Prince of Zhao 趙, Sima Lun 司馬倫 (249-301, see Rebellion of the Eight Princes).
Yu Liang 庾亮 (289–340), brother of Empress Yu Wenjun 庾文君, the consort of Emperor Ming 晉明帝 (r. 322-325) of the Jin dynasty, had to share his power with other regents. General Zang Zhi 臧質 (400-454), one of the powerful military leaders of the Liu-Song dynasty 劉宋 (420-479), was the nephew of Empress Dowager Wujing 武敬皇后 (360-408), consort of the dynastic founder, Emperor Wu 劉宋武帝 (r. 420-422).
In the Northern Wei empire 北魏 (386-534), Empress Dowager Feng 馮太后 (442–490), consort of Emperor Emperor Wencheng 北魏文成帝 (r. 452-465), acted as regent for Emperor Xianwen 北魏獻文帝 (r. 465-470). Her brother Feng Xi 馮熙 (438-495) took part in political decisions at the court. The Empress Dowager remained fairly influential during the reign of Emperor Xianwen. In 471, Emperor Xianwen retired and yielded the throne to his four-sui-old son Prince Hong (Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝, r. 471-499). In 476, Empress Dowager Feng had the retired emperor killed - as some historians believe. When Emperor Xiaowen's concubine Consort Lin bore a the oldest son, Prince Xun 恂, Empress Dowager Feng ordered her co commit suicide, in order to eliminate this potential rival waiqi family.
Empress Hu 胡太后 (d. 528) was a concubine of Emperor Xuanwu 北魏宣武帝 (r. 499-515), and became Empress Dowager and regent after her son, Emperor Xiaoming, became emperor 北魏孝明帝 (r. 515-528). The female regent married her son to a daughter of her cousin Hu Sheng 胡盛, also to prevent other families to gain power. She was believed to have in 528 poisoned her own son after he tried to have her lover Zheng Yan 鄭儼 executed. General Erzhu Rong 爾朱榮 (493-530) thereupon seized the capital Luoyang and had the Empress Dowager drowned in the Yellow River.
Only a few decades after the usurpation of the Tang throne by Empress Wu Zetian, another influential empress endangered the Tang dynasty: Empress Wei 韋后 (d. 710) was the second wife of Emperor Zhongzong 唐中宗 (r. 683-684, 705-709). Her father Wei Xuanzhen 韋玄貞 (d. 684) held high posts in the central government. Zhongzong's death was believed to have been engineered by the Empress Wei, in unison with her daughter, Princess Anle 安樂公主 (Li Guo'er 李裹兒, 684-710). Kinsmen of the Empress Dowager, her nephew Wei Bo 韋播 and her cousin Wei Gui 韋璿, urged her to usurp the throne, just as Wu Zetian had done, but instant reaction of the imperial guard led to her downfall and execution.
A notorious example is Yang Guozhong 楊國忠 (d. 756), who was a cousin of Emperor Xuanzong's 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) consort Yang Guifei 楊貴妃 (Yang Yuhuan 楊玉環, 719-756). Guozhong was Counsellor-in-chief, and his machinations against An Lushan 安禄山 (c. 703-757) caused the latter to rebel. Less famous powerful kinsmen of empresses are Han Tuozhou 韓侂冑 (1152-1207), a nephew of Empress Wu 吳皇后 (1115-1197), consort of Emperor Gaozong 宋高宗 (r. 1127-1162), founder of the Southern Song dynasty 南宋 (1127-1279), Jia Sidao 賈似道 (1213-1275), a brother of a concubine (Jia Guifei 賈貴妃) of Emperor Lizong 宋理宗 (r. 1224-1264); Zhang Heling 張鶴齡 (d. 1538) and Zhang Yanling 張延齡 (1477-1546), brothers of Empress Xiao Jingkang 孝康敬皇后 (1471－1541) of Emperor Xiaozong 明孝宗 (r. 1487-1505) of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644); or Zheng Guotai 鄭國泰, a brother of Lady Zheng 鄭貴妃, a concubine of Emperor Shenzong 明神宗 (r. 1572-1619).
Later dynasties, like the Song, Ming or Qing 清 (1644-1911) curtailed the power of relatives of empresses by law and so fully suppressed their chances to interfere into political matters. When young Prince Fulin succeeded to the throne (the Shunzhi Emperor 順治, r. 1643-1661), reign was taken over by the princes Dorgon (1612–1650) and Jirgalang (1599–1655), and the first years of the Kangxi Emperor's 康熙 (r. 1661-1722) reign were accompanied by the regents Sonin (1601-1667), Suksaha (d. 1667), Ebilun (d. 1673), and Oboi (c. 1610-1669). The rise of Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 (1835-1908) as imperial regent during the very end of the imperial age is therefore all the more outstanding. Yet also in her case, it was not her relatives who profited, but rather her trusted circle of "conservatives".
This is also true for the course of the Tang dynasty, which was overthrown by Empress Dowager Wu, who proclaimed her own dynasty, and adopted the title of emperor (sic!). None of her relatives (brothers Wu Chengsi 武承嗣, Wu Sansi 武三思) was given an eminent position in the administration: The Zhou was her dynasty, not that of her family. The family Zhangsun 長孫, represented by Emperor Taizong’s 唐太宗 brother-in-law Zhangsun Wuji 長孫無忌, influenced the education of the heir apparent (the eventual Emperor Gaozong) and reigned for him, but was not given so much power that he dominated Emperor Gaozong in the question of exchanging Empress Wang by Consort Wu Zetian.