Early Life. Wan Guifei was born in Shandong; her father was a government clerk. At only three years old she was selected to go to the palace to serve Empress Sun. She became the empress’s preferred servant and was appointed to the entourage of her grandson, Zhu Jianshen, who was born in 1447. When he rose to the throne in 1464, she had already been his most frequent companion for some time. This status stimulated the envy of the recently installed Empress Wu, who had the Lady Wan whipped. In this struggle for power Empress Wu was defeated, losing her title after only thirty-two days and being replaced by Empress Wan.
Unchallenged Power. After this triumph Lady Wan gained unchallenged power within the palace for many years. In 1466 she produced a boy and was granted the title Huang Guifei, a rank immediately below that of the empress. Although the boy died a year later, she continued to have power as actual empress. She sometimes put on military attire, indicating maleness, which most likely showed her supremacy over the emperor and the eunuchs. During the first twelve years of his reign the emperor spent most of his time in her room. In 1468 the emperor’s special attention to her became the topic of several memorials by courtiers who warned and urged him to pay attention to other women in order to provide his ancestors with a male heir. For ten years Lady Wan allegedly took action to ensure that any pregnancy in the palace would result in a miscarriage.
Corruption. During that time Lady Wan’s attention was also oriented toward commercial activities, such as trading in pearls and other treasures, transactions in the salt monopoly, sale of patents for the Daoist and Buddhist priesthood, and the inappropriate award of minor official ranks directly by imperial order. She was also in charge of the eunuch office, which served as a kind of holding company supervising a store in Beijing and agents in the regions. Since the court was then in financial crisis, perhaps the emperor conspired with Lady Wan in raising funds to meet the expenses of the palace. In 1466 he decreased the salaries of officials in the capital in order to solve the financial problems. In the following years the eunuchs squeezed a large amount of money from the empire to help meet the emperor’s expenses. Without doubt, Lady Wan and her family also profited from these transactions. Her brothers became hereditary officers in the Embroidered-Uniform guard, the secret police of the emperor. Wan Tong, one of her brothers, held the rank of an assistant regional military commissioner and accepted bribes from officials who sought favor.
Aftermath. Lady Wan died in 1487, only eight months before the emperor passed away. Immediately after his death two censors brought a variety of charges against the eunuchs who had served Lady Wan and other officials who gained promotion or appointment through them. Some were quickly found guilty; some were exiled; and others were either cashiered or reduced in rank. Her brothers were dishonored. Later they were forced to return to the state the land and gifts obtained during her period of influence.
Victoria Cass, Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies, and Geishas of the Ming (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).